“It’s time to stop being afraid”

I had a big, rambling post planned and half-written when this piece by games journos Laura Parker (Gamespot AU) and Tracey Lien (Hyper, Kotaku, freaking everywhere) went up early this afternoon. They’ve said everything I was going to far more succinctly and eloquently than I could have hoped to do, so go and read them right now.

A commenter on Ben Abraham’s piece on challenging sexism at Gamasutra said that he believed that “women don’t seem to particularly want to have this fight”. The comment was ignorant and dismissive of the issues at hand, but it brought up a good point: females in the industry don’t vocalise their opinions nearly as much as their male counterparts. Laura and Tracey outline exactly why: fear.

I can’t claim to be anywhere near as accomplished as these two women, but believe me, I feel that fear too (and, honestly, I could even partially credit it for my lack of accomplishment). It paralyses me every day at university, where I’m studying towards a game degree in classes that are dominated by young men.

In my first year, in my very first subject, I was the only girl in the classroom. I was soon asked whether I played the Sims, because “That’s the only game girls like, right?” When I honestly replied that I played the Sims as well as other games, I was asked if I played them to impress FPS-playing boys. There was an inherent implication that a girl could not be capable of having any profound, personal experience of a game the way a man apparently could.

Three years later, it’s evident that my classmates haven’t been educated much more on the topic. I watched as a girl was harassed repeatedly by a male who felt himself a more ‘worthy’ gamer because he played lengthy RPGs and she preferred casual games; she eventually dropped out, wrongly believing his repeated statement that a ‘casual gaming girl’ like herself could contribute nothing to the games industry.

When I tried to report the plagiarism of one of my school projects by two other (male) students, I was told by the (male) lecturer that I was taking things too seriously and that I was simply being ’emotional’ – an insult that only ever seems to be leveraged at women, regardless of how composed or otherwise they may actually be.

An intelligent postgrad student told me that she felt crushed by the domineering attitude of her boyfriend of the time, who believed that he knew far more about games than she did because he played CoD4 several hours a night, while she ‘only’ wrote about them for her thesis. Another time, when only myself and one other girl were able to name an obscure PS2 game that a lecturer had brought up, a guy sitting behind me muttered, “Must be a girl game.” In yet another class, sweeping pronouncements about women’s apparent inability to engage with games was snidely justified with the statement, “My mother is a woman. Believe me, I know how women work.”

After three years amongst these people, after all the high distinctions and top-of-the-subject marks I’ve earned, I’m still given frustratingly little consideration because of my gender. I’m still made to believe that my opinions cannot possibly account for anything, and whenever I try to stand up for my ability, the “you’re being emotional, you’re taking things too seriously IT’S ONLY A GAME” card is inevitably played.

**

So I’ve learned to be silent. So has Tracey, and so has Laura, and so have too many other women in the games scene.

It’s a silence echoed in a recording of Freeplay’s ‘Words That We Use’ panel. In spite of the unrest manifesting itself on Twitter, that room, save for the panelists, was dead silent. The question has been asked a few times since, especially by panel members coming forward to make their own statements on the event: If we were so angry, why didn’t we speak up sooner?

Partway through the panel, the audience members were asked to raise their hands if they contributed to games criticism, or were interested in doing so. Seated near the back with a bunch of other games writers I knew through Twitter, a sea of hands shot up around me. My own remained firmly in my lap, furiously tweeting. I could see Ben Abraham at the corner of my eye, gesturing for me to get my hand the hell up, looking perplexed as I continued to not stand up for my own ability as a game critic.

It was Ben who would later stand up for us – to demand to know why the panelists couldn’t name a single female critic when he was seated next to two of them, or why an audience member thought it was possible for the gender issue to “sort itself out” without any further discussion. I was incredibly moved by Ben’s speech and thanked him after the panel ended, but I also felt extremely pathetic. How could I have stayed so quiet? What did it mean, that I had to wait for a man to stand up for me?

**

Reading Tracey and Laura’s email exchange is an incredible relief. I know now that my repression is not self-imagined. If two of Australia’s most prominent women in games writing feel the same crippling fear that I do, then the problem is clearly far more widespread than those in the industry would like to believe. Their coming forward would have been incredibly difficult, but if enough people read and listen to what they have to say, things will become a little easier for the rest of us women.

And you know what? I’m glad Ben stood up that day – not for us, but with us. As he would tell me in an email later, “It’s not cool. It pisses me off. And as such I’ll weather whatever blows and criticism it takes to stand with you and other women against sexism.”

Other Freeplay Stuff: Link Round-up

There have been a few developments since my last post here. Brendan Keogh’s fantastic analysis of the panel’s discussion of criticism is still generating debate. Panel member, journalist Andrew McMillen, has kindly provided a full audio recording of the hour-long panel. Ben Abraham’s excellent opinion piece on the topic of sexism went up at Gamasutra yesterday morning; both the article and a handful of the comments are worth a read, including thought from panel member Alison Croggon. Panel chair Leigh Klaver has made a blog, amusingly titled “THAT panel”, in response to a blog post by Searing Scarlet. Freeplay coordinator Paul Callaghan has blogged about the panel, amongst many other Freeplay things, here. Finally, Drew Taylor, another one of the panel members, wrote up his side of the story in a comment on my last post; it’s the most engagement we’ve had from the panelists so far, and I would really appreciate it if you would give it a read.

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18 thoughts on ““It’s time to stop being afraid”

  1. Pingback: Freeplay 11 | GameTaco

  2. Wow, thanks for the personal insights.

    I’ve never been in a game design course, no studio, but wouldn’t have suspected that level of… well.. “dicketry”!

    Makes me ashamed to share a Y chromosome with them.

    Well done, on a guysy piece.

  3. I read the Kotaku article with great interest, being a regular on the site. I have to say I’m really happy with how people are turning around the abysmal panel results from freeplay and using it as a jumping board to take a long hard look at the issue and spark some thought and intelligent debate.

    I wonder if the males writing women off are doing it out of fear as well? We typically view gaming as a ‘male’ thing and perhaps in some way we view this as our territory and feel threatened that a woman with more capable skills is looming to steal away the one thing precious to us…

    Food for thought. I really liked the article, I think this issue will be something to contemplate over the next few weeks.

    • I do agree with the fear on the men’s part too, definitely. I imagine it might be a bit emasculating to have so many women permeating a space that men always thought of as their own, which could activate their CRUSH THE ENEMY instinct.

  4. There’s reflexive bravery, and then there’s the kind where you can only slog it out and work to overcome it. I think the second of these is far tougher, because you can back down at any time… and it’s very appealing to do so. Bravo on publishing this.

    Please count me as a supporter.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Katie. This was the first time both Laura and I wrote publicly about the issue, and I must admit that had she not approached me I probably would have remained silent because I didn’t want to be thought of as *that* female writer who “always writes about women’s issues”. It’s like you can write all the stories that you want about CoD and never be thought of as “that CoD dude”, but the moment you write about gender issues — even just once! — you somehow become defined by it.

    Writing the piece was hard; while the ideas flowed naturally, the thought of hitting the publish button didn’t. Even before I’d finished I was already imagining all the negative comments the article would receive, and I cringed at the thought of voluntarily putting myself through that. As I wrote, I kept running the things I was saying past my boyfriend, asking things like: “I *am* being reasonable, right? I’m not wrong, am I? You wouldn’t call bullshit on this part, yeah?” In hindsight, it seems a bit absurd that I had to do that at all; I mean, these were my own personal experiences that I was writing about — there was no right or wrong, they were all things that had happened to me, and I was just putting them out there for people to consider. But even then I was so afraid of the potential backlash that I felt the need to run it past him and, as neurotic as I may be, I don’t think that crippling sense of not knowing if what I was doing was right or acceptable is exclusive to me.

    So thanks for engaging with what we’ve written, for supporting us, and for sharing your own experiences, too.

    • Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about women’s issues (whether you do so once or repeatedly), but a male-dominated space might have you believe otherwise.

      Thank you for your work, Tracey. I’m grateful it finally allowed me the chance to step forward and get some things off my chest, and I’m hoping that it will allow others to do so, too.

  6. Bravo Katie, and to Tracey and Laura too. I can’t even imagine the shit you go through at Uni, work, writing, everywhere. I hide in a nice little world of not being in the spotlight ever, so I can talk like a guy and get away with it because my opinion is not weighed heavily or in public.

    I made the mistake of being a ball of rage and walking out of that panel, and then making a complete sweary dickhead of myself at drinks later (calling a panel member a C*nt in earshot -smooth moves) . I didn’t articulate my rage because well, I couldn’t. I couldn’t justify saying ‘OI, that was unbelievably wrong and all these women I know write about games and love them, where the hell have you been looking?’ because then I’d have to justify my inclusion in that world as a girl who likes games. I was scared to be shot down. Pathetic, and I am shamed because of it. But I am amazed by you and everyone else who has said something.

    This isn’t even a particularily good comment, but you know, solidarity, sister. *holds up a fist*

    • I’d love to hear about your own experiences, Jess, as well as anyone else’s. A couple of people have said that they couldn’t have imagined the shit women get could be this bad. Even I’ve grown numb to it.

      Which is stupid. I want to be aware of just how painful it is, and I want others to be aware of it, too. If you’ve got stories to tell, tell them!

  7. What will people think? How will they react? Am I doing the right thing by speaking my mind? Am I thinking the truth, or having an adverse reaction to an emotionally charged issue? What are these thoughts swirling around my hyperchondria disposed synapses?

    When I encounter something confronting, my mind slips into an alternate dimension. In this frame, I don’t trust what I will say. Often, I reflect back and realise that what was said actually has little to do with what I truly believe. I’m sad that I’ve said those words. That’s what I fear.

    There are two different ways of reacting that I’ve found particularly useful. First, be quiet. Don’t say those thoughts that pop into your head. Wait for emotion to subside, and rationality to step in and assume control. Then, with a clear head, you can become truly capable of expressing how you feel.

    Second. Think well of your confronter. Believe that they’re decent and well meaning. They are genuinely good. Then, with these thoughts firmly embedded in mind, let the words flow out that express what you want to say. Afterwards, I’ve often been quite proud of what I’ve said.

    Well, hope this helps a bit with the whole conquering fear thing. I was actually following a mention of your blog in a post by Tracey Liem, on the Kotaku article. She said that you had some interesting criticisms of Fallout: New Vegas. Then, I just started writing the above in reaction to what you said. Not sure if it makes sense, but decided to spill it anyway.

  8. Pingback: Of Freeplay and Sexism « accurateobservation

  9. Personally, by not being in the game or journalism industry, I felt that I didn’t really have the “right” to speak about this situation. Then I decided, you know what? I don’t have the fear either because I never have to have to need to prove myself within game communities.

    Which is a sad situation, like how people like you who really should be heard, people with so much wisdom and knowledge regard to the matter, are also confined by perfectly valid fear.

    I just wish this whole thing makes the community to realise we can’t pretend it’s not a problem anymore.

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  11. motherf&@!er, my pug just STOOD on my delete key and ruined my initial message, I hope I can replicate it!

    The revolt sparked by “THAT panel” has been long overdue. In hindsight, perhaps they should be thanked for the narrow-mindedness that has led to such varied and mostly intelligent discussion. I felt something like relief as I read your piece, along with Tracey & Laura’s, and the others. It is only through openly addressing these issues openly can they be finally put to rest. I want so badly for us to be heard, and to be taken seriously.

    I admit I also felt pride. As someone who plays games and reads about them, I hunger for articles that deconstruct and analyse the hidden narratives, not just in games themselves but within the industry. There is a true need for more real journalism in this field. But the quality and the thought-provoking eloquence of the writing in this post, and indeed throughout this blog is in itself an outcry against the rife bigotry and the dismissal of women being equal to men in the world of gaming.

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  13. I don’t go to cons, and I don’t work in the game industry. But lately I’ve started following various folks on Twitter who are around or in the industry, because hey, it’s my hobby and I want to read stuff that isn’t depressing politics and economics (my old job). And I keep hearing anecdotes like this. (The panel where a panelist shows up late and says he’s speaking for all the guys who want to stick their penises into the women on the panel) and I can only feel rage and incredulity “someone actually said that?”

    I’m glad you wrote this and that you’re standing up, and I’m very glad Ben stood up. I will just note that in addition to being sexism, some of the experiences you spoke of are unspeakably rude.

  14. While I agree with your post, I don’t think that Laura is a particularly bright woman, nor one you should be looking up to. Some of her emails to Tracy Lien were embarrassingly stupid. I’m not surprised the panel hadn’t heard of her (who reads Gamespot anyway?)

    I’d be curious to know if either of those women have discussed gender issues more since their “letters” because I haven’t seen or heard anything about it from them. And if it’s a one off thing, then they’re really not helping the cause at all.

    Good luck in school

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