Friday, December 4, 2015

Internet Culture Crackdown: The Voices We Aren't Hearing

So, let's step away from sailing a moment. I've got an entry I plan to write soon about the progress of our boat hunt, but this is something that's been back-burnered for far too long.


To provide a brief introduction, I'm a 28 year old who has worked in the game industry for the past 6 years, and this is an opinion piece on some of the things about "gamer culture" and social media that have been bothering me lately.

Far from being a social media fiend, I rarely use twitter or tumblr, and while games are a huge passion of mine, I never seem to have as much time as I'd like to play them. I use my Facebook to occasionally share things that amuse or interest me, and more often than that, to see what my friends and colleagues have been up to. I have a number of friends that also work in the industry, and on any given day, there are usually a few stories (buried between Facebook's shameless spamming of ad posts) about what's happening in game industry news.

For the last year or so, my feed has been bustling with stories about the harassment of women in game development. 

My initial reaction was, "Oh, this is good, people are raising awareness on a legitimate issue." When I was attending university and when I went to industry events (both professionally (GDC) and casually (PAX), I had been subjected to a variety of things that would qualify in some regard as harassment on the basis of my gender. In the workplace, I rarely felt that I was being subjected to harassment, sexual or otherwise, due to my gender and choice of profession. 

I read a number of articles, and most of them painted a very bleak image of a world where women in games weren't taken seriously, or taking a job in the industry would be a hard path of being treated unfairly and harassed. Also, numerous articles about women in the industry receiving death threats or having their personal data hacked and made public for speaking out. I also noticed that whenever someone commented contrary to one of these linked articles (often with valid criticisms of the facts and arguments in the article), it would start a heated debate with enormous wall-of-text responses. Some people would even respond in ways that made it clear that they hadn't actually read the criticism and were just stating their opinion on how justified and correct the original post was.

To establish something fairly straightforward, women and men are treated differently in probably every culture on this planet. Media especially promotes certain traits as being positive or negative in each gender. Personally, I don't agree with this, and I think that each person should be evaluated on their own merit as a human being, rather than how they fit into our cultural gender-framings, but that's my personal opinion and an entirely different article. Also, both men and women are sexist and many people of each gender actively reinforce the gender norms prescribed to them by the media. Many men will criticize men who are not 'masculine' enough, women will criticize women who aren't 'feminine' enough, and each group will harass the other: Sexism is a real thing and it goes in all directions.

So, how does this all fit together? What does my facebook feed bloated with articles about women in games and volatile comment threads and the existence of sexism have to do with anything?

First of all, much of the media is still painting the community of "gamers" as a crowd of misogynistic men trying to keep women down. There are a lot of really awful people on the Internet, and they can be very loud, but on the whole, the gaming community is just like any other group. There is a huge diversity in gender, age, and the types of games that people play. While some people are more into it than others, games are a hobby, just like music, reading, or sports: some people like jazz, while others like metal. Some people read every day, while others only do so on weekends. I have no doubt that there are sexist gamers of both genders, and I can also say from personal experience that the average person who plays games is a pretty decent human being.

Now, let's take a look at game developers - the people who build games. It is certainly a male dominated industry. I work for a fairly large and corporate company. And still, if you look at the roster of game developers, I would hazard a guess that you'd run across an abundance of male names. Is that a problem? Yes, but maybe not the one that you'd think. Are there people at the company that are actively "keeping women down"? No, I don't think so. I would hazard that there are as many people biased towards one gender as the other, and that the bulk of the applicants are male. (Why the bulk of applicants are male is yet again, an enormous topic that warrants numerous studies, books, and so on.) Is there subconscious sexism at play? Absolutely. It cannot be helped until our culture changes. Until the average person looks at another person as just that - a person - without immediately jumping to their gender as a means of analyzing and attempting to evaluate them, sexism will be at play. 

So, I'm supposing that the people who play games are a diverse group, and that the majority of game developers are male. Does that sound fair?

So, back to the "Women in Games" crisis.

Let's say we have an article detailing the experiences of a woman at a company who was harassed or felt uncomfortable while working in games. Or, on Youtube, we have a video discussing gender stereotypes in games. And then we go to the comments. Almost invariably, someone will feel compelled to dispute the points that the article makes - whether they do this tactfully or not is up for grabs, as is whether or not their criticism is actually related to gender equality. But, I can nearly guarantee that this person, however valid or invalid their criticisms are, will be shut down, hard, on any number of grounds, valid or not. Basically, in the eyes of many people, anything related to this hot topic becomes a critical juncture in the "battle for equality," and it absolutely must be defended for the sake of furthering a larger cause. 

So, there's an argument on the internet. Big deal, so what? Well, it is a big deal. 

What precedent does that set for all of the mild-mannered, reasonable people out there? It sets one that they need to choose a side and stick to its tenets, or remain silent. And this is an absolutely horrible thing. It is alienating and discourages conversations that need to happen. The average person is non-confrontational and willing to listen, though they'll also want to share their opinion on a topic if they have one. But, when you magnify everything related to a topic into a volatile battlefield, the very people we need to reach the most - the reasonable majority - withdraw. Of special note are the men involved. Male gamers and developers especially are often unfairly painted as "the enemy" by many articles. Are the 'perpetrators' most often men? Yes, but they also make up the bulk of the population for this group. And, for the depiction and inclusion of female characters in games, it is often publicity and marketing that drives regressive decisions, not some lone misogynist.

There's no easy way to de-escalate. Horrible things have been done to people on both sides of the conversation and others have been caught in the crossfire. People's lives have been forever changed, and their personal peace of mind shattered. Bearing witness to all of these proceedings has changed the way the industry is viewed. The absolute vitriol surrounding the subject is stunting progress. The silver lining is that there is now more attention on this topic than ever before. The discussion about gender and minorities in games and the industry isn't going anywhere. It's no longer on the fringes of conversation. 

But, what can each of us do to improve things and keep them moving forward? I've no doubt there are countless things, but the reason I wrote this is for the sake of re-engagement. If you've been a silent onlooker, I encourage you to keep on watching, and to not be afraid to speak your mind and discuss the topic at hand. This isn't a "women's issue," this is a people issue for an industry full of passionate people who believe in what they do. There are so many people quietly watching from the sidelines. And, for those of you who are still talking and tackling the topics at hand - do you have friends who have fallen silent? Is your spouse, child, or significant other hesitant to talk about these issues? There are countless voices that are waiting to be heard.









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