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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Clearing up the misconceptions about the feminist criticism of games

Opinion by Matt S.

If you play games enough that you read gaming websites or follow game developers, journalists, or fellow game players on Twitter and the like then you're already aware of what's going on with #gamergate. 

You might have even noticed that we haven't written anything about it at DDNet. We're not going to. Not because I don't have a position on the topic (because if you follow me on Twitter then you know I do), but simply because there's no way to have a rational discussion about anything that's been going on. 

However, as a tangent to the whole gamer gate affair we've once again had the issue of feminism in games crop up again. As a result of everything that has gone on, Zoe Quinn and Anita Saarkesian were again targeted with all kinds of rape and death threats, and then Phil Fish was bullied out of the industry, again, for supporting publicly supporting Zoe Quinn. Because the whole affair has been so repulsive there have been any number of articles written about misogyny in the games industry, and then we got people who were upset about those articles, which has fed into the gamer gate momentum and it's become a downward torrent of anger and rage ever since.

There's honestly not much point about me writing about it here. Were I to do so I'd be providing more fuel for the fire, and even if the majority of people who read it or share it around end up agreeing with my point of view, then there's still going to be a minority that disagree with what I write. And with this topic at the moment "to disagree" means "to be very offended by." I don't believe it's the right time to offend people. Perhaps a few months down the track I'll write something when it can be discussed with greater rationality and people can feel comfortable debating without bringing excess emotion into the discussion. 

What I do want to do, however, is highlight some of the discussions that have been happening around the "feminism" tangent to gamer gate. This is an issue that has been around for far, far longer than gamer gate, but from what I've seen, the discussion is going around in circles and not actually getting any better, which is a warning flag that it's a problem, especially at times like this where it's flared up again in a big, negative way. Specifically, from the excess of time I've spent on Twitter and reading articles and comments on the subject, it's clear that there's a great deal of misunderstanding within the gaming community about what, precisely, feminism even is, and because of that, there's all kinds of misinformation being spread - most of it causing more harm than good. 

So I thought I'd take this opportunity to highlight a couple of the misunderstandings about feminism that I've seen out there, and in the process hopefully highlight why it's actually a healthy and important way to look at games, as we continue to try and establish their legitimacy as art forms. 

Misconception #1: Feminism Is One Single Idea

I identify myself as a feminist. I did classes on the subject when I was studying sociology at university, and I've read any number of books written by feminist academics. What's important to understand with feminism is that not every feminist agrees with one another - it's not an ideological club like a political party where every member is expected to follow the same policy, and because it's a philosophical concept it's an ongoing discussion and debate - it's not like maths where there is only one correct answer on any given topic. 

As a feminist I argue for the value of subversive games like Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer is Dead, and many of those Japanese RPGs which make extensive use of fan service. I don't want to get into a long-winded debate about why I see the games the way I do - that's another opinion piece for another day, but the short version is that I do believe that satire is a valuable tool in tackling gender disparity in any media, provided it doesn't in the process then reaffirm that disparity (if you're really keen to have that debate, hit me up in the comments. It's always a fun one). The point I want to make here is that other feminists would argue the opposite. Based on her videos, I'm certain that Anita Saarkesian would have issues with Lollipop Chainsaw. 

And this is fine. Debate is healthy. One person writes one book or makes a video expressing an idea, and another person writes their own book or creates a counter video to create a debate. The idea that everyone who identifies themselves as a feminist has to think like Anita Saarkesian is one of the greatest misconceptions out there in the gaming community about feminism. 

Misconception #2: Feminism Is A Threat To My Games

Feminist criticism of film and literature has existed for as long as feminism has, and this hasn't stopped Hollywood from creating some outrageously exploitative if not downright misogynist films, and it hasn't stopped people writing books that cover every single gender theme - positive or negative - that you can possibly imagine. 

The reality is that a criticism is not the same as arguing for some kind of propaganda police where every single product created is checked to ensure that it conforms to the ideology of whoever made the criticism. Feminist criticism, which comes to us initially from academia and was always intended to generate conversation rather than shut it down, is not aiming to take these games away from people. It's highlighting a specific set of issues that an individual has with certain games, and then highlighting other games that do things well. That's a world of difference from arguing that every copy of the game should be burned and laws should be passed preventing anyone from making a sequel of the game.

Misconception #3: Feminist Criticism Of A Game Means That The Person Thinks The Game Is "Bad"

A regular critic when he or she sits down to write a review of a game will look at it from an overall point of view. Typically the critic will simply ask themselves "is this game fun?" 

There's nothing wrong with that  form of criticism, but it's a different approach to critiquing a work based on a narrow set of criteria - i.e how the work represents gender. It's entirely possible to be critical of a game that we enjoy - there's a reason that we don't give every game we like playing a 5/5 score. I know I often have an issue with violence in games that I otherwise enjoy. That doesn't mean that I think every violent game is a "bad" game.

More than anything else, however, what frustrates me the most about everything that has been going on is the idea that games shouldn't be subjected to feminist criticism. I am certain that were I to poll people whether games are art or not a significant number of people who identify themselves as "gamers" would insist that they are. But were I then to ask if they think feminism in games is a good thing, it's clear from what's happened over the last couple of days that they would not.

When critics or academics write about paintings, they're not writing about how pretty they are. When they write about books they're not focused on how much fun it is to read. When they write about film the piece won't be about how exciting the explosions are. When critics and academics write about art they identify key themes about the work and then explore those themes. That analysis often does include a feminist consideration. 

So really, when you're out complaining about critics and academics discussing feminist themes in games, you are indirectly making an argument that games should not be subjected to analysis as an art form. No one is telling you you need to agree with everything you read, but it is critical for the development of games as art that you agree that these discussions should be had. 

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Clearing up the misconceptions about the feminist criticism of games
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