Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Sexism in Games? Craziness!

Shamus, over at Twenty Sided is involved in a bit of controversy, it seems. I found Twenty Sided through a friend, and I've been a fan of the site. Shamus, as his site suggests, writes about geek culture- games, movies, books, computers, etc. He had a huge hit with his screen-cap comic DM of the Rings, based on the Lord of the Rings movies.

I haven't checked out his newest project- Chainmail Bikini. My understanding is that the title is intended to be a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that most of the women in fantasy settings are depicted in armor that more closely resembles swimwear than protective clothing.

Full disclosure: I haven't been able to see the comic, yet. The site is blocked here, but I'll take a look when I get home. My comments are more about the aftermath than the comic, anyway, but I feel like it's important to note.

The comic in question apparently features two male gamers, one playing a woman, the other a man. The male character gropes the female character ("It was, if we must ruin the joke by being explicit, a bit of boobie-grabbing" - Shamus), that is apparently ambiguous enough that multiple readers have interpretted the event as rape ("It could have been seen as a simple groping joke but the last line about 'Improved Stamina' seemed to me to cross the line and imply something much more intimidate." - nilus [I assume he means 'intimidating' or 'intimate', but I can't be sure]). The gamer playing the female character then physically attacks the gamer that groped his character.

The thing that I think is interesting is the reaction that is happening. Shamus is pretty upset by the whole thing, and says that he doesn't see what the problem is. His argument here is this:

1. It wasn't rape, it was a groping.
2. The assault isn't presented as okay, it's presented as a situation that is patently not okay. It's what players shouldn't do, not what they should.
3. The asshat player endured actual harm for his pretend actions.
4. The event played out between two males who were pretending to be a male and a female.

And finally, in his own words:
"the next time you think a webcomic is telling you its okay to rape people you should tell the people running the insane asylum you're living in that you need more medicine."

Quite frankly, I'm surprised by this reaction. If you had asked me yesterday, I'd have guessed that Shamus was sort of aware of the complicated nature of message and meaning that media like comics or video games can have in regards to things like this. In the past, he's talked about the morality of video games in such a way that suggested to me that he takes the idea that games have some kind of effect on our behaviors or on our view of morality... that the messages that a media presents can have an impact on the ways we view the world.

But now, Shamus seems quite opposed to the idea that something like a webcomic can encourage a sexist view of women or that it could, in some way, endorse rape. Part of me still wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, and think that maybe there's a disconnect happening in what we mean. I think it's true that most webcomics (or comics in general) don't explicitly endorse rape. You're not going to see many examples of a comic saying "Hey, you know what's a lot of fun? Rape!" When someone talks about a comic/videogame/movie endorsing rape, I don't think that we're suggesting that. I think what is really being suggested is that the thing in question presents rape in a way that minimizes the harm that rape actually does, and makes it seem "okay" by failing to show any of the harmful aspects, or by making light of rape. Presenting rape as mostly harmless, or as a crime of passion- as a case of seduction gone too far, for example- can make rape seem less bad than it actually is, and, I think is what people usually mean when they say something endorses rape.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. At 18, Shamus responds to a comment where someone pointed out that her problem was that the player thought it would be fun to grope a woman, and none of the other players confonted that player and criticized his actions:

Looks like she’s not coming back, bu this is pretty revealing about where the “OMG RAPE” arguments are coming from. This misses the point by a million miles. This has nothing to do with “groping women”. If you read this and think Chuck would really like to grope a woman, I can’t really help you. I don’t even know where to begin. If you’re going to look at one guy humiliating another guy and call it sexism, and then ascribe that sexism to me… wow.

This is, I think, not an uncommon sentiment amongst male gamers. I know that I've run into it before. The problem is that Shamus is arguing that sexism can only happen if a guy is saying or doing something harmful directly to a woman, when that's not actually the case. What's happening here is the gender version of calling another player a fag. It's the same as calling players "girls" or "pussies." The behavior that's happening is simple: it's humiliating a male player by turning him into a woman. Or, at least, by doing to and calling him names that emasculate him and make him into a girl.

In other words, the most humiliating thing you can do to a man is make him feel like a woman in some way.

In that regard, the groping is only a symptom of the larger problem- men that think that being feminine is a bad thing. That's why "sissy" is an insult. That's why men who complain are told to "grow some balls". The suggestion is that being a woman is bad, but being a man is good. That's where the sexism comes in. That's why it doesn't matter if it's two men having the interaction- the sexism is in the "why" not just in the "who".

I'm glad to see that a number of Shamus' readers have tried to explain why the joke offended some people. Laura, who left the comment that Shamus responded to, was the one who pointed out that the player thought groping a woman was okay, and that she was bothered that none of the other players criticized him for it.

Punning Pundit, at 6, gave a couple of reasons:
I think part of my issue is that you let the offending player make semi-reasoned arguments about why his actions were ok, and the only rebuttal was “die fatbeard”.

Also: dude, you made a rape joke. You didn’t make a joke at the expense of the rapist, but rather made a joke of the process. The fact that this happens not infrequently is not a defense– it’s the reason there are so few women gamers.

And Jeff, at 23, points out:
I agree that this was Not Cool. You had a character [roleplay] a sexual assault an give the standard rape-apologist lines in response. This, while squicky, could be fodder for a good strip (and not necessarily in a "morality play" style). But then you had to go and dismiss the whole damn thing by making the punchline about [live action role play]ing. Because we all know that the real problem is all those uppity victims who get upset about being groped

Jhianna, at 27, explains further:
Been forcibly groped by someone physically stronger than you? The comic pushes all sorts of buttons for anybody who has experienced that or worse in real life. I’ll tell you what I’ve told the countless guys I’ve gamed with: I play RPGs to escape the crap in the real world. I don’t play to be reminded that I’m physically weaker, considerably less powerful than those in charge, and subject to the whims of the cretin sitting next to me. Sure, I can try to prosecute the real life stuff after the fact, but can a guy going to jail scrub out the memories from my brain? Last time I checked, that wasn’t an option.

And seriously? He gives the excuse “Besides you have to admit she liked it a little bit” and you didn’t expect to get flamed into next year?

But, of course, there's the rallying cry: Why are you people so hypersensitive?! You're just being PC! Why are you trying censor him?! It's all pretend! And the ever popular: GET OVER YOURSELVES!

If there's a gap that can't be bridged, I'd have to guess that the knee-jerk responses to criticisms that something might have sexist overtones is certainly a factor. Most of the criticisms have been "I didn't think it was funny, and it smacked a little too strongly of sexism." Most people (at least, in that thread) aren't saying "Shamus is pro-rape! He hates all women! He's an evil, evil bastard!" And yet, many of Shamus' supporters are reacting like that's what people are saying. Shamus asked why people were upset and people responded by explaining. By and large, the people who are unhappy with Shamus have been more polite and more reasonable than the people who are supporting him.

I didn't see any of the people who are unhappy with the strip telling people to "piss off". They aren't telling people to "GET. OVER. YOUR. SELVES." They're saying "Look, I didn't think that this was cool, and here's why." In the face of blatant hostility, the people who are concerned by the comic have been remarkably even tempered and polite.

I'm also sort of surprised by Shamus' reaction, and the reaction of some of his readers, because these criticisms aren't really that different from some of Shamus' own criticisms of other works. When Shamus was playing Prey, he had this to say:

In working my way through Prey, I came upon a scene where a kid was killed. One little girl turned into a ghost of some sort, and killed a little boy by impaling him on some alien equipment. This is about the worst thing I’ve seen in a videogame in a long time.

Later that ghostly little girl showed up again and I was obliged to fight her. I’ll give the designers credit: It was indeed shocking, but man, what were they thinking? Yes, she was a ghost, but shooting guns at kid-shaped targets wasn’t what I signed up for here. I found it revolting.

and: "I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be ALLOWED to make games like this. I’m just saying it’s repulsive and a bad move on the part of the developers."

Now, really, how is that any different from what his own critics are saying?

They read his comic, and came across a scene where it appeared that one player was having his character rape another character because the player was annoyed at the other. It was about the worst thing they'd seen in one of Shamus' comics. Sure, it was shocking, but what was he thinking? Yeah, they were fictional characters role-playing in a fictional universe, but raping another player's character in a fit of sexist misogyny wasn't what they signed up for on one of Shamus' projects. They found it revolting. They're not suggesting that he shouldn't be ALLOWED to make a comic like this. They're just saying that it's repulsive and a bad move on his part.

Shamus responded to people who told him that he could just not play the game, too:

Of course! I hadn’t thought of that! Thats for pointing out the blindingly obvious and irrelevant fact.

When I said, “I was obliged to kill them” eveyone else was able to figure out what the hell I was sating: I was obliged to kill them IN ORDER TO PROCEED THROUGH THE GAME.

I’ll decide when I’ve had enough and put the game aside. In the meantime, I may or may not complain about parts I don’t like. Cope with it.

I'm not going to go through and reword that, I think it's pretty clear how that same comment can be applied in this case. People reacted to Shamus' strip, and some of them were bothered by it. Nobody that I've seen is calling for the strip to end- they voiced their displeasure, and levied some criticism. Some have even said that they're not going to read anymore. The way this is playing out is pretty disappointing, though.

Ah! And it just happened. I was refreshing the page, and it happened. I should have known that it was only a matter of time before someone trotted out that tired horse: blame things on the feminazis!

Way down at 93, Deoxy goes into a diatribe about what rape is and is not about, ending with a tirade about "the feminazi koolaid". Lovely.

Generally, I really like the Twenty Sided site. There are a number of times in his posts and in his comments to some of the DMotR stuff that Shamus has shown an awareness for the troubling ways that women are treated within the gaming community. But that post, and the comments in it, are really disheartening. It's times like this that I remember how incredibly hostile the gaming community can be towards women and homosexuals.


Jaclyn said...

The page with the comic on it won't load for me. Can anyone else see it?

brandann said...

thank-you, for another refreshing perspective. i don't have any input, not being able to load the page w/ the webcomic, but i really wanted to say that i REALLY enjoy your blog, and that it is nice to read a male feminist perspective once in a while.

keep up the great work, and keep up w/ the geek on!

roses said...

For people who can't load the page, the comic goes something like:

Player 1 (P1): "I can't believe you're playing a woman!"
Player 2 (P2): "I'm exploring gender rolls in a role-playing environment"
P1: "Well my character is going to make out with yours!"
P2: "No, she wouldn't touch a barbarian like you!"
[skip some dice stuff]
P1: "Brace yourself sweetheart, I have "increased stamina!"

Some people interpreted the "increased stamina" thing to mean a rape, but in the next strip, it was clarified that it was "more of a second base kind of thing".

Then in the following strip, P1 says; "You have to admit, she liked it a little" which is where it really gets creepy and rape-apologetic to me.

Jaclyn said...

Yeah, I thought the second-base clarification was a little after-the-fact for my taste. You don't need "increased stamina" to get to second base unless you're really weak.

He wrote that strip after he came under fire for the first one. It's revisionist. And the "she liked it" apologism is beyond the pale.

brandann said...

well...i finally got to see it...and as a gamer, the comic was amusing to that point...what a shame!

it's really pathetic to use something like that, even if you want to pass it off as "a second base thing" (like that makes it better) to make a joke.

not funny.

i really hope he gets more responsible...too bad...the comic was funny till then, and even the "no larping" thing was amusing...but the rape bit...ruined it all.

Heather said...

It is important to note that the comic was not originally written the way it was presented. That is, it's presented as a sort of stand-alone, but according to Shamus and Shawn, the last three comics were written as one comic and had to be broken up into three due to the format of the strip. When you read all three together, it makes so much more sense.

That said, I didn't think the comic was all that funny (mainly because I thought the characters were behaving stupidly, but that's just me). However, I never got the sense that one character was trying to rape the other. Never. Not once. And while I've gone back and read it over and over, I still don't see it. I think it's a far stretch, at best, from people who want to take it badly.

Laura (yes, that Laura) said...

Hey, I just wanted to thank you for writing this. Because I haven't really stopped reading due to the comic itself -- I stopped because I HAD though Shamus was a really cool guy and would understand where I was coming from (I sent him an email prior to his post) and his failure to understand why people were upset felt almost like a betrayal.
I'm still really struggling to articulate what upset me so much, but Punning Pundit and now you have helped me. I think the biggest thing is that he made several jokes minimizing the traumatic effect of rape, and then didn't seem willing to consider even the possibility that it did any such thing.
Your summary of his argument was spot-on, and I think your last sentence might clarify exactly why I felt the need to leave. I am both a woman and homosexual, and "It's times like this that I remember how incredibly hostile the gaming community can be towards women and homosexuals." I had thought I was safe, and upon discovering otherwise, I just had to find other places to entertain myself.
Like here :)

Retlor said...

There is a way of reading the three strips in a way that doesn't place the punchline so much on rape. If you go back to the post over at Twenty Sided, Shamus has linked to a comment that explains it well. The punchline to the first bit is actually buried in the second comic of that arc, where the offending player throws the "I'm exploring gender rolls in a role-playing environment" line right back at the offended one.

David said...

Just a note for those that think there was a revisionist nature in it (such as Jaclyn) from everything i have seen on 20sided, and especially one comment buried around the 160/170 mark in that thread referred to, there are around 20 comic strips that have been written so far... and at least the first 15 were done before the first was published.

Nicholas said...

I persoanlly think that people are overreacting to this. People in comics do bad things, and are nasty. The player being presented would (most likely) not even think of raping a real life women. In fact, these players represent the standard gamer stereotype that wouldn't know how to talk to a women at all, let alone approach one.

But then, that's my opinion. You're welcome to yours.

Jhianna said...

(yep, same Jhianna as from the quote above)

I have to say also, that the original comic gave me pause and even squicked me out (great word). But I brushed it off because it seemed out of the norm for Shamus.

It wasn't until I read his blog post and the comments that I started to get the knee-jerk defensive reaction. I thought maybe that pointing out the buttons he was pushing might help him and the more vehement supporters see the other side. Didn't seem to work over there.

HellBane said...

I must point out that no gamer who ever played a 'paper and pen' game in high school didn't run into a awkward situation similar to this. Much like their similarities to real world gamers, it was done as a way to amuse themselves of a situation that typically makes them nervous.

For example, many people go to Conventions for anime and dress up as characters from their favorite shows. However, at every con I've been to, there is a 50-60 year old guy dress as Sailor Moon.

Tell me seeing that doesn't make you nervous.

What this long-winded comment is trying to say is this: Taken out of the context it's shown in, the comic is offensive. Left where it started, It'll provoke a giggle from anyone who's been in a similar situation.

Roy said...

Well, the problem, as I saw it, was that it didn't draw giggles out of everyone, even in context.

Nobody doubted that there were people who found it funny. Why is it so hard to understand that there are people who didn't find it funny?