Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reflections on my Panel Experience at PAX East 2014

Videos of both of the panels that I went to ("Why It's AWESOME to be a Female in the Gaming Industry" and "Sex, Sexy, and Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming") became available recently, affording me the opportunity to share an open dialogue about them with those of you who didn't attend PAX. In the past, I have definitely done my fair amount of debate on the place and role of women in video games: what makes someone a "real" gamer versus a "fake" one, and some commentary on the behavior of some of Twitch's live female streamers are two points/posts of mine that come to mind. While I do stand by some of those thoughts still, in some ways I am ashamed to go back and read what I wrote when I was younger, angrier, and just generally more lost.

Just because someone plays only Cooking Mama for DS, chooses to only play girl toons in League while wearing their underwear on a live stream, or behaves in a different way from me does not make them any less of a gamer than I am, it just means they are of a different ilk. Being a gamer is more so about the mentality and identification as such rather than any real "credentials" that make someone one. The talks that I went to over the weekend while solidifying many of my perspectives in terms of my sex and how it relates to my role in the gaming world also helped me to reconsider some positions which I had thought I was set on. Similarly, just as a male can reinforce sexist positioning in the gaming world—so can other women.

Why It's Awesome to be a Female in the Gaming Industry

First off, and probably selfishly of me, it made me feel comfortable to see women on this panel that were in roles that I may be able to feasibly achieve on my own in the future with enough work. While it was obvious to me that they had put in quite a bit of work to get where they were in life, I also felt that I could have friendly conversation with them that wouldn't be too different from the ones that I had regularly. Similarly, their closeness to my own demographic and skill set made me more comfortable to give credence to what they were saying—they weren't sitting on some high pedestal, but were regular women just like myself. What made this even more inspiring is that each of them has already excelled so far in their own individual roles—Emmy and Webby winners, editors, successful freelancers—but still seemed so human. While they introduced themselves and explained how they had come to be at this panel, I became more invested in what they had to say, as it didn't seem so far off from my own reality.

One of the main ideas that I took from this panel is "it's okay." This kind of relates to the idea that I mentioned above: everyone has a right to claim their place in the gaming world—it is not my place, nor is it any one else's to tell or cast judgement on someone for not being the right type of nerd, or not being "hardcore" enough. After having a few days to reflect on this, I see this as much of the reason why females may seem to be under represented in the more vocal gaming world. A point that was brought up in the next panel I talk about was that the gaming population is approximately half male-identifying individuals and half female-identifying individuals, yet it appears (on sites like IGN and Kotaku) that it skews more to something like 80/20 in men's favor. Susan Arendt, also present on that secondary panel, made the distinction that while it may appear that women were less active in the gaming community, it may be instead that the type of individuals to be more vocal in that kind of environment tend to be male.

Why is that? I wondered. Is it because men are more aggressive and women are more passive? The thought stopped in me in my tracks. Maybe, instead of the defining characteristics of the sexes, it is that we as women are not only judged by men in the gaming industry, but are also judged by other women. When thinking this in the panel, I immediately thought about the posts that I'd made in the past, posts like "I hate fake girl gamers" that brutally shredded any woman who considered herself part of the gaming world just because she only played DS games, or Facebook apps. While I did make a public apology about this when starting up this blog again last year, part of me has to wonder how many people I may have potentially alienated when I held such a mindset. Even further, I have always thought of myself as a forward thinking feminist-leaning individual—how many others like me, assuming such a role in society, behaved like this and potentially alienated their fellow gaming brethren? Truly, I should have been engaging and encouraging other gamers, no matter what games they were playing.

Another point rang true with me when Susan (obviously full of great points) brought up the idea of slut shaming women that specifically played on their attractiveness in order to get further in the industry. I don't think that she mentioned the exact phrase "slut shaming" but she certainly emphasized the point that there is no right or wrong way to get ahead, especially in an industry that already handicaps women pretty steeply. She noted that it was important to make sure one was comfortable with one's own choices at the end of the day, and that we needed to be able to conceptualize where we would be in five years and be okay with that. Instead of verbally shaming those individuals into behaving differently, we should instead take the initiative and frustration that we feel and use it for something more productive than hatred. This way, we as females do not silence other female voices unintentionally, and also add another voice to the stream—our own.

I agree that it is important for young gamers to have important role models, and because of that I think that it is especially important to behave in a professional and encouraging way to other women trying to make it into the world of gaming. By being negative and derogatory towards other women, we are showing young girls potentially reading our content that this is an okay way to behave, and is to be expected—aggression is becoming our way of life. This moves solidly into my reflections on:

Sex, Sexy, and Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Gaming Industry

I was first impressed, as I noted in my other post, that two of the panelists were male. Duane and Ken did an amazing job not only of representing the male sex, but also by engaging difficult topics. There were a few ideas that were brought up that really stuck with me, some relating to the above topics and some not. First, not only females can feel under-represented in the game industry; in general we need more "stories" and more representation as a whole. It's not that we only need more females, we need more races, gay or questioning individuals, or even walks of life as our "heroes" in games. Second, men are afraid of "white knighting" and hence may not take action in the face of trouble. Third, sexism as related to cosplay—while this is not news to anyone, it was my own specific relation to this topic which is still sticking with me now. 

The idea of under-representation in the game world is one that I am familiar with. While indie game houses and games like Gone Home or Depression Quest have chosen to take on the sometimes difficult task of showing a non typical hero or main character, the gaming world is almost-shockingly white-washed. As a bisexual white female, I can't honestly say that I have ever come under heavy scrutiny of any real type for who I am or the choices I make. Because of that, it was interesting to take a more introspective look at the games that I play and who is traditionally cast as the hero. Not only are the "real" heroes traditionally male, but they are traditionally white and muscular. Or, if they aren't, they are probably an under armored female of curvy persuasion who would help me win female armor bingo. 

Physicality is not the only aspect of what should make someone a hero either—issues such as depression, anxiety, and insecurity are infrequently addressed positively (or at all) in gaming, especially when it comes to the main character. While, again, many of the indie game companies are trying to make this more evident (such as in Depression Quest, or Actual Sunlight—a game being demoed at PAX), this is something that is left untouched by larger game companies and audiences at large. The opportunities for this both as a teaching tool and for truly engaging story lines are endless.

While there was some interesting commentary on this, I don't think that the panel really came to any real conclusion—nor could they. I will say, though, that Brianna of Giant Spacekat, was questioned about the outfit choices for the main character Holiday of her iOS game Revolution 60—in response, she noted that the intention behind the character had not been to sexualize the female form, despite Holiday's tight outfit. She has also noted both on Twitter and in publications, that the reasoning behind this outfit choice is because of technical aspects of Revolution 60's character's physical makeup along with the fact that the art team for Giant Spacekat undergoes secondary draw calls every time a character is reconceptualized. Since that point however, as a follower of her Twitter, she has been concepting a redesign of Holiday's outfit for the next Revolution 60 game to include more armor—whether that was necessary or not, it has been noted.

The second point, then, came from the first. Brianna noted that a female cosplayer who had been playing Holiday at the Giant Spacekat booth at PAX had been asked by a fan "Can I touch your ass?" Obviously, the answer should and always will be no. Here is where I have an admission: I go to PAX every year uncomfortable around the number of near-naked women in cosplay. Part of me wonders whether they are doing it for the attention, and part of me dislikes them for it. I remembered, upon hearing this, the cosplay of Cammy that I had seen—a young woman with the high-cut thong bathing suit exactly like the one in the game. I had been angry about her brashness and questioned why she had made the choice to wear that at the convention. Admittedly, all of this was from my high throne of cosplaying as Lucca—a "strong female character" who also just so happened to be fully covered in her tunic and shorts.

I feel that this honesty may make my next point more meaningful: I wondered, then, why Cammy couldn't be considered a "strong female character?" Did wearing clothing make a woman more strong, or did it just mean that I felt I had more privilege to judge someone? While I am still not entirely sure how I fall on this spectrum, I can't help but think back to Susan Arendt's perspective that there is no wrong or right way to be a female in the gaming industry—I just have to be happy that there are actually people that want to do it. I still can't say that I will ever be happy about Booth Babes, but I am certainly trying to come to terms and understand that they, too, are part of the fandom and are dressing as someone that they look up to and respect. It isn't my job, nor should I expect to be able to judge them, for that. Though, it did bring up my question: while asking to touch someone's ass is overly sexist, where would that place the individual that, over the weekend, asked me where my Chrono was, thus implying that it wasn't possible for me to just cosplay as a female "support" character on my own.

Lastly, ah, "white knighting." I'd never heard this, and I'm not sure why. It's possible that I don't read enough theory, but it's also possible that in the overtly-vocal (and usually male) gaming world of the internet, there aren't many people rushing to the aid of females. When listening to my husband play GTA V I not only hear no female voices, but understand that if there were to be a female they would most likely instantly be sexualized or accosted by the young men playing the game. (He notes that he's heard women once or twice, and it's been fine.)

For those of you that have not heard of "white knighting" it is the idea that a man, without much context or understanding of the more complex issue at hand, will come in to save the day at the last minute. From the context of this panel, and Duane's description of it, I would anticipate that is also means that they likely bugger it up. Along with his definition though, I thought he had an astute response, which also was discussed in his post here: if you hear some one saying some thing sexist and/or shitty to someone else, tell them to stop. It's pretty easy to not be a douche if you just stick to your morals and stand up when they are being broken.

It bears noting that, upon reading this story to my husband for his critique and hoping that I would come up with a more solid conclusion in the process, we got into debate. "50 vs 50, huh? It can't be that much." It startled me that he would think that, my husband, husband of a proverbial nerd queen. "What do you mean, it can't be that much?" I asked him, feeling the anger bubble inside me. "Well, what do they mean, like Candy Crush and stuff?" While debating the validity of certain games, and talking about whether consoles or PCs "weighed" more, it helped me to realize that this is ongoing. My husband, who I know and love, still questions whether this is a real thing—if women really make up that much of the population, despite the fact that he sees it every day in his own home. And, really, I can't fault him—before this weekend, I'm not sure that I would have felt this strongly either. It shows me that we all have work to do, no matter how much or how little.


  1. Just popping in to say excellent entry! -Bobbles

  2. Excellent article!! Simply excellent!!

  3. Although I can't say I'm familiar with the gaming industry, I really enjoyed reading this. I feel like so many of your insights are true outside of the gaming world, and can inspire us, as women, to empower women in every environment. Great job!!


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