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Sexual Desire and Sexual Objectification are Not the Same Thing

I came across a fascinating forum post on the gaming site Polygon in which the poster complains that Polygon seems to take a hypocritical stance about sex and women in video games. On the one hand, the website’s writers seem to condemn the objectification of women in video games, but on the other hand, they seem to support the idea of women going out and having sex with whomever they want, however much they want:

It’s extremely obvious that Polygon wants to have their cake and eat it too, women who have lots of sex with multiple partners or are otherwise promiscuous are empowered females, games that reflect characters that have lots of sex or otherwise promiscuous and titillatory? Completely wrong.

The poster, Flower193, goes on in the comments to make some troubling assertions about sex, such as, “a woman who has sex with a lot of guys and lots of it is basically treating herself like a sex toy for men.” In response to a commenter who asks, “Could you be conflating objectification with a normal sexual desire?”, they respond, “That’s exactly what I’m doing, because they’re exactly the same thing.”

I think there are two main ideas that Flower193 is missing here. One is that discussing a character in the context of a story is separate from discussing the artistic/editorial decisions that went into the creation of that character. I could say that Black Widow is a fantastic badass whose fearlessness and selflessness when it comes to taking care of Bruce Banner is sweet and admirable. I could also say that I disagree with the decision to have the only female lead in that film be the one who can calm Hulk down, because of what it implies about women and their role in helping men control their anger and violent impulses*. There’s nothing contradictory here.

Analogously, even if it’s totally okay and positive and great for women to have a lot of casual sex, it’s still bad when they’re almost exclusively represented that way in video games, because that prevents us from telling the stories of women who don’t feel or act that way and gives the people who play those games a very skewed impression of what real women are actually like.

People are critiquing video games that present women as nothing but conventionally attractive sexbots because they want to see alternate representations of women too, not because there’s anything actually wrong with choosing to present yourself in that way. But, of course, video game characters don’t choose anything. They are made that way, and the way game designers choose to make characters says something. It’s not a random accident; it’s intentional. Someone had to draw that and code it, and they did so deliberately, in order to present their own vision of what’s appealing/fun/beautiful/worthwhile.

People often misinterpret criticism of sexualized women in films/games as saying, “This representation of women is bad because it shows them having lots of casual sex and having lots of casual sex is bad.” But that’s not what anyone besides certain conservative critics actually says. We’re saying, “Having women there just as eye candy is bad.” Or “Having women there just to fulfill men’s sexual desires is bad.” Or “Only presenting women as being desirable insofar as they fit a certain ideal of beauty is bad.” Or “Failing to fully develop a female character as a person with her own complicated feelings, beliefs, experiences, desires, and hopes–just as a male character would be developed–is bad.”

The second idea is that that Flower193 misses is that objectification and desire are not the same thing

This ties back in with the first and helps explain Flower193’s understanding of Polygon’s critiques. They (Flower193) think that Polygon celebrates women who have lots of casual sex while also critiquing their portrayal as such in video games, which I guess really would be kind of bizarre. But although I haven’t read the specific reviews to which they refer (because they don’t link to them in the post), my understanding is that that’s not the criticism. The criticism isn’t “you shouldn’t have all these badass confident casual-sex-having women in your video games”; but rather “you shouldn’t present women as sexual objects for men to take or win as rewards.” And Flower193 has already demonstrated that they think these are the same thing.

Objectification and desire are not the same thing. For starters, objectification isn’t necessarily sexual. It’s embedded in the way service sector workers are treated by both employers and customers, for instance–essentially as machines who must perform friendliness and cheerfulness despite often-extreme mistreatment. We objectify service sector employees when we expect robotic perfection from them while treating them poorly and paying them terribly. (I’m not saying, by the way, that not objectifying service sector workers requires having a five-minute conversation with them about their kids and the weather today. It does require paying them fairly, speaking to them as courteously as we would to anyone else, and allowing for the fact that sometimes the customer is, in fact, wrong.)

We objectify people when we believe and behave as though their only purpose is to satisfy our needs and desires. Catcalling someone on the street objectifies them because it implies that they exist for the catcaller’s viewing pleasure. Expecting your spouse to always be sexually available objectifies them because it implies that they exist for your sexual satisfaction. Having a one night stand in which you focus entirely on getting yourself off and never bother to ask your partner if they’re enjoying themselves or what they would like objectifies them because it implies that only your sexual pleasure is important, not theirs.

In contrast, there’s nothing inherently objectifying about noticing that someone is attractive and thinking about that. For many people, feelings of attraction just arise as we go about our lives, and they’re value-neutral. What matters is what we do with them.

Another feature of objectification is a lack of agency. If I’m walking down the street and someone makes a crude sexual remark to me, I didn’t have any agency in that. If I walk into the bedroom wearing my new lingerie and ask my partner what they think, and they respond, “Daaaaamn!”, I do have agency. I chose to wear the lingerie in front of my partner and ask for their opinion. Although they may be looking at me very sexually in that moment, I’m not being objectified, especially if this is a healthy relationship in which I’m not otherwise treated like a sexual object.

Flower193 says that a woman who has lots of casual sex with guys is “treating herself like a sex toy for men.” Not necessarily. Those men may see her as a full and equal partner in the context of those encounters. They may ask her what she likes, respect her boundaries, and make sure that she gets what she wants out of those hookups. Just because the relationship may only last that one night doesn’t mean that it involves objectification.

But even supposing those partners really don’t care about her pleasure and just “use” her body to get themselves off, the key part is actually right there in Flower193’s comment: “treating herself.” Maybe she wants to be a sex toy. Maybe she wants some casual sex to fill the time or take her mind off of things, and she doesn’t care how those men see her. She’s still making the choice.

Of course, we can talk about how choices are constrained by culture and society, especially for marginalized people. If she has internalized the idea that her only value is in her ability to please men, that may be driving these choices. Variables like class and race play into this too. Maybe she doesn’t truly believe that she deserves the sex and relationships that she wants, so she “settles” for these encounters. Maybe these encounters are exactly what she wants. That’s for her to figure out and decide, not for us to pass judgment on.

The conflation of sex (especially casual sex) and objectification is a common one, and it’s one made even by some feminists and progressives. It’s pervasive within the Older Women Tsk-Tsking At Young Women And Their Silly Hookups genre, and you hear it when people say things like “those girls are objectifying themselves” or “dressing revealingly means you don’t respect yourself.” No. Objectification is something others do to you, not something you do to yourself. What do with my body is separate from what others project onto me and my body in response, and only one of those is my responsibility.

As I see it, Polygon isn’t trying to “have its cake and eat it too,” and neither are any other video game reviewers who engage in this sort of critique. Women (and people in general) deserve to be able to make their own sexual choices and not be shamed for them, and many of us would like to see video games that show women making a variety of choices, not just the ones that (some) straight male designers happen to find the most sexy.

~~~

*For my favorite-ever piece about Black Widow and representation, see here.

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Sexual Desire and Sexual Objectification are Not the Same Thing
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#GamerGate Link Roundup

I haven’t written anything about gamergate because others have said it so much better than I could. Here are some links and excerpts from my favorite pieces about this whole sordid situation. Feel free to leave your own in the comments.

1. Kathy Sierra at her blog:

I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, “following”, “liking”, “favoriting”, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) “drunk the Koolaid”. Apparently, that just can’t be allowed.

From the hater’s POV, you (the Koolaid server) do not “deserve” that attention. You are “stealing” an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you don’t have readers you have cult followers. That just can’t be allowed.

You must be stopped. And if they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life. A standard goal, in troll culture, I soon learned, is to cause “personal ruin”. They aren’t alltrolls, though. Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid you’re serving) threatens that cause.

2. Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast:

I’m not scared of desperately uncool cultural reactionaries like Jack Thompson or anti-witchcraft Harry Potter burners. I’m scared of the people who do hold cultural power, who have the loud voice, who are, in fact, the cool kids, but think they’re embattled underdogs. I’m scared of the people who think that because disco was “taking over music” they had the right to “fight back” bullying and attacking disco performers and fans.

I’m scared of people who look at someone like Zoe Quinn, an individual who makes free indie games, or Anita Sarkeesian, an individual who makes free YouTube videos, and honestly think that these women are a powerful “corrupt” force taking away the freedom of the vast mob of angry young male gamers and the billion-dollar industry that endlessly caters to them, and that working to shut them up and drive them out somehow constitutes justice. The dominant demographic voice in some given fandom or scene feeling attacked by an influx of new, different fans and rallying the troops against “oppression” in reaction is not at all unique. It happens everywhere, all the time.

But let’s be honest: It’s usually guys doing it. Our various “culture wars” tend to boil down to one specific culture war, the one about men wanting to feel like Real Men and lashing out at the women who won’t let them. Whenever men feel like masculinity is under attack, men get dangerous. Because that’s exactly what masculinity teaches you to do, what masculinity is about. Defending yourself with disproportionate force against any loss of power? That’s what masculinity is.

3. Jennifer Allaway at Jezebel:

#Gamergate, as they have treated myself and peers in our industry, is a hate group. This word, again, should not lend them any mystique or credence. Rather it should illuminate the fact that even the most nebulous and inconsistent ideas can proliferate wildly if strung onto the organizational framework of the hate group, which additionally gains a startling amount of power online. #Gamergate is a hate group, and they are all the more dismissible for it. And the longer we treat them otherwise, the longer I fear for our industry’s growth.

4. Mike Diver at Vice:

GamerGate, to date, has taught us nothing. OK, maybe it’s taught us that certain men are horrible and have no shame in announcing their hatred of women to the world in the most hideous manner available to them. If GamerGate really was about ethics, Wu or Sarkeesian wouldn’t be going through what they are.

Until female developers, critics, columnists, and bloggers feel comfortable doing their jobs—which is to discuss gaming and expand the medium to wider and wider audiences—the ethics debate will be backgrounded by boisterous boys complaining that their toys aren’t how they used to be: i.e., made by dudes and played by dudes. That’s living in the past, though. Today, Peach can spank Bowser’s backside on Super Smash Bros., one of the highest-rated action games of 2014 features a kick-ass woman protagonist, and 52 percent of gamers are female.

Something, not someone, has to die—and that something goes deeper than GamerGate. I don’t have the answer to the question of how we prevent bias in the media, but I sure as hell know that we can’t sit idly by and just hope that the hatred goes away. Gaming hasn’t even reached the middle of its own excellent adventure, but it’s gonna suck if it doesn’t pick up more princesses along the way. So how about we all calm the fuck down before someone really gets hurt?

5. Melissa McEwan at Shakesville:

What women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Adria Richards, Kathy Sierra, and others have gone through, and continue to go through, all for having the unmitigated temerity to be women in gaming and tech, is incredible. And reprehensible. And shameful beyond description. And harmful.

Actively, ongoingly, profoundly harmful. Individually harmful, and reverberatingly harmful, as other women see what happens to women who do what they do and calculate whether it’s worth it to pursue their passion, in exchange for, potentially, their lives.

Women are being harassed, and abused, and threatened, and terrorized. Women have killed themselves. If the word “hurt” is to have any meaning at all, we need to stop saying that things need to change before someone gets hurt, and start saying plainly that things need to change because people are already being hurt.

6. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon:

1) The main target of #GamerGate is not a journalist. She’s a video game developer. Holding her accountable for “ethics in journalism” is like telling your accountant that it’s his job to negotiate peace treaties in the Middle East. While the attacks on Zoe Quinn aren’t, like the rest of this list, attacks on ethical journalism itself, the fact that this all started off with a non sequitur shows that, on the long list of shit #GamerGate cares about, integrity in journalism doesn’t even rate.

2) The second biggest target of #GamerGate is an exemplar of clean journalism. If what you don’t like about gaming journalism is that it’s too cozy with the industry and therefore the writers are afraid to be critical, then your fucking hero should be Anita Sarkeesian. She funded herself with Kickstarter and not industry money. She is harshly critical of video games, even as she is a fan. She is the ideal of what a critical gaming journalist should be: Knowledgeable, critical, fair, thorough and utterly non-corrupt.

7. Jenni Goodchild at the Flounce:

Throughout GG, I’ve undertaken a survey to find out what people want from reviews. Some of the answers highlight the above issue:

“Basically, a review that describes the game without involving the author’s personal opinion on it.”

“Focus on the gameplay and technical aspects, not the story and art style.”

“I mean that I want a game to be judged solely on its mechanics, story, immersiveness, strength of character and level of involvement, and judgement be based solely on that. Not whether a game is “problematic.”

These are all totally valid things to want from a review – it’s okay to not care about social critique – but the inclusion of these things isn’t corruption. It’s just a style of review people don’t like.

8. Lesley at xoJane:

The irony of this situation is massive enough to develop its own gravitational field. These harassers want Sarkeesian to stop talking about misogyny in video games. So they unleash horrifying misogyny on Sarkeesian herself. To, I guess, make the point that video games are just fine? That misogyny in games is having no broader cultural effect? That there is no problem here? Because this kind of behavior is normal? If I wasn’t half convinced that the men harassing Sarkeesian weren’t in fact actual trolls — like, the kind that live under bridges with only rocks for friends — I would wonder how they’d feel if their mom or girlfriend or wife was receiving the same threats.

9. Brianna Wu at the Washington Post:

My friend Quinn told me about a folder on her computer called, “The Ones We’ve Lost.” They are the letters she’s gotten from young girls who dream of being game developers, but are terrified of the environment they see. I nearly broke into tears as I told her I had a folder filled with the same. The truth is, even if we stopped Gamergate tomorrow, it will have already come at too high a cost.

10. Poopsock Holmes at Medium:

So when Anita Sarkeesian tweeted that “gamergate is the new name for a group that has been harassing me for 2 years,” she was factually correct. Many of the most consistent users of #GamerGate are inextricably linked to harassment of Ms. Sarkeesian and other women. I’ve just shown you 20 of them, all of whom are happily welcomed into the GamerGate movement and not censured in any way for their actions. I’m sure this list will grow as more people share their experiences.

These people have spent the last two years harassing and demeaning women in and out of the games industry. You know what they haven’t spent the last two years doing? Talking about ethics in journalism.

There may be ethical, honest people involved in #GamerGate. But a few good apples won’t magically make a rotten barrel edible. And #GamerGate is rotten to the core.

11. Amanda Marcotte at the Daily Beast:

It’s being referred to by those engaging in the harassment as the “Zoe Quinn cheating scandal,” a phrasing that implies, ridiculously, that the private relationship snafus and infidelities of a video game developer rise to the level of public interest. But even the misogynist harassers of the Internet know it’s a stretch to justify abusing someone for garden variety infidelity. So, in a desperate attempt to justify this nonsense, Quinn’s ex and the harassers are accusing Quinn of an “ethics” violation, accusing her, no joke, of using sex to get a favorable review from Kotaku.

The fact that the review she was accused of “buying” doesn’t exist hasn’t slowed the self-righteous haranguing, of course. That’s because the “ethics” question is a paper-thin excuse for what’s really going on, which is that the video game world is thick with misogynists who are aching to swarm on any random woman held up for them to hate, no matter what the pretext.

12. Liz R at her blog:

one of the biggest sources of paranoia i took from reading through my first 4chan thread about this issue is that social justice activism will inevitably destroy communities like 4chan. these people feel so disempowered in their lives that they head to communities like 4chan or reddit to be able to feel some sort of empowerment, to act out on something, to feel part of something bigger. this is where the whole mythos of Anonymous comes from. that a lone person with a computer has a tremendous power to take down the shadowy elite. but in that act, there’s no accountability, and no moral code. anyone with the resources can mobilize people to target anyone they see fit. sometimes it attacks against the interests of power, but just as often it’s a conservative, reactionary anger that comes out of disillusionment and fear, and gets constantly externalized onto marginalized people, especially women and queer people.

13. Andrew Todd at Badass Digest:

“Social Justice Warriors” is a term used often by these sort of people, and it’s a term whose pejorative use perplexes me, because aside from the source of its invention, it sounds like a really badass thing to be. I’d much rather label myself a Social Justice Warrior than a warrior for…whatever it is that these people are warriors for. Social justice is such an inherently positive thing – literally everyone benefits from greater equality – that it’s impossible to see its enemies as anything but sociopathic. Hatred of Social Justice Warriors can be seen as a broader hatred of social justice itself.

Central to the self-centred psychology of these people is that they see themselves as the targets of a grand conspiracy of feminist, progressive journalists and game developers that seeks to destroy their ability to…something. They have no actual issue. It’s all perceived persecution at the hands of political correctness. These “theories” are so narcissistic, so devoid of substance, that the only way to explain them is through delusion. And I mean, I get it – justifying one’s shitty behaviour with a made-up conspiracy probably feels better than confronting the painful truth that one is an asshole. They think they’re part of a “silent majority”, but the real silent majority is the one that either isn’t aware of their ridiculous conspiracy theories, or understands that there’s simply no reasoning with people who are so obviously out of their minds. It’s the same kind of fictional oppression old white folks claim about foreign immigrants who are still generally less well-off than they are. The moment a woman – or even someone who empathises with women – muscles in on “their” territory (which hasn’t actually ever been “theirs”), they’re off, spouting slurs, giving the fingers at intersections, and publishing their banking details on hate sites.

14. Zennistrad at his blog:

Fun fact: Morgan Ramsay, founder of the Entertainment Media Counsel, did an objective study of how much of gaming journalism talks about sexism or social justice.

To do this, he downloaded 130,524 articles from 37 RSS feeds of 23 outlets, including The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, CVG, Edge Online, Eurogamer, Gamasutra, Game Informer, GamePolitics, GamesBeat, GamesIndustry International, GameSpot, GamesRadar, IGN, IndieGames, Joystiq, Kotaku, Massively, MCV, NowGamer, PocketGamer.biz, Polygon, Shacknews and VG24/7, published over a period of twelve months. He then did a search on how often these games articles mentioned sexism, feminism, or misogyny.

The result? Over a period of one year, 0.41% of 130,524 articles referenced feminism, feminist, sexism, sexist, misogyny, and misogynist explicitly.

15. Garrett Martin at Paste:

That’s who is behind this entire situation: anti-woman trolls who intentionally distort the meaning of the word “ethics” to further their own agenda and mislead their followers. There are some beating the #GamerGate drum who sincerely believe that it’s not related to misogyny or the persistent attacks on Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, that it’s simply about keeping the games press accountable. It’s impossible to extricate that hashtag from its roots, though, which grew out of unconscionable smears and threats against two prominent women in gaming merely because they are prominent women in gaming. All the conspiracies and trumped-up claims of “evidence” of collusion among developers, press agents and the press spread by the #GamerGate founders are lies and distortions aimed at driving Quinn, Sarkeesian and other women out of videogames. Whether it’s hate, fear or simply the grotesque joy horrible people find in maliciously denigrating others, this entire #GamerGate nonsense is built on silencing women and shutting them out of games.

That’s the scandal here. Not that some journalists are friendly with some game designers, or that review copies of games are often sent early to critics (an entrenched practice that occurs across the entire spectrum of tech and entertainment journalism, and which is crucial to informing readers in a timely fashion). It’s that a vocal minority of videogame fans who tend to congregate at sites like 4chan and Reddit, who blanket twitter and comment sections with hate and anger, and who adopt the exclusionary identity of “gamer” have united to intimidate and silence videogame fans, developers and writers who aren’t like them or don’t think like them. And the leaders of that movement, the ones who stir up the most resentment and convince their followers that it’s not about hate but ethics, the YouTube “personalities” and condescending Breitbart hacks and, uh, Firefly’s Adam Baldwin, are all well-established opponents of equality and social justice. Some are trolls, some are disingenuous, politically motivated bullies, and none of them are worth the attention.

16. Zack Kotzer at Motherboard:

Claiming not all gamers, Redditors, or Channers are responsible for despicable behavior is as deflective, tone deaf, and self-centered as the now lampooned ‘not all men’ response. It’s obviously ‘not all,’ but it’s still far too many. Gamers are being played, and not by journalists.

If people want to save these communities they’ll have to do better than throwing their hands up and saying “it wasn’t us!” when the world breaks into their speakeasies. Smoke them out and band up these silent majorities you speak of. As with anyone, you have to earn the respect you think you deserve.

17. Kyle Wagner at Deadspin:

The default assumption of the gaming industry has always been that its customer is a young, straight, middle-class white man, and so games have always tended to cater to the perceived interests of this narrow demographic. Gamergate is right about this much: When developers make games targeting or even acknowledging other sorts of people, and when video game fans say they want more such games, this actually does represent an assault on the prerogatives of the young, middle-class white men who mean something very specific when they call themselves gamers. Gamergate offers a way for this group, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the fixed point around which the gaming-industrial complex revolves, to stage a sweeping counteroffensive in defense of their control over the medium. The particulars may be different, and the stakes may be infinitely lower, but the dynamic is an old one, the same one that gave rise to the Know Nothing Party and the anti-busing movement and the Moral Majority. And this is the key to understanding Gamergate: There actually is a real conflict here, something like the one perceived by the Tea Partier waving her placard about the socialist Muslim Kenyan usurper in the White House.

There is a reason why, in all the Gamergate rhetoric, you hear the echoes of every other social war staged in the last 30 years: overly politically correct, social-justice warriors, the media elite, gamers are not a monolith. There is also a reason why so much of the rhetoric amounts to a vigorous argument that Being a gamer doesn’t mean you’re sexist, racist, and stupid—a claim no one is making. Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn’t have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they’re an oppressed minority. From this kind of ideological fortification, you can stage absolutely whatever campaigns you deem necessary.

18. Brianna Wu at xoJane:

There’s no easy way to say this. I am a massive target for Gamergate/8chan.coright now and it is having horrible consequences for my life. They tried to hack my company financially on Saturday, taking out our company’s assets. They’ve tried to impersonate me on Twitter in an effort to discredit me. They are making burner accounts to send lies about my private life to prominent journalists. They’ve devastated the metacritic users’ score of my game, Revolution 60, lowering it to 0.3 out of 100.

With all of this, my only hope is that my colleagues in the industry will stand by me — and recognize the massive target I made myself standing up to these lunatics.

I woke up twice last night to noises in the room, gasping with fear that someone was there to murder me. I can barely function without fear or jumpiness or hesitation. I’ve been driven from my home. My husband says he feels like he’s been shot.

But I have to be honest: I don’t give a fuck.

I am mad as hell at these people, and I’m not going to let them keep destroying the women I love and respect.

#GamerGate Link Roundup

#AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go

Alterconf Sessions logo
This weekend I attended something called AlterConf, which I hadn’t even heard about until a friend mentioned it, but was very glad I did.

AlterConf is basically a series of local events that feature short talks about diversity in tech and gaming, by people who are actually members of the communities they speak about. The project was started by Ashe Dryden, a programmer, organizer, and consultant who speaks and writes a lot about diversity and marginalization in tech.

Obviously, I am not a programmer or a game developer or any of that other stuff, but I play games (I don’t like to use the word “gamer”) and am a pretty huge tech nerd. (How huge? Doesn’t matter. I’m tired of getting into those pissing contests with guys.) I am also a woman, and someone who cares a lot about inclusion and diversity, and someone who has been watching the Diversity In Nerdom War for a while.

Despite my lack of technical knowledge and serious involvement, I really enjoyed the session and learned a lot because it mostly concerned the experiences of marginalized people in tech/gaming and some of the efforts they are making to create community and inclusion. I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before, such as the fact that some people claim that there are no tech professionals in/from the Bronx (there were at least two speaking) and that cochlear implants only allow you to hear a rather poor representation of the actual sound, which is just one of the reasons many Deaf people don’t necessarily think they’re that great.

What also stuck out to me, though, was just how well the event was run in terms of inclusivity and accessibility. For instance:

  • Eight of the ten speakers were people of color, and five were women. One of the speakers was deaf, and one spoke about having chronic pain and mental illness.
  • The speakers were paid.
  • Although tickets cost money, the Eventbrite page also had an option to choose a free ticket if you could not attend the event otherwise.
  • When attendees checked in, they were instructed to make a name tag that included their preferred gender pronouns.
  • The event had an ASL interpreter, as well as someone who was making accurate live captions appear on the screen (?!) as the speakers talked. Ashe invited any audience members who needed ASL to let her know, so that she could make sure the interpreter was signing at them.
  • There were healthy food and snacks, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and Kosher options.
  • The venue had plenty of physical space for the audience size, and the chairs were arranged in a way that made it easy for people to get out of and into their seats with minimal tripping over others.
  • The venue had free wifi, the details of which were written prominently on a whiteboard.
  • Before the talks began, Ashe let the audience know that there would be one talk with a content warning, and that in general people should free to get up and leave at any time if they needed to. She repeated the content warning before the talk that it applied to, in case anyone missed it or forgot.
  • The event had a comprehensive code of conduct (although I don’t remember if this was actually discussed at the event, which would be important).
  • For the most part, speakers were audible, slides were visible, and Ashe made sure that people stuck to their time limits and had time for questions.
  • Ashe let the audience know that the speakers had all explicitly consented to being photographed, videotaped, and/or livetweeted, and also asked the audience to keep context in mind when doing so.
  • The talks were recorded and will apparently be posted online.
  • Ashe invited attendees to come see her after the event if they needed help with transportation or if they wanted to be paired up with another attendee for safety reasons.

I include all this here because the level of professionalism and attention to detail I saw at this event was pretty much unparalleled at other conferences and events I’ve gone to. To be fair, Ashe Dryden is a professional organizer, so it’s probably a pretty high bar for student/volunteer organizers to reach. (Also, I don’t know how the event was funded besides ticket sales, but maybe she had a lot more money to work with than most organizers can get through fundraising alone.)

Regardless, it’s definitely something to think about for those of us who plan events, whether they last an hour or an entire weekend.

As far as the talks themselves go, I was also very impressed. Some of the speakers were very new to speaking (one said it was her first talk, and everyone cheered and applauded); others have spoken at many conferences before. The speakers were clearly chosen very intentionally, as they covered a wide variety of topics and issues in just nine talks. Some of my favorites:

  • David Peter spoke about deafness, the medical and social models of disability, Deaf culture, and how to make tech/gaming communities more welcoming to Deaf people.
  • Catt Small, a friend of mine who runs approximately fifty thousand projects, spoke about one of those projects, Code Liberation, which teaches women to code through classes and game jams. It’s so incredibly important to hear from people actually doing work like this if you want to understand why women and minorities are underrepresented in tech and how to change that.
  • Manuel Marcano spoke about stereotypes of Native Americans in games and how they perpetuate oppression.
  • Senongo Akpem gave an overview of the tech/games industry in Nigeria, shattering what I’m guessing are many misconceptions and stereotypes that people have.
  • Shawn Alexander Allen spoke about how crowdfunding can help games with diverse characters get made, and how it also allows backers and fans to hold developers more accountable in terms of diversity.
  • Aly Ferguson was amazing and discussed research on how video games can be used to help people dealing with mental illness, chronic pain, and disability.

Here are some highlights, or at least the ones I was able to tweet fast enough:

Of course, that can only paint a very small picture of what the event was like and why it was so awesome. I was told that recordings of the talks will be posted online at some point, so follow my Twitter or the #alterconf hashtag if you want to see them.

One small thing is that I wish gender identity and sexual orientation had been discussed more–or at all, really. That was one topic that seemed oddly missing from the entire event. There are certainly game developers out there addressing these issues explicitly, and it would’ve been really cool to hear some of them speak. But, obviously, there were only 10 speakers and four hours and so many important things to cover that got covered–race, gender, ability, class–and so I really can’t hold this against the event. For all I know, it has been discussed or will be discussed at other sessions.

On that note, AlterConf sessions are being planned for a bunch of other cities (so far they’ve happened in Boston and NYC), such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, DC, and others. If there’s one near you at some point, I highly recommend going, even if you’re only tangentially knowledgeable/involved in this stuff, like I am. If all these recent debates within communities like atheism, skepticism, science (and science writing), video games, comics, and sci-fi/fantasy have taught us anything, it’s that very few of these issues are specific to any particular community. Even if you don’t care much about games or technology, I think you’ll learn a lot from AlterConf.

#AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go

Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

I’m currently visiting my family in Ohio, which means catching up on all the gaming I’ve been too busy for during the last five years. My 12-year-old brother and I have a nice symbiosis going: he has a Windows machine, which meant I could install Skyrim on it, and I have a purchased copy of Skyrim. So we take turns watching each other play.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there.
Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there. Credit: Ekulylnam

Last night, while I was adventuring through the Kilkreath Ruins on a quest from the Daedric Prince Meridia, my brother remarked that he found the cave scary–the creepy noises, the unidentified black mist near the ground–and that started off a discussion about the emotional effects of games and how we feel about them.

My brother said that he’s actually glad that the game is making him feel things again. He has previously played it on Xbox (claiming, in fact, that he “beat the game”), but he said that after a while, he stopped feeling bad when people died or feeling scared by the parts that were meant to be scary. But he prefers to feel those things even though they don’t feel good, because otherwise he worries that he’s becoming unempathetic, somehow cruel. This, he said, is why people should be careful about letting little kids play games: you need to make sure they don’t get used to not feeling things.

I hadn’t actually thought of it that way before, though it seems obvious now. I had always been frustrated by how deeply I felt things that happened in games, and how much that actually restricted my gameplay. My ethics as a game character are not very different from my ethics as a real-life person: I don’t steal (unless, hypothetically, it’s vitally important), I don’t fight anyone who doesn’t fight me first, I try to avoid injuring innocent people with splash damage unless it’s totally unavoidable, I try to persuade people rather than bribing or threatening them, and I don’t hunt wild animals (except the ones that attack me).

But despite everything my brother said, we soon discovered that our styles of play are actually quite different (besides the fact that I play slowly and deliberately whereas he tries to get through quests as fast as possible, a difference that he had already remarked upon in frustration many times). After the Meridia quest, I ended up doing another quest in which I was falsely accused of multiple murders and ended up in a prison mine with people who had attempted (and failed) to recapture the city from people they thought were oppressing them. Together with them, we escaped from the mine, since they all turned out to be very capable mages.

Outside the mine, the escaped prisoners were confronted by prison guards. I had planned to fight alongside them, but here my brother started insisting that I kill the prisoners instead. Why? Because they have really good armor, I wouldn’t get a bounty, and I could kill them easily now that I had my own armor and weapons back. I said, “But they already gave me a set of that armor as a gift.” My brother said, “But it’s really expensive and you could make 10,000 gold just from selling all of theirs.” I said, “But I have other ways to get gold.” He said, “But it’s so easy! Just kill them!”

I knew one thing for certain: I had absolutely zero desire to make 10,000 gold by killing these men. At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to kill them. The idea just felt bad.

And so I told my brother, “Remember how you felt so scared of the cave you asked me to turn the sound down, even though you knew it was irrational? That’s how I feel about killing the men. It would make me feel bad. The point of playing a game is to have fun. That would make it very un-fun for me.”

He immediately stopped trying to convince me to kill the men and never brought it up again.

It’s true, refusing to kill the men was an irrational choice. Within the game, there were no disadvantages to killing them, and one huge advantage to killing them. But outside of the game, the advantage seemed so small–what’s 10,000 gold, really?–and there was also one glaring disadvantage–the fact that I would feel crappy and uncomfortable, partially defeating the entire purpose of playing the game to begin with.

Earlier I might’ve found this frustrating. I thought that I let myself get way too affected by virtual things. I’m the sort of person who would treat even a fairly rudimentary robot as I’d treat a human or a non-human animal.

Now, having had the first conversation with my brother and the subsequent moral dilemma with the prisoners and the guards, I started to think differently about it.

After all, we (I include myself in this) are more likely to think of it as a feature, not a bug, when we experience emotional reactions to things like films and shows and novels. (That, in fact, is what I reminded my little brother when he called me crying after finishing The Little Prince, and again when he called me crying several years later after finishing Flowers for Algernon.) Playful teasing outside, feeling terrified or very sad during movies is pretty standard. Why not in games?

Maybe it’s because we assume that the point of film and literature (as a fan, not a scholar) is to be absorbed into a story. The point of games, some might argue, is more tangible: to shoot stuff, to solve puzzles, to build cool things, to become the best. Stories may matter in games, but they don’t matter the way they matter in films and novels.

And there are definitely games I would play purely for those tangible aspects. I don’t get emotionally invested in the story of my SimCity creations (though maybe some do). I care slightly for the plight of Fez’s Gomez, who has literally had his entire world as he knew it torn to bits, but mostly I’m just there for the cool puzzles.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim's eternal moral dilemma.
Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim’s eternal moral dilemma.

But with games like Skyrim, I come for the fighting and stay for the interesting narrative, and that generally means starting to feel immersed enough in that world to feel bad when people die needlessly in it. The experience of considering (and strongly rejecting) the idea of killing the escaped prisoners for their valuable armor reminded me of something I think I already knew: that much of ethics, at least for me, is based on automatic emotional responses. Stealing feels bad. Threatening feels worse. Killing needlessly feels even worse.

There must be ethical systems out there that rely on something besides emotion and that still result in minimal harm to other people, but they feel alien to me. In any case, I doubt that those systems would transfer over to virtual worlds. Why bother?

Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course). If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.

But for me–someone who has no interest in participating in or belonging to any sort of “gaming community” and who wouldn’t even take up the label “gamer”–it doesn’t feel like a big deal to say that games make me feel things. Not just general things like excitement or fear, but specific things, like I feel sorry for that man who died even though he’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Or I wish I didn’t have to kill that dragon; it would feel much better if we could just be friends. (That one might be influenced by the fact that I recently saw both How To Train Your Dragon movies and really liked them.)

And now I’ve finally decided that I like it that way. It’s more rich and fun that way, even with the bad feelings too. Like my brother, I like myself better when I feel those things. Embracing that irrationality feels more human to me.

Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim