STOP SAYING "FEMINAZI" And Other Advice For Dudes Who Play (And Make) Video Games

Video games are changing, and more women are playing them. Whether you like it or not.
Publish date:
March 28, 2013
sexism, feminism, misogyny, video games, GDC

I'm eating too much diner food. It's a matter of speed and cost. I am aware that San Francisco is home to many quick and inexpensive options for eating but those things require the perusal of Yelp and inquiries to other people besides and also result in EXPECTATIONS and sometimes it's just easier to hit some greasy spoon where you are prepared for the experience to be absolutely horrible so it’s a pleasant surprise if it’s not.

The two most obvious diner spots near the convention center -- made all the more obvious by the percentage of clientele wearing big plastic GDC badges -- are Lori's Diner and Mel's Drive-In. Both of these options revel in 1950s nostalgia. Mel’s Drive-In, which is not a drive-in at all, is at least legitimate in its nostalgia, as the first location in what would become a chain was actually founded in 1947. Lori's Diner, also 50s themed, was actually founded in 1986, giving it the dubious distinction of offering its patrons a sort of meta nostalgia for the 50s nostalgia of the 1980s.

So I eat my diner food and think about the fact that I’ve never seen “American Graffiti” and eavesdrop on the conversations of the relatively small number of individuals who create the games I and other people play and wonder if I’m listening to the Cecil B. DeMilles and Ernst Lubitsches of video games -- assuming that media all tend to evolve along the same lines.

Last week, Ken Levine -- one of the best-known and most respected game developers working today, and the dude behind the massively anticipated "Bioshock Infinite" which just came out this week -- made a joke on Twitter about having been "roofied" by a journalist, by way of explaining why he may have been looking tired in recent interviews.

Because this is the Internet, said tweet was immediately met with a hail of criticism over what was read by many -- and totally understandably so -- as a thinly veiled rape joke, given the popular association of rohypnol with rape. Levine apologized fairly quickly, to his credit -- like many dudes, he likely did not consider the potential ramifications of said comment to non-men individuals and I’ve little doubt he would have said it if he had.

The story I'm interested in here isn't even really about a thoughtless joke made by a tired dude that fell flat, or worse, legitimately offended people. We learn best by making mistakes, and this was a learning moment -- Levine is not a monster for saying it, and we can hope that he’ll think better of such comments in the future.

No, the interesting bit is the reaction to the criticism, the commentary on the commentary. Anytime people call out anything problematic in games, both inside the games themselves and among game players, the loudest reaction from fans, if not the most popular, is to attempt to shut that discussion down as quickly as possible. If the problematic aspect has to do with women, the loudest reaction is to threaten violence, rape and death. Again, the loudest, if not the most popular.

When a few years ago a popular game-centric web comic caused an uproar over a different, far more blatant rape joke, fans of that comic did not only argue that anyone who can't find rape hilarious is bereft of a normal sense of humor -- which is troubling enough -- but many leveled explicit threats at the most outspoken critics, and some even organized efforts to ensure said critics would feel not only uncomfortable but straight-up unsafe at the popular nerd convention associated with the same comic -- the now multi-location Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX.

When this shit happens, it makes everyone look bad. If other dudes can't generate anger because the original transgression was a problem, or if they can’t muster up rage because these personal attacks on women (and others) who call out problems are wrong, they should at least be pissed because the individuals who participate in such bullshit make vidoegame fanboys all look like knuckle-dragging misogynist sociopaths.

At any rate, one popular critical response to the critical response in the "roofied" joke was to call anyone who had a problem with it a "feminazi."

"Feminazi" is one of few words that really set my teeth on edge, not least because it is makes no rhetorical sense. We have Rush Limbaugh to thank for its popularization, as he began using it on the radio in the 90s, although apparently in one of his books, Limbaugh credits a similarly trollish friend with having originally coined it. Or so Wikipedia tells me, because Rush Limbaugh is a subject I refuse to research any further than that.

It is, like "politically correct," a term designed to belittle and dismiss those who would criticize or even just advocate in favor of thinking harder about underrepresented perspectives and experiences. And a certain subset of asshole gamer fanboys looooove saying "feminazi."

In the case of the “roofied” joke, the commenter reactions range from the more sedate "feminazi need [sic] to tone it down," to the more emphatic, "I'm sick of these feminazis inventing VG-related issues every week" to the melodramatic, "aaaaand here concludes this week's edition of ‘Retarded Feminazis have ultimately futile internet arguments with whoever they will listen to their retarded rants,’” to the, um, sympathetic, “Fuck these butt hurt, over bearing feminazis. I mean I support feminism and all, but these constant over reactions to the littlest possible things is getting ridiculous.”

My goodness, where would we BE without such support?

Even more tellingly, many of the responders NOT calling "FEMINAZI" seem to assume the person who originally called out the tweet was male. (She wasn't.) We can only assume this is because some segment of the gaming population is incapable of envisioning a world in which some of their game-playing and developer-following peers are women, and if women aren't playing, then who the fuck cares what they think? They're just ruining this space for the dudes who actually spend time there.

The culture of both games themselves and the game-making community is definitely changing -- more and more marginalized folks are speaking up, and the more they speak up the more other marginalized folks feel empowered and enabled to speak up as well. This movement toward inclusivity is a big snowball rolling downhill, collecting more mass and more momentum as it goes.

There are, fortunately, a growing number of people who understand that improving diversity in games is not simply a matter of saying it's a free country, and nobody’s actively prohibiting folks who don’t fit the white cisgender hetero male “gamer” stereotype. People seem to be realizing that this necessary evolution requires sensitivity and CHANGING THE CULTURE and it's not just exclusive to video games either.

To wit: On Tuesday I saw a talk from a gentleman named Tom Abernathy, who was a writer on "Halo: Reach," among other games. Abernathy became aware of the lack of female-identifying inclusivity in his own industry the same way lots and lots of dudes suddenly recognize the need for feminism -- he had a daughter. His daughter didn’t like always having to play games as a boy, so Abernathy went about looking for more girl-friendly options and found... not much.

So he took to Twitter and ranted about it -- a rant that was picked up by lots of blogs, as it’s still a little unusual for someone associated with the boys’ club of big-deal blockbuster games to speak these truths aloud -- saying, memorably, of his own industry, “We’re not serving half our audience.”

It was to his astonishment that his rant drew so much attention, because apparently Abernathy was basically unaware that these blogs -- and these conversations about gender and other forms of diversity in games -- were already happening, and that lots of people had already noticed this shit. THAT fascinated me, but it’s also very telling of how and why this continues to be a battle. Arguably, a shocking number of the guys making big-deal blockbuster games, at least the ones without daughters, are oblivious to the problem of a lack of non-straight-cisgender-male characters until something happens to bring their attention to it.

Abernathy’s talk was a very 101-level affair, in which he went on to outline the reasons why developers should be actively working to include more diversity in their games, while unpacking a lot of the bullshit excuses offered for why this doesn’t happen, like “main female characters are unrealistic” in military games, or that “nobody will buy” a game with a female protagonist, or that “the core audience won’t stand for it,” even though the data says otherwise.

What the data actually says is that women make up 47% of all people who play games, and that adult women are more likely to play games at this point than young boys. In Abernathy’s words, “Women are the new core,” and yet the market is changing faster than the games themselves are.

As convenient as it would be to assume that with time this will all fix itself, we can’t really afford that kind of optimism. This shit will not work itself out by merit, because systems of oppression prevent that -- because THAT IS WHAT OPPRESSION DOES -- and so those systems need to be addressed first.

The truth is, so many of these issues are just unknown to dudes swimming in comfort and (uh oh) privilege; a guy who has never had a personal interest in so-called “women’s issues” is generally blind to them. This doesn’t make those guys jerks, it just means they need education.

Toward the end of his talk, Abernathy showed slides of Richard Mourdock (the former Senate candidate who said pregnancies as a result of rape were “a gift from god”) and Todd Akin (the former Senate candidate to whom we owe the concept of “legitimate rape”) and joked, “If you don’t know who these guys are, I envy you.”

The dude sitting next to me? Literally turned to me at this point and asked, “Who are those guys?”

Big cultural changes are not going to happen without help from the dudes currently in charge -- they will require that the guys with the most power and privilege wake up to the problems they’re at worst creating and at best participating in and decide to do something to fix them. In Abernathy’s case, it was wanting his gorgeous and opinionated multiracial daughter to see people who looked like her in the games she plays. Because he cares about her, he understood that she has a right to this, even if the loudest -- if not the most popular -- of the perceived “core gamer” audience would rather she remain invisible.

And so he got up and told all this to a room full of dudes at a game developer conference who needed to hear it.

Nobody is going to call Abernathy a “feminazi,” because that word is specific to a certain concept of a man-hating woman, but that’s okay -- he’s using his position not only to learn why the continuing resistance to more diverse and inclusive stories is wrong, but also to tell other people in his industry the same thing. With dudes like him trying to start this conversation even in spaces where people may not want to hear it, I feel kinda hopeful for the future of games, in spite of the noisy objections of a terrible few still saying “feminazi” like it’s 1997.

And about that? Y’all can just stop saying it any time. It’s not stopping progress. It only makes you look like an asshole. Just a bit of advice. You're welcome.