Outside the classroom: The ugly truth about the gaming world

This post is more personal than my usual fare. I feel the topic matter is important enough to justify this diversion from edtech-focused, classroom-oriented content.

On a number of occasions on this blog, we’ve talked about the potential that video games have as tools for learning and engagement:

All of these posts focus either on single-player experiences or else local multi-player experiences done under the supervision of a teacher. And there’s a reason for that.

The gaming world—and in particular, “gaming culture”—is a warty, pimply mess struggling to make it through its own ugly adolescence.

According to a recent report, an equal number of men and women purchase video games. The stereotypical “gamer” is a teenage boy, but active gamers who are adult women outnumber teen boy gamers more than two to one. In particular, the number of women aged 50 or over who play video games increased by 32% from 2012 to 2013.

So… In a world in which nearly half of gamers are women, and in which video games pull in revenues comparable to Hollywood films, why do big-budget companies cater almost exclusively to white, heterosexual male power fantasies and regurgitate misogynistic stereotypes with such ubiquity? Why not address the huge market of women and minority gamers?

That’s bad enough, but the white men who cling most fervently to the label of “gamer” promote—whether actively or passively—a racist, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic environment. This is true all the way down to the level of casual online X-Box gaming and all the way up to professional, corporate-sponsored tournaments with paid participants.

The protagonists of Left 4 Dead 2. From left to right: Nick, Rochelle, Coach, and Ellis.
The protagonists of Left 4 Dead 2. From left to right: Nick, Rochelle, Coach, and Ellis.

The level of venom and irrational hatred is almost unimaginable—unless you witness it.

Valve, one of the more progressive game development studios, is known for its inclusion of strong, resourceful, and resilient female characters and people of color in its games. One title, Left 4 Dead 2, is a cooperative multiplayer game which includes four protagonists: two white men, one black man, and one black woman. Each character is played by one human player, and no character may be selected by more than one person.

Depressingly, you can likely imagine the outcome in an online multiplayer gaming context: most people lunge to select one of the two white men. There may be some occasional grumbling from the player who ends up in the role of the black man, but the true venom is reserved for the black woman character. It doesn’t happen in every game, but uncomfortably often, a white man assigned to the role of the black woman would simply quit the game rather than proceed. This refusal to adopt a black, female persona would sometimes be accompanied by horrible invective spewed over the built-in voice chat—”F— no, I’m not playing some n—– b—-!”

I got into the habit of always picking the black woman character myself so that other players wouldn’t get an opportunity to indulge in their bigotry. Still, Left 4 Dead 2 was one of the last multiplayer games I ever played. The ubiquity of sexism and racism boiling under the surface of the multiplayer gaming community was more or less hidden from me when everything was just aliens and space marines, but once I saw how many gamers were loud, unrepentant bigots when faced merely with the prospect of playing as a black woman character for an hour or two, I couldn’t stomach the idea of associating with them any longer. I stopped assuming that my fellow players were basically good people and could never quite shake the feeling that any given teammate might be ready to spout off some vomitous bigotry at any moment.

I quit the world of multiplayer online gaming.

An advertisement for the Running of the Gnomes, an annual charity event benefiting breast cancer research run by Lauren's World of Warcraft guild
An advertisement for the Running of the Gnomes, an annual charity event benefiting breast cancer research run by Lauren’s World of Warcraft guild

Other people use different strategies to avoid the soul-sucking poison of bigotry that lies under the surface of the gaming world. For example, a colleague of mine, Lauren, who has previously written on this blog, conducted ethnographic and sociolinguistic research in World of Warcraft, which is a persistent online role-playing game with millions of players. Players in that game can form “guilds”, which act as a kind of club or social network through which cooperative game sessions can be arranged and enjoyed. Lauren’s guild had strict rules against the use of misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, or racist language and didn’t hesitate to kick out members who violated these moral principles. As such, the guild was able to construct a safe space for women, as well as for racial and sexual minorities.

Another admirable class of tenacious individuals works to actively change the culture of the gaming world by making the kinds of inclusive games they’ve always wanted to play themselves.

One example of a progressive game development studio is the Fullbright Company, of which half the members are women and half the members are in a sexual minority. A recent post in an online community for feminist men asked where women could find men with feminist beliefs. The top-rated response was, “in our rooms playing gone home“—referring to a lovely game by the Fullbright Company which I, too, thoroughly enjoyed. The game, which is set in the 1990s, has a young woman protagonist who is trying to find out why her gay little sister has gone missing. The soundtrack is full of contemporary music from the riot grrrl movement. It’s a far cry from the dime-a-dozen violent beefcake fantasies such as, well, Far Cry, and the change of pace is a welcome one.

Outside of the world of developers, media critics such as Anita Sarkeesian (above) have been working diligently to document problematic aspects of the gaming world and bring these issues to the attention of both game developers and gamers themselves. Anita’s most recent video, Women as Background Decoration: Part 2 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games, is a widely-acclaimed look into the ways in which many big-budget video games use women as empty, sexualized window dressing, and—more distressing than that—how sexualized violence against women is used to titillate male audiences.

The trope may be summed up with the gut-punching image below, which was an actual mass-produced advertisement for a video game:

Advertisement for Hitman: Blood Money which places a violently-murdered woman's body in a position intended to titillate and arouse the viewer
Advertisement for Hitman: Blood Money which places a violently-murdered woman’s body in a position intended to titillate and arouse the viewer

The backlash against Anita’s observations has been depressingly predictable, but no less shocking and horrifying for its predictability. The prominent industry figures such as Tim Schafer who endorse her work get off easy with just a stream of hateful and profane protests, but Anita herself has had her life threatened. She recently shared the deeply disturbing rape and death threats issued by a stalker who tracked down her home address. It should be read from bottom to top, not from top to bottom:

Death threats issued to Anita Sarkeesian. Source: https://twitter.com/femfreq/status/504718160902492160/photo/1
Death threats issued to Anita Sarkeesian. Source: https://twitter.com/femfreq/status/504718160902492160/photo/1

It’s stomach-turning. I considered putting the image behind a cut, but honestly, that would just provide a bit of courtesy and privacy to the stalker making the death threats. It’s wrong to censor others’ crimes, especially when those crimes are motivated by bigotry.

I absolutely repudiate the shamefully bigoted aggression perpetuated, abetted, or tolerated by so many in the gaming community, and I want to help stop it. I could be doing more than just boosting the signal and bringing heightened exposure to these issues, but it’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose I’d like to think that encouraging the incorporation of educationally-appropriate mass-market video games (Minecraft, Kerbal Space Program, etc) into the classroom will help to cultivate a new generation of gamers who don’t think of playing games as being a “boy thing.” I’d like to think that boys who grow up playing games alongside girl classmates won’t be as likely to harass and torment women or minority gamers later in life. I’d like to think that girls and minorities who grow up playing games in the classroom can internalize the message that they are valid participants in that space and that no one has the right to exclude them from it.

But that’s awfully distant, hand-wavy stuff.

What can we do right now?