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“It’s just a game”

June 11, 2013

This post is outside the usual technical pure technical focus of this blog, but the subject matter is important to me, and I wanted to write down my thoughts on it while they were still fresh.

This is a tweet by Anita Sarkeesian, and a disturbingly large number of misogynistic (and outright hateful) replies she got in response. This would be a shameful display in any context, but it is especially bad considering that her “objectionable” statement is both a factual one and completely right. There were no games with female protagonists shown at the Xbox One E3 reveal.

So why the hate? Presumably because of things like her excellent “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series (which is excellent, and which you should watch immediately if you haven’t done so already. Go ahead. This post will still be there when you come back). As a player of video games, it’s hard not to notice how obviously, painfully right the points she makes are. I think Anita is doing the game developer community a great service by pointing out how badly we’re currently screwing up in this regard; not only can we do better, we should be collectively ashamed that we don’t.

However, that is not the point I’m trying to make here. Instead, I want to address a rebuttal I hear frequently in cases like this: “Relax, you’re taking it far too seriously, it’s just a game!”, or alternatively, “Games don’t affect people like that”. (This statement also makes frequent appearance in discussions on the role of violence in games).

When coming from game developers, I find this statement extremely baffling. And here’s why: most games referenced in this context are interactive experiences that a player will spend at least a few hours with. Considering how the human brain works, it is exceedingly unlikely that something, anything a player spends that amount of time on will leave no trace whatsoever in her brain. That does not mean that violent games makes people violent, or rampant misogyny in video games makes players hate women. That kind of thinking is far too simplistic and reductionist. But still: players will spend multiple hours of their life in a virtual world of your creation. That experience will, in some way or other, influence their thinking. Independent of whether it’s actually “harmful” to submerge players in a world of casual misogyny and ultraviolence – is there any point to it? Or is it just something we do out of laziness and without consciously thinking about it? And if so, what does that say about us?

But let’s take a step back. Say you really, truly believe that games leave no lasting impression of any kind on the player. That whether they play it or not makes no difference at all, for better or for worse, to their lives – they might as well have been sleeping. Because if you really think that is the case – then why are you spending years of your life working on the damn things?

See also: Brian Moriarty’s lecture “Entrain”.

From → Thoughts

  1. Kdo4971 permalink

    I’ve been looking at the “tropes” serie of Anita, and while I initially found her arguments convincing, her latest documentary leans way too much towards sensationalism & disproportion.

    From my experience, all the games I’ve played with these last few years are either genderless, or let me play the game as a female character. Yes, *all* of them.

    I’ve not played any “Doom-like” game lately, so I guess I’ve been saved from the worst part. Still, when I see a game where the male hero, once again, has to save his street-princess from big-ugly-badass, I’m merely thinking “OK, this company spent approximately zero days for the game context and the scenario” and it instantly loses 2 – 3 points. One word comes to mind : lazyness.

    And that’s the problem with the “Tropes” serie : the author tends to be caricatural about “men playing games” and “men making games” in general. She makes a good job at dressing the situation as a kind of “complot theory”, designed by males to spit on girls. We should, as you say, “feel ashamed”, and quite frankly, I’m just fed up to have to feel ashamed for just being a male. Fuck the gloomy feminists, they have been doing too much damage to society already.

    The reality is much simpler and, in a way, much worse : the people in charge of creating these scenario are mindless. Grown-up adolescents with limited field of view, directed by short-term financial guys which just want an easy way to be (even more) rich, so no, don’t be creative, make things that sell. By the way, these are the same guys that consider programmers and artists as “resources”, dispensable type. What can you expect from this type of leadership ?

    If you absolutely need to point at something “evil”, target the financial institution which drives this industry. Yes, it’s a much more difficult target to point at.

  2. On the same line as “Entrain” and Games Serious impact, a great read is Isaac Asimov’s “Roving mind” chapter called “That old-time violence”. Cannot find any reference online, so here’s a very crude summary:
    – Myth/legends/stories/heroes does serve as “model/examples” in human society
    – Showcasing violence based set of capabilities was *necessary* in “old times”, when violence did solve problems.
    – But violence is no solution in a modern human society, quite the contrary.
    – What solves human modern problems is science/intelligence
    – Then those new set of capabilities should serve as the basis for stories, making a whole new set of myth/legends/stories/heroes

    I guess that doing that and still following the Vogel/Campbell “hero’s journey” is the equation to solve in order to keep selling AAA games… ( )

    Whole Asimov’s writing does that imho, and his famous quote “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” has even echoes beyond his books, which is the exact point here:
    “science-fiction, is not serious, just entertainment”, and still how many of his readers do take that quote at heart in their life ?

  3. Thanks for talking about this – this is a big wtf moment of being a Gamer.

  4. Wow. What a bunch of $#!#$ $#!*s those twitter repliers are. Ya know, even if what femfreq had said was total bullshit (instead of undisputed truth) those vile and irrational comments would still be completely unacceptable.

    The anonymity of the web sure brings out the worst in people.

  5. Thanks for this post. Not normally what I’d expect here, like you say, but very much appreciated. That series from Anita Sarkeesian is excellent, thanks for the introduction to it. As is Moriarty’s lecture (like all of them are). I very much agree with both of their sentiments. I love how Anita says we can love and enjoy the games but we can still be critical of their ugly parts. This characterizes a good deal of my internal dialog when playing a lot of games.

    I believe you are right about the “It’s just a game” comment when coming from game devs. In my opinion, it is just a pure knee-jerk, obvious rationalization, as you allude to. I know I’ve used it myself in the past when talking to other devs before I really sat down and thought about it with some distance (I haven’t really been in game dev for some time now).

    Anita comment on the core game-play mechanic almost always being violence painting us in the corner is very true. I know we’ve all talked about that one before, but it stings a bit when it comes from a player. I’m glad she said that though.


  6. Thanks for this

  7. I’m far from game development or playing at this point, though my sons are avid gamers. I work in science, and women are underrepresented, especially in physical sciences, and in academia, they face barriers men have a hard time conceiving of.

    The phrase “It’s just a game” is approximately isomorphic to what I hear in science “Science doesn’t care if you are male or female, or about your ethnicity. Nature works for everyone.” It ignores the point. We pick up our attitudes about the world not from what the official party line tells us; we pick it up from whatever milieu we move in. We absorb the background. The deepest lessons about what it means to be male, female, african, european, whatever- come from the assumptions baked in to the background of our lives. We can be told all sorts of thing, but what we encounter will tell us what we believe. Because it is ‘just a game’ it tells a story about how the world is to some extent.

    It is the case that nature doesn’t discriminate. But the phrase above ignores that who gets funded or promoted is not a decision made by mother nature. It is the social edifice, which can have pure intentions and still have sexism, racism, and ethnocentricity baked in so well that it is invisible to those close to it.

  8. Paul permalink

    Saying that games don’t influence the people who play them, is like saying that a fish won’t feel pain when you hook it. It’s denial. Of course a fish feels pain, or at least discomfort, when you hook it. How would it be able to survive if it didn’t feel pain? See what a lack of pain does to someone suffering from lepra.

    I have been a game developer for many years, and have played computer games for many, many hours. Most of my gaming experiences have influenced me in positive ways – I’ve learned how to stay cool in dire situations, or learned how to cope with other people (even complete strangers) yelling at me on voice-chat while raiding – but I must admit that I have also been desensitized to violence, cursing and explicit content. That’s a fact.

    I don’t think that games should be banned or made differently because of that, though. Movies, books and basically all other forms of media can have the same effect on people. It is everyone’s responsibility to filter what they see and hear, and to decide whether or not they want to incorporate that behavior, or that point-of-view, into their own lives and characters.

  9. Siana Gearz permalink

    The issue doesn’t start or end here.

    TV and cinema rarely portrays women as people. Instead, they are usually passive attachments to their males. Heard of the Bechdel test?

    Female lead games don’t sell:

    Besides the point raised in the PA article, it’s not unlikely that the audience is already conditioned by other media to be averse to female characters, due to how terrible they are in established media. And as you say, everything you consume affects you.

  10. royalestel permalink

    Game developers have been so excited that they *could* do something, they haven’t stop to think whether they *should* do it. take addiction, for example. The industry knows how to make games addicting, with several presentations and papers, followed by uncomfortable jokes about the side effects of addiction.

    The U.S. military uses games (the soldiers themselves choose first person shooters to practice) for training with proven transfer to real world scenarios.

    Add to this that the state of hypnosis (the state when our subconscious minds are very open and susceptible to suggestions) is the mental state we are in when watching any kind of screen. It’s true that we can accept or reject any of the suggestions, but by human nature, the more often we hear an argument from different angles, the more we accept it.

    The television, movie, and news industries are well aware of their affect on cultural beliefs, having purposefully used it to forward cultural and political agendas. It seems the game industry as a whole has yet to realize or capitalize on this.

    To my knowledge, there has been no serious introspection by the industry on addiction, violence, or the objectified portrayal of women. Why not make your own code of ethics as game developers? It’s certainly necessary, and only a matter of time before games are used for political purposes.

  11. Alan K. permalink

    Don’t tell me you haven’t read about her Kickstarter project, raising $160,000 to do her “research” and instead making a few 10-minute long youtube-quality videos by stealing videos from other youtubers !

    There are tons of video responses, blogs and articles in response to her unfounded “theories” (if you can call them theory !)… I’m surprised that you are just mentioning comment trolls and completely ignoring the legit and professional criticism she has received from men AND women ! The person who first pointed out her LIES about playing 300+ video games that she bought with that money is a FEMALE indie game developer !

    It – is – just – a – video – game ! no matter what fancy words you use to say it’s not ! Feminism is an extreme form of sexism, it came about as an extremist emotional response to the male-dominated world of 20th century… feminism to gender equality is what Black Panther Party is to racial equality… an emotional extremist response made out of desperation. I’m all for human rights, I do and will endorse human rights activists with all of my heart… but when your concern is “feminism” (or again to make it easier to understand, in the case of BPP and “Black Power”) I’m your worst enemy…

    In this day and age it is “politically-correct” to put up with any type of bull$hi+ feminists come up with, it’s sad to see how many people give a damn about what an extremist sexist ideology has to say… and it is almost a crime to some degree to voice your opposition against that particular ideology !

    Love and respect to human rights activists female or male, boo to any type of sexist ideology !

    • Calm down. For what it’s worth: I disagree (see contents of post).

      • Alan K. permalink

        Just out of curiosity… take a look at these, I want to see how much you are willing to support this woman ! You kind of sound like her, from your tone I can tell opposite opinion is of no worth to you !

        I don’t expect a reply, just take a quick look at these… I don’t even expect you to approve my comment !

        If there is an intelligent discussion on female characters in video games, it’s fine by me… most of the material Anita puts in her videos is the twisted truth or is simply a lie. One day she claims to be a gamer, another day she says she has never been a fan of video games ! She spends $160,000 of donation money to make 3 short videos full of misinformation, I mean doesn’t it bother you even for a second that she is lying most of the time?! I’m really curious ! Wouldn’t you support a truly honest an intelligent discussion on the issue of female characters in video games instead of her dishonesty?!! Believe me, I’m just curious !!! I can’t understand how can someone read the criticism of Anita’s work, think about it, and of course confirm the points made by critics, and still support her…!

        I’m just curious !

      • Couple of points:
        a) Anitas personality, whether you consider her abrasive/self-righteous/whatever or not, has absolutely no bearing on whether what she says or not is factually true and/or has merit.
        b) What she does (or doesn’t) do with Kickstarter money is between her and her backers; I’m neither, I don’t care, and either way it has no relevance to what she says.
        c) I already made the point in the main post that claiming “it’s just a game” (and by extension, “it doesn’t matter”) is at the very least an extremely problematic stance to take when discussing game culture. (Since by that statement you’re basically implying that what happens in games is not culturally significant.)

        I’ll add a slightly longer reply when I have the time (right now I’m in a bit of a rush), but that said, I don’t think my blog is the right place to have this discussion.

      • Okay, taking things from the top, starting with your original reply:

        “Don’t tell me you haven’t read about her Kickstarter project, raising $160,000 to do her “research” and instead making a few 10-minute long youtube-quality videos by stealing videos from other youtubers!”
        I actually hadn’t, so I just checked it out. Her Kickstarter was for $6000 to produce 5 videos (no mention of “research” is made in the proposal that I can see – where does that come from?). That’s $1200 per video. Her largest stretch goal was at $24000 to produce 12 videos, at a budget of $2000 each (one of the previous stretch goals being “increase the production values of the produced videos, and most of the various stretch goals before then adding video to the list).

        She got $160k. Good for her! This means that apparently there were plenty of backers willing to put up extra money for this project even after it was already funded. Nothing more, nothing less. You seem to imply that getting more money than she needed puts her under some additional obligation, but I don’t see how.

        There are tons of video responses, blogs and articles in response to her unfounded “theories” (if you can call them theory !)
        There are tons of videos, blogs and articles on the internet about absolutely anything. That’s not to dismiss criticism out of hand, I’m just stating that “people are arguing about it on the internet” is not an argument either way; I’m only going to respond to points that are more specific than that.

        It – is – just – a – video – game
        Let me point out, once more, that my post wasn’t even about Anita Sarkeesian! See fourth paragraph of my post (“However, that is not the point I’m trying to make here.”) and later. After which I describe exactly why I consider this attitude to be exceedingly problematic and baffling, especially when I hear it from game developers, who are the primary audience of this otherwise very technical blog. This is also why I’m being a bit curt with you, because frankly, someone parachuting in on the one post on this entire blog that’s not about programming and immediately going off on a rant that’s at best tangentially related to the original post is a bit of a red flag.

        Either way, if your reply to my post really is just a one-sentence “but it is just a game”, we’re done here – I have argued my point, you’re rejecting my conclusion, fair enough, no harm done.

        …feminism to gender equality is what Black Panther Party is to racial equality…
        I’m just not gonna touch the entire rest of that comment. Specific points I am willing to talk about, but not name-calling.

        You kind of sound like her, from your tone I can tell opposite opinion is of no worth to you !
        Opinions of people I know and respect matter to me. Opinions of random strangers on the internet, very little, it’s true.

        [various links]
        “Anita Sarkeesian and disagreement”: How she deals (or doesn’t deal) with disagreement or criticism is simply irrelevant. It neither validates nor invalidates what she has to say.
        “My Boyfriend Died, It’s Funny”: I don’t see what the point of that post is? (I’m not being glib, I really don’t). There’s a long rant about “Rogue Ops” (never heard of the game before?), but why? Yes, there are games with female protagonists where male characters die – so?
        “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics”: Apparently, what Anita says about Borderlands 2 is wrong (haven’t played the game). Fair enough.
        “Anita’s sources”: She took game footage from YouTube without asking or giving proper credit. That’s a jerk thing to do. But again, it neither validates nor invalidates what she has to say.
        “Damsel in distress”: Other than namedropping Anita a few times, this has nothing to do with anything.

        One day she claims to be a gamer, another day she says she has never been a fan of video games !
        That is not a contradiction.

        I am a gamer – I play games. I am not a fan of video games, nor am I otherwise connected with video game fandom. These days, I actually play (that is, spend more than 10 minutes in) maybe 6 different video games in a year, and half of that is casual games, because most of the “hardcore” games that come out every year bore me to tears.

      • Alan K. permalink

        As I said I was (and am) curious. How can you trust someone who is basing her work on lies is just interesting for me… But never mind, I too don’t have time to continue this discussion, I was just curious but it doesn’t matter really. I also wanted to point you to a fair and polite criticism of her work. Read those links if you have time, evaluate them for yourself.

        Anyways, thanks for your replies.

      • (On Anita Sarkeesian)
        How can you trust someone who is basing her work on lies is just interesting for me
        “Trust” doesn’t enter into it. I am not ignorant of the field; I’ve been playing video games since I was 6 and am a professional game developer. I have my own experience of video games to draw upon, there is no need for me to take what she is saying on trust. She happens to be voicing a position that I, out of my own experience, by and large agree with.

        Let me make that abundantly clear: even if, hypothetically, every single example she gave in her videos was wrong, I would still generally agree with her position, purely out of my own experience. In that case, I wouldn’t link to her videos; I would link to someone else who did a better job presenting the argument. As it is, she is not wrong in every example she gives; not even close. It would be nice if her videos were free of mistakes and beyond any reasonable doubt. But I’m happy to link to the videos as they are, warts and all.

        Anita Sarkeesian is not the point (nor was she even the subject of my original post, as I have said before). I don’t know her personally, and she does not know me. Her person is of no interest to the issue of sexism and misogyny in games whatsoever, except insofar as she seems to be willing to paint a bulls-eye on her head over it whereas most people who care about this problem (myself included) don’t. I would prefer if she didn’t ever use other people’s videos without asking permission or giving full credit, yes. That doesn’t mean that I have to disagree with her on an unrelated issue just because she doesn’t.

        The very fact that you keep making everything about her shows that you misunderstand matters entirely. I was concerned about these issues long before I ever learned about her, and I will still be concerned about them even if she were to issue a press release tomorrow stating that she was a space alien all along and this was all some elaborate prank.

        I don’t care how much you attempt to discredit Anita, or even whether you succeed in it. You seem to be suffering under the misconception that I agree with her because I “trust” her, or because she has fooled me with her “lies”, or whatever. That is not the case. I truly believe that the argument she is making is essentially correct, even though it may well be flawed in numerous details. If it turned out she was a fraud and a liar, that would be regrettable and I would link to someone else, but it would still be no grounds for me to change my position. To do that, you would have to convince me that I’m wrong; me, not Anita. So far, you have come to my personal blog, summarily dismissed an issue that is personally important to me to launch on a multi-page rant pursuing what seems to be a personal vendetta that I couldn’t care less about, insulted me several times by implying that I can’t possibly have come up with these ideas on my own, and resorted to name-calling when I didn’t immediately agree with you, all without ever even bothering to ask me what my position on the matter was.

        At this point, the chances of you convincing me of anything are pretty slim.

  12. Victor Zen (Sage Gerard) permalink

    Hi. This is Victor Zen from A Voice For Men, an anti-misandry and anti-gynocentrism publication. I also have experience as a game developer.

    First, let me explain why people are giving you a hard time about Anita.

    Facts are tools people use under different motivations. If a KKK Grand Dragon told you that there are more black people in prison than white people, rest assured he is not there to be an objective reporter. Even so, he could say that he is just “stating facts” to hide his true intentions.

    No female protagonists were shown at the Xbox One E3 reveal. Okay, but the person who brought it up cherry picks “evidence” that men are a bunch of misogynistic chronic masturbators who let video games do their thinking for them. If insults from random people on the Internet support Anita’s $160K+ agenda, then science is dead.

    Now, about the people who say games don’t affect you “like that.” Games leave harmful impressions on people who can’t tell what is real or what is right. Well-adjusted men are not trained to be violent misogynists by games, even if a big-titted naked woman flopped on screen and screamed “RAPE MEEEEEEEEE!” right before being run over by a flaming tank piloted by Hitler’s cock. Why? Because most people can tell the difference between reality and fantasy, and are only influenced by a game insofar that they form memories and an opinion.

    To prove it, I will now play Skullgirls, enjoy myself, and not expect women to live up to the image of cartoon characters.

    Have a good day.

    • If a KKK Grand Dragon told you that there are more black people in prison than white people, rest assured he is not there to be an objective reporter.
      I gather Anita is supposed to be the “KKK Grand Dragon” in this analogy?

      Let me make this clear: A KKK Grand Dragon is a high-ranking member of a white supremacist organization that was involved in thousands of murders. Anita Sarkeesian is an individual who pens video game criticism and posts YouTube videos.

      This is a ludicrous comparison to make. Never mind what you’re trying to say about Anita; what’s far more problematic is that with this comparison, you’re trivializing the plight of thousands of KKK victims who faced opposition substantially worse than an opinionated art critic whose views they didn’t like.

      Because most people can tell the difference between reality and fantasy, and are only influenced by a game insofar that they form memories and an opinion.
      You don’t seem to have actually read my argument – my entire point was that the influence of video games is not as simple as “she played violent games, so now she’s violent” – but never mind that now, since despite your dismissive attitude (and rather crude choice of example), you’re actually agreeing with me. Saying that people are “only influenced by a game insofar as they form memories” is like saying that an apple is only food insofar as it provides nutrition.

      So yes, the games you play only influence your memories. Except for how your memories define the context you see the world in, provide the structure of your internal narrative, and define your identity and very sense of self, this leaves you basically entirely unchanged.

  13. Comments on this post are disabled now.

    I have no desire to engage in censorship and all comments posted here so far (or those that made it through the spam filter anyway) are visible. That said, I am also likewise not interested in dealing with the recent influx of commenters that only seem to be here because I mentioned Anita Sarkeesian in the text. This post is now 4 months old; all actual readers of this blog had plenty of time to comment. The Sarkeesian hatedom can go play elsewhere.

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