Am I The Problem? A Reaction to Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames

The following is a reaction to Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames series.  It is written by a white, cis male, which I recognize is possibly the worst thing to be in writing any critical response to the series as presented so far.  I am not denying the points the series makes, and I am certainly not denying the industry’s huge problem with gender, stereotypes, and women in general.  Sexism is real, and it is entirely possible for someone to not be sexist and still benefit from its deeply entrenched roots in modern society.  I have no doubt that I benefit from sexism in ways that I cannot enumerate, though given the quality of my life and the fact that the most recent major event in it was getting a type of cancer that it is physically impossible for someone of the female sex to get and the subsequent loss of my ability to procreate, I will admit I find it hard to see exactly how I benefit.

I am going to be honest about my reaction to the series and it is my sincere hope that nobody hates me for it.

Tropes vs. Women in Videogames makes me feel like a bad person.  Really, really bad.  Downright evil, and no, I’m not exaggerating for comic effect like I normally do.  I know that this is likely not the case and that part of the point of the series is to target people like me, straight men who consider themselves feminists and make us uncomfortable with the state of affairs.  Well, it succeeds.  Forgive me if this is oddly disjointed, most attempts to play hop-scotch in a minefield are.

The series, if you haven’t seen it, is presented as a very matter-of-fact lecture, and seems to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, which, given the deranged and disturbing response to Ms. Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter I entirely understand.  Many of the people most in need of education on this subject have not exactly shown that they are capable of understanding complex, nuanced subjects such as this.  Honestly, I’m impressed they’ve managed to attain even a limited grasp of human language.  While I understand that I am not the lowest common denominator that lashes out and makes threats if someone dares to challenge something that I like, I do feel like I am being patronized and talked down to while watching the videos.

Maybe I need to be talked down to, though.  Again, I’m serious, maybe I am part of the problem.  But am I?  How broadly do you define the problem?  I’ve supported dozens of the games specifically called out in her three installments on Damsels in Distress.  I’ve supported them with my money, and I’ve enjoyed playing them, and I haven’t really given a tremendous amount of thought to the implications of this.  I’ve also played and greatly enjoyed Beyond Good & Evil, the game most praised by Ms. Sarkeesian in her series for its general excellence in both quality and positive portrayal of women.

“Isn’t it enough for a game to just be fun and well made?” I thought to myself at one point.  Well, that depends.  If games are just toys, diversions, distractions with no deeper meaning, I’d say yes, it is enough for a game to just be fun and well made.  If no one will ever take them seriously, it is enough for a game to just be fun and well made.  That’s not true, though.  Perhaps the hidden point of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is that games not only are art, but they have always been art.  There was no magical threshold crossed in the mid-90s or early millennium that transmuted them into art.  The ideas presented in games have always mattered, even if the creators did not necessarily have that intent at the outset.

Still, I wonder, “Am I the problem?”

If Ms. Sarkeesian’s method of presentation bothers me, and if I am bothered by the implication that my taste in games does include, but is not limited to games called out as problematic, is that not my conscience telling me that I am a bad person, and deserve to feel bad for it?  Especially considering that while after viewing and carefully considering her points, I have no intention of more carefully vetting the games I buy for their portrayal of gender?  I will certainly be more aware of it, yes, but if some future game employs this trope to some extent and is otherwise excellent, will I still buy it?  Yeah, probably.

As you can tell I am, in many ways, a deeply insecure person.  Is it a good thing for the world that I won’t even theoretically be able to reproduce?  Would the world be better off without me?  Am I even a man anymore?  These are common refrains.  Experience shapes and forges us all, and my experiences have directed my critical gaze more inward than most.  I’m not a stranger to being on the wrong side of debates.  I’m sure I’m still on the wrong side on a great many things, life is about learning and adapting, becoming better in the process.  In recent years I’ve found myself arguing out of ignorance on the topic of rape culture, something that the modern, more educated variant of me is rather ashamed of.  Likewise, while I respected transgenderism, until Lana Wachowski’s brilliant and revelatory speech on the subject, I held some rather ignorant views on it.

Open and intellectually honest debate is of course worthwhile, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.  If I’ve failed, I apologize.  I’m trying to respond in an honest fashion.  I do not consider myself a sexist, I consider myself a feminist.  Have I been a bad person, though, in not speaking out more, not doing more, not attempting to in some way repay those whose oppression I benefit from?  Is my patronage of certain media harmful, and if so, aren’t I morally obligated to stop supporting it, even if I otherwise enjoy it?

I don’t know.  Maybe there’s more point in the question than the answer.

A User’s Guide to Media Reviews

Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to my previous article, “An Objective Review of Dragon’s Crown”  Read it here.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of people who seem to be confused about the purpose of reviews. Specifically video game reviews, but you can apply them to movie reviews, book reviews, really anything involving art. Mostly this confusion stems from the perception that reviews must be “objective”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Andrew, you sly, sexy thing, reviewers should be unbiased in their work!”

This is wrong. Reporters should be unbiased in their work. Reviewers entire job is bias. There are acceptable and unacceptable biases for reviewers, though. A good reviewer will not allow their review to be unduly affected by any previous perceptions they have about the work, positive or negative. That includes, for example, their personal opinion of the creator, or the system the game is released for. A good review is based entirely on the reviewer’s opinions and observations of the work that they accumulated during their experience with the finished art.

Reviews are objective by nature. This isn’t a problem, this is in fact why they are a useful tool. If you have determined whether or not you like something, or are going to buy something before reading any reviews of it, congratulations, you do not need to read the review. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, I read reviews of things I like, dislike, or have no intention of buying regardless of the quality all the time. It is a form of entertainment, and it can enrich your experience by providing a different perspective from which to appreciate art. A good review of good art will enhance your appreciation of that art.

What you shouldn’t do is use reviews to try and confirm your own biases. We’ve all done it and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice either. Who doesn’t love reading an awful movie being eviscerated or a horrible game being pilloried by such masters of the negative review as Jim Sterling and Yahtzee Croshaw? This isn’t what reviews are there for, though. Its a bonus, a treat, and can serve as a validation of your own good taste.

Where people get hung up though is that disagreeing with a reviewer doesn’t make either of you wrong. It just means you disagree. That’s why it is important not to just look at Metacritic aggregates, but to seek out individual reviewers, individual voices who you agree with. Not on score, mind you, but on observation. Different people appreciate different things for different reasons. One reviewer may appreciate a certain kind of game more or less, or a certain style greatly. Find reviewers who appreciate the same things that you do, and if you are unsure as to whether you should or shouldn’t check something out, seek out their opinions.

“But what if the reviewers I usually agree with disagree with me, MSK?”

Well Strawman, it still just means you disagree. Maybe you should think about what you disagree on. If someone who thinks a lot like you do dislikes something that you don’t, odds are you’ll be able to understand their point quite easily. This can improve your enjoyment! Understanding not only that you enjoy something but why you enjoy something is itself enjoyable. Being able to love art not just despite but because of its imperfections is great.

This is why the late lamented Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were so highly valued, not just for their own skills at reviewing movies, but for their wildly different preferences. “Two Thumbs Up” really meant something, because it meant that two colleagues who think differently enjoy the same thing. It was a double positive review, if two people who disagree vehemently on a regular basis like the same movie, odds are it is a really good movie.

All this is not to say there isn’t such a thing as a Bad Review, however. This comes down again to bias, in the case of video games it also involves skill. If someone has made up their mind about something before they have seen it or played it, they have no business reviewing it, and thankfully you can usually tell, because the people who do this are not professionals, but rabid lunatics zero-bombing things on websites that allow for user reviews pre-release. Likewise, if someone just plain isn’t good at a particular game genre, they never play them personally, what have you, they have no business reviewing those games.

Sports games are the most common example, here. For me, its certain 2D fighting games. I am BAD at them. All-Caps BAD. I can’t beat more than three or four levels in Street Fighter IV on the easiest difficulty. That bad. When I see dozens of positive reviews of Street Fighter IV, though, I don’t get upset at the reviewer, though, of course not. I know its not for me, and I can still appreciate their observations with no intent of acting on them.

Which brings me to the current debate going on in the commentariat over at Polygon over their Dragon’s Crown review. A lot of people are going to really enjoy this game and would likely give it a score above 6.5 themselves. That is fine, but it doesn’t mean the author is weighing down the score with her own personal baggage. Some people do not like hypersexualized women and male power fantasies in their games. That detracts from their enjoyment.

“But MSK, if they don’t like sexy babes in their games, they shouldn’t review games with sexy babes in them! That’s your logic!”

No its not, Strawman. That’s a perversion of my logic. Dragon’s Crown is a beat-em-up, a brawler, with a heavy emphasis on its art style as a primary selling point. Naturally, critique of the art style is not only fair game in a review, but a necessity in a review. We’re not talking about someone who just hates brawlers, here, and besides, Strawman, and since I created you, we both know that isn’t your actual problem with the review.

This is the nature of criticism, people will always disagree. I have never had a problem with a little cheesecake here and there, but to me, Dragon’s Crown seems to be rather obnoxious with the way it presents its particular flavor. That’s my opinion. Is yours different? That’s fine with me.

And it should be fine with you, too.