Friday, August 30, 2013

Phantom sexism and the would-you-play-it-with-a-girl fallacy

at 6:38 PM
Sexism in games is a perpetually hot topic, not just because it starts with the word "sexi", but thanks to games like August's Killer Is Dead, Grasshopper Manufacture's typically sexually charged new release. While the reviews are all over the place, a common thread has been that Dead's Gigolo minigame is unnecessary and sexist, but doubly sexist because of its unnecessity. I don't want to have to try to decide what sexism is, nor (unfortunately) do I get to decide what offends people, so I'm not going to bother to positively or negatively categorize Gigolo missions as sexist. I honestly believe that many of the reviewers decrying the game are genuinely upset by its content. Maybe some are putting on a show to get site traffic, win friends and influence his uncle, but there is definitely underlying honesty to the overflowing conservative sentiment. What this says about our American culture, our gaming culture, and our perspective on gender relations, I'm not going to try to field. To that end I can only say "it doesn't offend me. You may disagree!". But when it comes to allegations, criticisms, and intelligent debate, jesus fucking christ the gaming community needs to grow the fuck up. [the gaming community has a lot of growing up to do.]

See, as a journalist, it's not your job to tell the world you think a game is sexist. That's your opinion and it's totally sw33t and can make a great thesis - if you're willing to treat it like one. But no one gives a shit what you think. [But no reader loses a minute of sleep over] They give a shit about your constructive reasoning and supporting evidence. [What they're looking for is]You can't just tell me that a game is sexist and expect me to take your word for it. This is quite literally what we all learn in high school English. Likewise, we learn not to invert other people's claims, but to counter their arguments. So I'm going to pick on one particular argument I've seen come up multiple times re: Killer Is Dead, as it's extremely common in the video game realm and - perhaps fittingly - extremely fallacious.

This particular sexism-win-button goes something like this - and this is a direct quote from an unspecified mainstream review of Killer Is Dead: "I would feel ashamed if my parents (or anybody who’s relatively unfamiliar with games) saw me playing Killer is Dead" - the idea being that you would be mortified at being 'caught' with this material, and that therefore the content must be sexist, because sexism is offensive and the only thing that causes interpersonal distress. And this hypothetical scenario (often with "girl" or "girlfriend" instead of "parents") is supposed to make you feel ashamed to be playing this game, ashamed that this game exists, ashamed that you are a gamer, and ashamed of video games. Sigh. The sad thing is that it's so easy to go along with. That's why it's such a go-to argument - we can all picture our embarrassment at our mom walking in on... just about anything. That thought brings forth a surge of negativity which we grab like a Sonic & Knuckles cartridge and immediately lock onto the targeted game, which becomes a scapegoat for our sexual awkwardness.

The problem is that whether you would play a game in front of someone isn't particularly indicative of the work's handling of the content, but of the content's appropriateness to your relationship. Creating a fantasy scene of playing the game in your parents' basement or on a first date immediately adds dozens of other variables to the situation, calling to mind classic circumstances of sexual tension, restraint, and repression. Of course these will be situations in which sexuality is unsettling - regardless of its presentation. The hypothetical has nothing to do with the unsuspecting observer's reaction to the specific content; instead it questions how comfortable the player is with communicating (through shared perception) in a certain (here sexual) capacity. In fact, invoking would-you-play-it-with-a-girl is really just a bland observation that "this content is complex in nature", with a corollary of "I bet you aren't too comfortable expressing yourself sexually. You're an American heterosexual male, and a gamer to boot". 

The school of thought that brings this argument against Killer Is Dead would also assure us masturbation is sexist, as is porn, underwear, anatomy textbooks, and nudity. 

So really - and let me just give an aside here that I don't think a hypothetical thought-exercise is ever the basis for a valid argument - but really, were we to go down this road, the only type of opposite-gendered person I would expect anyone to feel comfortable with sharing sexually explicit content with is someone with whom they were sexually intimate, or at least open. Probably someone they've, y'know, leered at once or twice themselves, and from whom they've received a few lustful gazes. 

Here's a different hypothetical situation that I pose for comparison. Pick in your head a romantic, but definitely erotic, love scene from a film. Something you consider completely egalitarian. I'm not trying to get into anyone's personal definition of romance, so I'll leave the scene choice to you. Maybe you chose [I literally can't think of anything. ...I'll say] the um disembodied mutant-head-on-mutant-head-banging at the end of Basketcase 2. So now, let me ask: would you want your mom to walk in while you were watching that? Would you throw it on for neighborhood movie night? Whatever your answer here, I'm sure it's the exact same as your answer to the same question about Killer Is Dead's Gigolo mode. Does that mean that everything to do with sex is sexist? By our subject contention, yes. Which is why this contention blows. Which is why writers that use it blow. Which is why the current English-speaking gaming discourse blows.

While discounting this tricky setup certainly can't serve as a disproof of sexism, it at least disengages the accusation from interpersonal sexual communication. We can come to a deeper understanding of a piece of art by examining our own relationship with it - no information about the work is contained within outsiders' perception of our consumption. There are far more revealing questions we can ask, among them, "how does the work represent women as a whole?" and, "in what ways do I identify with the protagonist in this scene?" Being offended or ashamed isn't the grounds for productive intellectual analysis - it's a superficial reaction, rooted in a personal worldview, that succeeds from our subconscious identification with a stimulus. To have a worthwhile conversation, we need to move beyond these emotions and look at the formation of our perceptions - put simply, we need to ask, "why?"

Bearing that in mind, I'll leave you with a short video of a Killer Is Dead Gigolo mission. Through the filter of another player and without the context of the game, this will be somewhat robbed of purpose - unless you've played Dead, you don't know Mondo, you don't know the girl, and you don't know what it feels like to be in control of the situation. Nonetheless, I think it'll spawn some kind of reaction in the viewer - enough of a launching point to start questioning perception.

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