Sexism. Yes, In YOUR Gaming Community, And What YOU Can Do About It
“Feminism isn’t simply about being a woman in a position of power. It’s battling systemic inequities; it’s a social justice movement that believes sexism, racism and classism exist and interconnect, and that they should be consistently challenged.” – Jessica Valenti
A few months ago I noticed the phrase “Sexism!? Not in *my* gaming community!”, and variations of it, being bandied about on Facebook. I didn’t think much of beyond “yeah, sure, but I think Magic: The Gathering in Nottingham is probably pretty decent for the most part”. Then I read an article which is worth reading before you continue with mine. Although I’ll write so you don’t 100% have to do so, you really should read it as it is important, and – less importantly – it will help you understand my thoughts on the matter better.
The article I am referring to is called: Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem
Those of you who frequently read my articles will be aware of my disdain for hyperbole, and consequently will be aware that I really mean it when I say that the things that have happened to this woman are absolutely disgusting and that they represent the actions of even a tiny few gamers that are the blackest stain to us as a community there is. If you’re worried that some gamers make you look bad by being fat and smelly and having their asses hanging out of their jeans, it’s time to get things in perspective; there are people out there who make you look nothing short of monstrous.
“Sexism!? Not in *my* gaming community!”
It’s tempting to think that the author is exaggerating because some of the things which happened to her wouldn’t be out of place in a prison drama, and with that in mind it is also tempting to think that these incidents are so rare that it’s just an isolated incident rather than an endemic problem… or that she’s just making it up.
I’ve not seen much of this sort of thing, and certainly nothing so bad… but here are a few choice topics I have heard discussed over the years.
- Are women biologically predisposed to not playing competitively due to something to do with testosterone?
- “You got beat by a girl, haha” and all similar remarks.
- Women just play because their boyfriends do.
- Discussion about how female players dress.
- Speculation about whether a female player wears underwear or not, based on how they walked.
- What’s wrong with strip clubs? What’s wrong with hookers? You’re a prude.
- Are transsexual women really women?
- “Edgy humour” about under-age girls.
- Rape jokes.
- Speculation about the particulars of sexual activity with various players based on their physical nature.
- Speculation about whether someone is gay.
- Speculation about whether someone has been involved in bestiality.
Then there’s the more specific stuff about particular people (e.g. who has done what with who) but I’m not Abigail Williams, and this is not Salem, Massachusetts, so I won’t name names, and I’m not 100% about the exact wording of everything I’ve heard over the 20 years I’ve been around.
And this is just the stuff I remember – which I expect will tend to be the things people I don’t like have said, not my friends. Combine this with the fact that I spend more time with my friends than people I don’t, and the fact that I certainly forget far, far more encounters than I remember, and it’s pretty obvious that there has been and still is sexism in the communities with which I have been involved.
The next thing to consider is that I’m not there all the time, so there will be things I miss because of that. The most obvious thing I will not see is times when a woman is alone or isolated with another man within the community; the times when women are more vulnerable and most likely to be assaulted in some form or another.
“But it’s just a joke – stop being so thin skinned!”
I think it’s reasonable to think that sexism is present in the gaming communities I’ve been involved in based on what I’ve just discussed. But this stuff is all just words, it could be argued – “Sticks and stones” and all that. I’ve always found this argument to be a bit disingenuous, particularly within gaming where words like “elitist” and “entitled” are so problematic, and where there is so much heated, passionate discussion is generated around abstract concepts – surely it can’t be legitimately argued that gaming culture is a culture in which the tangible takes precedence over the incorporeal, a world in which the sword is mightier than the pen, a place where words don’t mean things?
You may find this article by Patrick Chapin on the matter helpful – Words Mean Things by Patrick Chapin
Leaving aside the authenticity and credibility of these remarks, the reason that words matter is because they are the primary way in which other people generate our primary and secondary socialization. As children we know nothing of the social world, and it is our parents who tell us about it. This is how we know that it’s rude to eat with our mouths open, or to interrupt people, or to “say please” and “thank you”, or to wear clothes even if it’s not cold – that’s primary socialisation. Secondary socialization is not just taught to us by authority figures (teachers, and later employers) but also by our peers. While our teacher might tell us not to pull a girls hair to get her attention, and our employer might tell us that we shouldn’t be using company computers to look at softcore porn, it’s really down to our peers to tell us what we can and can’t do the rest of the time, normally in quite an indirect way (because they’re not in an officially dominant position over us).
If not directly, then how do we work out what is acceptable? We watch what other people do, and take our cues from them. If we like what we see about a group, we stay and we leave if we don’t. Let’s take walking into a new pub as an example.
I don’t drink, and I find drunks a challenge to be around. I’m also aware that pubs can be quite dangerous. If I walk in and the light is bad, the music is too loud, and it’s full of boisterous football fans, I’ll want to leave. If it’s full of boneheads talking about how the country is getting taken over by Muslims while they polish off their best EDL ski mask, you won’t see me for dust. If there’s good light, it’s not loud, and the patrons are unthreatening, I’ll stay, and maybe come back.
The thing is you can often tell pretty quickly without looking for all the details if you’re going to be happy having a drink or a meal when you walk in because of the atmosphere. I think probably quite a few women treat games shops in a similar way, because they’re aware that *game shops* can be dangerous places, and use a combination of looking for the details and judging the atmosphere to decide if it’s a place they want to go to.
It’s a bit of a leap from a joke about something to actually doing it, and not everyone who jokes about something wants to do it, but there are people who do. So for the most part by telling rape jokes, and other “laddish” behaviour, you’re “only” going to upset and alienate a proportion of women, rather than directly influencing someone to hurt one. The first question I’d ask about this is “why are you ok with upsetting and alienating a percentage of the women who come into your store?”, after which I’d point out that it’s only going to be for the *most part* that your actions won’t cause direct harm, and then I’d wonder why you’re ok with *that*.
What can you do to help?
Hopefully I’ll have convinced some people that sexist language isn’t just a joke, and that really bad things happen to women in gaming partially because of it. The first thing you can do to help is to remove that content from your everyday speech. This will be a pretty hard thing to do, and it will take a while. I used to use “gay” as a pejorative, and it took me ages to get rid of that, “mum jokes” (“yeah? Well, I f**ked your mum!” – Southpark has a lot to answer for…) I dropped sharply after a friend’s mother passed and I – predictably – said something along these lines to something he said, reflexively, the meaning of the words having been lost through a process of desensitization. The feeling of complete mortification swallowing me is still pretty crisp now, about 15 years later. The homophobic language I routinely used *while I was working in a games shop* is a different sort of embarrassment, because it was faceless, impersonal; I was never directly punished for my behaviour, but I no doubt caused damage. Taking an honest look at your actions and deciding to make a change isn’t going to be a comfortable experience, but as we’ve discussed, it’s the right thing to do.
By making these changes in ourselves, we make our personal impact more positive, but we also shape the actions of those around us indirectly. If we don’t validate crass comments made about women who our friends encounter in gaming situations by showing approval (laughing, agreeing, joining in) we contribute to their secondary socialisation; we show them that these sorts of remarks will not be well received in our company. All this requires is for us not to agree with or participate in certain discussions. This works – I know from personal experience.
More boldly, we can actively disagree – we can call people out for saying or doing things which are inappropriate. This is harder to do, and to an extent it seems to me that context must be relevant, because it tells us how likely we are to actually accomplish anything. I’ve been both strong and weak in social hierarchies within gaming communities, and I know for sure that if I called people out in the contexts where I was weak, that I wouldn’t have been taken seriously, I’d probably have been laughed at, and the behaviours that I challenged might even have been exacerbated to spite me. If you’re going to call people out it’s important to know how you’re going to do it on a strategic level – e.g. roughly what you’re going to say, your responses to what they’ll probably say, as well as how far and to what degree of force you’re willing to commit. For me, if I don’t have some idea of this I would run the risk of either becoming flustered and not getting my point across (massively damaging any impact I might have) or potentially to lose my temper and commit to a level of confrontation I’m not really willing to follow through on.
It’s also important in these things to know where the TO or store owner stands. If you say “don’t say that in here – it’s not appropriate.” you really want it to be the case that you can say “or I’ll ask the guy behind the counter to turf you out” when they say “or what?”, and expect to be backed up. In all likelihood the conversation will be a bit more sophisticated than that, but will boil down to this on a basic level.
If you’re a leader in your community (TO, judge, store owner), or just hold a position of relative prestige and respect (local big shot, well liked older player, etc) your part in all this is amplified. In the case of leaders, it’s obvious why they play a bigger part; they define what is and isn’t ok within the community as they’re essentially the government for that community. There are limits to what a leader can do effectively though, because they can’t just get into arguments with people about their behaviour constantly or they will alienate their customer base.
This is where the local big shot comes in. Magic: The Gathering culture is a culture of emulation – not only will people be more inclined to listen to the views of someone who is prominent, thus more likely to be persuaded to change their behaviour, they are also more likely to support that person in changing the views of others. Lead by example, be the change you would like to see.
Observe how women are treated in the store and at events. Watch how other people treat them, and either intercede if required, or wait till afterwards and ask if the woman in question is ok (or both!). The situation is not going to change overnight, but by demonstrably confronting inappropriate behaviour and enquiring as to the well-being of female players, you can demonstrate that some people will help, and that some do care; you can show that there is good to take with the bad.
This last point is a difficult and time consuming project, but also important. We’ve established that there are men in gaming communities who are a threat to women, and that this is largely a due to a process of socialization. There will be times when it will become clear to you – especially as you become one of the older members of your community – that a young man is going through a difficult time, and that the right sort of influence at that point in their life might make a pretty big difference. The people around you shape you – I’ve been very lucky to have a number of excellent influences in my life, many of whom were older men who offered guidance when I was a total mess. It only stands to reason that many of the men who represent a threat to women within our community could have benefited from the right influence at the right time. Consider being that influence.
I’m not going to write a fable this week because it would be pretty jarring with the heavy content of the article. When I read the White Male Terrorism piece which I linked at the start I felt horrified that I could have had a hand in women being treated in this way, and felt an obligation to do everything I can to make it better. I hope in writing this piece that I have done so to some extent, and that I have encouraged others to do the same. It’s also fair warning to anyone who had even the vaguest notion that I would condone the miss-treatment of women that I absolutely do not – so save your rape jokes and your “for a girl” jibes for someone who won’t make you wish the ground would swallow you up for it.
That’s it for this week folks. I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences (if any) on this very sensitive– but real –issue, so please do let me know about them in the comments below.
Thank you for reading,