Once upon a time, a very angry man teamed up with some anti-feminist frothy guys to get revenge on his game-designer ex-girlfriend. They claimed that she had sex with a game reviewer in return for favorable review coverage of her game, and harassed, doxed and death threatened her. The fact that the favorable review coverage never occurred was irrelevant; the charge was meant only to raise questions on the Net. Meanwhile, the frothy guys proceeded to attack with doxing, harassment and death threats other women who had nothing to do with game reviewing or game company PR, and then went after anyone and any website that criticized them for it.
Despite all this, their efforts didn’t draw much media attention outside of the geekosphere until two events occurred. First, the frothy guys confused some Intel marketing folk into withdrawing one of thousands of ad buys from a games website that had been critical of them.* And second, they shut down a talk by an academic in women’s studies at a university by threatening a mass shooting at the event. The bulk of the media coverage from that was negative, depicting the frothy guys as terrorizing women and bigoted. Right wing activists, who used to decry games as violent degeneracy, about-faced and helped push the message that those calling for better diversity and talking about the presentation of women in games were somehow corrupting the gaming industry and engaging in vague, often contradictory conspiracies. (*Update: Intel has now re-bought the ads they pulled a month ago, after getting a clue.)
The saddening thing about this campaign – and it has been an organized campaign — is that its threats and identity theft towards these women are ultimately futile towards its main stated goals. Yes, women have only a toehold in the engineering, tech, animation and gaming industries. But women used to have only a toehold in the fields of medicine, law, education, publishing and laboratory sciences too. The men in those areas used to throw up their hands and suggest that maybe the women were few because they weren’t really suited for those fields, while frantically rolling boulders to try to keep women out and making the atmosphere as toxic as possible for the ones who were there.
Women have always worked in games, despite such barriers, from board and tabletop to educational games, sports, and electronic games from the arcade to the console to the computer networks. And women have always played electronic games, in great numbers, from their earliest days. Currently, they make up half the gaming market and the largest demographic group in the 18-39 age range. Electronic games have always been commercially mainstream, put out by large companies for a global market, and sporting a wealth-load of popular spin-off merchandise and toys, from Pac Man lunch boxes to Pong earrings.
The distortion of the gaming market as being far narrower than it was, came mainly from two factors. The first was that the gaming companies worked with or for large toy companies, and the toy industry had established a strict gender stratification as a method of selling toys – a method that helped create periods of stagnation in the toy industry. Electronic games were labelled gadgets and officially boy’s toys, (although girls were free to buy pink and pastel Gameboys and the like.)
And second, the advertising and marketing industry tends to be among the most sexist and bigoted, largely because marketing folk are usually sure that the market for the products they sell is far slimmer than it typically ends up being. They created the ad idea of the gamer, a young (usually white) male who is smart, astute, driven, good at solving puzzles and programming, has quick reflexes, and always, most importantly, has the newest, most powerful game playing devices and accessories. The idea of creating an elite, specialized image to sell a product is one of the most common advertising techniques, used to sell sports cars to designer handbags to the latest iPhone. And games marketing folk have worked hard on it, jerry-rigging data and cutting ad budgets for games that might not fit the mold.
The frothy guys are mourning what they see as the deterioration or retirement of this advertising campaign, not so much because they ever really believed it was their identity, but because it became the symbol, the chosen image, of the game industry. As a symbol, it denoted control, authority and market power. Women could play games, but the gamer male, he was supposedly in charge of games, because the advertising said so.
In reality, the gaming market consists of millions of people all over the world, all genders, all skin colors and ethnicities and so forth. And what those people want, what they’ve always wanted, is novelty – variety, diversity, continual change. Shooter and adventure games make up only a small percentage of electronic games; the demand for novelty has created all kinds of games from where players can build collaborative cities or art projects, pretend to raise farm crops, travel the globe, etc., and on into every possible kind of gaming app. And the stories in the high profile shooter and adventure games have become more complex and deep, with more options. The global market doesn’t want to be bored by adventure games all having the exact same features and gameplay, where they are able to play only square-jawed white guys as characters. And those millions of gamesplayers wanting novelty form a giant wave of money, against which frothy guys and cautious marketing agents have about as much hope of withstanding as a twig does a flood.
The frothy guys ignore this global market, as they always have, attempting to prop up the advertising symbol as something that is being overthrown and exiled, rather than something that simply was used to stroke some egos in the West into buying the latest gaming sound systems. They stake themselves – if they play games at all – as “traditional” gamers, claiming a political ideology for the industry that never had a lot of dominance in games. They announce that those wanting more diversity and better female characters in adventure games (novelty) are fake newcomers – who should be attacked if female especially – trying to take over an industry of “outsiders” when it became “suddenly” popular, and ruin it. If it didn’t involve terrorizing people, this line of argument would be very funny, coming mostly from people in their twenties who weren’t even born during the 1980’s early console wars that established the global game market. Who have never not had massive computer game sections and whole stores available to them, and never not been able to play with others online. Who grew up with Tomb Raider and Lara Croft.
So normalized and familiar is that diverse, commercial, global market, that the frothy guys sometimes end up cloaking themselves in it while ranting about its lack of existence. While declaring how there are supposedly extreme evil feminists who will ban all men from games, they’ve thrown money at a women-led game design group (who took it with perhaps less irony than they might.) They got around to doxing a few men after it kept being pointed out that they were going after only women. They tell others to check their privilege while saying that nobody should be attempting to talk about social privilege. They created an illustrative mascot for themselves who is basically a fluffed up, stripe hoodie version of moody, smart, minor feminist icon Daria from the hit 1990’s MTV cartoon.
The millions of players who make up the global wave mostly don’t know or care who these women the frothy guys target on the Net are. They mostly don’t know or care who the frothy guys are and what they advocate. They mostly don’t read game reviews, for that matter. They mostly aren’t young white guys, and they want diversity, difference, options.
Recently, my husband and I saw a commercial for a new game called Sunset Overdrive, featuring a young white guy fighting soda-mutated monsters, which we thought was funny and looked fun to play. Later on, I happened to see marketing interviews for the game where they were emphasizing how you could play a male or female fighter character of several different ethnicities and body types and customize them. Of course, the t.v. ad featured just the white guy. Will further t.v. ads feature some of the other models available? Maybe, maybe not, though they are on the Net. But the game content offers the bulk of the gaming market exactly what they are after – better choices, less boredom.
If the frothy guys were really concerned with the gaming industry, that might alarm them. Instead, they are simply pursuing the go after liberal women who talk on the Internet campaign, in games as well as elsewhere. That’s another global wave that is passing them by.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that women or other disadvantaged groups will have a bigger presence in the games industry right away. The big gaming companies certainly didn’t stand up for women players or designers as the frothy guys rampaged, other than a few murmurs about not condoning violent harassment. Changes in marketing strategies tend to spread out slowly and cautiously, whether it’s in small companies or giant commercial corporations. But the wave of demand, the rise of eager supply, and the perseverance of reality over old, dated ad campaigns, will make it seem sudden over the next few years for those not paying attention. Trying to hurt women and scare others into silence on the Net won’t change what is coming — and what is already here.
Below are a number of links about women in the games industry, diversity issues in games, games marketing issues, and the campaigns of the frothy guys, for people to peruse at their leisure:
About Women Gamesplayers:
Some of the Major Articles:
Games website Gamasutra was targeted after Leigh Alexander pointed out the reality of the gamesplaying audience, as was Alexander herself:
Dan Golding wrote a piece much like Alexander’s:
But as he notes, he, a man, was not targeted for it like Alexander was:
Felicia Day, geek goddess, eventually spoke out with a beautiful and plaintive plea:
She was immediately doxxed for it:
Arthur Chu wrote two excellent pieces, first on how these attacks were not a new thing:
And second, perhaps the best piece of the bunch, on what happened to Day and how social isolation and misdirected personal rage can create circles of harm:
About Diversity in Games Issues:
About the Frothy Guys: