It’s relatively rare that I turn this blog over to someone else to make a guest post, but for the last few months my friend Steve has been putting together a thing called The MESSAGE. Given that he’s tackling one of my personal bugbears – the tendency towards misogyny among gamers – I wanted to amplify his message and asked him if he’d be interested putting together a blog post explaining things. With that, I’m going to hand things over:
My name’s Steve. I’m the creator and co-director of the MESSAGE. That’s an acronym that stands for Men Ending Slurs and Sexist Attitudes in the Gaming Environment. We’re a world-wide online-based campaign group dedicated to encouraging, supporting and educating men in order to make all types of gaming more welcoming to women, and other minorities. You can find us at www.gamermessage.com and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Please do – the movement can only work with lots of support.
I decided to set up The MESSAGE earlier this year after a series of events revealed that gaming culture had become even more inveterately sexist than it once was. Along the way, the world of online gaming had removed any pretence towards civility, leading to a culture that constantly, savagely, and endemically attacked women in gaming, a larger culture that cheered it on, and an industry that profited from it.
I could point you to some links that exemplify the kind of thing I’m talking about, but they are legion and easy to find. Indeed, one reason I decided to do the MESSAGE is that everyone seemed to be reporting how bad things had gotten, but hardly anybody seemed to be doing anything to try to change things. Which is not to say that reporting the problem is worthless, especially since there were a few people out there who didn’t know how bad things had become.
If you are outside gaming and don’t know the kind of things I’m talking about, or miraculously, inside gaming and the same, find a female gamer and ask her. That’s how bad things are: you will not find a female gamer without a horror story to tell. What’s shifted in the last ten years is, aided by anonymity, the tone has become more aggressive and more sexualized.
But most people inside gaming knew there was a problem, and that there has always been a problem. Which is why almost nobody inside gaming has asked me why we need this movement. So far, almost everyone has been supportive of the idea, readily acknowledging its need and commiserating at the state of things that require it.
So nobody has asked why. But some people have asked why me.
It’s a fair question to ask, and a fair question to ponder when I’m asked to write on a blog which, to quote Peter, combines the themes of “writing, gaming and anger”, where the anger is mostly political. If you were to ask someone about me, they’d probably tell you that those three things – politics, writing and gaming – define my life pretty strongly. If I’m not asleep, chances are I’m doing one of those three things.
And – by choice and careful selection, of course, not accident – most of my gaming friends are equally political, and angry, and on the same side of the aisle, if only because the underdog and the outcast also tend to be on that side.
It’d be nice to pretend there was a great and important reason behind this. Say that perhaps board gamers are better at seeing the big picture between powerful forces or have more experience thinking in terms of campaigns and strategy. Or maybe that roleplaying games teach us empathy for other points of view, making us quicker to see the needs of minority groups and the oppressed. Heck, maybe being a social outcast for liking geek hobbies led me to support other outsiders, shifting from geek to freak.
But that’s all lies. I was a political animal before I was a gamer, although to be fair my parents were pretty keen on me being both from an early age. I remember taking part in a few peace marches as soon as I was old enough to walk – and taught to play 500 as soon as I could hold the cards. The former came from my mum, the latter from my dad, and I don’t think there was any sense from them that the two things necessarily belonged together.
If there is a link, it goes the other way. I’m not political because I’m a gamer, I’m a gamer because I’m political. Or because I refuse to sit with the status quo when it seems unfair – which is the same thing, really.
My mother taught me to question everything, and one thing I found very quickly when I went to school at the age of five was that everything needed questioning. The people I was supposed to associate with were violent thugs who were quick to despise me. The people I wasn’t supposed to associate with were polite and considerate, cerebral and creative. The former – the boys – tended to abandon imaginary games early for more physical diversions, but the girls kept their dolls and fantasies longer. The boys had trouble sitting still and staying inside, things I always preferred, but the girls were taught from a young age to be quiet and reserved. So from the earliest moments, I hung out almost exclusively with the girls, and together, we discovered games.
Certainly, having two sisters made me more comfortable around the other sex, but what was far more important was, even then, my ability to figure out what mattered, and ignore arbitrary classifications from systems I didn’t believe in. To value people for who they were, not the group in which they were placed. To refuse to believe the separations between people were worth anything at all. To ignore the authority figures and the bullies who said I should believe otherwise should be otherwise.
If I hadn’t been like that, I wouldn’t have played with the girls all those years. Being smart, I might have still hid in books, but without friends, I couldn’t have played. I would never have found anyone to sit with me in the library and play card games and board games over and over again. Without that, I might have pushed away my parents’ love of 500 and been more interested in the tool set or chemistry set they bought me. And I might not be the gaming nut I am today. I might never have become a published game writer and game designer. I might never have met my card-playing friends at university whom I still see to this day. I might never have played Bridge, or Settlers, or Talisman, or rolled a d20 to save versus dragon breath, experiences which shaped so much of my life.
Being a gamer has made me who I am. But becoming a gamer required me breaking out of the mould and seeing the world differently. It required not just being the only boy who was hiding in the library and helping the teacher. It required being the boy who played with the girls.
So when I hear of people ignoring female gamers, or driving them away with terrible behavior, or worst of all, telling them outright that they do not belong in the hobby because it is for men, and that they should get back in the kitchen where they belong – which they do say, all the damn time – I get angry.
I get very, very angry indeed.