Sunday, April 13, 2008

First some thoughts on Designing Virtual Worlds, then some thoughts of sexism I've personally encountered

There's a lot of stuff I want to write about. DLC versus buying physical copies of games, educational games, more about cheating, and I ask myself: am I really qualified to write about those things? No, but I'm still going to. But first I'm going to write about something I am very qualified to write about. Sexism in MMOs. I'm a woman, I play MMOs.



So, here are some of my initial thoughts after reading Richard Bartle's take on gender in MMOs.


Dear Richard Bartle,


I recently finished your book, Designing Virtual Worlds. It is very apparent that you are a man. Not because most people with your name shorten it to Dick, not because you constantly feel the need to mention it, and not because...er...well...most people who read your book know that already. No, it's obvious because of how much you enjoy speculating on how gender issues affect MMO gameplay, and whether or not MMOs are at all inherently sexist. For me, as a woman, there's really no debate about whether or not a female player could be alienated by a given game design. Because if I do feel like I don't belong because of my anatomy, well, that means it's possible.


Now, there was a lot of crazy talk about gender in your book, and actually I appreciate that. Even though I personally found a lot of the extreme feminist stuff you cited and discussed to be pretty bizarre, I like the completeness of all points of view. However, there was one opinion of your very own that is just plain wrong.


You suggest that maybe more men play MMOs than women because men are kept more rigidly in place by societal gender roles and taboos, and finally have a free and safe space where they can spend hours designing their face, spend lots of fake money on clothing, say and do and act how they want, etc. Well, shame on you, sir. You of all people should know that the real reason is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Earlier in the book you describe and even bemoan the start of MMOs, and the “no girls allowed” boys' treehouse mentality. Well, little boys' clubs become old boys' clubs, and MUD1 has become World of Warcraft, and as you can see things stay basically the same. I don't really care which gender is pigeonholed more overall in real life, all discrimination sucks, but that has nothing to do with the gender disparity in MMOs. No, they started stereotyped as something men did that women don't do, so women are going to look at them and think “part of me feels like those weren't designed for me.”


Thank you,

Amy




Now, here's are some slightly less knee-jerk things I've been thinking about since then, about what I think is the worst kind of sexism in the world of MMOs.


Even in online gaming communities where women may know they have a strong presence, plenty of men (I'm looking at you, Dick Bartle) still feel “this isn't something women do.” Now, there are a lot of different sentiments that come after that sentence, but pretty often it's “But it would be awesome if they did!”


For example, 6 months after I got legally married, my husband and I finally had the money, time, and organization to follow it up with one hell of a reception. We decided the browser based MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing provided a perfect theme, since a huge part of the game is making tasty food and alcoholic drinks. Not to mention most of our friends (and his mother) also play or have played. We posted pictures of our shindig to the official forums afterwards and got lots of comments from male players saying things along the lines of “Wow, you're so lucky to find a woman who will tolerate that kind of idea.” It was female players (either smart enough to look at my husband and my player ID numbers and realize I had been playing a lot longer than him, or just pretty savvy to this sort of thing in general) who replied with comments like “She is a player in her own right” or “notice who has been playing the game way longer.”


So I understand first hand that being seen as a novelty, or a tourist, or anything but an ordinary player is alienating and discourages in-game socializing, and that is the most common type of sexism in MMORPGs these days.


I disagree with lots of feminist criticisms of games. I mean, it'd maybe be nicer to see some smaller breasts or some lady characters over the apparent age of 18, but really, who the hell cares? It takes a lot of crap to make me actually believe designers had any kind of big grudge against women or actively wanted to demean them and make a whole generation of dudes look at women as nothing but sex objects (though Guitar Hero 3 did convince me), and I have yet to play an MMO that I felt that way about. The problem is with the players. And it isn't the kinds of problems people (again, including Bartle in most of his writings on sexism) like to bitch about, male players actually harassing female players. Seriously, I haven't had a dude use creepy internet pick up lines since I played Diablo on battlenet when I was in high school, and haven't had dudes shower me with in game gifts just because I had a female avatar since I played Meridian 59 (haha, they were hitting on, like, a 12 year old. Freaks!) But I still regularly get other players, even real life friends of mine, refusing to take me seriously as a player of various games.


Anything else I could shrug off as the reactions of a bunch of immature losers who have never been with a woman, but really, what I talked about above is the breed of video game sexism that actually gets under my skin and makes me feel like an outsider

9 comments:

Richard said...

Dear Amelia,

>Not because most people with your name shorten it to Dick

Actually, most of them don't shorten it to Dick, at least not in my neck of the woods. I'm sure that part of the reason is because if they did, people might make hilarious jokes relating to the fact that the same syllable is used to refer to part of the male anatomy.

>it's obvious because of how much you enjoy speculating on how gender issues affect MMO gameplay

Firstly, I didn't enjoy it. That section of the book was a pain to write, because I knew that whatever I said I'd eventually be criticised for it. I'm actually surprised it's taken so long for someone to take a pot shot at me over it.

Secondly, if enjoying speculating on how gender issues affect MMO gameplay is evidence of my being male, how to you square that with the fact that many (perhaps most) of the people who seem to enjoy speculating on gender issues (and judging by your post, that would include you) are female?

>For me, as a woman, there's really no debate about whether or not a female player could be alienated by a given game design.

Neither is there debate about whether a man could be. Furthermore, what can be said of gender can also be said of other components of identity, such as race and sexuality. I'm not attempting to excuse any of this, I'm just pointing out that it's a wider and more problematical issue than just the particular alienation that you feel.

>You suggest that maybe more men play MMOs than women because men are kept more rigidly in place by societal gender roles and taboos

Well, what I actually said (on page 163) was "It has been argued that one of the reasons more men play virtual worlds than women could be because in modern society men have less opportunity to experiment with their identities in real life". I didn't say that I personally was arguing that, although I can appreciate how it may well apply in some cases.

>Well, shame on you, sir.

So ... you're saying I should feel ashamed for having mentioned this point of view (which I have encountered, a number of times, albeit not in formal academic papers that I can reference)? Why should I? It's a valid hypothesis, and it's not as if I was espousing it myself (although, as I just said, I do have some sympathy with it in some instances).

>You of all people should know that the real reason is pretty much the exact opposite of that.

I'm not sure what you're getting at here. Are you suggesting that more men play than women because men have fewer contraints on their identity in real life? Why would that be a reason for them to play more?

>they started stereotyped as something men did that women don't do

No, they most certainly did not start stereotyped that way, and I strongly rebut your assertion. They started as places where people could be themselves. In all the documentation for MUD1, Roy Trubshaw referred to the generic player as "she"; he knew most of our early players would be male, and this was a counter-balance to ensure we didn't just design for men. We were attempting to be as inclusive as humanly possible within the constraints of our language and culture. You're accusing us of having made toys for boys, which simply wasn't true: we were making a world for people. Hard though it may be to believe, sometimes men do look beyond their gender toward a wider ideal.

>so women are going to look at them and think “part of me feels like those weren't designed for me.”

They could well be right. Ideally, a designer creates a virtual world that their target audience will enjoy playing; all too often, though, virtual worlds are designed by people who want to enjoy playing their own creations. They're designing for themselves, rather than for others. If such not-quite designers are men (and they almost invariably are), then they will indeed tend to evolve their virtual worlds in male-appealing ways. Thus, we get female-unfriendly paradigms.

It's unfair to accuse us of having done that with MUD1, though. We did know better.

>Thank you,
You're welcome.

Richard

Amelia said...

Wow. A reply. That's pretty crazy and I was not expected that. Anyway, I stated pre- and post- letter that those were my immediate ranty reactions, and should be read as such.

>how to you square that with the fact that many (perhaps most) of the people who seem to enjoy speculating on gender issues (and judging by your post, that would include you) are female?

Well, because I'm not wildly speculating. I'm posting one big emotional angry mess, but after that I'm all I'm saying is there exists a kind of MMO related discrimination that hurts me the most and gets discussed often amongst me and my female friends, but never gets the press or spotlight seen with more sexy, hot button issues like avatar cup size.

>So ... you're saying I should feel ashamed for having mentioned this point of view (which I have encountered, a number of times, albeit not in formal academic papers that I can reference)?

That's why it stuck out. Maybe there are others I missed, but this was one of the few "out there" statements you made without any kind of citation or even a good personal anecdote to back it up. Hell, if you really want I could give you personal anecdotes and stories about such a thing.

As for the rest of what you said, I think you misunderstand what I'm saying. I don't think you make toys for boys (as I said, the only game I've ever played in my entire life that I feel was designed to exclude women was guitar Hero III). The problem is not in the design, it's in the players. And it quite often isn't even in something the players consciously do. It's just the same and the slight awkwardness of walking into a room where you're different from everyone else. It can be scary.

The issue isn't whether or not games ARE designed "for me" it's whether or not I feel like they are. If I know nothing about a game other than 99% of its players are male, I'm going to wonder if there's something in there that discourages women from playing.

There's nothing a good designer (or any other decent person) can do to reverse this problem but treat all new players and people interested in their product with equal respect and a sincere interest in their reactions to said product. Sorry, that was awkward, but I'm not really sure how to say it. It may seem like common sense, but clearly not common enough that everyone does it. Sadly, the need for this kind of basic decency too often gets overlooked when feminist blogs and newspapers and video game reviews and even books like yours refuse to mention how women are being just plain ignored or put on pedestals when there are exciting, controversial issues that can really stir up a good debate (or flamewar), like the need for women only safe spaces, or avatars with measurements that would kill a real woman, or wondering why there are plenty older male protagonists and no older female.

Amelia said...

Also, haha, I guess this makes the actual, more well thought out letter I had started writing you obsolete, huh? :P

Richard said...

>Wow. A reply. That's pretty crazy and I was not expected that.

Well, that's Google blog search for you..!

>because I'm not wildly speculating.

Neither was I. I've played female characters (probably for a longer cumulative time than you have), and I know exactly what the score is. I don't need to speculate about how gender issues affect gameplay, because I've been there.

>all I'm saying is there exists a kind of MMO related discrimination that hurts me the most and gets discussed often amongst me and my female friends, but never gets the press

I'm sure there is, but that isn't actually all you were saying, is it? You headed your post "Thoughts of Richard Bartle / The Real Sexism in MMOs". That looks awfully like you're suggesting that I'm somehow to blame for this sexism. You even indulged in some revenge sexism of your own with the "dick" remark.

If, as you say, all you were doing was complaining about the form of discrimination that affects you the most, that would be fair enough. That's not all you did, though: you laid it at my door. I'm a bit bothered about it, to be honest, and would kinda like to know what led you to form this opinion.

>That's why it stuck out. Maybe there are others I missed, but this was one of the few "out there" statements you made without any kind of citation or even a good personal anecdote to back it up.

So in a book of over 700 pages, one line on one page condemns me, simply because I didn't name any of the people who had brought the idea up in conversation with me? Wonderful.

The thing is, I have indeed heard this sentiment expressed several times - plenty enough to warrant a mention. I may even have read it in a paper or two, but if so I don't recall which ones - I've read an awful lot of material over the years. What this particular hypothesis comes down to is that men have a greater need to go on a hero's journey because women are often heroes already in real life (by Joseph Campbell's definition - and I'm paraphrasing his own views here, by the way, as explained in the book "The Heroine's Journey").

Personally, I don't buy it, at least not as the general case, but it might throw some light on why some men are drawn to virtual worlds. After all, in our current real-life culture, there probably is less opportunity for men to indulge in socially-acceptable identity play than is available to women. It was certainly worth my mentioning it, anyway.

Of course, if by mentioning it I find I have the view ascribed to me and then get hit over the head with it, the worthiness of my mentioning it diminishes somewhat...

>The problem is not in the design, it's in the players.

Design can influence players, of course, so it could still be design.

As it happens, I also don't think it is design that's at fault here. Designers - even ones who are designing for themselves - are generally steeped in virtual world culture, and as a result have a far more liberal and inclusive view than your average newbie still carrying the baggage of real life. Designers, through their designs, are pulling players in the direction of live-and-let-live; players themselves are pulling the opposite way, towards the cultural norms that they know from the real world. Designers do their best, but there are always more newbies...

In my more idealistic moments, I like to think that the freedoms and attitudes that designers promote through their designs inculcate norms in the virtual society that players can carry back with them to the real world. Notions such as the freedom to be and become yourself, the right you have to be you - these are what I see as being at the heart of what virtual worlds are about.

Indeed, the frustration you're feeling is in part due to your not being able to be yourself, because of the comments and attitudes of others. Whether these people are simply ignorant, or insecure, or seeking peer approval, or just misinterpreting the situation, the way they treat you pulls you toward their view of who you are, away from your own view of who you are. They're trying to define you, when you should be defining yourself. It is annoying, and it is the stuff of rage.

It's not my doing, though.

>If I know nothing about a game other than 99% of its players are male, I'm going to wonder if there's something in there that discourages women from playing.

The fact that it's 99% male could well be enough on its own.

>treat all new players and people interested in their product with equal respect and a sincere interest in their reactions to said product.

A wise developer would do this anyway, but it's not something that scales well. You can do it in a text MUD, but if you have 10,000 newbies banging on your door every day it's hard to treat any of them as individuals no matter how much you might want to.

>when feminist blogs and newspapers and video game reviews and even books like yours refuse to mention how women are being just plain ignored

OK, well I can't speak for feminist blogs, newspapers or game reviews, but I can speak for me. Here's the thing: it's not that women are being ignored, it's that they're being abstracted out. My own virtual worlds are not designed for women, but they're not designed for men, either: they're designed for people. As a designer, I think in terms of people, not in terms of demographics. How could I think in terms of men and women without stereotyping either? I don't want to privilege gender, I want to privilege humanity.

My player types model is gender-neutral. I want to know why people play, because then I can give them what they want (and what they'll want next). It doesn't matter to me whether socialisers, achievers, explorers or killers are male, female or something in between: chromosomes don't enter into it.

Look, I know you're not happy with the prevailing culture in virtual worlds. I'm not happy either. I see them slipping ever-more towards real-life culture, with all the restrictions and prejudices that go with it. However, I think you're being terribly unfair to hold me up as some kind of beacon of sexism, rant or no rant. I'm not perfect, but I don't believe I've done enough to merit that.

Richard

Amelia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amelia said...

I'm sorry you took offense and I'm probably even sorry that I said some of the things I did, but I want to record without censorship or polish the way some chapters of your book made me feel. Like you said in the introduction to your book, you just wanted to make people think. Well, given that and the fact that I set this blog up as a venue to organize my own thoughts for myself more than anything else, I think it's as important to write down my initial crazy emotional response to things as it is to include the more introspective and reasonable viewpoints.

I'm not laying it all at your door. I'm saying all people who have been guilty of ignoring this sort of problem (and I don't believe this angle was adequately covered in Designing Virtual Worlds) are equally guilty. I don't think you ever once stated that maybe the reason for gender disparity in some games today is just because women's presence in the world of computers was pretty much nonexistant when everything started, and even the emerging hobby games genre was a niche mostly full of men, and now we're just in the process of very slowly trying to change that. You (and you're not alone in doing this) are so busy suggesting women MIGHT not like violence, or women MIGHT not need games, or women might not like to play with men that I really feel you forgot to suggest that all of those things also might NOT be true. If the answer is because it seems too obvious, then why don't more people consider it?

Anyway, like I said, equally guilty. You made me personally as disappointed as the man who asked my husband “How did you talk your wife into putting up with such a geeky party?” Hell, you probably made me as angry as I made you just now. But you have a wider audience, greater experience, and were aiming to write a comprehensive guide. That's why you were the focal point of my complaint.

I'm not sure what you're upset about. Okay, that's a lie, some of the things I said were dumb. But, really, if you poorly write and argue one section in a 700 page book, then yes I can condemn you for poorly writing that one section. The book could have been 3 times as long as the same things, good and bad, would have stuck out in my head, and caused the same reactions.

Richard said...

>I'm sorry you took offense

I didn't take offence, I just wanted to know what I'd done to become sexism's MMO figurehead. I was bothered by it, but not offended.

>I want to record without censorship or polish the way some chapters of your book made me feel.

Well, some individual lines in those chapters...

>I think it's as important to write down my initial crazy emotional response to things as it is to include the more introspective and reasonable viewpoints.

Hey, whatever works best for you.

This is the Internet, though, and if you do want to write down your thoughts you can expect them to be seen. When you express them as a letter to an individual, you can expect them to be replied to, too.

>I'm not laying it all at your door.

So why call it "Thoughts of Richard Bartle / The Real Sexism in MMOs"?

>I'm saying all people who have been guilty of ignoring this sort of problem (and I don't believe this angle was adequately covered in Designing Virtual Worlds)

It wasn't. Others weren't, either - discrimination on racial, religious and sexuality grounds aren't covered enough either. Being a male, white, atheist heterosexual, I don't get to speak about the problems of being non-male or non-white or non-atheist or non-heterosexual. The best I can do is present the views of those who are qualified to write about such matters in as unpatronising a way as possible.

>I don't think you ever once stated that maybe the reason for gender disparity in some games today is just because women's presence in the world of computers was pretty much nonexistant when everything started

On page 533, I did state: "Women came to virtual worlds later than men, therefore the cultures they had to join were already in place when they arrived, and thus the likelihood of changing this situation is not going to increase by much even if more women do participate in these virtual worlds – at least, not unless everyone makes a conscious effort". I'm sorry if that wasn't enough for you.

>You (and you're not alone in doing this) are so busy suggesting women MIGHT not like violence, or women MIGHT not need games, or women might not like to play with men

So ... where exactly in my book do I say any of those things?

to save you the bother of looking, I've just run a search over the whole of the text for the word "women". There are no examples of any speculation of this kind.

I don't know, perhaps you're so used to reading this kind of thing in MMORPG-related books, papers and articles that you've come to expect it to be present everywhere? I can see how that would happen. In this case, though, you're mistaken - I don't say those things. Why would I, given (as I've said) that I view players as people, not as male or female? The only times I indulge in the speculation you describe are when people explicitly ask me to indulge in it.

>You made me personally as disappointed as the man who asked my husband “How did you talk your wife into putting up with such a geeky party?” Hell, you probably made me as angry as I made you just now.

See, this is what I want to understand here. What did I say to make you disappointed in and angry with me? With the "more men play MMOs because they don't get to indulge in identity play in real life" thing, you're shooting the messenger. With the "speculating why women play/don't play" thing, you're making me guilty by association (ie. other researchers think that way, so I must too). In neither case am I guilty of having done what you seem to be complaining about, but I still seem to be taking the rap for something. That being the case, what is that something?

I'm not angry, by the way. In the past, I've had to deal with truly vile verbal assaults from people who it later transpired were clinically insane; if I can survive death threats without getting angry, the effect of an unwarranted "dick" reference is hardly going to raise my ire.

>But you have a wider audience, greater experience, and were aiming to write a comprehensive guide. That's why you were the focal point of my complaint.

So if I hadn't tried to be as comprehensive, and had omitted to mention the hypothesis that you disagree with, that would have solved that (although then I would have been walloped by those who did agree with it, who would want to know why I didn't mention it when there was an obvious opportunity to do so). Never mind that it isn't (and wasn't stated as) my opinion; the mere mention of it gives you the right to beat on me for it?

I don't know what I could have done to avoid your second accusation, though, namely that I included a swathe of unsubstantiated speculations as to why fewer women play MMORPGs than men. If not having done what I'm accused of having done is no defence, I'm just going to have to take your hatred on the chin.

>if you poorly write and argue one section in a 700 page book, then yes I can condemn you for poorly writing that one section.

Do I get to condemn you for poorly reading it? If instead of "it has been argued that one of the reasons more men play virtual worlds than women could be" I'd written "the reason more men play virtual worlds than women is" then yes, you'd have every right to take me to task over it. I didn't write that, though - that's just how you seem to have read it.

If you really feel that I'm some kind of sexist monster, unwittingly perpetuating MMORPGs' unegalitarian society through stating my outmoded views in a book hardly anyone has read, OK, well, you're entitled to your opinion. I just think you have the wrong person in the dock, that's all.

Richard

Amelia said...

Well, I've changed the title to more accurately reflect what I meant by it, though it looks so long and ungainly now :P

Also, maybe this sounds dumb after the insults, but I am very glad you replied since it gave me more things to think about. So seriously, thank you very much.

Richard said...

>Well, I've changed the title to more accurately reflect what I meant by it, though it looks so long and ungainly now :P

You didn't have to do that, of course, but hey, thanks anyway!

>Also, maybe this sounds dumb after the insults, but I am very glad you replied since it gave me more things to think about.

That wasn't my reason for replying (I really did just want to know what it was I'd done wrong), but if it's a side-effect, great! The more people think about MMOs, the more they'll understand about them, and the better they'll be as a result.

I don't mind if you disagree with me (I don't always agree with myself!); my main concern was in trying to find out what it was you'd disagreed with to such a passionate extent. The insults were survivable; they just showed how important the issue was to you.

>So seriously, thank you very much.

You're welcome.

Next time you want to complain about my ramblings, feel free to email me directly.

Richard