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Dear Mitu, Dear Emily

“We are young women involved in games industry and culture and despite many encounters, mutual friends, common interests and shared respect for one another, we have never had the opportunity to get to know one another or talk in any depth about our love for videogame form. We have been meaning to have a meaningful dialogue and so have started a correspondence to talk, as women, about women’s issues, and about ourselves, our perspectives, observations and experiences in play and the wider games community.”

This is an exchange between Mitu Khandaker & Emily Flynn-Jones; initiated by Emily, this letter series explores our ‘origin stories’, as well as our feelings about feminism and about our identities as women in games development and/or academia. It is, at times, deeply personal, but has been important to our respective journeys as feminists. This forms a part of our contribution to the Feminists in Games workshop in Toronto, Canada.

Alternatively, you can view/download this exchange as a PDF too.

[expand title=”Letter 1: Dear Mitu (14 March 2012)”]

Dear Mitu,

So, we are doing this. I’m excited to see what happens.

To begin, a paraphrasing of the Leigh Alexander TIFF NEXUS (approx 10:45 on) keynote excerpt to frame this *thing*. She said she had some conflicting feelings assumptions on the part of others that she would connect or have something in common with other women who were in media, like those two things define them and make them compatible, but that at the same time feeling that we  do share something, things that are not gender and admitting that it is difficult to accept that gender is a legitimate part of what we share.

I thought this was a good point, one that could be easily overlooked in bigger picture discussion, and made me think of you immediately. I remember the first time we met and you commented that a mutual friend had always assumed that we knew one another, because we were girls in/into games. I was probably a little dismissive of that but there is something weird about that assumption, no? Problem is I can’t decide in which way this is weird. Is this my problem or someone else’s?!

US. Our relationship is friendly, respectful and casual. We are really connected by a network of mutual friends (100% male?), mutual interests and the same occupation (that blasted PhD). We end up in the same room often enough and we always check if one another will be there but have still never really hung out or had personal conversations. I can think of 100 hundred reasons why we should connect and not one why we wouldn’t. I like you, you are an interesting and admirable lady and yet we find ourselves separated even when we are together. Yeah, OK that can reasonably happen, we are busy, we go to these things for our jobs, but even in social time we have missed, not dismissed each other. Yeah, there are practical reasons for this, we are busy, we meet places that we go for work and bring legitimate agendas. Totally understandable but I get a nagging feeling that maybe there is something else.

I guess that kinda frames my interest in doing this. There is somehow something uncomfortable with pursuing a connection with someone based on their gender, maybe that is doubly gross when its for the purpose of discussing gender issues. I don’t wanna feel that way and I didn’t until recently notice or real care about being a girl in the games world, but gradually things are seeping through and sinking in. There are numerous things that could be contributors to my change in heart/mind but I feel like I am wanting to engage with these issues when I never even felt like they were MY issues before. I don’t even really know how to enter into this discussion, I feel like an amateur at my own sex and I definitely lack the critical background that I would usually think standard for opinion having in an academic context. BUT, we have the sum of our experiences and I think that is a place to start. That is not abstract or theoretical. That is real and tangible so I hope we can share stories like its not a selfish thing to do and see what the hell is going on.

So I guess I want to start by offering a summary of reasons that I find myself conflict and want to engage with gender issues in games, or HOW I SUDDENLY REALISED I AM A GIRL.

Basically, I’ve been in HE doing games stuff for nearly five years now in different capacities, as aPhD student, a teacher and more recently a researcher, writer and producer at times. The demographic has largely been the same, whether I’m at work or an industry conference, it’s male dominated. I have always been comfortable with that. I was treated equally at my old work, was respected by seniors (mainly guys) and welcomed by strangers at social events. I felt like I was doing this based on merits other than my gender, I still believe that for the most. I’m smart and passionate and that seemed like the ticket. I felt totally safe in the boys club and the “no girls allowed” sign has never applied to me. I have liked this, not as attention seeking (a gross female gender stereotype) but as a sense of belonging maybe there were the underlying wins that I, a girl, infiltrated the gang or some secret pleasure in being one of the few girls.

But lately I don’t feel as securely ‘in the club’ for various reasons. At work I am being directed towards more stereotypically female duties sometimes relegated to event organising despite my title and job description and encouraged to leverage my femininity as a promotional ploy. I was very blunt in my responses but the attitude was persistent. I couldn’t get that my gender was being pointed at and not my nerdery, yes I would rather have identified as a nerd. I have to admit to some overreacting here. What I was in fact being asked to do was repeat a job I had been successful at once and being told that I was a girl in games, and that was ‘rarer’ and that I had an opportunity there. What I thought was coming from a negative place was actually the kick up the ass I needed to come to terms with the fact that I am, like, a girl and that that is, like, ok.

Meanwhile, and maybe because I was becoming more accustom to the idea of ‘girl’, I noticed some other things in my networking circle and activity. Things that made me query the reason i was allowed to play in the first place and I was suddenly aware that my actions and opinions were being interpreted, that I was maybe on the edge of falling into a perceived stereotype and losing favour if I did something ‘female’. Even if I wasn’t doing anything female sometimes my sexuality was an issue, heterosexual female. I wasn’t as comfortable in the same company anymore even though it was the minority making me feel like ‘a girl’ and like that was not ok. Maybe this is jibbing that comes with familiarity, maybe as I am more experienced in this field the seriousness that I want to convey is at a higher risk of not being taken seriously…

Regardless I found myself self self-censoring sometimes even though I was not withholding a gendered opinion/behaviour and I don’t want to do that.

At the end I wonder if this sounds trivial and concerned that I’m not really able to articulate what I have encountered or felt. But hell, this is a warm up. Maybe something resonates? And in closing I guess I ask what spurs you to be interested in being a woman in games these days?

Emily

[/expand]

[expand title=”Letter 2: Dear Emily (19 March 2012)”]

Dear Emily,

Firstly, I’m glad you wrote to me, and I’m very glad that we’re doing this. I took a good few days to respond, and I’ve been worried that you’d take that as some sort of dismissal. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s taken me a while to reply precisely because this feels so difficult. It’s complicated stuff, and I have a lot to say. If you’d told me, a few years ago, that I’d be able or willing to talk about this stuff at length, I wouldn’t have believed you. My guess is that it feels the same way for you. But, here we are. My hope is, though, that we’ll be able to unpack some of that complication over the course of our correspondence.

The other reason it’s been so difficult is because really, this stuff matters to me.

The curious thing is, until a few years ago, it didn’t matter. It seems it was the same for you too. But my experiences as a woman in games, first as an academic (yes, that blasted PhD!) and now as a developer, have shaped my feelings significantly. I suppose growing and maturing helped, too.

So yes, I love that we should start by discussing our respective journeys of “HOW I REALISED I AM A GIRL”, as you put it. Perhaps it’s telling that neither of us started off thinking that way, yet our experiences have led us both here, somehow.

You bring up a very good point – I very much admire and respect you too, but why haven’t we spoken much, despite often being in the same places at the same time? I vaguely remember that conversation from when we first met, too. Back then, though it was only a few years ago, I felt so much more young and naive. I was still the sort of person who, when thinking about gender disparities in games and the industry, thought there would eventually be some magical equilibrium, without anyone having to think or worry about it too much. Oh, how much I’ve learned since then!

First off, I’d like to highlight some nuance (which, I hope, is how the rest of this discussion will go, as these are nuanced issues): I think there’s some truth to the notion that women in games should not necessarily be obligated to be friends just because they’re women. To think otherwise is to sort of ignore the whole of third-wave feminism, which was a reaction to the previous feminist assumption that all women had a sort of universal experience – being, the experience of upper-middle class white women. We know that isn’t true, of course, because being a woman means so many different things; as Mare Sheppard of Metanet Software said at GDC 2012, “woman is not a culture.” So many different things contribute to who we are as women – to recognise this is to recognise the concept of intersectionality – that is, the way that different parts of our identity – be it class, race, or gender – interact, and shape who we are.

I bring this up for a reason, because I think it sort of informed how I thought about sexism for a very long time. That is, I was lucky enough, while growing up, not to think of it at all. I did, however, think about race, rather a lot. Growing up in a mid-sized english city in the 90s and beyond, I experienced a lot of direct, ugly racist comments. But, perhaps more importantly, there was also, a far more subtle, more uncomfortable, unspoken feeling of always being different. This – race – was my ‘otherness’ while growing up, and being a girl was not. For this reason, I grew up being fairly blind to gender issues.

The other part of my identity that intersects is that I was fortunate enough attend a small private, all-girls school. Whilst no-one else there particularly shared my love of playing video games, this was because it was a ‘cool vs nerd’ thing, rather than a gender issue. (Of course, I realise now that it was partly a gender issue, because the same wouldn’t have been as true for a sample of teenage boys, but it was not obvious to me at the time.) After all, I would go home and play video games with my sisters (I am the eldest of three girls), and dream of one day making these things. At school, I was simply the weird nerd who ‘knows about computers’. That was my identity, and, being such, I didn’t think of sexism at all during this time, because there was no obvious reason to; this is the privilege that comes from being sheltered. I hadn’t realised my blindness, and the reasons for it, until my youngest sister – attending my same school ten years later – told me about how her friends think that Beyonce’s pop-feminist empowered narrative is trite, tiresome, and unnecessary; they thought that women have total equality now, ‘so why go on and on about it?’ It’s jarring how so many women and girls think we live in a post-sexism world. But, they are wrong. I was wrong.

This wrongness was largely responsible for, in my teens and early twenties, my casual shunning of initiatives for girls in technology and such. For example, a few years ago, when Computer Engineering Barbie came on the scene, I felt offended; I hadn’t needed CE Barbie to get my Masters in Computer Engineering, and had not once felt disadvantaged in terms of gender (as I said, race/culture was another issue) as I went from my all-girls education to a mostly-male work environment at IBM, and then onto an all-male university course in Computer Engineering. I simply couldn’t empathize with women who felt threatened by an all-male environment.

I’ve been thinking about what you said about “being part of the club”, and how I too, after starting my PhD, and my early days of attending games networking events and such, I felt welcomed by strangers. Like you, I’d never thought much of it either, attributing it to being passionate about what I do, and, what was, back then, my natural lack of hesitation in speaking to new people. I’d been used to being in male-dominated environments – in tech and ‘pure’ software, rather than games, admittedly, so that didn’t feel like a barrier to me. However, crucially, at no point did I ever feel any desire or achievement in being ‘the only woman’ at such events, but then again, and I was not inclined to think of gender much at all, really.

However, things began to change, with age, and with maturity, and with being open to listening – really listening – to other women’s experiences of discrimination. And then this was also unfortunately cemented by having difficult experiences of my own. It took me a long time to realise that there were people, men and women alike, for whom my gender was actually an issue.  It is important to remember that gender-inclusion issues in the industry can only be solved through collaboration, and work, from both genders.

The thing is, it takes living in the real world to find this stuff out for oneself; once I started getting to know people in the wider industry, beyond my own academic institution – and, of course, getting involved with the games industry through wonders of the internet, I began living in the real world at last.

Of course there are the usual instances of casual dismissal: when I am in a group of people who do not know each other, and they introduce themselves to each other, sometimes, men are often reluctant to shake my hand or ask what I do, assuming I could not possibly be a developer. Then, there have been more open incidences, such as one quite recent incident, in which I was outright accused, by a male associate, of being “a fraud”, and of “not really being a developer”, even after I had explained that I had been working full-time in development for six months by then, with a publishing deal in hand. That incident was particularly painful, and difficult, and made me double guess myself a lot, even though I knew it was massively irrational to do so, given the facts.

I’d also discovered that, far more insidious than women who feel a mild sense of disdain at expecting to automatically befriend other women in the industry, is the small undercurrent of women who are threatened, suspicious, and even hostile, by the presence of other women. This sounds awfully cynical, and I feel bad for reinforcing what is also a horrendous stereotype, but no matter how many amazing, inspiring women I meet, it saddens me deeply to know that this is a thing that can exist. Of course, it we must note that it exists because it is an awful stereotype; it is expected, patriarchal behaviour, which is reinforced by the media, more recently through countless reality television shows. My own experience encountering this began with, (but sadly, has been not limited to), an early experience in which I was pulled aside at an industry party to be asked by a much older woman, in a very unfriendly way, what I was doing there. I found these isolated, rare instances jarring, because I realised I’d actually expected there to be solidarity, so in cases where I found none, I felt lost.

So, basically, there’s been this weird confluence of many factors contributing to my being aware, and interested in, gender issues. Not only were some of my own uncomfortable, gendered experiences a factor, but also, I’d started thinking about womens issues in a global context; I’d started a womens charity in Bangladesh, which also made me start realising that maybe my own life wasn’t as post-sexism as I’d thought.

It took me time to realise that the bubble in which I lived was actually part of a larger picture. Any time I’d previously been casually dismissed, or someone had said something disparaging about me, even when gender was brought into it, I had put it down to some personal failing. I am inclined to do that (another gendered response, I’ve since learned). I also suffer from massive Imposter Syndrome (very common amongst women, and amongst graduate students – an unfortunate positioning in the Venn Diagram for us, then!), so this simply reinforced the latter.

Despite knowing all of this – knowing, and realising, the way in which the industry’s problems with gender – even as a subset of a larger societal social issue – have led to all of these things, I’ve still ended up in a place where, like you, I do self-censor in some regards. It’s automatic, almost. While I have no trouble talking about feminism and gender issues, I’ve developed a sort of paranoia about how it looks if I make new friends, or share a picture of myself online, etc. (As a result, I recently changed my Twitter avatar to no longer be a picture of myself – even though it makes no difference if a man has an avatar of himself, I began feeling tired of people assuming things about me.) I’m simply a lot more hesitant about trusting people, I guess, which perhaps isn’t necessarily a healthy outcome.

I’m sort of at a weird place now, where I am simultaneously both proud of my femininity, and aware that I have to push through these barriers – but also, a tiny part of me sometimes secretly wishing that I were not a woman at all. Then, perhaps, I would not have to double guess so many of my actions. That probably sounds awful to say. But, like I said above, it’s complicated. All of this is.

Actually, a quick aside on that front. I’ve noticed, Emily, that throughout your letter, you referred to yourself repeatedly as ‘a girl’. I’m interested in why you use ‘girl’ instead of ‘woman’; especially as I used to do this myself. It wasn’t until a year or so ago, that I stopped being so uncomfortable with ‘woman’. I used to think it was a personal thing; that I didn’t feel ‘very grown up’, and so, in a sort of semi-self-disparaging way, I was ‘just a girl’. The thing is, the more I’ve grown aware of gender issues, the more I realise how the world systematically infantalises women. It was only upon realising this, it clicked that iit wasn’t just about me any more. I am a woman, and, complicated feelings aside, I am proud of being a woman. You too are a woman, and should not be afraid to call yourself one, even if it feels weird at first.

I realise I covered a lot of ground here (sorry for the rambling!), and I hope some of this made sense. I have several questions for you as a result. Firstly, I’ve shared my ‘origin’ story here, as it were. I’m very keen to hear more of yours, too. What do you think were the reasons, growing up, that you have never felt like being female has been much of an issue for you?

Also, something else I’m keen to know, related to this: given my own progress into “HOW I SUDDENLY REALISED I AM A GIRL”, I became a lot more interested in reading feminist blogs and literature, and educating myself on the wealth of work and thinking done by so many amazing people on the subject so far. As I’ve described previously, feminism was, to me, a weird, unnecessary concept while I was growing up; but I’m very glad I grew to see sense, and can now declare myself a proud feminist. What are your feelings on this? Is feminism, as a concept, something you’ve felt engaged with, and why, or why not?

You specifically asked me what spurs to be interested in being a woman working in games, these days, and in closing, I will finally answer. At the core, it is my passion for the medium itself; that I think games are so important, culturally, as well as personally. I believe that if you love something, if you really care, then it is your responsibility to nurture it and to do what is best for it; even if some parts of that experience are personally difficult, even painful. I care about games, and as such, I want them to be diverse, and inclusive; loved by all. So, then, if not me, then who? That is what motivates me to keep going. Keep going.

Mitu

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[expand title=”Letter 3: Dear Mitu (22 March 2012)”]

Dear Mitu,

Wow. What a first response, it’ll be a hard act to follow. I’ve got to start with a confession re: my first letter. It was brief and little low on the level of discourse and timid, This is a little because I just needed to get it started as a master procrastinator and busy busy bee and a little because I suddenly realised that this required a huge amount of honesty on my part, something that I don’t generally dole out on a personal level with relative strangers. A lot of this exercise for me is about being honest, we’re not going to get anywhere with insensible censoring, and opening up requires some comfort on my part. There is always that potential for being judged, even though I didn’t expect to be by you, but as you say the minority negative encounters do have effect. I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t taking this seriously or that I happily defer to others, I’m just a little (a lot, notoriously) guarded when it comes to personal subjects so thank you for an amazing return that not only resonates on so many levels, but challenges some of my thinking whilst also managing to put me rather at ease.

You spoke of your origins and your narrative is perfectly unique. I really enjoyed learning where you came from, are coming from. I don’t think that this offers an easy incite to the complexities of you but you own it, that is clear. For me owning my history has definitely been a huge part of my connection with feminism or female issues.

Much like you I could not relate to feminist issues or sexism, when I came across feminist discourse in my 1st year undergrad I had nothing in my experience to compare that to and other things did resonate with me, things that I still pursue today, so I am comfortable with my early critical decisions to a point but looking back these interests often flirted with feminism without my awareness. I could connect with class issues but most of all I felt a really strong connection to difference, the Weird with a capital ‘W’. To make this story make sense I’m gonna have to backtrack with a wee me narrative, I promise relevance.

I was raised with two substantially older brothers until I was 8 when I came to live with my Dad in the UK and he raised me as a single parent for the most. I am the only female in my direct family. I got my first console of my very own when I was 10 and this was a really significant object that has been crucial to my relationship with my father. That sounds hyperbolic, I will explain. We had never really found a way to connect and I was massively resentful at being made to live with a stranger and depressed by the rather sad circumstances leading to that, my Mom’s passing. But, honestly when we played we could relate, even if only superficially. I’d say this is my strongest evidence to date of the magic of the magic circle.  As I got older gaming gave me and my Dad a way to communicate even for massively loaded arguments, that were not really about missing a collectable item, as I was becoming a teenager, something we had no idea what to do about. Anyway I escaped to uni and we became estranged for a few years and really only re-connected around graduation. To mark this my Dad brought me my first PS2. I was just chuffed at the time but I get it now. That was a really significant gesture he was looking for a way to communicate and relate to me. Games still mediate our relationship, which is much less fraught overall but we still play platform games (his favourite) and talk about games a lot, not just because it’s what I “do” but because its what we do. We can enjoy games and enjoy each other. This leaves me with some really powerful memories and opinions on the possibilities for games that completely drive my interests… returning to this!

I think it’s pretty heavily implied that I never had the conventional female role model or a safe, supportive space to develop as a female. I don’t ever remember being totally uncomfortable with my gender but I wasn’t particular effected/interested either and I never thought about my own story and situation, I thought it was indulgent and kind of a sob story. So, I never talked about it, to this day I don’t think I have discussed this history with some of my closest friends, they know or have an idea but no words have exchanged. I developed a very unhealthy detachment from my history which I definitely has had an impact on the way I constructed identity, because I never did so as ‘female’ and perhaps this is a factor in my casual use of the word ‘girl’. Instead I was totally comfortable in riotous and retrospectively lame rebellious acts of difference. The riot grrl thing was happening, which I didn’t equate with any wave of feminism that I could grasp at the time so I was really just riffing off an empty version of that, I’m going to leave dress and behavior to your imagination. Later at uni I was constantly reading and writing about horror, because this let me explore my interest in difference and alterity, or explore personal feelings without having to admit that’s what I was doing. I was reading the monstrous feminine, about abjection and final girls (it’s too late to change my twitter name) but still somehow logic-ed my way out of understanding the projections and politics of the representations that fascinated me. I’m not dumb, I just still could not find in my actual world a point of reference. Until I did.

I referred to a few instances in my previous letter but there are grander things, there is so little diversity in my classrooms, the teaching agenda leaves no spaces for gender issues (absence is so striking), we teach skill and don’t really foster creativity so there’s no space for express for a female student should they want it, there are an increasing number of women in games that hold my esteem (not that they didn’t before but I can see the gender now), the stories in the press re: inappropriate treatment of women in the workplace and as gamers online don’t seem to be one-offs anymore… There’s too much to for me to even contemplate neutrality anymore. I was missing many possible meanings and pretty much denying something of my own that could contribute to my readings.

Basically what I am trying to illustrate is that I didn’t identify as female and I think my ability to appreciate and increasingly adopt female perspectives has a lot to do with me coming to terms with my gender overall. As I my attitude about my own femininity has changed and I’ve been able to see that my gender is noticeable to others, that Imposter Syndrome is setting in, as though if my perspectives are changing it’s not as valid for me to be interested in the same things. I’ve got to fight that, because it’s just expanding my knowledge and experience and my ability to contribute but there’s that nagging anxiety anyway.

At this point I really only have a set of opinions, observations and some objections to offer but it is a start. Knowing that feminism doesn’t require a dogmatic adherence and that the third wave doesn’t have a particularly cogent agenda is kind of relieving in a way. It’s giving me my space to try things on and see what fits and how I wanna wear it (it seems I am rolling with this analogy). I guess what I am finding most appealing is that feminism is responding to culture and less politics, and as cultural objects games have a place in this discourse. I LOVE videogames. They have meant a great deal to me, I’ve connected with them and they’ve connected me with other people in so many meaningful ways. As texts and facilitators of play I think they are a powerful communication tool, and facilitate a variety of positive interactions for us human types. So, I guess I’m intrigued to consider more deeply where these themes intersect on a textual level, because I’ve never seriously applied such a reading, on a cultural level, on a personal level and implications for pedagogy. That is big stuff, but I don’t like that vastness of my uncarted territory.

God, I must be stopped. Sorry for rambles. The origins are out there and I’m going to battle the urge that I’ve always found to make that irrelevant which brings up my strongest objection to what I’ve found in feminism – essentialising. I’ve been in situations where I have been reprimanded or scoffed at questioning feminist logic, not aggressively but reasonably, validly. I’m accustom to dialogue in a HE setting and even sometimes stronger debate, but I felt peeved that I was expected to agree based on some essential sameness. Maybe if I had not offered them reason I could understand outright dismissal. That I am not okay with and understand it to come from an older form of feminism and politics (I didn’t really know how to phrase that), so there’s some mutual acceptance to be done here too.

Which brings me to a couple of questions for you about experiences with games but please feel free to write what you need. How do you feel about identification in games? Would you play the female character or make yourself a lady avatar? Have you ever had instances where you thought a game had challenging, positive or negative messages for a female player? Are you considering representations and context in the development of your game? These sound basic but I think there are a lot of issues here, most certainly because we neither never felt the female issues when we first came to play.

Gosh. Done. Be well and good luck reading/replying to my madness.

Emily

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[expand title=”Letter 4: Dear Emily (29 March 2012)”]

Dear Emily,

Wow, this was an incredible response. I’ve already sent you a brief note earlier in the week thanking you for writing this, but I want to reiterate that here, too. You mentioned that you have not discussed this story with even some of your closest friends, so I am honoured that you were as open and honest as you were here. I hope writing this was as personally enlightening for you as it was for someone reading about it.

You mentioned my own circumstances being unique, but your story blew me away and moved me more than I expected; I’ve been thinking of it lots, actually. It does such a disservice to us all to assume our own experiences are universal; and even worse, to outrightly assume things about others. This is why I am glad we are taking this; though united by some common goals, we are all such different people with such different stories which shape who we become, and why we think the way we do.

I am so fascinated by the way that we both, in our very different lives, coming late to feminism, still touched upon some (often subtle) varieties of feminist thought at various points, without ever really knowing or understanding it fully. I’m especially taken by your admission that you had logic-ed your way out of understanding the politics of the representations which fascinated you – of ‘final girls’ and such.  I do agree that essentialism gets in the way with helping us ‘get there’, and I agree with you that there is mutual acceptance required those who engage in ‘second-wave’ thinking.

I am going to try to be purposely briefer here, and address those very pertinent questions about how I feel about identification in games, and to tell you the truth, I realize that while growing up playing games, I had not thought too hard about it. Or often, I skirted with thinking about it on some level which I did not understand. Let me explain: I was as happy to play male characters in games as I was to play a blue hedgehog (and I did a lot of the latter) – I did not feel misrepresented. However, looking back, I realise that where a female character was available to play, I would invariably choose her. In those earliest days, I was Chun-Li, or Sonya Blade (much to my own detriment, perhaps, in the case of the latter.)

Indeed, my first brush with realizing that there may be something up with how women are portrayed in games was when it came to Tomb Raider. I know, it’s a trite example, but for me, this was genuinely an important discovery; I played the firstTomb Raider a few years late, after TR2 and TR3 were already out, and TR4 was just being released. At age 14, I absolutelyadored it, and was obsessed with it, and could not wait until I could get hold of TR2. I sought out everything I could find about it online. Of course, on doing this, what I came across was a wealth of stuff which made me realize that perhaps Tomb Raider wasn’t aimed at me at all. The way fans seemed to be discussing Lara was one thing, yet the discernible effort put into Lara’s increasing bust (and all the talk of breast physics, of course) was another. I remember I made a little Yahoo! Group for “female fans of Lara Croft”, explicitly for us “girls who wanted to grow up to be like her.” I think there ended up being 8 members in total during its short-lived run. (Remember, I was around 14, so this is embarrassing, though definitely my first foray into anything resembling feminist action – though, wearing my post-sexism hat at the time, I failed to see this as a wider issue.)

Perhaps more appropriately, much later, when I got into CRPGs and MMORPGs, I definitely went through a phase of trying to create characters which represented me; games in which I am explicitly trying to ‘inhabit’ the character, rather than view them as observer. (Character identification as a general thing is, of course, fairly complex!) I have this memory of the first time I played EverQuest, and I thought I was making a dark-haired, dark-skinned human lady character, and once I loaded in the game, I wondered why it was all so dark in the world. I eventually found the brightness settings, much to my embarassment, and realised they were somehow turned down. On adjusting them, I saw my character was actually blonde and fair-skinned. Oops. (Indeed, there were no other skin colour options for humans; I was disappointed.)

I realise I’m listing slightly into race again, but this underscores the general importance of diversity. Indeed, while I personally grew out of that phase where I was keen to make ‘myself’ in RPGs, I grew more aware of the importance of having that diversity there. After all, I am not everyone. It’s an important fight.

Which brings me to the game which I am currently developing; Redshirt is all about letting you experiment within an open social world, and, as such, is all about the player being free to choose who they are and how they want to play. I’d known from the beginning that I wanted to include a character creation process which would allow for as much diversity as possible, in terms of gender, race, and sexuality. That’s something I’m working on now, so perhaps later in the letter series, I can get back to you on how it’s going!

One relevant issue I’ve dealt with so far in the game’s development however, is what happened with the game’s logo: I’m lucky enough that though the game has a publisher but, moreover, it is another indie developer whose values about game development I share. It was up to me to suggest some concept ideas for the logo, and then the publisher would commission it via outsourced artists. The idea that the logo would feature one character was casually bandied about, and although it wasn’t explicitly stated, I knew that the default would be ‘white male’. However, I wanted to make sure we push for more diversity, and represent more types of people than this.  However, when it came down to it, I suddenly felt this weird, irrational sense of reticence in asking my publisher about it, even though I know he is the sort of smart, understanding person who gets these issues. I’m not sure why that is, other than feeling like making a fuss about these issues would draw undue attention to my own otherness. I guess even I, with my strong ideals on diversity, fall prey to that feeling, sometimes. But ultimately, it came down again, to the question I asked in my last letter: if I don’t push for these things, who will?

I was relieved when we discussed it, and it turned out that he saw my point, and we decided to proceed. The final design ended up featuring a white male character, but also a darker skinned female character. While it doesn’t even begin to encompass the breadth of diversity that it should (I’d also wanted to feature a more gender-ambiguous character), it’s a start, I suppose. I hope the game itself does a better job of that.

So we started off these series talking about our histories – and again, I want to underscore how important that is, even if it feels tempting to shrug it off as irrelevant – but, here we have arrived, quite rightly, at games themselves. You mentioned quite rightly that games, as cultural objects, absolutely have a place in feminist discourse. There is much to say and explore in this regard, but I’ll leave this email by returning the questions you posed to me: how have you regarded character identification in games, with respect to gender? Also, how did you respond to various ‘controversies’ over representation in games over the years? What are your current feelings?

Mitu

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[expand title=”Letter 5: Dear Mitu (1 April 2012)”]

Dear Mitu,

Thanks for your letter. I wanted to start by mirroring your opening sentiments. I too am very glad that we are doing this and think it’s been really interesting to learn where we are coming from as very different ladies and how our histories are really determinant in how we position ourselves and our thinking.

What I found most arresting about your last letter was how apologetic it seems that you feel when it comes to voicing race issues. That is horrifying. I can’t relate to the ugly experiences you said that you have had, but I deeply sympathise and am really proud (almost too patronising a word but I am proud, also inspired) of your conviction when it came to your own game.  You are absolutely right, there is too little diversity in the representations in games and an awareness of that when constructing your representations is the best attitude towards defeating the homogenous, trite and tired stuff we’ve been playing with for too long now. I also like your idea of taking it further with a gender-ambiguous character. I think this could be particularly effective in the context of your game where sci-fi and future themes completely allow you to explore ‘uncomfortable’ difference. I’m not saying that it is ‘comfortable’ that difference/diversity is so often relegated to the realms of fantasy but if this is where we can begin to shape these representations then hopefully there is a platform for diversity to become more acceptable and step out of the fantasy. That is probably optimistic but I think there is something in setting an example regardless. SO DO SET IT PLEASE.

I’ll try and be briefer this time too and stick to the points. When it comes to issues of identification I have long been rejectionist, I am still strongly of the opinion that the avatar is a ‘tool’ and I use it to access the game and perform actions. I too have to be honest, I realise that I am in a privileged position when it comes to critical responses to games. I have studied them a great deal and been exposed to a lot of great thinking that has informed my own opinions and while I don’t think every player identifies deeply, or that we ever really flirt with ‘becoming’ our avatars, but the skin we put our pixels and polygons in does make a difference. Representation is loaded for those who care to read it and so this should be a design, player and critical consideration.

One of the important things about postmodern feminism is that it situates knowledge, knowledge is of the body and imbued on the bodies that we look upon in visual media. However, this is not that liberated utopic virtual body that androids/cyborgs dreamt of, it’s predominantly male generated even if the image is female and the positions that we view them from are powerfully placed, objectifying them from third-person and ‘god’ modes, again privileged male positioning. In this respect the user is also constructed as a male thinker/looker given to objectivity and a preferred and powerful viewing position. Never was this more apparent to me than in the joke scene in the Suda51 game Michigan: Report From Hell, where you disturb a man in the shower and he accuses you of ‘homoerotic intentions’. (I have another Suda51/shopping in CEX anecdote for another time – oh lordy).

Of course this was not ever my reading when I was playing games when I was younger. I didn’t want to play the princess in Mario Kart because I found out that she sucked and her pinkness was not appealing to me, cuteness was appealing to me though, so I’d play the Toad over and over trying to get different results. Definitive madness. Like you, I’d like to think that I didn’t care what body I was playing with but that is not accurate, I’ve played a lot of women and I think it has been a more conscious choice that I would have liked to admit. In Soul Calibur, for example, (I played a lot of the last game) I was not at all interested in the ‘normal male’ characters. I don’t think I ever played them. I did play the girls and the beasts though and it seems to me that maybe they exist on the same level of otherness on the games character selection board.

In this case and in others, I think what I am responding to is the construction of female that is insidious when I think about it. I want to see how these women; scantily clad, exaggeratedly cute or overtly sexual, and otherwise represented as weak; can perform. In other cases, their gender is compromised; it’s stripped from Samus in Metroid (I don’t remember querying gender in this case when I was young, masculine was assumed), they purge emotion, a gross female attribute, to become strong and focused, become outcasts wondering alone to take their revenge.

I think something I am struggling with here is deciding where the power lies. I know often these enhanced females, mechanised, weaponised females are seen as sites of resistance, and for sure they signify empowerment but it seems to come at the cost of femininity. I mean I was a huge fan of Molly Millions and other cyberpunk bad-ass females because they were delightful combinations of sex and strength, and I understand that is about appropriating masculine properties but I wonder somewhat where this leaves us with the representations of ‘norms’ and that pesky ‘diversity’ thing.

Of course, it comes down to nuance again and despite the representation of the girl in Ico, for instance, I would indeed defend this representation of a weak young willowy girl because it allows for one of the most emotive and original mechanics that I have seen in games. This is simply great game design and that representation is beautifully integrated in the design. I can’t take exception to that, it can be a shining exception. Also the Scythian in Sworcery appealed to me. In this case it was not explicit that you were dealing with a girl because of the pixilation of the character, in fact she was stripped of most everything that we would normally employ as characterization, she was silent and only pieces of her history and purpose are revealed slowly to the player. I’m not sure what I am trying to say here, but she is interesting, another exception, and I’m going to have a think on that! I also have not played ALL of the games so I am missing pieces, particularly in terms of RPGs, I can’t stand an intense RPG so I’ve got a knowledge gap when it comes to in-depth characterization.

You also asked about controversies and despite what I have observed and said above, I am rarely offended by a female representation. I find some things tiresome and they might provoke a ‘sigh’ but then I also don’t know how else we get a kick-ass woman in a game, or any form of fiction really. I thought that I would find ‘girl games’ offensive, but actually having picked up a Hello Kitty game as research, it really isn’t what I thought it would be, for example, you go around bashing the hell out of things until they explode in sparkles. It uses the blood ‘gibs’ aesthetic from violent games – ultra-violence in glitter! This is still videogame language, just in another skin. I think it is an offensive branding strategy though, and I resent that implication that these games are not just for me, but my gender.

Anyway, this is getting long(er) so I will cease. To summarise, I am interested in the representation of strong females but I am also not quite on board with it being THE representation. Moving a little out of games again, I have been reading some disturbing things this week about ‘geek girl’ backlash and was wondering about how you feel about the positive/negative connotations of the female geek trope? And indeed any totems for that trope, you mention CE Barbie previously…

Writing this had made me think a lot about razor girls for some reason, I think I need some cyberpunk tonight.

Write me more lovely things soon

Love,

Emily

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[expand title=”Letter 6: Dear Emily (6 April 2012)”]

Dear Emily,

I hope you’ve had a lovely week, and ended up getting your cyberpunk fix!

I’ll cut straight to the chase this time: the brilliant analysis of power and femininity in your last letter has given me a lot to think about these past few days. It has sent me down the rabbit-hole – the the abyss – of gender and what it even means, and I have emerged with no clear answers.

I mean, in part – of course I haven’t, because within the context of academic gender studies, the notion is troubled also. Yet, of all the various theories, the various models for trying to understand gender, many find a model which resonates with them, which they can adopt as their own. At least, this is how it seems to be as an outsider, but I may be wrong. Instead, I feel like I come to this land of critical gender thinking anew, am circling over this new territory, and am feeling increasingly troubled and overwhelmed by what it all means. I have no idea where I should land. Where I should plant my flag, claim my stake.

Maybe I should rewind a bit. Your analysis of gender identity within videogames was fascinating; I had not thought too hard before about the notion that the positions that videogames place us within is male, even if our avatars are presented as ‘female’. I guess this naturally follows as an extension of the theory of ‘gender as performance’ then, which I agree with, in part – within the context where it was brought to my attention (this Gamasutra interview with Dance Central designer Matt Boch: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/39514/Harmonix_on_gender_selfexpression_in_Dance_Central.php) – it makes sense, certainly, as a way of understanding gender ‘in the wild’, as it were. Though, I also find it a bit troubling.

So, what then, if, within games, if our performance is inexorably masculine? In a way, this also reminded me of another thing I read this past week, which intrigued me. An interview with Jenova Chen in Eurogamer, in which he said:

“I believe that very often it’s not really the player that’s an asshole. It’s the game designer that made them an asshole. If you spend every day killing one another how are you going to be a nice guy? All console games are about killing each other, or killing one another together… Don’t you see? It’s our games that make us assholes.”

I can see how this thinking can extend to games making us perform as men. Though, the part of gender as performance which continues to bother me (and this may be down to a misunderstanding of it) is that it seems to continue to perpetuate a certain sort of essentialism, which seems counterintuitive. You noted, for example, that ‘emotions’ are  widely-regarded as female attributes. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I feel like I’m clutching ineffectually around already deeply-established work, so I will return to my own experience, then. Growing up (and returning to ‘Post-sexism Young Mitu’) I remember it would always irk me when I’d heard certain parts of my behaviour or personality – e.g. my ambition, my technical aptitude, etc – described as typically ‘male’. It is easy to see how feeling like that can lead one to a place of rejecting gender identity altogether; to see gender as this made-up construct, where it is damaging to apply any sort of behaviour to either sex. But then again, is being able to see certain behaviour as gendered crucial to furthering – and thus expanding – our understanding of gender?

Basically, what I am trying to say, is that I am throwing my hands up when it comes to asking: what is ‘femininity’?Because, I’m sure I have no idea. Like you, when I was tiny, I had an aversion to ‘pinkness’, and I didn’t feel nearly as comfortable in dresses as I did slobbing around in jeans. But then again, I did not feel an explicit desire to be anything but female. There is SO much more nuance here, but in conjunction with the other ‘male’ traits of my personality, and my hobbies, I guess I might have understood this as overcoming what was ‘expected’ of me as a girl growing up. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve re-embraced feminine clothing, reconciling these various parts of myself.

Maybe that’s why I used to be annoyed at Computer Engineering Barbie, then. Although, obviously, she is but a plastic doll, I feel that she is not the sort of woman who went through the same gender journey as I did; I imagine she grew up truly embracing all parts of the performance we know as ‘girly’, whereas I did not. I perhaps, felt a sense of pride in my ability to navigate through to graduating from my own Computer Engineering degree without needing a role model who was explicitly female – and certainly not one who was so feminine, maybe. And, if I am to admit, in the darkest parts of myself, perhaps that is also how I felt about the sorts of girls who would aspire to owning a Computer Engineering Barbie; back then, the notion of wanting to get into computing because of someone and something so feminine, and not for any other (more masculine?) reason, seemed bothersome to me.  There is a lot to unpack there, I’m sure. But, I know I certainly do not think that way anymore.

This certainly ties into the online ‘backlash’ you mentioned about the ‘female geek trope’ over these past couple of weeks; I feel as though at some point in my life, I might have empathised, or even agreed with the things that were suggested within that article. As it happens, my point of view now is very different; I wrote about it actually (http://mitu.nu/2012/04/04/on-fake-geek-girls-and-gendering-of-problems/), prompted by your asking about it in your last letter! My response calls out how we shouldn’t unnecessarily gender certain problematic human behaviours. Though, of course, this thinking leads me back to the questions I was asking above about gender performances vs. essentialism vs. oh-god-what-is-all-of-this-stuff-anyway?

Anyway, I’m not sure if there are specific questions, here – and I’m sorry I’ve veered away from discussing games explicitly, especially after your smart, insightful analysis in the last letter, and into a more generalised conundrum. I was amused and intrigued by your Hello, Kitty anecdote – I’ve never explored such games myself, but I was fascinated to hear about glitter explosions, nonetheless!

I realise I’ve not left with any explicit questions, this time – so I will leave the floor open to you, for now – there’s a lot of ‘general’ gender questions to unpack, I suppose.

I DO, however, want to ask you about your Suda51/CEX anecdote, though!

Be well, and have an excellent weekend.

Mitu

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[expand title=”Letter 7: Dear Mitu (13 April 2012)”]

Dear Mitu,

I hope you are settling into the ring well. I am loathed to distract you with this stuff at such a happy time, but a woman’s work is never done.

I really liked your blog post/response to the Tara Tiger Brown piece and I agree whole-heartedly that there is an unnecessary gendering of issues that is to prevalent and as you point out what she was in fact talking about was a more universal guilt of insincerity, or, I think, perceived insincerity. As the so-called geek culture gains weight and elevates to boarder the mainstream there is a not altogether uncommon reaction. Devotees of any marginalised media and forms have responded similarly to the ‘mainstreaming’ or popularisation of their niche interests. That is not a gender specific thang, not a bit. Boys as well as girls griped and then deserted the punk scene, for example. It seems we are dealing with something as simple as styles cyclical nature, geek chic was bound to come round and it too will fade out and give back the kingdom to those who want to own it. I don’t think this makes the new arrivals that disingenuous either because fandom especially in the extreme, which is how this article and the venn diagram place geek, have always been a little competitive or at least craved a particular ownership. Matt Hills and Henry Jenkins et al describe the way that knowledge, even extra-textual fan-generated knowledge (slash and video edits) are a form of knowledge that serious appreciators prize. In that regard I completely understand how the arrival of the casual game has irked the ‘hardcore’. I don’t agree at all. Casual has invited a wealth of new people to games, both male and female. I would rather see a rich variety of games and players alike; I think that really underpins my affinity for weird, marginal, forgotten and even hated games.

Warning: I had a thought…

You’ve said that you have no idea what femininity is, and I don’t either, but I think I’ve had a breakthrough in this respect. I’ve been reading a lot about ‘taste’ recently in my forays into ‘bad taste’ (I am immensely proud of my poor taste) and Pierre Bourdieu offers this summation on the cultural distinction of taste, I paraphrase because I can’t find the essay… he says something along the lines of: tastes are primarily based on distastes. It seems there is a similar problem in the conceptualisation of gender norms, not only are feminine and masculine held up against one another as oppositions but their supposed common gender attributes and behaviours only really seem to exist in terms of anxieties of being not masculine or feminine. Gendered behaviour and performance is certainly frequently judged as what it is not. Of course this is the product of some seriously structuralist thinking which vexes me some because that is where the essentialising lives and somehow seems a little convenient or obvious, but I’ve not said it out loud before and it still makes sense when I do so I’m filling that observation under ‘achievement’ in my personal process towards a feminism. Though  even that isn’t fair or accurate. It’s a gender things across the board and I think in this respect men are as likely to women to experience some gender-based persecution, that is to say if one is perceptibly effeminate or if they are a stay-at-home dad they are not fulfilling some archaic idea of ‘man’. Whilst in gaming I have observed gentleness to be a perceived weakness in men, this could be a ‘lad’ backlash to the once disdainfully ‘geek’ image or something to do with the competiveness of many games. That is conjecture of course but I mean to illustrate the ways that men are also subject to some negative gendering in games culture also.

Gender is always in negative terms? Kinda… oh fuck!

This is not good, but aligning this ‘standard setting’ for gender with taste kind of completes an equation for me even though I think integers are all fucked up and wrong. I think this also speaks to the problem with the ‘performance of gender’. Is gender performance something we are performing against and not towards? With the Matt Boch example, I am really encouraged that this level of thinking and consideration is informing game design and I will have to pick up Dance Central to see exactly how this idea rolls out. Might even try it on housemates, who are constant victims of my videogame experiments. I also don’t think that this level of R&D is publicised outside of an already existing fan and dev community though. Shouting about this could go a long way towards promoting the popular positive opinion of games as inclusive, innovative, smart products.

Thought over…

Oops, more thoughts…

So, having found myself stumped a little by feminisms and gender and what does it all mean, I decided to look elsewhere to see if things that I know about games and such compliments the process of feminism. Basically, I wondered if I was coming at this wrong. Should I use what I know of feminism and try and accommodate games or the other way round. And I think I may have found a little, tiny, baby something that works for me. It is by no means a resolve, an answer, or even a suggestion but I’m pretty pleased that I think I can marry two things and play on my strengths again and gives me a glimmer of hope that what I have to say may be valuable or at least on track to being so.

I love games. Not all of them, but I just do love them. In that respect, and I think some of your writing reflects, I find it difficult still to conceive of a way to make games more appealing to females, but through games I can think of ways that feminism can be explored, reified, analogised. I’ve been writing a lot about participatory culture alongside this project (and I think feminism is something of a project) and come across Axel Bruns. His concept of the produser (you gets the portmanteau) seems significant but more so when considered alongside his conception of 2.0 culture as palimpsestic. Feminism too is palimpsestic (I’ve clearly learned a new word). What I thought were neat, coherent movements were in fact a small part of a wide discussion. Post-stucturalist feminism wrote over the gender work of its predecessors, that in turn split into numerous groups with as many opinions, there is written of an age of ambivalence too. What I am saying is, feminism is written constantly, under and over written; we add an erase as needed, caveats appear, huge appendixes, there’s scribbles in the margins, love hearts on top of the ‘i’s, spelling errors, mess – whatever. We are working it 2.0 style. As to all this and games, or at least super media literate online culture in which a section of games certainly sit, even those that are not identifying players understand the language of amateur edits and contribution that constitutes 2.0. We all get to have a go, we are used to save-die-retry and repetition until we find the right approach to a puzzle. This is a productive analogy for me at least and having felt like I was floundering for a while (like all this week hence late response) – I’m positive again. This feels more like a welcoming space that I know how to use… I will better apply it next time.

I’m also thinking that letters is so perfect for illustrating feminism as project and always in motion because it captures beautifully how much I feel like not only is the conversation going forward but that we are even making crossing-outs and rewriting as we go.

Sorry, that whole letter is parentheses.  I hope you are enjoying FEZ and making plans for our epic geographical journey as part of this philosophical one. I am struggling to lay down questions this evening, but as I’ve babbled please feel free to return.

Emily

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[expand title=”Letter 8: Dear Emily (2 May 2012)”]

Dear Emily,

Gosh. It’s been a few weeks now since I last wrote to you, and, as happens when one is in  a period in one’s life where one is feeling especially self-reflective, my own feelings have been constantly shifting, changing. These past few weeks have, for me, beenpalimpsestic, even. (Heh, good word indeed!)
I think there is some truth to what you describe, with gender descriptions being shaped by the always-negative. But, for all my ineffectual clasping at what even defines femininity might really be in my last letter, I think I have been working towards a definition of femininity that works for me. I say that in the present tense, of course – because as you insightfully pointed out, this is always a process – but more on that later.
I think my moment of realization that I can be comfortable and empowered in my skin as a woman came when I finally began reading Alan Moore’s graphic novel Promethea. Lo, what’s, I hear you say? A work of supposed ‘low culture’ influencing thought? Surely not?!
Heh sorry, pardon my sarcasm – I guess this literally never-ending debate has been brought up again with respect to games thanks to this (kotaku.com/5906484/most-popular-video-games-are-dumb-can-we-stop-apologizing-for-them-now) Kotaku piece – in the face of those discussions (and I don’t think they’re not useful, for what it’s worth), all I want to do is to continue creating. And, I would love, one day, to make a game that does for another person what Promethea is doing for me. A reminder that any of us who choose to identify as a woman can, at any point, become an ass-kicking magic demi-goddess full of fiery heroism just by writing and thinking. That’s pretty cool, no? Finally, some essentialism I can get behind, heh. (Or, maybe my aspiration towards Alan Moore-esque magical battiness by age 40 is just kicking in early. It is, after all, my 28th birthday today…)
Anyway, that is a massive aside. Just another personal anecdote. I do think there are ties to be made there with what we could achieve through games, too. It makes me feel good about the potential of culture to change thought, and thereby lives. Which is one of the reasons I am doing what I’m doing, after all.
Back to the point you made about feminism as a process; again, you are spot on, and this is also an insight I heard in a talk by fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson a few weeks ago – who, get this – is amazingly just 15 years old. She said:
“One thing that can be very alienating about a misconception of feminism in that girls then think that to be feminists they have to live up to being perfectly consistent in their beliefs, never being insecure, never having doubts, having all the answers. . . and this is not true and actually recognizing all the contradictions I was feeling became easier once I realized that feminism was not a rulebook but a discussion, a conversation, a process.”
I mean – bam. There is one young lady who gets it, and at such a tender age. I wish I’d had one tenth of that insight back then; no doubt it would have made a lot of the journey easier.
I wonder what sort of support might lead to a teenage girl reaching those kind of conclusions by herself at a similar age, or even older (but still younger than ourselves, heh.) Thinking of this, and of our letters as an ongoing conversation made me begin to wonder about whether there is anything that can be done. Positive action, as it were, to support other girls as they go through their own ‘origin stories’. One of the things which this letter series has been underlining for me is the importance of support, and of relating to others. To use the cheesy aphorism, ‘no man (nor woman in games!) is an island”.  I definitely see the value of support-giving initiatives in this regard. (That’s not to say that that isn’t a complicated and fraught territory in itself, of course – Mare Sheppard, in her GDC talk this year, gave a thoughtful account of the potential problems which may therein. Basically, there is no easy answer to any of this stuff. But, it is a process, and, as part of that process, I’d love to keep stumbling towards potential solutions.)
That was a big parenthesis. Anyhow, I’m excited to see whether this adventure continues to lead us, both in the short term, and in the long term.
Feeling oddly positive,

Mitu

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