An Escape of One’s Own

Shepard looking out a window on Zakera Ward in Mass Effect 2. Credit to Duncan Harris at deadendthrills.com

Shepard looking out a window on Zakera Ward in Mass Effect 2. Credit to Duncan Harris at deadendthrills.com

(Trigger warning for the recounting of sensitive transgender-related experiences)

Around the turn into the 20th Century, there were many questions about women. One of them was “Why aren’t there many women writers?” The typical answers ranged from men’s predisposition to artistic ability to women being too fragile and unintelligent to push through the rigor needed to be a writer. Writers are usually men, in a male artistic culture, and that’s just how it was; any woman who became notable was seen as performing something masculine.

A certain rabble-rouser, a woman writer, provided a different answer. She said in a society that didn’t send women to school, had them rely on men for financial survival, and often didn’t allow their own private space was the reason. The few women who wrote didn’t need to rely on anyone else; they had education, an income, and a room of their own to write. Her example was imagining if Shakespeare had a sister who possessed the same innate genius as he did. Because of customs and expectations of the time, Shakespeare would be encouraged to write after being sent to school and given opportunity to earn his own money and establish a career. This sister, however, would always be a part of a family unit and not sent to school. She would constantly be pressured to focus on getting married and putting her energy to raising a household, leaving no time or privacy for writing that her brother would have. So, in contemporary times, why aren’t there as many women and other minorities in gaming compared to the main demographic of straight, white men?

I’m often asked why I have to drag identity labels into gaming discussions. Why does it matter that I’m a multi-racial, polysexual, possibly polyamorous, able-bodied transgender woman? Must I trumpet this everywhere I go? There’s an assumption that games have nothing to do with gender, sexuality, and other politics, just FUN. That’s the real reason we’re here, right? Part of identifying as a ‘gamer’ is treating games like an escape. To leave reality for a bit to forget about the troubles and limitations that plagues our lives.

The problem is games aren’t an escape for everyone looking for one. In fact, they provide an escape for a very particular identity that only sometimes overlaps with others’. As children, we didn’t really notice this dissonance, but growing up as a gamer, you notice something doesn’t feel quite right. This is evident by the demographic of those who would self-identify as a gamer and the image the industry continues to portray to attract and distance certain identities. The way our community is structured, games will often jolt minorities out of their escape and back into the reality they wanted a break from. This isn’t only from the offensive and dismissive depictions of minority identities in games, but also from gaming journalism and social gatherings. How could this be? Shouldn’t everyone be used to it by now? We all know everyone isn’t an 18-24-year-old straight guy, so just ignore it and look to the content we do enjoy.

Wrong.

Material that perpetuates the hegemonic culture of gaming does so by putting down the alternative. Content that is often a battlefield for being sexist or racist aren’t just ignorable or benign fan-service. This can boil down to an argument about offensive language, the idea that a person chooses to be offended by words and it isn’t the fault of the speaker/writer. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ever heard of the Stroop Test? It looks like this:

The Stroop Test; words for color printed in different colored font. For instance, the word BLUE is printed in a green font.

The Stroop Test; words for color printed in different colored font. For instance, the word BLUE is printed in a green font.

You are asked to quickly go through the list, naming the color of the font of each word. In this example, you would have to read aloud “Green, Yellow, Red, Green” and so on. The results of this test show that we cannot disassociate the word from what we are “supposed” to see. If we chose to be affected by those words, a person could go through this test without preparation flawlessly. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen. We are affected by what we see and cannot control what it makes us think. In the Stroop test, what is offensive would be the printed word, and the idea that it’s a joke or means something less serious would be the font color. For that reason, when someone writes or speaks offensive or triggering material, they are actually forcing the subject to feel whatever they associate with those words. Speaking homophobic language to someone who has received any negative feelings for said words makes them relive those emotions, whether it’s pain, disgust, or inferiority. There is no absolution from using words and writing content that perpetuate the discriminatory attitudes of gaming culture. That isn’t being true to gaming, that isn’t providing an escape. You’re the ones dragging the ugly from reality into our sacred space, not the minorities.

This relates to my own experience, both with advocating for diversity in games and a recent realization I exhibit qualities similar to someone who has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in relation to my transgender identity. The best way I can describe it is having an instant flashback to an extremely uncomfortable experience where I feel the same intense emotions I did at the time, be it embarrassment, shame, anxiety, depression, the list goes on. These flashbacks are triggered from simple association; I’ll be thinking of something that is similar to my experience, my mind will link it, and the thoughts overwhelm me. To the point where I have to verbally tell myself to stop thinking. And sometimes I can’t do this, because I’m in a public setting and I don’t want people to worry or think there’s something wrong with me. There are events in the gaming community that triggers these experiences for me, especially the overwhelming hopelessness of under-representation. I have to wrestle with many feelings as I try to enjoy games in a culture that panders to an identity that only sexualizes women and doesn’t encourage many other depictions other than ridiculous proportions to serve as eye candy. When I see the women and sexuality of Mass Effect 2 and Catherine, I am reminded of how I’m treated as an exotic sex object as a transgender woman. How I endure messages from dating sites curious about my body, left frustrated from first dates that try to grope me in their cars without my permission, cried when someone tried to pay me for what I thought was finally the first time I’d get into a relationship. When journalists, developers, and average gamers tell me gaming is for just for people who play games, looking for that escape, what they are actually doing is requesting me to settle for someone else’s escape, where I am still marginalized. They are telling me to sacrifice my enjoyment and my safe place for the hedonism of others. I know journalists, writers, and developers are reading this: can you still tell me everything is just fine?

So, what do we do? Where can we find an escape of our own? Places like The Border House and Gay Gamer are a start, by distilling what we get from gaming and what we still need. As a recent event shows us, there’s still progress to be had in creating safe places for minority groups to actual naturally and forget about reality. This isn’t discrimination against white straight men because the hegemonic identity is still accepted into these spaces, and encouraged to contribute and participate. But we can’t stay in our corners forever, we need to learn what works and take it back to the main gaming community. And those who claim to be allies of minorities should welcome us and our experience instead of paralyzing progressive movement with red tape. I understand people need to make money, but I hope those people also understand they are willingly preserving a gaming community that doesn’t include me. When you all go back to your Excell sheets and Word documents, remember what you’re designing and writing had an original goal. To create that safe escape for people who need a break from life, to foster a community that mediates their interaction with reality through games. Now do that for everyone.

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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5 Responses to An Escape of One’s Own

  1. Doone says:

    Beautiful post. I appreciate you sharing your own experiences with this.

    Excellent application of the Stroop Test; it’s too often that people argue that this phenomenon doesn’t exist in their own behavior. I think people, often instinctually, try to pass the buck when they’re told that their words are offending someone. “Its not my fault they’re sensitive” and other similar, convenient responses often follow. Some people don’t like to think they make others feel bad–its far easier to convince themselves that they didn’t influence that. Others just think its ok, that they’re just acting “normal”. Not sure which is worse.

    I’m not a minority; I’m what society deems a “regular” white male. I’m married to a beautiful wife and we have 2 young children. But she and I wish together all the time that we had a more open world to raise our children within. We hope every day that our kids, whatever they become, can be seen as only human. Only human.

    Continue to write. You’re being heard and it makes every bit of difference.

  2. Corbiu Geisha says:

    There’s nothing useful I can add to this. You’ve hit all the marks.

  3. Rakaziel says:

    Excellent article.

    On the matter of unwanted associations, there is a technique I use ( I only have a highly associative mind and no traumas so I am not sure if it will work for you) that is based on using kinesiology to ask my subconscience if it wants this connected – if the answer is no the association is undone. It works best, however, at the time the association is forming. It could be useful for you as it only requires your fingers to check the answer (close thumb and index finger of both hands into each other like links in a chain, then mentally ask your question and try to pull them apart, if the link holds (due to muscle tension) it is a Yes, if it opens it is a No, if you are unsure because you generally feel fatigued or tense also ask the opposite question and only deem it valid if you get the opposite answer, otherwise ask again when you have regained your balance) instead of saying it out loud.

    And I would see a therapist on the matter, they are working on treatments for ptsd.

  4. Patches says:

    The Stroop Test was a brilliant lens. This helped me put real language to things I’d come to understand but was still unable to articulate.

    • Zaewen says:

      I agree the Stroop Test was an amazing way to explain a fairly abstract concept with a solid, scientific example that lets everyone experience the cognitive dissonance. Absolutely brilliant article!

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