Oh look, it’s time to talk about gamer culture and rape culture again.

The following is a guest post from Scott Madin:

Scott Madin is a software engineer and yeller-on-the-internet. He lives in the Boston area with his partner and two cats, and on rare occasions blogs at Fineness & Accuracy. He also spends too much time on Twitter, as @ScottMadin.

(Originally posted at Fineness & Accuracy.)

I guess I don’t need to elaborate here on how I feel these days about Penny Arcade and their bicoastal, twice-yearly paean to conspicuous consumption, PAX Prime/PAX East. They represent some of the worst of gamer culture, they gleefully profit from misogyny and rape jokes, and their convention (increasingly, it seems) disregards its own “no booth babes” rule, making women feel less welcome and encouraging (presumed male) attendees to see all women, booth babe, cosplayer, developer, PR, or “regular” attendee, as sexualized objects there for men’s pleasure.

It’s distressing, then, but hardly surprising to hear that, at a party thrown by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, noted fedora enthusiast, indie-game-scene darling, and creator of the wildly successful Minecraft, a female game blogger seeking some relative solitude in a corner was accosted, harassed, and sexually assaulted by a male party-goer. Understandably upset, she fled the party, and when her friends sought out security, they were greeted with shrugs.

Some salient points:

  • The party was paid for by Persson himself, not by Mojang. It’s not entirely clear to what extent he organized it, and to what extent the party venue handled those details.
  • The party took place during PAX Prime, but was not an official PAX event, nor was it at the PAX venue. However, as it was a party thrown during PAX by a video game celebrity; it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of attendees were PAX-goers.
  • A notable exception: some attendees, distinguished (according to Ky, the blogger who was assaulted) by red wristbands, were women hired from a modeling agency.
  • Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s “Director of Fun” commented on Ky’s blog post clarifying that Persson, not Mojang, had thrown the party and that the models were hired by “the production company” to “have more girls there to up the girl to guy ratio. It’s a pretty typical club procedure.” (Winters confirmed via twitter that it was in fact her who posted that comment.)
  • It’s not clear, then whether hiring the models was in fact Persson’s idea, or whether he knew about/approved it. (One would imagine that, if planning were left to the venue or some other third party, given that Persson was paying, he’d at least have been asked to sign off on the expenses.)
  • Persson himself, about three hours ago, tweeted:

  • In an update at the top of her post, Ky emphasizes that she doesn’t feel PAX or Mojang is responsible in any way for what happened, and that in her view “The ONLY person who should be held accountable for what happened is the asshole himself.” She also states, “Also this post isn’t about nerd or gamer culture or blaming those cultures at all, this could happen in any community, at any party, to anyone.”

There are a few points I want to make about this.

[Author’s note: I added a few sentences and split the next paragraph into two, because I wasn’t entirely comfortable with its original tone.]

Perhaps predictably, I disagree with Ky that this has nothing to do with PAX or with nerd/gamer culture. She is obviously the final authority on her own experience, and just as obviously the man who attacked her is the only one who bears direct (let alone legal) responsibility for that crime. But from my perspective, one shouldn’t be too quick to discount cultural and environmental factors that make predators feel they’re free to operate in a given situation — and that make bystanders more likely to shrug, to see the warning signs of predatory behavior as “normal”.

It’s certainly true that things like this can and do happen “in any community, at any party, to anyone” — rape culture is endemic, and no subcultural niche is entirely free of it. However, gamer culture — fueled by Nice Guy (often shading into MRA) bitterness over high-school bullying and lack of “success” with girls (an historical injustice elevated to mythic proportions in nerdism) — clings to especially overt misogyny and objectification. One need only look at the vitriolic response to Anita Sarkeesian‘s proposed (now underway) “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, the myriad examples at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty?, or of course the Dickwolves debacle, to see this in action.

PAX encourages and revels in these attitudes — reflecting the views (so far as one can surmise from their actions) of its founders and their core fanbase — but it certainly doesn’t start with PAX, or with Penny Arcade. Society’s misogyny has always been an element of nerd culture, and nerd culture’s tendency to be self-referential, insular, and distrustful of “outsiders”, makes it self-reinforcing. Critics, whether from without or within the subculture, are almost invariably dismissed out-of-hand as “not understanding”, not being “real gamers”. And people growing up in gamer culture — especially young men — have spent a decade, or two, or three, absorbing these attitudes with very little real challenge to them.

So inasmuch as gamer culture is tainted by rape culture, and PAX is one of the purer expressions of contemporary gamer culture, yes, this is about PAX. This is about the kinds of people who felt welcome at PAX, and what they thought they could get away with. It’s about the constant presence of “booth babes” at gaming conventions, and the still abysmal representation of women in mainstream games. It’s about the kind of people who think it’s reasonable to “up the girl to guy ratio” by hiring models to attend a party, because they think their (presumed male, presumed heterosexual) attendees neither possess nor need to be encouraged to develop any social skills, and thus are and will remain repulsive to women not paid to tolerate them. (There are, of course, far too many problems with this to unpack in a single blog post.) And it’s about what all this, taken together, in constant dosage over many years, teaches people who didn’t even notice they were being instructed: women are decorative objects, there for men’s enjoyment; they have no significant interests of their own; they are not skilled; they are not peers; if they are not attractive to men they are failures; they are merely things for men to desire and despise. (If you think I’m overstating, now would be a good time to go look again at those links a couple paragraphs up.)

Now, almost everyone — even in the comments section of her blog post, a rarity here on the interwebs — has reacted to Ky’s story with horror and disgust. But almost everyone (including Ky herself) has directed that horror and disgust solely at the individual assailant. It’s easy in this case, because “grabbing a stranger’s hand and putting it on your penis” is behavior (in point of fact, a crime) even most MRAs will recognize as beyond the pale. Oh, that one guy did something really unacceptable! He’s terrible, nothing more to see here. But given what we know about sexual harassment and assault, it’s highly likely that he harassed more than one person that night, and furthermore that he wasn’t the only one who did. How many of the models paid to be there put up with harassment and perhaps assault? How many women party-goers were harassed by sexist nerds who thought harassing the models was “part of their job” (nope!) and extrapolated from there that it was an acceptable way to behave toward any women at that party (again, nope!)? Rape culture teaches men that they’re entitled to sexual gratification from women, whether visual, verbal, or physical; hiring models to “mingle” with partygoers declares the same thing explicitly.

Ky’s assailant is the only case from that party, that we know of, where someone decided he was entitled not only to sexual gratification but to enforce his claim to that gratification with violence — and make no mistake, all sexual assault is violence — and that makes him a relatively egregious example. But that doesn’t make him an isolated, unconnected, free-floating Bad Person whose worldview, impulses, and actions come from nowhere and cannot be interrogated. His attitudes came from somewhere, and for every person like him who physically sexually assaults someone, there are dozens or hundreds who hold basically the same views, absorbed from basically the same sources, who “only” harass and intimidate and make gamer culture hostile to everyone who isn’t heterosexual, cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male.

Finally, here’s the kicker. If past incidents in gamer culture are any indicator (Dickwolves, Fat Princess, Duke Nukem Forever, Resident Evil 5, the Borderlands 2 “Girlfriend Mode” controversy, and countless others) there will be no lasting consequences. A few more people will be alienated from gamer culture, but the majority of gamers will brush it off, and continue to support the institutions that promote these attitudes. The gaming press — even the smart, progressive gaming press — will write about Penny Arcade and PAX and Gearbox and Mojang to talk about their press releases and upcoming games, and will not mention the kinds of things that happen under their various auspices. No lasting opprobrium will attach to any of their names, and the culture will not change. People, even smart, thoughtful, progressive people who understand rape culture and how it works, and work tirelessly to break down race, gender, and sexuality barriers in gamer culture, will keep attending PAX and buying games produced by developers with toxic, misogynist studio cultures. The overwhelming sense will be that yeah, that stuff was bad, but that’s all in the past. Like the security guard in Ky’s story: “Okay? What do you expect me to do?”

That seems like a harsh way to close, but I don’t know what else to say. A lot of people have been patient and polite about this for a great many years, and the results have been rather underwhelming. Nerd culture resists change, and perceives efforts to bring change as attacks, no matter how moderate, no matter how careful the phrasing. I think the best hope is to work to make explicit what it is the pillars of the subculture support: to label their behavior indelibly as sexism, and to finally attach some modicum of shame to behaviors that should always have been seen as shameful. Challenge harmful structures, don’t support them. Don’t let praise for misogynist companies and institutions go unquestioned. make all but the most committedly sexist nerds uncomfortable voicing their boy’s-club attitudes, and make it socially unacceptable for the majority to associate with the hardcore misogynists.

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20 Responses to Oh look, it’s time to talk about gamer culture and rape culture again.

  1. Pingback: Oh look, it’s time to talk about gamer culture and rape culture again. « Fineness & Accuracy

  2. Ermoss says:

    This article is a bit misleading in mentioning the “constant presence of ‘booth babes’ at conventions,” as PAX in particular (i.e. the convention at issue here) does not in fact permit them; as it’s one of the two major gaming conventions (the other being, of course, E3) it seems dubious to call their presence “constant” at gaming conventions at all.

    • Nick Bell says:

      PAX and E3 are not the only two major gaming conventions. Off the top of my head, I can think of both Tokyo Game Show and Gamescom. Both of those conventions have booth babes, with an especially strong presence at TGS.

    • I am also curious about this, especially with the claim “their convention (increasingly, it seems) disregards its own “no booth babes” rule”.

      Is PAX disregarding its own “no booth babes” rule actually a rampant problem? That’s one thing that I actually think they’ve been really good about, and I didn’t see any for the two days I attended- women running booths or dressed as appropriate characters from a game, sure, occasionally, but nothing like what I’ve seen at E3.

      • Olivia says:

        This was my question as well. I absolutely do not think Penny Arcade’s “no booth babes” policy is as strict as it should be, or as they seem to think it is, but I’m also confused by the claim that the breaches of their policy have been increasing.

        I’ve been to every Prime since 2009, and 2/3 of the Easts, and East 2011 was really the only egregious offender in the booth babes category that I can recall (it being the PAX with the DNF booth and a few other glaring violations, like the Sprint booth). East 2012 of course had the Lollipop Chainsaw incidence, but PA actively pulled the plug on the WB’s booth babe in that case.

        As far as Prime goes, I won’t claim that my memory is perfect or that I didn’t miss anything, but I typically spend a lot a lot of time scouring the expo hall at Prime in particular and I don’t remember any booth babes in the four years I’ve been attending there, definitely not last weekend for sure. There’s definitely been booths run by female event staff, as opposed to employees of the game company, but I’ve always seen them in just jeans and t-shirts. Plenty of male event staff in the expo hall as well.

        I’ve never been to an E3 but from the booth babe photo galleries that I’ve seen over the years, PAX and E3 are like night and day in that regard, there is just no comparison.

        • Lyss says:

          You tend to see companies skirt around the booth babe issue by dressing models up as characters. Off the top of my head…There was that arcade-style game pad company in the sky bridge that had five women dressed up as Tekken characters (Anna, Nina, Alisa, etc.). Fire Fall had the dude in the giant mecha suit… and the lady in the body suit who was missing a pant leg/any sort of covering on her left ass cheek.

          Another company – I think it was one of the casual gaming ones, but I can’t be sure – had women wandering around with a tablet hung around their necks. Attendees could grab a controller and play a game while staring at a lady’s chest.

  3. Katie says:

    Thank you so much for putting into words exactly how I feel about this issue. You’ve eloquently summed up my horror at what happened, how everyone blamed on the bastard that committed this crime, but not the community that taught him the beliefs that lead to his action were justified, and the tone of this article echoes the knot in my stomach when thinking of this.

    I am also glad that someone else found that “hired models” to “up the girl:guy ratio” was just as disgusting… to me it is one step away from legal prostitution…I truly hope none the models, nor any other women that attended the party was treated in such a dehumanizing, horrifying way.

  4. Cheryl T-Z says:

    Wanting closure is a common response from somebody who’s been attacked, and in the short term that can be incompatible with addressing the larger culture that supported it. The rest of us should be asking exactly these questions — starting with “how do we make meaningful change in gamer culture?” — and not looking to the most-recent victim in a long series of incidents to ask them.

    I’m genuinely shocked at the number of people (a couple here, a bunch on Twitter) who’re insisting that PAX never wavers from its booth babes policy — just under six months ago, on this very blog, we talked about PAX East turning a blind eye to when the Duke Nukem booth paid brought paid models in and claimed they were “cosplayers.” As long as we keep letting organizations off the hook for things that happened only a few months ago, people are going to keep seeing this sort of thing as an isolated incident instead of part of a problematic pattern.

  5. Porpentine says:

    No one’s assuming that gamer culture provided that atmosphere–it’s fact.

    Shit like this happens all the time, if you aren’t aware of it, that’s your own willful self-deception.

  6. Twyst says:

    Let’s not forget that the guy was also taking pics of women’s breasts , which is an escalating behaviour, even if the women allowed him to take their pictures it seems likely they didn’t think this would happen.

  7. Pingback: Do We Have to Talk About This Again? Gamers and Rape Culture « Cyber Femmes

  8. I spent almost the entire con with one of the high-level Enforcers (used to be con management before he got sick of it). I’ll forward this on to him: Enforcers are supposed to have an absolute ZERO-tolerance policy on harassment/creepy photos, etc. if they hear about it or it’s reported to them (I pointed out the likelihood of underreporting). He’ll be livid. If enough Enforcers stand up, hopefully action will be taken.

    Personally I found some security guards really weird and over-focused on wrong/insignificant infractions.

    • Update: he’s planning on a post-PAX blog dealing with some of these issues and might be on my radio show to talk about them.

      • Alex says:

        Oh good, please keep us updated!

        • We talked and he was aware of the situation and wrote me a long, insightful email about harassment, the problematic “corporate” culture of PAX, and how a few bad apples spoil the bunch. I’ll see if I can get permission to post it here, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to have him on our podcast for a PAX post-mortem if nothing else. I can tell you that there have been several incidents of harassment within Enforcer ranks that have been very poorly received by the majority of security and volunteers.

          We can for certain say that incidents like these make it less likely that assaults will be reported, which makes it harder for the Light Side Enforcers to handle appropriately. :(

  9. Ryan says:

    Crazy times – and I have seen even more harassment stuff popping up on Twitter the last few days. Sad, sad days.

    • Twyst says:

      Sad, but also good that people are talking about it. My hope? (not really hope but) is that incidents are as frequent, but more and more are being talked about.
      A point made by @McKelvie on twitter was that sometimes simply a dude’s presence can stop harassment, therefore they don’t see this stuff happening.
      (ie: someone is harassing a lady on a bus, dude gets on, harasser stops).

  10. Pingback: To Hit Armor Class Linkspam (7 September, 2012) | Geek Feminism Blog

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