A while ago a friend and I were talking about the upcoming Kingdom Death: Monster. I had criticized that game’s portrayal of women–in particular the extreme sexism and objectification of the self-described “pinup” minis. My friend asked what I thought was a sensitive question. “So,” he said. “Does that mean when it comes out you won’t play it with us?”
“No,” I said. It absolutely did not mean that. Why? Because as a table top gamer, I have two options. I can play games that objectify and sexualize women, or I can choose not to play miniatures games.
My friend dearly wanted to argue with me on that point. Sure, Kingdom Death was obviously sexualized. But surely not every game was like that. So (politely! Because my friends are awesome), he tried to think of a counter example–a game that did not sexualize women. But for every Constance Blaise, who is actually quite well-armored for a female fig, I could name a Deneghra, made by the same company.
In the end, my friend conceded that I was right. Those, in fact, were my choices.
And I reiterated my personal choice. I choose to play.
Because I love to play.
That Deneghra mini? I own it. (Though, ouch. Old paint job.) Cryx is my first love, and I own all their sexy undead women. I bought Deneghra. I love to play her because she kicks butt and totally demoralizes the opposing army FTW. She’s my favorite ever. And though I’m not a huge fan of that mini, I am a huge fan of the Pirate Queen Skarre mini, which, lets face it, have all the same sexualization problems.
I like a lot of minis that sexualize women.
But that doesn’t mean I like the sexualization of women. I hate it. And I am totally on board with some people choosing to handle their disdain for objectification by choosing not to play these games, by choosing not to give money to these companies, by choosing to not be table top gamers. Totally on board. I get why one would do that. I support that choice entirely.
But I choose to play, and to give money to these companies, and to bring these minis into my home and to love them and play with them.
Why? Because of conversations like that one with my friend. Because as we talked about sexualization, he got it. He looked at all of the games he played and he saw that not a single one did a decent job of portraying women’s bodies realistically or respectfully. And once he saw it, he couldn’t un-see it.
That’s awareness. Awareness is important.
It would be nice if we lived in a world where most people were already aware of these things, but we don’t. Outside feminist circles, most people don’t get it. And gamers don’t want to listen to voices from outside telling them that what they love is wrong. No one wants to hear that they aren’t allowed to like the things that they like. And gamers hear this from everyone, all the time. We shouldn’t like games because they are time wasters (never mind that gaming is a social experience–even more so than watching sports or television or movies thankyouverymuch). We shouldn’t like games because they are violent (as if there’s much adult entertainment inAmerica that isn’t violent. Or entertainment for children for that matter. Seriously.)
And so, when someone says that games objectify women (which is an observable fact), gamers rush to defend their games. Why?
Because, man. I love that game! How can you say it’s bad?
Are gamers wrong to be defensive like that? Yes. Dead wrong. Even wronger when they then lash out at the person delivering the message. Guess what? Nearly every piece of American culture objectifies women. Games are no exception. It’s a huge problem. The defense of the indefensible makes the problem even worse, and often reperpetrates the problem by victimizing the very person who is trying to point out the victimization. Some gamers have a tendency to go all RawrHulkSmash on women who are critical of the games they like. This is an atrocity.
Here’s an important fact to remember when you’re faced with such criticism: no one gets to tell you what you’re allowed to like. And, in American culture, it’s really hard to like anything without liking something that is legitimately, demonstrably racist or sexist (or, usually, both.)
It’s okay. Next time someone says that a game, or a movie, or a book, or anything you like is racially problematic, or objectifies women, take a deep breath. Say to yourself, I’m still allowed to like it. And then try to see the problems with it anyway. Practice saying, this thing I like isn’t perfect. This thing I like is also part of a harmful cultural trend. This thing I like can be both harmful and awesome at the same time.
Because it can. Most entertainment is, and always has been.
Back to awareness. Once you are aware of sexualization and the inherent problems, you will see it everywhere. That’s okay. You can like what you like and still admit that no piece of art is perfect, that all art is a product of the culture from which it stems, and that most art could use improvement. You can say, I don’t like this cultural trend, but I still play this game because other things about it are freaking awesome and Iloveitsomuch. That’s okay.
There’s totally a place for shunning work that doesn’t meet your personal standards. It’s totally okay to boycott problematic things. But it’s also okay not to boycott, and still participate in the conversation. The more people are respectfully aware of the problem, the more the conversation of the art will change. And with that change will come better games, which we can all also love.
Because that’s what gamers do. We love games. Sometimes we love problematic games. Sometimes we love progressive games. Sometimes we love games that are violent and sexist and can I tell you about the three hundred hours I’ve poured into the Borderlands video games I love them so much they’re my favorite and holy crap the sexism and objectification and violence against women. WOW. It’s truly appalling.
I still love them, though, because the game design is awesome. Both things can be true. I can play them and love them and still see and discuss the problems. Would I love them even more if they weren’t so problematic? Yes. So it’s only up from here.
That’s how I personally choose to deal with the sexism in gaming. Everyone gets to make their own choice about how they deal with it. But making the choice to attack others for pointing out the sexy-sexy elephant in the room?
Not cool. Never cool.
So make your own media consumption choices. But let’s all just admit that our culture is full of harmful portrayals of women, many of them in things that are otherwise the Best. Thing. Ever.
Those are the conditions of our existence.
And until we see real, positive change, we’re all going to have to choose how we navigate that.