So, you are a “professor of game design,” which sort of sounds like being the Mayor McCheese to me (but it’s only the first paragraph and I shouldn’t pop off so early). You are attending a conference on game design, and you find yourself present for a panel on a game series that intersects your personal opinions. You take issue with misogyny in video games. You think Street Fighter is misogynistic. Seth Killian is sitting right in front of you. Now is the time to speak your mind to the face of Street Fighter.
Hey! Cammy is in a THONG!
There’s not being able to see the forest for the trees, and then there’s being too busy to see the forest because you peeled bark off a tree and you’re trying to mix it with a handful of lead paint chips you pulled out of your pocket in case you got hungry while out on a hike.
First, let’s establish the basic parameters for our discussion today. The “FGC” is misogynistic to a degree that is astounding. It isn’t a question of whether or not we’re sexist. We are far beyond that point. Our outright loathsome treatment of the female gender has been acknowledged, accepted, and integrated into our culture. Most of us, including reasonable people that would abhor this sort of language and behavior in our day-to-day lives, don’t even bat a lash when misogyny rears its ugly head in our tournament ballrooms and our online communities. It has so thoroughly saturated our environment that having a female player be treated with respect and afforded dignity — not her being abused — is what attracts our attention. “Why is everyone trying to have sex with that girl?” we might say, when we see a friend or colleague not tripping over himself to display his hostility toward the woman in his presence. Being vile to girls doesn’t seem out of place to us. It’s when someone is being nice that things are out of order.
A quick glance at Wikipedia provides you with tangible numbers for a phenomenon that’s worked its way through societies in the industrialized world for the last hundred years. Why are there so few women in the sciences? As of 2001, women accounted for only 30% of the enrollment in computer science programs at four year universities. They made up only 10% of the population in engineering programs. Yet, people see these numbers and say, “That is their preference.”
Misogyny in Street Fighter is fed by the same sort of “conventional wisdom” that creates social memes like the belief that girls aren’t interested in science. Why are there so few female Street Fighter players? Ask that question in a room full of tournament grinders and you’ll inevitably see a prevailing majority opinion. “Women don’t like fighting games,” they might say, or, “Women don’t like video games in general.”
There are fewer women pursuing degrees and careers in the sciences because of that very sort of ignorant thinking. Women may not pursue a career in the sciences because as schoolchildren they do not receive the same level of encouragement and help from those in a position to shape their paths. They are told that they are better suited as nurses, or teachers, and then we point to women dominating fields like nursing and teaching as proof that women choose those fields as a matter of gender. The idea that individuals are genetically pre-disposed toward making certain choices is a tool of the bigot. It is a testament to the potency of that sort of marginalizing rationalization that, in a modern age where we are literally re-writing the rules of physics to accommodate our accelerated discoveries at the sub-atomic level, we still believe that the presence of estrogen and a vagina dictate whether or not you’re interested in computers, building a bridge, or playing a video game.
Every piece of reliable data collected over the past decade shows an increase in the participation, and in some cases a drastic increase, of women in gaming. In fact, some genres, notably MMORPGs, are beginning to boast populations where men are a minority. Yet that same sort of rapid growth has not manifested in the fighting game genre. Or has it?
Too often we, as a community, confuse The Scene, properly capitalized, with the general population. We are an insulated group, living as if in a community of like-minded individuals in a convenient geographical location. Here, in California, I often find myself genuinely surprised when I stumble across an actively-practicing Christian. It can be the same within the tournament community. We often forget that there are people out there that love these games just as much as we do that don’t play them at a professional level. We accept a challenge from a friend, who then proceeds to attack us continuously with jump in roundhouse, crouching roundhouse, and we are astounded. “Blocking is cheap,” he tells you. We react like we just found a live velociraptor in our bathtub.
There aren’t a lot of women at tournaments, no. But, is that an accurate indicator of female interest in fighting games? There is no reliable, hard data for how many women are playing Street Fighter IV on their XBox. But a 2006 Nielsen study reveals that 64% of online gamers are women. You could face an endless parade of penises at your local tournament, but at home in your underwear, a good portion of the faceless opponents you’re squaring off against in Marvel 3 might just be girls.
A more accurate question, then, would not be to ask why so few women play fighting games, because that may not be true to begin with, but rather why do so few women play fighting games at a tournament level?
Competitive gaming is not a welcoming landscape for girls. Some of the reasons why are pretty obvious. Gender labels and sexual slurs like “bitch” and “slut” are freely distributed. Female players are judged harshly for both mistakes made in-game — a result of their obvious genetic inferiority within the medium, of course — and for their appearances. I once played a tournament set against a four-hundred-pound shut-in whose body odor was so overpowering that my eyes were literally watering the entire time I sat next to him, but nobody felt the need to say anything to this guy. Yet, if the girl with a joystick in her lap is not perfectly-coifed and appropriately charming in a demure way, and if she possesses any level of skill, she is obviously a lesbian. Just the simple knowledge that every single person that can see you is either ogling you or critiquing your clothes and hair while you play would be enough to drive half of the men that play fighting games out of the community forever.
This problem isn’t the sole province of competitive fighting. MLG events suffer from the same staggeringly lopsided ratios. StarCraft stream monsters are just as virulently hateful towards female spectators of that game as we tend to be towards girls that watch Street Fighter and Tekken.
If we create an inhospitable landscape, do we need to spend time at a panel actually discussing why girls don’t play fighting games? I appreciate the merits of critical discussion, but I could TL;DR this entire column into this: girls don’t come out to tournaments because boys are fucking dicks.
Singling out minority groups seems an innate part of human nature. Racism, classism, sexism, religious discrimination, discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation — these things are endemic in our society. They are integrated into our religion and politics. They are discussed at kitchen tables as shared values to be passed down to malleable children.
Discrimination is driven by hate, and hate is driven by fear. When we start to examine the reasons why things are the way they are, instead of focusing on how things are the way they are, we begin to be faced with questions that are far more uncomfortable for us as a group. The unease we face at being forced to confront those inner questions might serve as a reason why misogyny has taken such a permanent foothold in our ranks. Don’t we love women? I do, and I know I’m not alone. Then, why do we treat them so poorly, or allow them to be treated so poorly, in our hobby? What is it about playing against women that makes us so uncomfortable? Is it really so bad to lose to a girl? What about that experience seems to threaten our masculinity so much? Would you feel the same losing to a black man? Or losing to a bathtub velociraptor?
Is the greater issue at work here an unclear sense of masculine identity? Is there some level of comfort provided to a generation of men who lack focus on their own sexual identities in gathering together and excluding the gender that often proves an unintentional protagonist for our gender angst? The last question alone could fuel pages and pages of debate and discussion, veering further and further away from video games and delving deeper into our issues within ourselves. I doubt that anyone has the definitive answers.
The community needs to take the time, as individuals, to look at issues like these. I realize that, in the end, the core trait that binds us is a superficial one, being a shared affection for a trivial hobby. However, that hobby has created an organic community that spans states and nations. In the long run, Street Fighter, and video games in general, really aren’t that important. Creating a living, breathing community, and being a part of it, certainly is important. As the engineers, caretakers, and benefactors of that community, it falls on us to examine things like misogyny — or the rampant homophobia plaguing our ranks.
We use that word a lot: “Community.” I’m not convinced we have a firm grasp of what it means.
Equally as frustrating as the existence of misogyny in the community are the suggestions for how best to go about eliminating it. The thing I see most often bandied about is a desire to see an active effort not to acknowledge the differences in gender, to treat a female gamer the same way as a male gamer. This well-intentioned plan has its heart in the right place, and the ultimate goal lies in the correct direction, but it overlooks some crucial points.
No, we should not treat female gamers differently from male gamers, in the sense that we learn from an early age we should afford every person, regardless of race or gender, the same level of courtesy and respect. However, that drive to be even-handed in our dealings with all people does not address the fact that despite our not treating a person differently, they ARE different. Just as we must respect women as we do men, so too must we have the emotional depth necessary to respect the difference between the two and the maturity to recognize that treating someone as an equal is not mutually exclusive to acknowledging and valuing their differences.
So much of the social disparity between men and women arises from the failure to remember that we are, simply, different. Our experiences in life, as individuals, are all different, but the shared pool of experience for men and women serves as a primary source of some of those individual differences.
A friend and I were discussing that different narrative perspective one night in the context of a discussion about hooking up with girls. I asked him, plainly, “If you’re getting ready to go out to the bar for a night, what are you thinking?”
“I hope I meet a hot chick,” he said. “I hope I get laid.”
“Good,” I replied. “And I’m sure a girl across town getting ready to go out to the same bar is thinking the same thing, on some level. I hope I meet a hot guy. I hope I get laid. But she’s also thinking, ‘I’m going out by myself. I hope I don’t get raped. I need to let a friend know where I’m going. I need to be careful around strange men.’ When is the last time the thought of getting raped even crossed your mind going out alone to a strange place?”
Not all examples of the different life experiences for men and women are this dramatic, and sometimes they swing in the opposite direction. More men commit suicide than women, for example. That’s a very real problem that affects one gender more often than another.
Discrimination and hatred are the purveyance of fear, often born out of ignorance. Learning more about someone else’s differences, even celebrating them, is a great way to go about banishing that ignorance and fear. No woman should be treated differently on the basis of being a woman, nor should a man be treated differently for being a man, but we don’t have to give someone special treatment to embrace diversity. After all, diversity is just that: a celebration of differences, and welcoming those differences into the collective.
It pains me to say this, but in the end, the best remedy for us might be just to put the sticks down for a bit, to get out there, and to learn more about girls. I would never disparage brothers in arms, but I know that I’m not going to shock you, gentle reader, by pointing out that your average Street Fighter player wouldn’t necessarily be considered an expert on the female sex. Our ranks are primarily young men, often in their teens or fresh out of them, that have little to no practical, real-world experience interacting with women. We don’t know anything about them, for the most part. It stands to reason that that level of ignorance can breed misogyny on a broad scale.
We can take heart in the fact that when there are discussions about this sort of thing, when people are actively discussing misogyny in the scene on a regular basis, it originates from a place where people are wanting to be rid of it for the sake of seeing more girls at tournaments. Discussing the issue is a great place to start, but there are other things we can do.
Get out there, stick jockey! Your homework assignment this week is to talk to a woman — any woman. It doesn’t have to be a woman with which you’re trying to be romantic or physical. In fact, it would probably be for the best if it weren’t. Too often we are distracted by breasts and flirtations to really get to know the people in front of us.
The best remedy for what ails us may be just to learn a little more — collectively — about girls.
Seriously, though, someone put some pants on Cammy.