Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Women in Gaming and Very Narrow Arguments

I read an article on Rock Paper Shotgun about why they intend to keep talking about sexism in gaming.  I don't normally read that site, so I can't tell you whether anything else they write is worth reading, but I understand that they write a lot about video games.

What I found particularly good about the article is that it ends with a list of arguments that you should not bother making if you don't like a gaming site talking about sexism.  The article points out that the majority of these arguments are crafted to attempt to sideline any useful discussion, or to call into question the validity of the discussion to begin with.

In particular, I was very happy to see, "People are exaggerating on both sides," on that list.  That's a good argument to be aware of because it comes up in arguments about all kinds of controversial subjects.  Someone trying to sound very smart or very grown-up says that the whole argument is nonsense because people only ever take extremist positions.  Of course in reality on any controversial subject the people who take extremist positions get too much attention and the people who are trying to talk things over and understand them get too little.  That doesn't mean that the latter group doesn't exist.

I did think that something was missing from the list, though.  Unfortunately when you are trying to defend your position from jerks it is often necessary to fill your argument with all kinds of acknowledgements and disclaimers so that you don't give them anything to hold on to.

If you make an argument that people don't like, what you'll hear back is that in  one sentence in one paragraph what you said wasn't exactly true.  Or that one analogy you made isn't really a strong analogy.  Or that one fact you sited is from a source of questionable reliability.

So the discussion of the actual issue - in this case that women in gaming are too often insulted, dismissed, valued for their appearance instead of their accomplishments, etc. - has to be sidelined by endless acknowledgement of obvious truths.  John Walker who wrote the piece even included the parenthetical comment, referring to how he has been abused for talking about sexism: "I’m not going to fret about saying, 'But of course not as bad as…', because of course it’s not as bad as…"

So even though he does not want to spend time talking acknowledging that we shouldn't get into a who-suffered-more contest, he basically has to give a nod to such contests in order to exclude himself from them.  If he were instead writing an article about oranges he would not have to specifically comment that he didn't want to make his article about which professional wrestler he liked best when he was a kid.  The article is full of this and so it ends up being fairly long-winded and cumbersome.  The very direct message of the article doesn't get much space.

But all of this elaboration and clarification end ups being ineffective.  He brings up a book that I think I would like to read entitled, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria."  He brings the book up specifically to borrow one analogy from the author of the book.  If the comments were enabled, one person would criticize him because "his analogy" (an analogy he didn't make between female gamers and black high school students) is flawed - girl gamers aren't segregated from guys - and another person would criticize him for comparing the abuse suffered by a group of attractive, white, middle- and upper- class women to the abuse suffered by blacks during segregation (the fact that the book is not about segregation, and that this is not an accurate description of the population of female gamers wouldn't matter).

There is always room to attack some narrow point, and those arguments always seem to derail the discussion.  So what I'd really like to add to the article is not another message to people making bad arguments, but a message to people who read them.  Whenever someone takes a long article or comment and argues with select sentences from it, the first thing you should ask yourself is not whether this person has a legitimate beef with those particular sentences, but whether it makes any difference to the overall point.  Rather than sidetracking the entire discussion into fact checking the seventh sentence of the third page, we could just say, "I'm not sure if you are right, but even if you are I don't see how it affects the overall point of the article."

Also, this article is another great reason to miss Glitch.  I don't think I was ever part of a discussion in Glitch, even on the forums, where I felt like someone was dismissed or belittled for being female.  I'm sure such discussions happened somewhere in Glitch, but in the forums for many games the only threads that _don't_ contain abuse against women are the ones in which everyone assumes that all speakers are male.

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