Samantha Leigh Allen, a third year PhD student in the department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality at Emory University, is a gamer. An academic, Allen has made it a point to explore places where video games and a queer identity collide. Longtime GayGamer readers may remember her piece, ‘A Mile in Her Shoes’ from earlier this year. Her writing on games has been featured everywhere from Kotaku to the Border House, exploring everything from transphobia via Mainichi to intersectionality via Halo. Yes. Teaching intersectionality via Halo. This girl is a force to be reckoned with.
Issues of sexism, transphobia, and homophobia in the gaming world have become quite the hot topics in recent months, the most recent example being the twitter explosion surrounding Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik. Allen, an outspoken trans gamer, is no stranger to these issues or the conversations surrounding them.
Frustrated by the state of the world of games journalism and online gaming communities Allen published An Open Letter to Games Media on Re/Action, in which she calls on Steve Butts (IGN), Stephen Totilo (Kotaku), Justin Clavert (Gamespot), Chris Grant (Polygon), Dale North (Destructoid), Ludwig Keitzmann (Joystiq), and any other Editors in Chief of gaming sites to do something about the issues that plague our medium. Here is a sample of that piece:
You can no longer treat sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia as niche issues. These forms of marginalization have real effects on real people and, as you know all too well from your vantage point, they are painfully exaggerated in gaming spaces. They are problems that permeate every aspect of videogames from their production, to their player base, to the websites that write about them.
The fact that these are all systemic problems in the so-called “real world” is not a valid excuse for condoning bad behavior online.
Just because the whole house is on fire doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to salvage our room.
In her full letter (which can be read by clicking here) she not only calls the industry out, but she provides very clear suggestions of tangible steps that can be taken to help make gaming communities more inclusive. And many of the sites have taken notice, with IGN, Destructoid, and Kotaku all responding directly to Allen’s letter.
I decided to catch up with Ms. Allen and pick her brain on everything from her letter, to recent controversies, to Tomb Raider, and how the gaming world can take the leap towards inclusivity.
Samantha Allen has always loved games and has always loved writing, but didn’t begin writing on games until earlier this year. As a trans woman she notes how her transition sparked her interest in games writing, and how it both brought a reflection on her relationship with games while also changing her relationship with games.
“A big part of that is because I’m transgender and because my transition made me think about games and my relationship to games more deeply. So one of the first things I wrote about games was about how avatars and character creation systems were a way for me to idealize my gender presentation before my transition. During times in my life when I couldn’t present female, and I didn’t know I would transition yet, all my characters I would create were female and would be idealized versions of myself. And so when I transitioned I sort of looked back on that history and see how my relationship with games kind of led to that moment.”
I asked Allen if there were any specific issues in gaming that she sees differently now that she’s transitioned, and for her the recyclable mechanics and protagonists of most mainstream titles has grown stale. Playing white man in his early 30s with scruffy facial hair has been wearing on her.
“I’m particularly tired of playing as a white man in his early 30s, with dark hair and scruffy facial hair in every single mainstream Western game that gets made. I’ve had a complex relationship with my own gender identifcation my whole life and I always felt uncomfortable playing as a man in video games even before transition, but the feeling post transition has been especially accute that I don’t identify at all with the protagonists of most mainstream games. That in particular has been a reason why I’ve been exploring things like Twine games and the queer games scene to find games that are more inclusive of my experience”
Allen also finds the excessive violence in mainstream AAA games tiring.
“I don’t necessarily want to tie this to my transition or to stereotype it as being female but especially since transitioning I’ve gotten really tired of violence as a primary theme in a game. Being transgender you have such a complex and difficult and strange engagement with the world that it makes me wish games could figure out how to present you challenges, or social challenges, or interesting circumstances to navigate that don’t involve you shooting someone.”
We shifted our conversation to Allen’s open letter, beginning with what sparked writing it.
It’s something that’s been weighing for a while, but I also wanted to present the letter without it being read as a response to any particular incident…Because I think that we are in a general time of crisis right now in games discourse. There doesn’t need to be something that happens to spark a letter like that. The baseline of our culture is so low that a call for change is necessary at any moment.
While nothing in particular inspired the letter, one thing that was on her mind while writing it was all of the controversy surrounding Anita Sarkeesian and her Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games series.
I think one of the things that I was thinking about was Anita Sarkeesian’s second Damsels in Distress video. I like to avoid the comments, but I still like to keep up on news. I go to Joystiq a lot because there aren’t a lot of comments, and Joystiq is very matter of fact in their reporting so when I want just facts I go there. The Joystiq post for Anita’s video had something like 3,000 comments and it was the same kind of ugly stuff you’d find anywhere else.
Even here on GayGamer, whenever we write about Anita Sarkeesian we still find trolls coming out of the woodwork to leave comments. I shared with Allen my surprise as Managing Editor that even GayGamer, despite our efforts, doesn’t always feel like a safe space. But as Allen points out this is an issue that is hardly unique to our site.
“I think it highlights the need for an approach that can be inclusive of efforts to combat sexism as well as homophobia, an intersectional approach to those issues.”
I asked Allen how people the letter was not addressed to have responded to it.
“To those it wasn’t addressed to? I have taken a dive into the uglier places and some of the places I’m less comfortable to see what the reaction has been. It’s still all things that can be predicted: Censorship; that I’m saying that websites need to censor people. People are very uncomfortable with the idea of censorship and accuse me of being the quote unquote “thought police.” And for me that’s just a fundamental disagreement in that I think there are structural power inequalities in the world that need to change, and that should be a defacto assumption of any publication that covers any aspect of our culture.”
Destructoid was the first of the addressed sites to directly respond to Allen’s letter, and while community manager Brian aka Tristix felt called to action he was vehemently against the idea of silencing anyone’s opinions. He speaks of the blurry line between creating an inclusive space and censoring user voices. I asked Allen how she thinks sites can find that balance.
“For one, I think that when approaching this problem the people in control, the moderators, the community managers, they need to recognize that there is a widespread systemic problem with non-normative people feeling comfortable on their sites and their approach to it should always be how can we reach out to more people and diversify our audience and not how can we make this core, this homogenious demographic happy. It should be less about balancing the needs of two different segments of your user base and realizing that you need to change something for people to even feel welcome or comfortable using your sites.”
I then asked her about “the line” between censorship and inclusivity: how and where gaming sites should draw it.
“In terms of a line and how to draw that line. I think that people should worry more about inclusivity than they do about censorship. That’s probably as concisely as I can put it. There’s a difference between having an opinion and systematically dismissing an entire group of people, or arguing against the legitimacy of an identity…. When I spoke with Destructoid, they were very reticent of banning or suspending people…it didn’t sound like something they were comfortable doing….For me I don’t think that learning some basic facts about how to use inclusive language should be something that needs to take place after you mess up in a forum thread.”
One of the quotes from Allen’s letter that really spoke to me was as follows:
“When you encounter bigotry on your own sites, I often hear your staff (on podcasts, on Twitter, etc.), throw their hands up in the air and say, “That’s the Internet for you!” You adopt a posture of passive defeatism, suggesting that nothing can be done.”
Often times when discussing social issues in these online spaces people fall back on “It’s the internet” as their only argument, as if the internet is exempt from critique. Some people discount derogatory statements online precisely because they are online. I asked Allen to expand on this statement a bit.
“You know, I’m an optimist and I don’t think things are hopeless and I think throwing your hands up in the air and saying, “it’s the internet!” is really…..the underlying issues there is that’s an excuse to not do something…That was the overall ethos of the letter, right. There are things that could be done that they’re not doing and it’s easier to blame the internet than to take responsibility for your site.”
Kotaku’s Stephen Totillo also responded to Allen’s letter, and was much more receptive to what she had to say. In his response he’s even outlined plans to adopt more inclusionary measures on Kotaku over time.
“I was really impressed with Stephen Totillo’s response on Kotaku. I do like a lot of Kotaku’s coverage, and articles, and editorials but the comments sections are not places people in my community can visit….My reaction to [Kotaku's plan] is I’ll wait and see. Stephen Totillo said they have a massive user base and that this will be a slow change, but I’m hoping to see better comment moderation there. What worries me about it is that it still seems that Kotaku is relying on a user vote up/vote down system to sort comment. What I’m trying to point out in my letter is that we need a human person on the other side monitoring those comments and not just leaving it to the crowd.”
I asked if any other sites had responded to her letter.
“Steve Butts from IGN said that a response was forthcoming but I haven’t heard back [Editor's Note: Steve's response has since been posted and can be read by clicking here]. I haven’t heard from Gamespot. I know that people at Polygon have seen the letter but honestly I think Polygon is doing a good job with their comments.”
While on the subject of games journalism I asked Allen the rather nebulous question of what she viewed its role as being in 2013.
“I think all I can really say about that is that a lot of people want a lot of different things. Some people just want the data. They just want the information, the bullet points. For them a site like Joystiq works out. I think increasingly as people grow up with games, people are interested in reading about the cultural aspects of games.”
In the last few years there has been a noticeable rise in gaming editorial, analytic work, and games critique. More and more blogs are turning away from press releases, reviews, and generic content and going for a more cultural op/ed approach. This has, of course, brought with it a pushback from those that want to talk about “just the games.” While that data-only point of view is valid, Allen finds herself wanting more from games journalism.
“I like to play games as entertainment but if I’m gonna read what someone has thought about a game, it’s hard to avoid talking about cultural issues like feminism or the politics of representation and race.
I think saying, “let’s just talk about the games,” what you’re actually saying is “I don’t want to talk about feminism. I don’t want to talk about representation. I don’t want to talk about race. I don’t want to talk about sexuality. I don’t want to talk about gender.” Because you only hear it invoked in those circumstances when people are confronted with something where they realize they would need to do some leg work and educate themselves and they just don’t want to do it. So saying, “Let’s just talk about games” is code for, “I don’t want to think about the world critically.”
And you can get game news anywhere. You can get the bullet points wherever you want.
Here’s how I feel, if we’re just going to just talk about “the game” and we strip away everything and we can’t talk about the narrative of the game, can’t analyze the politics of visual representation in the game, if we can’t pocket any sort of cultural messages it contains than what are we left with to say besides “this is a thing, I press buttons, and things happens and I like it.”
The rise in the queer games scene, titles like Mainchi and Dys4ia, is something that Allen has written extensively about. And while these titles have garnered quite the following there are many who don’t even consider them to be “real games.”
“Yeah. The question of what is a game is one I find thoroughly uninteresting, but I respect a lot of my friends who are interested in that debate and I think it’s an interesting debate. But there are also issues of people dismissing queer games as ‘not games’ because they don’t like the content and I would identify that as a problem.
If you don’t wanna play those games you don’t have to play them. I think that’s a general trend…the kinds of people playing and making games are increasingly diverse. So for a certain segment of the audience who is used to a homogenous player base and a homogenous community of developers: things are changing and it’s not going to be like it used to be. You can choose which side of history you want to be on.“
Non-normative voices in the gaming world are often accused of merely complaining or only focusing on negative occurrences in the industry. So in response I thought I’d ask Allen what were some positive things she’s seen going on in the industry. For her its the increasing diversity of voices in games journalism and game design.
“I identified a couple in my letter and I think Kotaku and Polygon are hiring a more diverse staff of writers. I think there’s a long way to go but those are the first steps that are happening. I think the queer games renaissance, if you want to call it that, is a good thing to see. I’m really encouraged by the number of queer games and queer game creators and that growing community because we’re creating our own spaces. The mainstream is not comfortable for us and maybe one day it will change but for now it’s important to critique the mainstream.”
I asked Allen if there were any recent mainstream titles that she found particularly noteworthy in terms of representation and she was quick to mention this year’s reboot of Tomb Raider.
“I was really worried about Tomb Raider because of some of the ways the developers were framing it before it came out. But when it came out I actually really enjoyed it not only as a game but I think…my feminist alarm bells did not really go off as loudly as I thought they would. I wish I didn’t have to kill a gazillion people in Tomb Raider, I wish there were other ways to interact with that world that weren’t mass murder, but that being said one of the things I found some refreshing was that you were a woman rescuing another woman. This kind of paternalistic heterosexuality was completely not a part of Tomb Raider. It was about Lara and Sam, and Lara finding Sam because she’s your friend.”
I brought up Tomb Raider lead writer Rhianna Pratchett’s interview in which she said, in addition to speculation on Lara’s sexuality, that she wanted Lara to be a real woman and not just a man with boobs. I asked Allen what her thoughts were on representation of gender in video games, and beyond that on characterization in games in general.
“I would be wary of essentialist formulations of “this what a woman is like or what a woman is.” But I think it is safe to observe that the kinds of female characetrs that we get in games are typically just variations of heterosexual male fantasies and not really close to…most women that I know, at least. You either have the meek passive woman who needs to be rescued or you have the hyper sexualized battle goddess and there’s a lot of gradation between those. I think it’s more interesting to explore characters who are neither of those things and that games aren’t doing it.
I also think that, without saying that the representation of women isn’t a problem, the representation of men is also problem, I don’t want to get into that kind of MRA [Men's Rights Activist] argument….I don’t think the kinds of characters that we get….it’s surprising to us when they are authentic, that’s how infrequent they are. When we get any sort of nuanced characterization it blows us out of the water because we just don’t see that.
Before wrapping up I decided to ask Allen her thoughts on the recent Penny Arcade controversy surrounding Mike Krahulik and his transphobic tweets. We discussed how quick Mike was to respond to the controversy and how willing he seemed to be to educating himself, going so far as to even donate $20,000 to The Trevor Project to try and make amends. And while Allen appreciates the steps Krahulik has taken, she still thinks there’s more than can be done that costs a lot less.
“He should have taken opportunities for education the first time he got called out for using transphobic language and proposing this antiquated biological definition of sex.
The thing that led to him making a donation was the second time that he had made those comments. The first time plenty of people reached out and offered him resources, and the fact that he came right back a few weeks later with those comments means that that didn’t happen. I appreciate that he apologized and donated money, but what I really want to happen is for people in his position to educate themselves.
To me the cultural impact of that would be substantial, you know? We can look at a donation to a charity and say “20,000 dollars that a lot. That can do a lot of good things.” That’s for sure. But we could also see a community leader educate himself and see all the ramifications of that for the event he organizes, the content he produces, and the large cohort of people that follow his work.”
We discussed the troubling way in which the Mike Krahulik story became all about him and his learning a lesson, and not about the actual transphobic people that felt hurt by his comments.
“I’m wary of the way people in which people instantly turn it around and position themselves as the persecuted ones, when they are the ones who have just systematically erased or hurt an entire class of people.
This happens around every one of these fiascoes. Everyone tells you you need to be more civil or more polite. And the burden is put on you to be nicer and calm down and approach it rationally and wait patiently for things to change and people to educate themselves. Because only if we coddle them and hold their hands will they feel comfortable expanding their horizons. I think that’s an approach that’s asking me to be in a paternalistic relationship with very privileged people and I’m not interested in having that. I start out with the assumption that people of all sorts are on equal footing.”
To end our discussion I decided to ask what games Allen was currently playing, and while she seems to be more focused on a different sort of game for the time being there’s one that she’s particularly curious about.
“I’m in Indiana researching at the Kinsey Institute, hanging out with a cute person I met at the Kinsey Institute, so I’m not playing a whole lot of video games but I’m playing a whole lot of eating out and drinking wine. [laughs]
I want to play Remember Me if I ever get a chance. It was divisive, and it sounds like it had some flaws mechanically, and those games always interest me. You know my attraction to games is the same as my attraction to people. I like broken games and I like broken people. [laughs]“
For more on Samantha Allen, and links to all of her articles, you can visit her official website by clicking here.
You can also keep up with Samantha on twitter @CousinDangereux
And you might just see more of Samantha here on GayGamer in the future, so keep your eyes pealed.