The Incidental Misogeny of Cyberspace

“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.” ~ Gloria Steinem

This will be a long one with a side order of history lesson and a smattering of lecture. Feel free to salt to taste.

A long time ago, when WOW was limited to 60 levels and maxed out characters took long tours of duty in the same boring garb, I was hanging out with my regular org pvp group (all guys and me) and happened to casually remark in vent about how much I hated my Lieutenant Commander’s PVP set. One of my friends asked what I didn’t like about it and I said it wasn’t the individual boosts or the spell bonuses, it was just plain ugly. What followed was a predictable hour of ribbing about silly girls in gaming. It was all in good fun, and I tend to give as good as I get in those situations, so I can’t say I felt harassed or belittled in any significant way. I’m not that type. You have to wake up pretty early on the asshole side of the bed to offend me, otherwise I’ll just volley back.

The next day, however, I got to thinking about how it didn’t occur to any of those same guys that the incidental misogyny of WOW character generation and costuming was aimed at making everything boy-friendly for them. From the Masters of the Universe homage that is Undercity to the action-figure builds of every character to the fact that that in the majority of the lore the leaders and heroes are all male — WOW, like most gaming environments, is Guyville. Naturally, most men would have no issues with the aesthetics or characters — it’s tailored to their likes and dislikes.

My level 60 priest PVP gear was cyan and gold. Cyan and gold, I kid you not. Color blind nanny goats would be able to tell you how tacky it was. Don’t believe me? Feast your eyes on this fresh hell:

Lieutenant Commanders WOW Priest PVP Gear

Lieutenant Commander's WOW Priest PVP Gear

More Lieutenant Commanders WOW Priest PVP Gear

More Lieutenant Commander's WOW Priest PVP Gear

Yet More Lieutenant Commanders WOW Priest PVP Gear

Yet More Lieutenant Commander's WOW Priest PVP Gear

SPIKES, ffs. On. A. PRIEST. In cyan and gold. It’s like they were trying to piss me off.

I’ve been a gamer since my ‘rents bought me my first Telstar Alpha Pong machine for my fifth birthday (note: the box for that old relic MATCHES the Lieutenant Commander PVP set… oh, the humanity!) so I am accustomed to games being aimed at boys. In the early days, I rarely got to play a character of my own sex. Generally, women in video games were only there to be rescued by the important characters like Link and Mario. Princesses Zelda and Toadstool/Peach were pink-clad halfwits ever-abducted by two-dimensional villains. Plumbers had to save them.

In early text-based games like Tai-Pan and King’s Quest, and the Fool’s Errand, you were still a guy (or following the guy story), and addressed like one. Females were thin on the ground. Even Carmen Sandiego was just an elusive mystery you chased and you hardly ever got to arrest the bitch.

The first female character I remember being able to “drive” was Ms. Pac-Man. She was designated female by a tarty red bow, a beauty mark, and lipstick. If those clues failed to make an impact on you, there was the pin-up visual guide adorning the arcade cabinet looking like a yellow M&M crossed with Bettie Boop. Of course, since she was female, the game designers introduced the romance intermission scenes featuring Pac-wedding and Pac-baby. Even at ten, I wanted to Pac-gag. It was the first glimpse of how far off the mark game designers can swing when they descend to address something female, and the first taste of what I’d be putting up with as a girl gamer.

Five years later came Samus Aran, but she was a cyborg and you didn’t know she was a girl until the end, so I maintain she doesn’t count. The fact that it was such a shock for that to be a “reveal” testifies to the rarity of meaningful female protagonists in gaming at that time. In the early 90’s the Mortal Kombat/Street Fighter/Tekken craze introduced some female player characters, but they were mostly mindless sexpot kick and punch drones (I’m sorry, Sonya, my darling, but you know it’s true), although in all fairness, their male counterparts weren’t exactly deep thinkers. The Final Fantasy series started to let us at least pick female characters for our teams, and we got us some good evil facetime in characters like SHODAN.

In 1996 (after twenty years of gaming) I got Lara Croft. So what if she looked like she just got ejected from a trailer park bar’s wet t-shirt contest, she was a street-smart bad ass with a chic accent and automatic weapons. I will always adore the wench. Around that same time we also got Jill Valentine, but I wasn’t really into the Resident Evil thing. Still, Jill should get props, even if they did make her trade in her STARS uniform for a corset and miniskirt (nothing says “let’s kill zombies” like trampy, knock-off clubrat attire). At least the ladies had the right foot gear. Inappropriate outfits aside, the designers didn’t make us run through caves and dystopias in clear heels. We gave thanks for boots. Sometimes, they were even cute boots.

In the late 90’s / early 2000’s, the gates opened up and female game characters got a lot more high profile; we even got to drive on a regular basis. Sure, most the visuals were still sexpot on a stick (*cough* BloodRayne *cough*) but the characters were also complicated, story-driven, and smart. Games like American McGee’s Alice, Drakan, Longest Journey, No One Lives Forever, Return to Mysterious Island and Syberia set the bar higher. I even got to play my girlhood-beloved Nancy Drew, and Nancy wasn’t dressed like a whore. These days, you can’t make a game without including deep female characters in the mix, whether they’re protagonists, side-kicks or deliciously evil antagonists. They are still likely to be of the sexpot variety (…paging Ada Wong…), but I’m not sure if that doesn’t cater, at least in part, to female vanity as much as male vanity at this point. These days, the lines are blurrier. Part of female vanity involves wanting to maintain sex appeal, no different from male vanity (we’re just better at it and tend to be more subtle with it). But, the choice should be equal and the details employed in development matter as much as the mindset we bring to the table when evaluating those choices.

Even with the evolution of gaming into MMOs like NWN, EverQuest, WOW, and Aion, and console games where we actually got some control over our avatar generation, the gaming environment continued to focus on male vanity. Despite the growing presence of female gamers, the market still targets males, and male-targeted marketing is all about “feel good.” Commercials for beer and shaving equipment are testosterone-fests of male bonding and “damn I’m awesome” moments.

I’m a gamer by choice and I’m used to the body humor jokes and the “Dude, no way,” vernacular that dominates most gaming communications. I’ve won my own battles, defied the stereotypical misconceptions of “all women are girlfriend-gamers who need handicaps and can’t play their class.” I’ve put more than one wanna-be Napoleon in his place for trying to get all Lord-and-Master on me. And I’ve done it on the format’s terms, not by pinning my ovaries on my chest and bullying guys into submission. To be honest, I probably swear more than any average guy when I’m gaming. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what the fun vulgarities are for — when you miss.

I don’t expect a bunch of pizza-fueled college boys to want to sit in vent and talk about WOW fashion or the last Sex and the City installment. I don’t get up in some guy’s grill when he’s bitching about his wife nagging him during a raid. I’m not a man-hater and I don’t think you win points for the sisterhood by crying about being the only apple on the orange tree and then demanding everyone change to your variety of fruity goodness.

What does annoy me, however, is the double-standard that exists between those who talk about female-dominated sim-formats like Second Life and hardcore gaming platforms or technology subcultures where boys still remain cocks of the walks.

Example. Over the weekend, Grace re-tweeted a comment by one Raymond Pirouz which read:

The sad truth is that Linden Lab is a wanna-be virtual monarch w/currency exchange power disguised as a Barbie Play House. Sad truth.

Now, Mr Pirouz is correct about a few things. Linden Lab has fumbled a very nice pioneering lead all over the field. The company embraces an annoying propensity to remain entrenched in a class system that impacts both its users and employees. They’re on the verge of pricing themselves out of reasonable realms. Their marketing hypocritically promotes sim-living domesticity and avatar vanity out of one corner of their mouths, while projecting shame of the same demographic over everything else they do. These are legitimate complaints about Linden Lab and I echo them.

But Linden Lab is not playing “Barbie Play House.” They’re not even helping their residents play it. If they were, they’d be better off and a lot of residents and content creators would be happier. They’d also be closer to their own goals.

If they’d focused on getting Barbie Play House right, they’d have built a foundation that would have helped them build toward other targets. But they’re still playing boy ball, and they don’t want their product to be branded as Girlville. So, instead of helping residents optimize their virtual living experiences and developing the marketplace that exists, Linden Lab has been trying desperately to supplant their users. They’re too ashamed to engage and develop Barbie Play House because that’s what those yucky girls like. So they chase educators and businesses and any other demographic that they can like some desperate Super Grover trying to teach kids the difference between near and far.

They do this because people like Mr. Pirouz assign girl vanity as bad and scoff at it, branding it as a low-priority focus while claiming that anything which develops around such a market is doomed to an ultimate demise. I’m sure he’s a swell guy with a lot of know-how in other formats, but on this, he’s just plain off his nut.

Unlike most virtual platforms, Second Life is overwhelmingly female. For better or worse, the grid is estrogen-drenched. Despite this reality — despite the fact that women drive the SL economy — Linden Lab and those who talk about SL seem ashamed or bemused to address it. The video game industry has been built around the male ego and hand-fed male vanity. Women finally have a foothold in a platform, and it seems like no one knows how to manage it, promote it, interpret it, or embrace it.

But, why is that? I mean, in the real world, women drive powerful markets. Not just the obvious vanity markets like fashion or cosmetics, or the domestic markets like household goods and groceries, but the art markets as well. You know all those screaming teenagers who chased rabidly after the Beatles and filled the stadium seats? They weren’t all (or even, mostly) boys. Over the last several decades, females have comprised at least 50% of music sales in most genres, and much higher percentages in key genres. Barry Manilow’s career is my sex’s fault and I have to live with that, but we also had just as much, if not more, influence on the British Invasion and nearly every music revolution that’s happened since. As far as movies go, women spend equally, and women are more likely to spend on books. However, authors and screenwriters know that a woman will see a movie/read a book that appeals to men while the reverse is less likely, so markets skew male and a male-focused product is believed to do better than a female-focused one because of this crossover discrepancy between the sexes.

Female gaming is on the rise, we buy our fair share of techo-toys, and cyberspace is becoming more and more our equal territory. Sure, we still have to navigate guy-infested waters when we want to blow stuff up, but our native habitats are Sim-based; we’re good at them and we spend on them. And it doesn’t matter how much you roll your eyes, we’re going to buy cute virtual dresses and decorate cute virtual homes and that’s going to account for a hell of a lot more of the SL economy than anything else for a while yet. So you can keep rolling those eyes and missing the forest for the trees, or you can confront why that notion seems silly to you while you tweet about techo-gadgets and video games in much less derogatory language.

Toward the end of the tweeted back and forth, the bloke tossed over some vague, “oh gee sorry if I offended” which I’m sure he felt was lip service owed to some hypersensitive female. Very few people who deal in virtual world circles and speak about technology recognize when they disparage female-focused products and endeavors, and when it’s pointed out to them, or when they’re made to defend their positions without the scoffing, they commonly like to fall back on “those sensitive females” tropes. Like a uterus negates logic and spell power bonuses.

Mr. Pirouz will never know what it’s like to be the only woman in a vent channel during a 25-man raid listening to all the male geeks brag about their earliest masturbatory experiences starring Jessica Rabbit. He’ll never know what it’s like to have some yokel from Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky call you “honey” while he talks down to you about how to play a class he’s never rolled. So, I’m sure to him, my calling him on the cheap shot legitimately felt like a silly overreaction and that’s why his arguements were all over the map (first assuming I had a personal stake in Linden Lab before resorting to the “sensitivity issue” cop-out). Because the idea that a woman might be making a valid point about double standards on virtual vanity simply doesn’t compute.

For the record, the tweets will reveal that I didn’t mock him too much for trying to use jargon in place of logic when he invoked Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs irrelevantly; I didn’t even gloat when he misused his own red herring (stating that luxury items were *low* on the hierarchy when they’re actually at the top). I didn’t roll my eyes when he threw out “sensitivity” and “if I offended anyone in Barbie land.” I gotz me a sense of humor, I kin dance 2 eet.

I don’t want to be the feminist brat poster child. I mean, I will if there’s a check attached to it, but that’s not what I’m after here.

I just want people who claim to be engaged about Second Life to think before they talk down about how frivolous female-centered virtual activities are and how invalid they are as market-focus products. Yes, Second Life is capable of so much more than make-believe dresses and houses, and yes, that should be discussed and shouldn’t be forgotten.

But, Apple is more than Macs, and they don’t ignore or discontinue their personal computer products. Disney is more than cartoons, but they still cultivate them, and promote them properly. Just because you have potential to do more, doesn’t mean you diss your bread and butter. You don’t ignore the demographics you have and the market share that works to chase something that isn’t yours yet.

Being a business professional means identifying your profit margin, developing it into a stable base, and branching out in small, careful steps to diversify your product. Linden Lab needs to worry less about geek street cred and go hard after what it’s good at. Before it can do that, it has to seal up its existing demographic and stop chasing the one it wishes it had. Part of that is embracing the fact that it is a virtual play-land that skews female; the rest of it is not freaking out about the false belief that embracing the female vanity market means that’s all they’re doomed to be.

So if you’re one of those people writing about virtual worlds and Second Life with any regularity, get off Barbie’s plastic ass, already. Most of you Master Chief wannabes would shell out plenty to get an interface that let you have carnal knowledge of Cortana. You’d package it with a free sample of ExtenZe while Jimmy Johnson and Kevin Conway plugged it during every Adult Swim commercial break, and you wouldn’t even blush. You’d tweet high-fives back and forth until you lost circulation.

Most of business and marketing is about catering to human vanity. It’s about making people want, or making them believe they need. It’s true for luxury; it’s true for art; it’s going to be true for everything virtual that is to come. If your language, your methods, or your own mindset leads you to believe that female vanity is somehow more shameful, or less valid than the in-your-face male vanity that predominates most technology and gaming environments, change the way you think because in this brave new world you’re the relic.

The clubhouse has been invaded. Get used to us. We crit all over Azeroth and eat murlocks for lunch right next to you. We’ve put in our time with your pin-up arcade decor and it’s time you accepted that we might be changing the drapes. It’s our turn to step into avatars and environments that appeal to us, instead of having to choose between stripper-stacked whores or humpbacked old crones. Hey, cheer up, a percentage of us will still pick centerfold avatars, we just want the options to add glasses and cute skirts in colors other than cyan and gold.

And I leave you with this warning:

I swear to god, if my next tier set has clear heels, I’m going to bitch-slap Arthas, hijack Frostmourne, take Northrend hostage and make every game developer live in Stranglethorn Vale until they’re all crying like little girls from getting chain-sapped outside the Gurubashi Arena by teenaged 4chan rogues with nothing better to do with their time.

Do not test me on this. I have portals; I know things.

This entry was posted in Gaming, Geekelicious, Inner Space, Second Life, Virtual Living. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Incidental Misogeny of Cyberspace

  1. OMG you were totally writing this during my set last night, wench!
    (And if we keep getting these kind of posts, I shall continue to serenade)

  2. Lalo Telling says:

    Since I follow Grace, I also saw her RT of Pirouz’s initial comment — I even replied, in snarky fashion, “I’d put it exactly opposite: Barbie Play House disguised (or self-deluded?) as wannabe monarch.”

    Yes, I’m a guy. But I had a younger sister who “played Barbies” with her friends; later I had the occasional girlfriend, and a wife or two, who reminisced about those days. So when verified female friends invoke Barbie as shorthand for an aspect of their approach to and activities in SL, I get it. Sure, there’s a little condescension, but there’s also respect, and more than a little wistfulness for days gone by. And no, I’m not a gamer. So I didn’t come to SL with the gender-based and marketing-influenced preconceptions you talk about from the gaming world(s).

    No matter how you stand on consumerism and the indoctrination of young minds into “improve yourself by buying stuff”, the trophy has to go to Mattel Inc. for the Barbie line of products. I’m old enough to remember the introduction of “GI Joe” and the whole genre of “action figure” as a palatable way to sell the same basic idea — dress-up dolls — to boys, because it was so successful with girls (and with their parents’ wallets).

    My reply to Pirouz, it turns out, agrees with this post of yours in a way. You don’t get to be the biggest member (pun intended) of the VW pack without the economy… and what’s that economy best at? Dressing up and accessorizing.

  3. Fantastic read! I’ve been trying to evangelize the position that all testosterone does not a good virtual world platform make. You stated it very nicely.

    Tateru forwarded your blog, and now I’m afraid I have another blog I need to add to my RSS feed to check. :)

  4. Leah says:

    Even if I haven’t played WOW, I’m completely with you about the lack of good female characters, and the overt misogyny in games.

  5. I don’t often fall in love with blog entries, but I want to marry this one. Just sayin’.

    Yes, yes indeed. Two notes only:

    1) “Barbie Play-House” sucks too, sadly, as does every attempt to over-package what’s fundamentally an exercise of the imagination — over-packaging saps “play value.” The reason SL works so well for playing house (IMHO) — and potentially so well as a virtual-products economy — is that it enables and encourages customization at every scale beyond the atomic product, which may certainly be ‘kitted’ in some circumstances (e.g., you can buy a complete, furnished skybox), but usually isn’t (because people who specialize in boots, like Bax Coen, make better boots than people who don’t). For this reason, I can look at one of Harper Beresford’s themed outfits, acknowledge the superlative creativity of the components, and also acknowledge Harper’s own creative act that found the skin, hair, shoes, stockings, dress, scarf, jewelry and put them together, and the writing and photographic artistry that composed them in a blog entry.

    2) Attempts (by LL and many others) to market Barbie Play House also historically suck, because they trivialize complex cultural and economic phenomena. An example can be found in LL’s recent email, subject-lined “Be a Vampire in Second Life!” which sought lamely to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the release of the latest Twilight movie via shallow, come-on publicity of vampire-themed roleplay opps available on the grid. The only possible effect of this promo was to appeal to a microscopically-small Venn diagram of conjunct sets (i.e., “People who want to roleplay vampires, who will deal with the complexities of a full-on 3D VW in order to do it, who aren’t already doing it in City of Eternals or 20 other vampire-themed casual games and MMORPGs, etc.”) while making literally every other recipient cringe or sneer, and (almost incidentally) adding fuel to the half-canard that Second Life is a refuge for Vamp/B&D sex cultists.

    It would have been so easy (comparatively speaking) to have put a real writer in charge of that promotion, and cast it instead as an authentic exploration of how goth/vampire/roleplay subcultures and fads are mirrored on the grid in terms of fashion, entertainment, gaming/rp, and lifestyle to the tune of serious traffic and relatively serious money. In other words, take the Vogue or Elle or Fortune Magazine approach, which treats the subject with respect (while not over-intellectualizing), puts things in economic context to some extent, and provides access to the subject-matter to demographics beyond the original fad’s footprint. If you do this right, you can avoid the sneers, bring in a broader range of new users (e.g., the people who might not care at all about vampire roleplay, but might care very much about Goth and/or historic fashion and the club scene) and increase the credibility of the platform as a diverse economic engine to sideline analysts.

    Neither of these quibbles, of course, bears more than peripherally on your main assertion, absolutely correct, that SL’s strength is in its diverse ‘consumer’ economy, which maps ultimately to a physical-world economy in which women control fully 85% of spending.

    In recommending strategy to LL, however, I think the big take-away here is both that they need to acknowledge the primacy of the consumer economy they’ve created, and its essential contribution to _all_ use-cases (including business and other forms of ‘seriousness’), but also that they need to stop trying to elicit consumer behavior by “marketing and packaging” at toplevel (because that will inevitably be lame), and instead focus on the platform itself: improve its scale and functionality, include new features that facilitate inworld business’ outreach to customers (e.g., functional exteriorizations of inworld content to the SEO-enabled web instead of inworld search), and lower costs, at which point the SL economy itself will solve their current traffic problem.

  6. Salome says:

    @ Wench – I actually published this before your concert, but I was being challenged in IM about whether or not Ms. Pac was the first female video game protagonist. Promises of serenades as writing incentives are just plain cheating.

    @ Lalo – I understand there can be playful good humor involved with invoking Barbie, paper dolls, etc. I myself use those terms to acknowledge my own self-indulgence and frivolity. I did not, however, get the impression that Pirouz was employing any playfulness. His shot was at LLab, and his frustration is shared by many, but, as his following tweets revealed, he was clearly trying to maintain that allowing focus to develop on female-oriented vanity and consumerism was a bad play. I don’t get the impression he was just being cheeky. Unfortunately, his mindset dominates a lot of techno/virtual dialog. I wasn’t intending to address whether or not consumerism is good or bad, merely highlighting the sexual inequality that often infiltrates into a realm where consumerism dominates.

    @ Ron – Been following your tweets for a while, nice to see you.

    @ Leah – Hey you!

    @ John – I wasn’t trying to imply that Linden Lab should hoist its version of virtual living onto us. Far from it. They suck at it — just look at Linden Homes. Their job, as I see it, isn’t to produce better consumer products, but better consumer information outlets and builder tools. Improvement on basic elements like search would help consumers find products, data back-up would stabilize the value of virtual goods in the format — these are things I was implying. Even just improving communication tools that meaningfully help content creators to distribute and reach their customers would be their way to help us play.

    I’m not going to get into the Wal-Mart content creator vs. the boutique content creator in SL. That’s an excellent topic, but it deserves its own post. I’m also not going to get into SL-based RP here, as I’ve been researching for a post on that very subject.

    You are absolutely right, and we are in complete agreement that LLab needs to step up their game on promoting to their users. Their email promotions, their site content — most of it is so out of touch and extraordinarily condescending. At best it’s like watching a goofy parent try and fit in with the teenagers hanging out in the basement. At worst it’s transparent and offensive. I really think until they get their PR together, they should just focus on providing information to their users and stop trying to “sell” them things that are far below market quality. Once upon a time the happy-shiny talk-down-to-you stuff was tolerable, but those “we’re a start-up” days are over. Most Lindens don’t even have avatars their users can relate to; they use system hair and shoes, wear sloppy, outdated clothing textures, and they think this somehow brands them as throwback cool or gives the impression that they have more important things to do than care how their avatar looks.

    Good to see you here.

  7. Kelley says:

    Shake it, Salome. You nailed WOW, completely, and its overall 14-year-old male atmosphere.

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  9. A. Marina Fournier says:

    I hear you on the lack of games and virtual worlds that are woman-positive, one reason why I never got into them. Token female characters don’t cut it.

    As an aside, my husband once had a bank account IN Monkey’s Eyebrow, just because. He was living in Louisville at the time. I think it’s a holler town–not sure.

  10. A certain duo, one of whom was a redheaded shameless hussy, the other a glasses wearing Patootie-head, who used to blog SL fashion said it best: Our Wardrobe is Better than Barbie’s.

    Me, I’m all about the Pretty, which is why I’m using 2.0, I’d rather not. Virtual World and Internet pundits who denigrate the Pretty and doll-play make CC cry. It also makes me think they are clueless, because fashion and avatar enhancements drive the SL economy, from the ladies of Caledon to the ladies of Zindra, they all have one thing in common….they shop.

    One interesting way I’ve seen SL denigrated by smarass guys is by them making the claim that “all the women in SL are guys because that’s how it is in the games they play.” I try to tell them that SL is different, that it really does appeal to more than traditional guy gamers, but they don’t believe me.

    A very good post, Salome. Ever thought about writing for New World Notes?

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  13. Zara Robertson says:

    GI JOE cartoons and the GI JOE Movie are all great stuff ,~*

  14. Car Equalizers  says:

    i remeber GI JOE when i was still a kid, this was my favorite cartoon.*’

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