In this guest edition of The Interview, Jonathan Krause talks to Liana Kerzner, a Canadian media professional-turned-games journalist and critic.
Ever since the Gamergate controversy erupted in 2014, gender has been a hot topic in the video game industry. This is true for insiders, enthusiasts and the mainstream culture in their view of gaming.
In this guest edition of The Interview, Jonathan Krause talks to Liana Kerzner, a Canadian media professional-turned-games journalist and critic, about her experiences in the industry and her efforts to facilitate information and discussion about feminism and gender issues in the gaming world.
Jonathan Krause: When did you first find yourself interested in thinking and writing about gender issues?
Liana Kerzner: I can’t remember not thinking about it. As a kid, I was very gender atypical. I didn’t like “girls things,” which caused me to question why there were boy things and girl things in the first place. I was very fortunate to grow up in a lower-income neighborhood, and it sounds strange to say that, but because class was such a big thing where I grew up gender really took a back seat. There wasn’t the “Oh, you’re a girl, you can’t do this” stuff.
Then I got into university and all of a sudden gender started mattering acutely. That was a real culture shock to me. I was really surprised. All of a sudden I was in these halls of higher learning and suddenly I’m being told I’m inherently different?
When I was in television, between 1997 and 2011, that became even more acute. In the late 1990s I was working on a very risqué late-night show on Canadian television. We had a hot tub, porn stars, dancing girls — all that stuff. When I came on board I said, “OK, how can we make feminist hot tub girls and dancing girls?” Can we do a highly sexualized program and make it female friendly? We wound up with the distinction of being the longest-running late night show in Canadian television history. We out-drew Letterman and Leno in the ratings, our female numbers moved up to being comparable with men, and we were consistently voted the most popular television program in the local prison! So, we were firing on all cylinders. You couldn’t do that sort of show anymore — at least not in the current media landscape, at least not in Canada, which made me hyper-aware of this political correctness/culture war.
Krause: And now you focus primarily on video games?
Kerzner: Well, my first love was always video games. I’ve been a gamer since I was three years old, when my mother used to hold me up so I could play Pac Man — I just called it bucka-bucka because of the sound it made. It was that, and it was Wizard of War, and it was Missile Command, and it just went from there. There are moments in gaming where, for example, I remember the first time I saw Mortal Kombat, the coin-op arcade machine, and it just reached out and pulled me in. It was undeniable. I remember getting nightmares from the original Resident Evil: It was the Night of the Living Dead of our generation. We went in not knowing what to expect, and it was the sounds, the pacing, the limited number of saves … brilliant, brilliant design.
I wanted to do something with video games and I got my world rocked again. What do you mean there’s something inherently different about being a gamer that happens to be female? I like the same games as you, for a lot of the same reasons that you do. Once again I was being treated as inherently different, not by the material (because the game doesn’t judge you), but I would try to express my opinions at industry events and it would be, “Well, of course you think that, you’re a girl.” Excuse me! People would say, “When I first met you I was surprised how much you knew about games.” And mind you these are industry events.
Why would you assume I didn’t know the industry? That was when I didn’t know as much about the games press as I do now — this was about 10 years ago. I’ve seen how far things have come in the intervening time. It is far more welcoming to women than it was when I started 10 years ago. That’s why I take exception to this idea that gaming is “versus women.”
Krause: So, you recently produced a video series online called A Gamer’s Guide to Feminism. What was your inspiration for the series?
Kerzner: My male, Republican friend who works in the defense industry convinced me to do it. Initially I resisted the idea, because I didn’t want the noise that comes with this sort of project. I had seen what happened to other people who tried to talk about feminism online, especially regarding tech or the media. It made me acutely conscious of how I was going to talk about gender issues, not just what I planned on saying. You can’t persuade people who feel like you’re crapping on them. If you’re looking to start a conversation you have to respect your audience and meet them where they are. You can’t just preach at them. Essentially, I thought it was a worthy endeavor. I just wasn’t sure I was the person to do it. But my friend was so insistent I decided to try.
I do consider myself a feminist, hence my shirt [which Liana proudly displayed via Skype chat] “Ask me about my feminist agenda.”’ I don’t think that gaming and feminism have to be separate, and I don’t think they have to be in conflict with one another. I also think that the version of feminism that gaming has been exposed to — what I call the “Dworkside,” a portmanteau of the dark side from Star Wars and Andrea Dworkin — is having a profound impact on video games, which gives me real cause for concern.
I feel like it is a step backward. It is a form of essentialism that says men and women are inherently different; that men are some kind of inherent aggressor and women are some sort of inherent victim. This concerns me, hence my current work trying to offer a different kind of feminist critique and approach to the gaming industry. I find that there are a lot of people who play video games, who enjoy video games, and who care about gender issues and they’re hungry for knowledge. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of accessible information about feminism in the media out there that does not repel, or condescend or accuse them of something. I don’t think they, heteronormative men and women, should feel under attack when they try to go out and learn about something.
Krause: How do you feel about the Gamer’s Guide to Feminism now that it is done?
Kerzner: Overall, positive. Of course there are things I would have done differently, some production value things (generally tied to a lack of resources). I think I would have interwoven more theory in with the history of feminism, to help better contextualize the two together, rather than discussing them more separately. In the end, it was really gratifying and humbling to see gamers try to apply some of the concepts and facts I provided for them to other spheres. To have people ask me about Simone de Beauvoir and try to engage with The Feminine Mystique, the sort of online dialogue that people wrongly assume can’t happen.
People assume that gamers were just inherently hostile to all of this stuff, when in reality gamers are in no way repelled by gender discussion and concepts — gaze theory, etc. It just has to make sense to them, and be framed in a way they can access it and understand it. I think it is a great foundation from which we can move forward with these discussions. I think we’ve found a method and means of communication that is productive.
Krause: In addition to your work on A Gamer’s Guide to Feminism you’ve recently been reaching out directly to groups or individuals who might be classed, and perhaps even class themselves, as distinctly anti-feminist or men’s rights activists, or other parts of the broader so-called manosphere, as poor a term as it is. What has this experience been like?
Kerzner: As many self-described MRAs will tell you, it’s not a monolith. Some people who identify that way are great to talk to. Others are angry ideologues, kind of like the so-called “women’s movement.” The interesting thing about studying feminism, and this is particularly relevant to a lot of these groups, is that even though historically Western culture has been male-dominated that has only benefited a minority of men, the so-called alphas. In society there is this ideal that men have to live up to, and when they don’t there are consequences. There are a lot of guys who feel left behind by these so-called benefits of patriarchy. To some extent this goes back to class.
I think this so-called manosphere is a product of that. They are very sensitive to collective blame, and I get that. I don’t like the collective blame that feminists get either. This is probably why I’m overusing “so-called” here. A single idea shouldn’t define a person, and I think they do just that in the gender wars in a way I find unhealthy.
When you talk to a lot of these so-called anti-feminists, many of them are just working class people who don’t see themselves reaping the benefits of the concept of male privilege. These aren’t known names like Paul Elam or Richard Spencer, and accordingly their views don’t tend to the extremes that get rewarded in the media. Feminism has the same issue with representation, by the way. Ultimately, these non-celebrity MRAs are concerned about issues that do matter. Things like suicide, veterans’ issues and child custody concerns. I try to get them to hear that there is a lot more to third-wave feminism than just arguing about stuff that, in the grand scheme of things, really doesn’t matter (the size of video game character breasts, for example).
Krause: One of the anti-feminist groups you recently spoke to was Kotaku in Action, an online refuge for so-called Gamergaters. How did that go?
Kerzner: The Ask Me Anything session itself was extremely positive. The frustrating part was that the haters on that board didn’t use it as an opportunity to confront me directly. Accordingly, I now take them less seriously. For all the slagging that board gets, the questions the users asked were thoughtful and challenging. Many of the questions were informed, probing questions about specific feminist concepts, specifically stuff surrounding Simone de Beauvoir’s work. That indicated to me that there was legitimate interest in the concepts related to feminism on KiA. The AMA was fun and challenging. I enjoyed it.
I think for a lot of MRAs the issue is less about actual rights and more about dignity. They just want to keep their dignity. I used to ask MRAs, What actual rights don’t you have? and they’d cite a lot of things that are highly subjective. For instance, they complain that men are drafted in America while women aren’t. They see that as an anti-male policy. While I agree that the military should be open to women, this is not a rights issue. Suicide is not a rights issue. Male parenting is not a rights issue. These are issues of compassion.
Society, in short, doesn’t show men enough compassion. I don’t think it shows women true compassion either, by the way. Paternalism isn’t compassion. But I do see the point that it’s still much more socially acceptable when a woman is cared for emotionally and financially, due to masculine and feminine stereotypes. The larger issues of respect don’t matter much to someone who is desperate.
Krause: What was your experience of the Gamergate controversy?
Kerzner: At the beginning of Gamergate I was bombarded with a lot of invective and vitriol because I was a feminist member of the games press. However, this statement of fact says nothing about the truths behind it, and those truths are an important underlying dynamic of Gamergate that has gone largely unreported. The truth is that people said those things because they were angry and hurt. It wasn’t personal. Civility had broken down and people were fighting fire with fire. Many gamers mirror abusive language without realizing that it’s abusive: They’ve been told to grow a thicker skin so many times, but they can’t quite get skin thick enough to make the hurt stop, so they lash out in self-defense.
I believe that the video game enthusiast press should be leading by example, but instead too many websites publish insulting, inflammatory pieces in desperate bids for clicks. Outrage drives traffic, but it erodes community. The problem I see with modern discourse is that groups are trying to demand compassion and empathy in others instead of being examples of it.
Krause: How long will we be dealing with the fallout from Gamergate?
Kerzner: I can’t see this current paradigm lasting. There are too many indications of weakness in leadership. A lot of current gaming editors should stop writing pieces themselves and perhaps even move into different roles to shake out the bitterness, but there’s nowhere for them to move to. Too many men in gaming try to talk about their own pain through the harassment-of-women narrative. It’s annoying, because they don’t realize that what they’re really doing is just talking over women instead of providing us with meaningful opportunities.
We don’t need Superman. We need Clark Kent. Clark Kent can write articles about our damned projects instead of just caring about us in the abstract. The problem is that if you don’t whimper and bat your eyes, if you don’t let certain guys be heroes, then they don’t emotionally invest and they don’t cover your stuff. It’s a pity-party casting couch with no sex, but just as much patriarchal gatekeeping. So I get why so many women embrace the victim narrative: It’s the gaming equivalent of sleeping your way to the middle. I don’t blame the women who follow that path, because I know how hard the alternative is.
Krause: Do you think the internet a good medium for discussion? Can online discussion shift the tectonic plates of culture and society?
Kerzner: Can the internet shift the tectonic plates? The internet is already is! The internet had a fundamental influence on the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Justin Trudeau has effectively harnessed digital media as well. It is already having an impact. As for commenters and online discussion, we are talking about many individuals who, through no fault of their own, were raised in educational systems that did not teach them critical thinking. They come online and are trying to discover critical thinking through online discourse. Some of them are raging against the system because they are bored. People want to feel like they matter. If they don’t get that sense that they have agency through pro-social means they’re going to do it through anti-social means.
The number of times I’ve approached an outlet — a gaming publication — and said that I want to do a piece on women in gaming, and the male editor would say, Well, I think we’ve done enough on that for the time being. Yeah, “we did enough on that” because you wrote the piece, asshole!
One of the things I’m really happy about is the comments section on my YouTube channel is fabulous. We can actually have conversations about very difficult, sensitive subject matter in a respectful way. The anonymity of it has allowed people to open up about some deeply personal things in my comments section, which is incredibly humbling for me. So, in terms on anonymity as a tool, as much as I’ve been on the receiving end of some lousy stuff, I see the utility of it. There are times when people need that anonymity to be able to speak because there can be serious repercussions for people speaking their minds, both in the media and more broadly.
Krause: I grew up thinking that gaming would one day be accepted as a normal, mainstream activity. I don’t think we’re really there yet. Why is gaming not accepted?
Kerzner: I think it is accepted. When you see someone playing Candy Crush Saga on the bus that shows the acceptance. Some forms of media are fighting this acceptance, but they’re just delaying the inevitable. Remember that movies were, at one point, considered junk culture. Before that, prose novels were considered junk culture. There’s no such thing as junk culture. All culture is culture. Gaming is just the new rock’n’roll. I embrace the hatred because I think it shows we’re doing something important.
Krause: Part of the depiction of gaming in the mainstream media, indeed in the mainstream culture, is that it is really a boy’s thing. There are strong age (or at least, maturity) and gender assumptions made about who plays video games. Why is that? Is it accurate? How can we change it?
Kerzner: That has more to do with TV advertising and the way games are gendered today. Back in the Atari, Intellivision, Colecovision days there was no concept that games were for boys. These systems were all marketed to families. After the ET Atari crash and the video game burial ground, however, no store would touch video games. The thought of home systems was just toxic. Now, the arcades business was still booming at this time (in the early 1980s). Arcades were a destination. They were designed for date night. The idea was for the arcade to be this safe alternative to driving up to lover’s lane, very much like going to the movies.
So many games of this era were designed specifically for women. Pac Man and Centipede, for example, were both developed to appeal to women. They were less military themed, the color schemes were more pastel. Centipede was in fact coded by a woman, Dona Bailey, who had previously been coding cruise control programs for General Motors in assembly language. Bailey was ahead of her time in being aware of sensitivities to video game violence. She reasoned that it’s a different moral calculus when you’re only killing bugs. If you look at Centipede, it does stand out in that it functions on a secondary color palate instead of a primary color scheme. These colors are traditionally associated with feminine content, but they were also a lot easier for those old cathode ray tube monitors to generate.
I think World of Warcraft and Disney Infinity continued that tradition in terms of colors. World of Warcraft’s color palette wasn’t gender neutral, it was gender inclusive. That game is full of pink, full of lilac. It’s just pretty. The track ball used on those old 1980s games was also a little different, in that it simplified the core controls, but made the game deceptively difficult. Many games that appeal to women tend to work on that paradigm. Make of that what you will.
Jump ahead to 1985. When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out in North America they had to sneak it into toy stores that were still very wary of home gaming consoles. Hence the robot that came with it and did absolutely nothing. Oh, no it’s not a game, it’s a toy. It’s an entertainment system. So, toy stores thought, OK, where do we put it in the store? Well, it has a robot, put it in the boys’ section. If the NES had come with a doll instead of a robot we may today think of video games as girl’s things! It was totally arbitrary.
Krause: The way that the gender debate in gaming has been framed in the mainstream is partially the industry against women. Is this a fair depiction of the current status and challenges of women in the tech and gaming industries?
Kerzner: In a word, no. It’s reductive. The truth is far more nuanced. A work being for men does not mean that it’s automatically against women. That’s a false binary that’s gender essentialist: It assumes profound and unchanging difference between men and women. It assumes inequality.
The challenges facing women in the games industry are cultural, not biological. For instance, people like to describe intellectual disagreements between women as catfights. If it were two guys, say Jim Stirling and Yahtzee, were having disagreements about games, everybody would sit there and hang on every word, and see it as this big intellectual thing. It’s not seen as, The sky is falling, everyone run and hide, we’re getting an estrogen shitstorm. When it is two women, first of all because there aren’t as many of us, people just lose their mind.
There is also precious little space to seriously talk about gender issues in the mainstream games press. The number of times I’ve approached an outlet — a gaming publication — and said that I want to do a piece on women in gaming, and the male editor would say, Well, I think we’ve done enough on that for the time being. Yeah, “we did enough on that” because you wrote the piece, asshole!
Part of the reason I went independent is I got tired of the companies I worked for getting highly uncomfortable when I dove in — basically when I acted like any male gaming professional with strong opinions. Until I am allowed the same opportunities and people don’t freak out because of the gender issue, women will not have an equal voice in this industry. This is not the normal arguments you hear about women and gaming, which is normally about Dead or Alive volleyball girls and dancing girls at events. I am personally not offended by these things.
When it comes down to how do you attract female professionals to gaming you have to remember: The women who are going to come into gaming are not like the women who are going to go into early childcare, education or cosmetics. We are dynamic, we are aggressive, we are a little bit offensive. Maybe more than a little bit! It isn’t about welcoming women in the abstract, it’s about welcoming the actual women that this industry attracts.
Krause: You say it is possible to achieve better gender inclusivity in the games industry. How?
Kerzner: Equality actually has to be equal. It can’t be a man’s world that women are allowed into. The big question is, What does that mean? That’s where things get complicated.
How is it possible to get there? I think it is important to, like any good science fiction does, get distance from a difficult problem so that we can take a good, hard look at that difficult problem without the immediate hang-ups that normally get in the way. You know, the metaphors of aliens for race, etc. Let’s get some perspective. Let’s not think about men and women and start with individuals. Let’s look at individuals who are female in gaming
Krause: What did games do for you?
Kerzner: Every gamer has a story like you do, a story like I do: Gaming saved us in some regard. To me, gaming was a series of role models in a world where I didn’t see any. I didn’t see anyone who approached the world the way I did. Think of characters like Carmen San Diego, this really glamorous, dynamic super-villainess. We got those heroines that in 1980s action cartoons didn’t really exist. We had women on the team, but they were always the princess, they were never the leader.
In gaming, on the other hand, when there was a woman in the game, she did stuff. The Baldur’s Gate games, Torment — these classic RPGs allowed me building blocks to build my identity. This is the understanding of games that gamers have, that these analysts that are colonizing the discourse don’t. These voices cannot convince me games were bad, because they did so much good for me. Instead, if we want better gender inclusivity in gaming we have to speak in the affirmative to the games industry and game developers. It has to be, Games are good, now what if I told you we could provide these positive experiences to even more people. Wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?
Part of this is also busting down the stigma in the mainstream media about games. As long as you keep hearing that video games make kids violent it will be harder for girls and young women to come into gaming. We know parents are more protective of little girls than little boys. This mainstream perception of gaming is automatically filtering out a huge number of girls under the age of eight. It is shutting future doors for them, both in entertainment and in employment, long before they’re old enough to even know those doors exist. We have to start getting gaming products where the women are. We need to start signaling more that games are for them. The only end-run we can do around the mainstream media is the internet right now.
One thing we can do is promote more games in schools, because that evens the playing field. I was a beneficiary of this. We got to play Carmen Sandiego, the Oregon Trail, those Apple II games as part of computer lab in school. We need to bring those experiences back.
Krause: So, looking forward, tell me about your next project Lady Bits? What will it look like? What do you want out of it?
Kerzner: Lady Bits is an online show we’re currently fundraising for via Kickstarter where I’m going to ask challenging questions about women in video games, present multiple sides of the debate, and allow the viewer to form their own conclusions.
I don’t care what opinion the viewer formulates. What I care about is that they are engaging, that they are struggling with it, and that they are actually trying to think for themselves about these concepts. Too often, especially with the more radical polarization of the debate — manosphere/rad feminists — people are not just being told what to think, they’re being told how to think. There is no way we’re going to have a discussion of gaming unless it is for us, by us. That’s the goal.
The first episode is: Is the rebooted Lara Croft really more feminist? Sure, her boobs are smaller, but what about Lara Croft as a character? Her actions, decisions and motivations. We need to talk about how Lara Croft’s sexuality is a big reason we’re still talking about her today. The fact that she just dropped like a bomb on gaming. It was one of the early three-dimensional games, and if she wasn’t very three-dimensional, Tomb Raider wouldn’t have had the same impact.
Because it is content for gamers it has to be more about the journey than the destination. In order to persuade gamers you have to be hands off. The biggest persuasion you can do with a gamer is to give them the kit and let them make the cake themselves. Because any gamer knows: If you just hand the gamer a cake, the cake is a lie.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: nikolos