Readers Fire Back

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by Robert de los Reyes, Esq.

This week's Monday Morning pauses to respond to a couple of astute email questions and comments FI has received. The first concerns our write-up of a news item about women gamers and gender issues online. The second is a question following up on the last Monday Morning column regarding end-user license agreements. We appreciate your questions and comments, so, by all means, keep them coming.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

As a matter of editorial policy, we don't put bylines on our news coverage. I'll make an exception today and confess to having written this post:

"Pink Versions of Guy Games" 4/4/02 features an editorial from a "girl gamer", and she's plenty pissed. She makes the point that evidently bears repeating – girls and women these days make up nearly as much of the market for games as boys and men. A hard-core fragger, she laments that games for girls tend just to be pink versions of boy games. She also disfavors the disproportionately buxom female character model. Nothing new, but still worth stating. The author falls into an awful trap, however, implying ridiculously that a man playing with a female character in an online game is a closet transsexual. Her zinger seems not only inept, but aimed at the wrong target. Are men willing to play strong female characters the ones who keep oppressing her?

Perhaps as guilty as the editorial writer I upbraided, my throwaway line at the end of the item prompted a stern, but thoughtful reply. With the permission of the emailer, I will reprint our colloquy below edited only slightly to protect the innocent.

The e-mailer wrote the following:

"Her zinger seems not only inept, but aimed at the wrong target. Are men willing to play strong female characters the ones who keep oppressing her?" Quite possibly, yes. You seem to imply that just because a guy is willing to play a "strong female character" means he's not sexist. Sure, in your case and some others, that's true. But plenty of guys get off on visualizing (or possibly, playing) the domineering-female role while still sexualizing and/or objectifying women. That's not a stretch. I'm not saying this woman is necessarily right, but I am saying your knee-jerk response to her admittedly somewhat canned feminist stance is not particularly insightful and focuses attention on one small part, and thus away from the point of an otherwise worthy editorial. Okay, so I'm not a gamer. I just want to throw in some real female perspective to your site (welcome or not).

Thus chastened, I offered my reply. Please indulge me on matters of style, as I had not originally intended to repost this discussion:

I actually think I gave that editorial way too much credit. Through much sound and fury, she basically makes the points (1) that most games are designed by men and for men, and (2) that attempts to make "girl games" are off the mark. Her first point is unremarkable and, as a matter of writing style, only achieved in the interstices. Her second point evinces a fair lack of knowledge about the industry. "Pink" games sell pretty well... with girls. She's a woman and wants more. Fair enough. Women have likely been the critical factor making The Sims the best selling game in history. The Sims is a franchise with no end in sight. Women are coming around to the FPS scene, but, in general, women are less interested in them for the same reasons they prefer romantic comedies to violent films. That may be changing (perhaps not for the better), but that's still where the market is. You could, of course, take away some of the things that make women less interested, i.e. scantily clad women. Or at least put in hunky guys. That might work except that women, in general, don't seem to get the same titillation from anime that men do. Anyway, I have long advocated trying to steer away from puerile content – female-unfriendly or otherwise – because the demographics aren't just more female, they're also older (at least in PC games). In my view, however, the influence of women will not be to change the boy games, but to motivate developers to produce more games like The Sims.

As for your point about the criticism of her "zinger"... I can make something of your argument as a theoretical matter, but that just hasn't been my experience as a gamer. Guys who play women in online games usually get harassed for it by the less mature. The standing rule – the one the author reinforces – is that your online avatar MUST match your gender or you're obviously a "homo." That attitude is the one that pairs up with the thinking she dislikes so, that girls don't game or that they game badly. Sexualizing the female character only reinforces my point. It's decidedly not "gay" to play a female character. As someone pointed out to me, playing a female character in Elder Scrolls: Arena was very popular because you could undress her. If forced to choose between staring at a hot chick for 40 hours of gameplay and staring at a hairy guy, I can't understand how choosing the former makes you gay. I think this is shockingly obvious – you, a non-gamer, certainly picked up on it. That this author not only didn't get it, but joined the homophobes in order to score some cheap points is a pretty solid basis for indictment of her judgment.

Gender issues are more pronounced in online games than single-player games because you have the element of interactivity with other people and that interactivity is filtered through an avatar. So online, it is usually boys who get all hung up about having their interactions filtered through a female avatar. It is also boys who behave like... well... boys online. The troublesome sexist behavior online is generally not rooted in the objectification or sexualization of women. Rather, it based (1) on a view that women play games about as well as they tend to throw baseballs and (2) in good old fashioned homophobia. In other words, while those who play with female avatars are occasionally sexist in the sense of being overly obsessed with women as sex objects, they tend not to be the ones who immediately assume that a female avatar equals a female player and, therefore, an object of derision. I think it is this disdain that seems to put off women more than anything. Most women who have written on the topic sort of shake their heads about the skimpy clothing and big boobs – how can they do otherwise given TV and the movies? It's annoying, but it's not the sexism that troubles them most. It is the sexism of exclusion that bothers them. That, at any rate, is what I think this author was getting at, albeit as clumsily as her swipe at "cross-dressers."

Believe me when I say I realize that my response was rambling, but such is the grandeur of the still wild and grammar-free world of e-mail. In any event, some portion of what I was saying must have come through, as I received this reply:

Yeah, her editorial was clumsy, and the more I talk to you about it, the more it seems she's just wrong on many points. She does come off sounding much like a college sophomore just discovering her feminist self & inflicting it on her immediate passions. I don't think she sounds homophobic, just unskilled in argument & wielding an inexpert club. Her main thesis is still worth making – even if it is unremarkable – but your point that the sexism of exclusion is the worse sexism in the industry is much more intriguing.

The trouble is that when even hardcore gamers who ought to know better (like the grrrl gamer) indulge in such facile argument, how can we expect any different from non-gamers? Heck, most non-gamers in the media and society at large still can't quite wrap their heads around the notion that gaming is an adult hobby. Take a look at the news story concerning the 21-year-old man who committed suicide, allegedly after playing too much EverQuest. The author of the story we link to quotes one of his sources as saying, "People like to create new personas. You see a lot of gender-bending." As near as I can tell from the context, the speaker, Jay Parker, an addiction services worker, means nothing more by this than that some people play with avatars of a different gender than their real-life gender. From that, he seems to draw the dire conclusion that the young man who committed suicide was likely deeply troubled by sexual ambiguity, thus contributing to his suicide.

I think it should bother us that Parker so easily equates playing a female avatar with true gender-bending. If he (and our less mature fellow gamers) continue to believe that online representation is a literal representation of real life, then I am afraid we doom ourselves to endless media stories about how "the game made him do it." A female avatar is a woman or a gender-bender. A shooter in-game is at risk of being a shooter in high schools. It's barely even a baby-step from the former sentence to the latter one. It should bother us when gamers themselves encourage taking that step.

Click on the Dotted Line

The second missive I offer is a question based on the last Monday Morning column on the topic of end-user license agreements (EULAs). The email is from Matthew Battles, and, once again, I present his email with his permission:

One question: in addition to common law findings, weren't click-wrap licenses explicitly "carved in" as binding contracts in the federal legislation on digital signatures?

The short answer (well, as short as a lawyer can make it) is "yes and no." The legislation Matt is referring to is the federal law that officially declared that electronic and digital signatures were every bit as valid as paper signatures unless some other law specifically says otherwise. The legislation, however mundane, was incredibly important. Businesses now communicate by email both to save money on the shipment of thick documents but, more importantly, to save time. If electronic signatures aren't valid, then anytime you change a document, you have to reship hard copies of the document – overnight ship it out and overnight to get it back. Believe it or not, two days is a totally unacceptable delay in modern business. In addition, validating electronic signatures paves the way for the day when businesses and individuals alike will be able to file regulatory documents with the government electronically.

Anyway, the "yes" answer to the question is that an "I accept" click counts as a valid signature. The "no" part of the answer is that the mere fact that an electronic signature is valid as a signature, does not necessarily mean that a click-wrap license is a binding agreement. The real question is whether that otherwise valid signature can actually be used as a basis for enforcing an end-user licensing agreement. For all the reasons I mentioned last week – and with all the same disclaimers and exceptions – I think the answer is that click-wrap licenses, the preferred form for game EULAs, are generally valid. Even without a law saying that a click has the same legal meaning as a signature, EULAs might still be enforceable because, in the U.S., not every contract requires a signature to be valid.

I'd like to thank my correspondents again for their emails. I welcome and invite comments and questions from you. I will not, of course, ever make such emails public without first asking your permission to do so.

Four more days to weekend gaming.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 8, 2002 9:15 AM.

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