What Message To Listen To …

So, Anita Sarkeesian decided to take a little trip to Bioware Edmonton. She decided to talk about it on Twitter. Shockingly, people responded negatively to it. Even more shockingly, Sarkeesian decided to call out this “negativity”. But in a move that is surprising, Sarkeesian focused less on talking about how bad the criticism was and more about calling out her supporters to post positive support:

I say this not to bring people down, but to encourage people to act! If you’re glad to see things like this happening, tweets expressing support can go a long way toward countering the torrent of negative reactions such occasions always elicit from those people who are still fighting to maintain the old sexist status quo of gaming, and who see it as a tremendous threat when a feminist drops by a gaming studio for tea.

It may not occur to you to think that your positive reply or supportive comment would matter, but it does! Too often we tend to be silent and let the angry naysayers dominate the conversation. Those of us who want to see games become more diverse and inclusive need to show those studios who are actively taking part in the ongoing dialogue our support and encouragement. So the next time you see a game studio welcome a cool guest or take action toward a more equitable gaming landscape, let them know you approve of what they’re doing! Because almost certainly, hundreds of other people will be letting the studio know they don’t.

Since for the longest time I’ve been calling on them to talk more about the things they like and focus less on the negatives, I certainly see this as a step in the right direction. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t find some oddities in this.

First, why is Sarkeesian so happy to go to Bioware, and why would they want her there? In her “Tropes vs Women” series, Sarkeesian rarely had anything good to say about Bioware, even when they write the subversion that she claims she wants to see. Bioware employees would be right to think that she treated them unfairly, and given her comment above she clearly thinks she would be going there to help them “improve” their games to make them less sexist, when it can be argued that not only do they not need to learn anything about that from her she could indeed learn some thing about that from them. That’s not something that you should address with this simple message:

I had such a great time touring @Bioware’s Edmonton office and having tea with this great group of women (and allies!). Thanks for your hospitality.

Also, it’s not clear how positive this visit was. If you look at the picture, there are a small group of people in it, and all but one of them are women. I couldn’t find the actual headcount at Bioware Edmonton, but I have to think that this is a minority of the people who work there, if for no other reason than programming and technical positions — especially in game development — tend to be male-dominated and, while this is Canada, it’s very unlikely that this represents the actual mix at the company. So why, then, are there relatively so few people with her? Either she hand-picked people who supported her and excluded those who didn’t or — more likely, in my opinion — a couple of people there invited her and these were the people who showed up when she visited, with many not showing up for reasons likely ranging from they didn’t care to they disliked her shots at the company to they disagree strongly with her stance. This then risks either creating or revealing large rifts in the attitudes of the people who work there, which can cause problems if the people respond to those disagreements in what seems to be the standard way these days (see Google, for example).

Hmmmm. Suddenly, the “absurd” reaction — as Sarkeesian puts it — of saying that her visit meant the end of Bioware doesn’t seem so absurd.

But let me reiterate that I like the idea of them promoting more what they like and being “positive” than focusing on criticism all the time. And yet, a thought occurs to me, reading the post and the Twitter replies that Sarkeesian finds “hateful”. The point of publicly stating what you like or dislike is, as Sarkeesian herself points out, to influence the people inside these companies. If they make a move that might support one side and all they hear is criticism, they are likely to think that the people who care didn’t like it, and shy away from that in the future. But if they get a balancing positive response, then that at least gives them some reason to think that it might be appreciated, and so gives them some impetus to decide if the positives balance out the negatives enough to keep doing it, or alternatively feel confident that this is not a move that enough of the people they care about like and so avoid doing so in the future. Listening only to the people who scream the loudest is generally not the way to keep most people happy, because the people who scream the loudest aren’t always — and I’d say aren’t usually — representative of what most people want to see.

This, however, leads to a more serious thought: who should a company like Bioware be listening to? The problem is that this debate in games — and in all sorts of other media — has become politicized, by which I mean there are lots of people talking loudly about the debate who care more about the external political and cultural implications of the debate in games than they do about games themselves. Yes, there is a culture way going on here, between SJWs and, well, the only label I can give them is anti-SJWs. The “Cuck” Twitter reply that Sarkeesian references strikes me as an anti-SJW comment as opposed to one that is a strict gaming comment — and, ironically, the “this is the death of Bioware” comments are more of a gaming comment — while it’s pretty obvious that Sarkeesian cares more about sexism in general than in what that means for games. But Bioware shouldn’t be listening to the politicized responses because, well, those people generally don’t buy their games, or games in general. They aren’t the audience, and aren’t the ones keeping them in business. If either side manages to “win”, it’s not that likely that they’ll stick around to consume the media they fought so hard to create. This seems especially true for the SJW side, since they tend to wander into fields that they don’t care and haven’t cared much about to protest the impact on the overall culture (anti-SJWs, I’ve found, tend to get drawn into it when the war hits something they like and they start to feel that the culture war is “ruining” it).

This puts the companies in a bit of a bind: the people they need to listen to to be successful — and so keep running — are their actual audience. This means that when sorting through the feedback they need to be able to identify who are their actual audience and who are posting to participate in the culture war. But their actual audience may indeed share the same concerns as those on either side of the culture war, so they can’t decide on the basis of content who cares about their games and who cares about the impact of their games on this cultural conflict. And if they pick wrong, then they could end up destroying their game company while both sides of the culture war shrug and say that it was good that they died, while their actual fans are the ones upset and frustrated that they were a casualty in this war, and lament that if only they had listened to them and not to the people who didn’t care things would have worked out differently.

Right now, in so many ways, so many things are pawns in various larger struggles, larger struggles that get so much social and mainstream media attention that content producers feel that they have to respond to the struggles or else be swept away by the currents into oblivion. But the current that they decide to follow or steer themselves by might sweep them into the rocks, or over a waterfall. This is coming in a time of great upheaval in media itself, given advances in online streaming, the increasing costs of AAA gaming, and all sorts of other technical revolutions that threaten to reshape how we consume media completely. Right when these companies are grasping at some kind of marker to guide them into the future, this culture war is obscuring the landscape and making it harder to tell what people really want.

Ultimately, my advice to companies is this: do what you want, and let the sales decide. Fight back against misrepresentations from both sides, do your marketing, and do what you want. Because right now, the loudest voices have even less clue what most people want than you do. And that’s sad.

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