THAT’S US GAMERS :D
Posted by Richie on March 25, 2010
A wargaming blog called Dick Move (“Hey, if I call myself a dick then I can use it to silence criticism AND look meta-textual!”) is attempting to pick holes in a post I wrote slightly over a year ago, and I’ll get to my specific thoughts on the matter later. I want to start with something more general, though, because it gets to the heart of every single problem I have mainstream SF fandom, and also because dedicating an entire article to arguing about Warhammer 40,000 canon with a stranger on the internet is going too far even by my standards.
There’s another wargaming blog called Bell of Lost Souls, which is hugely popular and – as a consequence of having so many readers and contributors – an excellent source of news, especially for people who don’t have time to wade through long, whining forum threads in order to find out what it is that everyone’s actually whining about in the first place. They also get straight to the news itself and talk about what it means, rather than prefacing everything with a rambling introduction about what they had for breakfast and how they think their five year old nephew is going to react. After discovering it a year or so ago, I’d check for updates two or three times a day. I’m using past tense because, on February 9th, they posted story called “Anatomy of a Gamer Girl Part 1″, and I’ve no idea what part they’re up to now since I could never bring myself to go back again.
Not only did I see what appeared to be a pretty girl playing 40K, I saw that girl playing Necrons! So donning my “Ace Reporter”-brand Fedora and notepad, I took it upon myself to track down this “Zephri” to see if she was real.
Now, some idiot, possibly the author Dick Move himself, is going to assume that because I’m a professional white knight with a hair-trigger for protecting ladies’ virtue, I found the post offensive and it wounded my sensitive, poetic man-soul. I am not offended by what “Anatomy of a Gamer Girl Part 1″ says about gamer girls, and I don’t think any of the gamer girls I know would be either, mostly because it’s so inane that it barely qualifies as saying anything at all. What I am bored and insulted by, however, is the assumption that the target reader is a socially inept manchild who needs to have the fact that women sometimes play games explained to him in the most coddling, patronising way possible. “Anatomy of a Gamer Girl” is not a constructive article about women gamers. It is not a serious interview. It isn’t simply the equivalent of somebody typing OH MY GOD GUYS IT’S A GIRL I’M TALKING TO A GIRL WHO PLAYS GAMES for three solid pages, it actually is. Her interview responses are printed in pink. There is almost no discussion of the barriers facing women in wargaming, even though the gender disparity alone should tell you that something more is going on (I can think of three personal friends who’ve given up going to wargaming clubs because the boys’ club atmosphere is so alienating). There is a picture of her roughly every second paragraph, to ensure we can look at her as much as possible. A sizable number of the questions in part two are about what it would be like to date her. That’s it for content. Bell of Lost Souls makes no other attempts to address the topic. The issue is not that the article itself is shitty and pointless, it’s that the authors think that this is an acceptable way to cover the topic of women in gaming. In two thousand and ten.
After chatting with her, I felt like I opened my back door and saw a unicorn standing in my yard.
It’s not just that times have changed and these guys are behind them, it’s that, thanks to the internet, the last decade has seen an exponential increase in available information about women in gaming, all there online, for free, if you’re willing to go and look for it. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that these guys weren’t. They stumbled upon one woman by chance, asked her the kind of questions they felt comfortable asking, ruled a line under it and decided it qualified as an ‘anatomy’ of the subject. End of. If this had appeared in a gaming magazine a decade ago then it might at least have helped get women gamers more exposure, but in an online world containing Game Girl Advance, Feminist Gamers and the dear departed Cerise, it speaks of an unwillingness to engage with the topic they’re actually writing about on anyone else’s terms. The article is ostensibly about women in gaming, but it’s their questions, their space and their beliefs that inform it, so no risks are taken and consequently it just reaffirms the attitudes they already had to begin with. This isn’t about the article not being a feminist manifesto – it’s a mainstream wargaming blog that almost never touches on politics – it’s that they bring up a touchy subject, proceed to dodge every awkward question it raises and then call it a day. The meat of the article isn’t “Let’s talk about women in gaming”, it’s “Don’t worry, hot girls play games too, and you might be able to get them to date you”. Bitchin’!
Were you actually playing that game of 40K or did someone trick you into standing next to the table and then take a picture?
To be blunt, I can’t work up the enthusiasm to continue reading something that thinks that little of its audience. The comparison to a gaming magazine from a decade ago is an apt one, actually, because I stopped reading Dragon magazine under similar circumstances: One of their April Fool’s issues had a page of “comedy” monsters, one of which was called “Girlfriend” and attacked you by taking away your Dungeons & Dragons time. Ha, so to speak, ha. Once again, my sixteen year old self’s “Oh, screw this” reaction wasn’t anything to do with misogyny, it was simply that I didn’t want to read a magazine that assumed I could relate to feeling that way. None of my girlfriends have been gamers of any description, and about half of them have thought that gaming was a silly waste of time and money, but the idea that this makes them an adversarial killjoy, rather than a different person who doesn’t share every single one of my interests because they are a different person, is self-centred and juvenile.
If you care about gamers being portrayed as sensible, mature adults, do not write shit like this, because it makes you sound like you are in high school.
So far, so tedious, but what makes this kind of behaviour more annoying than usual is that it’s coming from people who should – if they were doing their jobs properly – actively rebel against this way of relating to the world around them. As if to demonstrate my argument about considering other points of view, I’m going to do the unthinkable and not uncritically quote my favourite punching bags over at The Spearhead:
Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.
Now, after ‘men’, the word that stands out most of all is ‘new’, because SF is, at its best, about people rethinking their worldview after it’s shaken up by something new. War of the Worlds was, originally, a fable designed to force the British Empire to face up to being on the other side of colonialism. Frankenstein raises questions about the relationship between science, God, humanity and life. The Time Machine shows us the parodic end result of a social class system. We may be used to them now after a half-century of film adaptations that tore the guts out and turned the remains into props for monster costumes and ageing character actors, but they were in no way intended to simply be comforting, escapist reads. This also goes for mainstream SF television; the original conceptions of Doctor Who and Star Trek were about placing the lead characters in an unfamilliar environment and forcing them to consider how it worked, although this has arguably gotten sidetracked during an era I’ll simply call the Late Tennant Epoch. Even so, being a fan of a genre built on considering alternative ways of looking at the world should, by all rights, make SF fans the most tolerant and broad-minded people in the world. In practice, when faced with something no more strange and unsettling than a female human being, their response isn’t to engage with her on any level, it’s to stand slack-jawed and yell HEY WE FOUND A GIRL LOOK IT’S A GIRL, as if they’ve captured her on safari and are presenting her to the Royal Society for dissection. It’s not going too far to suggest they’d be less sensationalist when describing an actual alien.
They also get ludicrously defensive if you point out any flaws in their pet pretend-universes, however politely. Dethtron, author of Dick Move, is annoyed that racism is one of those things that people ‘can’t seem to let go’, and is glad that ‘the issue rarely creeps into the gaming community’. So, right off the bat, we’re dealing with a real people’s champion here. Experienced racism? FUCK YOU, LET IT GO! Rodney King? FUCK YOU, LET IT GO! Michelle Obama as a photoshopped monkey being the #1 Google hit for her name? FUCK YOU, LET IT GO! Hundreds of years of slavery? FUCK YOU, LET IT GO! Anti-Lebanese riots in Sydney? FUCK YOU, LET IT GO! Asian students being targeted and stabbed right outside the building I’m currently living in? FUCK ME, LET IT GO! I mean, everyone experiences racism, right? Like, when you’re at a job interview, the guy doing the hiring is going to stereotype everyone. He thinks the black guy’s a criminal, he thinks the Arab guy’s a terrorist, he thinks the Mexican guy is an illegal immigrant, and he thinks the white guy likes football. Everyone is stereotyped, so we’re all equal! LET IT GO!
Dethtron also thinks it’s ‘fortunate’ that nobody ever brings this up. Wow, that’s… that’s actually a truly disgusting sentiment, congratulations. The world has horrible social problems that are responsible for the violent deaths and intractable poverty of hundreds of millions of people, but thankfully THE GAMING COMMUNITY has the guts and determination to completely ignore them and pour scorn on anyone who so much as points out that they exist. From reading the response over at Dick Move, you’d think I stormed into town and nailed my thesis to Dethtron’s door, rather than briefly and politely pointing out that retconning the only group of dark skinned humans in Warhammer 40,000 into mutants who look like Papa Lazarou had unfortunate implications on a blog he doesn’t read and his friend found by accident. God knows I rant at length about the work of obscure strangers – see almost everything I’ve ever written, ever – but then, I’m not the one telling people that certain things aren’t worth caring about and should be let go of. In fact, the entire reason I brought up the problematic depiction of race in Warhammer 40,000 was that – to my knowledge – nobody else had, beyond a few message board threads I’d seen, all of which ended up derailed by… people like Dethtron, actually. Which sort of says it all. Again, this man is proud of the fact that gamers ignore social issues.
Have you read the article yet? Good. Now on the surface, this doesn’t look to be some crackpot conspiracy theory kind of bullshit, but I think that this aggravates me more.
I’m aware I’m slightly biased here, having written the article in question, but… the reason it doesn’t look like crackpot conspiracy theory bullshit is that it isn’t crackpot conspiracy theory bullshit. To briefly recap my argument: The universe Warhammer 40,000 is dominated by a galaxy-spanning empire that takes in the whole of humanity, minus some rebel bits on the side. We see this empire in its entirety, from the menial workers to the soldiers to the administrators, and I can literally count the number of coloured people on one hand. This is, you know, sort of ridiculous. It also has a knock-on effect, because while people are encouraged to create their own characters and factions, the lack of racial diversity in the canon universe means that there’ll be a consequent lack of racial diversity in people’s original creations. There was an exception to the rule, however, in a group of Space Marines called The Salamanders, who were depicted as dark-skinned because… well, they had dark skin. There were no associated racial stereotypes, and no crass attempts to model them on an existing “foreign” culture. Commendably, the skin wasn’t the be-all and end-all of their portrayal, nor a cheap way of othering them. They were just black guys.
Then, they got retconned into scary mutant space minstrels with coal black skin and glowing red eyes. No new black characters were brought in, meaning the universe has gone from “almost entirely white” to “entirely white with black mutants”. I had some problems with this.
Whether or not you think this sounds like a crackpot conspiracy theory will depend largely on whether or not you’re Dethtron.
There are two main issues that Richie brings up in his post – 1) GW must be racist because most of their miniatures are white and their fluff adheres to stereotypes 2) The retconned Salamanders are racist because their “blackness” is defined as a mutation and makes them monstrous.
This is what Shakespeare meant by “a foregone conclusion”.
Well, the UK is around 85% white and only about 2% black. So, with that context, most of the people responsible for GW are writing/painting/designing/drawing what they know.
IT’S SET IN SPACE AND THEY FIGHT ALIENS, FUCKWIT. They can summon up the creative energy to design a cyborg Cthulu monster that eats stars, but OHHH NO THERE ARE SO FEW HUMANS WITH BLACK SKIN AT THE BUS STOP TODAY WHAT IS THIS ARGH I CAN’T COPE WITH THE STRESS here is a living ivory statue with lava for blood instead.
Richie says that units like the thousand suns stereotype Egyptian culture and the white scars are stereotypically Mongolian. I would argue, rather, that they are invoking iconographic images from the past to help players find a reference point within the universe that has been created.
Yes, they are iconographic images. They’re also the only images.
The White Scars are Space Mongols, lead by a Khan, who ride motorcycles instead of horses. Taken on its own, a horde of Mongolian space warriors on motorcycles is a cool idea. But there are no other Mongolians, or Asians of any description, to be seen in the game; if you’re Asian in this universe, you are by default a Genghis Khan knock-off. This is not true of the European characters, who have varied representations, roles and cultures, which are themselves based on iconographic images. The issue here is that these are specifically Western iconographic images, which see things from a Western point of view and thus compress entire continents down into a few basic images while still differentiating between, say, Renaissance Venice and the Dark Age Britain. This is less noticeable, ish, in a high fantasy setting where everything is based on medieval Europe and we’re not supposed to consider the rest of the world (which isn’t itself unproblematic, as I’ll get to later), but when we’re dealing with the entire human race spread across multiple solar systems, the limitations of taking our iconography as absolute become incredibly obvious.
Again, people who can routinely imagine fictional space empires and invent new branches of science to cover plot holes should be outward-looking enough able to, say, go to a library and read a book about what the Central Asian steppes are actually like, rather than resort to a stereotype from the 13th century. But they didn’t, and it speaks of a level of insularity that betrays what the genre is supposed to do. The more pertinent example of this attitude isn’t anything in Warhammer 40,000, but its bookish older sister Warhammer Fantasy, which is set in a fantasy equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire. Take note of that: It’s not a standard high fantasy setting made up of whatever genre tropes sounded cool at the time, it’s a world grounded in a specific time and place that takes it big cues – religious schisms, plagues, elector-princes, inquisitors – from history, then builds the fantasy elements around them. This gives it a feeling of depth, stability and identity that’s sorely lacking from every other “superficially like Middle Earth, but with more elves” world, while still leaving things broad enough to include anything new that the designers can come up with.
The problem is that once we leave the Empire for somewhere not immediately based on Europe, the attention to detail that made the setting so interesting immediately departs and is replaced with crassness and laziness. The worst example of this is the Lizardmen, who we’re led to believe are based on the Aztec, Mayan and Inca cultures. This is twaddle, not least because the three cultures cited as sources of inspiration had almost nothing in common beyond inhabiting roughly the same continent: What the Lizardman are based on is a degraded folk memory of stories about Spanish explorers finding savages in the jungle and being appalled by their sacrificial rituals, and this appears to be where the research stopped. Unlike Warhammer‘s Empire, they’re not a believable culture, they’re a mess of feathers, gold ornaments, Von Daniken ancient astronaut bollocks, stepped pyramids and gibberish words that end with “-otec”. The designers of Warhammer Fantasy know that it would look ridiculous and sloppy if a Teutonic knight rode into battle with a Fleur D’Lys on his shield to win the favour of his lady, because Germany and Britain are wholly separate cultures with their own traditions and symbols, but when the culture in question isn’t one with direct ties to their own, it’s apparently not worth the bother.
Well, yes, of course it’s not: addressing a foreign culture, rather than simply looting it for symbols of foreign-ness, is rarely comfortable because unfamiliarity is often confusing and confronting. I’d argue, though, that this is precisely what makes addressing it worthwhile in the first place, especially when you’re trying to build a consistent fictional world. If these people actually cared as much about imagination and open-mindedness as they paid lip service to, the prospect of discovering an entire new culture, with new systems of thought and new ways of seeing the world, is a challenge that they should be jumping up and down to take on. In practice, the viewpoint isn’t that of a wide-eyed explorer, it’s of a cynical coloniser.
It’s iconic, but it’s also shallow, ridiculous and banal. The Lizardmen, despite being a functional, self-sustaining society, live in ruined cities. Think about that, for a second.
Lastly, Richie argues that mutating into a dark skin color and subsequent demonification of the Salamanders is racist. So here’s a fun fact, skin color (in all shades) IS A MUTATION. If you don’t want to get into the hard science side of this, basically the more sunlight your part of the world gets, the darker your skin will be. Darker skin reflects more light than light skin and helps to regulate production of Vitamin D, which is created in a process linked to sunlight and is toxic in large quantities. So Salamanders mutating due to an environmental anomaly makes perfect sense.
…which raises the question of where all the other black people in the universe are; is there only one planet where it’s ever bright? And, yes, he can’t tell the difference between “Your skin is dark because your ancestors lived somewhere sunny” and “Radiation turns you into Al Jolson, even though this has never been mentioned before and adds absolutely nothing to the setting”. Or he can, and is choosing to ignore it, because that’s what gamers do best!
This isn’t some kind of Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness” situation here. The Salamanders aren’t scary because they’re evil and black, but because they are gigantic genetically modified people who are sort of on our side.
Direct quote from book: “The battle-brothers of the Slamanders Chapter have jet-black skin and burning red eyes – a daemonic appearance“. So, yes, the blackness is meant to be scary. I don’t think it’s intentionally evoking the “scary black man” meme, because it’s described as something totally unnatural looking, as if their skin has become volcanic rock, but surely somebody noticed the implications? Oh, wait, there aren’t enough black people in the UK for anyone to notice. Apparently.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember before reading too deep into issue of race in the world of Games Workshop is that you’re playing a game that involves moving toy soldiers around. Don’t take it too seriously.
FUCK YOU, LET IT GO!
So, there we are. A complete failure to accept women as human beings, going apeshit because someone thought racism was racist, telling anyone who disagrees with you to get over it, and the belief that not caring about social issues is admirable. I don’t know if I can fucked playing this game anymore.
But the most telling part, I think, is that Dethtron’s post is entitled “A Sensitive Subject”. He’s right, it is sensitive, but it’s sensitive entirely because of people like him silencing discussion of it at every opportunity. I’ve been pointing out the fallacies in his rebuttal not because I want to humiliate him (although, given his own attitude, I don’t see any reason to be nice), but because it shows the lengths people like him are willing to go to to avoid discussing things that might make them uncomfortable. Presented with some facts about the Warhammer 40,000 setting that ask him to confront the game’s racism, his reflex isn’t to think about what it means, it’s to jump through some truly astonishing hoops and shift the goalposts so that he doesn’t have to think about what it means. Racism wouldn’t as sensitive a subject if if people were willing to discuss it rationally rather than burying their heads in the sand, in the same way that gamer girls wouldn’t be as rare if people took them seriously and didn’t treat them like circus freak desire objects.
They’re sensitive subjects for these guys, and they have a vested interest in keeping it that way, because the alternative is growing up.