Man, there certainly are an awful lot of hormones flying around the room in the videogaming community at the moment.
Months behind the zeitgeist as ever, I've only just caught up on the whole "Dickwolves" business. If you don't know what that means, catch up here. Just be ready to lose any last shreds of hope in humanity you might have had.
Though it all happened last summer, I first heard of the story this weekend, via Jim Rossignol's weekly "Sunday Papers" post on the ever-splendid Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Bemused, I messaged him to ask if I'd missed a link somewhere, or if that one innocuous comic strip was really all it had taken to kick off such a ridiculous shitstorm. He sadly confirmed the latter.
Now, let's set some parameters here. I absolutely loathe the fairly recent casualisation of the word "rape", particularly in videogaming circles. I squirm in embarrassment when I hear some dimwit proclaim how he was "raped" by an opponent in some FPS game, and it makes me angry too.
Rape is about as vile as crimes get, and as such the word still retains some considerable – arguably unique – power. (Just ask Julian Assange, who as yet has not been so much as charged with any crime, far less found guilty of one, but has been the subject of some truly appalling character-assassinating journalism from people who should know better.)
That's as it should be, and doing anything which reduces that power makes you a pretty despicable lifeform in my book. But that isn't what the Penny Arcade strip did. It used the word "rape" to refer to rape, and in so much as it can be said to address the subject, it makes it clear that it's a bad thing. Whether the strip is funny, whether it's bad taste, those are subjective and different issues, and if you don't like it that's fine.
(In fact, the point it's attempting to make is an entirely honourable one about the odd moral standards found in online MMORPGs. The entire business isn't unlike the way Sensible Software were attacked for using a poppy on the box of the first Cannon Fodder despite the game actually handling the deaths of soldiers in what for a videogame was a remarkably and untypically sensitive and respectful way. But I digress.)
The initial criticism that kicked off the whole fiasco, though, attacked the strip on a ludicrously inaccurate premise:
"But unlike Gabe killing Tycho so he doesn't have to share a video game, a slave being raped is a real thing that happens in the world every day."
When challenged in the comments over this fatuous claim, the author further asserted with equally dismissive idiocy that "People who get beaten aren't subject to denial of justice" – apparently never having been out in any city centre on a Saturday night – and adding "Real-life beatings are (most often) treated as a very serious subject – real life rape isn't."
Yet if you boil it right down, being killed over the inability to share IS in fact the fundamental story of a huge proportion of all murders, and certainly something that happens "every day". Broadly speaking, when somebody kills someone it's either because they hate them (whether for racist, religious, ideological or personal reasons) or because they want to take something from them. And most theft is founded in poverty, and poverty is failure to share.
(There's a certain irony, too, in the fact that the strip has turned into such a huge feminist battleground, as the strip actually depicts a male victim of male attackers. To be fair, the initial complaint doesn't specifically attack it as being misogynist, but it does open by stating that the writer is objecting "as a feminist", which is a bit odd as by doing so she's the first person who's involved women in the matter in any way.)
But so far so meh. Neither the strip nor the objection were terribly unreasonable in themselves, but Penny Arcade reacted in turn in the way creative types often do when unjustly accused by people who've diametrically missed the point – with condescending sarcasm.
As you can see from the timeline linked at the start of this feature, it didn't help. I've long held the belief that it's the third punch that turns a conflict into a fight, and so it transpired. The previously-restrained debate was leapt on by some contemptible ambulance-chasing dimwits on both sides and became a truly horrific car-crash.
(And at the risk of sounding like an apologist for the grotesque "she was asking for it" camp, which I'm very much not, I can't help but wonder what the initial complainant thinks. Has she concluded, in the light of subsequent events, that her intervention over a well-intentioned joke that everyone would have forgotten the next day has ultimately made things better, or worse?)
You can read the rest of the story for yourselves if you're so inclined (and I really really advise not being), but the point is that the Dickwolves ruckus seems to have sparked off a bout of angst-ridden soul-searching in the gaming media ever since, about language, misogyny, rape and gamers' attitudes to women in general.
I had a brief but interesting debate with a female blogger this week about the last incident in that list. She'd tweeted professing to be "stunned by the levels of misogyny" in the comments section of the Eurogamer piece, but when I had a look all I saw was some vitriolic abuse that was horrible, but not really any more so than any average day on EG's comments and certainly not portraying any generalised hatred of women.
(I very recently made a post on the EG forum to alert people to a free iPhone app that told them where to find lots of great free games. The response to this disgusting and provocative gesture was two pages of abuse from furious users repeatedly calling me a paedophile. Welcome to the internet.)
It had plenty of hate directed at a woman, who as it happened had done something idiotic, but I couldn't see that the response was fundamentally misogynist, or greatly different to the level or type of adolescent, anonymous flaming that would have been directed at someone who'd done the same thing but happened to be male.
The main bone of contention seemed to be the use of the c-word and the b-word, which were held to be "gendered insults", and that's an argument I find confused at best and an outright double standard at worst. There's a "big difference between calling a woman cunt/bitch and calling a man the same thing", I was told.
The word "cunt", like a great many other words (including ones which are sometimes abusive), has a number of entirely distinct meanings and uses. And by way of example, let's examine the problem I have with the standpoint quoted in the last paragraph, which is that it's a load of bollocks.
Only men have bollocks. In themselves they are important, precious and delicate objects without which none of us would exist. But does that make the word when used as above a "gendered insult"? Is there some specifically male implication when you insult someone by using the word "bollocks" to describe something they've said or done? Are you saying "What you've said is so stupid that you're like a man"?
The answer, of course, is no. In that context the word is being used not to describe male reproductive organs, but under one of its alternative meanings – specifically what my dictionary calls "an interjection indicating strong disbelief or disagreement". The idea that it would be gender-specifically offensive to accuse someone of talking bollocks – that you could say it to men but not women, or vice versa – is patently ludicrous.
But there's more to it than that. As I pondered this piece, it occurred to me that there ARE some insults that would sound weird if directed at a particular gender. Have you ever, for example, heard a woman referred to as a dick, a prick or a cock? Those are words generally reserved as abuse for men, and their root (snigger!) is the suggestion that the man is no more than his generative appendage, the most amoral and least intelligent of all the organs.
Call a man any of those things and you're implying that he's cruel, selfish, stupid or any of numerous other character flaws chiefly attributable to possession of a penis. In effect, you're saying that he's no more than the basest primitive essence of man, bereft of learning or culture or civilisation or empathy – a grunting, witless Neanderthal savage.
As such, it would be odd to hear someone use those terms against a woman. But hang on. Men are very often called cunts too, and it's not because someone's accusing them of being too much like a woman. Surely if words based around the male sex organs are reserved – when used with offensive intent – solely for men, then logically "cunt" or "bitch" is something you should ONLY call a woman, and only when she's exhibiting those traits that could be deemed as the most ignoble primeval embodiments of the female spirit?
(And if you think I'm going to even attempt listing what those might be here, you must have sailed up the Clyde on a digestive biscuit.)
It's traditional when one is male and advancing supposedly-controversial arguments like this to proclaim oneself to be a feminist. Well, I'm not. I despise all forms of sectarianism and discrimination and I always have. I'm an egalitarian – I believe men and women of all colours and persuasions to be fundamentally and self-evidently of equal worth and merit and entitled to all and exactly the same rights.
I object in the strongest possible terms to those beliefs being solely attributed to one "side" or the other, like warring nations accusing the other of sole responsibility for atrocities or claiming sole possession of honour and bravery. It's not "feminist" to say that women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job, or that they should be afforded the same protections against assault – in all its forms – as men, it's humanist. Or if you prefer a less Guardian-reader term, the bleeding fucking obvious.
How DARE anyone claim, for example, that the desire to see rapists successfully prosecuted, convicted and punished is "feminist", as if men were inherently incapable of empathy and morality, vile beasts kept in check only by the diligence and vigilance of women?
None of this, it should be understood, is a defence of any of the awful things Eurogamer readers were saying about Mary Portas. The inhabitants of EG's comments threads are mostly a bunch of unspeakable teenage dimwits, a ghastly throng of immature arseholes who should be expected to act as such. (And while that's an ungendered insult, I don't for a moment seek to dispute that the vast majority of them are boys.)
But the argument that male-derived insults can only be used against males, and female-derived insults can ALSO only be used against males, isn't an attack on sexism or misogyny. It's fuel for it. It's an attempt to insist that women are inherently better than men, that they can never under any circumstances be guilty of behaviour so bad as to warrant the use of ANY of these words. (If not, can a card-carrying feminist tell me which pejorative nouns would be acceptable to describe, let's say, Anne Widdecombe?)
The first step to equality and respect is to stop lying to each other, and that's no less true in the world of videogames than it is anywhere else.