Today APGNation was lucky enough to sit down for an interview with Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers about GamerGate, the difference between casual and hardcore gamers, and journalism in the video gaming sphere. But before we get to the interview, a bit about Dr. Sommer’s impressive background: Dr. Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a former philosophy professor in ethics, author of several books on the topic of feminism, and has also appeared on a variety of television programs, such as The Daily Show and 60 Minutes.
More recently, one of her videos in the “Factual Feminist” YouTube series dealt with accusations of sexism in the gaming industry and the role of gender both in fictional worlds and the minds of those who create them. So, that all in mind, lets get to the interview.
APGNation: Before we get into the meat of our interview, can you explain a bit about yourself, your profession, and your video series that has attracted so much attention as of late, and can you tell our audience about what experience you’ve had with games and gaming culture in the past?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: I taught philosophy for many years and I am now a resident scholar at a think tank in DC. My primary focus is ethics and topics in feminism. One of my most recent undertakings is a video series, The Factual Feminist. (More than two million views so far!) Two of my most popular segments in the series address controversies over video games. I am no expert on games, but when you get a PhD in philosophy, you acquire a pretty good nonsense detector. I found that gamers were plagued with a lot of nonsensical attacks on their hobby.
APGNation: You seem to make a distinction between casual and hardcore gamers in some of your videos — why? What is the difference between someone who play games regularly and someone who might partake in social or cellphone games once in a while. By definition, they are both gamers, so why make a distinction between the two?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: Well, that distinction is relevant because it is backed by reality. A casualCandy Crush or Angry Birds player is very different from a hardcore gamer. For the latter, gaming is a primary life passion. These players are drawn to challenging games like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty which involve strategy, role playing, action, and fighting. They devote much of their time to games; they support dozens of gaming websites where they avidly read and discuss the fine points of games. They fill stadiums to watch gaming competitions. There are millions of them, they are passionate about their hobby, and they drive most of the profits in the industry. Why take away their name? I suspect some critics hope that if we stop naming them, they will just go away. Well, I am happy to report they are here to stay.
APGNation: Let’s talk about the “Death of Gamers” prediction that has been going around as of late. Why is it happening and how should gamers react?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: The gaming industry is exploding right now. Developers are finding that almost every human activity can be turned into a video game — story telling, art appreciation, even psychotherapy and saving the planet. Games have a unique capacity to entertain, educate, and motivate people. We are only beginning to understand their power. Video games have never enjoyed much respect as an art form, but as gaming evolves, that could change. So I can understand why some critics would look with impatience at popular mass-market games like Grand Theft Auto.
But here is where these critics go wrong. Grand Theft Auto can co-exist with sensitive, literary games like Gone Home. It is not an either/or. Many gamers are angry because these cultural critics are not merely calling for greater creativity and diversity — they have declared war on gamer culture. Consider Leigh Alexander’s cri de coeur in Gamasutra. She declared that gamers are over. She spoke of gaming culture as a petri dish full of losers and deadbeats. I think “shitslingers” was her term. She has a vision of a more elevated gamer society — filled with decorous, gender-sensitive players. Games, she says, should be more like literature. “We want tragicomedy, vignette, musicals, dream worlds, family takes, ethnographies, abstract art. We will get this, because we’re creating culture now.
If I were a gamer, I would say, fine, go ahead. Create your vignettes and your dream worlds. No one cares. Just please leave us alone.
APGNation: In your videos you talk about Bayonetta and sexy female characters in games. While I agree that a female character being sexy does not preclude them from being good characters, I also believe that there is a difference between “sexual” characters and “sexualized”. What are your thoughts on the matter? Is there a difference in your mind?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: Sexual is more general — sexualized implies a character whose sexuality is highlighted and objectified. Sexualized characters could be distracting to some players. So game developers would be wise to offer alternatives. On the other hand, I think it’s prudish to condemn them in art and entertainment. I also find it sexist — against men. Men are the primary market for competitive action games and most of them do like images of hot women. Why treat their preferences as taboo? Traditionally women, gays, and trans people were policed and humiliated for their sexuality. Today, at least among certain gender activists, it’s open season on the sexuality of straight males. There is a small school of sex-negative feminists who want to censor what men see and enjoy. I favor the sex-positive school that follows a “live and let live” philosophy.
APGNation: Why do you think it is that we so rarely see high profile games meant specifically for a female demographic?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: Women’s presence in the video gaming industry — both as designers and consumers — is already taking it in new directions. In some academic circles it is politically incorrect to notice that the sexes are different. But they are. It appears that in the pursuit of happiness, men and women take somewhat different paths. Men, on average, prefer games in the strategy, role playing, action, and fighting genres (Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, etc.); females, as a group, evince a strong preference for social and simulation games (Farmville, The Sims, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, and Just Dance). The world of games is rich and diverse and there is room for everyone.
APGNation: A female game character can be both sexy and well written, intelligent, or as tough as the game’s male protagonist. So why do you think it is that some titles still choose to use stereotypical femme fatale and damsel in distress type characters when rounding out their female cast?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: It could be laziness or lack of imagination. On the other hand, damsel in distress stories are compelling. So there is a place for them. But games are evolving along with the culture. Today, there are a lot of formidable female protagonists: think of Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Jade (Beyond Good and Evil), Chell (Portal), and Samus Aran (Metroid). Bayonetta is no damsel in distress. She may be sexualized, but she is hardly a static object. I pity any suitor who doesn’t understand that — to Bayonetta, no means no.
APGNation: Many comments I’ve read on message boards and video game news sites often cite the fact that they do not care who the protagonist of a game is as long as the game itself is good and fun. Yet time and time again the protagonists of AAA titles tend to be men of some sort. Why is this so often the default in gaming when so many gamers have expressed that they do not care who they are controlling for the most part?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: My guess is that the game industry knows its market.
APGNation: It would be unfair to our audience if I didn’t mention GamerGate, so let’s talk about that for a bit.Do you have any insight as to what you believe the aims of GamerGate are and how do you think news outlets, like our own, can change to better serve our ever growing audience?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: GamerGate attracts posts from thousands of rank-and-file video game players from all over the world. Media stories suggest it’s a cabal of right-wing white males. But lots of women, gays, trans, and people of color keep turning up. Its members’ politics are all over the political spectrum. Some gamers identify with GamerGate because they believe there is too much cronyism inside the gaming industry; others are weary of recently arrived cultural critics who view their hobby as pathologically masculine. Mostly, it’s just an amorphous group of enthusiasts who have come together to defend a hobby they dearly love from a never-ending stream of disapproving experts and activists.
It’s always a mystery why certain websites flourish and other languish, but there are two things a gamer site should do to succeed: offer honest, informed articles and reviews, and actually like and respect your readers.
APGNation: In a recent interview with Sargon, you stated that academia with regard to feminism and gender studies has been hijacked by an almost cult-like movement that firmly believes that there is some sort of patriarchal power structure designed to oppress women. As an academic, what are you doing to address or at least highlight this situation?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: Classical equality of opportunity feminism (I call it “freedom feminism”) is a legitimate human rights movement. There were arbitrary laws holding women back. Women organized and set things right. But, as I try to show in my writings, that reality-based movement has been hijacked by male-averse, conspiracy-minded activists. (I call them “gender feminists”) American women happen to be among the freest, most self-determining people in the world, but the gender feminists seek to liberate them from an all-encompassing “patriarchy.” But where is the evidence that patriarchy exits? They point to their own research as proof. But most of that research, including their famous statistics on women’s victimization, is spurious. Gender feminism is the opposite of an evidence-based movement — it’s propaganda based. I have spent the past few decades trying to win feminism back from the hijackers.
APGNation: Thank you for your time, we truly appreciate you sitting down for this interview with us. But, before you go, do you have any parting words for our audience about gaming as a whole?
Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers: If there is a community more open, diverse or hospitable than gamers, I have not seen it. This is a group that does not care about your age, sex, ethnic background, or sexual orientation — they just want to game. They love their hobby, and when critics come armed with evidence-free theories about its toxicity, they react. Too many video game journalists and industry insiders are using gaming as a platform for their political obsessions. Are there some lunatics among supporters of GamerGate? No doubt. Lunatics can turn up in any group — including groups of sex-panicked feminists or self-important game bloggers. GamerGate is a consumer rebellion. It’s also a voice for moderation in today’s fevered debates over sex and gender. Gamers have created a wonderful, world-wide community; and video-gaming has a fantastic history. It’s too bad there are not more sympathetic journalists who can tell their story.
We would like to thank Dr. Sommers for taking the time to answer our question, and our readers for helping APGNation grow as much as it has in the last few months. We couldn’t have done it without you guys. As always, if you want to see more interviews like this one, make sure to follow us on Twitter @APGNation for all the latest in gaming news and reviews. You can also follow Dr. Sommers on twitter @CHSommers.