Calm Down, Dude

by
March 9, 2016

By David Hayward

David Hayward is a chap who has spent a long time in the videogames industry. He’s been a level designer, been a producer on weird cross-platform stuff, done consultancy, and these days works on videogames festivals and trade shows. Which are by all accounts like bike events, but with fewer windows, and more TVs. He also dabbles a fair bit in bike stuff, so he knows his onions. And that shallot (arf).

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VIDEOGAMES!

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The good, good old days.

The industry I almost left because I was fed up of tits, guns and hanging out with the lads. Once the sole domain of teenage boys, and still a little skewed in that direction by inertia if you ignore smartphones, but it’s an industry that’s learning – and in some ways it’s slightly ahead of cycling. I’ve been inside it for fourteen years, and I’ve seen a lot of change.

Honestly, I’ve been involved with the bike industry for a much shorter amount of time, but I’m seeing very familiar debates. Sockgate. Babe calendars. Topless models promoting stuff. What happens in Vegas gets plastered all over the internet and then everyone either tuts, or moans about “political correctness gone mad”.

Things are changing… but a lot of people seem to mistake getting rid of sexism for getting rid of sex, but they’re not the same thing. Not being able to tell the difference doesn’t make you a bad person, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong, either. But don’t worry – I’ve lived through this change in one industry already, and that industry is a better place for it.

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Around a decade ago, change seemed impossible in videogames due to how cemented their audience and image were. At some point in the 80’s, thanks to portable TVs and pester power, videogame systems made a transition from being for families to being for teenage boys. The sort of games they wanted, of course, centred on crude fantasies of sex and power, so it eventually followed that having the most attractive, least-clothed women to work your stand at an event became an arms race. (And a legs race, and a boobs race.)

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…grown men who ended up still doing awkward hover-hand photos with models – sometimes at trade shows – and that’s where it got really weird…

As fans grew up, some of them became videogame developers; grown men who ended up still doing awkward hover-hand photos with models – sometimes at trade shows – and that’s where it got really weird. By the late-00’s, week in, week out, things were happening that made everyone feel horrified or just really awkward.

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  • For instance:
    A man made popular Youtube videos of himself sexually harassing women at shows.
  • Developers addressing the questions of a female videogames journalist by talking to me instead, because I’m a man and therefore must be her keeper or something.
  • Friends had to deal with persistent creepers at work, completely unsupported by HR.
  • A group of videogames industry old-guard got drunk over dinner, then bragged about banging industry women in such a way that the only woman there suddenly felt like prey.
  • Models wearing almost nothing apart from the phone-scannable codes on their bums, wading through crowds of children.
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The bad old days

The above list is just some of the stuff I’ve seen firsthand. It usually takes the form of casual sexism, but at the furthest extremes it’s people mobbing women online, urging them to end their own lives; or hoax 911 calls propelling SWAT teams to their houses. A small anonymous horde cheers when innocent people’s doors are smashed down and their dogs shot dead by the police. Recently, the remote but real potential for things like this to happen became part of the new normal for women working in videogames.

True, not all sexists are misogynists, but the depth of that horror doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A minority shift from sexism to actual misogyny crystallised within a wider sexist culture, surrounding a medium that had been built to feel like it was owned by boys. One thing after another was excused as “just a bit of fun”. It spent decades seeping into every crevice of videogame development, publishing, press and fandom; all the time infantilising and excluding women that little bit more than before. The agency and legitimacy of women in videogames was progressively eroded, and the only people claiming there was nothing wrong were those who didn’t bother to look or ask.

#protectfun was the tag on 661's Instagram page. What does that even mean?
661’s recent controversial Instagram pic.

It’s likely that most of us men have never had to exist in an environment that makes you feel perpetually vulnerable just for who you are, where even beyond the boundaries of a specific group of friends or coworkers, you’re the odd one out and no one has your back. Heterosexual Man is the assumed default in day to day life, including most sports, news, fiction, science, music, event lineups, recorded history, and so on to infinity. Unlike women, we never have to go through the sheer bullshit of repeatedly having our looks, clothing or demeanour made the matter at hand. I benefit directly from these parts of our culture; I’m less likely to be challenged by anyone, and mentally everything just costs less. I very rarely feel like the odd one out unless I’m being, dare I say it, oversensitive.

The kind of thing I used to think was just a bit of fun now looks to me like a company intent on limiting its audience

The videogames industry seemed fine until I scrutinised myself and my surroundings. The kind of thing I used to think was just a bit of fun now looks to me like a company intent on limiting its audience. Videogames are an industry full of very smart people, but some of those people are ignorant – whether they mean well or not. Sexism doesn’t have to be purposeful to happen: build an industry or scene that excludes a certain kind of person for long enough, and people will become habitual, even tribal about it without really thinking. It’s an immensely difficult thing for us all to get our heads round, but good motives don’t necessarily lead to good results. Good intentions can be outright  counter-productive if they’re not informed. All that’s required to build hostile environments is complacency, not malice.

In that respect, how well does cycling compare to videogames? Better – but patchy. The industry feels far too broad for extremist misogyny to take root, but I’ve seen a list similar to the one above on Surly’s blog. There are relics like the men-only Pickwick Club, which I suppose is the kind of thing videogames are too young to have. Women’s events get short shrift with prize money, especially in road racing, but mountain biking does have things to hold its head high over, such as amazing downhillers, prize-equivalence at the PMBA Enduro, and more women’s teams being announced on a regular basis.

Boys - WAR! GUNS! DEATH! Girls - Diamonds! er - Eventing!
Boys – WAR! GUNS! PLUNDER! DEATH! Girls – Jungles! Diamonds! er – Eventing!

The most laddish elements in cycling and videogames seem to believe absence of the Sacred Titties will turn all events into chaste social justice cult meetings. That’s not what happened to videogames. Highly charged extremes materialised, and they’re as cult-like as you’d expect, but the centre moved toward a better place and is still heading that way. Vast reduction of sexualised marketing had a transformative effect on the atmosphere of trade and consumer videogame shows, which suddenly felt much more like everyone could be welcome. The nature of videogames diversified, and so did audiences. More could be done to close the gap, but things are slowly moving in the right direction. Being inclusive breathed life into tired, single demographic spaces. Nowadays there are events I can feel proud to show my kid sister, because they display prospects beyond “If you grow up to be pretty, you could have a job promoting things to boys!”

If your life goals include becoming a coke-addled old toad surrounded by bikini models, that’s your prerogative and theirs, but dragging an entire industry in that direction is not healthy or useful.

There’s no reason for cycling to skew male other than the culture we build around it, but the current way cycling is sold makes it more likely than not you’re a heterosexual man. If so there’s nothing wrong with your tastes, or with boobs per se, and under many circumstances I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people getting paid to get naked. It’s all about context though. Organising something to please only one kind of person implicitly excludes others. If your life goals include becoming a coke-addled old toad surrounded by bikini models, that’s your prerogative and theirs, but dragging an entire industry in that direction is not healthy or useful. It broadcasts “Hello, we are a stupid boys club!” to everyone else. There are already plenty of places and ways for me to enjoy the things I do; I really don’t need cycling or videogames to keep feeding tidbits to my sexuality.

Swirling drains of the internet excluded, what I’ve seen so far in the bike industry is that people may be less aware in general, but more mature and able to talk no matter which side of sockgate their opinion sits. Bikes have been around for much longer than the forty-five years or so of consumer videogames, the people in cycling are generally a little older, and trade shows already seem to be well out of the pit videogames were once in. Not quite getting over the empathy gap doesn’t make you a terrible human being, but I implore you to keep rolling to the lip and sizing it up. Because videogames are for everyone, and so are bikes.

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Two good cycling people to read on these subjects are occasional Singletrack columnist Chris Garrison, and US publisher Elly Blue.

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