Sexism in Games: Part Infinity

Borderlands 2 has a class called the Mechromancer. Similar in style to New Super Mario Bros. “God plays the game for you” mechanic, the Mechromancer has just about the same thing. Some guy, lead designer John Hemingway, calls it “girlfriend mode” – because, hey, most girls don’t play video games, right? Why not help a guy out who has a girlfriend not at all inclined to play a video game like Borderlands?

Then the world explodes, accusations, of sexism are made, and, surprise surprise, here we are again. Hey, wow, another one of these. We were all surprised that someone was offended! So a game developer said something about “girl friend mode” and suddenly we’re all up in arms about language choice. I’m upset more at the idea the “he made a sexist comment” finger-pointing than anything else.

Sorry, Zach, you’re male! You’ve got no say in the matter. Not that I’ve every been one to follow intellectual authorities, so here we go.

Let’s take a historical perspective. If you want to reckon with this issue of “sexism”, especially in a Christian context, you must reckon with the holy books. Suppose you’re reading the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. You’ll notice there’s a great deal of  violent, intolerant, sexist, racist, and genocidal language torwards other races. Heck, the whole Pentateuch (the first five books) contain a story about God bringing the nation of Israel to its promised land of Canaan. Canaan is not some uninhabited paradise; it’s been “lived in” by various races. God declares that these people are vile, sinful, and deserve to be ripped right off the earth they settled, and God does this by force. We call this the herem, or devotion. The language literally means “destruction” – God wants Israel to destroy a nation as an act of devotion. Numbers 21:2 (stolen from Wikipedia, lol) gives us basically every variation on the planet, yet the language stays the same.

And Israel made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If You deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.
And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.
Then Israel made this vow to the LORD : “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.
Then the people of Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.
And Israel vowed a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.

Wow. God’s pretty hardcore, huh? Let’s say things before Jesus were less butterflies and bunnies, and more rampant annihilation of sinful peoples. When I say “destroy” I mean absolutely everything: men, women, children, livestock, and anything that lived or moved. Not that Israel didn’t also sin, but you get the idea. If you believe Scripture is divinely inspired, you’re going to have a problem with it anyway you slice it from our current cultural context. The authors don’t know they’re any of these things; that’s their paradigm and God speaks through that paradigm. Antiquity, as Thomas Hobbes would say, was the constant perpetual conflict for survival in a state of nature. Some lines from Hobbes’ Leviathan:

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

In the common parlance of our times, they lived in a pre-reflective culture. Everything was either black or white; a minor offense was a cause for conflict. When you’re living in a state of affairs where you could and your family could face utter annihilation, there weren’t many options. You couldn’t just take an insult on face value. It was kill or be killed, and family blood guilt went for generations. Genocide was less “option” and more “reality”. Who had time to think of sexism in these conditions, let alone know that they were problems with oppression of women in their societies? Gender roles were assumed because…hey, one of us can reproduce!

We can say this, furthermore, with the sexist language of the Bible. Say, what’s that? Paul refers to Christians as “brothers” and not “brothers and sisters”? Well, that’s an obvious misstatement, says the New Revised Standard scholars, so we’ll change it even if it isn’t there! Clearly, we’re inserting problems into the text that didn’t exist when they were written. They are identified as problems now because our culture and our common morality identifies them as problems now. They are neither superior nor inferior; every human civilization has had the same problem, sin, and that sin manifests itself in different ways with the same flavor. The early church women such as Lydia, a businesswoman, lived under the assumption that women weren’t allowed to speak publicly about religious issue; thus, they supported the church in other ways, whether through businesses or fundraising. Again, it’s not as if they thought they were being oppressed, nor did they know it; we only identify these things in retrospect. Even so, both men and women were taken to prison for preaching the Gospel (See: Acts 8:3, 9:2, and 22:4).

It’s difficult to imagine this and understand it, given our current society. How many people, other than those related to servicemen, even knew there was a war going on or could even feel its effects? America was attacked once, and then never again – it’s easy to forget what happened because we’re inundated with entertainment media. For us, every issue and everything has become the opportunity to take a stance on something or other. Our reflective culture has made everyone an editor; the explosion of blogs in the last decade should tell you that we love hearing the sound of our own opinion (like me). We still, however, haven’t gotten past this idea of “conflict”, interestingly enough. We take the same ideas and bring them to speech rather than physical violence, but it all ends in the same place. Except, yes, we can’t kill the person on the other side simply because we disagree. That doesn’t mean we don’t try our hardest, though! Now, instead of gutting a man like a fish, we accuse him of sexism for an imagined slight. Hey, we’ve sure gone far in six thousand years, haven’t we?

Everyone talks in generalities, for better or worse. Sometimes, we just can’t convey ourselves very well. We always use language familiar to our audience; do you think Hemingway intentionally wanted to offend people? I’d think not.People say dumb things; I say dumb things. Sometimes, what sounds normal to me offends other people. That’s a perspectival problem, not a moral one. Does his choice of language mean Hemingway is sexist, or that our language is sexist, or that our society is sexist? When we recognize these things, we’re fixing the form rather than the content. He’s a game developer within that social sphere, and that language is perfectly acceptable within that sector (for good or ill). The difference here is that the “acknowledgement” rests on a personal anecdote from the developer himself. He’s not trying to make a universal statement, but using the tools he has in his language game toolbox. Whether it’s a problem or not is going to depend on whether you disapprove of his language. There is real oppression, but a simple slip of the tongue isn’t it.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.