This is a story about gamer culture, casual sexism, the silence of friends, and its fallout - more or less in that order.
Firstly, context. I’m a recent graduate working as a game designer for a social games startup in New York City, and I identify strongly with other students and alumni who want to make games. For example, I’m actively working to build a community resource for young game developers in the NYC area in the form of a list-serv group. Through luck and hard work I was able to mature a successful internship into a job that I absolutely love, and I want nothing more than to help my peers achieve the same.
Over the summer a good friend of mine started an informal working get-together, affectionately named Big Time. The objective was simple: every week a handful of friends would spend one evening working on personal projects in a communal space. Projects didn’t have to be games related, but generally they were anyway. All of the roughly five to seven attendees were, without exception, male. While I was regularly invited, I only made a few appearances. I never felt as though I didn’t belong, and being the lone female in an all-male environment is hardly anything new for most women in geek culture. As a matter of personal preference, I tend to work alone.
When the Fall semester began, I was more than a little excited. Not only did my Alma Mater’s game events start again, but I also was able to hire my first-ever intern. I was eager to check out Big Time and meet the new additions to the group. I came into the computer lab around 7PM last Thursday, and was immediately greeted by two good friends. More than any other young people I know, I consider them to be respectable, smart, talented game designers. I’ve often considered myself lucky to count them as my peers, and I know that the feeling is mutual.
The two of them sat in front of me, and I moved to a computer in the row behind them. As I did, I noticed that most of the folks were strangers: four undergrads, at least three of which were Freshmen. We greeted each other, and I had time to think to myself that they were chatting awfully loudly for being two feet away from each other in an enclosed room. Also it seemed that they weren’t actually working on anything, just sort of lounging and gabbing about games. It didn’t really bother me. I settled in and began composing some emails to local professors, asking them if they would mind spreading word to their students about the list-serv I was launching. In front of me, my two good friends were quietly working on a game they’re showing later this week at IndieCade.
The loudest undergrad student, who we’ll refer to as C, sat down right next to me. We’ve rarely spoken, though we are loosely familiar with each other. He was merrily bellowing about his Street Fighter prowess when things began to sour. C had switched to explaining how confused he was when trying a new fighting game: “So I did what I always do, y’know? Pick the hot chick.” He chortled at his own wit. Inside, I cringed. I didn’t expect it to be more than a passing comment.
The cronies in the room laughed, which egged him on. “Yeah, I mean, it’s all about the bouncing, right? Like huge tits everywhere.” More laughter, so he got louder. “Jiggle factor, y’know? The number one rule of game design!” Lots of laughs, lots of agreement.
Within 20 seconds I felt all my goodwill drain out. My heart started beating faster, and I wanted this kid to shut up. He was bad enough on his own, but with the encouragement from the 18-year-olds his stunt became a lavish performance. He wanted to display his masculinity in the way that all chest-beating boys are taught to: degrade women. Virtual women would do; all the better to jeer and snicker about how humiliating it must be for a female character in a fighting game to have impossibly-sized breasts and wear ultra-sexualized gear.
I noticed that the row in front of me had frozen. My friends were no longer talking with each other, or typing at their computer. They were locked into place, clearly affected by what the oaf behind them was saying, and stared blankly at their screens.
“Once I made this game for a class, and I made it with a female protagonist. It was a shitty platformer, you know how it is. But I didn’t give her huge boobs.”
“Oh no!” Someone else lamented, laughing.
“Yeah, right? I mean she definitely had SOMETHING there, you could tell. But they weren’t like, huge.” This was a specific detail, something I think may have been intended to impress me, as the only female in the room. What a hero this guy was.
“Anyway, I turned it in, and the teacher like, he says, ‘What do you think you’re doing here?’” Beside me, C was loving all the attention, and the cronies were pouring it on thick.
Except for the row in front of me: from that row there was nothing, only silence. The silence between the three of us seemed deafening in its own way. I really didn’t know how the others couldn’t hear our silence. It had become a physical thing, a blanket the three of us were hiding under, waiting for the nightmare to be over.
I consoled myself that we would rant about it later, maybe over a beer or two. With every additional comment about big tits and their jiggle physics, though, I found it harder and harder to reassure myself. Instead of feeling like I was sharing a bad experience with the two guys in front of me, I began to feel truly attacked.
“Yeah, so he tells me her boobs have to be bigger! There are STANDARDS in videogames!” There were cries of assent, hoots and yelps not totally unlike hyenas.
I found it hard to swallow. I had never felt so casually humiliated in what was meant to be a welcoming, safe space. How could someone sit there and spew this kind of stuff? How could he joke and laugh about how horribly women are represented in games? Apathy would be bad enough, but this kid was lauding the fact that women’s bodies are engorged and contorted and exposed, that degradation is made synonymous with “sexy.” He was being cheered like a champion.
Silence might have been protecting my friends, but suddenly it was choking me.
“Yeah, no flat girls!” I don’t remember who said it, but it didn’t matter, because it began a chorus of agreements: No Flat Girls. I closed my email, grabbed my bag, and shoved my way past C in my rush to get to the door. I spared a glance at my friends as I left, and made eye contact with one of them. He gave me an unhappy, sympathetic look that said: I understand.
With that look, a tiny spark of anger bloomed within the rot of the sick-dead feeling in my guts. No, I realized as I walked down the hallway, waited for the elevator. No, I thought, tears in my eyes as I hastily left the building. No, you fucking don’t understand.
And you didn’t lift a finger to stop it. Between the two of you, you couldn’t manage a sentence.
I called him from the street, my throat constricted tight now, more from the pain of betrayal than the pain of the attack. “You don’t fucking get to stay silent. You don’t get to organize an event and say nothing when that happens,” I barked at him, tone terse. I could hear the tears in my voice, and I knew he could too.
“You’re right.” He answered softly, voice already heavy with shame, “I know. You’re right. I’ll say something.” I tried to say something else, felt the need to bleed out some of the fury and bewildered hurt that was coiled all through me. My voice cracked, and I hung up instead.
It’s worth mentioning now, that this good friend also happens to be my boyfriend. Suffering the silence of friends in a situation like that is bad enough, but our relationship lent an agony to the betrayal that only intimacy can provide. We’ve discussed sexism within games culture at length. I know that he’s deeply opposed to the societal demand that men degrade, belittle, or otherwise harm women in order to prove themselves as masculine beings. Knowing that he’s one of the “good guys” only made it worse. Like a wounded animal returning to its den, I made my way back to my apartment as quickly as possible. I didn’t allow myself to cry freely until I was at least out of the subway.
Within the next hour or so, I received a couple very long text messages from the other friend who had been there, and he apologized profusely. In his own words, he “felt sick to his stomach with guilt” and would understand if I couldn’t be his friend or didn’t want to be around him any more. When I eventually told him that I think we would be okay as long as he swore to never stand by while something like that happened again, he immediately did so. “I’ve had my ex-girlfriend and sister bring me horror story after horror story, and I see it myself every day,” he wrote. “I’ve fucking ended friendships over sexism with guys I thought were my friends. But tonight I feel like I was the person who was the biggest sexist condoning asshole on the planet and I will never forgive myself for it.”
It meant a lot to hear his apology, especially one that was apologizing for all the right things. It meant more that I didn’t have to tell him why it was so painful. I could believe him when he vowed on his life to never let it happen again. That all said, he had competition when it came to feeling like the biggest asshole on the planet.
My boyfriend arrived shortly after, breathless, as if he’d run home. He was barely inside the door when he gasped out, “I fucked up.”
I didn’t look at him, couldn’t without bursting at the seams. Furious, I wanted to shout, “You make lots of noises about hating sexism, but you can’t fucking say anything to stop it when it’s right in front of you?!” Despairing, I wanted to weep, “How could you let him do that? Why didn’t you do anything to protect me? Is my right to feel safe worth less than the comfort of your silence?”
I squeaked out an “I don’t want to talk about it” and left to the bedroom, tried to lose myself in a book. I could hear him busying himself in the other rooms, unable to calm down. He sorted and cleaned things, desperately trying to organize his physical space to make up for the disorder of his emotions. After maybe half an hour of this, he came into the bedroom where I was reading. I know he’d struggled to build up that resolve, but when I looked up at him, it shattered. He was entering a complete break down before I had time to get up from the bed.
It’s a strange, disconcerting thing when someone you love has a core part of their identity so strongly shaken. It’s a process of destruction by shame and guilt, an unmaking that grows in a thorny tangle and rends all it touches. Bearing witness to his anguish brought me no joy, but it was a grim consolation. This is not a misery that is soon forgotten. For him, the cost of silence had suddenly become much, much more dear.
It took some days before we could talk about what had happened for more than a few minutes at a time. When we did, he would try to speak evenly and freely, but his discomfort manifested physically: his palms would sweat, he couldn’t meet my eyes, he lost his appetite mid-meal. I learned that both he and our mutual friend have spoken to C and have uninvited him to at least one event. Not for my sake, by any measure, but because even the thought of being around that kind of attitude makes them feel ill. I’m glad that they’ve had each other in this experience, if nothing else.
In the end, what surprised me most was that if lasting damage was done, it was not done to me. The genuine, heart-broken apologies of my friends leeched away my pain. If that moment of betrayal was my blood price for their newly awakened vigilance against casual sexism, I cannot regret having paid it.
Nicole Leffel is a recent NYU graduate and active member of the game development community in New York City. After a successful internship at social games startup FreshPlanet, she joined the team as a full-time game designer. Now she spends her days happily entombed under a mountain of flowcharts and spreadsheets, with regular contributions to the NYU Game Center blog.