An Outsider’s View of #Gamergate

Even if you’re not a hardcore gamer, you’ve probably seen the hashtag #gamergate on social media lately. It’s the scandal/movement/troll bait that doesn’t seem to want to die.

What is Gamergate?

I am only a casual gamer and a late comer to this. I do have a tendency to call it like I see it, and here is what I’ve discovered researching Gamergate on Twitter and in the Blogosphere. Gamergate is a many-headed hydra, an elder black pudding ooze if you’ve played D & D. There is no simplified what is gamergate paragraph to be written because it’s something different to everyone involved.

A rough construction of Gamergate is that it either started with a bunch of guys harassing a female game developer or a spontaneous protest of corrupt journalism in the gaming field. Gamergate has spawned a number of other hashtags, the two most important being #notyourshield and #stopgamergate2014.

Version one is that Zoe Quinn released a game about depression and some gamers didn’t like it. They showed their dislike by a sustained campaign of harassment. Her harassment led to a long needed discussion about women in gaming, sexism and misogyny in the gamer community. A few gamer fought back under the hashtag #Gamergate and it slowly coalesced into a movement of sorts.

In the other version, Zoe Quinn’s boyfriend accused her, in a public blog post, of sleeping with Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson. The gaming community saw her relationship with Grayson as a conflict of interest. This lead to a discussion of nepotism and cronyism in the gaming world. The horrible vitriol, death threats and misogyny found on Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, 8chan and elsewhere under the hashtag is simply trolls trying to stir the pot.

The biggest challenge with this second version has to do with the #gamergate timeline. It appears that Zoe Quinn was experiencing harassment before anyone knew of her affair. She hadn’t even met Grayson yet when he reviewed her game. Several of the other women who have been taking heat in this debate have experienced a great deal of harassment before this whole thing erupted. Women like Anita Sarkeesian have been talking about sexism in gaming for sometime and are not directly connected to the original scandal in any way I can tell.

Still its almost impossible to pin gamergate down because it means something different to everyone involved. Everyone has an opinion about what gamergate is, and everyone’s opinion manages to discount the worst behavior on their side and emphasize that same behavior on the other side.

Why Should I Care About Gamergate?

I’ve already indicated that I am only a casual gamer myself. Why should I care? Let the gaming community have it’s little drama, right?

There are two problems. The first is that gamergate has spread well beyond the confines of the gaming community. Anyone who attempts to discuss the issues of women in tech gets sucked in. Anyone who attempts to discuss how women are treated online, gets sucked in.

Gamergate has ripped open and ugly can of worms. Women field threats online every day. Often it’s simply the price of being a woman online. Gamergate has taken those threats to a new level. One gamergater threatened “the worst school shooting in history” if Anita Sarkeesian spoke on the issue at Utah State.

Gamergate has become a feminist issue, because some women aren’t allowed to have an opinion about it without being threatened. This is not right.

Everything wrong with Gamergate in one paragraph

I came across this article in Techcrunch. Sadly it’s been heralded by some as the most “balanced view” of what gamergate is about. Here is the paragraph that stopped me in my tracks.

“Have they raised money for a mental health charity? Don’t report that! Did they kickstart a project to help young women get ahead in game development? Definitely don’t report that! Did one of them send someone a death threat? Stop the presses, we need to get the story out now!”

Yes, stop the fucking presses now. Death threats are kind of a big deal. Especially since these aren’t your average random troll comment sort of death threats that women frequently field; anonymous comments that are impossible to track. Brianna Wu had her address posted online along with many threats. She alerted the police and left home.

My day job is a night job on an acute mental health unit. Over the course of fifteen years I’ve dealt with hundreds anti-social personalities (AKA sociopaths). I’ve had my share of death threats. I have a simple rule, when the threats start, we are done talking. I will talk about your anger at the doctor, judge or family member that committed you to my facility, but only after you take two steps back, sit down and stop threatening me. If you can’t do that, we can talk through the tiny window in a seclusion room.

When the women at the center of this controversy started getting believable death threats, we crossed that line. Anything, and I do mean anything, that you have to say about ethics in game journalism can wait. First we need to discuss this.

Gamergate and Misogyny

Gamergaters are insistent that the movement is not sexist or misogynistic. Their argument seems to be that the content of their message (that game journalism is corrupt) is not sexist therefore they aren’t either. They fail to realize that if the message is delivered in a sexist way, it doesn’t matter what the content is. Pretending otherwise is like using racial or homophobic slurs and then trying to say “I didn’t mean it like that.” It just doesn’t work.

What do I mean by sexist delivery? If a female game developer gave sexual favors to a journalist for a positive review, that would be an ethics violation. If you attack her “slutty” behavior while ignoring the journalist’s part, that’s sexism. If you respond by threatening the female with rape, that’s misogyny. If you try to silence any woman who disagrees with you by harassing them, belittling them or threatening them, that’s sexism.

Why Gamergate matters to all of us

Some people will no doubt say that since I am not a gamer I shouldn’t have an opinion on Gamergate. Gamergate is a feminist issue, because the tactics that gamergate activist are using are familiar to all feminist. They belittle women’s opinions. Just wanting to discuss how women are treated in games is tantamount to taking away their freedom, their freedom to enjoy those portrayal without thinking about them. When that doesn’t work they resort to anonymous threats, threats of rape and violence.

Suffragettes faced the same barrage of threats over a hundred years ago when they tried to argue for a woman’s right to vote. Equal rights activists have faced the same violence again and again.

This is why, regardless of what is going on in game journalism, gamergate has become a feminist issue. You can respectfully disagree with what people like Anita Sarkeesian has to say. But if you think that respectfully disagreeing includes the right to make rape threats, you and I have a problem. I will stand beside her right to speak out on this issue.

But it’s just a few bad apples, right?

The gamergate issue might rise above the vitriol of a few misogynist trolls and become a respectful and much needed debate about gaming journalism. I might win the lottery tomorrow, too, even though I don’t play. The two seem about as likely.

Right now the gamergate movement is awash in bad apples. Despite the regular protest of gamergate activist that the threats and harassment is only a few bad apples, the movement has failed to condemn these actions, instead many have taken the stance that such harassment is, or should be, protected as free speech. Using threats to silence opinions is the antithesis of free speech in my books, and using the free speech argument to defend your threats hypocrisy.

The really short version of #gamergate:

There are two sides to this issue, but one side is using harassment and threats to silence the other.

Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

The recent discovery that half of Viking warriors were women has shaken a lot of people’s world view. Of course, it has also already led to a backlash of why “that’s not what the study really said.” As someone who read The Prehistory of Sex when it first came out in 1997 and who has followed this debate for some time, it’s another in a long string of studies that shows the same two things. Trying to determine the sex of remains by the type of grave goods found with them reinforces gender stereotypes and is highly inaccurate. Secondly, whether the ratio ever hit fifty percent or not, women warriors were not as uncommon as many would like to think.

The assumption of our sexist society is that our view of gender is rooted in ancient history and in practical concerns of those times. In the rugged kill or be killed world of ancient times, men were hunters and warriors and women mothers and gatherers. This is not, we have been taught, because of sexism. Men are simply stronger than women and that makes them better warriors. And yet the Vikings seem to fly in the face of all that.

Are men stronger than women?

The best answer is yes, but…

1. The Bell Curve

Statistics don’t lie, but they are a great way to mislead. Nowhere is there a better example than the relative strength of men and women.

For starters it depends a lot on how your measure strength. Men have broader shoulders and that gives them better leverage. On measures of upper body strength men tend to outperform women by a wide margin in many studies. Measures of lower body strength tend to be much closer to equal.

Men tend to be larger than women, so the average man has more muscle mass. Again this leads to men being stronger in many fitness test. But pound for pound, muscle is muscle. There is no male muscle or female muscle. If you test two people who are equally fit and have the same lean body weight, the difference evaporates.

Back in 1994 Charles Murray and Richard Hernestein raised a lot of controversy by using the statistical method known as the Bell Curve to prove their sexist and racist assumptions about America. I have always found the title somewhat ironic, since the bell curve also shows the real problem with their assumptions.

If we plot a bell curve showing the average strength of men and women, we find the two curves overlap significantly. What that means is that while the average score for men might be higher, a significant percentage of the female population is stronger than the average man.

This is pretty much true of all gender based distinctions. They are true in general but the exceptions make up such a significant minority that it throws the result into question.

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

When people say things like men are x% stronger than women, many of us have this image of lining all the men and women up side by side. And the men will all lift x% more than the woman next to them. But that’s not how it works. Some of the men will be stronger than the woman next to them and some of the woman will be stronger. Once you’ve tested everyone and regrouped them according to strength, you will find more men in the stronger category, but a fair number of women as well. Do you tell this minority of women they must stay home from the war because their sex is, on average, weaker? If you are a smart Viking captain the answer will be no. Take the strong, leave the weak, regardless of gender.

2. Practical differences

The second problem with the notion that men are stronger than women is that no one questions to what extent this statistical difference translates into a practical one. According to this post on the average joe, the average man can bench press 145 pounds and the average woman 60 pounds. That’s modern Americans and that’s a pretty big difference. They can squat 165 pounds for men and 105 for women. There are a number of reasons why ancient Viking men and women were probably much closer in strength.

How important is this strength difference in combat? That’s a fair question.

Here is a list of medieval weapons with their size and weight listed. Looking at the list we see that a scandinavian sword from the ninth century was 30 inches long and weighed just under three pounds. The largest two handed sword on the list runs about 14 pounds. The common fantasy trope of a woman picking up a man’s weapon and staggering under the weight is an exaggeration at best. None of these weapons are too heavy for the average modern female to lift or swing, let alone a shield maiden.

Swing: I am transgender. I am also a hippy. I used to live in the country. We chopped wood and heated our trailer with a woodstove. I got good with an axe. I still own that land and we still go out there on the weekends. Now that I have transitioned and I don’t have the testosterone I once had, I don’t have nearly the same upper body strength. My sixteen year old son is probably stronger than me, but I can out chop him with the axe because I have more experience. The secret is to use the momentum of the axe, rather than brute force.I have no idea how I would fare on a Viking battlefield, but the same dynamic applies with swords and battle axes. It’s not always the one who can throw the most brute force behind an attack that’s going to win. A weaker warrior, with better skill and timing can bring down a stronger one readily.

People who really want to make the argument that stronger (male) is better than the weaker (female) can always look to the late medieval period, when plate armor and heavy sword and shield combinations were common. But to argue that a relative small difference in strength made women unfit to wield a Viking axe or sword is difficult at best.

Stab: So what if women’s upper body strength does translate to a disadvantage on the battlefield? The idea of two Viking men dueling mono a mono with swords is largely a myth, one they themselves perpetuate in their saga literature. Those duels were major events of the sagas, but a minor portion of their battlefield tactics. Many Vikings fought with spears. Spears are a thrusting weapon. It relies much more on lower body strength, especially in a charge. Even if you don’t have them wielding axes and swords in combat, a group of shield maidens charging with spears is just as effective as a group of men.

Shoot:  The Viking bow had a draw strength of up to 90 pounds. The average modern American woman might struggle with that, but a conditioned woman wouldn’t. And shooting a bow is a matter of skill, not brute strength. Here is another place where men and women have a practical equality even if men are statistically stronger.

Think: There is a lot more to fighting and war than charging blindly into battle. A crafty warrior often defeats a bigger, stronger one. Strength is but one factor on the battlefield. If you think women can’t be as crafty or devious as men, you don’t know many women.

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Survive: History buffs will know this already, but in ancient times it was not uncommon for armies to lose more men from starvation and disease on the way to the war then in battle. Life was difficult in the best of times. For soldiers in the field it was brutal. They marched for weeks on near starvation rations. Poor hygiene led to epidemics of disease. Poor sanitation and no knowledge of infection meant that many of those injured in battle died of infections between battles.While statistics almost invariably show men to have greater brute strength, they just as consistently show women to have greater constitutional strength. In natural disasters women tend to have a higher survival rate than men. (A lot of this can be chalked up to simple estrogen and body fat. Higher body fat gives women a bigger cushion against malnutrition.) If you are considering who to take on a long campaign with you, this might figure into your thinking. The point of all this comes to this: being able to lift more weight over your head doesn’t necessarily translate into being a better warrior, or having a better chance at survival. There are many factors and brute strength is just one of them.

3. Outliers and Modern Athletics

If the difference between men and women are insignificant, why do men outperform women in almost every athletic field today? Doesn’t that prove that the difference is significant?

Not really. The problem is the highly competitive nature of most sports and outliers. Outliers are people that fall outside the statistical norms. Because of the competitive nature of most sports, professional athletes are all outliers, people who score well outside the normal range on any number of physical measurements.

The practical issue is that even a small difference of mean scores can translate into large differences at the end. For example a bench press weight that puts you in the top 5% of men might be the top 1% of women. For a real life example, Becca Swanson, the strongest woman in America can bench press 600 pounds. The number of men who have achieved that extraordinary feat numbers about 58. Becca proves that some women can compete with men even in the arena of brute strength, but she also shows just how outnumbered the women are at that level of competition.

When you are dealing with professional athletes you get a statistical double whammy because the events and results are also at the very edge of the statistical norm. Tiny differences in conditioning and training can equal much larger differences in the end result. The fastest marathon time by a man is twelve minutes faster than the fastest time by a woman. A marathon is over 26 miles, so that man ran about 46 seconds faster each mile. Meanwhile if you compare Usain Bolt’s men’s world record 100 meter dash to Florence Joyner’s time for women, the difference is just a hair shy of one second.

And, yes, at that level of performance biologically driven difference between men and women probably plays a role. Men are larger, on average, and have bigger ribcages and that means more capacity to move oxygen (critical to running). Men have more testosterone and other androgens, which play a critical role in conditioning. However the more research I do, the less conclusive the results seem. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that pound for pound, a conditioned female athlete is equal to a male athlete, there’s just fewer of them around.

 

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

Nothing, and that’s my whole point.

If King Haakon is picking the biggest, strongest warriors in all of Norway to be in his bodyguard, there is a good chance that it will stacked with more men, because men tend to be bigger. But if the average chieftain is deciding who gets to carry a spear and defend the village at need, there is likely to be a more even mix. A one second difference in rushing speed isn’t going to make a big practical difference when both runners are carrying spears and trying to spill your blood.

Conclusion

While this new finding may have shocked many, those familiar with Norse history expected as much. A generation of archaeologists and palaeontologists have been questioning the age old practice of sexing remains based on burial goods. It has created self reinforcing gender stereotypes. We assume that only men are warriors and only warriors would be buried with weapons. Then we assume any grave that contains weapons must be a male grave. As forensic science and DNA testing becomes more important tools, we are discovering these assumptions wrong.

Those of who have read some of Iceland’s great saga literature will know that it was a far more egalitarian society than later medieval Europe. Shield maidens, women warriors  and strong independent women in general abound. Those who doubt that Viking women were as tough as their men, might find an axe buried in their chest.