Interview with Carolyn Petit of Feminist Frequency

Today I spoke with Carolyn Petit, the managing editor of Feminist Frequency, which you’ve probably heard about, since they’re easily the most successful and influential feminist/socially progressive games criticism outlet out there. A heads up: this is not a big formal “game design” conversation

Instead, here are some of the things we did talk about:

  • Some follow-up to my point about “be critical of the games you love” thing from the last episode with Tevis Thompson
  • A bit about Carolyn’s background, how she came to a “feminist awakening” after working at GameSpot
  • How game developers, especially indie white male game devs like myself can do a better job with representing people who don’t look like themselves
  • How the future is looking for representation and social issues in games

… and a lot more. I’d like to thank Carolyn again for her time, thanks to you for listening, and as always, thank you to the patrons who make this show possible.

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  • Jimmy Mac

    These last two conversations have been really interesting, thank you. Also, I just wanted to compliment you on your growth as an interviewer/moderator/conversationalist. I feel like you do a good job of letting the guest speak, while also providing a context with your own views for the guest to agree with or push back against.

    While I think the idea that “You can love things you have problems with, and also grow to dislike the things you once loved through examination” is interesting, I felt like the discussion could have examined more *why* people like things in the first place. There was a place where Carolyn talked about John Wick and how she, and others, can find meaning or enjoyment in things they may or may not find “problematic.” In order to evaluate whether this makes sense of whether “being problematic” disqualifies something from being loved, I think we need to understand what it means to like or find meaning in a game in the first place.

    For all manner of play, from imagination games, to toys, puzzles, and other interaction forms as you define them, learning is a core feature. We absolutely gravitate towards things that are enjoyable, but when we are talking about deriving meaning from an activity, we are talking about gaining understanding. The media that sticks with us the most tends to help us understand ourselves and our world, including the violent, perverted, or disgusting parts of it. Unlike movies, which can force a viewer to adopt a particular perspective, games have the potential to allow the player to interact and transform the experience in some way. This is most possible in games with fewer rules, and thus more degrees of freedom in interaction, the kind of imagination games that 4-10 year-old children play being the purest form. In games for adults, which usually have more rules and restrictions, the exploration and understanding often comes from the theme, story, experiences interacting with other players, and the way those elements interact with the rules.

    This is a long explanation for why I don’t think violence is inherently bad in games. I think you, Carolyn, and Tevis have a point that we are totally saturated in violence and problematic portrayals of women, but that’s more a point about the current cultural context, not about the principle of whether objectionable themes ought to be allowed in video games. This is not to say we should excuse people for making rape fantasy machines. What I am saying is that games are tools for enjoyment and understanding, and writing off the potential for games to allow us to explore violence would be to foreclose on something important. We need to take seriously that people simultaneously can find violence gratifying and find personal meaning there. This is true from games, and sadly true for the real world. We also know that video game violence encourages real world violence (albeit this is a complex research topic), but rather than being a cause to censor violence in games, we ought to take seriously the potential for games to be a force for understanding violence, sadism, sexism, and other behaviors. It’s often not possible to do experiments in the real world about these behaviors, but games offer us a powerful laboratory to understand these ideas.

    I have yet to see a video game do the kind of thing I’m talking about in a competent and compelling way. However, I think you can see game developers beginning to recognize some of this potential. It is merely a spark now, but I think you have some ability to recognize and encourage these efforts rather than simply discouraging all portrayals of violence. The way forward for game developers is not to shy away from difficult themes, but to create more opportunity for meaning making. Plenty of people will discuss violent films and books, tossing around thoughts about “what it all might mean,” I would love it if people did that about some games as well.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Thought about what I was going to say for a bit. What struck me in this interview was the sentiment that you can be critical of the things you love, and still love things that are problematic. To me, this signals that more work needs to be done to understand *why* we like those things. If we understand why we find personal meaning in violence and other objectionable content, we might be in a better place to say that’s a good or bad thing. I feel like discussions of violence tend to get stuck in the ruts of whether game violence begets real life violence, or the over-saturation of violent themes in games. Both of those are legitimate points, but they’ve been made before. A way forward to me is to understand why a young man might be drawn to worlds of muscle dudes killing each other. Not in a pejorative, “It’s just a power fantasy” way, but to respect and take seriously the idea that they find real personal meaning there. Games as an art form have a lot of power to transform player expectations and experiences because they are interactive. I think if we take seriously the idea that young men are drawn to violent games because it explains something for them, we can better understand our side of that “conversation.” For example, the psychiatrist James Gilligan spoke with many convicted killers and violent criminals in prison, and describes how these men all had experienced deeply shaming events in their lives. I could imagine a game that explored a character who felt like this, and the connection between shame and violence. The stories games tell now are so disconnected from authentic characters and real experiences, but if that were not the case, I can imagine games telling compelling stories involving violence. Basically, I don’t think the problem is inhuman violence in games, it’s violent games that lack any real humanity.

  • Great discussion, really enjoyed listening.