• An interview with Jim Sterling about sexism in game culture

    by  • June 21, 2013 • People & Events • 7 Comments

    Jim Sterling, a staff writer for Destructoid and weekly video blogger for The Escapist, is a pretty big name in the video game blogosphere, as someone who has been doing it for quite a while and one of the few professional video game bloggers out there. He has gained quite a bit of influence as a reviewer for pushing back against game companies who want nothing more than shills for their games instead of real, honest reviews. Sadly, Jim Sterling also had a pretty unfortunate history of saying really sexist things1.

    To be honest, I’d pretty considered Jim Sterling a bit of a lost cause, so I mostly stopped paying attention to him for the last year or so. That is, until two of his recent Jimquisition videos caught my attention: This video about the creepy cull of female protagonists in video games and this video about the objectification of women being inherently unequal to the treatment of men in games. (They’re both really good, and if you haven’t seen them, then I urge you to go watch them.)

    That made me really sit back and take notice. What happened? Had Jim actually acknowledged the problems with sexism in the game industry and game culture? I was dying to know, but more than that – as someone who had voiced some harsh criticism, I felt honor bound to update the record if such a thing was warranted. I was a bit trepidatious about contacting Jim, since one never knows how these things will turn out, but he was kind enough to agree to an interview, which I feel went really well.

    Wundergeek: My biggest question for you is why? What happened that caused you to change your views about sexism in the game industry? What was the turning point? Was there a specific event, or was it a gradual evolution? And what did that feel like for you?

    Jim Sterling: You can hold a mirror up to a person as many times as you like, but only the person can look. The nature of online interaction is such that one can pick and choose the things they have to confront, and I simply chose not to confront the idea I was supporting sexism in any way.

    I’ve taken to calling my prior attitude, as well as the attitude of other members of the gaming community, the “obviously not” syndrome. In my mind, I “obviously” wasn’t a sexist because I didn’t believe in mistreating women, in hurting women, that sort of more extreme activity the cursory glancer associates with sexism. That’s the insidious thing about misogyny and privilege — you never really think of the subtle things, the more sinister harmful things you may be perpetuating. Making jokes about feminist, being “satirical,” calling someone a “feminazi slut,” it was all fine and dandy, because I “obviously” didn’t mean it, and “obviously” didn’t think I was a bad person. The trouble is, when you start telling yourself it’s “obvious,” you give yourself no further cause to actually reflect on yourself or your behavior.

    I don’t think it was any one thing that changed my mind, though I would strongly credit the work of writers such as yourself for putting under the microscope that which I was unwilling to. I owe a great deal as well to my wife, who has become a more vocal feminist herself over the years, and who patiently educated me in the ways of becoming a more inclusive, more positive influence on the gaming community. I’ve also been blessed with excellent friends who possess strong feminist views — a writer local to me by the name of Tom Head, as well as Colette Bennett and, more recently, Leigh Alexander. Being in the presence of such people has been of amazing benefit to me and the evolution of my career.

    As far as how it’s felt, I’d have to say there’s an energizing element to it. People believe that choosing your words to be more gender-neutral, elimating words that can be uniquely insulting, is “censorship,” that it restricts how you write and speak. Far from it, it’s only encouraged me to be more creative, to seek a fresh presentation and open myself up to a whole new vocabularly. It’s difficult, and even scary, to get deeper into the gender issues that affect the gaming world — you never know who you’re going to upset, and accidentally upsetting people is the worst. However, that’s also a special kind of challenge I’ve largely been grateful to face.

    This is to say nothing of how much there is to talk about once you open your eyes and stop denying there are any problems. My, but there’s a ton of it!

    Wundergeek: You’ve made your feelings known about feminism in the past. What are your views on feminism (and feminists) now? Would you call yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

    Jim Sterling: I’ve always tended to be a centrist, historically, never a fan of extremist thinking. Ironically, that’s led to me having pretty extreme views on movements I’ve simply decided are extremist! As far as feminism goes, I think my biggest issue was personal arrogance in assuming I could sort the “extremist bad ones” from the “normal alright ones.” It’s not exactly my place to make that call, yet make it I did.

    My views now? Still forming, always evolving. I’ve leaned more liberal the longer I’ve been an atheist not-straight Brit living in Mississippi (funny how that works). I owe a debt of gratitude to many in the feminist corners of the community, though, for being among those who contribute to my growth as a writer and content producer. I feel feminism ultimately benefits every gender the human race has to offer, concerned as it is with smashing enforced gender roles and expectations. With some of the things I do falling well outside of my gender’s typicality, I can more than appreciate that!

    I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, nor would I call myself an ally. Not out of disdain or contempt for the terms — quite the opposite, in fact. It’s one of those things where I feel it’s not my place to apply such terms to myself. If what I’m talking about at the time aligns with a feminist view, then great! I wouldn’t just up and say, “Welp, I’m a feminist now, everybody pat me on the back.” Not earned that distinction.

    Wundergeek: What made you decide to speak out? You could have just changed your opinions and stayed quiet, but you decided to speak out in some of your new videos. What was the thought process there?

    Jim Sterling: There’s a number of reasons. As a “not straight” person, I’ve always cared deeply about LGBT issues, even when my vulgar turns of phrase and use of ignorant language may have made it appear otherwise. From some of my older videos and articles on the topic of gay issues and homophobia, there was a natural step toward examining sexism too.

    Another reason would be the aforementioned looking into the mirror, and being of a frame of mind to finally see how much there is to talk about. This has gone hand in hand with many other games writers highlighting the problems, so many more now than there were a few years ago. It’s reached a point of exposure to where no reasonable person could deny sexism is a problem in game culture.

    The third reason is personal. I’ve been a fairly prominent speaker in gamer culture for a fair few years now, and in turn have contributed to the form it’s taken. My earlier work was harmful in ways I never thought about, and in the years since examining that work more closely, it’s something I feel obliged to help make better. I want to be a more inclusive and positive voice for everybody in gamer culture, and that’s one of the biggest driving factors in my work, especially Jimquisition, tackling such topics with greater regularity. I don’t want to be Angel, fighting demons in LA to atone for my wicked ways, but I certainly don’t want to be a poisonous force in our culture.

    Wundergeek: Have you experienced any backlash from the gamer community over your recent videos expressing concern about industry sexism? If so, do you think it has been comparable to the backlash Anita Sarkeesian has gotten for her videos tackling industry sexism? And if not, what are your feelings about that?

    Jim Sterling: Some, sure. It’s a very odd thing to be called a “misogynist” and a “vagina warrior” in one day, but these things happen. I kind of get it from both sides these days. Through absolutely my own fault, I have many of people in feminist cicles who still feel alienated by me, while those in the camp of the bigots or the gamers who “don’t care about this shit” view me as an annoyance who was “gotten to” by the brainwashing feminists. These are the things I should expect, and more or less deserve.

    It is, however, nothing compared to what happens when a woman dares tackle the same issues I do. Nobody threatens to rape me. Nobody says I “must be stopped.” The worst I get is an accusation or two and the obligatory reminder that I’m a fat fuck — not the most thrilling of engagements, but far better than consistent hate campaigns and utterly vile personal attacks and threats. Whenever I do a video on sexism, at least one comment will always be congratulating me on how better than Anita Sarkeesian I was. There’s an obsession with her, and I don’t understand it. Compared to my characteristically combative videos, Anita’s work is downright restrained. Yet I’m told I’m the reasonable one and she’s the radical. It makes no logical sense!

    For me, confusion is the most dominant feeling over this stuff. I honestly do not get why Anita has been so especially marked.

    Wundergeek: Some people are going to see this and assume that you are changing your tune out of personal interest; namely that you are turning your back on your sexist writing because of career and financial motivation, not out of genuine desire to change on your part. What would you say to those people? Which is the real Jim Sterling?

    Jim Sterling: What could I say to that? There is no way to invite one into my brain with a flashlight to have a good old poke around, so there’s really no proof of sincerity. These accusations come up regularly enough, though funnily it’s not usually from feminists, but from angry male gamers who link to old blog posts about me to try and shut me up. That is yet to work.

    I’ve been tackling more and more feminist issues, gradually attempting to evolve my work for maybe a year or two now, and I don’t believe it’s been a sudden 180, but a gradual change, which I welcome everybody to go and check out for themselves if they care enough to. However, it’s not something I wish to go out of my way to prove. I’m an unbelievably fortunate person to have the job I have, and the position I have, and I want to use that position to be a good element in the gaming community. It’s an element all are free to embrace or ignore.

    I resolved never to say “I’m not sexist.” To echo a phrase I used earlier, it’s not my call to make. It’s up to the individual to decide, and if anybody decides I am, then I can only acknowledge that as a fair assessment and continue to work. It’s not as if I didn’t willfully contribute enough evidence.

    Who is the real Jim Sterling? He’s an idiot who tries to be less of an idiot every day.

    1. If you want to get some context, you can read some things I’ve written about his past writing here on my blog, although be warned that some of the quotes may be triggering.
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    About

    I’m an occasional game illustrator, and game designer, long-time LARPer, and player of tabletop roleplaying games (mostly indie games). I have a terminal addiction to board games. I also play both PC and console games – mainly RPGs of all stripes, but I do enjoy puzzle games like Katamari as well. My main source of gaming notoriety, however, is the feminist gaming blog Go Make Me a Sandwich. In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am a photographer and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.

    http://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com

    7 Responses to An interview with Jim Sterling about sexism in game culture

    1. avatar
      June 21, 2013 at 17:06

      Thanks for this. I’ve been watching Jim’s show off and on for the last year or so and I’ve noticed and appreciated the shift. It’s great to get some further insight into the hows and whys.

      Thumb up Thumb down 0
    2. avatar
      Dmol
      June 21, 2013 at 22:55

      :) Thank you for risking your doubt wundergeek. Glad it turned out good. Read you around the web.

      Thumb up Thumb down 0
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