A Game that People Play

There’s a furor on the internet recently about women and video games. This is an old shouting match (I can’t call it a dialogue) but the latest flare-up began when Anita Sarkeesian, a blogger who runs Feminist Frequency, launched a project called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” planning to analyze stereotypes of women in games (sidekick, damsel in distress, and of course the most common, “background decoration”). She organized a Kickstarter fundraising drive to fund the video series she’d planned. This brought her to the internet’s attention, and soon she was being harassed. By harassment I mean: Sarkeesian’s feminist videos were accused of being “terrorism.” 5,000 mostly-negative comments were left on her YouTube video. Her Kickstarter site was hacked to prevent people from accessing it and donating to the project. People sent Sarkeesian images of men raping her. Someone designed a game where players could “punch” Sarkeesian’s face, resulting in black eyes and bleeding. And someone else posted her phone number and home address online.

It’s hard to pinpoint motivations for such behavior, but the general tenor seems to be that if women should even hint that the female characters in games might leave something to be desired… if women point out the instances of Male Gaze objectification in most games and Patriarchal Bargains among the exceptions… then the appropriate response is to shout her down, harass her, and intimidate her until she shuts up.

Now I’m going to talk about Ultimate Frisbee!

Ultimate, for those unfamiliar, basically combines tossing a frisbee around with the movement of soccer and the end zone of American football. But the mechanics are much less important than the Spirit of the Game. Despite being a fairly athletic sport, it’s designed to be low contact, and if players do collide they almost always apologize. When someone makes a great play, it’s pretty likely that people from the other team will applaud. The game is self-refereed, which works better than you might expect: I have heard numerous people call fouls on themselves, sometimes leading to an argument impossible most anywhere else, where one person feels they committed a foul and should be penalized, while the person who was fouled protests! And, at the end of the game, the two teams high-five each other, compose a cheer for their former opponents, or play a fun game, and in general celebrate each other—regardless of who won or lost.

I mention all this because many leagues and teams are co-ed, and most people of both genders like that just fine.

Where I live, there’s a determined and well-organized effort to welcome and teach new players, women in particular. For the leagues I play in, the gender ratios are set at four men and three women on the field for each team, and if fewer women sign up for the league, men will be turned away to keep the proper ratios. There are lots of women captains, and many of the women I’ve played with are substantially better than many of the men. While gender limitations are acknowledged (women guard women, men guard men) everyone I’ve played with seems fine with the fact that men and women are playing together, and that many of the women are better players. It’s not a big deal at all. There are, of course, men’s leagues and women’s leagues, but I and many other people of both genders prefer to play on mixed teams. I’ve heard many women speak of learning from the men, and I’ve heard many men appreciate how the presence of women can check aggression and hyper-competition.

It’s true that one of my teammates once gave a woman two black eyes. But it was entirely accidental—a frisbee thrown a little too fast at her face—and he bought her a drink afterward. When she came back out for our next game, she was loudly cheered by all, and at the end of the season the (male) captains presented her with a prized “Spirit of the Game” disc (frisbee) to honor her willingness to keep playing despite the injury.

Ultimate is not a paradise free of gender conflict. Some men I’ve played with were highly aggressive and bothered my female teammates with their yelling and physicality. Some people feel that Ultimate will never be taken seriously as a sport as long as it’s co-ed. Other men discount women players and don’t throw to their female teammates. But on that last count, at least, it’s usually to their detriment; if men fail to throw to their women teammates, this means they miss many valuable opportunities and wind up harming their team, and if men don’t take women on the other team seriously they are liable to see those women score on them. I remember one woman who was short and not athletic. Most of the people we played against had a tendency to ignore her. Once our men learned to throw to her, she became a scoring machine.

I am quite grateful that I have the opportunity to play such a game. I’ve learned a lot about the game from the women I play with—and I have nothing but respect for the women who play it. It’s a privilege to watch them in action and to play alongside them.

I write this to show that there is a better way. I write this to show that men and women can, in fact, play together, and well, with respect and consideration. I write this to restore a little faith in humanity. And I write this to show that objectification and gender conflict are not inevitable:

Ultimate Frisbee is a game that people play.

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