Monday, 5 March 2012

Cross Assault, Sexual Harrassment and the Gaming Press

As Capcom’s Street Fighter X Tekken promotional tournament and reality TV show Cross Assault draws to a close, it is almost certain that the event will be remembered by much of the gaming community for the appalling treatment of one of the show’s female contestants. The nature of the harassment suffered by Mirana “Super Yan” Pakozdi and the outrageous comments of her harasser sparked debate across the gaming community yet the form this debate took, shaped at least in part by the gaming media, is illustrative of the problems still faced in making gaming a safe and inclusive space.

Featuring a $25,000 grand prize and drawing in promising talent from the Tekken and Street Fighter professional communities, Cross Assault was intended to serve the dual purpose of building anticipation for Street Fighter X Tekken as well as bolster Capcom’s attempts to bring the fighting game scene out of the underground and into line with more high profile eSports movements.

It is surprising, then, that Capcom should have failed so thoroughly to make the tournament a safe space for its participants, first allowing a female player to be sexually harassed to the point where she forfeited a match, and then attempting to respond to the fallout with an apology that fails to directly acknowledge the incident.

Pakozdi, one of five Tekken players competing in the tournament, was subject to repeated sexual comments and behaviour by her team coach, Aris Bakhtanians, over the course of several days. On the first day alone, these comments ranged from speculation about Pakozdi’s bra size (which apparently prompted spectators on the Internet to change their chat handles to references to different parts of Pakozdi’s body), discussing the notion of her “mud wrestling” with another woman and Bakhtanians “getting the winner”, to asking how Pakozdi smelt.

One exchange saw Bakhtanians repeatedly make comments about Pakozdi’s thighs and breasts and suggest she remove her shirt. When Pakozdi complains that his comments are making her uncomfortable and putting her off her game, Bakhtanians responds by again telling her to take off her shirt and explaining that he is teaching her to concentrate while being heckled. He then suggests to suggest that Pakozdi should wear a skirt for the benefit of viewers watching the live feed.

In another exchange Bakhtanians stands over Pakozdi and criticises her for a mistake, telling her that if she makes another mistake he will smell her “real close... I’m going to say his [Pakozdi’s boyfriend’s] name while I’m smelling you.” Despite Pakozdi pleading with Bakhtanians to stop, he continues to taunt her. He later leans over Pakozdi and repeats his threats to smell her, prompting Pakozdi to leave the room.

In a separate incident, Bakhtanians takes control of the live stream camera and repeatedly focuses it on Pakozdi’s breasts and crotch.

Writing on her twitter account, Pakozdi said Bakhtanians “made my life incredibly hard and hasn't helped me with [dealing with hecklers] at all. He made it way worse” and explained her decision not to attend the tournament’s final round on the basis that “I don't think the whole community is like that but enough people are that it scared me away from going to Final Round.”

Capcom and the individuals responsible for the production of the show apparently did nothing to intervene as Bakhtanians’ behaviour continued over the following days, resulting in Pakozdi forfeiting a match and leaving the tournament. Instead, Capcom issued the following statement:

“The views and opinions expressed by cast members in the live Internet program 'Cross Assault' do not reflect those of Capcom. As a company, Capcom believes that everyone should be treated with respect. This particular issue was brought to our attention and has been addressed. We sincerely apologize to anyone that was offended by any comments expressed during the show.”

That the statement refers to the “views and opinions” of contestants suggests the statement was prompted by a separate event which occurred on day 5 of the tournament, after Jared Rea, a community manager from the show’s streaming provider, speculated that aggressive, sexualised language may be alienating potential fans from the growing fighting game community. This inspired Bakhtanians to engage in a lengthy rant in which he declared that sexual harassment and aggressive sexual behaviour were an integral part of fighting game culture and that it would be “unethical” to challenge it.

Capcom are right to distance themselves from such comments, but such a move seems deeply incongruous when the company has failed to provide any statement regarding the actual sexual harassment that occurred on the show and its own failure to ensure this behaviour was curtailed. This suggests that to Capcom, distancing themselves from Bakhtanians’ outrageous views is more important than acknowledging and engaging with the indefensible harassment and bullying that Pakozdi was subject to.

This approach reframes the entire incident, placing Bakhtanians and his misogynistic views at the very centre of the issue and reduces his disturbing and aggressive behaviour toward Pakozdi to background context. Coverage of the incident in the gaming press has been limited, but what exposure there is has been characterised by the tendency to follow Capcom’s example in engaging primarily with the “debate” over whether sexual harassment should be a protected as an integral part of fighting games culture and in the process elevating Bakhtanians’ profile as a sort of cultural anti-hero, while ignoring or minimising his abusive behaviour toward Pakozdi.

Destructoid’s coverage is particularly guilty of this. Despite providing a video that captures the full scope of Bakhtanians behaviour and Pakozdi’s increasing distress, the article refers to “ostensibly lewd comments” made by Bakhtanians “according to Pakozdi” and “Pakozdi’s claims of mistreatment by notorious bearded gentleman Aris Bakhtanians.” In addition to celebrating Bakhtanians as a controversial figure, the choice of language clearly suggests an element of uncertainty over the nature of Bakhtanians comments and the reliability of Pakozdi’s account. This is compounded by a suggestion that readers check out the discussion on the forums of the Shoryuken community for “some spirited arguments from both sides of the fence” in spite of the fact that “some online community members... have firmly sided against Pakodzi.” All this under the jovial headline “Sexual harassment and fightin’ drama, together at last.”

Giant Bomb’s article focuses explicitly on Bakhtanians defence of misogyny. Undera headline “When Passions Flare, Lines Are Crossed”, which likely refers to Bakhtanians’ “passion” for the fighting game community, although it could also be read as implying, dangerously, that his harassment of Pakodzi was based out of misplaced desire, the article provides an extended blow-by-blow of Bakhtanians’ exchange with Rea on the subject of whether aggressive misogyny has a place in gaming culture laid out across a pair of transcripts. Pakodzi’s departure is suggested to have been prompted by this exchange, with her bullying by Bakhtanian’s being referred to only in passing and characterised by the selected quote “Miranda, I wanna know your bra size.” Again, this occurs despite an embedded video which captures Bakhtanians behaviour in full.

Of the all the outlets that covered the event, Original Gamer’s coverage is the worst, referring to Pakozdi’s “issues” with her coach over “possible harassment” and noting that “many are questioning the decision to give up the chance at $25,000.“ If the article drips with contempt for Pakozdi, the site is quick to identify itself with Bakhtanians, highlighting the fact that he “has been interviewed on this site”, complete with hyperlink. In a follow up story regarding Bakhtanians’ issuing of an apology (which, predictably given the nature of the coverage, is expressing contrition for his defence of misogynistic behaviour, rather than for having actually engaged in such behaviour himself), Original Gamer complain about other news sites being “more than happy to take this situation and run with it to advance their agendas”.

By contrast, a surprisingly well-rounded article is presented by Penny Arcade Reporter. Many readers will no doubt be aware that until as recently as the end of last year the Penny Arcade franchise was at the centre of an on-going controversy over the comic’s repeated usage of rape jokes and the reluctance of the strip’s creators to engage with the criticism this elicited from the community.

It is potentially a sign of a maturation within the Penny Arcade brand that the Reporter’s article on the event, despite leading with the controversy over Bakhtanians’ views, engages with Pakozdi’s experiences. Although Bakhtanians rant is presented in transcript while his behaviour toward Pakozdi is buried in a video link, Penny Arcade explicitly and unreservedly criticise Bakhtanians’ behaviour and the failure of the event’s organisers to step in when it became clear things were getting out of hand.

Not only that, but the article highlights Bakhtanians’s defence of gamers chanting “bitch” and calling for a female character to be raped as indicative of his views, which are themselves presented negatively.

More problematic is the statement that “This may be the first time in the history of video games that someone had said that removing sexual harassment is ethically unjust.” While this passage is clearly intended to suggest disbelief at Bakhtanians’ defence of misogyny, it also serves to imply his behaviour and opinions are isolated. As last year’s outrage over a Battlefield 3 launch party that banned women from attending illustrated, misogyny and male entitlement not only span genres, but that elements of these communities are willing to defend this behaviour just as vociferously and uncompromisingly as Bakhtanians.

While it is heartening that both the games media and the wider gaming community have roundly condemned the idea of sexual harassment being a key part of fighting game culture, it is troubling the way that this debate -and it has been a debate- has completely overshadowed the televised sexual harassment of a young woman. It would be unthinkable in any other sporting community for a female competitor to be treated in such a way, even more so for subsequent coverage to be dedicated to the incoherent and defiant misogynist ranting of the perpetrator. If eSports and professional gaming wish to become as established and respected as physical sports, more must be done to foster an inclusive and safe environment for participants from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Similarly, the gaming community as a whole is no stranger to grassroots outrage. When Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 was announced as lacking a dedicated server mode for its PC release, a high profile if somewhat uncommitted boycott of the game was announced by furious gamers. If the omission of a particular networking mode triggered that level of vocal condemnation, what are we to make of the near-silence that has met Capcom and their partners’ inability to protect a contestant in one of their tournaments from prolonged and aggressive sexual harassment?

The failure of the gaming media to appropriately frame their reportage is unlikely to be the product of the sort of deeply held hatred for women and defensiveness of privilege that Bakhtanians espouses. Rather, the habitual framing of the story around the experiences of the male figure and the presentation of Pakodzi’s experiences as of dubious reliability are more likely the product of habitual assumptions borne out of unchallenged patriarchal thinking. While perhaps less overtly hateful and dangerous, the consequences of allowing these prejudices to go unchecked are still deeply damaging to the community, in this instance resulting in an opportunity to present a meaningful challenge against sexism and misogyny in gaming to be all but passed up.