At a New York University conference about game design this past weekend, a conversation about misogyny broke out.
Street Fighter brought it on, and the answers, some of them from one of the current caretakers of the series at Capcom, were frank. You might have expected defensive answers. People don't usually react well to being told they're involved in something someone sees as misogynist. What we got was more along the lines of "Capcom is not always pushing things in the helpful direction."
It wasn't just Capcom who were called out. It was the community of Street Fighter players. There, too, the answers were most unexpected.
NYU's Practice was in theory—and mostly was in, uh practice—a weekend conference about the the art and craft of game design. Social issues weren't on the agenda. Game design, programming philosophy and prototyping techniques were. But let fly the curveball that is a question from the audience. That's how Practice, briefly, became a forum about sexism in and around Street Fighter.
The question came near the conclusion of a panel called Designers, Players — Fight!. Two men who have worked on Street Fighter games, David Sirlin and Seth Killian, the latter of whom works at Capcom now as something of a fighting game czar, had talked about the design of fighting games. Their focus was on how they balanced the fighting games, a tricky art for games that are supposed to be playable for, according to Capcom's goals, a decade. After that, pro Street Fighter gamer Arturo Sanchez gave his perspective on how the developers balance their fighting games.
Then came the questions, including one from Matt Parker, a professor who wanted to talk about misogyny (his word) and Street Fighter. I missed jotting down the very start of the question, but, from memory, I recall him asking why the intro animation for Cammy in Street Fighter IV began with a focus on the female fighter's behind. He noted that there was no such animation focusing on male characters' crotches.
And then Parker went on, the rest of which I can relay to you pretty much verbatim. Here's Parker in the Q&A, addressing the panelists. He's just asked about the focused shot in Street Fighter IV on Cammy's butt and is now asking about the way people act in streaming web videos that broadcast competitive Street Fighter matches:
Matt Parker, game designer and teacher: "On the streams, I've heard, when a female player is competing things like 'I'd do her' and things like that on a stream. That's super-alienating to females. I like females. I like Street Fighter. I'd like them to like each other. I don't understand why this is there and I think it really does hurt the community, which otherwise is very embracing and very open."
Seth Killian, Capcom: "I'll take that one on the chin, and then [gesturing to Arturo] you can chime in. Japan's a very different place [laughter from the crowd] Set your cultural wayback dial to, like, maybe '50s?"
Parker: "But Street Fighter II didn't have that."
Killian: "Well, we didn't have the technology. [laughter from crowd] to zoom in on the buttocks."
"For better or worse, it's easy for me to get inured to that kind of thing. It's the same thing with violent games. When you've been playing them for a while you sort of don't see it. That doesn't make it not a reality.
"On the community side, I'm actually pretty encouraged, because, as you mentioned, outside of the gender lines it's probably the most inviting community in the world, and not just in games. It's all social classes, all races. Everything. Sexual preference. Every spot on the dial. But women have been sort of... I've seen it changing quite quickly in a more embracing direction toward women over the last few years. But it's sort of one of those tipping points—this is just my feeling, I don't have any numbers behind this—there are certainly a lot more women at fighting events now than there used to be. Probably 10 times as many? So it's getting there.
"And this is where I'm speaking personally. I think the last holdouts of the boy's club mentality are getting more vocal, because the neighborhood is starting to get mixed. That's why you start seeing the crosses on the lawn once in a while. But then you can push past that and get to the breaking point. I feel like we're on that breaking point now on the gender issue." I think the last holdouts of the boy's club mentality are getting more vocal, because the neighborhood is starting to get mixed. That's why you start seeing the crosses on the lawn once in a while."
"But yeah, Capcom is not always pushing things in the helpful direction. Point fairly taken for sure."
Arturo Sanchez, Street Fighter pro gamer and tournament commentator: "I wanted to chime in on the gender issue and what you guys talked about the streams. Like Seth said, the gender roles of females in the fighting game community has definitely changed.
"Obviously until Street FIghter blew up recently it was kind of a man's world. But recently Street Fighter IV has gotten more popular there have been a lot of female players who have been playing Street Fighter IV and are embraced by the community pretty well. One of the most famous female players, her name is Choco Blanka in Japan… she is considered to be one of the better Street Fighter IV players with Blanka.
As far as polarizing commentary goes, when it comes to streams, for us as players, this is all very new two us. Even though the Street Fighter community has all cultural ethnic archetypes represented in the community, a lot of at the core of it was a lot of inner-city people playing at their local video store or bodega, so it definitely tends to be kind of a ghetto-fabulous mentality. When you combine that with streams, it's definitely changing, but there is some work to be done.
"The community as a whole is new to it and we're definitely trying to adapt to be able to be appealing to a wider audience. I know, for example, at Evolution 2011, it had about 2.2 million viewers watching the stream throughout the weekend. That took more of a professional approach to the commentary… but you have other grassroots tournaments that are just as big but they are community-run and more chaotic… You have people running around. You might have some players on commentary. You might have some people on the mic talking crap. It's still hype and amazing, anyway. People want to see that real stuff, but they also want to keep it professional. It's kind of hard to balance the line. I definitely think we're getting better at it as we grow."
That could have been the whole thing. Sexy-looking Street Fighter characters. Provocative question. Thoughtful replies from developer and pro gamer. That's the whole thing, right?
The moderator had a curveball of his own:
Charles Pratt, Practice panel moderator: "It's also worth nothing, though that this there is the same problem in StarCraft, which is guys in big metal suits versus gold aliens versus space bugs. And there's still this weird misogyny and weird divide. I definitely think imagery has something to do with it but it also has something to do with the communities themselves, the policing and those communities growing."
And then the talk went back to game-balancing.
After the panel session ended, I talked to Parker. He lamented to me that even at Sarah Lawrence College, which is 70% female, he hasn't been able to get even five women to sign up for a gaming class he was teaching. He's worried about women feeling alienated from gaming. Based on the thoughtful responses he got at Practice, he's not alone.