If You Say The Elder Scrolls Isn't For Women, This is What Happens...

He said he meant it as a joke. Just a silly line. But when critic Tom Bissell wrote that adult women probably haven't heard of The Elder Scrolls, he struck a nerve.

This is what he wrote in his review of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the website Grantland:

"If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably either (a) an adult woman, or (b) the sort of person who once beat up the sort of person who likes the Elder Scrolls franchise, so herewith a quick primer: Bethesda Game Studios made it; its genre is the genre that has elves; and its subgenre is the open-world RPG."

This is what some of his readers wrote in the Facebook comments section for that review:

  • "A number of adult, female gamers play and enjoy The Elder Scrolls games! Woman have always enjoyed RPGs!"
  • "The line about adult women is completely out of line."
  • "Another adult woman here chiming in to say WTF. I can count on one hand the number of adult women I know who DON'T know what Skyrim is. It's very hard to take the rest of an article seriously when it opens with "But hey, we're not writing this for YOU, just for the guys who play it.

And here was his response, also offered last night in his Facebook comments section:

"Okay, to everyone who was offended, my sincere apologies. Mortified that the line could have animosity or dislike of anyone read into it. My joke was this: Running around with a digital sword slaying digital dragons seems much more like a male activity to me. I stand by that. Not *all* fantasy games skew male certainly, but, in my mind, The Elder Scrolls always have. Also, for the record, I play as a lady Argonian. :)"

A smiling emoticon ended that one. The end? No. Case not quite closed.

Anyone who writes about a game, myself included, risks making a mistake when producing some casual shorthand to explain who a game might be for. The crutch might be to say that such-and-such Facebook game is for someone's mother or that a particular game is for a "hardcore" player, which is usually code for "male and not yet 40" even though any 60-year-old lady who sharpshoots through an hour of Zuma a day is plenty hardcore.

But this not-for-women moment wasn't just about one line written by Tom Bissell. These lines—the experience of reading and reacting to lines like these—accumulate, and that's when the reactions snowball into something else.

One of Bissell's readers already saw a pattern worth despairing over. She wrote:

"Between this and the NYT "Game of Thrones is for boys" article I'm curious as to what, as an adult woman, I *am* allowed to like."

The New York Times article she was referring to was Ginia Bellafante's negative review of HBO's Game of Thrones, in which, she wrote:

"The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin's, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to "The Hobbit" first. "Game of Thrones" is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population's other half."

There's that question: What kind of fantasy fiction will top critics believe a woman can like?

And then there's something else. Here's another reaction in the Bissell comments section:

  • "luckily, many adult women don't show this total lack of irony. and have better ways to spend their time. playin' skyrim, for example. now go report me."
  • "First, good article, even if I disagree with some major points. I am one of those who loves "expository" lore, I guess. Second, women, it was a goddamm joke. A JOKE. Settle down. No one's trying to take away your right to vote."

Those less accommodating reactions provoked a blog post from Carrie Patrick that concluded like this:

"By expressing an opinion that a joke about me was perhaps a little insulting to me, I have become that worst of all creatures, a woman with an opinion on the internet, otherwise known as a humorless bitch who needs to get a grip. I have a total lack of irony. I should settle down. I should relax. I should realize that people who were not the target of the joke have a much better right than me to decide whether I should be annoyed by it, and in fact, that they were the ones who should be offended, if anyone."

There's your 24-hour journey from original statement, to reaction, to reaction to reaction, to reaction to reaction to reaction to... frustrated parties disagreeing to disagree at opposite ends.

One Night in Skyrim Makes a Strong Man Crumble [Grantland]

Settle down, it was just a joke [Carrie Patrick's blog]