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Isolation Stations, Benjamin Breadon

Who in sweet hell thought a mixture of steel and grey paint would make a good start to every workday? I’d always thought graffiti was supposed to be a sort of colourful revolt against dull concrete and metal, however the daily rotation on the clock tower across the road is certainly no Michelangelo. Unreadable black spray-paint is only so inspiring.
The positioning of Woy Woy’s 128-year-old train station will always count for something; a picturesque entry and exit point for the south Central Coast’s Peninsula, just 10 metres from the bay that shares the town’s name. But the structure itself has become as contradicting as the people that use it.
I walk down the ramp to where a crowd has gathered, on the Newcastle-to-Central platform. It’s a sunny yet cold Wednesday morning, and the majority have crammed under the shelter to avoid the sun’s glare – mostly men in suits and women in pencil skirts, gazes fixed upon the dark asphalt, or the darker headlines on their phone screens. Some pore over thick books with eyes that look like they will fall onto the page. A recent study from Lifeline Australia says over 80% of Aussies believe that society has become a lonelier place than it was in the past , and here it’s not hard to see why. How can so many people be so close together, yet still be so isolated? You would have better odds of a first-ever Central Coast snowstorm than seeing someone smile in this crowd.
But I suppose that’s painting the scene with a broad brush. Further down the platform, a group of elderly couples are sitting with hiking packs, chatting away. Crowds of kids in green uniforms shout and grab each other’s backpacks as they wait for the 50-minute trip to their school in Asquith. Nearby, a mum and dad try to keep a hold on four luggage bags, as well as the hands of their young children. Those interacting with somebody else seem so much happier than those standing alone.
Having skipped brekkie, I feed $5 into the Up & Go machine next to the hiking couples. It graciously returns me just a 50c coin. Awesome. But I can’t help smiling, remembering how train station vending machines have never been cooperative with me. When I was around fifteen, my mate Lewy and I used to take our bikes to visit another friend who had moved to Warnervale. We had just discovered the miracle of coffee, and decided on our way home that I would have enough time on a stopover to jump off and grab us two from the machine at Gosford Station. The vending machine didn’t appreciate our urgency and I ended up catching the next train home, arriving at Woy Woy twenty minutes later with a cold coffee in each hand, only to find Lewy holding a bike in each of his.

 

*

 

I’m headed into the city to visit friends and I need to get some Uni readings done. In one of the ‘quiet carriages’ that make up the front, back, and two centre carriages of the train’s eight, I sit next to a tiny old Asian woman. She frowns like I’ve sat on her birthday cake. The air – the only part of the train’s insides that isn’t coloured a kidney-purple – is thick with a hostility that only the twice-a-day repetition of hour-plus train trips can bring.
Then the worst happens – a phone rings. The default iPhone tone echoes throughout the carriage. Everyone looks up to glare holes through the person responsible, this abuser of our right to remain silent. In their defence, this is probably the early-morning alarm tone of 90% of the people here. The culprit – a lady with greying brown hair and a bright pink cardigan – looks around nervously, waits for the ringing to stop without taking the call, and shrinks into her seat.
I sit and watch her for a while, with my web design readings open on my lap, thinking of what the call might’ve been about. Could’ve been anything really – a neighbour calling to let her know her dog, Spud, had pulled off a great escape by leaping a two-metre fence, or a friend wishing her a happy birthday. It could have been the hospital, ringing to say that a loved one had been in a car accident. Maybe it was a bank rep, calling to ask if she was aware her credit card had been charged $400 for the purchase of 800 low-grade Yo-Yos from a shady eBay seller based in Sweden. Who knows? Who would ask?
She puts her phone back into her not-purple handbag. I look out the window at the Hawkesbury River as though playing a part in a 90’s music video. Work? The aquarium? The casino? I wonder who the woman is, and how anyone even defines that. A man with a belly forced into a light-blue shirt and tie starts snoring across the aisle. Where does he work? Is he at the bottom or top of the corporate ladder? The woman on my left shifts in her seat as I start scribbling words onto my book margins with a highlighter: TRAIN TRIPS. SILENCE. HOSTILITY. PHONE. PINK CARDIGAN. My highlighter squeaks, and she exhales loudly. Why is everyone so cranky? sunder
The word sonder comes to mind; a term I’d come across for the umpteenth time through a Facebook meme the night before. The word doesn’t seem to belong to any dictionary andI tracked its origins to a webpage that was later published as a book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig . Sonder means the realisation that every other person has their own histories, loves, hates and attitudes; their own friends, families and enemies. It means that even though in the overall scheme of things they may just be one random passenger sharing a train trip, but every stranger is just as complex as you – which also means there are thousands of reasons as to why someone might be in a bad mood.
I shove my book into my bag and stand up – it is way too quiet and it’s doing my head in.

 

*

 

The ‘quiet’ carriages mean well. They aim to make trips more bearable and ‘provide you with a quiet environment when travelling longer distances’ . And the stress that comes with commuting is by no means an imaginary thing – a direct link has been found between psychological stress and both rail and automobile commutes: longer trips tend to increase passengers’ stress levels, with crowding and noise said to be particular contributors .
But it is hard to judge whether staying quiet in a carriage crammed with people is truly helpful, or if it fosters an atmosphere that makes you worry about getting king-hit by a stranger for sneezing. If we’re all glued to our phones in silence, will that silence really be more beneficial than talking to each other? The CEO of Lifeline Australia, Pete Shmigel, summed up a recent Lifeline study on loneliness: ‘for a society that is more technologically connected than we have ever been, these [survey] results suggest we are overlooking good, old-fashioned care and compassion when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing.’i
Tiptoeing my way down the aisle, I realise that a prohibition of noise reads like something dystopian out of V for Vendetta. Especially when that silence now spans half of almost every train in NSW. We live in a time where a whole train carriage might antagonise you, simply because your phone went off. Is breeding a culture of isolation really the answer to the stresses of everyday commuting? More importantly, is this change dangerous on a wider scale? Nowadays it takes insane courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger in public, spending two days afterwards critically analysing every word you said. It’s just how it is, right? We were raised not to talk to strangers. Nobody told us to try again at an older age when we could judge our own safety. But loneliness has become rampant in modern culture: Australia’s suicide rates are at a 13-year high, with loneliness also being linked to higher instances of heart disease, stroke and generally shorter lifespans .
We are in mortal danger of falling out of touch with each other.
But how can we battle this culture of isolation? Just yesterday, as I drove 45-minutes along the M1 from work, although I was just listening to the radio on my own, I’d thought about how time seemed to pass so much quicker while listening to completely average people call in and tell stories on the Hamish and Andy show.
I’m not alone in finding pleasure in other peoples’ stories. It’s human nature. Clinical psychology theorist Miller Mair argues, ‘Stories are habitations. We live in and through stories. They conjure worlds. We do not know the world other than as story world. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart.’
Mair went on to argue something very similar to the recent term sonder: ‘We are, each of us, locations where the stories of our place and time become partially tellable.’
How can it feel lonely on a train packed with people, whilst being alone in the car listening to people sharing personal stories is inclusive and entertaining?
Paul J. Zak of the Harvard Business Review pins this on the release of our feel-good chemical: ‘Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.’
Zak says that the tension of a good story creates empathy between the teller and their audience: ‘If that story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters.’
What if the characters Zak mentions, are ourselves? If we are in the company of others each day, full of stories that make us feel good to tell and hear, then why not take advantage? Even if they are silly stories, like someone missing a train at Gosford Station ten years ago for a crappy vending machine coffee. And of course, not everyone sitting silently on the train is sad to be doing so. Mny people would prefer to just read a book or sit on their phone. But these, like us, are just containers of stories. Encouraging ourselves to at least be open to a chat might be helpful. You never know what one conversation could do for a person. Plus, if a culture of storytelling takes off, it’s only natural that we’d all get better at it.

 

*

 

Unfortunately, it seems the culture has spilled over. I’m moving down the train through carriages that aren’t officially “quiet” but you’d still hear a pin drop. I have to walk down a few before I find one that’s comfortable. And it isn’t just one or two people talking in here – it’s the majority of the carriage, and the tension from the beginning of the train is nowhere to be found. I flop into a spare seat and soak up the noise.
Across the aisle, an elderly man with slicked brown hair talks on the phone. He is trying to jam the handset inside his earhole without realising it’son loudspeaker. He has a thick accent that makes it tough to figure out what he’s saying, and by the responses he’s getting from the speaker it seems the other guy’s struggling too: ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Righto.’
From the seat behind me, one elderly woman is trying to convince another to go to the Avoca Picture Theatre for the Melbourne Cup in a few months’ time.
‘It’s only $48 per person,’
The other woman gasps.
‘But you get to have champagne in the garden, have some fish and chips from the nice shop nearby, and you get to watch the race on the big screen. AND you get dessert! But I’m not sure whether that’s before or after the race. So it’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive if you look at what you get for it.’
The other woman doesn’t respond, likely just as confused as her friend’s last selling point.
The city’s skyline comes in view. The lady rambling about the picture theatre makes me think of the places we go. They too are just containers of stories: how many people have passed through the doors of the theatre over its’ lifetime, and what lead them to go there? All the questions in the world are answered with stories. The amount that must be held within the walls of every building here is mind-blowing. The sky-high apartment buildings, small shopfronts, the old brick factories that seem abandoned but have new Hilux’s in their parking spots.

 

*

When I exit the train at Central, the atmosphere again turns hostile. People crowd toward the exits or to other platforms to switch trains. You half expect to see a lion named Mufasa being trampled somewhere in the middle. It’s also kind of like how I’d imagine the inside of a beehive; everyone too busy to talk, and there’s a sort of buzzing hostility hardwired by efficiency.
The bees swarm past around a dozen or so people, huddled in sleeping bags on the station’s stone floor. How did they come to be here, in this position? I pause for a moment, but then keep walking. Even after reflecting on the value of being open to other people, it still seems too weird to ask and too out of place to strike up a conversation.
There’s more than just our daily commute that would benefit from hearing other people’s stories and understand deeper understanding of each other.

 

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Free Love: The Death of the Artist, Louis O’Neill

My finger presses once more against the refresh button. Yep, still there. Wow, who would have thought that my writing would lead me to the big leagues? I continue staring, attempting to digest the fact that at a mere twenty years old, my dreams have finally been realised. My name has been immortalised beneath the heading of an online article. I have become a literary god.

I make myself a celebratory coffee, pull my curtains back and sit down again in front of the computer, keen to see the world through my newly-acquired eyes of a published writer. Sure, I’d run my own blog before, and wrote for some Facebook pages, but this was different. This was an established website. I had written about the issue of political correctness in today’s hyper-sensitive age, and to my surprise, people agreed.

As I soak in my own glory, the mouse beneath my fingertips makes its way onto my Facebook, where I can publicly announce the news of my latest advent into stardom. Ah, these poor plebs, I think to myself whilst scrolling through the lives of my acquaintances; stuck in their nine-to-fives, no accolades, no articles publish-… wait, what’s this? Another girl on my Facebook, the same age as myself, has just shared news of her own published article! The nerve! Doesn’t she know that I am the only writer in town?

I click on the link, and to my dismay the girl has not one, not two, but five published articles on the site. My overwhelming feelings of glory and self-satisfaction begin to dissipate. Here I was, thinking I’d made a name for myself, all the while some other shmuck had beaten me to the punch, and five times at that.

Wait a minute Louis, let’s not be selfish. There’s room aplenty in the world of writing, we can all get along, can’t we?

 

*

 

My answer to that question becomes less certain as the days go by. As I continue to look, I find that several times a week – if not daily – another person on my Facebook or Instagram will start a blog, or have an article published somewhere. Now admittedly, I don’t think anyone I’d come across was actually being paid for their work. And there was also the little known fact that I wasn’t either. But the worst part? I had to accept this wasn’t just happening near me. This was happening worldwide.

Though such is to be expected. Pretty much everyone has access to a computer with Internet now, and these are seemingly the only prerequisites needed to become a writer. Perhaps not a good writer, but a writer nonetheless. Well to that I say, power to them! No… to us! Writing is a beautiful thing, it’s only fair that everyone should have the capacity for their writing to be seen and heard. But what exactly does this mean for people who wish to make themselves a career from writing? More importantly, what does this mean for me? More writers creates more competition doesn’t it?

First one must distinguish from those who write as hobby, and those who write to pursue longevity. While Facebook has more users than there are people in China, and thousands of new blogs enter the ether daily, very few of these mediums actually lead to consistent, established writers.[i] Blogging is often used recreationally by teenagers as a form of expression, usually only temporarily, and often with no intention or aspiration towards financial gain. Though there are of course exceptions to the rule, with a wide array of occupational blogging seen in the public sphere, from ‘blawgs’ for lawyers, to blogs run by school library teachers, who explain that their use of blogging leads to a more ‘refined audience.’[ii] Blogging is an accessible medium for both writers and readers, and so undoubtedly they will come in handy for aspiring writers won’t they? Well, yes and no. In the search for hope, I interviewed Graham Young, owner of Online Opinion, a contribution-based news and opinion website, seeking direction in this new world of writing.

Graham somewhat confirmed my doubts by saying that while marketing methods such as blogging, Facebook and smaller contribution-based websites do assist in creating a  ‘sense of collective identity’ for the author, they are largely a ‘secondary way of making a name for yourself outside of getting into one of the popular, more established forums.’[iii] Blogging and other similar pathways to publication are primarily forms of advertisement, rather than an actual endpoint or financially viable career. And even when using a blog for promotional purposes, Max van Balgooy of the National Trust says that ‘maintaining a blog requires continuous activity,’ warning that ‘many blogs eventually fail when the owner stops posting frequently, most often due to time constraints,’ or ‘lack of personnel.’[iv] The Internet has pried open the floodgates of information, and as a result, both writers and media companies alike have to produce at superhuman rates just to stay in the race for readership and attention.

 

*

 

These newly opened avenues of media have led to a deterioration of previous business models, specifically in the print journalism industry which has been forced to make its way into the online arena. To their credit, this has been somewhat of a success. The readership of online journalism now exceeds that of its print predecessor, leaving newer generations wondering why anyone ever bothered with those impractical, ink-covered newspapers of the past. Though while ink-free it may be, the shift to online journalism has not been without its blemishes.

Newer generations not only expect to read the news with the touch of a fingertip, but they largely have no intentions of paying for this information. Online publications have been forced to lower their subscription costs, often ranging from between a few dollars a month, to flat-out providing their articles for free. An egregious example of this is the decision of eighty-year old Newsweek magazine to stop publishing its print edition, substituted with an online-only digital subscription. Tina Brown, editor-in chief of Newsweek, explains how the Internet affected her work. ‘When I returned to print with Newsweek, it did very quickly begin to feel to me an outmoded medium. While I still had a great romance for it, nonetheless I feel this is not the right medium any more to produce journalism.’[v] Brown continued to say that ‘Clearly, the digital revolution is fundamentally transforming news as business. So much so that while the old model is breaking down, there is no clear alternative in sight.’

The media’s free-for-all for attention has become just that: free, for all. Emerging writers now depend upon unpaid contribution work as a means for getting their foot in the door, but as late songwriter Elliott Smith once sang, ‘Got a foot in the door, god knows what for.’

Jane Singer in her essay ‘Journalism ethics amid structural change’ states that with the shift online, ‘staff cut backs mean fewer – perhaps far fewer people, with some newspapers losing half their journalists – available to handle all the tasks necessary to sustain multiple news products.’[vi] There are more avenues for writers and artists than ever before, and yet the room upon the stage seems to be dwindling.

 

*

 

This technological tidal wave has not only hit journalism, but too the industries of music, movies and literature, who are quickly losing their place upon shelves and within physical stores. Downloads and e-books have come to the fore, which may save on production costs for companies, but raise new challenges. The biggest of which, is piracy. While piracy has been possible essentially as long as print has been alive, new online programs such as BitTorrent, uTorrent, and websites like ‘The Pirate Bay’ make this process almost too easy. Users can now share and download music, videos and novels for free, instantly. Granted this process is illegal, it still remains difficult for industries to clamp down such a widespread phenomenon. An example of this is television company NBC, who upon complaints about Apple’s one-size-fits-all pricing methods, removed their products from iTunes. This attempt to reclaim profits only backfired on the company however, as piracy then increased 27% since their detachment. NBC subsequently returned to using Apple’s iTunes for their distribution.[vii]

These results provide news and media outlets with a clear message: provide a high-quality product for a few dollars, or watch as your users and consumers happily turn to pirated versions for free. From the perspective of an aspiring writer, reading things such as this can be disheartening. But from another perspective, the increasingly free media industry can be seen as a good thing.

When analysing this increase of piracy within the music industry, Professors Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard Business School and Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found their way to less pessimistic outcomes. The professors remarked that ‘While [illegal] downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing.’[viii] This brings up an interesting point. Whilst artists may see their products pirated more frequently, or be forced to release their work for next-to-nothing, they are also able to reach audiences who would otherwise have not paid to access it at all. Producing and consuming art is now more accessible than ever, and this can definitely be seen as a good thing. No longer are individuals limited by their paycheck when satisfying their appetite for the latest song, movie or novel.

Though free art and literature can be seen as a win for society, there remains a big decline in profit margins within creative fields. Despite their praise-worthy adaptability, these industries and artists are continually forced to innovate in order to survive in the constantly changing online marketplace. The journalism industry for example is forced to make up the lost profits of reduced physical sales and prices through advertisement, which Graham Young argues threatens the ability for news companies to maintain an objective and honest approach. ‘Advertising gives [news companies] an incentive to gravitate towards those articles that have the most views. This has led to a sensationalisation of the news with click bait tending to be much more frequent.’ These are fears commonly echoed in regards to the oligopoly of Australian media, largely held by the Murdoch press, in which concerns of corporate interests and monetary biases arise. This ethical resistance to financial intervention means that news businesses must address their own challenges, namely those brought on by the Internet. And as C.P. Chandrasekhar writes in his essay entitled ‘The Business of News in the Age of the Internet, ‘providing online content for free is not only difficult, but evidently “not viable”, and so if a company wishes to charge for content, they must ‘not only be unique but of high quality.’ [ix]

 

*

 

The demands placed upon media and creative companies have never been so high, in that they must not only produce higher quality, more unique products in an industry awash with more competition than ever, but they must also do so with dwindling profit margins. The big question now is whether or not these industries can withstand such pressures. A report written by Pew research states that 31 per cent of readers have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were ‘accustomed to getting,’ as lower profits have led to fewer reporting resources and a compromised level of journalistic expertise and content as a result.[x]

Every industry has felt the effects of the Internet, for better or for worse. For musicians, releasing records has now become simply a means of promotion, kick-starting a new tour in order to garner interest in that particular musician so that their live performances can gain bigger crowds, with live performances being one of the few elements of music which eludes piracy. Likewise within film, despite having a similar experience to concerts that cannot be captured in MP4 form, film companies have also been forced to shorten the time between their release in cinemas and in digital form, in order to keep up with ever-awaiting pirates.

The Internet has afforded everyone access to media and new means of self-expression, but this has come at a cost. Creative industries are met with an array of new challenges that at this point have largely yet to be overcome, much to the detriment of those working in the field. The clock is ticking on whether or not traditional forms of media can adapt to these changes in time to preserve themselves, or if we may be seeing the death of such industries as we’ve come to know them. As an aspiring writer myself, I have no solutions to give, being as[xi] much in the quagmire of uncertainty as anyone else. All I can do is urge those who pirate programs, songs, and literature to think for a moment about what effects this has upon the hard-working creators of our society. And if you enjoy a free subscription to a magazine with writers who spend hours of their time producing content, spare yourself the extra coffee, and instead donate those few dollars. As one day in the distant future, I might be living off them.


Works Cited

[i] https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

 

[ii] Dilsworth, Andrew I. “TECHNO ETHICS: Blogs: Online Practice Guides Or Websites?”. American Bar Association 24.8 (2016): 54-56. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

 

[iii] Young, Graham. 2016. Via Email

 

[iv] Grove, Tim. “HISTORY BYTES: To Blog Or Not To Blog”. History News 63.3 (2008): 3-6. Print.

 

[v] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 25

 

[vi] Singer, Jane B. “Journalism Ethics Amid Structural Change”. Daedalus 139.2 (2010): 90. Web.

 

[vii] Danaher, Brett et al. “Converting Pirates Without Cannibalizing Purchasers: The Impact Of Digital Distribution On Physical Sales And Internet Piracy”. Marketing Science 29.6 (2010): 1138-1151. Web.

 

[viii] Kusic, Don. “Technology And Music Piracy: Has The Recording Industry Lost Sales?”. Studies in Popular Culture 28.1 (2016): 18. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

 

[ix] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 34

 

[x] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 35

 

 

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Games for Boys: The Myth that Women ‘Don’t Play’, Kaitie Andrews

The jaws of the dragon swing open and waves of blue flame envelop the dungeon. Black scales shine, and bones protrude through the leathery skin, rippling with each slight movement of muscle.

A colossal figure emerges from a stone archway and plunges a battle-axe into the gaping mouth of the shimmering beast. The Barbarian’s chainmail coats his muscular frame and blood seeps through cloth on his arms and legs. An Elven Ranger flings a careful arrow directly into the dragon’s icy blue eye, sending it reeling. The roar shakes every inch of the stone dungeon the party had just struggled through.

From the back of the room, a tiny man, with a lute, begins to strum, empowering the efforts of the attackers before him. The dragon bares his murky yellow teeth and claws at the Bard.

At the edge of the party a tall, slender Elven Sorcerer adorned in flowing robes of navy and gold lifts her wand. Cosmic energy flows through the dungeon as the rest of the party turns and waits for the Mage to unleash her devastating power.

The Sorcerer is elegant, proud, sexy; a fourteen-year-old girl’s fantasy avatar. My fantasy avatar, actually. A deep, too-dramatic backstory involving Fae ancestry weaves in and around my head as she speaks with words that are mine.

‘I cast Burning Hands on the drag –‘

My speech is cut off as the party collectively groans. I’m sitting at a makeshift table of books, which is covered with chips, dip, soft drinks and mobile phones. Halo and rock band posters adorn the walls, and I’m resting my head on an unmade bed. Crumpled clothes are spread across the floor like the autumn leaves outside. There is a d20 clutched in my hand as my body slowly begins to deflate.

‘You can’t use Burning Hands. You’ve already used your level 1 spell slots, remember?’ The skinny boy, with a shaved head sighs. ‘Seriously, how many times do we have to go through this?’

‘Leave her alone, she’s getting it,’ my friend the Bard, sitting to my left, gives me a thumbs up. I smile back at him and look down at my cantrips instead.

‘I’ve got this.’ I nod my head and pump my fists a little, hoping that I’m assuring the group.

This was my first Dungeons and Dragons campaign. We were at Matt’s house, our Dungeon Master. I’d only been invited because the Bard wanted to get in my pants. But I’d begged to go because the idea of a group of people sitting together and tapping into our imaginations was intoxicating. At the time, it seemed worth it to put up with the pimply bag of hormones waiting eagerly for his turn to play.

I wondered if, months after starting Dungeons and Dragons, when the friend who brought me along tried to plant a sloppy kiss on my neck and grope my breast that perhaps I’d gone too far in my quest to regain entry into this magical world. I tried not to let this ruin my love of the game, but suddenly every newbie mistake I made was no longer endearing in his eyes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the seductive Sorcerer had become a liability to the party. I quit a few weeks later.

Growing up, I used to play Power Rangers with boys in my class amongst the grim concrete of our schoolyard. I would go to my next door neighbour, Steve’s house, and we would trade Pokemon cards. My friend Nick had a Nintendo 64 and sometimes Mum would let me go over after school to play Banjo Kazooie. These experiences and my sense of play and imagination were ruined so much earlier than my friends for one reason: If you’re a woman in a male-dominated space, whether it be in the corporate world, your home life or just in the hobbies you enjoy, there is a danger.

For years, I felt that sometimes I was reconciling my sense of personal safety just to be ‘one of the boys’ – innocent neighbourly visits as a young girl turned into late night walks to a friend’s place with a console with a group of guys I’d just met. Where were all the fellow women?

In 2014, The Internet Advertising Bureau published statistics that 52% of all UK gamers were women.[i]

I found this statistic only weeks after it was published. It was a hot topic on many online message boards, including Reddit. It rocked the minds of many young nerds, especially those used to the sausage fest that gaming discussions and events had become. Despite the pervasive and unavoidable belief that women are endangered in gaming culture – to some extent, they represent or are, approaching the majority.

Did the possibility of a more inclusive future of gaming where women wouldn’t have to feel at risk excite these guys? Nope – it terrified them.

Why? The myth, that women just ‘don’t play games’ or that it is a male-dominated hobby, seeps through every nook and cranny in gaming literature and representations in popular culture. Let’s be real – the first thing many people, myself included, think about, in relation to ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ are losers who drink copious amounts of Mountain Dew and don’t have girlfriends.

The idea of girls playing Dungeons and Dragons is unheard of in popular media. I had little interest most of my teen years. The image of dweebs with no social skills sitting around playing fantasy games is not enticing to a young girl. Comic book stores? According to pop culture, always run by lonely, fat men. Not flattering portrayals of people who just have shared interests.

This perception has not gone unnoticed by its participants. Men who identify themselves as gamers have gone so long being referred to as losers that when a woman finds interest in the same area, she’s often met with hostility. What gives her the right to intrude on their safe space? Why is she allowed to openly declare she loves World of Warcraft when I’ve been ostracised for it? She hasn’t earned it.

This idea sounds silly, and rightly so. But it exists. And it’s expressed through misogyny. I have a lifetime of experiences to show for this silliness. When working at EB Games, I had a customer roll his eyes and ask, ‘Okay, well, can I talk to a male that works here?’ when I admitted I was unsure about Yu-Gi-Oh cards.

It runs much deeper than just my experience playing Dungeons and Dragons. The gaming industry, as a whole, is still obsessed with producing games for boys.

You wouldn’t be wrong if you assumed that gaming is dominated by male audiences. Most forms of gaming and geek culture in media have had a heavy focus on being a male past-time, or an activity for boys. The gender bias is obvious. In a 2009 study of the 150 most popular games across nine platforms, it was found that 81% of all characters were male and 80% were white.[ii] In 2013, Variety reported that only an estimated 12% of the video game industry workforce was made up of women.[iii]

The issues with the 18% of characters who are female have been well documented. There are gallons of ink spilt over the topic. There are endless examples of troubling female representation in games: outfits and posturing for women are especially notorious. Women, such as Rydia in Final Fantasy IV, are overtly sexualised and pitiful in terms of protection, whereas main male characters, such as Cecil and Kain, are given practical protection – armour. The women in Mortal Kombat are interesting to look at, with their large breasted and barely-clothed bodies, they are expected to engage in bloody combat with heavily armoured brutes. Games such as World of Warcraft, constantly parodied for their rarest and strongest female armour, also happen to be the most revealing.

Perhaps we are reaching the crux of the reason that we assume women don’t enjoy video games. The impracticality and over-sexualisation of female bodies entrenches the idea that women are objects to satisfy the male gaze. Who cares if her ‘boob plate’ armour actually directs a blade to her heart, as long as she looks good?

Sometimes, being a woman of note, in an industry that caters to men, is dangerous. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist blogger, runs a channel on Youtube called Feminist Frequency, which dedicates approximately one forty-minute video a fortnight to examine the harmful representations of women in video games. She has examined topics from the clothes of characters to tropes such as ‘Damsel in Distress,’ which exists in movies just as often. Pretty standard critiques. Yet, the amount of vitriol she’s received from self-professed ‘gamers’ has been horrific. Amongst public death threats, coordinated brigades to ‘downvote’ her videos and Twitter abuse, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University in 2014 due to an anonymous bomb threat called into the venue.[iv]

It goes much deeper than just the physical sexualisation of women. Cultural ideas and harmful tropes are plentiful in all facets of the game industry. Developers can conjure up elaborate fantasy worlds in realms where magic, advanced technology, and aliens exist but still, somehow, retain the barbaric gender roles of current society. The Mass Effect series includes several races of aliens, which come from various points in the Milky Way all conjoining in one place called “The Citadel”. One of these races, the Asari, are an all-female race who, implausibly, have almost identical body shapes to humans with blue skin and minor variances. And what are the Asari known as being, besides the diplomats of the galaxy with a weird mating pattern? Negatively and notoriously sexually active. And strippers. Seriously – Asari are the only species shown being strippers in the strip clubs on various planets. How is it, that in a culture we’d expect to be drastically different to our human norms, a race with feminised human bodies are considered the sexual objects of the entire galaxy?

Video games currently surpass television in terms of time spent in some populations, with approximately one in five adults playing every day or almost every day.[v] It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the troubling representation of women in these games could influence players’ impressions of social reality to some extent.

Deep investigations into the psyche of a regular video-game player aside, the most important thing that the industry can do at this point to encompass 52% of their player base is to reverse the toxic mindsets excluding women. I can’t emphasise my passion for representation enough. As a young woman who enjoys the hell out of seeing cool women represented without tiny outfits, and needlessly sexualised backstories, I want young girls experiencing this in their media as early as possible. Badass female protagonists have been kicking around in indie titles for years, and we are witnessing an emergence of critically acclaimed AAA titles such as The Last of Us, Beyond Two Souls and Life is Strange that feature interesting women who are grounded, who struggle with real problems and aren’t defined by their relationships to men. Despite the clear abundance of men in the gaming industry, amazing initiatives to encourage women to become involved in the industry are springing up. Macquarie University offers a ‘Women in Games’ panel once a year, and international groups such as WIGSIG (Women in Games Special Interest Group) in the IDGA are fighting the good fight.

But, overall, why is the game industry still stuck in the frustrating mindset that their audience is majority men? Why are 80% of these characters white and male? It all comes back to the ‘loser theory.’ Game developers know that ‘gamers’ have gone so long being perceived as non-powerful social outcasts. Young, white men want to be powerful white adults. So, fantasy is created out of these preconceived notions of gamer demographics. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle.

Gary Alan Fine wrote a book, ‘Shared Fantasy,’ that discusses role-playing games and the separation between reality and fantasy. It notes that, in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, it was common behaviour that ‘non-player male characters who have not hurt the party are executed and female non-player characters raped for sport’.[vi] There’s a separation between the game world and real life – the ‘magic circle’ if you will. But ideas and values are capable of oozing through, venomous and sticky.

In the campaign in Matt’s room, when I was 16, and because I’m a girl, my character was allocated unique tasks by the rest of the party. The party stood in front of a merchant, snow beginning to pepper their skin. They had just defeated the monstrous beast in the dungeon, and upon emerging victorious were greeted with another pressing quest on the mountaintop. The mountain in question loomed behind the rickety stall, plastered with weapons, food, clothes and survival gear. The merchant, a Dragonkin with a thirst for gold, hisses at them. ‘That’s 20 gold for a coat, and that’s the cheapest thing I can give you.’

‘Surely we can get it cheaper than that,’ the Bard pleads. Beside him, the monstrous Barbarian scoffs.

‘Look, we don’t need this. Listen dude. We have an Elven girl here. She’s top of the line. She can get us a discount right?’

The Elven Sorcerer, who had been examining a glass pendant at the stall, froze. ‘Get a discount how, exactly?’

‘You know, give him a favour. Something to remember us by. I’m sure it’ll be better than any gold.’ The Barbarian winks.

The entire party starts guffawing. The Elven Sorcerer joins in before the Bard pushes her forward with glee.

‘Make it nice and wet!’ he laughs.

At the time, I thought it was funny. I just wanted to fit in and not ruin the fun. But a part of me knew my proud Elven Sorcerer would want no part of this.

I play Dungeons and Dragons with another group now – they’re awesome. We’re guys and girls playing a patchwork of genders with no boob plates allowed.

I’m in love with my imagination again.


 

Works Cited

[i] Internet Advertising Bureau 2014, More women now play video games than men, viewed 24 August 2016, http://iabuk.net/about/press/archive/more-women-now-play-video-games-than-men?_ga=1.227578909.1233071847.1411029683, para 5.

 

[ii] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 827.

 

[iii] Graser, M 2013 ‘Videogame Biz: Women Still Very Much in the Minority’, Variety, 1 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://variety.com/2013/digital/features/womengamers1200683299-1200683299/, para 3.

 

[iv] Wingfield, N 2014 ‘Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in “GamerGate Campaign’, The New York Times, 15 October, viewed 28 August 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/technology/gamergate-women-video-game-threats-anita-sarkeesian.html, para 2.

 

[v] Williams, D et al. 2009, ‘The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games’, New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 815-834, pg 816.

 

[vi] Fine, G 2002, Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press, pg 4.

 

 

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