Trigger warnings: Sexual Harassment, Transphobia & Rape.
|remember that jersey|
In the golden age of the video arcade the biggest draw were the fighting games. These were titles wherein the player would control the actions of one particular character selected from a stable of fighters, who would be pitted against another fighter in a timed martial arts bout. The opponents would deliver and attempt to dodge or parry flurries of punches, kicks and more exotic techniques until one of the fighters was knocked unconscious twice in a best-of-three series. The most popular titles had a huge variety of playable characters, each with their own dizzying array of special “moves” that took considerable dexterity with the controls to master. Crowds would form around consoles where skilled players were going head to head, and if you were feeling brave you could signal “dibs” on the right to challenge the victor by placing your quarter on the edge of the arcade console - surreptitiously, so as not to disturb the match in progress, though cheering and jeering from the assembled spectators was common in some arcades. These games combined the thrill of gladiatorial blood sports with an element of gambling; to challenge a player you had to feed quarters into the machine, but the winner could continue playing without paying additional money, monetarily rewarding skill and punishing ineptitude. Many men - and no small number of women - from my generation have fond childhood memories of watching these games being played by the best among us. Those lucky enough to have lived in cities with financially successful arcades might have gotten a chance to witness a sponsored fighting game tournament with cash prizes! Nothing brings the competitive spirit to the fight quite like a little moola. The arcades that hosted these typically sold overpriced pizza, hotdogs and popcorn, if you are wondering what the business model looked like. I didn't think about that when I was 12, I just forked over my allowance and considered it money well spent.
Like most video games from that era, all of the best fighting games came from Japan. The Japanese had huge arcades, we were told, with weekly tournaments paying out thousands of dollars. Everybody lived within walking distance of an arcade in Japan and everybody played; their skill was legendary. None of us could have imagined a future were people made a living playing arcade games and scrappy Americans would compete with the Japanese legends in tournaments that would not just determine who was the best player in the mall, but the best in the whole world! Yet here we are living in that future... and people have the gall to complain about a lack of flying cars. Also, smartphones.
The arcades are dying, by the way. Video arcades, I mean. Modern arcades aren't really the same thing. They are full of ticket redemption scams, claw machines and prop based games that have no immersion value. In the few places that people are fighting to save them, they are fighting to save the Fighting Games. Yeah, they have an antique Galaga and Centepede in the corner, and maybe a collection of pinball machines, but it is the Fighting Games they want to preserve. It's a community.
We need to be careful about looking back on that era with rose tinted glasses, because it was far from perfect (it only seemed great in comparison to the 80s). Looking back with the perspective I have now, highlighted by recent events, I remember a sinister side to what went on in those arcades. Girls were an uncommon sight in the arcades of yore, and those that were present were frequently the girlfriend of one of the older boys, crassly displayed as a trophy, as though he had traded in an absurd number of ski-ball tickets for her. Some amount of gawking and staring was inevitable in that environment, I suppose, but outright harassment was uncommon... unless, one of the girls had the audacity to place a quarter on the console. This would always create a stir among the the milling onlookers, and could scarcely pass without comment. She would be permitted to play, "dibs" was a sacred trust, and those who violated it were banished. I'm not being melodramatic, at a lot of places the management had official policies about it; you could get kicked out for disregarding a token. Even if that particular crowd had been silently observing previous matches, commentary from the peanut gallery always accompanied a female competitor. Players who normally concentrated silently on the game would start talking shit. The ones that already did that as a matter of course would become coarser. This, incidentally, is how I first learned the words cunt and twat, though divining their exact definitions would have to wait another 5 years or so for the invention of the internet (thanks, Al). If the girl lost, she would be told to go back to her boyfriend, or shoe shopping, or playing with dollies or whatever stereotypically gendered activity the hecklers imagined was most funny to mock her with. Making us sandwiches was not yet a thing we said. I guess misogynistic humor wasn't yet that advanced in the 90's, or perhaps men still remembered how to make their own sandwiches back then. They were different times.
I did not see it at the time as an obvious double standard, but if she won, her male opponent would be the victim of mocking – losing to a girl?! The shame! Better go buy a dress, pussy, etc... I realize now the true victim of this mocking was still the girl. Not only did we mock either loser with "girly" things, but her prowess with the controls was being dismissed; her victory was always attributed to a shameful lack of skill on her opponent's part. If she lost, all girls sucked. If she won, just one guy sucked, temporarily. Her opponent would practically have no choice but to pay for a re-match, and if she defeated him into token bankruptcy (often feigned after two or three defeats to save face, I imagine) she might be punished with the further insult of facing no additional challengers. Who would risk the shame of being beaten by a girl? The “real players” would shuffle over to the second most popular game in the arcade, disgruntled at the disruption of our play by this interloper and pretending we weren't cowards. She would be left to battle computer controlled opponents in solitude, or worse, be forced to play while simultaneously fending off the creepy advances of (often disturbingly older) suitors whom, I am ashamed to admit, I usually thought were incredibly suave for having "the balls" to pursue her. The girls never stayed in the arcade as long as the boys.
The attitudes and behaviors of our childhood arcades are not something we all grew out of, nor even most of us, it seems. Truth be told, the worst of the harassers in the arcades of yesteryear were nearly or already adults at the time, much older than the stereotypical 13 year old punk that is imagined to be responsible for all the harassment problems in the modern equivalent of the arcade, XBox Live. It is not a stretch of the imagination to say that now, two decades later, these exact same creeps are still part of the problem. We got to watch one of them continuing the arcade tradition live on “Cross Assault.”
Even ignoring the incident, the “Cross Assault” event would seem a little strange even if you are already on board with the whole concept of playing video games professionally. I imagine it is quite incomprehensible to non-gamers, so I will attempt to break it down for the layman. Two of the most popular and venerated series of titles in the Fighting Game genre are Street Fighter, published by Capcom, and Tekken, published by Namco. These two companies have one of the fiercest rivalries in the Japanese video game industry, perhaps second only to Sony vs. Nintendo. Recently released Street Fighter x Tekken is the first of 2 crossover titles featuring character lineups from the eponymous games and other titles owned by those companies (including Poison from Capcom's Final Fight, who is a controversial figure in her own right because... you know what, I'm gonna save this for part 4). Crossovers of these two rival sets of intellectual property were a big deal among the FGC (Fighting Game Community), who were themselves quite polarized into Tekken and Street Fighter loyalist camps. Otherwise, intellectual property crossovers are common in this genre, leading to absurd situations like a tag team match between Spider Man & King Arthur vs Wolverine & Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
Yeah. Japanese video games are weird...
|OBJECTION! So... many... objections...|
Anyway, the release announcement was an escalating series of publicity stunts culminating in a web show called “Cross Assault,” billed as a professional fighting game reality TV show. If that sounds like the most bizarre thing you have ever heard of, remember, King Arthur vs Wolverine. Japan is odd, just roll with it.
This is where I get a little fuzzy with the details – apparently you have to actually watch it to find out what the whole deal was, but the crux of the show was that two teams of 5 players, one representing Tekken, and one representing Street Fighter, were assembled based on their merit as fighting game champions and their “personalities,” to battle it out in a week long crucible where they must work together as a team under the tutelage of their coach, but face individual elimination (like Survivor, I guess?) for a shot at $25,000 and a trip to the “Final Round,” a prestigious convention/tournament in Atlanta. They were selected from audition videos, and there was something called the “Salt Mines” where you were facing elimination and had to wear pink shirts... I don't really know the rules. Or who won. I could look it up, but I don't care. I have absorbed far more Cross Assault related "knowledge" than I can tolerate. I feel bloated. And dirty.
Each team had their own live web stream of their practice area while competitive matches between the teams were played on a third stream, running all day on the internet for free, February 26 - March 3, 2012. This was basically a very expensive and elaborate commercial for Street Fighter x Tekken, and a perpetual hype generating engine for a new era of Fighting Game tournament play.
The facts relevant to the incident that caused this whole internet hullabaloo involve just two players: “Aris" Bakhtanians, a prominent figure in the FGC, drafted as the coach of Team Tekken, and his teammate Miranda “Super_Yan” Pakozdi, one of two female competitors. Here is Super_Yan's audition video and a pre-event interview. Her enthusiasm for the game and the event are apparent. Particularly heartbreaking, in hindsight, are her comments about her respect for Aris.
Most of the sexual harassment happened on the Team Tekken stream. It is all available online, but this was a week long event with 10+ hours of footage per day over 3 streams. I can't possibly comb through it all, but an outraged fan cut together clips of the offensive behavior from the first day. Ze was capturing and recording streaming video, which is a rather difficult thing for a computer to do, so the video is choppy, but the audio is fine. Aris is the voice heard at the outset. When he refers to unnamed people with demands, they are the viewers in the chatroom, who bear quite a bit of the blame for this as well.
This is varsity level sexual harassment. Viewer discretion is advised:
These are just selections from day one. By all accounts, it escalated as the event progressed. She was contractually obligated to remain until eliminated, and forfeited her last match to hasten her departure. Here is a record of her moment of defeat, with an interview. Compare her enthusiasm in the pre-event videos to her awkward and dejected exit. Her twitter account was shut down in the immediate aftermath of the event. She was undoubtedly receiving harassment from “fans” through this vector, as well; all female pro-gamers get that. It has since been reactivated, and although gaming news websites report tweets pertaining to the incident were removed, many still appear in her timeline.
These tweets were from day 4 of the event.
By all appearances, Aris broke her. What's more, he enjoyed it. A common refrain from the trolls who defend his behavior is, “she's laughing; she liked it.” This demonstrates a toxic victim-blaming mentality and lack of empathy. People laugh for many reasons; laughing as a reaction to socially uncomfortable situations and pain is common. You can hear the difference. I can't speak for her, and can only imagine how she felt, but her laugh sounds to me like the laugh of a very uncomfortable person, not a genuinely amused one. Aris' laughter sounded amused. It takes a special kind of awful to punish your teammate, who is begging for a break, when she loses by “smelling you, real close, while I say your boyfriend's name” [time index 11:50, above] and then remark, after she has left, “I hope she is crying in the restroom.” [time index 13:32, above] The laughs of her other teammates are a troubling mix of discomfort and mirth. With more forced laughter, and some genuine, she somehow managed to find a way to say some nice things about the show in her exit interview - because she is a tremendous class act - but if you watch the before and after interviews you can tell the experience has changed her. This was a woman who came in saying she loved the fighting game community and would donate any winnings she got to her local arcade so they could upgrade to keep the dying video arcade community thriving in her hometown, and left saying she was too scared to go the “Final Round” tournament and needed a break from the fighting game community for a while. This change happened in the space of a week. Getting picked to participate in this event was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her in her whole life. Aris killed this woman's joy of the game.
Let's take a look at Aris, shall we? His pre-event interview gives us some interesting insights into his character. He is asked to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates (recall, he is the team coach). On Super_Yan, he pontificates, “I'm hoping that since she's a woman, she's also a white woman [the other female competitor is Asian], you know, we can use that to our advantage, because everyone likes white women.”
Wow. Classy guy, huh?
Wow. Classy guy, huh?
This is not the first time he has harassed a woman on a fighting game live stream, either. He was doing play-by-play commentary - called shoutcasting - of matches at the 2011 EVO Championship Series, which is a really big deal in the FGC. This tournament attracts Japanese pros, including Kayo_Police (who is a controversial figure in her own right because... you know what, I'm gonna save this for part 4). She, like Aris, is the embodiment of a cultural stereotype, but unlike Aris, is thoroughly delightful. Via machinations unknown, while she was still competing in the Winner's Bracket (she is a top-level pro), she wound up sitting second chair on Aris' stream to assist in casting, despite speaking almost no English. Half of the commentary is Aris fantasizing out loud about marrying her and mocking her valiant attempts to communicate with him in English, while she struggles to understand him. He also smells her. Sniffing women is apparently a thing with him. He sells this creepy t-shirt of them holding hands to raise money for his site. I wonder who would wear such a thing. I also wonder if she is being paid likeness royalties.
The thing that troubles me the most about Aris, though, is how he handled the fallout from his treatment of Super_Yan. On Day 5 of the event, a conversation took place between Jared Rea, a community manager for Twitch TV (a sponsor of the event and the virtual venue that streamed the content over the web), and Aris, though anyone on the Tekken team could chime in. A transcript of the most interesting parts are on Giant Bomb, if you want context, though no context could justify any of this.
Rea: Can I get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment?
Bakhtanians: You can’t. You can’t because they’re one and the same thing. This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community—it’s StarCraft... That would be like someone from the fighting game community going over to StarCraft and trying to say “hey, StarCraft, you guys are too soft, let’s start making sexual harassment jokes to each other on StarCraft.” That’s not cool, people wouldn’t like that. StarCraft isn’t like that. People would get defensive, and that’s what you’re trying to do the fighting game community, and it’s not right. It’s ethically wrong.
Rea: When I go to SoCal regionals and I see a Phoenix [from Marvel vs. Capcom 3] on main stage getting blown up and there’s some dude in the audience just yelling “Bitch! Bitch!” every time she gets hit and then she killed and goes “Yeah, rape that bitch!” Yeah, that’s totally acceptable! Really? Really? You’re going to tell me that’s acceptable?
Bakhtanians: Look, man. What is unacceptable about that? There’s nothing unacceptable about that. These are people, we’re in America, man, this isn’t North Korea. We can say what we want. People get emotional.
It was at this point in the program that Super_Yan stopped offering resistance in her scheduled matches. She walked her character helplessly towards her opponent without defending herself.
Aris latter offered a notpology, to appease... I don't know who. Not feminists, surely. I'm going to pick it apart. You can tell a lot about a person by how ze apologizes.
I unfortunately used extreme examples in the heat of the moment and feel that my statements don’t actually communicate how I feel. This is similar to what people say when they get into an argument with their girlfriend, and they say things that they deeply regret.
This is your go-to analogy? Wow! We are learning a lot about you from this one. Jeez.....
I sincerely apologise if I have offended anyone. My statements do not reflect those of Capcom or myself. The last thing I want to do is get them in trouble for giving me and the fighting game community the opportunity to have an amazing show like this.
How touching, his concern about getting in trouble. Don't worry about covering Capcom's ass, though, Aris, they already issued the blanket “we take no responsibility for this event that was totally our responsibility” corporate notpology we all expected of them. Though I guess you might need to suck up a little to be given another sweetheart gig like this. Not that they seemed to mind when it was going on, though, so you are probably cool. I am interested in the mental gymnatics you did to arrive at “My statements do not reflect those of... myself,” though. The things you said are not the things you said?
What I was trying to communicate is that mild hostility has always been a defining characteristic of the fighting game scene. Back when arcades were more prevalent, people didn’t like newcomers, and players needed to fight and pay their dues to get respect.
People didn't like newcomers? No, Aris, YOU didn't like newcomers, because you are clearly anti-social. Well adjusted people welcome newcomers, provisionally accepting them as potential members of the group and possible friends, as long as they are not disruptive. Unless "newcomer" is a euphemism for "woman." Because yeah, we were totally hostile to them. I am wondering, though, when you are going to get around to giving them that respect you mentioned. Super_Yan has paid her dues. Kayo_Police is the goddamn queen to whom the dues are paid!
The debate I was in was with a person who supported professional leagues, who have intent to censor the community to make it more accessible.
The debate you were in?... this... this public apology isn't for your treatment of Miranda, is it? This is about your argument with Jared Rea, the important man with the important job that is vital to your continued livelihood.
I think the sink or swim mentality is something that defined our culture, and if that succeeds it removes something which has been important to help create some of the best fighting game players of our time.
Aris, you had one of the best fighting game players of our time on your team. She didn't sink; you drowned her. You held her head underwater until she couldn't fight any more. And then you smelled her.
Again, I am deeply sorry for offending anyone. This was a combination of the people taking things out of context and my own inability in the heat of the moment to defend myself and the community I have loved for over 15 years.
Not sorry for what you did, just sorry that people were offended. Classic. I'd be interested to learn the context that justifies the statement, “I hope she is crying in the restroom.” If you continue to have difficulty defending yourself you may need to consider your behavior might be indefensible.
And no, I did not edit out the part where he apologizes to Miranda, personally. He didn't.