Last week is one Microsoft might like to forget, soon. In addition to being undercut and practically mocked by Sony, the Internet is still buzzing over the inappropriate trash talk in Microsoft's live demo of Killer Instinct at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).
The demo featured two employees, producer Torin Rettig and community coordinator Ashton Williams. From the beginning, Ms. Williams is skeptical about her odds of winning, saying: "Whoever thought it was a good idea that I play against a producer is gonna get it."
Mr. Rettig is winning right away. Ms. Williams says that she "can't block" and that he's "too fast." Mr. Rettig says (rather patronizingly) that she needs to practice before playing in front of millions of people. Eventually he advises her to: "Just let it happen, it will be over soon."
After Mr. Rettig's character sends several fireballs at Ms. Williams' he says, "Oh you like those." Losing badly, Ms. Williams says, "No, I don't like this."
There's some laughter from the audience, but online reactions to what's being called "Microsoft's rape joke" have been different. Some say it's tame compared to the blatantly misogynist, racist and homophobic insults and slurs regularly spat over Xbox Live – that much is true. But it doesn't make them okay.
The association with sexual assault in Mr. Rettig's trash talk is undeniable. One doesn't need to go looking for it, as hordes of defenders are arguing. "Just let it happen" is a line synonymous with accounts of rape, and describes attempts to make victims comply during the act. As Rebecca Greenfield writes on The Atlantic, it's so common that it shows up in multiple rape-focused Internet memes. As a joke . Given the high rates of sexual assault, I don't think I need to elaborate on why that line might be upsetting, off-putting and/or alienating to many gamers/viewers.
Then there's the fact that video game culture doesn't have the best reputation for welcoming women, even if earned by a small-but-toxic minority of gamers. Combine that with sexual harassment; lack of varied representation of female characters; publishers claiming that female protagonists don't sell; a very vocal group that doesn't like it when women say anything about video games and we have an environment that can be extremely tense.
So why, why, would anyone trash talk like that, especially at a huge event?
Initial outrage (mine included) was intensified by the idea that Microsoft would script such icky lines for a huge audience, as reported by Kotaku and The Atlantic. But hours after the event Ms. Williams tweeted: "The comments during the KI demo were not scripted. The demo included friendly ad-libbed banter and there was no ill intent."
Microsoft confirmed with a statement to the Atlantic Wire on Tuesday, writing that "during the Xbox E3 briefing, one of our employees made an off the cuff and inappropriate comment while demoing 'Killer Instinct' with another employee. This comment was offensive and we apologize."
While I'm glad Microsoft wasn't behind the comments, the "off the cuff" and common nature of this kind of trash talk says a lot about how embedded these references are in speech, and how little thought we give them.
I'm not suggested that we never trash talk. Most of us expect it, especially when playing in-person. (There are, however, many gamers who take trash talking to the extreme online, which is why I avoid it.) Trash talking can bring extra fun to the game, throw our opponents off, and up the competitive vibe. But we can be aggressive without being harmful if we have perspective.
I asked people on Twitter about their approach to trash talking. Most said they only do it in safe spaces, if at all. Comic artist and writer Aaron Diaz said that he only trash talks with friends, "and it's largely based around puns, depending on which Smash Bros. character I'm playing."
Lyndsay Peters, an avid gamer, generally doesn't like playing with trash talkers. "I only 'trash talk' people whose vulnerable spots I know, so I can give them a wide berth. It should be fun," she said. "It's more about the challenge and shared experience than being mean."
I have a similar approach, only participating with people I'm close to. I'll swear at AI opponents, but when I'm playing against a human I'm comically tame. (Think comments like "You're going down" or "I'm gonna get you.")
More competitive gamers tend to do it for different reasons – the goal often being to hit vulnerable spots. We can't be sure that was Mr. Rettig's aim, and I don't think he intended to make a rape joke. He did, though. And I can't help but think of all the different ways we can throw each other off-focus, aggressively even, without referencing sexual violence.
Ms. Williams wasn't upset by Mr. Rettig's comments, but on a big stage at the intersection of game play and real-world context the potential to only be seen as two colleagues competing was lost. Everyone should know by now that when we see a man playing against a woman with a patronizing tone, making fun of her for losing (anyone else thinking of the "you play like a girl" insult?) and letting a few inappropriate comments slip, some feathers will be ruffled. And rightly so.
Emma Woolley is a Toronto-based writer, community manager and advocate. You can follow her at @emmamwoolley.