Feminism is Taboo in S. Korea’s Gaming Industry

The tale of Nardack’s journey to the gaming industry’s feminist blacklist began in a world that’s not typically open about feminism: K-pop.

It began when Irene, a member of Red Velvet (the girl group that performed in Pyongyang recently), said in a fan meeting that she read a famous novel on women’s rights. The backlash from male fans was fierce: On various online forums, fans reported to burning Irene’s photos. Men were appalled the K-pop idol could read such a book, endorse such an idea like feminism.

31-year-old Nardack, whose real name is Kim Eun-hye, is no stranger to these visceral reactions against feminism. She is a veteran illustrator in South Korea’s gaming industry, which in recent years has become especially notorious for unwarranted backlash against feminists from male gamers. But she probably didn’t expect Irene’s scandal to lead to her own.

“I’m a freelancer. I don’t want to get embroiled in noisy scandals,” Nardack told Korea Exposé.

Then Nardack’s colleague tweeted critically about the male K-pop fans’ reactions against Irene; this colleague got labelled as a Megalian — the Korean equivalent of ‘feminazi,’ although misleadingly so — and the company, X.D. Global, removed her illustrations from a game. When the colleague, whose Twitter is no longer active, tweeted a statement about not supporting Megalia, Nardack ‘liked’ it.

“That’s how I became a Megalian,” said Nardack, who has worked in the game industry for the past decade. “Because I liked the tweet of an illustrator rumored to be a Megalian, I must be one too.”

Nardack’s name was circulated in multiple forums — including DC Inside, one of South Korea’s most popular online communities. Websites like DC Inside, which boasts around 70 million daily page views, are an important part of South Korea’s gaming industry. Here, users discuss strategies and exchange information in the hundreds of gaming forums. The forums are often male-dominated and very hostile toward any mention of feminism.

“Feminism is a serious mental illness,” wrote one anonymous user. “Get counseling at the nearest psychiatric clinic.”

According to Nardack, users of Azur Lane Korea, the mobile game that used her illustration, protested because she allegedly “supports an antisocial-societal organization.”

It’s not clear how many users filed complaints, but the anti-feminism protests were enough for Nardack’s employer at the time, also X.D. Global, the publisher of the game Azur Lane. The online game company asked her in a private message if she could publicly declare her stance against Megalia, and against feminism in general.

When Nardack refused to make a public statement, the company, in a moment of deja vu, removed her illustration from the game just days after the illustration was published (fortunately she was still paid). Nardack went public with the correspondence, asking furiously, “Do we truly live in the 21st century?”

Like many countries worldwide, South Korea’s gaming industry — the sixth largest in the world — is male-dominated. Female gamemakers comprise a minority. Games are still produced for the male audience — cue overly sexy illustrations of female characters in countless games.

Until around a decade ago, the majority of the gamers were also men. “When I first started playing [twenty years ago], if the rare female user appeared online, male gamers would flock around her in reverence,” said Kang Ji-ho, a 36-year-old office worker who has been playing online games for around twenty years. “It felt kind of like engineering school.”

Today women comprise around 42 percent of all gamers in the country, where around half of its 51 million population play games.

It’s not easy to play as a female gamer. Gender discrimination is common. Occasionally it’s positive: “Sometimes you have to play through team voice chats,” said Nardack, who has been playing online games for the past four years. “When men hear my voice and find out I’m a woman, they can show interest with no questions asked.”

Kang agreed there was sometimes preferential treatment for female gamers. “In World of Warcraft, you go hunting as a team. Sometimes a female player would tag along, regardless of what she’s capable of doing — even if she’s there just to shovel dirt.”

Often the discrimination is negative, partly created by the preferential treatment, partly by the prejudice that women can’t play games, and sometimes just because. “When male players find out I’m a woman, they start attacking me, even if they’re on my team,” said Kim Mong-dang, who plays Overwatch, an online game with the year 2060 as its setting.

“If I’m not good at a game, they say, ‘You should just cook at home.’ For no reason they just call me, ‘F***ing b***h,’” Kim told Korea Exposé in the documentary Feminism Reboot.

What makes the playing field more difficult for women, especially in recent years with the advent and fall of a feminist group called Megalia, is an irrational fear and hatred toward feminism from male users.

“Frankly, I predicted this kind of reaction,” Nardack said, referring to X.D. Global’s response to rumors about her being a Megalian. “It’s around the tenth time I’ve seen a case like this in the industry.”

X.D. Global did not respond to Korea Exposé’s request for comment.

Nardack’s former employer joins the Feminism Hall of Infamy alongside the likes of gaming giants like IMC Games and Nexon Korea. Just weeks ago, the CEO of IMC Games launched an investigation into whether a female employee was following an “anti-societal ideology,” a.k.a feminism. Her sin: following groups like Womenlink, one of South Korea’s oldest feminist organizations, and retweeting a post about hannam, a slang for sexist Korean men.

And who can forget “Girls Do Not Need a Prince”? In July 2016, voice actress Kim Ja-yeon tweeted a picture of herself wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with these words. When some male users found out that the shirt was Megalia merchandise, they demanded that Kim apologize for supporting an “anti-man hate group” and pressured Nexon into eventually firing her — 12 hours after the tweet.  

In recent years in online gaming forums, where many users are young men, being a Megalian has become akin to a crime — and, by unfortunate extension, feminism has also become a dirty word.

“The image of Korean mobile games is like a c**t covered in boils,” commented one anonymous DC Inside user, pointing to how too many games were “tainted with Megalians.”

Megalia plays a key role in why feminism is getting such a bad rap in South Korea. ‘Megalian’ is frequently used as a derogatory label, mostly for women whom the labelers perceive to be extreme feminists. And too often among game users, Megalia is equated misleadingly with feminism as a whole.

Megalia may technically be inactive today, but it still occupies an influential, albeit complicated, space in South Korean feminism. Founded in 2015, Megalia.com mirrored the hateful language that was (and is) prevalent against women in male-dominated, or namcho, online forums. Megalians were active in various women’s rights causes, including in bringing down Soranet, a website rife with spycam pornography and even real-time invitations to rape women.

To supporters, Megalia was a refreshing experiment in Korean feminism, attempting to reclaim the male-centered, misogynistic language. To critics, Megalia was just as bad as Ilbe, a notoriously misogynistic namcho website.

It’s not clear why Megalia and feminism are hated by male gamers in particular. One theory points to the gamers’ hostility toward the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which received fierce criticism from young users for implementing the Game Shutdown Policy in 2011, limiting the number of hours teenage users could play online games.

Others point to the particular online culture shared by the gamers. “Gamers are often at the forefront of online culture,” said 20-year-old Guk Beom-geun, the founder of media startup G-pictures, whose main audience is viewers in their teens to twenties.

“When you play online games, your exposure to the internet naturally becomes longer. Users exchange stories; popular games form online discourses that spread,” Guk said. For example, the now-popular catchphrase “hard carry,” which refers to an MVP, a player who carries the team to victory in an important game.

Unfortunately, a culture that has spread rapidly within the online gaming community seems to be fiercely anti-feminist.

“[Some forums] are like a parallel universe” when it comes to information about feminism, said Kang Ji-ho. “Male-dominated communities present distorted facts about feminism. People think in terms of black and white; they treat Megalians like communists and don’t allow for gray areas. The more exposed you are to these posts, the more brainwashed you get.”  

“Nobody was interested in how I became suspected of being a Megalian. When someone said, ‘She’s a Megalian,’ everyone just started agreeing,” Nardack said.

The male gamers’ hatred toward Megalia and feminism translates into real threats for labor rights. According to AFP, many gamers monitor female developers for any online activities that may involve feminism. They then file complaints to employers with boycott threats. There are even ‘Megalian Lists’ shared among users.

“Employers keep saying that they need to respect the opinions of the users,” said Nardack. “But I wonder what will happen if companies continue to accept user demands. The claims some people make about certain illustrators are becoming increasingly ridiculous: Anything can be Megalian. At this rate, no illustrator won’t be a Megalian.”

Around a week after her open letter against the company, she seemed relatively calm and resolute about her decision to speak up. On a weekend trip, she traveled to Seoul from Busan, where she lives, and met me at a crowded coffee shop in central Seoul.

“I’m doing okay,” she said. “People say I won’t be able to get a job after a scandal like this. But my other employers don’t care. They just want me to meet the deadline.”

 

If you’re interested in this topic, join Korea Exposé on May 26, 2018 for an offline Q&A with the divas from Famerz, South Korea’s oldest feminist group for gamers. Check out the event details: The Divas of S. Korea’s Game Industry

Cover image: An Internet cafe in Seoul, South Korea. (Source: Associated Press)

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