People who are not well versed in the arenas of post-modern social critique, feminism, or the more obscure corners of video game development have probably not heard of Anita Sarkeesian. Or if they have, they don’t know very much about her. She has several videos on YouTube, under the heading of “Feminist Frequency”. Her vlogs cover a variety of topics related to women and media, from discussions of the repeated use of the ‘crazy pixie’ character in several films, to an explanation of the “Women In Refrigerators” scholarship of comic book characters originated by Gail Simone.
Most of her videos are a few minutes long, not pointedly original or detailed, and don’t interrelate except they are based on women and media and popular representations. There is an exception to her one topic / one video standard though, where she does a detailed analysis of how women are represented (or not) in video games. This earned her a metric shit ton of abuse. There is no reason to detail her work here, it is easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection which one has if one is currently reading this. It will suffice to cover a few of her basic points to get to the true meat of the problem.
Video Games Are Sexist
Sarkeesian’s overall assertion is, for the most part, women in video games are essentially wallpaper. From non-playable but perusable sex objects, to outright slaughter-bait, female characters are notoriously scantily clad and mostly there for the taking (thus rescuing), or beating, or killing, or raping, or whatever. Their kidnapping motivates the player, their quest-giving motivates the player, their boozooms motivate the player…
Sarkeesian has plenty to work with, from the very first ever video game with a vaguely living playable character (PacMan), to the characters that came to define an entire platform (Mario & Sonic The Hedgehog), men have been the protagonist in the majority of games written, and a woman has regularly been their prize. Sarkeesian doesn’t ask, but she well could, how the hell is PacMan a ‘man’ anyway? The dang thing doesn’t even have legs, where does it store its penis…?
She does stay with mostly modern games, she references Duke Nukem but she talks about the latest version Duke Nukem 3D. She does not ignore Mario 2 where players can choose the Princess, but notes Ms Peach isn’t anywhere in the title, and it’s the second title of the game anyway. Mario had the spotlight for most of the game’s run both before and after, including Donkey Kong.
She does not ignore Tomb Raider but certainly points out Ms Croft’s breasts are so large Angelina Jolie wasn’t big enough to accurately represent them for the movie. The Grand Theft Auto series is easy pickin’, but she doesn’t make as much hay out of it as she could. There’s Fable 2, The Darkness 1 & 2, Farcry 3 (where the player literally can’t be anything but a rich white boy), Hitman: Absolution, anything ever involving the name Zelda, Prince of Persia… The point is, Sarkeesian is not hurting for evidence.
Except quite a few people dismissed her point outright. Rather than confronting her assertion women should not be a road cone driven over in search of the actual goal of the game, many saw fit to question everything from Sarkeesian’s sexuality to her fashion choices in her videos, to demands for a full reporting of every dollar she’s ever spent making her videos, to literally threatening her person with violent assault. But this is not just about a particular solution to silencing a voice of dissent within the gaming community (or outside of it for all it matters). There are plenty of other people who have spoken out about the rampant sexism of the game industry, and computer ‘tech’ culture in general. How they are being responded to is important.
From tech writer and cultural commentator Aja Romano to Elise Hu over at NPR to Adria Richards who, just by tweeting there were men being sexist near her, got a whole shit storm all her own. Kirk Hamilton and Evan Narcisse over at Kotaku, Hamilton was even lucky enough to get a personalized reply simply by doing a story at all. Aisha Tyler who got her own shitstorm too by claiming she’s a gamer because she, yanno, plays video games and such… Heck, they’re even getting into the fray in other countries. Belinda Parmar at The Telegraph has done a few op-ed pieces. Atlassian Inc at their Berlin conference ended up having to fire a guy because he couldn’t resist comparing computer code Maven to a would-be girlfriend who was bitchy and high-maintenance (like all women amirite??) and several male attendees had the gall to notice it was completely inappropriate. The list could go on for pages.
It is important to note what the actual criticisms of Sarkeesian and those who agree with her are. There is much on YouTube videos and blogs just by searching “Sarkeesian wrong”. I watched, I read, and I found virtually all of them said the same basic things. This may or may not be a representative sample, there is no way of knowing without devoting much of the rest of a year to perusing YouTube (which is just too much frankly). But if these same themes came up repeatedly, it certainly speaks to a trend or pattern, that can be investigated.
Most of the Objections Came From Men
First, of the literally hundreds of videos I could potentially watch, only a hand full were done by women. It could be argued this is because the tech industry is male heavy, so responses from ‘tech’ (if it can be referred to as a single unified entity) are also going to favor men. However, two of the most successful video games of all time, Centipede and Portal, were designed by women. Portal even manages to have both a female villain and a female protagonist. The designer of Portal, Kim Swift, has loudly spoken out about sexism in video game culture to the point she talks about being afraid of repercussions due to her openness. That men overwhelmingly question if sexism exists at all in gaming culture, while women overwhelming assert it does, speaks fairly loudly on its own.
He begins his argument with the assertion, “I will always love video games”, thus his monker. He then questions three primary issues: 1) Where Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter money went, 2) Why she does not allow comments on all of her videos, 3) Does she own the video games she critiques or did she just borrow footage.
He allows Sarkeesian has somewhat addressed point 2 by saying she has posted videos which received extremely high negative votes faster than it would be possible to watch them or even load them properly. She argues she turns off comments because this is proof people are just posting hateful things and not actually replying to her videos. He asserts that’s the cost of loading to YouTube, people say dumb things and down-vote videos without watching them. She should just accept. That she accepted it, is free to make choices for herself, and turned off commenting in response, is not addressed.
He concedes to Sarkeesian’s ‘Smurfette Trope’, where often there is only one female character present in a group of men. Worth noting is part of Sarkeesian’s argument, Smurfette is then used to stand in for all females everywhere and becomes a kind of ultra-female with all the expectations of all women placed into her. IWALVG then provides a live-action demonstration of the trope by criticizing Sarkeesian for wearing earrings and giving in to gender stereotypes. In challenging her for embracing gender stereotypes he is failing to allow her to wear what she wants because she must be the All-Feminist. Proving Sarkeesian right both by making her into Smurfette, and then being critical of her for not living up to the character just created.
He also concedes Sarkeesian’s assertion Ms PacMan was a simple palette swap, not an actual female player, which made it basically a repackaging money-grab. Though he later argues expecting gender variety in video games is a violation of the designer’s “art” and “narrative arc”. Taken as a whole he is essentially asserting art and narrative arc should never be sacrificed for equality, only for implicitly high virtues like cash. He then employs the Bulverism of ‘You don’t get it because you’re a woman’ by asserting sympathizing with a character within a game is sexist as the character should be allowed to exist on its own merits. The game should be played for its enjoyment regardless of the gender of the main character, only a woman seeking offence can think otherwise.
He rounds this final curve by saying who the player connects with is up to the player, not the designer or some vlogging social commentator. This combines with his previous assertions in a very odd way, seeming to make his overall argument that wanting female characters is bad because it violates the designer’s “art” (or cash-flow) which is the true purpose of the game, or it’s sexist because the character is a whole person not a program and bonding with their heroics is the purpose of the game, or players will sympathize with whoever they want and the joy they feel in doing so is the true purpose of the game. But regardless, Sarkeesian is wrong. Of course, this would mean Sarkeesian is actually correct in the first place, players connect with the characters and having female leads doubles the number of possible story lines creative programmers could get creative with…
He ends by quoting Sarkeesian’s viewer numbers, even though he’s already argued they’re meaningless, to prove her popularity is diminishing. That her popularity has remained constant and the viewership of her first video is lower than her second due to neophilia is nowhere suggested or even hinted.
He begins by quoting Sarkeesian’s college thesis. He summarizes the content for roughly 30 seconds, and then criticizes her for having “no original quotes” in her paper. As a thesis is primarily building on previous research on a given topic, this is not particularly damning. However he then questions her stated intention of trying to take feminism out of academia, seeming to want her to primarily quote more scholarly work.
He criticizes her for basing her thesis primarily on characters created by Joss Whedon, and then displays the list of her cited female characters. Two of the primary characters for her ‘Warrior Archetype’ were Sarah Connor in “Terminator” and Aeryn Sun in “Farscape”, neither of which were written, directed, or produced by Whedon.
He complains Sarkeesian treats female characters as archetypes and not as whole people, and then refers to Sarkeesian specifically as “the archetypical feminist academic”. With the Bulverism of ‘quit being such a woman’ firmly established, at that point his criticism of Sarkeesian goes from questionable to disturbing.
Sarkeesian has, as one of her videos, a discussion of Kanye West’s music video Monster from his album My Beautiful Dark Fantasy. Sarkeesian notes the video contains a scene which implies West is having sex with dead women. Sarkeesian is, not surprisingly, appalled at the idea of women’s corpses being nothing more than a fetish/joke for a video about a man publicly ‘exploring’ (read: celebrating) his inner demons. Instig’s reply to this is: “Dead women are very niche”. Seeming to imply this is the prerogative of artistic representation, and repeating IWALVG’s assertion ‘art has its own rules’. Putting precisely the academic distance from the subject he chides Sarkeesian for.
Instig seems to fully miss Sarkeesian’s argument by specifically stating “[West is] commenting on the entertainment industry”. That Sarkeesian is making the specific point women are not mindless mannequins for West to air his complaints about the media machine is lost entirely. It is also worth pointing out Sarkeesian is also commenting on the entertainment industry, with a roughly similar message to West’s. Instig is therefore invalidating her statement in favor of West’s even though they potentially agree.
One wonders if Instig would be quite so supportive of West’s ‘vision’ if he were in bed with several dead babies, or a body mocked up to look like Tupac Shakur. In fact a body of Tupac would be extremely appropriate, as his death was connected to a rap-feud partially sustained by production companies trying to increase album sales. Production companies then released several post mortem albums, literally making money off of people who had no choice, which was West’s stated point and Sarkeesian’s.
This is not Instig’s only video. He has a series of his own questioning Sarkeesian. In them he makes several assertions with no evidence. He suggests Sarkeesian is initiating is a sort of cultural “internalization of censorship” where people become afraid to explore ideas previously acceptable. The ‘brainwashing’ aspects of the argument aside, one wonders if he views all cultural shifts in the same manner. He does not elaborate or define except to say Sarkeesian is dangerous because her censorship is too broad, for example what percentage of games should have female protagonists.
Interestingly he then quotes the vlog sex+ where activist Laci Green asserts overreaching, unilateral doctrines regarding how to treat women violate a woman’s self-expression, both calling into question his own desire to see Sarkeesian ‘be more specific’ and seeming to place Green and Sarkeesian at odds with each other’s position. This is interesting for two reasons: 1) Instig wants Sarkeesian specific and not specific at the same time, and 2) Green and Sarkeesian knew each other socially and Green had said previously she looked to Sarkeesian when she needed support.
This was the motherlode. Triox’s video is half an hour long. Summarizing it is not easy but possible because a fair amount of the opening argument is a criticism of Sarkeesian’s conflation of, and therefore misunderstanding of, satire and turn-about. Satire, in its literal sense, takes a social situation well known and mocks it with exaggeration. At a dinner party one may be presented with several different forks, each of which is used for a slightly different part of the meal. A satirical play on this would be for there dozens of forks, rather than two or three, and for the others at the table to laugh when the participant chooses the ‘incorrect’ fork from the absurd number available.
Turn-about is when one result is expected, and another often negative result actually takes place. The example Triox takes from Sarkeesian to illustrate her analysis is inept is the ending of Earthworm Jim. At the very beginning of the game, Jim must launch a cow into the air to progress through to the next stage. Throughout the game Jim has been pursuing a buxom woman. At the end, just before Jim is united with his woman, she is landed on by the cow launched in the beginning of the game and sinks into a lava bed.
Triox feels Sarkeesian’s assertion this is sexism is her being female and focusing on the wrong part of the joke. What she is not getting is the turn-about, namely Jim caused his own problem by launching the cow in the first place, made satirical by her over-the-top absurd death. This is virtually the same argument IWALVG and Instig have made: women are nothing more than the punch-line in someone else’s fantasy.
It is odd Triox would rest so much of his critique on the now pattern indicated Bulverism, ‘You don’t get it because you’re a woman’. Odd because Sarkeesian predicts his objection and answers it before he’s said it. She asserts repeatedly the indication of sexism isn’t what happens to the woman specifically, it’s everything happens to the woman. Jim isn’t the victim of anything except bad timing, the player is literally forced to launch the cow. Conversely, the woman was chased by a worm seeking to have inter-species sex with a human female. His rape fantasy was thwarted only when the woman is crushed to death and roasted.
Triox literally adds insult to injury by asking the rhetorical, “How is the woman being made fun of if she ends up on top by the end?!” Triox should consider counseling if he thinks a woman has ended ‘on top’ by being boiled to death as all her bones are crushed, after being chased for hours by a stalker. Perhaps she ‘won’ in the same way West’s corpse-brides ‘won’, sure they’re dead but they got a starring role!
Triox then goes into a very long discussion of Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign and how she should be required to report absolutely all of her expenditures including guessing at what she may have spent the money on (and they are guesses, no evidence is offered). He concedes she “may” have paid staff and supported herself. But he betrays his own questions by criticizing Sarkeesian for most of the first five minutes of his video for the poor quality of her first videos from years previous, and the repeated assertion she needs more documentation. He wants TV quality, but he doesn’t want her to spend any money. He wants her paperwork but provides none of his own.
He concedes most of what Sarkeesian and others argue. He admits to a deficit in game characters and lore, he’s mildly offended by programmers who think he won’t play a game because there’s a female protagonist, there are tropes and they “suck”. However, he does make one interesting exception: Ease of Design. Basically, he argues ‘same as it ever was’. Most games are cheaply made, and so are their plots, so they stick to what they’ve always done. He doesn’t feel this is a specific attack on women, it is an overall unwillingness to try new things because experimenting can have a steep price tag and the game may be a flop.
He may well be right, but it does not actually undercut Sarkeesian’s contention ‘same as it ever was’ perpetuates a culture that already degrades women and uses them basically as the hook. Unfortunately, he does make a rather weakly positioned biological argument to justify the damsel in distress trope. Men chase women, that’s the way it is. Weak because he’s already undercut it by saying tropes are cheap. Unfortunate because he then uses it to suggest a “Not All Men” assertion: the true jerks of the gaming world shouldn’t keep women from trying to shape the market. If they encounter resistance it’s because most men like the idea of being the hero. But of all the videos I watched for this minor experiment, this one by far was the most self-referential and open to the possibility Sarkeesian might actually be on to something.
In fact I decided to stop on this video specifically because it was the only video I’d seen which allowed Sarkeesian to know anything at all.
The criticisms of Sarkeesian were unilateral and essentially support her premise, namely video games, much like the society that spawns them, in the main treat women as mindless non-entities, as prizes, or victims, or whatever, but rarely as people. All of the vloggers I analyzed, Triox, Instig8tiveJournalism, IWALVG, and gaminganarchist assert merely by being a woman Sarkeesian is paying too much attention to the issue of female characters. Yet each of them concede Sarkeesian is right about fundamental ideas, the tropes she is seeing do exist. If anything they end up asserting not she’s wrong, but if she’d just play one more video game she’d be somehow more right. IWALVG is so worried about just how many video games she’s actually played, he makes it a primary contention of his criticism of her. Going so far as to count the number of cartridges in a production photo and then calculate the percentage of total games since some unknown date in the past it represents.
In fact the idea whoever plays the most games is the only one with the right to talk is precisely the same criticism of Aisha Tyler, which then morphs into the “No True Scotsman” fallacy that certainly a ‘real’ gamer wouldn’t say such things. It is in these arguments the vloggers begin to disagree with each other.
gaminganarchist has already said the games are sexist, but instead of excusing it with Sarkeesian and Tyler being ‘fakes’ he attributes it to bad writing. By extension, are the people who make the games therefore fakes? Because if Sarkeesian and Tyler and Swift are right, and everyone seems to agree to a greater or lesser extent they are, how does sheer number of games even matter?
Swift in this case is the perfect foil, she’s everyone’s definition of ‘real’ and she says there’s a problem. This herring’s so red it’s bleeding. The money question was injected mostly as deflection to challenge Sarkeesian overall, to represent her as someone devious and therefore open to overt dismissal. If her finances are opaque, so the argument goes, then obviously she can’t be trusted with research. Which is why it should be noted she cites all of her sources whereas none of those videos challenging her gave a breakdown of their monthly game purchases, or anything else for matter.
Though some speculate about her expenditures, none provides any proof of their accusations, and the Kickstarter Sarkeesian held has never been challenged through the company. IWALVG’s asserts Sarkeesian’s support is waning, her Kickstarter argues otherwise. Perhaps the frustration at her Kickstarter success is a projection of frustration at her contributors placed on Sarkeesian herself. It’s always easier to yell at a member of congress than the people who elected them.
In fact, the reality of why much of the criticisms of all these men and women confronting sexism in computer games are themselves fairly damaging is presented briefly, and rather bracingly, by MovieBob: Men are hurt by these images too. They make men as nothing more than thugs who can’t get a date. These ‘white knights’ of the gaming world aren’t heroes, they’re lonely muscleheads (or muscle-worms) with no internal motivation. They don’t succeed because they are good at something or have a desire for self-betterment, but because there is a pink silk-lined platinum vagina waiting for them at the end of their quest.
That a man cannot be a whole person without some damsel in distress to save is, as far as MovieBob is concerned, the worst wish-fulfillment obsession of all of these attacks on the women and men finding fault. It is a good note to end on, MovieBob’s assertion these plots need to get over their Men Are Hero Complex. Triox specifically states the ‘damsel in distress’ trope not only exists but has become so commonplace it’s cliche is practically unisex.
Which means it’s so cliche it doesn’t even mean what it says anymore. So why not try something else for a change? Swift did, and for her troubles she made her company a boat-load of money and herself a steaming pile of misogynist bullying. Was every gamer who bought, played, and enjoyed Portal a ‘fake’ too?
Portal is an example, not just of a good game, but of getting away from a trope everyone seems to agree is basically crap. But then that was created by a woman.
Overtly women have something to offer the discourse after all. Sarkeesian references the game Braid on that note, where throughout the game one is ‘saving’ the princess only to discover she’s been running from the ‘hero’ the whole time and the player has actually been chasing her down. Which casts quite a light on the threats of violence Sarkeesian, Richards, Swift, and others, are receiving. Who do these “gamers” think they’re “saving”? Games…? Guys, “The Cake Is A Lie”. Incidentally, Instig dislikes MovieBob so much he ends his Part 2 of why Sarkeesian is wrong by saying “He’s not just annoying, he’s a bad person.” Which means Instig thinks gaminganarchist, Triox, Swift, Ramano, Hamilton… Are they all bad people?
More importantly, why…? We know games can be successful without requiring a pink silk-lined platinum vagina prize. The only goal of Lemmings was ‘don’t die’. I defy anyone to even identify the gender of those little purple blobs. Then there’s Abe’s Oddysee, which challenges the player to see if they can foment a revolution using only monosyllabic words uttered by a green thing with bug-eyes while being confronted by slugs on stilts. There’s not a platinum vagina anywhere.
Why has Sarkeesian or Richards or Swift earned retaliation? Retaliation for what? The fact is, some of these gamers are dangerous, and they have made public threats anonymously, but this isn’t Assassin’s Creed, this is real life with a well-worn history: The Sept 2006 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly foreshadowed much of what would come almost a decade later. A little known (and less remembered) amateur gamer vlog existed called GameLife. Its core was three guys who filmed with bad lighting literally in one guy’s mom’s basement.
They became popular enough to garner a following, two additional on-screen talents, a contract with MTV, and a story from EGM writer Robert Ashley. His article, The Surreal “Life”: The Endearing Oddballs behind MTV-Endorsed GameLife Prove Anyone – And We Mean Anyone – Can Start Their Own Videogame Show contains a tiny but extremely pertinent detail. Through most of its brief existence GameLife starred four guys, and a woman. While the four guys had their names in the article in-full, her name is given only as “Melissa”. This stood out to the author of the piece and she was asked about it. Her reply was quoted in the article: “By day, Melissa is a private gourmet chef. By night, she’s GameLife’s only female reviewer, which may explain why this oddly out-of-place cutie wants her last name withheld. ‘I get enough death threats as it is’ she says.”
The reason her case in particular stands out isn’t just getting death threats for being on a game review vlog where she’s outnumbered by guys 4 : 1 (not to mention the author’s suggestion this is already common enough it’s not really a surprise). It’s one of the reasons she was receiving them. Gaming polemicist Matthew Hawkins wrote a long and extremely vitriolic article in April 2008 titled The Very Dirty World of Video Game Journalism: Gamer “Grrrlllsss”, Possible Retards, Bloggers, Internet Superstardom, Viral Marketing, Trash Talking, and Crappy Art School Photography. The title gives the flavor of the writing, but Part 3 of his piece focused in on Melissa, in which Hawkins spends three long and highly critical paragraphs suggesting, but never demonstrating, Melissa couldn’t possibly be a real gamer because she’s physically attractive and has a boyfriend. He summarizes his thoughts as,
“I’d be extremely upset since it would be yet another female that has to use (and abuse) the “Look at me! I’m a HOT CHICK that plays VIDEO GAMES!!!” shtick. It’s women like here [sic] that gives real girls that enjoy video games another reason to groan and keep their interests in the closet. And the fact that dumb, lonely, horny guys are all too eager to empower them. Granted, dumbass girls who flaunt their feminine charms to get what they want from nerds is nothing new but when viral marketing, game journalism, and hackneyed art school grade pictures is involved…”
Substitute Zoe Quinn for Melissa and it’s the #GamerGate manifesto nearly word for word. It’s also a piece of every single criticism of Sarkeesian I’ve viewed for this summary. This isn’t some new problem Sarkeesian invented, or Zoe Quinn caused, or GamerGate finally exposed as a vast conspiracy to force gamers wrongly into treating women with basic human decency. This is a constant and pervasive part of gamer culture. Sarkeesian isn’t faking anything to get likes, she’s pointing out the obvious to the oblivious.
When Sarkeesian can be critiqued not because she is wrong, but because she is a woman, this is systemic. If even half of the people who got on board with the Twitter #NotAllMen spoke out publicly to say this is unacceptable behavior in any forum, this is not a WOW campaign, these are not just “nice” or “misunderstood” guys but potentially violent asshats who think “God Of War” is their personal narrative; “Not All Men” might actually mean something.
Until then, Sarkeesian is being terrorized because she had the gall to say she would like to see a point system that isn’t based on beating women to death. I’m not about to fault her, as near as I can tell she’s got people after her think they’re DragonBorn and she personally shot their friend in the knee with an arrow. Sarkeesian says again and again allowing attitudes to persist has real world consequences, and now she, as Melissa before her, has become living proof of her own argument. I’ve played most of the games she critiques. For the woman, they don’t end well.