By John Walker on June 13th, 2012 at 4:00 pm.
The question of sexism in videogames really oughtn’t be a question at all. Videogames are rife with the thickest seam of sexism, and have been since the first had front covers on the cassettes. Not just in the games themselves, but in the culture surrounding it, from the prevalence – and misogynistic reaction to – ‘booth babes’, to the wretched response received in all corners of the internet when people attempt to discuss it. Pretending otherwise is pointless, and responses of being “tired” of the topic are a statement of acceptance. And there’s no clearer or more revolting evidence of this than the reaction to a Kickstarter by Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian, aiming to raise money to create a web series about the issue. (Here be a trigger warning – and various links from this article go to some pretty unpleasant details.)
Let’s be absolutely clear. I am not saying gamers are all sexist, obviously. And in this particular example, the wonderful side is that a project aiming to raise $6,000 is (at the time of writing) on $89,380, with 65 hours remaining. Most people are pretty decent. But wow, the negative response to this particular project has been deeply disturbing. So, to begin, here’s the Kickstarter video for Tropes Vs. Women In Video Games:
The project looks and sounds very interesting and relevant to me. It will look and sound uninteresting or be perceived as irrelevant to others. People who are interested can respond by donating money, or simply waiting until the videos are completed before viewing them. People who are not, you would imagine, could click away and get on with their day. Most of course will. But quite the most extraordinary reaction has occurred from many who did not.
It kind of terrifies me that reporting that Sarkeesian has received multiple threats of rape and death feels like it won’t make a significant impact on the reader. Perhaps that the internet’s more wretched areas are so commonly filled with such threats has normalised our reaction to reports of them. The key to snap out of this, and take it on board, is I think to not read about it as a thing that happened to someone else, but to imagine being the person on the receiving end – to imagine being an individual who is reading person after person saying they will sexually assault or murder you. That’s the beginning of the response Sarkeesian has seen over the last couple of weeks.
Organised campaigns have attempted to attack the project from many angles. A great number of people, Sarkeesian reports, have been attempting to get the YouTube video labelled as “terrorism” in an effort to have it banned. Another organised group tried to have the Kickstarter be defunded or banned. Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia page has been repeatedly vandalised, including adding images of hardcore porn (a woman with a cock in her mouth, naturally), and descriptions of Sarkeesian such as “an entitled nigger kitchen and hooker who focuses on drugs in popular culture and their association with tropes.” It goes on to make remarks about inserting sex toys in her “posterior”, multiple links to the more notoriously unpleasant sex acts, and perhaps most sinisterly of all, refers to her throughout as “it”. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to draw conclusions from the attempt of such vandals to render her as without a sex. Another vandalism attempt saw a description of Sarkeesian as a “cunt” make it into the excerpt on the first result for her name on Google – something that was posted with pride on various forums, including the Escapist. According to Wikipedia, at least a dozen people were actively part of this attack.
Then there are the YouTube comments. And while it’s tempting to hear the words “YouTube comments” and just roll your eyes and wonder what anyone expected, again it’s crucial to imagine that it’s you, and your YouTube video, and a comments thread about you. It’s too easy to allow the constant cesspit that is YouTube’s comments to become ignorable when we don’t do this.
They’re predictable, they’re foul, and they focus on a few different subjects. There are the streams of “jokes” about how she should be in the kitchen, making sandwiches, etc. There are the death threats, or wishes that she would die. There are the implications that she must be a victim of sexual abuse, and “therefore” she should shut up. There are references to her being Jewish, with accompanying anti-Semitism. There are insults about her looks, make up, clothing, etc, with suggestions of hypocrisy. There are suggestions that she needs to get laid. And perhaps most of all, there are furious people arguing that games are sexist against men too, and therefore she should be quiet. But overridingly, in all these categories, the central message is that Sarkeesian should be silenced. (And just in case anyone is feeling left out, one commenter hopes that “them people who funded this get raped and die of cancer.”)
On top of this, Sarkeesian reports that she’s received threatening messages on Twitter, Facebook, through Kickstarter, and on her own website. Because she wants to do some research and make some videos concerning the topic of the representation of women in games.
I feel compelled to react to one particular theme: That men are poorly represented in gaming too. They are. Men in games are often represented as huge, muscled heroes, essentially weapons of war with biceps, gruff and focused and all-powerful. It’s not an accurate representation of men at large, indeed not. Because it’s a power fantasy. It’s aspirational (as much as very many men may have no desires to be anything like that). It’s about being big, and strong, and in control. Oh boo hoo. Yes, it is daft, and cliched, and tiresome. But to compare it to the default representation of women in games – either huge-titted, scantily clad sexual fantasies, or helpless, pathetic and weak – is deeply erroneous. And yes, of course there are exceptions to both, although I can immediately think of vastly more exceptions for the better presentation of men than I can women.
But to say that the topic of female representation in gaming is deserving of investigation is not at all to suggest that the representation of men is not. In fact, were someone to do the research into this, perhaps start a Kickstarter to fund a video series about it, I’d absolutely be a backer. I’m fascinated to learn more about how my sex being portrayed in this way affects my understanding of myself, and other men. I’m sure there are consequences, both in terms of a negative sense of self in the comparison, and in skewed expectations of being a man based on what I’m being told I should aspire to. Perhaps even, studying the subject from this angle could reveal even more about the portrayal of women, and even address some root causes of it. Sarkeesian’s project in no way precludes this being studied. And I’d be willing to bet a fair amount that a man launching such a study wouldn’t be on the receiving end of hundreds and hundreds of calls for him to be raped or killed.
We’re incredibly blessed at RPS with an audience that doesn’t tend to behave this way. But whenever we post on topics about female representation, or the treatment of female gamers (and indeed gay, lesbian, bi, and trans gamers/game topics), we get comments similar to those above. We choose to delete them, because we have a greater interest in creating a pleasant environment, than we do in pretending we could give a shit about vile tosspots’ “freedom of speech”. (They’re free to speak their hate elsewhere.) And while I’ve certainly received numerous descriptions of how people wished I would die for disagreeing with them, I struggle to imagine what it might be like to be in Sarkeesian’s position. For saying she plans to say something people want to disagree with.
This is not preaching to the choir (not least because RPS is read by a great deal of people, not just the regular community), but instead an attempt to boldly state just how serious a mess we’re in as a culture. The prevalence of homophobia and misogyny in the gaming world is on a scale so large we like to dismiss it. “But we don’t do that.” “That’s just forum X, though.” That’s not good enough. We need to own this – to acknowledge that as gamers this is our community, no matter how far we may wish to distance from it, and no matter how much we may not take part in it.
I’ve no clear idea what the solutions are. Education is my instinctive reaction, and – oh – that’s what Sarkeesian is trying to create. I think a more representative portrayal of women in the medium would go a hell of a long way too, since were it the norm to see women portrayed as something other than sexual fantasies or weaklings to protect, people might not scream out that “games are mostly played by guys, and that’s what guys want,” as so many have in the reaction to this Kickstarter. Maybe if men and boys were shown that games are still just as thrilling and entertaining without resorting to such aspects, then not only would women and girls feel less alienated by the medium, but maybe people would be less inclined to defend it.
If you want to donate toward the video series, there are just under three days to go.