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Thought Bubble:
Kickstarting Feminsim in Games

June 18, 2012

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

 

 

Guys – and today, unfortunately, I am speaking to the fellas – we really need to talk.

The misogyny and the sexism that’s been slowly seeping into video games and the broader gaming lexicon – the degrading E3 advertising and the constant threats of rape on gaming message boards and on Xbox Live – it has to stop. Now. It’s juvenile, puerile, and vile, and it unfairly tarnishes the entire industry in a way that confirms everything Jack Thompson has ever said about us. If your online persona can best be described as Pyramid Head with a YouTube account, you shouldn’t be posting in public.

I’ve noticed the issue creeping up with increasing frequency since October, when Batman: Arkham City debuted with Catwoman in the role of “bitch.” It’s on my mind again now that I’ve finally completed Arkham Asylum (like Batman, I’m a little late to the party), but the intervening months have provided no shortage of inciting incidents. First there was Cross Assault, where Aris Bakhtanians implied that sexual assault is intrinsic to fighting games. Then there was the guy on Kotaku who bragged about his sexual exploits on a Sonic the Hedgehog bedspread. Now, the hornet’s nest is buzzing again thanks to Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter project, in which she asked for $6,000 to make a short documentary series about the various depictions of women in video games.

Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian

As you’ve likely heard, the reaction to Sarkeesian’s video has been nothing short of disgusting. The harassment and abuse she has faced for engaging in nothing more than standard academic research ranks amongst the filthiest that I’ve ever come across in a message board. And considering that this is the Internet we’re talking about here, that’s saying something.

What’s depressing is that this reaction isn’t even remotely surprising. All of the above flashpoints have served as sounding boards for similar ignorance, where the same tired arguments always get repeated. Hordes of men express vehement and abject denial that sexism exists, and so – like an after school special about an alcoholic uncle – I’m calling for an intervention.

Anita Sarkeesian YouTube Comments

A sampling of some of the awful comments made on Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women video on YouTube

So guys – and again, I’m speaking primarily to my fellow fellas – I’m telling you, the sexism is a problem. The torrent of hate that Sarkeesian has so helpfully recorded is proof enough of that. I couldn’t do a better job of exposing the depth and severity of the issue, even if the people posting the comments don’t seem to be aware of the self-fulfilling (and self-defeating) irony.

Personally, I wholeheartedly support Sarkeesian’s initiative. The games industry has been long overdue for this type of scrutiny. I doubt I’ll agree with all of her conclusions, but I know her perspective will be well researched and she’ll make some excellent points that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. I look forward to her series because they are the kind of discussions that drive the industry forward and help introduce new approaches to design.

Unlike those trying to censor Sarkeesian, I’d love to see more women in gaming. Then again, I consider myself a feminist. I’m also a straight, sports-and-video-game-crazed twenty-something male, and I don’t feel any less masculine for admitting that. I certainly don’t feel threatened when a woman suggests that current video game constructions are demeaning to an entire gender. Instead, I try to understand why she feels that way in the hopes that we can make video games more inclusive.

Sadly, the points of contention are all too glaringly obvious in gaming. It’s the Hitman: Absolution trailer depicting the wholesale slaughter of fetishized combat nuns, or the parade of booth babes masquerading as party favours at E3. It’s a Crystal Dynamics executive telling players they will “want to protect” the new version of Lara Croft, thereby implying that one of the most capable female protagonists in all of recorded fiction – a woman, lest we forget, who spends her free time fighting dinosaurs – is somehow only functional under the protective oversight of a man.

For me, it’s even a game as absurdly platonic as Batman: Arkham Asylum. Nearly every collectible interview tape features male sociopaths using absolutist undergraduate logic to disarm and manipulate highly trained female psychiatrists, beginning with the fall of Harley Quinn and culminating with the presumed murder of another doctor in her own home at the hands of Zsasz. Order is only restored when men step in to clean up the mess – it’s telling that the only competent shrink in Arkham is the man interrogating Scarecrow – while women are discarded as soon as they start getting in the way.

Like everyone else, I loved Arkham Asylum, but it’s nonetheless representative of the gender divide plaguing the industry, where women are diversions noteworthy only through their absence and/or incompetence. Most video games provide a secluded sandbox where men deal with man issues, preferably free from the interloping of any weak-minded and inconvenient women.

I don’t know about you, but I can see why women might find that troubling. Anita Sarkeesian has faced scorn simply for pointing out that these tropes exist, and while much of the commentary is little more than reflexive troll spittle, it’s all designed to send the message that women – and more specifically, the contributions of women – are not welcome in the gaming sphere.

Wreck-It Ralph - Jane-Lynch

To me, that backwards reductionism is repugnant. It reduces the potential audience for gaming and places artificial restrictions on the types of stories we create and quite frankly, I’m tired of macho gunmetal. Shouldn’t we be just a little embarrassed that Jane Lynch’s parody of Marcus Fenix in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph trailer is more engaging than anyone she’s satirizing?

More to the point, can we, as male gamers, please stop acting as if women are invading an exclusive clubhouse? Unlike Augusta National, gaming has never been under the sole dominion of men, and even if that were the case, desegregation happened years ago. Xbox Live is fully open to a public with a rapidly growing female demographic. If you wouldn’t threaten to rape someone in mixed company at a cocktail party, then you shouldn’t do so on Xbox Live, where the company is just as mixed and you’re just as much of an asshole.

The consequences are also just as dire. The sexism and misogyny expressed online has genuine consequences for real-life human beings, especially when current statistics indicate that one in four women will become a victim of sexual assault during her lifetime. Comments like those directed at Sarkeesian force women to confront sexualized violence as a tangible and present possibility, and it saddens me to know that gamers are responsible for perpetrating such discrimination.

I’m sorry if that sounds heavy handed, but I have no interest in sugarcoating this particular subject. I know we haven’t achieved true gender equality because I didn’t have to worry about getting raped when I woke up this morning, and the struggle doesn’t end until everyone – men and women – can wake up with that same level of security. As it stands, everyone telling Anita Sarkeesian that she’s a “bolshevik feminist jewess” “feminazi” that should go back to the kitchen for “a good dicking” is simultaneously telling all women that the game world and the real world are unsafe spaces for women, and I refuse to allow that to be the predominant message in the gaming community.

It’s a shame too, because I’ve always thought of gamers as a tolerant and welcoming bunch, but our inability to discuss gender dynamics with any degree of civility exposes us as the worst kinds of Neanderthals and confirms every repulsive stereotype that’s followed us over the years. My only solace is that the sexist outcry is the product of a vocal minority – despite the trolls’ best efforts, Sarkeesian has already received more than $130,000 in Kickstarter contributions – but it’s still enough to make my skin crawl and question my identity as a gamer.

The cultural roots of the issue obviously go much deeper than video games, but if we can clean up our act we’ll be doing our small part to combat a much larger societal concern. That’s why I’m so thrilled to see someone with Sarkeesian’s credentials asking such insightful questions and why I hope the rest of us will have the good sense to listen.

Because yes, the completely regressive approach to the representation of women in games really is a problem. If you can’t open your mind enough to see how that could potentially be the case, then go take a look in the mirror. The cruelty might surprise you.

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9 Responses to Thought Bubble:
Kickstarting Feminsim in Games

  1. 6 says:

    http://www.projectafterforums.com/index.php?showtopic=2455&st=80

    Here’s some great discussion on one of the games that she’ll be covering, specifically from page five to nine about what is sexist about this game and the actual difference between sexy vs sexist, more importantly how one creator’s sexual desires and prejudices can leak into his professional work.

  2. RedShirt says:

    I enjoyed reading this article, despite not necessarily agreeing with all of it. The sexism issue in gaming is something being rampantly discussed right now, but in general I feel that it’s a much smaller issue being blown out of proportion. While the reaction to Sarkeesians video is unfortunate (a lament I’ve been hearing quite frequently) I feel like people are overlooking the fact that these negative reactions and threats aren’t exclusive to women and/or women who speak their mind about the gaming industry. That’s just the internet. Anyone who speaks their mind, about the gaming industry or not, is going to receive unsolicited negative attention.

  3. Erika says:

    I have to agree with RedShirt on this one. As a young woman working in the gaming industry I haven’t really had any problems with discrimination. I have, however, seen plenty others face the issue but it’s not solely towards woman. I see this kind of stuff happen to men and women alike, for whatever reason.

    I’ve never been a fan of feminism because of its radical ideologies. Instead, I’d like to think that everyone, not just woman, need to be treated equally. Women aren’t the only ones in video games or in the industry who are being treated unfairly. There’s a lot more to it than that.

    Also, I’d like to say that despite some of the offensive content towards women in games, much of it is done in some sort of context. The fact that a woman is being attacked in whatever way or form in a game doesn’t necessarily mean it’s attacking the gender as a whole. It’s setting a mood, and if a criminal in a game is being violent towards someone, whatever the gender, that’s purely in context.

    At the same time, there have been situations that have irked me. One thing that definitely struck me was Rosenberg’s comment about Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider. I don’t get offended easily and I try my best to see other people’s views, but this one really baffled me. Instead of taking Lara’s coming-of-age scenario and looking at it in a positive light, Rosenberg constantly put her down despite her fight for survival. It was so demeaning. However, that could have also been taken out of context, perhaps Rosenberg put his thoughts in the wrong way. It certainly wasn’t right, but it’s hard to know.

    I think that gender issues, no matter the gender, need to be discussed and worked upon as a whole, not just for women. I also think that certain things need to be taken in context and not immediately be labeled as discrimination. This argument is full of gray areas, and I’m hoping these issues can be tackled in an intelligent and non-biased fashion.

  4. ziggurcat says:

    1. sorry you can’t be male, and “a feminist.”

    2. do you have any problems with the pervasive hegemonic masculinity present in video games? if your answer is, “no”, you’re a hypocrite.

    3. “It’s a Crystal Dynamics executive telling players they will “want to protect” the new version of Lara Croft, thereby implying that one of the most capable female protagonists in all of recorded fiction – a woman, lest we forget, who spends her free time fighting dinosaurs – is somehow only functional under the protective oversight of a man.”

    *sigh* don’t be stupid. you’re making the gross assumption that the person who’s playing the game is automatically male. while that’s statistically more likely, if the person controlling lara croft happens to be female, what does that make her? sexist, and a misogynist? part of the problem? strong/independent for feeling like she wants to protect lara croft?

  5. wolfkin says:

    Also, I’d like to say that despite some of the offensive content towards women in games, much of it is done in some sort of context. The fact that a woman is being attacked in whatever way or form in a game doesn’t necessarily mean it’s attacking the gender as a whole. It’s setting a mood, and if a criminal in a game is being violent towards someone, whatever the gender, that’s purely in context.

    @Erika first off I salute your opinion. I agree with them myself. Which is why personally I don’t find the Hitman trailer offensive because it’s a man killing women. That part is perfectly fine. It’s the women’s outfits that are offensive. They weren’t disguised as strippers in a strip club or girls at a billionaire playboy’s party. THey were assassinating. It’s offensive that these women had time to hunt down Agent 47, get a bus, get disguises yet choose to hunt down Agent 47 wearing leather skits and no pants. There’s just no context for that sort of outfit and personally that’s my only problem with the trailer.

    Much of the “offensive” content in gaming has a context, but not all of it.

    One thing that definitely struck me was Rosenberg’s comment about Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider. I don’t get offended easily and I try my best to see other people’s views, but this one really baffled me. Instead of taking Lara’s coming-of-age scenario and looking at it in a positive light, Rosenberg constantly put her down despite her fight for survival. It was so demeaning.

    What I found demeaning was that in an attempt to “recreate” Lara they kind of made her suck at adventuring. Like they were saying “Fine, we won’t make her oversexed anymore she’s normal and she just sucks. you happy?”.

  6. wolfkin says:

    1. sorry you can’t be male, and “a feminist.”

    Wait what? Who says that? Of course you can be a feminist and a male. You can’t be a FEMALE and male but you can clearly be pro-woman while being a man. You might say it doesn’t make sense, you might say it’s illogical but there’s no reason all feminist HAVE to be women. They just USUALLY are. The same way most people playing the games shown at E3 will LIKELY be men.

    2. do you have any problems with the pervasive hegemonic masculinity present in video games? if your answer is, “no”, you’re a hypocrite.

    I know just enough about these social sciences to understand what that means. But I believe this will help you resolve the perceived conflict – http://www.shortpacked.com/2011/comic/book-13/05-the-death-of-snkrs/falseequivalence/ – short version is They’re not the same thing.

    3. “It’s a Crystal Dynamics executive telling players they will “want to protect” the new version of Lara Croft, thereby implying that one of the most capable female protagonists in all of recorded fiction – a woman, lest we forget, who spends her free time fighting dinosaurs – is somehow only functional under the protective oversight of a man.”

    *sigh* don’t be stupid. you’re making the gross assumption that the person who’s playing the game is automatically male. while that’s statistically more likely, if the person controlling lara croft happens to be female, what does that make her? sexist, and a misogynist? part of the problem? strong/independent for feeling like she wants to protect lara croft?

    It’s not a gross assumption. I think most gaming pundit oversell the number of women playing games first of all. People will quote numbers like 46% of gamers are women but while I don’t want to get into Hardcore vs Casual i think most of those women are playing Facebook/iPad games. If I need to draw a line I think it’s fair to say that when we talk about women in gaming and gaming misogyny we look at the games they show at E3. Most of the games they show at E3 will be played by men. That’s why the tradeshow is so male-skewed a fact that imo every reporter trying to bring up misogyny tries to overlook by lumping in facebook games. Still the point of the author is that the developer is developing the game for men, is talking about the consumer as a man not as a person (of either gender). It’s far from a gross assumption at all.

  7. RedShirt says:

    Personally, I don’t find the Hitman trailer offensive. While slutty nuns are out of context, sexualization isn’t something that can be blamed on the gaming industry. It’s in every form of media, and it seems odd that gaming is being held to a more strict standard. But I guess that’s another discussion entirely.

    While Rosenbergs comments regarding the new Lara Croft were inappropriate, I don’t see the game itself as being sexist or degrading. It’s an origin story. Yes, she wasn’t always the crazy kickass babe we know her as, but it’s almost empowering to see that a completely normal girl like her can fight her way through life threatening circumstances to become the fighter that she is. People seem to be forgetting, they aren’t reinventing Croft, they aren’t saying the Tomb Raider we know and love isn’t good enough, they’re simply showing how she became that woman we know and love. I don’t think there’s anything offensive about that.

    @Wolfkin The only kind of sexism in the industry that bothers me is yours. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that “Oh sure, girls play games… but they only play them on facebook.” I know you and everyone else who says that aren’t deliberately trying to be offensive, but I feel that it’s ignorant. There’s a great big market of hardcore gamer girls out there, and if you look past your own assumptions for a minute, you’ll find them. I’m not by any means saying they’re the majority of the market, and I’m sure that 46-49% figure we’re quoted is divided between casual and hardcore. But since when is it right to ignore a group because they’re a minority.

    I don’t care about violence, I don’t care about overtly sexual female characters. I don’t want the industry to chance in any way, except to acknowledge the presence of female gamers. Real female gamers.

  8. Pingback: Interview: Stephanie Guthrie of Women in Toronto Politics | Dork Shelf

  9. Burnt on it says:

    Good point. But dont ever forget who invented technology and computers and video games. Men. Thats not sexist. Its reality. All this talk is just to distract society from the truth: no males, no video games.

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