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Game Change: A Response to Anita Sarkeesian

Read Friday, 20 Mar 2015

Last Tuesday, Anita Sarkeesian shared her arguments for an improved video games culture — as well as the abuse she’s received for expressing her views, and her ideas for improving the diversity, safety and freedom of online culture. Hopscotch Friday editor Stevie O’C unpacks the discussion and what it means for activism, criticism and the games industry.

Image: Illustration by @platinumdepot
Illustration by @platinumdepot
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Last week, I sat in the audience for a talk by Anita Sarkeesian. The founder of Feminist Frequency and producer of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games YouTube series spoke about her experience exposing gender inequity in gaming, and the at times abhorrent response she’s received.

A lot of what Sarkeesian said hit home for me — though I’ve not experienced anything close to the harassment she has, simply for voicing her considered opinion.

I want to speak freely about my feelings on what’s happening in the gaming industry, and indeed a number of other pop culture industries. But I feel hamstrung knowing what Sarkeesian went through — and continues to endure. For fear of repercussions, not only for me but those I’m connected to, I feel I cannot. 

To develop a more equitable game, or one with a female-centric focus, represents a risk – particularly, a commercial risk, for limited obvious benefit.

Gamergaters love to proselytise freedom of speech. Yet threatening others, while squealing of their own victimisation, is a paradox beyond comprehension to most rational minds. That said, Gamergate — what came before it and what it breeds — has never been about rationality.

Some of what Sarkeesian said got me thinking about other paradoxes inherent in the quest for change, the ongoing plight of women, and the portrayal of female characters (noting this extends beyond the experience of women, to include those excluded by race or sexual preference) in gaming.

In conversation with Sophie Black, Sarkeesian expressed her disappointment at the response from the gaming industry to the treatment she (and others) have received — and their lack of any inclination to be inclusive about women in the industry, in their range of characters, and in storylines. As she states, they had the opportunity to take a stand against Gamergate — and to nail their colours to the mast in their approach to making games — but for the most part, they haven’t. All indications are they won’t.

I can understand why.

There is a lack of commercial motivation to change. When asked about what consumers can do to affect change in the industry, Sarkeesian took a moment before conceding there is probably very little they can do. She cites Grand Theft Auto V as the definitive example. The game, despite being criticised for its treatment of its female characters, made over $800 million in worldwide sales within 24 hours of release, and more than a billion dollars within three days.

Game producers appear to be safe in the knowledge that women will buy the games they make that are squarely focused on men, regardless of the in-game treatment of female characters. So why change?

Some argue there’s a market of female gamers waiting to be tapped. I can’t help but feel this is somewhat erroneous, and comes with a degree of scepticism from the gaming fraternity. That market is already being tapped, without any additional effort. Knowing that both women and men will buy games made for men (either intentionally, or by unconsciously proliferating the status quo) limits the motivation to move away from known quantities. To develop a more equitable game, or one with a female-centric focus, represents a risk – particularly, a commercial risk, for limited obvious benefit.

Regardless of whether or not that risk exists, the perception is real.

This situation is not unique to gaming. Women consume things aimed at men, but our social and cultural structures dictate that men are less likely to do the opposite.

Image: Anita Sarkeesian, by the Wheeler Centre
Anita Sarkeesian, at RMIT Storey Hall for the Wheeler Centre last week

Sarkeesian acknowledges this when she states: ‘don’t do what Lego did’. But to many, that’s exactly the view on products for men versus women — again, real or perceived. Girls will buy grey Lego, but will boys buy pink?

This represents a tricky paradox – you say you want change, but your consumer dollar represents satisfaction with the status quo. And we all know money talks.

A further paradox lies in the concept that we can be critical of that which we love, represented by criticism and reviews.

The catchcry of the Gamergater is that it’s about ‘ethics in games journalism’. Now, I’ve yet to have anyone coherently explain to me what they mean by this, or whether they have any concept of how journalism — especially in the age of blogging and influential PR — works. But regardless, there is something to be said about how games journalism, and particularly criticism, is both flagging the need for, and constraining the likelihood of, change within the industry.

Sticking with discussions of GTAV, Sarkeesian referred to the experience of one of her games industry colleagues, Carolyn Petit, who reviewed the game for Gamespot. In her review she noted that, on the pros, the game is ‘innovative’, has ‘outstanding, multilayered heists and other missions’; features a ‘gorgeous and varied open world’; has ‘great vehicle handling’; and ‘Trevor is an unforgettable character’. In the negative corner, she notes the game is ‘politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic’. She rated the game a ‘superb’, 9/10.

Women consume things aimed at men, but our social and cultural structures dictate that men are less likely to do the opposite.

Two things stick out here: ‘profoundly misogynistic’. And 9/10.

The former is a highly negative, the latter is notably positive. How much does one validate or invalidate the other? And to what end is this a commentary on all that is wrong with the portrayal of characters in gaming: that the notation of being profoundly misogynist can be overlooked in favour of great vehicle handling and outstanding gameplay? What is the critical mass required of in-game misogyny before it influences the overall rating or evaluation of the game?

Despite the impressive score given by Petit, she became the target of a rampant hate-fest from online trolls, displeased with her concern about the game’s use of women as, as she puts it, ‘strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humourless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at’. Remembering, this is despite the game receiving an overwhelmingly positive review.

I’m extremely disappointed that the games industry has not stepped up. They had the perfect opportunity during Gamergate. There were, like, a couple of studios that said something.

There are a number of issues here.

First: how, as critical receivers of media, can we expect change in an industry if we are willing to accept problems serious enough to be described as ‘profound’ by issuing an otherwise glowing review? If we ourselves are not able to accept the criticism as serious, then how can we expect others to do so?

Secondly: Sarkeesian is right. We should be able to criticise the things we love. And we should be able to do it in a public way. So too should we be able to enter into discussions about the merits and criticisms of games (comics, books, art … you name it).

Importantly, someone disagreeing with your opinion is not an invitation for hate. However, to many gamers (and noting it’s not unique to this industry), it’s clear the line between critical analysis and their own opinion is so blurred that any review not conforming to their worldview is seen as a personal attack. To this I have no real comment, as I cannot comprehend how any adult can perceive threatening rape or violence in response to someone else’s opinion is in any way acceptable behaviour — be it in person or behind an avatar.

Image: Anita Sarkeesian, by the Wheeler Centre

So, where does that leave us? Sarkeesian launched Feminist Frequency in 2009. Since then, she’s received a constant barrage of online abuse, including threats of violence and rape, threats to her family, friends and colleagues; unsolicited pornographic imagery; had to deal with falsified accounts and fake quotes attributed to her … and so on. She notes that at this point, she has a high enough profile to be taken seriously when she approaches social media outlets to reinstate her profiles and videos when they’re reported for abuse. But she knows many others don’t have that advantage.

Without the levers of economics or criticism, the fear of retribution is crippling for many who might otherwise volunteer to fight the good fight. The very real possibility of harassment means the social campaign needed to affect change is hamstrung from the outset. And neither social media monitors, nor traditional means of gatekeeping, are effective in facilitating the revolution. To be told to manage the trolls yourself, to report the abuse received on an individual basis, or to get off the internet, is simply not practical — or indeed, appropriate.

And gatekeeping is exactly what I mean. Gatekeeping is a mechanism for filtering information and communications. It is gatekeeping that means shouting abuse in the street is treated differently to shouting abuse online. Neither is acceptable, but the former is brought down by social and cultural gatekeepers, while the latter seems to go unpoliced. And it’s the latter that Sarkeesian and her contemporaries need to contend with every day.

Revolutions are never easy. And while the tide may be changing in the gaming industry, without the powerful levers of economics and criticism, the revolution will be slow.

This article originally appeared at Hopscotch Friday, a blog about pop culture, books, comics and screen culture. It was republished with permission.

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