It’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be a woman gamer. As a man, after all, my gender is overrepresented in the world of video games. Most game developers are men. On those rare occasions when games offer up compelling, nuanced characters, they’re almost always male. Plus, when I venture into the online gaming world, no one is going to threaten to rape me or call me a slut.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true for female gamers. In short, there’s a pretty stark divide between the experiences of male and female gamers, and that’s why I think Anita Sarkeesian is an important pundit at the moment.
Sarkeesian runs a video blog called Feminist Frequency, and since 2011 she’s published a series of YouTube videos called “Tropes vs. Women.” In them, she examines pop-culture tropes that she sees as perpetuating stale or offensive ideas about women. (The first centered on the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a female archetype that she referred to as “The shining beacon of childlike joy that will rejuvenate our fallen hero” — think Zooey Deschanel in “(500) Days of Summer.”)
In 2012, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a new series of videos, this time focusing on portrayals of women in video games, and asked backers for $6,000. This resulted in a campaign of brutal online harassment, including pornographic drawings (such as one of the video game character Mario raping her) and an online game, since taken down, in which players could physically assault her.
The silver lining was that the abuse brought the problem of misogyny in gaming some much-needed attention, and Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign ended up raising almost $160,000 (which, of course, led to complaints that she’d somehow “scammed” backers into ponying up so much cash).
“The funding gave us the opportunity to go a lot deeper than we had originally planned,” Sarkeesian said in a recent interview, in both the number of videos and their breadth and depth.
So far, she appears to have put the money to good use. The videos, produced in a nightly news style with plenty of clips from the games being discussed, are quite well done and benefit from the high production values her Kickstarter windfall allowed her to pursue. The first two videos focus on the “Damsel in Distress” trope, a common one in gaming (she plans to release videos on 10 tropes in total). Damsels in distress are more objects than people, women “reduced to a state of victimhood” and little else, as she puts it in one of the videos.
When developers embrace this trope, Sarkeesian argues, they “trivialize and exploit female suffering as a way to ratchet up the emotional or sexual stakes for the players.” The classic example is the princess in “Super Mario Bros.,” but Sarkeesian cites dozens of recent games that display the full range of developers’ creativity when it comes to figuring out new ways to torture, assault, and brutalize women characters to provide male protagonists a reason to get up in the morning. To Sarkeesian, this isn’t just lazy writing; it’s “building game narratives on the backs of brutalized female bodies.”
The videos have sparked a predictable bevy of responses on YouTube, as well as what Sarkeesian describes as an “exhausting” barrage of harassment delivered to her daily via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter — some of it quite explicit.
She thinks the heat directed her way “goes back to gaming culture. There is a deep sense of entitlement coming out of a section of the male gaming community that feels entitled to their games, and they’re threatened by the mere idea of someone even talking critically about [games], especially a woman talking critically.”
Does she ever feel physically endangered? “That’s complicated,” she said. “Sometimes there are certain types of harassment that are very graphic and specific or that are immensely violent or threatening and are tied to concerns about location. Those are very worrying, for obvious reasons.”
What makes Sarkeesian’s videos so strong is that, like any effective debater, she’s deft at anticipating rebuttals. In her videos, she explicitly denies the idea of a one-to-one causal link between what a gamer sees on-screen and how he or she acts in real life. At one point, she allows that “game creators aren’t necessarily all sitting around twirling their nefarious-looking mustaches while consciously trying to figure out how to best misrepresent women as part of some grand conspiracy. Most probably just haven’t given much thought to the underlying messages their games are sending.”
“Cultural influence works in much more subtle and complicated ways,” she says later. But taken in the aggregate, these games do, she argues, have a powerful ability to shape “cultural attitudes and opinions,” an argument she will likely continue to flesh out in future episodes, which will cover tropes like “The Sexy Sidekick” and “Women as Reward.”
We’ve reached a pivotal point with narratives in video games. Developers now have at their disposal all the technical tools they need to tell whatever stories they want to tell, and the more creative among them have begun making truly resonant games that push the emotional frontiers of the medium. Overall, though, especially among mainstream titles, the industry is stuck in something of a rut when it comes to gender, with the same tired tropes resurfacing over and over.
That’s why Sarkeesian’s work matters. There simply aren’t enough women working at high levels in the gaming world for it to correct course on its own, so only external pressure can improve matters. “As critics and as fans and interested parties, we need to put pressure on the industry . . . [to say] ‘we expect more from you,’ ” she said.
So what would improvement look like? To Sarkeesian, it’s not that complicated. Developers “need to make these amazing, awesome, AAA titles with a female protagonist,” said Sarkeesian. “And not a highly sexualized female protagonist, but an actual well-rounded, awesome, complex and deep female character.”
Jesse Singal can be reached at email@example.com.