Recently, the name of a self-proclaimed popular culture critic has been all over the major game sites. Anita Sarkeesian has managed to take the full attention of the gaming press by storm. Her site is called Feminist Frequency, and she tries to be a warrior of justice defending the oppressed women in the world of gaming. Fighting for her righteous cause, she focuses on both the harassment women have to endure while playing games online, and the portrayal of women in games, which is, according to her, usually overly sexualised. Recently, her Kickstarter project aiming to gather funding for a video series presenting just how badly women are objectified in games, raised over $160,000 – a large part of which came not from women, but from “white knights” – an embarrassing portion of male
gamers internet users that feel the urge to defend a woman whenever they think she needs defending. Now, I hate to be confrontational in any way on this site… But, as a relatively objective, not to mention male gamer with quite some experience with not only gaming, but also the way it is portrayed in media, by both game journalists and ones not very familiar with what gaming really is, I am sure you can already tell that I think Anita Sarkeesian is full of crap.
I give credit where credit is due, and Anita does deserve quite a bit of credit. For one, I have a great doubt whether she’s even really much of a gamer – her videos so far have not really proven that, the fact she decided to buy a bunch of games with part of the Kickstarter money she got only further shows it. Yet, she’s managed to make herself into the speaker of female gamers, she’s been invited to comment on the problems women face in gaming on several major websites and even on TV. And, again, the Kickstarter. She managed to strike a chord with her presentation, and not just any chord, but a $160,000 chord. Nearly 7000 people actually donated. Fame (15 minutes of it, but hey, a vast majority of people never get that far), check. Money, check. Anita is a success. But how does that affect gaming, the very tool leading to that success?
Anita Sarkeesian claims male gamers are misogynists that consider women sexual objects, sandwich makers and little more. She portrays women in gaming as victims, often talking about how she herself has been harassed online because of her feminist activities. She even had a TEDxWomen talk recently, telling how awfully harassed she was, and how that harassment also got her sympathy, ultimately leading to the Kickstarter success. She tried to turn her story into something motivational, into a sign of things to come, claiming it signifies a huge change about to happen in gaming, as emerging masses of gamers and game developers want to see women in gaming treated differently.
Yes, Anita does also target developers. In her view, they aren’t much better than the
people men playing their games, as they portray women in their games as weak, dependent, in need of a man to protect them. They’re either damsels in distress (Princess Peach, Yorda in Ico, Ashley in Resident Evil 4, etc.), or, when they can actually hold their own, they’re still reduced to eye candy for the male players (Tifa, Lara Croft, the Dead or Alive girls, etc.). You know better than I do what a load of crap such a claim is, considering how many games have strong female protagonists or sidekicks (Samus, Terra, Elena Fisher immediately come to mind, not to mention the very girl on Anita’s final Kickstarter “Thank You” picture, Faith from Mirror’s Edge – though I hope that was kind of the point, maybe Anita sees Faith as an outlier). Obviously, most games have male protagonists, but to claim that women are always portrayed as inferior is just a lie.
The sexualisation is, of course, a valid point. It’s there, no way around it. We know how even Samus, once (before she was given an actual personality) perceived as the pinnacle of the female game protagonist, looks underneath her suit. But is this sexualisation proof of misogyny in the industry in any way? No, a thousand times no. It’s not any worse than in other visual media. The reason behind it is trivial – money. “Sex sells,” pretty girls in your game may not bring it a fantastic financial success, but they certainly wouldn’t hurt. And, of course, the more important the girl is in the game, the better she looks, as nobody wants to play as some average-looking chick, right? Guess what, absolutely the same goes for the male protagonists, they are also designed to be sexy. So much for this proving supposed misogyny in the industry in any way.
Anita likes to pretend she’s an expert on video games and how women are portrayed in them, and I really don’t see how she would know more about that than, for instance, the thousands of women who have actually worked in the industry. In her Kickstarter campaign, she asked for money so she could buy games to make videos about and expose the female stereotypes in them… Surely, you can see that this just doesn’t click somehow – other YouTube gaming channels do not ask you for money to buy games, mostly because they’re gamers and they already have the games. They make their videos because of their own desire, because gaming is a passion for them. While Anita used an innocent excuse to take a lot of money from the people who believed her.
In short, Anita Sarkeesian’s claims are unfounded and plain bogus. It doesn’t even take much thought to prove them as such. She is trying really hard to present herself as some kind of hardcore gamer while she really isn’t, that cute little photo she showed at the TED talk only further proving that. Her success is based on her ability to spin the facts and present them in a way that somehow resonates very well with people who already have some degree of bias on the matter. I highly doubt that more than a few neutrals have supported her Kickstarter campaign, and any that have must simply not be very informed about the state of gaming in relation to Anita’s claims.
All the while explaining how the insults and harassment she endures only prove her points, Anita also censors the comments to a lot of her videos in YouTube, at times she even disables Like/Dislike ratings. It’s not hard to see why – it’s extremely easy to take her points apart, and a lot of people in the comments do it – it’s not all misogyny and hatred as she would have you believe. There are already quite a few YouTube videos absolutely destroying her views in a calm and collected manner, supported with facts, quite far from the angry mob of women haters she likes to present the ones that don’t agree with her as (this one being my favourite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lERF9q40iS0).
Needless to say, Anita’s campaign and media appearances, where she mostly speaks about the dreadful online harassment she’s endured, only further solidify gamers as “bottom of the barrel” people in the eyes of those outside the gaming community. She portrays her critics and, by association, the average male gamer, as an uneducated, primitive misogynist with absolutely no regard to women’s feelings, and, naturally, the media eats that right up. And this comes at the end of a generation which helped a lot to bring gaming more into the mainstream and mend the bad reputation gamers have always got a little bit… Certainly, people like the one who made a game where you can “beat Anita Sarkeesian up” (screenshot) deserve to be chastised by society, but, unfortunately, all gamers get a bad name because of these overly exaggerated exceptions.
To make matters worse, the big gaming site Kotaku recently announced Anita as one of the gamers of the year 2012, complete with a tear-jerking write-up repeating her side of the story. Considering everything stated above, this only solidifies my opinion about how bad “professional” gaming journalism is. It’s a resounding slap in the face of your audience to give such an award to an individual who is not only alien to gaming, but exploits the medium to make money without actually contributing anything to it.
Is this the way feminists would want their points portrayed? Does Anita truly deserve to be the figurehead of feminism, or at least feminism in gaming today?! Someone who obviously values money more than any “cause,” and has proven to be extremely superficial in her “analyses” of the portrayal of women in gaming? Or do feminists just flock to the loudest one of the bunch, regardless of what’s beneath the surface? Feminists, please take a moment and think if this woman really deserves to be your voice.
Also, must anything really change? Are women really represented in a negative light in video games? What drives this, like any other industry, is money. Macho male and well-endowed female characters sell their games, so that’s what developers aim for. That will not change. If they tried to meet Anita’s demands somehow (that she focuses mostly on criticism instead of actually suggesting something better is another story), that would result in feminist ideas being forcefully put into games to serve a purpose quite different from the developers’ initial concept of the game – much like adding sexy women only for the sake of it. I can certainly understand why some women would be angry when they see the Dead or Alive girls and how their entire franchise is based on their sex appeal, but that doesn’t undo the hundreds of female game characters where sex appeal is a complementary feature at best, next to physical and spiritual strength, intelligence, wit, kind-heartedness…
So why, exactly, does Anita Sarkeesian’s work only harm gaming? Here are the three key points, in short:
- Her media appearances focus mostly on the harassment she’s received – this is particularly bad in non-gaming media, as it paints the average gamer as a villain, a blabbering idiot, a heartless woman hater – further hurting gamers’ already shaky reputation outside the world of gaming.
- Her obnoxious, militant approach towards games, gamers and game developers provokes a justified, but often rude backlash, bringing the worst out of many gamers – which she subsequently uses as an excuse to continue her crusade.
- Even if women in games were to be represented according to Anita’s, and other feminists’ desires, games would only suffer because it would be a forced insertion of ideas tainting the genuine game concepts – much like the very thing Anita’s fighting against, adding sex appeal for the sake of it.
Anita Sarkeesian’s goal to rid gaming of misogyny and make male gamers be accepting towards women is a good thing on paper. Some of her points in pursuit of this goal do have a degree of truth to them. Anita’s net contribution to gaming, however, will definitely be negative. She’s clearly not someone who loves gaming, this whole campaign is just a nice fame and money-making niche she’s discovered and is now exploiting to her heart’s content. So do not be fooled into giving a single cent to her, even if you consider yourself a feminist or if you just share her views.