Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist vlogger who apparently wants to destroy video games. The plan, according to an easily agitated section of the web, goes something like this:
- Analyze common video game tropes as they relate to gender.
- VIDEO GAMES ARE GONE FOREVER!
I know this sounds stupid, but when Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter in early 2012 to make a “Tropes Versus Women In Video Games” series on YouTube, some of the feedback was…unpleasant.
People flooded her social media accounts with rape jokes, pictures of video game characters molesting her, and worse. Her existing videos were flagged as spam – some even briefly taken down. Attempts were made to hack her email and social media accounts. There was even a “game” that allowed people to beat Sarkeesian – every click revealed a Photoshopped version of her face looking more and more battered.
Basically: a mob formed and tried to shut her up. “Don’t touch video games,” seemed to be the battle cry, as though the creation of videos examining games could somehow threaten the entire medium.
Of course, there was also positive feedback. The goal of raising $6000 was absolutely crushed: $158,000 was the final tally. A year later and the videos are starting to come online – the first three, examining the “Damsel In Distress” trope, are already out. They describe a common story element with a long history in gaming – one shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with the medium. I recommend them if you’re a fan of video games, vlogging and thinking about pop culture from a distinct point of view.
Do I agree with everything she says here? No. Did I find mistakes? Absolutely. Do I understand why people were upset enough to harass the creator? Not at all.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but harassment is wrong. Criticize ideas you disagree with. Don’t attack people for having and expressing ideas– even if you dislike their tone.
But beyond being (obviously) wrong, however, harassment simply doesn’t work. If anything, it hurts the point you’re trying to make. Here’s just a few reasons why, using the campaign against Sarkeesian as an example.
If someone says you have an anger problem, yelling “NO I DON’T!” and punching them in the face is probably not the smartest way to respond. If someone says your religion is violent, shooting them might not be the best way to construct a counter-narrative. And it’s hard to think of a worse response to an examination of sexism than the use of gendered slurs and pornographic images.
This is why I’m so completely baffled by the response to Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter: it undermined whatever point it is that this hive mind was trying to make. If you don’t think sexism is a problem in video games, fine – make that argument. Harassment, though, hurts your argument more than it helps.
It Distracts From Legitimate Counterpoints
As with any analysis from a particular point of view, there are flaws with Sarkeesian’s videos. There is room for countering her arguments, and doing so is part of any healthy discussion. Those counter-arguments are happening now, and are worth a watch if you’re interested in the discussion.
The above video adds to the conversation. Abusing the spam function in YouTube to take down a video you dislike subtracts from it. It’s really that simple.
It Doesn’t Stop Anything
Those who insisted on harassing Sarkeesian are no doubt familiar with the Streisand Effect, which states that trying to censor something on the Internet is the only certain way absolutely everyone will see it. The above photo became on of the most famous on the Internet when Barbara Streisand tried to have it removed.
Well guess what? Harassing Sarkeesian – and attempting to get her videos removed from YouTube by abusing the Report function – basically ensured that not only that her videos would be funded, but also that they would get a ton of media attention upon release. To paraphrase John Gilmore: the broader Internet interpreted your attempt at censorship as damage, and routed around it.
There are thousands of lenses through which you can look at any cultural artifact – video games included. Want to discuss Final Fantasy VII as the tale of the proletariat struggling to overthrow a capitalist regime? You can do that. Look at any subject from any single point of view and you’ll find negative and positive interpretations to be made based on it – and things you can learn about the world from them.
It’s important to hold multiple ideas in your head simultaneously. It’s perfectly possible that Super Mario Bros 3 includes antiquated gender roles and is also the greatest damn platformer of all time.
Lots of people are looking at gaming through lenses I disagree with. There’s this random Christian site, which seeks to “rate” games based on which taboo subjects they do or don’t mention – regardless of whether those games are actually good from a gameplay perspective. Sarkeesian goes out of her way to point out that a game with problematic gender roles could still be fun to play – she’s merely trying to start a conversation.
So let’s do that. Is Sarkeesian’s examination of video game tropes constructive? Is ignoring Peach’s playable status in some of the best Mario spinoffs a discredit to the character? Will this discussion have an effect on the ways game studios reinforce negative body images for women? Or are game studios not even paying attention? And what role does the existence of badass female characters in gaming play in the wider discussion? Let’s talk about this and more in the comments below.