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Content note: The following contains discussion of violent rape threats and harassment.
This shouldn't come as a surprise, but I am SO BORED with dudes acting like video games are some special sacred dudely domain, a “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” clubhouse where women’s involvement is somehow toxic to both their enjoyment of their chosen hobby and to the creative industry that produces that hobby in the first place.
Because, despite the deep denial of a certain population of dudebros, women do play video games. The ESA -- that’s the Entertainment Software Association -- keeps track of people who play games, and women are notably among them. Their recently released 2014 report revealed that adult women (i.e., broads over 18) represent a significantly greater number of players -- 36%, to be exact -- than boys under 18, who have a paltry 17%. If you break things down just by gender without age, things get even more equitable, with 52% of game-playing humans calling themselves male and 48% calling themselves female.
And still, Anita Sarkeesian can’t sleep in her own home.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.
In 2012, Anita Sarkeesian, feminist media critic and creator of Feminist Frequency, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a series of videos exploring the portrayal of women in games. “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” would continue Sarkeesian’s prior “Tropes Vs. Women” series produced with Bitch Media, and offer an intellectual analysis of women’s often-abhorrent representation in the form of accessible, well-researched 25-minute YouTube clips.
Sarkeesian met her first Kickstarter goal within 24 hours, and then a couple stretch goals besides, to raise $150,000 in total. At the same time, however, Internet goons launched a sustained campaign of abuse and harassment against Sarkeesian, one that has continued unabated since, and which experiences a renewal of vigor every time she releases a new video. The attacks against Sarkeesian are astonishing in their scope and intensity, from attempts to hack her website and social media accounts, to explicit threats of violence and rape, made both publicly and privately.
On Monday, Sarkeesian released a new video in the “Tropes Vs. Women” series, “Women as Background Decoration: Part 2.”
And Wednesday night, Sarkeesian stayed with friends because of specific and credible threats of violence made against her and her family. She shared some examples on Twitter, because as she says, “[I]t’s important for folks to know how bad it gets.” The threats include explicit descriptions of raping Sarkeesian “to death,” “ripping open” her genitalia, and drinking her blood. Just in case anyone with a human soul was still thinking this sort of thing is acceptable criticism.
I don’t include these specifics for lurid sensationalism, but because silence about them reinforces shame and allows many people to continue to believe that the harassment claims are overblown, or not a real distraction for Sarkeesian, or for any of the other publicly vocal women doing feminist work who have received similar threats. As Sarkeesian says, people need to understand that this harassment does more than simply call women stupid or ugly -- it threatens them physically, ostensibly in the hope that fear will cause them to stop their work.
The irony of this situation is massive enough to develop its own gravitational field. These harassers want Sarkeesian to stop talking about misogyny in video games. So they unleash horrifying misogyny on Sarkeesian herself. To, I guess, make the point that video games are just fine? That misogyny in games is having no broader cultural effect? That there is no problem here? Because this kind of behavior is normal? If I wasn’t half convinced that the men harassing Sarkeesian weren’t in fact actual trolls -- like, the kind that live under bridges with only rocks for friends -- I would wonder how they’d feel if their mom or girlfriend or wife was receiving the same threats.
Not all of the venom against Sarkeesian takes the form of threats to her personal safety, to be fair. There are also an impressive number of men who take such umbrage at the notion that women’s portrayal in games is even worth discussing that they demonize her ideas and anyone who associates with them at every opportunity. When Tim Schafer, much-beloved and respected game designer and founder of Double Fine Productions, retweeted Sarkeesian’s most recent video this week, his choice was met with a frankly hilarious chorus of male fans rending their garments and wailing in unspeakable pain and betrayal, “NOT YOU, TIM!” with passionate assertions from individuals who will not be purchasing any Schafer-produced media ever again, GOOD DAY SIR.
All because a woman made some videos analyzing women's portrayal in video games. Videos that -- it’s worth noting -- are not actually compulsory viewing for anyone. If Anita Sarkeesian was going around to man-gamers’ homes and putting guns to their heads and forcing them to watch her YouTube channel, I don’t think she’d have any time left for making the videos themselves.
But this is the extent of the entitlement from a small minority of video game fans who seem to fervently believe that they are somehow harmed by conversations happening elsewhere, conversations that they can and do easily avoid participating in, and that it is their right -- nay, their SACRED DUTY -- to stop these conversations from happening.
On the up side, this most recent round of harassment has garnered Sarkeesian additional promotion and public support that far outnumbers in volume what the negative attacks offer in viciousness. As is usually the case. It should go without saying, but you don’t stop an activist or a critic by propagating the exact behavior that they are organizing or arguing against. In fact, doing so bolsters their cause.
I recently bought a new computer. It’s been about five years since I had a proper desktop on which I could play PC games -- I’ve been Xbox-exclusive in that time -- but my roots have always been in computer gaming. The process of acquiring this computer happened over weeks of agonizing indecision in which I weighed video card benchmarks and debated the merits of liquid cooling. I didn't build it myself, having previously paid my dues in that respect, and having at last reached an age where I feel I can justify paying someone else to do so and not lose any of my nerd self-respect in the bargain.
Nevertheless, the process reminded me of my longevity as a person deeply invested in games; I would hazard a guess that most of the men raging against the Sarkeesian machine today were not even born when I was given my first computer, a Tandy 1000 from Radio Shack. (Let alone my first Atari, some years before that.)
At the time, video games were less an exclusively male endeavour than an exclusively nerdy one. But as years went by, things changed. The every-Saturday all-night Nintendo binges my (female) friends and I sank ourselves into in middle school seemed normal enough, as every female peer I knew loved video games as I did, and this was well before so-called "pink games" were being made specifically for girls.
When fighting games -- and, soon after, first-person shooters -- came about, the environment shifted. I first played Doom, an enormously influential 1993 first-person shooter, in the rank bedroom of a long-haired boy I had a huge crush on. I was 16. As I played, he sat behind me on his bed, noodling out a terrible cover of Nirvana’s “Polly” on his beat-up guitar, over and over again.
Suddenly I didn’t give a crap about him anymore. I was enthralled by this game. I’d never played anything like it. I found myself wishing he would shut up or leave.
A few days later, in a coffeehouse with a terrible slam poetry event happening in the background, the boyfriend of an acquaintance mentioned Doom, and I, with my characteristic enthusiasm, began loudly gushing about how great it was.
He literally laughed in my face. “You’re such a liar. Girls don’t play Doom,” he said.
Things were changing. Things had changed.
I’m not an expert, so it’s impossible for me to pinpoint where and when it happened. Regardless, the cultural reverence for misogynist depictions of women has become a hallmark of what we mean when we talk about a community of "gamers." With the rise of independent game developers, the field of non-offensive game media has broadened, but many of the big-budget blockbusters of the video game world still tend to adhere to oddly regressive mores, as Sarkeesian's videos illustrate to chilling effect. But games don’t have to supply space for antisocial misfit bros to enact their woman-hating fantasies at will. This ideology is not just toxic to girls and women, but to boys and young men as well.
Girls and women who play games are also affected by the attitudes and assumptions of the men who play them. It's a lot harder to convincingly argue the opposite -- that men are somehow materially harmed by women sharing their hobby and having opinions about it. This culture needs unpacking, not in spite of the near-irrational resistance of so many men gamers, but because of it. The difficult work being done by women like Anita Sarkeesian is our best hope that tomorrow’s girls might have a chance to experience video games for the first time as as I remember doing -- with an overwhelming feeling of wonder and excitement, instead of discomfort and alienation.