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The Gender Games, Part 2: Videogames Meet Feminism

The Gender Games, Part 2: Videogames Meet Feminism

By Cathy Young - October 21, 2014

In my previous article, I tried to make sense of the “GamerGate” drama, which its detractors have described as a sexist male backlash against women in the videogame culture and which its supporters see as a pushback against cronyism and political correctness in the gaming media.  The saga continues, with front-page coverage for threats against feminist gaming critics—notably feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who canceled a lecture on a Utah campus due to an email threat of a massacre—and with female GamerGaters taking to the online airwaves to give their side. Amidst the charges and countercharges of harassment, thought policing, and unethical conduct, the GamerGate debate always comes back to gender issues. There are valid concerns, shared by at least some GamerGate supporters, about sex-based harassment in gaming groups and stereotypical portrayal of female characters in videogames. Unfortunately, critics of sexism in videogame culture tend to embrace a toxic brand of feminism that promotes antagonism, grievance, and intolerance of dissent, not equality or empowerment.

There is no question that gaming is a male-oriented scene. Those who fault the videogame industry for shortchanging female consumers cite a 2013 report showing that 45 percent of Americans who play videogames are female; but others counter that this includes people who play casual games such as Angry Birds or Candy Crush on their smartphones, and that the market for PC and console games does skew heavily male. In a recent survey of incoming college freshmen, nearly 13 percent of the young men said they had usually spent over 15 hours a week playing video or computer games in their senior year of high school; only two percent of the women did. Other data show more female participation in gaming, though nowhere near parity: in a recent study by Flurry Analytics, women accounted for a quarter of “first person shooter” players and more than a third of those who play role-playing action games.

There are many anecdotal tales of female players encountering hostility and harassment in online gaming communities—from explicitly sexist putdowns of their skills to lewd comments or even threats. This is supported by a 2012 survey by blogger Emily Matthew, distributed through gaming sites and the social media and answered by 499 men and 356 women.  Nearly two-thirds of the women—63 percent—reported having experienced “sex-based taunting, harassment, or threats while playing video games online”; fewer than 16 percent of the men did.  (In the general population, women are only slightly more likely than men to report sexual harassment online.)

Mathew’s survey has its limitations, including selection bias—respondents had to volunteer to answer it, and women who had encountered sexism may have been more likely to do so—and lack of data on frequency of harassment. Women may also be more likely to perceive certain taunts as sexist, whether it’s a crude taunt, an slur on one’s looks, or “rape” as a synonym for trouncing an opponent (also used by female and even feminist gamers). Tanya McDermott, a British gamer who disagrees with feminist critiques of gaming culture, also argues on her blog that most sexist insults are simply a form of “smack talk” and that men get abused just as much, only in different ways: Players who taunt rivals in a competitive atmosphere will zero in on any vulnerable spot, which includes being “the girl” in a mostly male group.  While McDermott makes some good points about group dynamics, it’s easy to see how such behavior—regardless of motive—can create an environment where many women feel like second-class citizens.  One in ten women in Mathew’s survey said they had quit an online game because of gender-based harassment, compared to two percent of men; concerns about harassment also led many women to obscure their gender or avoid playing on some or all public sites.

That said, Mathew’s findings hardly paint male gamers in general as woman-haters or Neanderthals. Men and women in her sample were almost equally likely—10 percent and 7 percent—to admit that they had used sexist slurs while gaming. Slightly more than half, men and women alike, said they had actively intervened to stop such behavior. Mathew herself called these results “heartening.” While she also reported receiving 22 abusive comments in response to her survey (eight of them containing sexual slurs), these made up fewer than 4 percent of all male responses.

The other issue cited by critics of sexism in videogames—representation of women as characters—is even more complex and rife with incomplete and misleading information. For instance, a recent BBC News story on sexism in videogames says that only one of the top 25 best-selling videogames of 2013 had a female protagonist (Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft); a 2013 Guardian article cites a study by the videogame market research firm EEDAR showing that only 24 of 669 titles released in 2012 featured an exclusively female lead.  Technically, both these claims are accurate, and they seem to paint a picture of a video landscape populated almost entirely by male heroes and passive female characters who are there to be rescued and romanced.  

But “technically accurate” doesn’t always mean “true.” What’s left out is that many of the 2013 best-sellers, such as Saints Row IV, allow players to customize the lead character as male or female; others, such as Assassin’s Creed IV and Lego Marvel Super-Heroes, have multiple playable characters of both sexes, while Minecraft features a genderless Lego-like player figure. In the EEDAR sample, nearly half of the games had a female-protagonist option. Highly popular game franchises with an optional female lead include Skyrim, Fallout, and Mass Effect; in the latter, even male gamers often chose the female-protagonist option, apparently due to the female voice actor’s impressive performance.  

The real hot-button issue in feminist videogame criticism is not the shortage of female protagonists but the sexual objectification of female characters who, critics say, are routinely treated as eye candy for the “male gaze.” It would be silly to deny that female characters in videogames are often sexualized—certainly not always, but far more than male ones and sometimes to an extreme degree. Videogame journalist Georgina Young, who leans pro-GamerGate and is skeptical of the feminist critiques, agrees that “you only have to look at the breast mechanics in Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball 2 trailer to realize that no woman had any hand in its developing or marketing process” and that many games that could appeal to women have visuals designed with men in mind.

The problem is that criticism focused on the sexualization of female characters often hinges on subjective perception—one feminist’s sexually empowered woman is another’s sex toy—and can easily turn to sex-shaming. Bayonetta, featuring an over-the-top, deliberately hypersexualized female super-fighter, has been slammed as exploitative by critics including Sarkeesian. Yet in a 2012 article on ThinkProgress.org, left-wing feminist Alyssa Rosenberg defended the game as an exercise in exuberant girl-power and wrote that its detractors were “wrapped up in a confining vision of the liberated female: one where sex needn’t define any part of a woman, and flaunted sexuality is inherently a concession to the male gaze.”

While such critiques often have a strong undercurrent of hostility to male sexual desire, they can also come across as attacks on women who don’t toe the line. In 2011, after the designer of Skullgirls, a fighting with miniskirted, busty anime-style heroines, objected to charges of sexism and noted that the lead animator was female, a feminist “geek culture” site, The Mary Sue, mocked him in a post suggesting that “this unnamed animator” was either non-existent or not allowed to speak for herself. A quick check could have revealed that she is a successful videogame artist, Mariel Cartwright, who had blogged about her work on Skullgirls on the game’s website. More recently, actress Erin Fitzgerald, who voices “the Sorceress,” one of the playable leads in a game called Dragon’s Crown, posted a scathing response to those who were attacking the game as sexist because of her powerful character’s large, undulating breasts. (All the Dragon’s Crown characters have stylized, exaggerated physiques.)

When gamers complain about too much feminist criticism of sexism and misogyny in videogames, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they themselves harbor misogynist attitudes. But another explanation is that much of this criticism relies on manufactured outrage and cherry-picked, distorted, or out-of-context information.  

For instance: three years ago, there was a major outcry over alleged misogyny in Batman: Arkham City, particularly the portions in which the player character is Catwoman. The cause of this outrage was that Catwoman is repeatedly called “bitch” and supposedly threatened with rape by various anonymous thugs.

In actuality, the “rape threats” consist of a couple of sexualized taunts such as “Nice suit! Now take it off!” and the line, “You’re mine”—which is also directed at Batman elsewhere in the game. (The entire Catwoman play-through can be seen in two YouTube videos.) Both these comments and the word “bitch” are mostly spoken just before Catwoman pummels her enemies into the ground—prompting one author on Kotaku, a gaming site sympathetic to “social justice” causes, to speculate that the writers “aren't comfortable portraying fearsome female characters without having the male characters attempt to belittle them.” But surely it’s at least as plausible that these impotent attempts to belittle her underscore Catwoman’s power. Incidentally, no one made much of the fact that in one of Batman’s fights, a thug taunts, “I’m gonna make you my bitch, Wayne”—which is probably closer to a “rape threat” than any of the remarks to Catwoman.

Perhaps most ironically, when the next Batman videogame, Arkham Origins, toned down the language to remove the B-word, one feminist blogger crowed victory—despite admitting that the game also took away the option of playing as a female character (“You win some, you lose some”). As they say, this is why we cannot have nice things.

Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women videos, which feature prominently in the debate about videogames, feminism and sexism, are full of selective and skewed analysis—one that neglects positive female images, ignores examples of male characters getting the same treatment she considers sexist for women, and attacks games for encouraging deadly violence toward female characters when killing those characters is actually the “bad” option that causes player to lose points. (A fairly detailed three-part discussion of the flaws in Sarkeesian’s critique was posted a few weeks ago on Gamesided.com; for upfront disclosure, the first part quotes from an old column of mine criticizing radical anti-sex feminist Andrea Dworkin, on whose theories Sarkeesian sometimes relies.) It should go without saying that the biased shoddiness of Sarkeesian’s arguments does not in any way excuse the online harassment toward her, let alone violent threats.  But the harassment should not preclude a critical examination of her critique—instead of the largely unquestioning adulation it has received from the elite gaming media.

Another problem is that in its current form, feminist gaming criticism tolerates no disagreement. In 2012, Brendan Keogh, a journalist who writes for leading gaming media including Gamasutra and Polygon, posted a rant on his personal blog denouncing the controversial trailer for the game Hitman: Absolution, in which the lead character battles and kills a group of female assassins who arrive disguised as nuns, then strip off their robes to reveal tight neoprene outfits. “Infuriated” and “upset” by the fact that not everyone found the trailer offensive, Keogh asserted that it its combination of sexual titillation and violence was a classic example of “rape culture”—“the means by which our society keeps women subservient to men by constantly reminding them that if they step out of line…men will rape them  and put them back in their place.” When some commenters questioned the existence of a “rape culture” in America, Keogh promptly deleted their posts, announcing that he refused to tolerate “denialism.” (Recently, he compared GamerGate supporters to 9/11 “Truthers.”)

A couple of days later, the online videogame magazine Kill Screen posted a short essay by writer Michael Thomsen titled “What Is Rape Culture, and Do Videogames Have One?”, disputing Keogh’s thesis and defending the right to create scandalous art. After a firestorm in the comments and in the social media, the editors of Kill Screen not only amended the title of the article “for insensitivity,” changing it to “On the Messy Morality of Hitman: Absolution,” but also posted this note at the top:

“We've since apologized for this piece. We can't retract because this is an opinion, not news, which is part of problem. Also, we believe that we should keep our mistakes live. Please accept our deepest apologies.”

In this kind of atmosphere, it’s not surprising that many people aren’t very keen on having discussions of gender and sexism. Sabrina Harris, the British tech writer and longtime gamer who supports GamerGate, told me in an email:

Many gaming publications have, over the past few years, demonised any attempt to evaluate the arguments of women involved in gaming criticism, no matter how idiotic or demonstrably false the things they say can be. If you’re a man criticising a woman, you’re sexist. If you’re a woman criticising a woman, you have internalised misogyny. There is no allowing for discussion with the kind of people writing these articles: you agree with their worldview or you are a bigot. Personally, I feel #GamerGate is a result of this shameful attitude being pushed by those in the gaming media with positions of power for a prolonged period of time.

While it is commonly argued that feminist criticism seeks only to examine “problematic” media, not to deny anyone the right to enjoy them, the language employed by the critics often suggests otherwise. Sarkeesian says that refers to videogames depictions of women being “harmful,” “dangerously irresponsible,” and related to real-life negative attitudes toward women and possibly even violence. A feminist videogame designer says that sexualized depictions of women in videogames are “unacceptable.”  In a recent blogpost chastising gamers who dislike “social justice warriors,” writer and comedian Joseph Scrimshaw offers a condescending explanation of their anger as motivated by “fear”: “If you admit some of the videogames you like are objectifying women, you might have to stop playing them.” Even more condescendingly, he goes on to speculate that the people who harbor this fear are worried that they will also have to treat women as equals in real life.

This moralism is all the more obnoxious since it is directed exclusively toward men. No one is telling women in female-dominated fandoms (based on television shows, for instance) that they might have to stop making or enjoying fan art and videos that blatantly objectify men, or even posting pornographic fanfiction about their favorite actors.

“I do think such issues as sexism exist in gaming,” Harris, who considers herself a feminist of the pro-equality kind, told me in our email exchange. “I do think issues such as sexism exist in gaming, as they do in most other areas of life. Unfortunately, much of the discussion is framed in a very black and white way, i.e. ‘this is sexist, and if you don’t agree you are a sexist.’ This type of discussion is very unproductive and creates polarisation between groups that can actually have middle ground on the issue. I feel that with more reasoned, less hysterical discussion, we could contribute to making games more progressive where they need to be.”

Any backlash against radical feminism is likely to serve as a magnet for people who are genuine misogynists, such as pro-GamerGate lawyer Mike Cernovich whose numerous vile tweets were exposed by GamerGate opponent Matt Binder. But after following the #GamerGate tag closely for several weeks, I see no evidence that people like Cernovich—of whom I had never heard until I saw Binder’s post—are influential in the movement. This is an anti-authoritarian rebellion, not an antiwoman backlash.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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