I’ve made a conscious effort to keep the Experiment positive so far, but there are some harder parts of representation that I can’t always ignore.
Today, Games.on.net posted this announcement. In a bold, stirring statement, editor-in-chief Tim Colwill drew a line in the sand for readers of his site:
So, here’s another change for you: if you really think feminism, or women, are destroying games, or that LGBT people and LGBT relationships have no place in games, or that games in any way belong to you or are “under attack” from political correctness or “social justice warriors”: please leave this website. I don’t want your clicks, I don’t want your hits, I don’t want your traffic. Leave now and please don’t come back.
That kind of unwavering declaration is a wonderful thing, and I’d be delighted to see more high-profile sites taking a similar stance. The problem isn’t with the statement, but the circumstances that made it so necessary.
Anita Sarkeesian leapt into the limelight in 2012 when she sought crowd-funding for her web series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games. As the name implies, the series takes a close (and often unflattering) look at the way the games industry represents female characters, and the way those patterns of thinking recur. Focusing on tropes like the ‘Damsel in Distress’, ‘Ms. Male Character’ and ‘Women as Background Decoration’, Sarkeesian cites the numerous instances where games treat female characters as objects to be observed, sought, or fought for. Her criticism is, I feel, the gentle admonition of a good friend; she clearly loves gaming, but quite reasonably wants it to be better in the ways it thinks of women.
Since her Kickstarter garnered attention, though, there’s been a cruel and antagonistic subset of gamers who took offence to her criticism. That howl of irrational upset has cast a pall over Tropes vs Women, but this week, the abuse reached a critical point. Polygon reported that Sarkeesian had been driven out of her home following “very scary threats” made against her and her family (you can see a sample of those threats directed at Sarkeesian’s @femfreq Twitter account here, but with strong trigger warnings). This, coupled with the similar treatment of game developer Zoe Quinn, marks a low point in the gaming world.
In all of these odious displays of human depravity, the detail I find most frustrating is the way Sarkeesian and Quinn’s abusers couch their misogyny in nebulous allegations of corruption, as though that’s grounds enough to drive a woman and her family from her home with grotesque (and specific) death threats.
Let’s be very clear about the kind of people who are abusing Anita Sarkeesian (and Zoe Quinn and Wil Wheaton, and Phil Fish, and Tim Schafer, and anyone else who dared to suggest that Sarkeesian might have a point). They aren’t “trolls”; they’re wretched, cruel and morally poisoned, but they’re also people, and that makes their actions so much worse. They aren’t the basement-dwelling neckbeard that persists as a stereotype of gamers — these people are ordinary people, the kind who have mugs that say “You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Work Here”, who are coming third in their office tipping competition, who catch the train and shop at the same kind of supermarket you do. They’re not in a special class, not a breed apart about whom we can cluck our tongues and thank god we aren’t like that. They are normal people, and that makes their actions so much worse. They choose to do this, with their adult brains and their adult fingers and their adult keyboards, to berate a woman and threaten her with unspeakable violence for pointing out that games don’t often treat women very well. They chose this, and that makes their actions so much worse. These regressive, reactionary, angry, scared and pathetic purveyors of cruelty are to gaming what the Birther movement was to the Obama presidency: an irrational response that pretends to Know The Truth. They don’t believe that Anita Sarkeesian is truly corrupt; all of this is an attempt to legitimise their hate, and undermine Sarkeesian as a critic. All of this, because she’s right; because she touched a nerve, and they’re scared, and rather than learn from that response, or demonstrate a shred of self-awareness, they attack the source of that fear, threaten her safety, threaten her parents, threaten everything she loves so that maybe she’ll stop telling them what they don’t want to hear.
I take some comfort in the thousands of supportive responses for Sarkeesian and her work, like the Games.on.net statement. Leigh Alexander’s piece for Gamasutra is a deeply observed piece that considers the roots of this anger, while firmly and calmly rebuking its entire basis. Australian games writer and academic Dan Golding also wrote a great article that you can find on his Tumblr, and those seeking a bit of context would be well-served by checking out Polygon’s article, “An awful week to care about video games“. In some ways, these conversations are necessary to help gaming evolve, but it’d be nice if no one had to be too scared to go home while we work this stuff out.