Video games make for great entertainment – in fact, they're one of the fastest growing forms of mass media today. So it shouldn't surprise anyone when Anita Sarkeesian, noted feminist and activist, started a Kickstarter campaign to help her fund a series of videos studying the portrayal of women in video games. How many gamers reacted to this, however, wasn't pretty.
Anita Sarkeesian gave a talk on the topic at TEDxWomen this year. The video went up early this month; check it out at the link. In less than 11 minutes, you'll find out what lengths your fellow gamers will go to in an attempt to silence dissent before it even has a chance to take off.
A little background: for the past four years, Sarkeesian has been running an online video series on YouTube called Feminist Frequency, where she examines the way women are represented in media. The series of videos the Kickstarter campaign was to fund were a side project primed to study how women are represented in video games. Like me – and probably most of you – Sarkeesian started playing video games at a young age. So she wasn't necessarily hostile to the media itself; in fact, in her TEDx talk, she noted that gaming has lots of positive benefits, in addition to being great fun.
On the other hand, it can't be denied “that the video game industry boasts some of the most sexually objectified, stereotyped, and downright oppressive portrayals of women in any medium,” Sarkeesian noted in her talk. And this had always bothered her. Hence her Kickstarter campaign to raise a relatively modest amount of money to fund a small series of videos where she'd examine these portrayals.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out there were a bunch of male gamers out there who decided to turn the whole thing into a game – a game of terrorizing and attempting to silence Sarkeesian online. Keep in mind that this woman has a thick skin; she's no stranger to sexist backlash. This time, however, she found herself “the target of a massive online hate campaign,” she said. All of her social media sites were flooded with threats of rape, violence, sexual assault, death, and more – mostly targeting her gender. The Wikipedia article about her was vandalized with sexist, racist and pornographic comments and images. These vicious online haters even reported all of her social media accounts, including her Kickstarter campaign, her YouTube and her Twitter as fraud, spam, even as terrorism to get them suspended.
Nor did it stop there. These nasties tried to take her personal website down, hacked into her e-mail accounts, attempted to collect and distribute her personal information including her home address and phone number. And it gets more horrifying: images of her were made as a video character getting raped by other video characters again and again. Someone even made a game with an image of her where the point was, effectively, to beat up her picture – and with each blow by the player, the image of her face became more and more bruised and bloodied.
But the worst part, according to Sarkeesian, was that the cyber mob – and that's the only way to describe this, really – treated it as a game. They even specifically called it a game. This was a “game” where they were the heroes working together, trying to take her down as the “villain.” These players, by the way, weren't just teenagers; while there were a few of those, it's worth keeping in mind that the average age of male gamers in the United States is around 30. So these thousands of grown men (at least chronologically) turned her into a villain for – what? Wanting to make a few videos on YouTube? The battlefield of this game was the Internet; they went after anything and everything Sarkeesian had online. The cyber mob's home base consisted of websites where they could interact anonymously, “coordinate their raids” with very little moderation, and where they didn't have to worry about being accountable.
The explicit goal of this “game,” of course, was to silence the “villain” and save video games from Sarkeesian's “crazy feminist schemes.” “But the larger implicit goal here is that they're actually trying to maintain the status quo of video games as a male-dominated space,” Sarkeesian said, “and all of the privileges and entitlements that come with an unquestioned boys' club.”
It's worth noting that this “game” was a social one, where players effectively rewarded each other for increasingly brazen and abusive attacks, which they would document and bring back to their unmoderated boards for praise and approval. The thing is, of course, is that this isn't a game. “It's an overt display of angry misogyny on a massive scale. It's not just boys being boys; it's not just how the Internet works; and it's not just going to go away if we ignore it,” Sarkeesian said.
Fortunately, Sarkeesian also got help from the counterpart to those thousands of online haters. Her Kickstarter campaign raised 25 times as much money as she'd originally asked for. This allowed her to turn the project into a series of 13 videos and a classroom curriculum that educators can use for free. Turns out, lots of other people – other gamers and game developers – are fed up with and tired of the sexist environment so common to online gaming.
As Sarkeesian notes of the cyber mob that went after her, and the all-too-common sexism in gaming, “A boy's club means no girls allowed....And how do they keep women out? By creating and maintaining an environment that is too toxic and hostile to endure.” It doesn't have to be this way. There are rewards for working to change things. New voices in gaming mean new ideas, new worlds, and yes, new and varied games and gameplay from which everyone can benefit.
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