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It’s easy to say that you’re not part of the problem. Women in the video gaming industry are being consistently harassed and abused, and because we are not personally making rape threats over Twitter TWTR -0.29%, we are, at the very least, neutral. Good for us. Each time we run into this, the industry, as a whole, condemns these threats with full force. But it’s time we took some responsibility.
For this article, we’re going to think about Anita Sarkeesian. I will give the social media reactionaries this: they appear to have correctly identified her as one of the most important people in the industry on this subject.
Sarkeesian is the host of the Feminist Frequency videos, which has been running a series about depictions of women in video games. The most recent, “Women as Background Decoration Part 2,” has caused a particularly virulent reaction, especially in the context of a recent spate of misogyny in the gaming community. Sarkeesian is no stranger to abuse: she’s been a target since she started the Kickstarter now funding these videos. Fans and enemies alike will remember “beat up Anita Sarkeesian,” a game on Newgrounds that encouraged players to, well. She has always appeared to take it in impressive stride. Last week, the threats got specific and dangerous enough that she was forced to contact law enforcement and leave her home.
“Vocal minority” is a phrase that comes up a lot: I used it the other day when talking about harassment. It’s a convenient little phrase — it separates us from the cranks and absolves us of responsibility for our culture. Sure they’re loud! We seem to say. That’s a shame. But there’s not very many of them and we can just condemn them and move on.
The thing is, it’s not just a vocal minority. It’s a vocal minority that actually participates in the cruelest harassment, but we’re kidding ourselves to think they are somehow separate from a culture characterized by video games. Just play a match of more or less any competitive online game and listen to the number of times you hear the word “rape:” despite what we may think, this is not normal or inevitable. What it is, however, is a natural byproduct of the games we play.
We all know, at least on some level, that games have a massive problem with depictions of women. Sarkeesian has just been pointing that out in a way that makes it hard to ignore. It’s no wonder that the most recent episode of Feminist Frequency has produced by far the most extreme reaction among the gamer community, because it’s the hardest to watch — she focuses on a vast sea of sexual violence used as background decoration in games we’ve probably all played. I’d spend my time re-iterating her arguments, but this is the internet, and I can just post the video below. I don’t agree with every single point — which is how these things work — but it’s a strong argument overall.
It’s not a tremendous leap to assume that a community of consumers and producers is going to develop some intensely dysfunctional aggression and misogyny when this is the cultural background that we’re interacting with. The problem is not limited to women: male game developers face harassment too, albeit not as intense as what Sarkeesian or other women have seen, and typically without the insidious sexual component (which is the main difference between how violence towards men and women is depicted in games). It all comes from somewhere. If the “gamer” community is defined by playing certain games, then it will inevitably be colored by the content of those games. This recent virulent hatred directed towards women in the industry should serve as some proof.
A whole bunch of developers recently signed an open letter condemning harassment in the industry, which is all well and good. But those names on the list contain some of the people with the most power to actually change the situation, and they have a responsibility to follow through. Hiring women and minorities in the industry is something that can help and should happen, but that’s actually a totally different point. Straight white men are also more than capable of creating games that deal with gendered issues in a non-horrible fashion. There is no better tool to change the tone of discussion and online discourse in the gaming community than examining the tone of the games we play.
Or maybe everything will just get better on its own?
Frequent Counterarguments: Men get killed in video games too! If you have a problem with the way violence towards men is depicted in games, then you’ve arrived at a valid topic for discussion. It does not change the way women are depicted in games. We can all do better than equal opportunity brutality.
Other media have these problems too! This is also bad.
Can’t we all just play games? Pop culture both informs and reflects the world in which it is created, and is a valid topic for academic examination. People always say they want involved, thorough video game criticism. This is what it looks like. Also, if all you want to do is play games, nobody is stopping you.
This is just like all those people that say video games cause violence: Those issues can also be considered in rational, calm manners that respect the first amendment. There’s always room for improvement.
Sarkeesian just wants attention. Who cares? I have never met Anita Sarkeesian, and as far as I know she’s either a horribly unpleasant person, a complete delight, or somewhere in between. Personal attacks in a debate like this are an irrelevant way of avoiding actual discussion. Accusing someone of attention-grabbing is one of the oldest tricks in the book for criticizing outspoken women.
Stop attacking video games! Video games are wonderful, and I love them. I even like a lot of games that have some incredibly problematic parts, because games are big and varied and can be thought of from different angles. Neither any one game or the industry as a whole exists as a monolith: self-examination and improvement come from love, not dismissal. Let’s be better. Why not?
Some other unrelated thing! This is unrelated.