Sexism: How Long Will We Let it Hold Video Games Back?

I was hoping that the first PSC post I made after my presentation on my research at Drexel would be more about my dissertation.  However, I feel a recent series of events warranted more immediate attention.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what the is the biggest current threat to video games as a cultural medium.  The biggest threat to the future of this medium is not the moral crusaders like Jack Thompson and his ilk who cry to the heavens that video game violence will bring about the downfall of society.  It’s not the legislators who attempt to impose legal restrictions on content under the auspices that video games have no cultural value.  It’s not the used games industry which developers argue steal away revenue and stifle creativity.  It’s not even big AAA companies like EA and Activision and their succession of bland, unadventurous generic titles or DRM and other anti-piracy measures.

There is something far worse, something that is holding video games as a creative an artistic medium back; something that threatens the very future of this medium as it struggles to gain greater cultural legitimacy.

I am talking about the culture of misogyny that stands as the dark, seedy underbelly of video game culture.  It manifests itself in many ways, from stereotypical depictions of female characters to evidence of sexism within the video game industry to verbal assaults on female gamers or game commentators.

One recent example will serve to illustrate what I mean and why it is so bad for the medium.

A few weeks ago Anita Sarkeesian, who runs the blog Feminist Frequency where she examines the role gender plays in media, launched a Kickstarter fund asking for $6,000 to finance a series of YouTube videos examining female stereotypes in videogames.  She planned “Tropes vs. Women” as a series five videos, each examining a stereotypical archetype of women in video games, examining how video games shape perceptions of gender.

And some folks did not take too kindly to that.  The project sparked a rancorous backlash as Internet trolls took up the flaming sword of web-based rage and launched a crusade against Sarkeesian.  The YouTube page for her Kickstarter pitch became inundated with harassing posts chock full of sexism and antisemitism, using terms I’d prefer not to repeat here (Sarkessian has kept posting available and has kept a record of their venom here).  Some posters sought to get her video flagged as terrorism or get her Kickstarter fund delisted.  Still others took to her Wikipedia page received a similar treatment, flooded with racism and sexism.   She even received threats of violence, rape, and death.

The people involved in these attacks did so not merely because of a difference in opinion with Sarkessian’s proposal.  The people involved in these attacks wanted to go further than that, swearing a blood feud against Sarkeesian.  Wrapping themselves in a crusade.  They sought to silence her–more than that, they sought to destroy her reputation and force her to bow in submission.  They didn’t just want to express disagreement with her ideas, they wanted to send a clear message that if you do not conform to their worldview, then your opinions mean less than nothing: it is mob justice in its ugliest form.

They efforts were ultimately thwarted, as Sarkeesian managed to raise well above her $6,000 goal.

Video games–both the industry and the culture–have historically not been the most welcoming place for women.  Women often get devalued within this world, note the numerous criticisms of Sarkeesian as not being a “true” gamer in an effort to destroy her credibility.

We can’t keep brushing this kind of behavior aside.  We can’t simply sweep it under the rug as another case of teenage boys being boys. It needs to be shown that this is unacceptable.  Because if we don’t, the whole medium suffers.  Over the past year, video games have made incredible strides.  Last May the National Endowment for the Arts extended recognition to video games as an art form.  In March 2012, the Smithsonian launched a major exhibit exploring the Art of Video Games.  They have found their way into the halls of academia and are in curricula.  Even more important, last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that video games qualified for free speech protection under the First Amendment.

Despite all these great strides, there are still those who find it hard to take the medium seriously.  Some still criticize it as nothing more than the pastime of immature male teenagers and adult men suffering from arrested development (see here and here).  Behavior like what was exhibited regarding Sarkeesian and similar episodes like the controversy surrounding Aris Bahktanians only serves to bolster the cries against the cultural significance of video games and spark more calls to censor the medium.

The kind of behavior exhibited regarding Sarkeesian–the misogyny, the terroristic threats, and the implicit or explicit acceptance of it–is holding the medium back.  If we allow this to be tolerated, we risk confirming the denunciations of outsiders that this medium is nothing more than a pastime for immature teenaged boys and adult men suffering from arrested development.  It puts video games squarely in the place where those who see it as nothing but kids’ stuff want it to be.  It stifles the progress the medium has made so far.  As long as this kind of behavior is tolerated the medium will continue to struggle with its image.  We, the numerous silent–game scholars, developers, critics, and players–need to end our silence.  We need to cultivate an environment where the kind of misogyny and harassment evidenced here is generally denounced for the vitriol that it is.

We need to show that we outnumber the trolls; we are stronger than they are and we need to stand together.  Or else we just prove all the alarmist critics of the medium right.

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About kevinimpellizeri

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware where I am studying the social and cultural impact of video games in America. When I'm not studying history or playing video games I offer my voice on 91.3 WVUD Newark and review bad horror movies at www.horrorsofhorror.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @KDImpellizeri
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21 Responses to Sexism: How Long Will We Let it Hold Video Games Back?

  1. sandy says:

    No, no, no. I’m sorry but not all women feel the way you do and not all women are “objectified”. There are a lot of women who are tired of others “crusading” for womens rights. A lot of us are happy carefree gamers who do not give two craps about what other people feel or say against them. Why? Because unlike some people we are pretty strong people who know that no matter where you go in any industry you go in there are always going to be douches. Can’t handle it? Play a single player game then. I happen to enjoy the women models that the industry uses. Am I upset that they have small waists and big boobs? Not one bit. Just because one group doesn’t like it does not mean all women should not like it. Let me play my sexy looking characters!

    • ImActuallyAWoman says:

      Wow, what a self-centered reply. Listen “Sandy,” so glad to know how *you* feel, but you should definitely realize that your opinion is not the end all and be all, and just because you claim to be a happy carefree gamer girl doesn’t mean that what happened to Anita Sarkeesian is OK, or that the objectification of women in video games is OK. “Sandy,” to each their own. Just because you “happen to enjoy the women models that the industry uses” doesn’t mean that the OP is objectively wrong. Whether you like them or not is a matter of opinion. Yeesh.

      BTW, strong women absolutely have the right to be disgusted with the way that people on the Internet treated Ms. Sarkeesian because she is a woman. I am a woman, and I’m greatly upset by the way she was treated, not to mention sick of the way that women are objectified in video games. Here’s the other thing dolly, what you’re advocating is that people should be silent if they disagree. Just take it, delete the comments, don’t write about it. Well that would make your bigoted life easier, wouldn’t it? I’m curious, as a woman, what exactly is it that you enjoy about the debased form the “sexy looking” woman characters are given?

      One more thing…just because you claim to be tired of others “crusading” for women’s rights doesn’t mean that this post is wrong, or that anyone, man or woman, who believes in equal rights for men and women, doesn’t have a right to express that. I can only speak for myself (see how I’m pointing out that this is *my* opinion, and not rote facts there “Sandy”?), but as a (relatively) happy gamer who also happens to be a woman, I would rather have someone respect my gender than call me a cunt because they think they can.

    • Janet says:

      Well, it’s also more than a little off track to try to make this just about the “sexy game models.” This has far less to do with your WoW character’s cup size and far more to do with the fact that women are reduced to objects by Internet culture. And I’m not talking about game characters – I mean the actual women who play games. You may be the happiest clam in the world of girl gamers, but you’re in the minority.

      In a world where “Tits or GTFO” is still a laugh line, where slurs like “cunt” and “bitch” are busted out when there’s even the most remote possibility that a gamer is a woman, where a competitive gamer who happens to be a woman endures so much harassment from members of her own team that she ultimately quit the tournament (no one would intervene because, well, “boys will be boys”), the playing field is not level. Women are not only not respected, they’re targeted for disrespect. They’re targeted for hatred, devaluation, humiliation, and objectification, simply because they are women, before anything else about them is known. Does every male gamer treat female gamers this way? No, of course not. Do the majority? I can’t say. Here’s what I can say, based on what happened to Anita Sarkeesian and the “oh get over it” reaction of people like you – this kind of abusive, toxic behavior towards women basely solely on gender is tolerated, with the victims of this type of bullying being blamed for coming forward, for standing up for themselves, for not just deleting the hateful comments or ignoring the slurs and laughing along when someone out there calls them a cunt or threatens to rape them. And in this day and age, I truly don’t understand why it’s taken so lightly.

    • Chris Jones says:

      Sandy,
      No one is going to be taking away your sexy women; developers are not going to do away with them entirely. But there is a time and a place for them and should not be the only female figures within the medium. For every Katsumi (Dead or Alive) or Lara Croft, there should be Chell (Portal), Alex (Half-Life), or Heather Mason (Silent Hill 3) to counter balance them for anyone looking for a less objectified, more realistic perspective.

      The main focus of the article wasn’t necessarily just about women’s portrayal so much as the culture surrounding gaming. The misogynistic mindset surrounding users is very limiting and restrictive for women to enjoy, and their backlash, be it in words or actions, can and is very hurtful. If someone ever talked to my wife like that, it would piss me off, too. The article isn’t advocating that we should eliminate sexy characters entirely (if that’s who you want to play as) so much that the gaming community needs to change their outlook and attitudes towards women in general and be a lot more accepting of them.

      • Eva says:

        I’m so tired of your shitty complaining about how women are objectivied in video games…. And “ImActuallyAWomen” too -.- Really.. I also hate Sarkeesian. If you want to see reasons why women aren’t taken seriously about videogames just look at her and her stupid “documentary”. The video to her Kickstarter was nothing but insulting to all video game players (women and men) who love the games they play and who love the characters they play in the games. Really what is your problem. It’s just a game. And what about the men in the videogame?? They are all also very good looking and no one is complaining about it. So really what’s the big deal?
        And btw the name of the (beautiful) girl is Kasumi not “Katsumi” -.-

  2. Alisandra says:

    Sandy, I can understand where you are coming from in your disagreement, however, I don’t see why there can’t be a wider variey of female characters than ONLY the stereotypical hourglass figure-types. Sure, it’s fun to prance around in the body of an Amazon while you gun down monsters, and yes, because of our cultural norms, I think most female gamers have come to terms with the fact that they will face people who like to sling misogynistic comments at us if we want to go into multiplayer games, but I don’t think that just because it is something that you have no problem accepting, I don’t think it’s right that ALL women gamers should be given no choice about. Why not encourage an industry that gives gamers more choices in character body type so that you can still be a sex-pot character, but women who would rather be a different body type have the option to do so as well? I don’t see the problem with this and in fact see it as encouraging a form of freedom and creativity.

    • ImActuallyAWoman says:

      Good point! The idea here is that there really is no middle ground – women characters are 99% of the time dressed and presented as sexual objects. Even in games where women are the heroes, they’re sexual objects. Look at Lollipop Chainsaw. Who’s the tight costume for, the cheerleader fantasy, the upskirt shots from the trailer? Women are reduced to things when treated this way, and when people see women as things, they see things like what they did to Anita Sarkeesian based solely on her gender as perfectly OK.

  3. Jean-Baptiste Karageuzian says:

    i disagree with your point that sexism is the greatest problem for video games. I understand that sexism is a problem. That one part of this problem is in the content video games deliver but…

    Women objectification in games is not overly present. It is present – and in Japan even more than in the west hemisphere but it’s not the whole market. It should be studied, reported and shamed when it happens.

    There is also things like racism or xenophobia. FPS games are doing propaganda against Russia or the Arabic world and it comes often. I wouldn’t care too much if it went the other way around but it doesn’t.

    DRM and players lockout, collection of private data, free to play and deliverable contents are also threats that have to be investigated. Another one that’s not the main issue.

    I am all for Anita Sarkeesian’s endeavour but saying that sexism in game is the top issue is your overstatement Kevin and it’s incorrect. It may become your cause you will fight for and it’s all for your merit but check the games that are actually being sold. If you want to stand your point, can you tell me which of those in the top 40 are sexists:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bestsellers-PC-Video-Games/zgbs/videogames/ref=pd_ts_zgc_vg_h__videogames_morl?pf_rd_p=234865607&pf_rd_s=right-8&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_i=300703&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_r=0574WN4FJ8S0QKZ5CMT2#2

    • Janet says:

      No one is organizing an Internet smear campaign of any Russian or Arabic video game scholars who propose a series of videos on Quickstarter, J-B. And if someone harassed a gamer using ethnic slurs, that would rightly be treated as abusive behavior, and those bullies would be dealt with in some way. But the bullies who seek to hurt women with ease on the internet and in gaming communities just because they are women are not being dealt with. They do not have to answer for what they do. They get to hurt, and hurt, and hurt people, and the victims of their cyber bullying are told to just get over it by people like you in responses like this.

      • Jean-Baptiste Karageuzian says:

        I did not condone cyberbullying or sexism. Neither than I condemn feminism. I am saying that making it ‘the first problem in video games’ is incorrect and that actually undermine the argument that it must be fought against. I even wrote black on white that it a cause worth fighting ;-). If you felt otherwise, I am sorry.

        Are those people that acted against didn’t because of video games… they did it because they are sexists, or whatever their reason. Apparently it became an internet phenomenon to harass her… 

        “And if someone harassed a gamer using ethnic slurs, that would rightly be treated as abusive behavior, and those bullies would be dealt with in some way.” oh – I know it’s a horrible suggestion but spend a few minutes on youtube comments and you’ll see how wrong you are here :-(.

        People are not only sexists, and misogynes, they are also xenophobes and racists, and more. Anyway I stand my point: that’s a worthy cause but it’s not the only or main worthy cause. And it should not occult the others.

    • Patchie Deth says:

      I could argue that the sexism I see in the top 40 comes as a white male-centric character for each title. But, in matters of the *treatment* of women, that doesn’t lend itself to the argument as so few women are present to analyze their treatment. (In that top 40)

      In the matter of sexism, women are just one of many groups who make up a part of the gaming community (roughly 50%) but are treated as intruders, if not sex-things that have no credibility. And it just so happens that recent *group efforts* in the gaming community to publicly attack women have put the public eye on sexism.
      But that doesn’t mean sexism is the only bigotry that happens or the only issue that deserves attention. It is one prevalent issue that recently GOT the attention it deserved.
      There are other bigotries that deserve attention too. But I’d hate to see a power grab among marginalized groups trying to establish a priority list of oppressed people.

      • Pamela says:

        So, because other problems exist, this shouldn’t be dealt with? I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be rude, I’m just honestly not sure what your stance is in that last paragraph. Who cares how it came to be that abusive sexism is currently in the public eye. It is a real problem that really exists, and the degree to which it exists is real. We have an opportunity to come out against it, to show that we, not the trolls who think it’s OK to refer to women by their ovaries, are the majority, and that we do not condone or seek to trivialize or ignore this kind of behavior against anyone. Let’s take it.

      • Jean-Baptiste Karageuzian says:

        so we agree 🙂

  4. Patchie Deth says:

    It is difficult for gamers and the gaming industry to defend their media from censorship a political attacks when the those who enjoy it will not hold the negative elements and persons accountable.
    Those who wish to ban or regulate video games will have a much easier time gathering public and political support when we, the gamers, pretend that the bigotry in our media is normal or should be tolerated. If we simply criticize the sexism in this medium, in the characters, industry and in the communities, we begin to set ourselves apart from the negative propaganda and present video games as varied and evolving art form that will regulate itself without outside interference – thank you very much.
    I’d rather go head to head with sexism in my community than have the government step in and remove it for me.

    • Janet says:

      The point is though, that we should go head-to-head with sexism in our community, and in our gaming communities and Internet communities, and we don’t. If someone gets harassed solely because she is a woman, most people don’t step in. Even here, the argument against Kevin’s PoV seems to be to deflect from the actual – that the fact that women are treated like objects by the Internet and Gaming community, that a woman who dared to come forward and propose making a series of videos researching this was basically burned in effigy, is treated as no big deal, just something we as women should just shut up and get over.

  5. ImActuallyAWoman says:

    We need to show that we outnumber the trolls! 100% agree!

  6. Curtis says:

    @Jean Hmmm… well in the top 20 you linked, 10 of them are all-male characters. 2 are aimed squarely at women in the most cliche way–one of those is a fitness “game”. 4 items are for game hardware so the top 20 is actually the top 16 so that’s about 75% dominated by male interest or very skewed female interest.

    Perhaps sexism isn’t “the biggest” problem. It seems a pedantic point to make–as if some issue could be mathematically computed to identify the the biggest issue. The OP’s point is that video games are often not accepted as a worthwhile activity. Part of that perception is based on the fact of gross sexism in the overwhelming majority of games. Certainly the game industry could do better. Certainly games with balanced and rich story-telling and balanced artistry would improve the acceptance of games as worthwhile pastimes. These are the points I got from the blog.

    • Pamela says:

      I agree, Curtis. These are the points that I took, too. Sexism may not be the biggest problem in the world of video games, but it is a big problem in the world of video games. Video games are not taken seriously as a medium for many reasons, but how can we as gamers expect games to be taken seriously as a medium when so many of them still represent women like lad mag models, and so many woman gamers are subjected to bullying and harassment when their gender is revealed? Just as many other things that branded video games as childish distractions for the immature and developmentally arrested have improved over the years without sacrificing quality games (in fact in many cases, actually improving it), so too, the game industry could and should try to more fairly treat all those to whom video games may appeal.

  7. Beezul says:

    hey i got it! all you people that want a different kind of game…. go make one! invest your life in it like everyone else has. instead of simple complaining whats there. dont like it? change it first hand and show us what you want. hey! MAYBE youll inspire someone? oh is that too hard? normally the right thing to do is. good luck!

    • Wow... says:

      Geez, what a childish response. Listen, Beezul, there actually *are* some games out there that do not feature sexist representations of women, and OMG LOOK, women are *still* treated like things by Internet trolls like you.

      Also, by your logic, only those with the knowledge and resources to BUILD AND PRODUCE A VIDEO GAME (because that’s something that just anyone with a 9-to-5 job and no knowledge of programming languages can just do!) have a right to point out flaws in what is still a very flawed industry. Building games that do not perpetuate stereotypes helps against the problem of sexism in games, sure, but it doesn’t solve the problem of woman gamers being targeted for harassment and downright bullying. Bringing attention to that behavior does. Posts like this do. Sorry that you can’t see that.

      It’s not the fact that you disagree, it’s that you imply through your childishness and hostility that no one has the right to even discuss this that is most reprehensible. Often, unpleasant people getting called out on their bigotry and faults *do* get hostile and deflect when they’re confronted with their own lack of humanity.

  8. Good says:

    Hello Kevin,

    Thank you for writing this. A lot of it needs to be said, and it’s really heartening to hear a video game researcher who actually loves the medium say it.

    Incidentally, this article might be of additional interest –

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/features/9766-The-R-Word

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