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.