A short time ago I wrote about the avalanche of internet douchebaggery that descended on Jennifer Hepler, a writer for Bioware who had the temerity to. . .well, open her mouth and offer an opinion about games. Then Reddit got hold of it, and the next thing you she is being subjected to a torrent of misogynist abuse. The level of pure hate directed at her was as revealing of a new, desperation on the part of hardcore gamers concerning the changing trajectory of game development as it was entirely typical of the neanderthal attitudes toward women held by many players and assiduously cultivated by game designers.
Well, it seems the bottom feeders are at it again. Recently, pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian put up a proposal on Kickstarter. Sarkeesian runs the videoblog Feminist Frequency, where she offers thoughtful analysis of specific pop culture artifacts (like the Hunger Games series) or more general media phenomena relevant to gender issues. One series of videos, Tropes vs Women, looked at a some of the most common stereotypes governing depictions of women in popular culture. For her Kickstarter project she proposed an ambitious series of videos that would apply the Tropes vs Women concept to the world of videogames. Given the shockingly retrograde depictions of women in most videogames (if they make an appearance at all) there is obviously enough material for an extensive series. Sarkeesian is seeking funding to undertake a lot of background research for the videos, since her intent is for the videos to be freely available and supplemented with materials that would allow them to be used as teaching resources (the original Tropes vs Women videos are being used in this capacity). The problem was, Sarkeesian made the same mistake as Jennifer Hepler.
She opened her mouth.
Specifically, she dared to open her mouth concerning videogames. Almost immediately she was subject to a flood of abuse, harrassment, intimidation and sabotage. Here is her account of what happened:
The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as “terrorism”, as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website. These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen “jokes” to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded. Thankfully, Kickstarter has been incredibly supportive in helping me deal with the harassment on their service.
[BTW, I had no idea that you could flag YouTube videos as terrorism. Wow, I feel safer already.]
And if you are wondering, “Well, come on, how bad could it be, really?” the answer is: pretty bad. On Feminist Frequency Sarkeesian posted screenshots of the vandalism to her Wikipedia page and as a result what popped up when you searched for her on Google. She obtained the screenshots not from looking at her own page but from an internet forum where the perpetrators were bragging about what they had done.
On the one hand, this is yet more evidence of my current hobbyhorse: our concerted effort to build an Internet that persistently diminishes ourselves and makes it ridiculously easy to demean others. In this case, however, there is an “on the other hand. . .” This is, after all, the same Internet that houses Kickstarter, one of the best ideas to come along in a long while. As word of the abuse began to spread, Kickstarter provided the vehicle for many people, including yours truly, to put their money where their mouths are. As a result it looks like Sarkeesian will more than make her initial funding goals and as a result will be able to expand the project.
But the happy ending shouldn’t obscure what is really going on here. Sarkeesian insists that:
I am certainly not the first woman to suffer this kind of harassment and sadly, I won’t be the last. But I’d just like to reiterate that this is not a trivial issue. It can not and should not be brushed off by saying, “oh well that’s YouTube for you“, “trolls will be trolls” or “it’s to be expected on the internet”. These are serious threats of violence, harassment and slander across many online platforms meant to intimidate and silence. And its not okay.
Indeed. Clearly it would also be all too easy to dismiss Sarkeesian’s harassers as a random bunch of isolated individuals with mommy issues and poor impulse control. But as Sarkeesian notes, this was a campaign: it was planned. Moreover, it demonstrates a pattern and in this case we don’t even need to make the link with the Hepler incident: the dickless wonders responsible for this online thuggery have done it themselves. As a result of the Wikipedia vandalism, Sarkeesian’s page listed “Jennifer Hepler” as her pseudonym and her employer as Electronic Arts.
What is interesting about this–in a disturbing way–is that, as Sarkeesian herself points out, as yet she hasn’t made any specific claims about stereotypes of women in videogames, but simply claimed that they exist, which is hardly news to anybody. The extreme hostility of the Angry Nerds, however, suggests that they already know pretty much what she will find when she begins digging a little deeper. The overreaction in fact has very much the same cause as I believe was the case in the Hepler incident: a group of gamers believe someone is trying to take their games away from them: with the Hepler incident the games at issue were archetypal hardcore games, here it is games that feature blatantly exploitative and demeaning portrayals of women that this group of gamers clearly loves. In both cases women are being blamed for taking away these games and are being seen as part of an attempt to make gaming “girly.” Once these women have finished with our games, they are going to come for our Hummers and then our balls (although the cowardly nature of the actions directed against Sarkeesian suggests the perpetrators parted company with those organs some time ago).
It is tempting to dismiss this group as a bunch of macho shitheads who had taken lessons in activism from the NRA (“Oh my God! Someone has proposed you can’t have a 20mm Vulcan autocannon for home use. THEY ARE COMING FOR OUR GUNS!!!!”). But I think it is important to ask to what degree gamer culture in general and game designers themselves not only foster this kind of behavior but reward it. To only slightly less of a degree, this kind of frothy-mouthed ranting when something in the gaming world doesn’t go your way is endemic to gaming culture. You see it in game-specific discussion forums, comments page on game reviews, and on any number of Tumblr and Reddit sites. It is the world of gaming after all that gave us the term “ragequit.” The world of vide0 games is a world of strong emotions: within that world, however, it is disturbing how much rage there seems to be. Out in the non-digital world, we recognize the “I’m going to take my ball and go home” approach to differences of opinion as the hallmark of a child. Sadly, in the digital gaming world, this kind of ragewhining is often listened to by developers. What we are seeing is learned behavior; players wouldn’t behave this way if they didn’t think that it had a good chance of getting results. This is especially true, in my experience, for games that are struggling or marginal commercial propositions; after a while, developers become so concerned with the bottom line that they don’t much care how they get there, and they start listening to their loudest and most obnoxious players under the (often mistaken) impression that these are their most “loyal.” Only when the game industry stops mistaking volume for involvement will this kind of behavior start to fade away.
I think we also need to start asking when the game development industry is going to start fessing up to its culpability in the kind of abuse to which Sarkeesian and Hepler have been subjected. At the moment, advertisements are all over the web (and I’ve seen a few on TV) for this mind-expanding offering:
It is pretty clear who the target market is for this game and I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that all games need to be made for “everybody” any more than any other creative work should be. But at what point do we start holding the game industry accountable for designing games for specific audiences by appealing to the lowest common denominator of that group? I would wager real money that the people responsible for the intimidation of Hepler and Sarkeesian are among those gamers all tittering (“He he. He said titter!”) in anticipation of this game. Consider, however, what the response would be if games were employing stereotypes this egregious in any other context. You are playing a futuristic first person shooter and your African American sergeant suddenly starts calling you “Massa” and doing Sambo dances. Given the endemic racism in this country I’m sure there is a target market for such a game: should we cater to it? Well, when it comes to gender, and the endemic sexism in this country, that’s the level we’re at.
The sad thing, however, with a game like Lollipop Chainsaw which is quite predictably getting good reviews (what thirty-going-on-twelve-year-old guy doesn’t relish the thought of carving a swathe through a zombie apocalypse with a chainsaw-wielding pair of big boobs?) is that it indicates not only the stunning gender blindness of the industry but an even more stunning lack of imagination. Depending on which particular stereotype the developers were going for here–ass-kicking nymphette (Buffy, River), hypersexualized blood-crazed ball-buster (Blood Rayne), or women slaying hordes of non-humans with a Very Big Weapon (Ripley)–the rational response should be an eye roll and a “Well, we haven’t seen that before.” Out in gamer land however the first response will be: “Big Boobs!” The second response will be: “Oh, this looks new!” And the third response will be: “Big Boobs!” The reason people trade in stereotypes, after all, when producing something is because they are bankrupt creatively and imaginatively.
I wish that the majority of women students in my classes who are so convinced that we are now all “post-feminist” and that sexism has been eradicated could see this kind of incident. In the meantime, tt is great to see women like Sarkeesian persisting in the face of juvenile and cowardly attempts to silence them. They deserve all the support we can give them.