I am potentially about to do something spectacularly stupid. If you’ve read the title, then you know exactly why this is a bad idea. The name Anita Sarkessian – media critic, feminist and creator of the web series Tropes vs Women In Video Games – is a hot-button issue for all of the wrong reasons. With the stench of GamerGate still lingering and the effervescent hatred of a good third of the gaming community for having the courage to step forward and discuss these things, it becomes intimidating to even begin to touch an issue that is so volatile lest death threats get sent to your door as well. Regardless of my intentions, it sets up an amazing backboard for any number of arguments to slam-dunk my argument for petty and incomprehensible reasons, like “you don’t understand the issues”, “you’re defending someone that wants to ruin games” or the deeply problematic “why are you trying to make games less fun?”
I want to take a moment to shoot this in the head right now – I will not be discussing gender. Many of the elements about the GamerGate fiasco revolve around gender, but I won’t touch on those: not because I do not want to, but because I do not have the tools and knowledge on hand. First and foremost, I am a video game critic. As a video game critic, regardless of which way I swing it one thing is adamantly clear: Sarkeesian points out some deep seated, historic and impenetrable examples that set up our current video game climate that objectifies the female character. While I do not always agree with Sarkeesian’s modes of discussing these tropes, nor do I agree that these depictions should be completely removed from video games entirely, we need to understand and come to terms with our history as gaming enthusiasts: they are there. Painted with a brush by a media critic that seeks to criticize without recourse rather than discuss constructively, but they exist nonetheless. And yet there is an army of angry, bigoted voices seeking to shut down this conversation before it has a chance to flourish and grow. While I hate ‘discussions’ for assuming a conclusion and finding pieces that fit, I hate people that refuse to even have a discussion even more.
This face, every time.
For those who haven’t watched any of Sarkeesian’s series, the basic structure is thus: example of a video game that is being sexist by the boundaries of the topic-of-the-day, a discussion of terms, another example, more discussion of terms, why it is bad/not good, end. For example, her very first episode on damsels-in-distress focused on the roles of Zelda and Peach – the quintessential damsels-in-distress and how they fill the role of a female that has been unjustly portrayed in her medium. It is important to note, however, that while she seeks to tackle the insurmountable problem that exists in gender studies of video games, she is approaching it from the lens of a feminist first and foremost. While her discussions do steer towards the mechanical and historical aspects of video game culture, her duty is to the gender first and the design of video games second.
This is not necessarily a bad thing: ludology and narratology sit side by side in video games, and it is usually safe to discuss one exclusive of the other; in tackling something as fundamentally deep as gender roles in a medium, particularly in an interactive medium like video games, it is impossible to escape these implications, and Sarkessian does not address them adequately. For example, her point about imprisonment displayed between male and female video game characters does not take into consideration the gender of the protagonist. The hero’s overcoming of adversity is genderless, and were a female protagonist were to be in a similar position, such as in The Longest Journey, Metroid Prime or the latest installment of Tomb Raider, the player – not the hero – must escape. Despite this, it poses a different, more troubling question: how many positive female playable characters exist in video gaming? I can only muster a count in the low twenties, and I obsess over these video games. For people that play casually, or look over the shoulders of hardcore game enthusiasts, these numbers dwindle rapidly, leading to a past time that is depicted by society at large as a predominantly male activity.
But this is simply not the case anymore, objectively and subjectively speaking. Objectively speaking, in the Entertainment Software Association’s latest iteration of their Sales, Demographic and Usage Data, the ratio of male to female players is split roughly in half. Moreover, the notion that games are for children or teenagers is being eradicated as well, with the average age of game players being 31 years old. Subjectively speaking, video games are plumbing new, innovative and sometimes controversial depths that consistently challenge the video game landscape. Games like Spec Ops: The Line, the Syberia series, Cloud Chamber and even The Walking Dead pose significantly deep narrative, mechanical, ethical and controversial questions about ourselves, the mores of the video game landscape and the progression of the medium in its entirety. This is no longer a young medium driven exclusively by escapism and distraction. This is a medium at its burgeoning teen stages: flexing its muscles, challenging authority and striking back at the norms it has established in order to be accepted as a medium worthy of respect in the public sphere.
He don’t care for your rules, maaaan.
This is when and where discussions about our medium need to occur. Sarkeesian, regardless of her analytic flaws, has planted the seeds by which these discussions must grow. This is not to say that we should no longer enjoy our games, or think of every game as an academic text, because that would strip away the historical essence of what a video game started out as being. It is this fear of change that drives the inquisition that seeks to close these discussions before they have even begun. These discussions were had in film in the dawn of the 20th century, when legislation and critique began to emerge that would define the boundaries of cinema as we see them today. Literature has been criticized since time immemorial, with everyone from Plato to Sartre to Derrida chipping in. Video games are undergoing a shift in thinking, and the loudest, most overwhelming voice of them all are the ones that simply want the status quo to remain as it is – even as games like The Last Of Us are critiqued for merely having Ellie as a focal point for their advertising campaign, or having indie titles like Dear Esther or Ether One classed as the derogatory “walking simulator” instead of games in their own right because they dare to focus on narrative over mechanics.
Male or female, the role of games and the identity of the people that play them is at stake in these discussions. It is a mistake to continue to use the term “gamers” – it is deliberate that I have refused to use the term during this piece, and I try not to use it in my articles unless, loosely speaking, for the sake of brevity. The term “gamer” has been rendered toxic by those who seek to stifle and destroy attempts of conversing within our medium – a venture that has been successful in forcing Sarkeesian to cancel a number of her talks due to fears for her life. Instead, our conversations should be broader and more encompassing: how does this medium act in the social sphere? It is the nature of those caught up in old ideas to make this medium exclusive to a perceived, repressed minority. I can see the mindset. To some, these games were their solace from a world they thought would harm them, and with the world’s eyes upon the medium they want to gouge them out. But at the end of the day, to actively seek out reasons to not develop understanding is doing the medium a disservice no matter how you discuss it.
This helps no one. NO ONE.
I refuse to believe that discussions of video game culture will lead to a decline in their quality, or detract from existing systems. These video game players will hide behind the “we just want video games to stay fun”, or the cynicisms that underpin a game failing because it does things differently or tackles issues that aren’t discussed often. I currently live in a world where a media critic discussing gender flaws in video games gets death threats for challenging the roots of issues in order to increase understanding, where a person cannot speak about a medium they love because the people representing that medium actively want to destroy them. This is fucking disgusting, and I refuse to associate with the people who seek to undermine the things we have achieved. I am no longer a gamer. I am a player of games, and I seek to explore these games for the benefit of myself and those around me. I implore you, regardless of who you are or what you believe, to seek out these discussions and understand your passion so that you may find joy in what you love.