Video Games. They’ve been a polarizing pastime since the early 80’s. Either they made you a basement-dwelling nerd or, more recently, a probable sociopath. But gaming – and I don’t just mean the so-called “casual gaming” of the Farmville and Bejewled variety – has entered the mainstream, and it’s not going away. Far from it. Video games have overtaken all other popular pastimes in this country. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, taken between November 2007 and February 2008, 97% of people, ages twelve to seventeen, play video games. And it’s not just “kids;” the same study found that “over half of American adults play video games,” as well. Today, those same young teens from the Pew study are in their early to mid-twenties, boosting that “half of American adults” to 97%.
Enter, the controversy.
Gamer or no gamer, if you follow the Internet media buzz – particularly the buzz surrounding feminism, women, “cyber mobs,” and/or misogyny – you’ve heard the name Anita Sarkeesian. Her entrance into gaming culture exploded with nuclear force when, not long after some of the few female designers in gaming had come under fire from a fringe group calling itself GamerGate, she proposed a start-up fund for a critical series on women in gaming. In a flash, the GamerGate mob turned their focus from female designers (getting too much “undeserved” positive critical attention) and pounced on Sarkeesian.
The good news? Sarkeesian’s start-up fund was an enormous success, in part because of the extreme harassment she received from the GamerGate mob. Her website, Feminist Frequency, is a beautifully presented source for cogent, well-researched critique on popular media. The series that started it all, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, has several installments, including “Damsel in Distress,” “Women As Background Decoration,” and “Ms. Male Character.” All are a must-watch for gamers and non-gamers alike.
The bad news? Sarkeesian’s critique on gaming misogyny and marginalization of women spurred a backlash resulting in rape, death, and terrorist threats (against Utah State University where she was scheduled to speak), among a myriad other troll-worthy attacks. To learn more about her experience, check out her TED Talk, “Online Harassment & Cyber Mobs” – a talk met with, not surprisingly, a host of misogynist threats so severe, TED shut down the comments section within twenty-four hours.
So, what was Sarkeesian saying that got this cyber mob of gamers so up in arms? Well, according to an overview of the comments, YouTube videos, and other negative responses to Sarkeesian and her work (which are, to say the least, difficult to stomach), she is attempting to censor video games, whitewashing gaming content with her feminist agenda. In their eyes, she wants games to appeal to an audience that doesn’t play the games - or doesn't even exist. Some female gamers have also attacked Sarkeesian, claiming that they love all games just as they are and do not feel Sarkeesian and her feminism represents the perspective of true female gamers.
Here’s the problem with these objections: none of them address Sarkeesian’s argument about the portrayal of women in gaming. Her argument is ironclad, so they attack her instead.
I’ve never been a “gamer.” In fact, I always declared my loathing for video games. But, it could’ve been different, and thanks to Sarkeesian, I now know why. You see, I first encountered video games growing up in the 80’s. Games were simple enough back then, right? Nothing like the violent, sexually-charged, smash-em-ups we hear about today. Yet, even then, games were designed by and for males. Game protagonists were exclusively male. Female characters were helpless, passive, or non-existent in Mario Bros., Zelda, Megaman, and the list goes on.
Sometimes, the misogyny was undeniable. In one of the original Atari games, Custer’s Revenge, the main character is rewarded for his success with a naked squaw, whom he rapes while she is tied to a pole. The graphics are horribly pixelated, but there’s no mistaking the main character’s erect penis. Gamers are supposed to find this humorous.
Fast-forward to 2015, and games have come a long way. More female characters have made their game debuts, but as Sarkeesian points out, we still see few who make for satisfying, independent play, if you’re a woman. In 1986, one of the first games to make their badass, alien-annihilating main character a woman, Metroid, did so only by subterfuge. Samus Aron’s name is no indication of gender, and throughout the game, players only see a heavily armored and helmeted, somewhat humanoid warrior figure. Only if the player defeats the game will they discover the truth: when the credits role, their character strips off the manly body armor to reveal… a Barbie-doll in a bathing suit. Surprise! You’ve been fighting aliens with a stripper in disguise! I doubt any thirteen-year-old hetero male was disappointed. But, I was.
I was not impressed to see the badass Samus Aron stripped down to her underwear, as if that’s what made her a female. And the sad fact is, games haven’t stopped doing this.
But, they’re starting to change their game. Although tried gender tropes, stereotypes, and other offenses to female capability abound, even in those games (such as Diablo) that offer equally powerful female options, the landscape of gaming grows more welcoming to women every year. The question is: Is that because women already comprise 48% of gamers – up from 40% in 2010 -- or is that what's drawn women back? With that kind of growth, women may already share 50% of the gaming audience today.
That’s how it started for me. Knowing my established dislike of games, my partner (then my boyfriend) introduced me to the LEGO series of games. I loved LEGOs as a kid, and I loved Stars Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter – all of which LEGO parodies and recreates in their amusing story lines. As a result, female characters are not only fully dressed, they are powerful, playable characters. From there, my partner scoped out other great games that feature female options for game play and depict them accordingly. He wanted to share something he enjoyed with me, and he wanted me to enjoy it, too. Now, when I play a video game, I don't feel like I’ve accidentally stumbled into a Playboy magazine; I feel like I belong.
The more women, and men who care about and want to share a game with women, play video games, the more we’ll see these expanded options for women in games. Despite what GamerGaters claim, people like Sarkeesian are not trying to censor games – they’re not demanding a halt to prostitutes or even violence against women in gaming. What people like Sarkeesian, and people like me, want to see are more options. We want to find more than one game on the Gamestop shelf that doesn’t violently rape and murder women in order to motivate male heroes. We want more than one game in which the female characters are playable, strong, and dressed in sensible costumes. We want to not see breasts every time we turn on a game.
The old song that women don’t play video games has been put to rest, but it made a lot of sense in its time. Many women didn’t play video games…because video games sucked for women. Video games used women. They abused women.
But, gaming companies aren’t stupid. The more we play, the more big developers like Rockstar Games (the makers of Grant Theft Auto, which doesn’t have playable women because apparently stealing cars and being a criminal is strictly “masculine”) will realize there’s a much bigger market in expanding their views on women and what women enjoy.
Because women like to virtually blow shit up, too, sometimes.