A story about gamers hurling threats and insults at a woman caught my eye today on the front page.
Critic and Vlogger Anita Sarkasian recently launched a Kickstarter project that aims to look at women in games. As a result, she has been the victim of ridicule and defamation on various online forums and message boards and she has been personally harassed through a number of channels.
First of all, disclaimer: I don't meet people like this and it always surprises me when i hear about them. No game enthusiast I know would hammer a keyboard just to call a woman names over a disagreement.
I know the common reaction to this type of hate speech is to dismiss it as a group of trolls and 4chan users but I think there's a bit more to it. Beneath the misogynistic comments I can see normal users getting very hurt and defensive over a perceived accusation that something they like or appreciate is sexist. Somehow many gamers have a short fuse if they hear that the things they like are shallow or filled with predictable stereotypes. Now I for one am surprised at this reaction.
Not because I didn't think there were gamers who said sexist things about someone they disagreed with. I was surprised because I naturally assumed that many gamers either don't care about character or story as a whole or that they just looked past these things in games. So why would someone get so bent out of shape if a critic decided to take this medium's stories seriously and look at the game they routinely play because they can decapitate aliens and start picking its gender roles apart? I'd predict a reaction like : "Wow, what a stunning waste of time your project is. They're video games, a lot of us skip cutscenes because we know the stories are hackneyed and stupid. Yeah, they're probably sexist and two-dimensional, Anita, but we wouldn't know, we couldn't tell you what happened in the story if our family was being held at gunpoint."
To me it shows that someone has this mindset where they feel that an attack on something they like is an attack on them. "You play games? Well, these games you like are filled with shallow objectification of women." So these people might feel as though they are being accused of endorsing shallow objectification. So they lash out and try to act like it's somehow the female author's bias and her feminist agenda.
To these people I say, please relax. You already have the perfect response: "I couldn't care less about the idea of story as a whole. I don't endorse these sexist portrayals, I don't even give a shit about them."
To gamers who really do value these things in games and believe that the medium does not have a problem with its portrayals, I also give the relaxation advice. I would like to add that I think games have plenty of good stories with well-made characters that are diverse and representative, but on a larger scale the game industry has problems with female representations. Arguably problems similar to those of television and film and problems that are worth discussing.
I've seen some of Sarkasian's work so far and I think she's pretty similar to an average critic but she focuses more on issues related to gender. I say more because she also touches on plot holes and storytelling. It looks like she's trying to critically explore the topic of gender in games rather than make generalizations. This isn't like some critic with no real experience in the world of games writing an article about how games are silly and childish and misogynistic. She's got a structured approach that will actually study the topic well.
If you take a look at Sarkasian's kickstarter she mentions a list of different tropes in female game characters; she doesn't simply want to play games and shout 'Why is that girl's cleavage showing?! Why is she curvacious?! Oh, this makes the hair on my unshaven legs stand!'. She's breaking it down and making specific criticisms based on a set of tropes. Once again, her approach is no different from any other critic or reviewer, she'll just be looking more at elements concerning gender. As with any critic, much of it may seem overanalytic. Is the princess really a 'reward' for the platformer hero? Is this or that character shown as being villainous because she's unattractive? We'll decide that when Sarkasian makes her arguments. Obviously we may have to navigate a swath of profanity-laden insult posts to discuss it, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Now I do agree with some people that this is an industry where in many games the writing and character development is, at best, phoned in. But that doesn't preclude the need for a thorough look at its shortcomings. If you're a gamer that doesn't care for story and characters in general then you can just go ahead and ignore this series.
If you want games with context then I think you would be interested in a work that explores the development of female characters. It's a debate worth having because of this phenomenon's effect on female gamers, the social role of games and of course the substance of the stories themselves. The game industry may not acknowledge this and we may not see much change, but it's worth understanding the topic a bit better.