[Trigger Warning: this post contains graphic images of simulated physical abuse and may be triggering to survivors of such treatment.]
It is news to no one that video games often rely on visual stereotypes when it comes to female characters. I can practically hear a collective “duh” resounding out there across the Web. Growing up, one of my nicknames in high school was Red Sonja (a character from the game Mortal Kombat), earned solely by virtue of my relatively early bustiness. (I decided that my nickname meant I was badass and promptly learned how to use her character to beat all of my male friends in the game.) The intricacies and use of female imagery in media like video games is not a new subject, but Anita Sarkeesian’s recent attempt to apply a feminist eye to the culture of video games resulted in some interesting responses.
Canadian-American Anita Sarkeesian runs a blog called The Feminist Frequency, on feature of which is the online video series Tropes Vs. Women. This series discusses the female stereotypes abounding in movies, TV, and comics. During her TedxWomen talk Sarkeesian speaks about being “used to” a level of abuse for her views on pop culture. Things escalated in May of 2012 when she posted a Kickstarter page hoping to raise 6,000 dollars in 24 hours to fund a five-video series, Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games.
This simple action incited an almost immediate and intensely violent reaction from the online gaming community. In an effort that indicated organization and utilized ongoing fear tactics, gamers from across the globe sent rape and death threats to Sarkeesian, hacked her Wikipedia page with sexist and racist language along with pornographic images, and also tagged her Facebook and Kickstarter pages as fraudulent in an attempt to get her kicked off. People even tried to access and publish her personal information. Scary.
Anita Sarkeesian says that she was struck by the organization of this “cybermob.” The people working to intimidate her were working together and attempting to escalate the cyber harassment by one-upping each other. There was even a game that was published for one day (before getting removed) that allowed players to “beat Anita” by clicking on a picture of Sarkeesians’ face that progressively showed her more and more battered.
Obvs, Sarkeesian did not back down. Word spread and the support rolled in—Sarkeesian ended up with almost 7,000 contributers on her Kickstarter which succeeded in raising near to 160,000 dollars. She was able to not only fund thirteen videos but also provide a complementary classroom curriculum for free. Inadvertently, the misogynistic backlash against her project made it much more successful.
Sarkeesian has used her experience to talk about the push to change gaming culture. She highlights that the campaign against her was repeatedly referred to as a “game” while the weapons of intimidation used against her almost invariably had to do with her gender. The argument against her producing these videos often cited her feminist stance & inability to fairly critique her subject. This kind of sexist rhetoric is almost a stereotype in itself of the “angry middle-aged male misogynist gamer”.
Awareness of an issue is one of the first and best ways to incite change. In her TedxWomen talk, Sarkeesian speaks calmly about her experience and actively wants to educate people about the underlying sexism within the gaming culture. You can almost smell the sour fear wafting off of the YouTube video responses posted by irate gamers to her public win. Sarkeesian has also been invited to participate in the creation of new female characters in upcoming video games. She is confident from her overwhelming support that there is a shifting tide in the culture of gaming that involves a more realistic portrayal of women. With input from a strong, feminist viewpoint like hers, especially at the development phase, I imagine that we can look forward to more positive representation in video games. Maybe someday, young women will come to be nicknamed after flat-chested badass feminist lovin’ characters, instead of Red Sonja.