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Patriarchy in Gaming and Anita Sarkeesian
Anita Sarkeesian. Articulate and thoroughly researched, yet refreshingly limpid and accessible, she has made a name for herself as a mordant theorist, a sapper beyond the hallowed walls of an industry plagued by a reductive paradigm of male-centrism.
Simply, the number of women playing video games will soon eclipse that of men, and it’s time for representation to reflect that.
As the gaming community becomes more democratized, as video game fans continue to supervene stereotypes and become more vocal in petitioning diversification of the narratives that represent them in their alternate universes, new voices, inchoate critiques have taken root in the stale earth of gaming’s elite.
Gamers are becoming aware, largely through exposure through the work of critics like Anita Sarkeesian, of an insidious profiling of women in video games. A mandate of objectification and satiation of male libido evident in the distillation of topic and commentary by a sales diagnostic pandering to an assumed misogyny in the consumer base. An outcome also symptomatic of a more endemic ignorance as to the reductive impact of such profiling in the creative and editorial nexus of gaming companies worldwide. Sarkeesian’s call for more inclusive games is a timely one. With gamergate showcasing the fragility of male egoism when it comes to including women in positions of influence, the need for sustained criticism of this new-era sexist blackmail should be obvious to gamers. An influx of indie games and developers operating outside of the ‘old boys club’ of big corporations has accompanied a new critical grammar in the discussion of gaming.
Sexism and sexualized violence are not limited to trashy bargain bin blood baths either. Well-designed, otherwise thought provoking and skillfully written games like Bioshock 2 depict the torture, maiming and sexualized slaughter of female Non Playable Characters (NPCs) as the apotheosis of inevitable events both viewed real-time by the player and retrospectively in set pieces – a disturbing commonality in gaming Sarkeesian refers to in her breakdown of tropes. The concept that violence against women is often used simply to underscore a particularly nasty villain as being amoral; lazy writing at best. People who say that ‘men have violence/abuse perpetrated against them too’ are simply missing the point that male privilege is a thing that exists and prevalence rates in sexual violence – whether that be in video games or in real life – is unquestionably geared to the detriment of women. There’s something altogether self-evident, painfully axiomatic about Sarkeesian’s analyses. Why, when females make up close to 50% of the community (numbers continue to rise), are they represented almost solely through the lascivious male gaze and at the mercy of machismo bloated narratives? Why are women disproportionately harassed through the monster-making veil of internet anonymity? The answer is certainly not something I would or could attribute to a single cause.
It’s easy enough to condemn the 8 year old in his parent’s basement spewing gendered four letter profanities through an Xbox headset, or the pseudo-intellectual wannabe condottieri-type youtube-commenting vigilantes, espousing ever more fatuous, asinine projections of bruised pride and insecurity onto feminism. But save for a staunch pessimist or a subscriber to sexist psychological archaisms, the problem can only be conceived of as systemic. I’m not at all here encouraging the abandonment of individual culpability for online harassment, cowardly and testosterone fueled displays of dominance should always be condemned, but the youtube commentators are the hydra heads of a much larger problem.
My speculation on the matter is it likely originates in the inculcation of misogynistic sentiments and the permissibility of entitlement and male privilege in the instant diagnostic of mass media. Concretized gender roles and archetypal definitions of femininity and masculinity on TV, in film and video games feed into a turbulent gyre of misinformation and programmatic assertions of privilege that becomes magnified by the twice removed medium of virtual reality. When a company creates video games, they often fail to consider the implications of what they see as not having any real existence. What is ostensibly ‘just a game’. Harmful internalization, ingestion of un-filtered gender stereotypes is especially localized in the gaming community where apathy is almost inherent in occupying the role of an often psychopathic, brutal protagonist like the pale, burly Kronos from God of War. To paraphrase Sarkeesian, facile claims of ‘but it’s historical accuracy!’ or ‘it’s the necessary font of context!’ fall woefully short of a defense of misogyny when you consider the ludicrous physics, gratuitous dragon additions and jerry-rigged narratives of nearly any game in the spirit of “context”, no matter how steeped in history it might be. If you’re taking artistic liberties with people surviving 200 meter falls and being shot repeatedly with historically inaccurate firearms to no long term detriment, surely you can also take artistic liberty to the end of eliminating sexualized violence against women and women as props for male anger and as insignificant window dressing for your game. It’s not difficult to see an alarming emergence of extant power differentials and wish-fulfillment in the vagaries of random women as disposable body shields in Assassin’s Creed or two-dimensional princesses as monster fodder damsels in titles like The Legend of Zelda.
But what can be done about it?
As we’ve seen in the admirable accountability of Nintendo for the recent same sex marriage controversy in Animal Crossing and apologetic sentiments from the studio head at 343 for recent technical issues with the Master Chief Collection, the biggest corporate entities and developers are engaging in fan base representation and reciprocity. Sarkeesian’s work, more specifically her series, ‘Tropes Vs Women in Video Games’ is not only a valuable educational tool and a sobering forensic device, but also much-needed inspiration for female voices in the stifling world of chest beating, tie-wearing apes and dastardly, beard twisting archvillains disposing of objectified female presences. Enduring much unwarranted vitriol and self-abasing pseudo-intellectual ‘critique’, which I don’t have the space to criticize here, she has become an integral influence in shaping the open discourse with a previously insular community. A creative force going unchecked in canonizing gender disparities from larger issues of mass psychology in the gaming universe.
I know personally, I’m playing many of my favorite titles more than a little disturbed by the manufactured consent to female degradation in visual story-telling. Even my absolute favorite game, Super Metroid, a title I would have considered as far removed from misogyny as possible, with its self-propelled female protagonist overcoming tragedy and isolation, is polluted by a distinct lack of characterization and the notoriously gratuitous bikini scene upon the best possible completion – portraying women as a sexualized prize for completion. Extricating the mendacity of male totality in the industry is definitely still a work in progress. The debate is open and continues to draw in echoes of Sarkeesian’s work and nascent criticisms of their own ilk from across conventional demographic divides.
Equality in representation is an issue for all gamers and all consumers of media narrative. The reductive representations that Sarkeesian continues to wrest from obscurity are harmful to men in the belligerent, manipulative character traits they write into the brand of protagonist masculinity. More self-evidently of course, to women: as further addendum to an already over-full errata of semantic, syntactical, symbolic oppression, nonsensical binary classifications and demonization undergone by women on a daily basis. We all want to be represented, right? Not too much to ask.
Sarkeesian best sums up what it means to endorse her ardent critique when she asked Stephen Colbert whether or not he believed in equal rights for women. Colbert responded in the affirmative, as we could imagine any reasonable, rational person in the 21st century would. She responded, ‘great, then you’re a feminist’.
That goes for all of us.
So before you open up a youtube tab, crack your knuckles and consider a vacuous tirade against the need for feminism in gaming, take another look at Sarkeesian’s videos, consider the power gradient, the deleterious representations of women and acknowledge that women are under/misrepresented. Then ask yourself the same question: ‘do I believe in equal rights for men and women?’. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to get behind calls to affirmative action like Sarkeesian’s as the logical propulsion for gaming equality and stop bandying about ad hominem mealy-mouthing in an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to hold together the late gaming patriarchy.