Gender and Video Games

Kassie Hartendorp

Anita Sarkeesian

Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian

Earlier this year, feminist media critic, Anita Sarkeesian created a Kickstarter project to raise funds in order to explore tropes of women within popular video games. The project raised a backlash from the male gaming communities who launched a vicious online attack against Sarkeesian. This included abusive emails, blog posts, and social networking comments of a sexist and racist nature. The attacks also involved the creation of hate sites, Wikipedia vandalism (editing her page with crude messages and porn until it was locked) and hacking/DDOSing her website. There was even an online game made called ‘Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian’ which allows the player to ‘beat the b**** up’ until bruises and welts appeared on her face.

Many observed the events in shock and disgust as the attacks rolled in, while others were sadly unsurprised at the outpouring of misogyny towards a seemingly small and harmless venture. To feminist critics, especially those involved in gaming and the internet, this backlash was a manifestation of a wider problem. As background, the gaming industry itself is widely understood to be a male-dominated sector, with only 11 percent of gaming developers being women. There are many contributing factors to this; some argue that technology and gaming have historically been seen as the domain of boys and men. This perception (reinforced by the lack of outreach to females) is argued to have been a barrier to girls playing and enjoying video games, and therefore, creating a lack of motivation to pursue work in the industry. With few women involved in the development process, the cycle tends to continue over and over again.

Those women who do pursue jobs in the gaming industry, like in other sectors, often find themselves up against the ‘glass ceiling’ which only allows them to reach a certain point in their career. The gaming industry is known for its long hours and killer ‘crunch times’ where employees are expected to work overtime for lengthy periods prior to a game launch. The job of a game developer requires a high amount of dedication; making it difficult to sustain if a worker has outside commitments such as childcare, domestic work or is caring for a family member. On top of this, the sector is a ‘glamour industry’ much like the filming world.  People get involved in the field often because they have an immense passion for the work itself. This means gaming companies can afford to maintain such high expectations and low working conditions, for as soon as one employee drops out of the race, another will gladly take up the position. In this environment, it can mean there is no incentive to create women-friendly or parent-friendly working environments.

Withn this setting, it has become easy for video games to reproduce harmful stereotypes against minorities. Very few game developers set out to be deliberately oppressive, but without the involvement of workers from diverse backgrounds and identities, many will never identify or challenge the problems of negative representation. When an industry is reinforcing that very structural oppression itself, it makes it even more difficult to break through the stereotypes and create something that is more inclusive and appealing to players who do not fit into the Western, while, straight, male mold.

This isn’t to mean that companies are not trying, groups such as Women in Gaming have been tackling this issue, and there are companies such as Minority Media? who are coming up with new and inclusive ways of incorporating diversity into video games. However, the attack on Sarkeesian was a harsh reminder that the gaming world is still a stronghold by a certain demographic – one which isn’t looking to let go any time soon.

Sarkeesian has shown great courage throughout this ordeal, but she shouldn’t have to. She has reported that she’s keeping her crew anonymous at this time, as she simply does not want to have them subjected to similar attacks that she has experienced. The project only intended to explore and challenge the current stereotypes within gaming, and yet that was still considered too large a threat. In regards to the ‘Beat Up Anita’ game, Sarkeesian has said that:

 “I think its important to keep in mind that this domestic violence ‘game’ and its creator are only a symptom of the much larger cultural problem called misogyny. The problem is a society-wide epidemic that reaches far beyond the vile actions of one individual.”

Some have commented on the way that anonymity has impacted how the project has been responded to. It is disconcerting that when a large number of online users are able to conceal their identity, they react in an abusive way towards women. Anonymity allows people to express their prejudice without consequence, but it makes it hard to tell whether such views are widespread or merely in a loud-voiced minority. One thing this is for certain, and that is that the gaming world and the related spaces on the internet can still be difficult places to be for those who do not fit the accepted norm, or who challenge their roles and expectations.

Further reading

http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/internet/2012/07/what-online-harassment-looks

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/1224659–gamer-campaign-against-anita-sarkeesian-catches-toronto-feminist-in-crossfire

http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2012/07/09/feminist-blogger-is-a-victim-of-a-vicious-videogame-retaliation/2/

http://www.develop-online.net/news/36730/Seven-day-crunch-for-two-months-at-THQ-studio

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