Women, Gaming, & Violence
What happens when a woman wants to study images of women in the gaming world?
Anita Sarkeesian’s blog, Feminist Frequency, is a great resource for anyone thinking about gender in media and technology. Her YouTube clips on female types in movies are short, pithy, and smart. Sociology has a long history of analyzing different constructed typologies, something I wrote about here, and Sarkeesian’s video about the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope (think Natalie Portman in the film Garden State) is as good an example as any of how characters are crafted and reproduced in the digital age.
Building from this project, Sarkeesian wanted to make a web series examining portrayals of women in video games, so she went to Kickstarter (a crowdsourcing site, where anyone can launch projects for others to help fund for as little as a dollar). She hoped to raise $6,000. Her key hypothesis is that there are some well-worn tropes in an overly masculinized virtual world of online video games.
As I read about Sarkeesian’s project, I was also reading a futuristic novel for my university’s Common Read program: Ernest Cline’s gaming adventure, Ready Player One. It’s a coming-of-age journey set in a virtual world with lots of 1980s pop culture and gaming references. More often than not, these kinds of tales are about a young man entering adulthood through a series of trials, and this book is no different. There are all sorts of connections to race, class, technology, and education, too. It’s a fun, quick read.
Like almost every rite-of-passage story, Ready Player One’s Wade (and his online persona, Parzival) has a romantic storyline alongside the one about the protagonist’s self-discovery. Since the majority of the book is spent in an online world called OASIS, there’s only one female virtual character, Art3mis, and she happens to serve as the object of Wade’s affection. There are some surprises in this regard, and Cline makes an effort to toy with online gender roles. Art3mis, for example, isn’t a damsel in distress, but rather an online tough guy. She’s the object of affection, and a worthy gamer in her own right.
Cline only hints that Art3mis is teased online for her perceived gender, but real-life women who game suffer from constant harassment. Women, according to the Entertainment Software Association (a computer and video game trade association), comprise 47 percent of players, and adult women are a larger demographic than boys 17 or younger (30 percent to 18 percent). Still, they are the focus of intense online scrutiny, as the New York Times described in a recently published article. One gamer catalogs all the attention she gets on her blog Fat, Ugly, or Slutty? This returns us to Sakeesian’s Kickstarter fundraising campaign.
It turns out that some men in the gaming community didn’t care for Sarkeesian’s proposed documentary, and she started getting a lot of negative attention. Her website was hit with Denial of Service attacks (DDOSing) and her blog and Facebook accounts were flooded with sexist images, including a cartoon of her naked, tied up with a Wii (gaming console) cord and with a controller shoved into her mouth, and being raped by the video game character SuperMario. Moreover, in July 2012, 25-year-old Ben Spurr created a game inviting players to “punch this bitch in the face.”
The game’s author said on his Twitter feed he "just" wanted to make her listen.
Sarkeesian documents the harassment on her website, and discusses the fracas on the CBC. It is hard to prove a causal link between violence and video games, but some research indicates that playing games like Metal of Honor and Call of Duty (a game that 32-year-old Swede Anders Behring Breivik said he used as a "training simulation” to murder 77 people in Oslo in 2011, even attaching a video game sight on his real-life rifle), increases aggression (see some research here and a counter-argument here). Whether or not you believe that video games can cause aggression, let’s just remember that Sarkeesian was merely proposing to look into stereotypes of women in video games.
To Cline’s credit, the story arc of Art3mis available in Ready Player One has its tropes too, but Cline doesn’t let her fall into the damsel-in-distress image. She holds her own alongside the men as a worthy adversary, sharp problem solver, and compatriot for Wade/Parvizal. Cline makes the stereotypes of gender in the gaming world complex enough without getting too overwrought. I’ll stop there so as to not give anything away.
As for Sarkeesian, the good news is that she received a lot of positive attention from all the negative attacks. In response to the hate, the supportive backlash created $150,000 more funding than the $6,000 she hoped for. I look forward to seeing what Sarkeesian does with the extra money.