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Opinion: Is it really Anita Sarkeesian vs videogames? I don't think so – criticism is essential

I agree with Sarkeesian that the gaming industry has problems relating to sexism and violence, but I also see that it has matured a lot recently.

Conor Reynolds

“JUST PUTTING IT out there, you deserve all those death threats you are getting”.

This was a tweet send to Anita Sarkeesian’s Twitter account. It was accompanied by a 156 other tweets that week, most of which contained rape, bomb and death threats. The one above is the only one I feel should be republished here; I would rather not fuel the trolls and the rest are just outright abusive. Sarkeesian published the list of 157 tweets she received, over just one week in January, on her Tumblr page to show the abuse she receives on a daily basis.

In 2009 Anita Sarkeesian created Feminist Frequency, a website that analyses popular culture and highlights the negative representation of women in media. After receiving finance through a crowd funding campaign in 2012, Sarkeesian produced a series called Tropes Vs Women in Videogames, in which she critiques the videogame industry’s portrayal of women. To say that some gamers took offence to her feminist views is an understatement. The threats have also had repercussions in the physical world, as a talk Sarkeesian was supposed to give in a Utah University had to be cancelled due to an email threating a school massacre if she spoke.

Damsels in Distress

In her YouTube video Damsels in Distress, she analyses the popular game plot device of the hero having a close female friend or family member captured, resulting in a crusade or journey to free them. Princess Peach in the Mario game series is the classic example she uses. She then goes on to show how this has been repeatedly reused throughout the years, all the way up to modern-day games.

I agree with her; why should we continue to see the Damsel in Distress plot used again and again? It is sexist and does imply that women are weak and need to be rescued. The use of this plot mechanic is also just lazy storytelling by developers – that rescuing the damsel is the driving force for the character, with no need to give a protagonist a more complex characterisation or incentive.

One of her best observations is about overt or over-the-top displays of sexist violence in videogames, like the scene in Grand Theft Auto 4 when the main character has to kidnap a women and while she complains in an intentionally irritating way, proceeds to beat her unconscious in the car journey, and proclaims “peace at last” with relief afterwards. These displays are put in by developers in an attempt to be humorous, ie ‘wouldn’t it be funny if the world was this cruel?’. Yet women are attacked and abused every day across the world and being humorous about sexism dismisses and belittles it.

The wider picture 

I am personally a feminist, shoot me for believing in equal rights for all people. Anita Sarkeesian’s videos raise really important issues of sexism and violence against women in videogames.

Very small sections of the videogame community have jumped on her videos just to hurl misogynistic abuse at what they feel is an attack on their property. Sarkeesian’s critics, the ones not throwing rape threats, have pointed out that she stole artwork from a website cowkitty.net for use in her Kickstarter campaign, which is true, but once the owner raised this online Sarkeesian apologised and dealt with the issue. There have also being complaints about her using gameplay footage captured by other players in her videos, and the now unfolding argument over how she has spent the $160,000 she received from the Kickstarter campaign to make these videos.

This is an ad hominem approach – playing the player, not the ball. Many in the community just want to talk about her character in an attempt to discredit the critiques she makes in her videos.

The industry has problems, but it has matured over the past number of years

However, Anita Sarkeesian isn’t highlighting issues that some of us in the gaming and journalistic community have not been talking about. Game developer Jean-Maxime Moris in an interview with Penny Arcade, openly spoke about encountering resistance in the industry while trying to push a lead female character in a game. Remember Me is a futuristic action game centred on the story of a female protagonist called Nilin. Jean-Maxime Moris commented that some publishers told him that ‘you can’t’ have a female character, that it wouldn’t work and that they didn’t want to publish it as it would not be a success. Thankfully, Remember Me was made and Nilin’s story was told. Yet it is deeply worrying that an idea would be shot down solely on the basis that a woman was the lead character.

The videogame industry has its problems of sexism and violence against women, yet it has also matured over the last five years. Tomb Raider and heroine Lara Croft recently got a relaunch, and the game’s developers Crystal Dynamics hired Rhianna Pratchett to write the game’s storyline. The finished product was a critically acclaimed game with a strong female lead.

And the most notable female character of recent times has to be Ellie in The Last of Us, a female character that has a level of depth and scope that is rarely seen in most Oscar-winning films.

Time for an open discussion 

Like the film industry before it, videogames have their problems and legacies, but now is the time for us to have an open discussion. Let us, like Anita Sarkeesian has begun, continue to publicly criticise the industry and publicly denounce the cowards who hurl hate from their keyboards.

If giving constructive criticism, future developers can build strong characters and, in doing so, strengthen the quality of the industry’s product. As Winston Churchill said “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Conor Reynolds is a student journalist living in Dublin with an interest in current affairs and the video game industry. Outside of writing he has a great love for radio and audio production.

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Conor Reynolds

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