In October of 1982, a little known video game developer published Custer’s Revenge, an unlicensed title for the Atari 2600 game console. The gameplay featured a pixilated General George Armstrong Custer, complete with cavalry hat and enormous erection, as he dodged arrows on his way from one end of the game map to the other, where there was an Indian princess tied to a pole whom he would then rape.
Outcry over the game’s content came from Native American groups, women’s rights advocates, and parents. It generated a slew of headlines, protests, and lawsuits, including even Atari attempting to sue developer Mystique. Yet the controversy helped the game sell 80,000 copies, generating a $3.9 million windfall for a game built around the sadistic rape of a captive woman.
Custer’s Revenge eventually became a tiny footnote in gaming’s past. And even though Mystique folded shortly after the game’s release, it set a disturbing precedent for the role of women in video games. Crude 1980s graphics or not, it is these types of precedents that weigh heavily on the mind of gamer culture commentator Anita Sarkeesian.
When it comes to video games and social science, few characters are as polarizing as Anita Sarkeesian. But it wasn’t until approximately three months ago, when she uploaded her crowdfunded tour de force “Damsel in Distress: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” that she drew the enmity of, well, seemingly everyone.
For over three years, Sarkeesian has tackled a wide range of feminist related issues under the banner of her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, criticizing not just video game developers, but movies, TV shows, novels, corporations, and other such institutions, about how women are used and portrayed in the media. Like a lot of other YouTube pundits, Sarkeesian’s work went largely unnoticed by the mainstream until her appearance at the TEDxWomen conference last year helped highlight her “Damsel in Distress” series, it’s Kickstarter campaign, and the harassment she experienced in the wake of her Kickstarter’s success, not to mention after uploading part 1 of the series this past March.
But Sarkeesian is no stranger to controversy or harassment. Before her mainstream exposure, gamers and media hounds had long caught on to her YouTube series, and despite her exasperated testimony that she was a gamer-girl at heart, her views on game culture’s well-documented misogynistic tendencies made her the whipping boy for every pallid, smart-mouthed gamer yutz from here to Hanoi.
Unlike fellow pro-gamer girl groups like the Frag Dolls or Team Unicorn, Sarkeesian’s approach to bridging the feminist divide in gaming culture is purely academic. In the pitch video to her Kickstarter campaign, she boasted that her series would be “well-researched, with in-depth analysis,” thorough in its mission to expose the root cause of misogyny in contemporary gaming.
Sarkeesian’s main argument in part 1 of her Damsel in Distress series is that video games have overused a degrading and disrespectful stereotype of women as powerless and helpless victims often in need of rescue. Add in the condition of usually being the object of all’s desires, the female characters in video games are reduced to being the possessions of whatever males currently have them.
Sarkeesian, to her credit, provides an overwhelming amount of examples to back up her claim, even indicting the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda franchises as archetypal cornerstones of this modern misogynistic paradigm. Though she is forgiving of older games and the infancy of their storytelling, she becomes less tolerant of it as game development moves into the 21st century, and hostile towards the tropes’ continued usage, especially when modern tastes demand edgier content, thus relying more and more on the victimization of women.
She is further incensed by how this victimization takes on increasingly grotesque tones, citing ad nauseam in part 2 how female characters in video games are routinely kidnapped, held hostage, mutilated, and in some cases raped and murdered, more often than not, as a means to spur male protagonists to action. Sarkeesian’s evidence is compelling, and sympathetic audiences will be inclined to agree, even if made to feel guilty for having just rescued Princess Peach from Bowser’s reptilian grasp yet again.
But it was that exact same need for guilt that motivated the internet backlash that has dogged Sarkeesian ever since she uploaded part 1 of “Damsel in Distress”. Gamers are an opinionated lot and, similar to any hobbyist, get royally pissed when you tell them that their preferred passion is not only maligning a vast segment of humanity, but makes them a bad person for participating in it.
Sarkeesian’s point of view outraged even the most liberal of gamers, even women, many of whom took to YouTube to respond, declining to sexualize gaming in such a way, arguing that Sarkeesian was not being fair to the whole range of games available. And they were right. Sarkeesian’s view stems largely from her education at California State University Northridge, and York University in her native Canada. It is a by-the-numbers academic script that any time women are not in control of any given situation, they are victims instead.
And like any good media pundit, Sarkeesian elects to ignore all contrary evidence to her claim. Even her brief lip service to games like Mirror’s Edge (2008) and Beyond Good and Evil (2003), which both feature female protagonists, are quickly overridden in favor of reviling post-modern gaming’s anti-woman themes. But her claims rapidly dry up in view of exactly how influential female characters have been in the world of gaming.
For one thing, Sarkeesian ignores the prolific and wildly popular genre of role-playing games, mostly because those titles tend to incorporate strong female characters as a matter of routine. Squaresoft’s seminal 1997 classic Final Fantasy VII incorporated not one, but two strong female characters into its narrative, Tifa Lockhart and Aeris Gainsborough. Like a lot of RPGs, Final Fantasy VII is centered on one particular character, Cloud Stryfe, and the support characters and their relationships to him help move the story forward.
Sarkeesian might argue that Tifa and Aeris are merely waypoints to Cloud’s progression, but in Final Fantasy VII, Tifa and Aeris are not background characters; they are inseparable to the plot. Not only that, each character’s background and story is explored in depth. To say that they were marginalized in any way is akin to saying James Michener didn’t put enough detail in his books. It is absurd.
Sarkeesian’s argument also dissolves in the face of a game like Dragon Age: Origins whose female protagonists include sorceress Morrigan and the bard Liliana. The player may also play the game as a woman, so if a female gamer elected to play a female character, the detail put into fleshing out Morrigan and Liliana’s background stories reflects this option, conscious of developing female characters as realistically as possible.
Despite Sarkeesian’s protests to the contrary, game developers are more cognizant these days of how women should be portrayed, and while they may fall back on old reliable tropes to reach their core audience of male gamers, games like RPGs, both of the single-player and the Massively Multiplayer Online varieties are reaching out to women and reaping the profits. The writing, and the ability to choose your own gender, offer incredible new depth to storytelling.
And therein lies the great criticism of Sarkeesian: She isn’t really criticizing video games but is actually criticizing storytelling. Her outrage at overused tropes does not expose a misogynistic flaw but instead highlights how many modern games are boring, predictable, aimed at pre-teen boys, quick to titillate, and willing to sacrifice any semblance of thought-out content in favor of huge explosions and boobs.
Consider what a video game is: It is actually not the interactive medium Sarkeesian wants it to be; Douglas Rushkoff dispensed with that notion in his essay “The Information Arms Race” back in 1999. Video games are simply another form of storytelling, one that comes with a prescribed way for the player to interact with the game’s environment, and a deliberate, immutable path to the game’s conclusion.
Most games come with only one form of interaction. In action games, it is usually some form of violence. This restricts the developer in terms of what kind of story they can tell. And what the gamer community routinely pointed out to Sarkeesian was that if the only way to move the story forward was to mete out some form of violence, then simple tropes of power, revenge, lust, hate, despair, and madness, were easy ways to move such themes forward, given the games’ structure around dealing several metric tons worth of cans of whoop-ass.
Sarkeesian might call these “male power fantasies” but Bayonetta, Heavenly Sword, and Lollipop Chainsaw are all enormously popular among female gamers. Sarkeesian points out that certain indie games explore these same themes without resorting to violence and misogyny, but that isn’t the real crux of her problem.
Unfortunately for Sarkeesian, her main antagonist is actually the video game industry, and they are not driven by ideology, but by profit. Game developers can change the way in which players interact with the game world, but they fear losing their core audience and the support of the game publisher. Games that appeal to men sell better than games that appeal to women, or at least this is the crutch the games industry relies on. Moreover, games that would appeal to women often appeal to men too, especially if a plucky dame needs to get out of some ridiculous trouble.
Sarkeesian is just as quick to turn her back on, and minimize, positive contributions to feminine advances in gaming as she is to demonize the most egregious of titles and developers. This is due to the variation of feminism she subscribes to, and it is a woefully outdated one as far as academicians go. She has argued in her written work that characters like Faith from Mirror’s Edge or Jade from Beyond Good and Evil are not actually female, but are instead male characters tucked into female forms, as they aspire to “traditionally” masculine ideals, such as stoicism, stunted emotions, and violence. She adds that embracing these characteristics too fully removes all aspects of femininity from the character. To compensate, these impostor female characters are often written with other “traditionally” feminine qualities, and ultimately portrayed as unstable or naive. Again, Sarkeesian’s evidence is compelling, as there are many characters that fit this mold.
But modern feminism rejects such notions. The idea that women would not deign to, nor aspire to, occupations or actions typically done by men, nevermind excel at them, not only denigrates men and the value of their work, but infantilizes women’s abilities and further serves to segregate gender roles in popular culture. In other words, a woman is equally badass at wielding an AR-15 as she is taking pictures. Or raising children. Or running a Fortune 100 company. Or winning athletic competitions. These games, those with female protagonists, serve to inspire and perpetuate that precise fact.
Now, world circumstances are likely the product of male influence and interference, but since several thousand years of social evolution cannot be undone, the best we can do is allow women, and the female characters we invent, to make their own decisions. Sarkeesian’s “female but really male” doctrine strips all of that away, attempting to redefine women on her terms, not theirs. By subtracting all roles of masculine origin, restricting and limiting the number of options for female roles, Sarkeesian actually commits the same act that men did for thousands of years: she’s telling women what to do. She may have earned almost $160k from her Kickstarter campaign, but her supporters probably didn’t expect getting told off would be an additional perk.
Sarkeesian is also cagey when it comes to what she thinks are acceptable portrayals of behavior by women in video games. Often, her videos are quick to blame the parties who get women wrong in their video games and movies, but she rarely offers insight into what she wants or thinks is acceptable. However, we get a glimpse of her ideas in her video about the Hunger Games film, wherein she describes Katniss Everdeen’s elaborate funerary rites for fellow tribute Rue as a near perfect example of truly feminine behavior in an action movie, then lambasts the character for hardly acknowledging Foxface’s sudden passing minutes later.
Of course, in the story, Katniss didn’t develop a relationship with Foxface at all, whereas Rue was a close friend. Katniss’ dismissal of Foxface’s death was about as realistic as one could imagine. But Sarkeesian doesn’t like it, designating it a critical lapse in portraying the character as feminine. Given that children are not routinely put into televised death matches, it is hard to imagine what would be an appropriate response. Seeing a hardened Katniss dismiss the death of an unfriendly rival sounds logical, if not feminine. It does not feel inaccurate, nor make Katniss any less feminine at least for it.
In the realm of science-fiction/fantasy stories and video games, assessing accurate female responses to alien invasions, mutant holocausts, wayward necromancers, shadow cabinet conspiracies, celestial conflagrations, haywire robot armies, and even your standard zombie apocalypse, are really a matter of conjecture. All we can do is guess. Maybe we can make educated guesses, but they’re still guesses. Sarkeesian’s “female but really male” thesis is a panacea that allows her to dismiss any work she disapproves of, without having to explain really why. “Well, a woman just wouldn’t behave like that,” might be a convenient answer for her, though not all women would agree.
Sarkeesian goes to great lengths in part 2 of “Damsel in Distress” to emphasize that despite the unreality of the situations in which male protagonists must use violence to either restore women “to their senses” or at least complete the game’s narrative, these situations must have a real world effect, even if that effect is only cumulative through the number of games a person plays over the years. Given the fact that the nature of games presents no other option, what it is Sarkeesian actually expects of such a low-brow and horribly repetitive genre as the action/adventure video game remains a mystery.
But that begs a real world question as to how influential such titles actually are. Despite critical reviews, only a handful of the games she mentions were best-sellers. Sarkeesian was kind enough to provide a partial list of the games she used, and of the 28 games she listed in part 2’s credits, only 9 actually made either the US or Japan’s top 100 for the year of their release, and only three of those cracked the top 10. Not even the critically acclaimed Dead Space cracked the top 100 sales chart for its year, a game whose fan base inspired not one but two feature length animated movies. Their influence can’t be as far-reaching as Sarkeesian thinks when one of her despicable examples, Inversion, sold only 40 thousand copies globally. By contrast, Final Fantasy VII sold over 9 million copies worldwide in 1997, or Dragon Age: Origins, which placed at #32 for the year of 2009, with over 1.6 million copies sold worldwide.
Regardless of how pervasive such female-friendly games may be, the overwhelming number of male-centric games would, in Sarkeesian’s view, dissolve their contribution. Given the propensity of advertising in this country, that notion seems impossible to dismiss. After all, publisher EA routinely uses the male version of Commander Shepard in the promotional material for their Mass Effect franchise. Such things play a key role in Sarkeesian’s thesis. Despite her admission in “Damsel in Distress” that, “We are not a monkey-see, monkey-do” society, Sarkeesian’s entire thesis, in fact her entire career as a cultural commentator, rests on proving a direct correlation between real-life violence against women worldwide and video games. If her schtick was simply to point out that game developers harp these boring, overused tropes to sell games, most people would nod and agree. But by moralizing it, by saying that these games not only hold women back but criminalize all the people who play them, suddenly her position is saleable.
If Sarkeesian herself is to have any relevance, she has to sell this doctrine as a moral imperative, that grievous harm is coming to women in the form of video games. Her argument is exactly the same as the age-old one that tried to demonize the violence in video games as the cause of excessive violence in the real world less than 20 years ago. It’s far too broad a stroke with which to paint a reasonable argument, considering that the video games that exploit female characters sell so poorly, while games that provide a more balanced and fair interpretation of female characters are more likely to be best-sellers. Clearly the novelty of Custer’s Revenge has worn off. Sarkeesian doesn’t give the gaming public enough credit.
However, despite whatever Anita Sarkeesian has to say about video games, and despite however you may feel about her position, violence against women, both in the real world and in gamer culture, is very, horrifyingly real. But if Sarkeesian wants to be truly relevant, instead of examining where the boys’ club of video gamedom came from, she should look at where it’s going: the cult of first-person shooter war games.
For the past 20 years, beginning with arcade titles like Operation: Wolf, to underground hits such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom in the early 90s, and culminating in the global smash Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the FPS genre has fed a war culture in video gaming, not to mention its anti-woman and misogynistic tendencies, more so than any other game genre out there. While most of these games do not necessarily promote violence against women, the combat scenarios these games simulate, especially the online player-vs.-player death matches, promote a brutal kill-or-be-killed mentality, encourage players to value power, reward success in the form of “kills,” and give them license to hate and despise the weak and feeble, regardless of whether the dead are male or female.
In contrast to Sarkeesian’s broader, and harder to prove, suggestion that the tropes are the cause of violence against women, the data correlating FPS war game simulators and real world harassment of women is starkly real. One need look no further than Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a website dedicated to capturing and logging instances of sexual harassment on Microsoft’s Xbox Live service and other networks. And Fat, Ugly, or Slutty’s database is replete with instances from all sorts of games. Spend more than 30 seconds on the site and you have to wonder exactly what these perverts expect to happen when they proposition women on such a service. They have to be either A) desperate and stupid, or B) desperate, stupid, and psychotic – the latter being the going reality, given the number of examples. As Becky Chambers, a writer for online ‘zine The Mary Sue, remarked, “All too often, being a woman online — especially in public multiplayer gaming — means questioning whether or not you should have a gender-specific screenname. It means considering the option of pretending to be a man, just to avoid trouble. It means hesitating before putting on your headset, for fear that the slightest sound of your voice might spur someone to call you a bitch or ask to see your tits. This is not a reality that men share.”
Despite the number of examples though, Xbox Live and other networks’ managers routinely ignore complaints of sexual harassment. Even though most services expressly condemn sexual harassment as a violation of the End User License Agreement, many users are not punished or expelled from the service, despite repeat violations. Management often doesn’t see fit to suspend or cancel accounts from paying subscribers, but failing to enforce the terms of their own EULA practically gives online perverts permission to harass others again and again. Now, one could argue that any system designed to reign in harassers could just as easily be exploited to target other individuals unnecessarily for any number of reasons. However, that hardly justifies doing nothing in light of how pervasive the problem really is. The sexual violence and harassment Sarkeesian warns about in her “Damsel in Distress” series is happening in these games’ chat rooms and communication channels, and the reality of online sexual harassment in the gaming world is too dangerous to ignore, both as a visceral, real-time threat, and the anti-woman culture it is ushering into the new millennium.
But Sarkeesian doesn’t go after these groups though because, like every other pundit on YouTube, she has something to sell, and she can’t sell that idea to her audience of college freshmen taking their first Women’s Studies course in between rounds of Call of Duty on the college LAN. Not to mention that with FPS games dominating the market, and game networks and internet service providers making huge bucks supplying bandwidth, the idea of taking on such a gargantuan enterprise probably makes Sarkeesian’s blood run cold.
But that also doesn’t mean we can dismiss her. Sarkeesian’s greatest accomplishment, whether she meant to do this or not, has been to point out that as consumers and interpreters of the games we play, our standards for storytelling and entertainment are abysmally low. Sarkeesian was absolutely correct about one thing: things do not have to be this way. Violence does not have to be the de facto style of gameplay for the vast majority of story-based games that incorporate female characters. More recently, games like Heavy Rain (2010) only use action as a secondary or tertiary way of moving the story forward. The gaming public needs to be exposed to more forms of storytelling than simply using violence, and learn how to enjoy them. In that sense, everyone benefits, not just female gamers. Game developers need only summon the courage to shed their old, bad habits, and create not just one or two conspicuous games per year that shirk predictable storytelling and gameplay, but foster whole new genres of story-based games that reflect what can really be done with the entertainment medium of the 21st century.
Sarkeesian can’t prove that game violence and overused tropes are the cause of violence against women in the real world. Her willful ignorance of contrary evidence betrays her image as a reasonable academic; she is no more reasonable than Rush Limbaugh. She’s a saleswoman on a mission. However, Sarkeesian is not the demon her detractors make her out to be, and she is undeserving of the treatment she gets. With part 3 of “Damsel in Distress” on the horizon, Sarkeesian is important to our national debate on women and video games because she is rather loudly raising profound issues that the industry itself is hesitant to touch. And for that, we need her more than ever.
A professor of English, Todd Bowes is also a freelance writer and musician from Providence, RI. He’s toured the country playing rock music, and his award-winning fiction has been read all over the globe.