Tropes vs. Women in video games is a proposed project by Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency which plans to analyze the way female characters are characterized in video games and publish a video series about it. Her Kickstarter, originally targeted at US$6000, has now raised $120K, 20 times the original target. Why? A big part of it is because of media attention driven by the viciously abusive response of some gamers on YouTube to her ideas, in the comments section of her proposal video. The Escapist, Kotaku, Jezebel, and GamePolitics report on this.
But I’m not here to talk about the people who threaten rape and murder, call her a kike, tell her she’s ugly, or tell her to kill herself. Although this behavior is unacceptable, the YouTube community also pretty consistently downvotes and rejects this type of extreme comment. This article is here to respond to critics who (to their credit!) disagree with her proposal more or less politely, and the most common arguments they make.
5. Sex sells. Games cater to male fantasies, that’s how they make money.
Every marketer knows that sex and nudity get people’s attention, but sex alone cannot carry a game to commercial success. BMX XXX, a 2002 action sports title, was designed around sexual humor and nudity, and was a colossal critical and commercial failure, selling less than 100,000 copies across all platforms. By comparison, the Portal franchise, games whose female protagonist was silent, fully clothed, and for the most part unseen, sold over 8 million copies. Contrary to popular belief, men look for more in a game than good boob physics.
There are some successful games out there that lean heavily on sexist representations of females, helpless eye candy who have no significant role in the plot other than to motivate men. Would less men buy these games if the females played a more active role? Princess Cassima in King’s Quest VI was a classic damsel in distress, but ultimately she plays a critical role in bringing down the antagonist. Small changes can make a big difference, making games less predictable and teaching women that they are not powerless.
4. Don’t just complain about it, do something about it. This money should be spent on creating a new game with good female characters.
This is about as silly as telling Siskel and Ebert to stop complaining and start their own movie studio. Modern games cost tens of millions of dollars to produce and operate, requiring a staff of dozens to hundreds of people. The money raised in this campaign, despite exceeding all expectations, would not pay the salaries of one good developer and one good artist.
Criticism serves a role in the marketplace and has real power. It influences consumers and other critics and what they look for in a good game. When enough consumers start to complain, when a needless sexist element in a game could mean a critical and media backlash, game designers in big studios sit up and take notice.
That’s not to say that an indie game producer who publishes a sleeper hit with strong female characters couldn’t also make a big difference in shifting discussion of gender in games. That’s not Anita’s skill set, but I’d be thrilled to support a project like that as well.
3. Women don’t play games because they don’t want to, not because they’re sexist.
First of all, women do play games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 47% of gamers are women. And we’re not just talking casual games. Liquipedia lists 26 professional female Starcraft 2 players who have played in tournaments, including Ailuj who played on the main stage at MLG in 2011. These women are hardcore professionals and could wipe the floor with 95% of male players. Women play strategy games, play FPSs professionally, play MMORPGs, play every game that you think of as a serious game.
Professional Starcraft 2 player Ailuj and Mousesports CounterStrike squad
Second, the point of addressing sexism in games is not primarily to attract more women to gaming. Games instill attitudes and behaviors in players, beginning from a young age, and sexism in games (against either gender) can lead to mistreatment between male and female gamers later on. Like, say, the frequent threats of violence and offers of sex that female FPS players get. If female characters are treated with more respect, real-life females will be treated with more respect.
2. Who would want to play as an ugly woman? You’re trying to take all the fun out of games.
Counterpoint: who would want to play as an old, green, wrinkly alien dude? Apparently many players of Soul Calibur IV and Star Wars Episode III on PS2. Why? Because Yoda is awesome.
Besides that, a female character can be both sexy and still be a deep character who is a good role model for women. A good example from film is Katniss from The Hunger Games, whose beauty is only reinforced by her independence and intelligence. Feminist Frequency produced two videos focusing primarily on Katniss being a good female character. I would love to play a character like Katniss in a game.
1. Games are also sexist against men! Only addressing sexism against women is sexist in itself.
Probably the most common argument. Are games sexist against men? Well yes, like all media. TV Tropes has an extensive list of sexist tropes, many of which are sexist against men in particular. However, that does not mean that a project that addresses one issue and not another is sexist - Anita is not claiming that sexism against men does not exist. To the contrary, in her video “What Liquor Ads Teach Us About Guys” she says “men aren’t oppressed or exploited by sexism, but they do suffer as a result of it.” In her video on “Toy Ads and Learning Gender”, she talks about how toy ads and the gender roles they reinforce discourage boys from learning valuable interpersonal skills.
More to the point, however, is that Anita’s interests and background lie in feminism, which has immediate relevance to her life. Far more blacks marched with Martin Luther King Jr. than ever marched with Cesar Chavez, and that’s only natural. The problem of sexism in games against men can be left to those who are more passionate about that problem, and I’ve considered working on such a project myself. Sadly, the concept of such an exciting project has been somewhat delegitimized by trolls proposing their own Kickstarter and showing little respect towards the issue - but someone else could still do it right.
There is a downside to the practice of treating separately tropes that affect men and women: many tropes are sexist against both but in different ways, and it’s instructive to put them side-by-side. For example, many people don’t believe a man can be raped by a woman, for two reasons: because women are weak and couldn’t overpower a man, and because men are perverts and always want sex. However, again, there’s no reason that someone couldn’t create a series that integrates both of these together in a useful way. This would not be redundant, since Anita’s series would still focus on feminist aspects in more detail and give her unique point of view.
Keeping the high ground
In addition to the comments above, I encountered some people who were very supportive of Anita’s work, but themselves fell into discrimination in defending it. Accusing people of being misogynists for favoring a different approach in getting the message out, or for not donating to support, is wrong. Accusing people of being basement-dwelling virgins who have never had a girlfriend is both wrong and sexist in itself (there’s nothing wrong with single male virgins, or people who choose to live with their parents to save money). Many people were quick to blame YouTube attacks on visitors from 4chan or 9gag, although there was no clear evidence of this, and only a small minority of participants in these forums are abusive misogynists. In supporting equal rights for women, we have to keep the high ground and avoid stereotyping other groups in turn.