I was perusing Youtube the other day when I came across a Refinery29 interview with Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian, for those who don’t know, started a feminist channel in 2009 criticizing videogame depictions of women and visible minorities. She, along with other women in the industry, complained of sexism and misogyny in games as well as unfair and discriminatory employment practices within many of these studios. What they got for their probably very legitimate concerns was a veritable clusterfuck of online harrassment, rape and death threats and doxxing.
I remember hearing about all of this back then, but wasn’t quite as aware of what exactly transpired. Hearing her talk about it years later now, though, all I could really think was “Seriously WTF?? All of that vitriol for having an opinion on the internet? And on videogames of all things?” (Honestly, this was probably also my reaction back in 2009)
Now I have a somewhat indirect long history with videogames and pretty much grew up with a revolving door of new platforms, starting with Atari and Super Nintendo in the 80s and 90s. We also had a Gameboy, but I don’t think it got as much attention. My brother was obsessed with videogames, playing for hours and practically screaming in frustration if his character died. When I moved out of my parents place to shack up with my partner, the systems changed from Xbox to the Wii to now with an XBox One.
However, it is worth mentioning how, in all that time, from the very basic 8-bit Atari games to the sublime RPGs of today, much games have diversified both in content, storyline and characters. Back in the day, characters tended to be pretty one-dimensional, but now you can select your hero’s gender, skin colour, age, weight, makeup and even tattoos. Hell, in some games, you don’t even play as a human being. Of course this is due to the hard work and talent of artists and developers, but I can’t help but think that maybe it’s also thanks to the opinions of Sarkeesian and other fans of the medium. They loved gaming, but felt like there wasn’t as much control over how they were being represented in these products. What started out as more of a “boys club”, has since bloomed into a medium for everyone.
This is obviously a good thing, but after learning about her experiences, and other womens, it just seems kind of mind boggling how much hatred they received. Guys would set up other channels for the express purpose of relentlessly attacking Sarkeesian, and it’s just really pathetic. For them, these games are sacred and how dare anyone criticize them, especially some feminist? It’s like they believed that any woman who complained about rescuing princesses or a female character’s lack of clothing had the power to take their entertainment away, like some kind of nagging parental figure. And after scrolling through the comments in this Refinery video, I see they still haven’t forgiven her these imagined transgressions as they lob baseless accusations and lack any basic understanding as to why online harrassment is awful and just how damn embarrassing the whole thing was.
At the end of the day, she was just posting her opinion, same as pretty much everyone else online these days (including yours truly). You don’t have to like it or agree and have the ability to click on the millions of other talking heads discussing pop culture. “There’s too much political correctness,” her detractors will argue, or “Progressiveness/Liberalism ruins everything”, but there are still lots of games where the protagonist is a straight, white man. The Witcher, for example, is one of my favourite games, and revolves around a hunky, practically albino guy as he slays monsters and bags babes. (Sarkeesian may or may not like it, but I find The Witcher really fun and love it’s lore, which is based on Polish fantasy novels) These gamers are now spoiled for choice in exactly how they want to spend their free-time, and honestly haven’t lost anything. The only person who did lose is Sarkeesian, who suffered and evidentally still suffers deeply pesonal attacks and threats simply for having a point of view. She wasn’t promoting hatred of certain groups or encouraging ignorance or misinformation, like plenty of other people online, just stating her thoughts on entertainment. The a-holes who relentlessly attacked her were never charged or felt any kind of actual repercussions, which is appalling. Games may have changed, but some of the people who play them, unfortunately haven’t, and it’s high time that the ones who harrass and threaten be rooted out of the community and face the real world consequences of their actions.