Reflecting on gamergate

I recently read an article in Bloomberg Businessweek that quoted Anita Sarkeesian’s male co-producer, Jonathan McIntosh, as saying, “In the video game industry right now, women don’t want to speak. There’s a real fear, and it really is silencing people.” I’d call McIntosh an ally, and I’m thankful for his work and his statements. But I also think it’s too bad that we have to have a quote from a male game producer/critic to validate what should already be obvious:* Women who dare to have a critical opinion about sex in the gaming world are in real, direct, physical danger. The above quote was buried deep in the article, long after a description of nasty, graphic threats against Sarkeesian (including the infamous threat of mass murder that caused her to cancel a talk at Utah State University), long after a discussion of how female game designer Zoe Quinn “fled her home in Boston and hasn’t been back in months” because of threats of violence. Yes, there’s a real fear. That’s because there’s real danger.

*To be clear, this is not a critique of the article, written by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Rather, it’s a cultural critique, and a testament to Kolhatkar’s understanding of what is required to persuade an audience.

I found two other major items of interest in this article that I want to pursue.

1. “Some (critics of Sarkeesian’s work) asked why she wasn’t looking at male characters and argued that the things she was pointing out weren’t sexist, necessarily, but realistic or historically accurate” (p. 46). I think this is a worthwhile argument–by which I mean it’s worth engaging, though terribly off-base. In fact, this is a slight variation of a very common argument in favor of the status quo. Teaching history and engaging with reality are fine pursuits, of course. But there’s a difference between learning about history through a critical lens or depicting the reality of crime … and assigning points as a reward for murdering a female hooker. Want to create a historically accurate game? Go ahead and include raping and pillaging in your storyline–but don’t explicitly encourage the gamer to engage in it. Better yet, associate the required task  of the gamer with putting a stop to rape and degradation. Or, maybe, just don’t feature violence against female characters as a major attraction in every single game your company produces in a totally systemic and completely obvious way. I’m not asking for much here. Really, this is not rocket science.

2. A common supply-and-demand resistance to feminist critiques of video games is that young(ish) males are the main consumers of such products, so of course gaming companies are going to give them what they want. “What they want” tends to mean gratuitous female nudity and violence against women. I have two objections to this: First, I don’t think all young men want these things, and many are in fact quite tired of having such things shoved down their throats. Second, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as gaming companies produce games that degrade, objectify, and humiliate women, of course females aren’t going to want any part of it. Would you want to play a game in which people who look like you are systematically raped, killed, or–at the very least–treated as expendable eye candy? I don’t. (Happily, more and more games are NOT doing these things … and recent estimates have the gaming community made up of about 45% women.)

I’ll end by mentioning that we should find the threats aimed at Sarkeesian (and Quinn as well as other female critics, producers, and gamers) extremely disturbing. We’re not talking about a couple of isolated threats by a few nutcases, here. We’re talking about a systemic response. We’re talking about thousands of people (presumably, many are young men) who feel justified in making violent, graphic threats against another human being because she dared to point out (using irrefutable, first-hand, empirical evidence) that gaming has a problem with its treatment of women. This is relevant, and not just to people who care about video games. If the person who works in the cubicle next to you every day feels authorized to send death threats to a cultural critic he/she has never met, what does that say about the potential danger of daily interaction with that person? The response to Sarkeesian’s work is just as troubling as (and, indeed, is a symptom of) the problems she’s uncovered. The whole gamergate fiasco could not possibly have done a better job of proving her original point.

Here’s Bloomberg’s video on the story: http://www.businessweek.com/videos/2014-11-26/what-do-video-games-have-against-women

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