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This Week in Video Game Criticism: Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian and the Demise of 'Gamers'
This Week in Video Game Criticism: Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian and the Demise of 'Gamers'
September 1, 2014 | By Kris Ligman




This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics ranging from the continued attacks against feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian to Kotaku's decision to block support of independent developers through Patreon.

Hey there, everyone.

Before we start today, a bit of signal-boosting: Digital Love Child is putting together an ebook collection on gun games and has put out a call for submissions, deadline sometime mid-September.

Also, the new videogame StoryBundle is out, containing books by Anna Anthropy and Zoya Street as well as the first six issues of Five Out of Ten magazine. You should get it.

Now that that's out there, let's bring it in close and get comfortable today. I have a long one for you and you might need to take a few breaks.

I don't often dedicate This Week in Videogame Blogging to a single topic, but in this case it was more or less unavoidable. There were a few articles on other subjects, but they would be drowned out by the conversation which follows below, so I've bookmarked them for next week. Don't worry, nothing's been lost.

I also want to note that this edition of the roundup has a general content warning for at least the following: sexual harassment, stalking, rape threats, death threats, and misogynist slurs, with a liberal peppering of ableist slurs thrown in for good measure. Please use your discretion when proceeding.

Additional article-specific content warning markers will be noted after relevant links.

Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian

If you haven't seen it yet, Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Videogames series has released the second in its two-part episode on "women as background decoration." (Additional content warning: graphic sexual violence.)

The release of Sarkeesian's video, amidst the ongoing tensions and attacks on women in the industry, has led to Sarkeesian receiving credible death threats on her and her family, forcing her to leave her home. It's also led to quite a bit of discussion elsewhere, mainly on the subject of the sustained harassment against her.

At The New Statesman, Ian Steadman takes a couple cues from Sarkeesian's own videos to provide an excellent breakdown in the logical fallacies used to "debunk" and derail the criticisms present in the video series.

While not referencing Sarkeesian specifically, this post by former GameSpot critic Carolyn Petit does a good job at countering the argument that games are beyond cultural criticism:

Games are not politically neutral. Neither are mainstream romantic comedies, or action films, or any novel I've ever read. They may sometimes appear politically neutral if the values they reinforce mesh with the value systems of the larger culture, but our culture is not politically neutral, either, and it is not outside of the role of a critic to comment on or raise questions about the political meanings embedded in the works one evaluates. In fact, it is often impossible to review something apolitically, because to not comment on or challenge the political meanings in a work in your review is to give them your tacit endorsement.

At Not Your Mama's Gamer, Jennifer Justice suggests that for a lot of the kneejerk negativity directed at feminist games criticism, something more fundamental is at play:

A lot of the fear I see about feminism comes from the idea that giving in to feminists means giving in to censorship. For some, that fear takes its shape in nonsensical arguments about threats to masculinity or stealing of power from one group to another [...]

Those who fear censorship could read my posts as an argument to "clean up" narratives... to remove sources of conflict in order to avoid disturbing female gamers who play these games. But I believe women are made of tougher stuff than that, and most of us want a good story as much as the next gamer. It's not that I want games to be without conflict or to always end with some moralistic theme. I just want more stories.

At The Verge, Adi Robertson also expounds on this theme, in particular the assertion that depictions of women in games can be defended as "realistic":

"Why is it video games need to be politically and societally (sic) correct? The whole point of video games is to escape reality and have fun."

If that's the goal, games like Watch Dogs are failing horribly.

You know what's not escapism? Having to wonder if any given game (or movie, or book) you pick up is going to include women primarily as prostitutes, murdered girlfriends, vulnerable daughters, and rape victims. [...] Oddly, when someone raises these issues, the people who have been stridently defending their games as "just games" switch to explaining why having women in other roles is unrealistic. A gritty, stylized world built on the corpses of women is defended as a way for gamers to escape from reality, but if someone points out that it makes them uncomfortable, they're told that they're supposed to be uncomfortable.

XO Jane's Lesley Kinzel adds that the attacks only drive home how relevant Sarkeesian's criticisms are:

It should go without saying, but you don't stop an activist or a critic by propagating the exact behavior that they are organizing or arguing against. In fact, doing so bolsters their cause.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Women in Games

In addition to these renewed attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, this marks the second week of a harassment campaign against independent developer Zoe Quinn. At The Daily Dot, Aja Romano has an effective recap of last week's attacks and also showcases how the incident differs from the Josh Mattingly harassment scandal from earlier this year.

(Side note: You may have heard that actor Adam Baldwin is involved in this somehow now. The Mary Sue's Victoria McNally has a good writeup on it.)

An interview with Quinn's ex-boyfriend has also circulated a lot this week and was originally pinned for inclusion in this roundup. I've removed it, in light of this post by Critical Distance alumnus David Carlton, who warns of the false equivalence we risk creating in the press by covering the voices of abusers as valid:

[T]he media likes to find two sides of the issue to present, and to present those sides without any sort of context that might cause one to evaluate one side more favorably than the other. It doesn't matter if one of those sides is supported by essentially all experts on the subject while the other is only supported by loons (sic) or guns-for-hire; it doesn't matter if one of those sides is engaging in behavior squarely within our political norms while the other side is doing historically unprecedented attacks on the very concept of majority rule; and, as here, it doesn't matter if one of those sides is behaving with simple compassion while the other side is lacking even a shred of simple human decency. False equivalence demands both.

At The Globe and Mail, Emma M. Woolley concurs, asserting that the claims of "corruption" only obfuscate a far greater problem:

Gaming's most pervasive issue isn't corruption, but the people who've taken ownership of something that isn't solely theirs to begin with. In trying their damnedest to limit the appeal of the medium and use online harassment to achieve their goals, this group of toxic trolls are proving themselves to be gaming's biggest problem.

In his tumblr, Australian media scholar (and definitely not Polygon contributor) Brendan Keogh covers this as well, in an open letter to a friend in which he laments that games journalism does indeed suffer from a kind of corruption, but not the kind in the Quinn "scandal":

What all these people who are part of the attack on women who make games donít seem to understand is that they are exactly the status quo that is fostered and served by games journalism and its problems. The good parts of games journalism (the critiques of the industry, the coverage of non-commercial games, writing on gender and race and the such) are a sign of games journalism getting better, but, to these people, it is their privileged position being brought down a notch so all they see is conspiracies.

Badass Digest's Andrew Todd notes that apart from opposition to what "social justice" seems to represent to them, those involved in the attacks have no plan or goal:

Central to the self-centred psychology of these people is that they see themselves as the targets of a grand conspiracy of feminist, progressive journalists and game developers that seeks to destroy their ability to...something. They have no actual issue. It's all perceived persecution at the hands of political correctness. These "theories" are so narcissistic, so devoid of substance, that the only way to explain them is through delusion. And I mean, I get it - justifying one's shitty behaviour with a made-up conspiracy probably feels better than confronting the painful truth that one is an asshole. They think they're part of a "silent majority", but the real silent majority is the one that either isnít aware of their ridiculous conspiracy theories, or understands that there's simply no reasoning with [them].

Developer Elizabeth Sampat draws into sharp focus how Quinn is only the latest in a march of countless women who have been harassed in the industry, many to the point of being forced out:

I could tell you stories about the voices we've lost, the women we've scarred, the people we've left behind. I want to, but I'm not sure you'd get it. I tweeted earlier today, We should have a war memorial for all of the women we have lost to this. We should lay flowers and grieve and see our reflections in stone. And I meant it. I wish there were a way to honor the people our industry has wronged, and a way to visualize the enormity of what we have lost because of itó some representation of the gap between what games are and what they can be, and the pieces of the bridge between that have fallen away.

(Since its posting, artist Paul Reinwand painted a concept piece of what such a memorial would look like.)

The subject of erasure turns up in the latest Not Your Mama's Gamer podcast as well. Podcast co-host Alex Layne notes that while women in the industry have been terrorized in this way for years, it is only the recent wave of abuse coinciding with a bomb threat called in on a male Sony executive that the conversation has finally, seriously turned to acts of terrorism against members of the industry. This topic starts at around the 1 hour part.

Speaking of great podcasts concerning current events, the latest Idle Thumbs episode does it justice. I believe it's Chris Remo who declares early on in the recording that trying to engage with the torrent of abusers has been "like Buzz Aldrin dealing with that Moon [conspiracy] guy."

I leave the final word on this to Zoe Quinn herself, who weighs in with some self-declared final thoughts, washing her hands of the debacle. (Additional content warning: Quinn links to multiple screenshots which include 4chan-typical slurs.)

Beyond Nomenclature

In an empathetic post, Polygon's Chris Plante suggests that games "culture" now stands on the brink, teetering between a new identity and its old familiar one.

This is a theme Leigh Alexander picked up and ran with this week at Gamasutra, saying in a strongly-worded editorial that it's time to retire the 'gamer' paradigm:

By the turn of the millennium those were games' only main cultural signposts: Have money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun. Be an outcast. Celebrate that. Defeat anyone who threatens you. You don't need cultural references. You don't need anything but gaming. Public conversation was led by a games press whose role was primarily to tell people what to buy, to score products competitively against one another, to gleefully fuel the "team sports" atmosphere around creators and companies.

[...]

Yet in 2014, the industry has changed. We still think angry young men are the primary demographic for commercial video games -- yet average software revenues from the commercial space have contracted massively year on year, with only a few sterling brands enjoying predictable success.

It's clear that most of the people who drove those revenues in the past have grown up -- either out of games, or into more fertile spaces, where small and diverse titles can flourish, where communities can quickly spring up around creativity, self-expression and mutual support, rather than consumerism. There are new audiences and new creators alike there. Traditional "gaming" is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.

[...]

Developers and writers alike want games about more things, and games by more people. We want -- and we are getting, and will keep getting -- tragicomedy, vignette, musicals, dream worlds, family tales, ethnographies, abstract art. We will get this, because we're creating culture now. We are refusing to let anyone feel prohibited from participating.

"Gamer" isn't just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Gamers are over. That's why they're so mad.

In a community post, Devin Wilson goes one further than Alexander and speaks directly to industry members about the things professionals can do, starting right now, to be better:

We need to consider the very real possibility that the offensive behavior displayed by gamers in recent weeks is not unrelated to the artifacts they rally around (which I doubt are especially obscure). These people didn't come from nowhere to fight about nothing. They came from games to fight about games. They're organic results of the medium we've all played a role in cultivating, and they won't go away if the medium doesn't change significantly.

Star Wars: The Old Republic lead designer Damion Schubert took to his dev blog Zen of Design this week to call upon communities -- including but not limited to developers -- to call out and oust toxic individuals:

I'm issuing a call to arms Ė a call to arms not just to developers (who in the last two weeks have risen heroically in defense of our comrades under assault), but also to the large contingent of 'good guy fans' that I know are out there, and I put it on them to work with us to address this issue. Call out the assholes as you see them doing assholish stuff. Welcome and foster healthy, mature, respectful debate on the forums. Kick players from your groups and your private servers who can't treat other players with a modicum of genuine respect. Do what you can to create a welcoming environment for ALL new players, no matter their demographics.

Back on Gamasutra's blogs, Robert Fearon issues the (almost radical) proposition that the real force "ruining" games for the hardcore set is, in fact, the AAA industry itself:

The death of the videogame is not at the hand of women, queers, PoC or more human white men, it did not happen at the hands of journalists reporting on the more disturbing aspects of videogame culture, it did not happen because people decided that "gamer" was maybe something not so great to identify as. It did not happen because someone made a video pointing at a few things videogames have the habit of doing.

It happened because the big box money machine found itself more people to make money from. The very people who pandered and supplied the wares shifted their focus. And thatís when the hardcoreiest of hardcore, the vocal screamers who just want to play videogames with none of this ethical rubbish or DLC or microtransactions or or or lost their fight.

Critical Distance's own Mattie Brice raises a similar point, suggesting that our communities need to be built on sterner stuff than what products we buy:

Petitioning gamers, companies, and publications to make a stand for the values we care about won't happen at a healthy speed without strings attached. Everything will be mediated by consumerism, and simply buying or not buying from certain places isn't going to solve core issues. So the next time you're wondering what to do when things seem so bleak, reach out to the people around you, and tell them it's time to get together, and form a supportive community. One that has, from the beginning, at its center, the ideals and ideas we want missing from industry.

Dubious Ethics

Another recurring topic this week was Kotaku's announcement that it would forbid its writers from supporting the Patreons of independent developers (but not other crowdfunding and early access platforms).

At Unite Youth Dublin, Stephen Beirne challenges the decision, asserting that it will have little effect but punishing already marginalized devs. Brendan Keogh is also skeptical, comparing the situation to a hypothetical one between a music critic and a busker.

At Game Bias, Jed Pressgrove doesn't much like Keogh's analogy, reminding readers that old media has no clear answers for this either:

To put this another way, ethical concerns involving Patreon or Kickstarter are relatively new; ethical concerns related to the review of purchased or free products are quite old.

But, as Samantha Allen points out in The Daily Beast, this goes beyond sites or individuals -- the next social media technologies need to be designed with the safety of the marginalized in mind.

Hand in Unlovable Hand

I'll spare you all the regular song and dance usually reserved for these ending sections. Though, as always, be aware that we welcome your submissions through email and by Twitter mention.

If this is all a bit much, I'd recommend this roundup on Ars Technica by Casey Johnston, which refers to many of the links above and many more besides.

Lastly, for newcomers who may be confused about the format or purpose of this roundups, I'd like to direct you to our Mission Statement and Support page, which contains our anti-harassment and funding policies respectively.

Also, for those reading this roundup on Gamasutra, I refer you to its Comment Guidelines.


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