These thoughts were things I posted on The Indie Stone forums in multiple posts, so please forgive the way it’s not really organised into a cohesive whole.
In my (extremely) personal opinion, the Sarkeesian videos raise an interesting discussion extremely badly. I don’t believe the best way to tackle and raise awareness of legitimate criticisms with some videogames is to say effectively, “videogames are often sexist, I’m going to make some videos to prove my point”. Sure, you can do that as an opinion piece, but it’s not research or of academic merit unless you draw conclusions starting from a non-biased perspective. In other words, she raises some extremely good points but it’s muddled in with extremely bad points such that it becomes far too easy for people to dismiss the lot, which then defeats the purpose.
Conflating issues in advertising with games was one such example. What publishers and advertisers do when selling a game has *nothing* to do with what developers do developing it. Muddling in criticism of advertising in a video about tropes in games… bad idea. Certainly it’s something to explore in a separate video – advertising is a waaaaay bigger culprit for this stuff and you could tear it to pieces in a dedicated video. But mixing it in with discussion of games comes across as not really understanding the medium you’re criticising to the point that it feels like a cheap shot.
Then there’s Hitman which *does* actively penalize the player for acting in the manner she shows. Now if that were the *only* game out of all the ones she shows that you had any experience of, it would lead you to doubt the credibility of the rest. It damages her argument to demonstrate that particular component of the game as proving her point. For example, take Project Zomboid. You could make a video where you were a man, and you were playing multiplayer with a group of players playing as women. If you griefed those players, brutally killed them in PvP and stripped them of their clothes, you could claim that Zomboid encouraged misogyny and it would be an even stronger case than Hitman since Zomboid doesn’t penalise you for that – in fact, it encourages it since you’d still be alive and have all the loot they were carrying. But it would horribly mis-represent the game since the game offers primarily freedom, as does any sandbox RPG. That’s not to say that I don’t think there are any problems with Hitman Absolution, just that her example was a piss-poor example of it.
I made the analogy as such: When I was Lead Artist in a commercial development studio, I was responsible for judging CVs to decide who would be interviewed. The single most common “mistake” of art showreels is inability to recognise your best work from your worst. Pop 10 outstanding pieces of work on your showreel, you’ve got an interview. Pop 10 outstanding pieces of work in amongst 10 crap pieces of work, you probably won’t get an interview. The worst work damages perception of your ability to far greater a degree than your best work raises it.
A few years back I was posting on a blog which was having a discussion on gender issues and I used the term “fireman” at one point. I was immediately jumped on and personally attacked for my sexist language – “It’s fire-fighter you sexist pig!”. I tried to explain that where I grew up, my entire life thus far, “fireman” has *never* meant specifically “a man who fights fires” – because where I’m from, “fireman” is pronounced “FIREmun”, emphasis on first syllable whereas American English tends to emphasise the second – so the “man” component utterly evaporates and it doesn’t come across as a gendered term. That argument didn’t wash at all. But why not? Well, I was being judged by their culture, their up-bringing, what *they* meant by the word. But the internet is vast – it includes all cultures, all types of people, and you simply can’t hold everyone accountable to Western culture or, in this case, specifically American culture. It was a surprise when The Simpsons used the word “wanker” to those of us in the UK. When Americans say “fanny”, it’s amusing to the British because it means something entirely different here. See also: “fag” meaning “cigarette” in most cases in the UK.
Similarly I’ve seen discussions about how vile the word c*** is (note: I don’t like this term personally, but then my swearing is mostly limited to “shit”) in the context of this word being used specifically against women. But in large sections of the UK, this word has almost no power and is humourous (like bugger – you daft c***) and is more commonly used against men and, *most* commonly, men who are your friends. The same words are used in many different contexts across the world, but on the internet all these cultures and people are thrown together and problems will continue to arise unless we either: invent and insist upon a global internet language, or accept that words have different meanings and power to different people. The latter, in my opinion, is the more inclusive response. Perhaps in 100 years, we’ll have a common internet language, but it’s not going to happen any time soon.
Now, to bring this somewhat back on topic: I think the same applies to videogames. Show my mum *any* vaguely violent videogame made in the last 15 years and she’d be aghast at the violence. We laughed at Jack Thompson because he just couldn’t see how this stuff was inconsequential – he was not familiar with the language of videogames and so judged them superficially. He couldn’t see past the guns, the violence, the blood, and see the game. This is no different to the response to Rock and Roll in the 50s, or video nasties in the 80s. To some, The Human Centipede was abhorrent, to others hilarious. People who have not grown up with games often can’t see them for what they often are – puerile and mindless entertainment. I think this has happened with games, they’ve continued to be made using the same rules and language they always have, but recently there’s been a huge influx of new gamers and things which have always been just part of the language become seen as problematic. I absolutely do not believe that perceived misogyny in games leads to misogyny in the same way that I do not believe that violent videogames cause violence. HOWEVER, that said, as videogame developers we should acknowledge that the gamer market has expanded and cater to those new gamers.
So, to summarise, while some games go a bit far (that bit in God of War from the latest Sarkeesian vid, for example) and that definitely needs addressing, I think mostly what we need is more *variety* of videogames. Rather than change games, we just need more choice.
Finally, I do believe there is a place for calling out the shit when people see it. I don’t agree with criticizing and attacking Anita Sarkeesian for having the temerity to not like some of this stuff in games. By the same token, however, we shouldn’t report on this stuff like it’s objectively true – everything she says accepted as fact (especially as she does not represent *all* feminists or *all* women – what she represents is herself. That’s all). It’s not academic research, it’s opinion and we should treat it as opinion (and so should she). There is a middle ground – there’s a rational discussion to be had, and Anita Sarkeesian along with everyone else is welcome in that discussion.