So, my Twitter feed has been full of people who believe that Anita Sarkeesian wants to corrupt my brain, and convert me into being an SJW zombie, thus ruining every game that I ever make. Because I have no free will and am part of the politically correct machine, I watched most of her video-game oriented videos. And I gotta say, watching these videos really made me angry. Because she spoiled the ending to about a couple dozen games I haven’t finished. Seriously, Anita, a spoilers tag is customary here!
- Damsels in Distress pt 1
- Damsels in Distress pt 2
- Damsels in Distress pt 3
- Ms. Male Character
- Women as Background Decoration pt 1
- Women as Background Decoration pt 2
Now because I want to save any of you from becoming sheeple who might be infected by an opposing view by actually watching and considering her work on its actual merits, I thought I would pull a USA Today and share what I found to be the four primary takeaways from her videos so far in easily digestable form:
- Games should show more women capable of strength, agency and power in your game world, instead of being relegated to simply being background props or quest objectives that could be replaced with a sock monkey.
- Game designers should be less lazy in reaching for the same, tired stereotypes – or merely xeroxes of male leads – but especially stereotypes showing women as disempowered, and find ways to depict more female characters in more interesting and unique roles.
- Game designers should keep in mind that a lot of people (and not just women) have a viscerally negative reactions to scenes showing violence against women (particularly as many have first-hand experience with it), so maybe we shouldn’t just throw these scenes in casually.
- Seriously, all the dead, spread-eagled naked women in games are kind of creepy.
So here’s the thing – all four of the above statements are absolutely, 100% true. As in, its hard to even debate them.
Times which she says that games should be censored or game designers silenced: zero.
Uses of the word misogyny: four.
1. “[In Red Redemption], Female prostitutes are assaulted and murdered by johns who make a torrent of misogynistic slurs.” (She’s not wrong)
“But the truth is, there’s nothing mature about most of these stories, and many of them cross the line into blatant mysogyny.” (I’d disagree with this one, but its an entirely subjective opinion)
“…The crude, sensationalized misogyny of Duke Nukem…” (Again subjective, but much less debatable)
Times which she says game players are sexist or misogynistic: zero.
Use of the term ‘rape culture’ (a term I personally don’t like, because I feel it’s overloaded): zero.
Times which she says that all games are problematic: zero. In fact, she frequently makes it clear that she means the opposite:
“Just to be clear, I’m not saying that all games that use the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value.”
“This is not to say that women can never die or suffer… To say that women can never die in stories is absurd. BUt it’s important to consider how women’s death are framed, and to consider why and how they are written.”
“Now I’m certainly not arguing that all stories must include completely fearless, hyperindividualistic heroic women who pull themselves up by the bootstraps and never need anything from anyone. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasionally wanting or needing assistance.”
“Now just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the color pink, makeup, bows and high heels, and people of all genders may choose to wear them in the real world, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.”
Can you enjoy games with some of these tropes? Of course!
But please keep in mind that it’s both possible – and necessary – to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while being critical by its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
Times which I said “Seriously, did I just fucking watch that?”
- Introduction to Princess Daphne in Dragon’s Lair, who apparently is delighted to have been captured.
- Princess Peach adventures, where her superpowers are based into feminine emotionality
- Randomly killing your quest objective princess with a falling cow.
- Pacman is meant to appeal to women because they like eating dessert
This one point caught my eye in particular, about how relegating stories of trauma and sexual abuse to being crappy side quests trivializes one of the greatest crimes and fear that many women have:
“On a shallow surface level, these vignettes seem to contextualize these women in a negative light. However, these narratives are never about the abused women in question. Instead, (they) are flippantly summoned as sideshow attractions for stories about other things altogether.”
This is pretty much the only topic where she phrased things as anything approaching a call to action to developers – we NEED to do something. (Most of her content merely catalogs and calls attention to content)
“To be clear, I’m not saying stories seriously examining domestic abuse or sexual violence are off-limits to interactive media. However, if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach these topic with the gravity, subtlety and respect they deserve.”
Why she is doing all this? Because she believes games are important.
“These games don’t exist in a vacuum. They are an increasingly important and influential part of a larger social and cultural ecosystem.”
Again, 100% not wrong about that. Major games now have global reach and influence, and so do whatever messages they send. This is, in fact, why working in the games industry is so exciting to me and hundreds of other game developers. We’re well past moving out of niche and into being everyone’s life. That doesn’t mean we gotta stop making video game versions of Reservoir Dogs and Lord of the Rings. But we can vastly broaden our reach.
Now, I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with everything she says, and in some cases, she glosses over or perhaps doesn’t understand very real development issues solving some real narrative problems. I could write longer analyses about some of these points, and maybe I will, but here’s an overview:
- Because most games have one protagonist. If that protagonist is male, all female characters will by necessity be pushed to less important roles. And while we should have more female protagonists, we shouldn’t automatically dismiss those with male leads as having failing grades by happenstance.
- Most literary theorists believe strongly that ‘save the loved one’ is more powerful storytelling than ‘save the world’. When combined with point 1, this means a lot of damsels as the default plot point, particularly in those without family.
- Saying that it’s ‘lazy’ that games use violence to fix problems which might include your possessed girlfriend … well, lets say, a simplification. Games model physical problem solving better than mental, social or emotional problem solving because of the visceral nature of how control works, and how easy it is to create content. Also, if your game has a core combat main loop, you are a bad designer and deserve no scooby snacks if your boss fights don’t use those mechanics.
- Fat Princess looks kind of awesome.
Are these unsolvable issues? Of course not. They do take finesse, but the level in Last of Us where you control Ellie is an excellent example of addressing point one in my list above (show empowered women) while sidestepping the first issue in my list of issues.
But here’s the thing: This is all a conversation that’s worth having. Designers should listen. We can choose to incorporate that feedback. We can choose to ignore that feedback. Hell, a design team can choose to say, “Fuck you” and do the exact opposite of what she wants, just because they can (although, hey, maybe you could not be a complete douchebag about it). That is completely their right as artists. But there is no good reason to attempt to squelch what is a valuable and interesting addition to the discussion. There’s certainly no harm in an artist hearing the message of a critic. Lord knows the OTHER side of the spectrum is represented on my game forums.
I welcome criticism. It makes me a better artist. Because here’s the secret. Criticism comes with making art, and it comes from all directions, not just feminists. If your art isn’t being criticized, that only means that your art is culturally irrelevant.