Gaming the System

I’m not really a gamer. At least, not as I understand the term.

videogamesYes, I spend way too much time playing iPad games, but it’s all amateur hour stuff: endless runners, connect-3 games, nostalgia favorites like Tetris. That kind of thing. Whenever the topic of gaming comes up, I jokingly say that I have the videogame tastes of a 9-year-old. Earlier in the summer, my nephew saw me playing Jetpack Joyride and said “I remember that game! My friends and I used to play it back in 7th grade.” So maybe my tastes are that of a 12-year-old rather than a 9-year-old, but the basic point stands: I’m not a gamer.

A gamer — to my understanding of the term — is someone who plays those extensive role-playing and/or immersive first-person shooter games. Stuff like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, or Halo. (The fact that I don’t have any current titles/examples springing to mind is yet another sign of how not-a-gamer I am, so there you go…)

I’m not going to pretend that it’s all been a moral decision on my part. I’m sure there are ways that my personality and the pleasure centers of my brain just don’t really overlap with the sorts of pleasure that online RPGs provide. But there’s also some moral dimension in my choice to avoid the online RPG genre.

In her response to my first post about enjoying problematic things, my friend Alice talked about the process of drawing a line between those (always already) culturally problematic artworks you choose to enjoy, as opposed to the “problematically problematic”* artworks that go beyond your tolerance level and that you choose not to watch/read/listen. For me, the extreme violence and misogyny of video RPGs has put them profoundly in that latter camp.

As such, I’ve stayed away from gaming and gaming culture, aside from keeping a peripheral awareness of whatever title Mr. Mezzo is playing these days.

Which is probably why I didn’t know about Anita Sarkeesian’s project, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, until today. The kickstarter campaign to fund the work was way back in 2012, and the first video essay was published more than a year ago, so my ignorance is definitely one of those “I guess I have been living under a rock” moments.

Sarkeesian describes the project in this way:

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.

On the basis of the part of the series video I’ve seen thus far**, it’ll be something I’ll go back to in the future.

And how did this worthwhile video series come to my attention today of all days, you may ask?

Because people are sometimes buttheads. Evil horrifying, misogynist, crime-threatening buttheads.

It’s probably not surprising to realize that Sarkeesian gets a disproportionate level of hate mail in response to her video series. After all, this is a widely reported phenomenon (including a couple of weeks ago here on JALC). But evidently, this week’s new video essay, which unpacks ( to quote Joshua Rivera in Entertainment Weekly) video games’:

ugly habit of objectifying women in the backgrounds of their worlds. . . . The most troublesome aspect of this trend, as Sarkeesian illustrates in painstaking detail, is game developers’ habit of using events and scenes where women are brutalized as a narrative shorthand for establishing how dire or depraved a game’s setting or villain may be. It’s lazy storytelling that’s made worse by the fact that many of these games feature women exclusively in this manner: as insignificant objects to be acted upon. Non-playable female characters in games like this dispense sex like vending machines and are scripted to either proposition the player character or to suffer brutal acts from either the player or the programmed opponents. There is no thought given to a woman’s personhood in these portrayals.

— well, this week’s essay seems to have struck a bit of a nerve. As reported by Colin Campbell in Polygon:

This week, the abusers drove her out of her own home.

“Some very scary threats have just been made against me and my family. Contacting authorities now,” she wrote on Twitter last night.

 She later tweeted, “I’m safe. Authorities have been notified. Staying with friends tonight. I’m not giving up. But this harassment of women in tech must stop!”

Earlier today, Sarkeesian shared a particularly disturbing series of threats from one abuser, along with a trigger warning. “I usually don’t share the really scary stuff. But it’s important for folks to know how bad it gets.”

I followed through a link from The Verge to see the threats in question, and they are rough, rough stuff. (I’m assuming there’s probably a similar link to be found in the Polygon article, but in all honesty, I didn’t look too hard for it. Certain things only need to be read the one time.) I’m not even going to try and paraphrase the details — they were truly that bad. Suffice to say there were threats of rape and murder and Other Things.

So can someone please explain to me the reasoning here? A scholar posts a critique that a certain creative genre (and the subculture of that genre’s fans) contains a troubling level of misogyny, as most particularly expressed through the frequency of sexual violence and acts of sexualized murder against the fictional characters female-shaped objects in these cultural documents.

Now, you don’t agree with this scholar, and you think she’s being wrong and unfair in her critique. So your response is to quite literally threaten this scholar with sexual violence and sexualized murder? How does this do anything aside from proving that the scholar was right all along?!?

Seriously. What. The Fuck.

* Great phrase! I love it when I get to talk to talented writers and thinkers!

** Hey, it’s a half hour long and I still need to write the rest of this damn post! I will watch the remaining 20 minutes of the current video essay when my writing is done — and the rest of the series some other day (or sequence of days).


Image credit: “videogames” by Tony Werman, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from )

3 thoughts on “Gaming the System

  1. Yes! (not that you asked me! but still:) yes, you definitely want to watch all of the Tropes vs. Women series. I first encountered Sarkeesian’s work when she launched the Kickstarter for this back in 2012. Apparently, a lot of us (both feminist and troll) encountered her work for the first time then–because the level of vitriol and pushback (and pushback to the pushback) was beyond extreme. She’s been a top target ever since.

    Here’s Jay Smooth (someone else everyone should be following if they aren’t already; you’re welcome!) commenting back in 2012:

    And–because Sarkeesian is a total badass–here she is giving a TEDTalk in which she analyzes cyber mobs and the online harassment she received through a gaming framework:

    And while I’m totally sorry (I’m totally notsorry) to be adding to your list of youtube must-see’s, you can take your time with all of it. The Tropes vs. Women videos are thoroughly researched (and well-produced), so there are long gaps between each release, and also I think she’s only about halfway through the projected series.


  2. Pingback: The Games We Play | Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

  3. Pingback: Acts of Courage | Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

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