Featured this week: Playing the feminist game – Anita Sarkeesian talks on gender in video game culture at ExCITe Center

In the world of video game journalism and review, there is one name that everyone knows: Anita Sarkeesian. She became famous in 2012, when she initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 towards her Tropes v. Women in Video Games YouTube series. She collected almost $160,000, exceeding her original goal by nearly 2500 percent. However, there was a price to pay. With all the attention Sarkeesian’s campaign gathered, she soon became the most aggressively harassed woman on the internet, a title she still bears — with pride.

Partnering with Temple Libraries as a part of their Beyond the Page series, Drexel University’s own Entrepreneurial Game Studio secured an informal Q and A session Feb. 19 with Sarkeesian. The event, moderated by Director Frank Lee and Program Manager Arianna Gass, posed student-authored questions for the feminist icon in a relaxed and honest environment: no audio or video recording was permitted, although tweets and photos were encouraged.

Lee was excited to have such a prominent name visiting Drexel, but recognized the sensitive nature of her visit.

“We wanted to keep it very controlled. The audience had to be restricted, which is why the event here [at Drexel] was invite-only and why Temple required pre-registration.” Such stringent security was far from unmerited as Sarkeesian had to cancel a recent appearance at Utah State University following multiple death threats.

Standing at just over five feet tall, Anita Sarkeesian displays enough charisma and confidence to make her the biggest person in the room.

Even during a lunch break while speaking with students, she gave off a quiet strength. Her back straight, Sarkeesian nodded eagerly along to points she agreed with, but became most engaged when she heard those she didn’t. At these points, she’d put down her food and scoot to the edge of her chair.

In Drexel’s ExCITE Center, she moved about freely, chatting with students who were there to hear her speak. The mandatory bag checks and the armed guards stationed about the room seemed almost out of place. However, for Sarkeesian this has become the norm.

Photo courtesy: Entrepreneurial Game Studio

Photo courtesy: Entrepreneurial Game Studio

“I was really frustrated with how inaccessible feminism and feminist theory was,” Sarkeesian began talking on stage, reflecting on her time in graduate school and the early days of her web series, FeministFrequency. “There’s actually not a lot written about the damsel in distress,” she continued.

When Sarkeesian began examining female representation in video games, no one knew that her mission would eventually be what catapulted her into fame and made her the center of one of the internet’s most notorious anti-feminist hate campaigns — Gamergate.

In their early years (circa 2009), Sarkeesian’s vlogs did not garner much attention, though both academics and those who also had a casual interest in feminism applauded her work. One of her more popular series is titled “Tropes vs. Women” and examines movies from a feminist perspective, featuring topics and titles such as “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” “The Straw Feminist” and “The Smurfette Principle.” This series was the one that garnered Sarkeesian national attention, and eventually shifted its focus from movies to video games.

“We contributed a feminist lexicon on how to talk about games that started from a working body of feminist study,” she said of the webseries’ successes. This marks quite a bit of progress — she’s progressed past arguing with people over whether or not Princess Peach was a “damsel in distress” — but Sarkeesian constantly reminded the audience about the long journey that the gaming industry has ahead of it.

The Q and A continued to describe the faults in video game culture and their impact on women. Sarkeesian viewed this discussion as a global one, a point she made clear when asked about the nature of differences in representation between western and non-western games.

“US media is exported across the world, and that’s fine except when it becomes exported ‘whiteness’ instead. In Japan, we see this as the exporting of Japanese culture,” she observed. “While culture can be exported, sexism cannot. We always need to consider the impact exported games can have on the community as a whole,” Sarkeesian continued.

She also noted that the definition of the gamer “community” has changed significantly, especially with the growth of mobile games.

“Who we consider a ‘gamer’ and what we consider ‘gaming’ has just changed so much. You’ll hear some mobile gamers called ‘casuals’ by others who focus on PC or console games, but I don’t think that’s fair. There’s nothing casual about the way my mom plays Candy Crush,” she added with a chuckle. This increase of inclusion hasn’t always meant better games, just a wider audience. She observed the redundancy of games in the mobile market, citing the many “Flappy Bird” knockoffs that litter the App Store.

These transparent cash grabs served as a case-in-point for Sarkeesian’s response to the next question posed: Do game companies have any moral or ethical obligations?

After a brief pause and a laugh, Sarkeesian responded: “I would love for companies to have moral restrictions, but they don’t.” She then dove into a multitude of examples of games or movies wherein female characters are used only as devices to show how depraved a male character is, citing specifically Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and the Grand Theft Auto series. “Video games are an art form, but they’re made by corporations, and corporations aim to make money,” she explained, noting a corporate flaw.

It was by this reasoning that she was able to answer the next question about how consumers can let game makers know that they’re unhappy with their games.

“We have more means than ever,” she said excitedly, referring to social media and all things online. Sarkeesian was quick to acknowledge how this connectivity can be a double-edged sword, especially given her own experiences with communities on the internet. She chose to look on the bright side instead, noting, “Entitlement campaigns can rise up, but we too can build up campaigns of our own using social media,” she continued.

Despite her history of online harassment, stemming predominantly from anonymous sources, Sarkeesian came out in support of hidden identities on the internet.

“There are so many [people] out there who can’t reveal their identities for the sake of their own safety,” she observed, pulling a hum of approval from the crowd. She was also careful to point out that her negative experiences came not from the anonymity itself, but the culture that hides behind it. “I think it’s a cop-out, really,” she said with a sigh.

Knowing that games work as companies, Sarkeesian emphasized that one of the best ways gamers can change the culture is through game reviews. “Getting bad reviews makes them really pay attention to what we’re saying,” she explained. Continuing, she noted how many gaming companies still operate on the now-archaic market research that white males ages 18-32 constitute a vast majority of the gaming industry’s clientele. However, video game market analysts have noted as far back as 2014 that the gaming industry is an incredibly volatile market with high levels of participation from many different demographics. The Entertainment Software Association reported that in 2013 nearly equal numbers of men and women played video games, at 52 percent and 48 percent respectively. When considering age as part of the equation, the same study noted that adult women made up for a higher percentage of the market share than teenage boys, at 36 percent as opposed to 17.

Sarkeesian also noted that there are, in fact, many developers out there who want to include better and more accurate representations of not only women, but of people of color and members of the LGBT community.

“We’re seeing more developers wanting to get better but not knowing quite how,” she said, making a case for why video game reviews should try to have a feminist or socially-aware edge to them. “Sometimes all that needs to happen is that developers are more thoughtful– and that could be as simple as being more aware of social goings-on,” she continued.

The next segment of the Q and A segued into next steps, beginning with a question asking how game developers could incorporate more powerful women into their games. At this, Sarkeesian rolled her eyes.

“There’s no formula for building a ‘good’ female character. A female character that can only be described as ‘strong’ isn’t a good character, either. They should be honest, meaningful, multi-dimensional characters, not just placeholders for the sake of ‘diversity,’” she explained.

Sarkeesian closed her discussion with notes on the power of media and education. “Progress doesn’t just happen, we fight for it,” she said while touching on the importance of women entering the game design industry and the implications that this could have on the quality of games.

“It’s not additive. It has to happen all at once. These are not issues that can be overlooked,” she said. In agreeing with Lee’s argument that more diverse groups create better games, Sarkeesian stood up in front of the group and concluded, “Look, all my work is based around the idea that media matters. What you produce goes out into the world and affects people. And that’s f-cking awesome,” she claimed.

Though she was on a tight schedule with a formal lecture at Temple at 4 p.m., Sarkeesian took 15 minutes to talk personally with interested students and pose for pictures. Joanne Wong, the President of the Drexel Game Developers Group and Ciera Gordon, the Head of Outgoing Donations for Drexel TechServ, were among the 70 students present for the event and both loved the honest environment.

“I love that she swore so much. It definitely personalized her and made everything seem much more casual and real,” Wong said.

Gordon agreed, adding, “I was happy and surprised about her stance on anonymity. I agree that there are a lot of people out there who need it to be able to connect with others on the internet.”

Following the cleanup of the event, Lee was tired but proud of how everything went.

“This panel really confirmed things I already knew and things I’m already trying,” he said, particularly excited about how this reflects on his Entrepreneurial Game Studio. “The EGS is not under any specific department or college. It is open to all [people].” Lee was most happy about Sarkeesian’s agreement of endorsing a diverse gaming industry.

“As I’ve always said, I want diversity in the gaming industry for purely selfish reasons: the more diverse the game industry is, the more interesting and awesome the games produced are. And I just want awesome games,” Lee said.

  • Koldobika2020

    > “After a brief pause and a laugh, Sarkeesian responded: “I would love for companies to have
    > moral restrictions, but they don’t.”

    I had to stop there. My god. This woman. Always seeking and achieving new lows in philosophical thought. The fact that she would be fine with censoring the output of a group of game designers, profit-oriented as they may be, really tells you all you need to know about her. She has never been a gamer, she has never liked games (claims that she does are highly exaggerated). She is on video as saying she played Mario as a child “like other kids” but otherwise hates video games – she made these statements before she became famous and before she knew that “liking games” would be important to her credibility. She said the statements as an adult. That doesn’t change overnight. This woman has no authority to speak on the subject of video game content or how it should be managed. She is a feminist-flavored Jack Thompson. Despicable.

    • Paul

      “This woman has no authority to speak on the subject of video game content or how it should be managed.”

      Speaking of flawed logic, I’m not sure why you feel this statement naturally flows from your assertion that she doesn’t even play games. At the present time, it seems that Sarkeesian is perhaps the most qualified person in the world to speak about sexism in games and gaming culture, as she has been the center of a vitriolic backlash against relatively mundane observations about games and gamers. Yeah, I’m a guy and I’m a gamer. I don’t find sexism in games overly offensive, but then again it’s not directed at me. I also don’t find sexism in games terribly amusing so I have no problem with Sarkeesian and others making people more aware of the issue.

      Mostly I don’t understand why fellow gamers are so belligerent in castigating this woman for speaking out on a subject she clearly cares about. And whether or not she plays a lot of games is irrelevant.

      • Bobby

        Hi Paul, I can try to answer that last question for you.

        The primary reason she is so hated by gamers is that the overwhelming majority of gamers reject her ideas and views (~80% based on her YT like/dislike ratios before she hid them due to the poor ratings). In short, they disagree with her. Yet she gets all this attention from so many places, gets to speak publicly on games, and gets taken seriously by some in the gaming world. Gamers feel that their voices aren’t being heard and don’t matter when they repeatedly reject Sarkeesian only to find some gaming group brought her in to speak. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion but she acts like there is no other side. To her, she is right and everyone else is wrong.

        There are other issues too:
        -She fully admits she isn’t a gamer yet waltzed into gaming and started barking orders. That’s just annoying.
        -She doesn’t play all of the games she reviews for that long. This is obvious because she says things that are completely wrong like in Hitman when she says you have kill the strippers to derive some sort of pleasure out of them.
        -She steals game footage from other gamers and uses it as her own (you can tell because they have the same name and score)
        -She claims things happen only to women (violence) while ignoring the fact that these things happen to men FAR MORE
        -Her entire view that gaming causes sexism is wrong and has been debunked repeatedly

        I’m probably leaving something out but that covers most of what I can think of for now.

        • Sopa de Caracol

          I don’t have a problem with Sarkeesian. You don’t speak for the majority of gamers.

          • Bobby

            I wasn’t speaking for anyone. Just stating the fact that the overwhelming majority of gamers disagree with her. It’s like 80/20. I mean that’s cool you agree. No hard feelings.

          • Knightwing19

            Actually history, her decline in views on YouTube and the amount of different people that have spoken against her says he does. You’re actually in the minority.

          • NeoTechni

            Sounds like you don’t understand the definition of majority. Hint: you aren’t it

        • Paul

          Fair enough, but she still has a right to speak her mind. And she doesn’t thoroughly play games because she’s specifically looking for a certain aspect to arise. If you were studying game economies in MMORPG’s, you don’t need to play all of WOW or Runescape to look at the economies.

          And I don’t put much credence in what percentage of likes/dislikes are registered anywhere, anytime.

          You’re welcome to shoot the message, but mostly people seem to be aiming at the messenger. In a lot of ways that strengthens her case.

          • Knightwing19

            “If you were studying game economies in MMORPG’s, you don’t need to play all of WOW or Runescape to look at the economies.”
            That doesn’t really work when you are talking about sexism in video games. Her examples are constantly proven wrong and taken out of context.

            When it comes to subjects like this you shouldn’t dismiss likes/dislikes. Just because it doesn’t fit your agenda or narrative doesn’t make them any less accurate.

          • NeoTechni

            She does. But she has said her opponents don’t have the right to speak. And has attacked sites that dared to give her opponents a voice

          • Bobby

            I agree. She has a right to speak her mind. I don’t agree that she has a right to force her agenda into gaming against the will of the majority.

            I believe in democracy not dictatorship. If the majority of gamers agreed with her, I’d have no problem with her views being pushed into gaming (even though I disagree with her). That’s not the case though.

            I also agree that some people attack her and not her message. I don’t agree with that. It’s not right.

      • hurin

        Does sexism in games cause sexism in real life? If not, what is the problem? If yes, what is Anita’s evidence?

        She is using the same line of thinking as Jack Thompson with sexism instead of violence, she has no evidence to back up her claims, and everytime she gets called out, she pretends to be harassed to avoid discussion.

        If Anita is a scholar then she damn well has an obligation to respond to criticism of her work. And if she is not, she should not get payed $20000 for her layman opinions.

      • Cole Pram

        I really hope the moderators let my comment through to you Paul, I’ve linked to a bunch of videos from gamers discussing their issues with Anita. In case it doesn’t get through, I’d encourage you to look up:

        Missy j – I’m a Gamer, Not Your Shield

        Doll Divine Dress Up Games – Female Game Developer’s response to Tropes vs Women

        Rabbit Plays Games – My Thoughts on Anita Sarkeesian

        Kite Tales – More than a Damsel in a Dress: A Response

        Linana K – Why Feminist Frequency Almost Made Me Quit Writing

        All very bright women that have very relevant view points, but often get over looked because the conversation always revolves around Anita’s harassment rather than on her ideas or the relevant criticism people have of her.

        • Sopa de Caracol

          Nice “shields”.

          • Cole Pram

            These women are speaking their own minds. Giving them a platform and allowing them to be heard is important. The dishonest action would be to silence, downplay or ignore their opinions in favour of promoting a harassment narrative, which is all to frequently the chosen action. Many people that want to down play the legitimate criticism Sarkeesian gets, go out of their way to hide the fact that it’s not just men that disagree with her. The fact is it’s not even just “anti-feminist” that disagree.

            Perhaps you don’t believe in giving women a voice when it comes to challenging the opinions of “acceptable” “experts” on the issues, but I do.

          • Knightwing19

            So those women are “shields” when they side with the majority of gamers but not when people like you use them to fit your narratives. Got it!

          • Big Ice Bastardman ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            Sorry the evidence is too problematic for you.

          • Sopa de Caracol

            The vast majority of people, including those who consume video games, know GamerGate is an anonymous hate mob. Is this news to you folks? Haha.

      • sweetoldetcetra

        She is hated by the community because of comments like this

        “The US bombed them back to traditional values – feminism does not exist in Japan. While I don’t like judging an entire culture…that does not excuse them.”

        She has also done things like

        Complaining at last year’s E3 about how every attendee badge had picture she found to be sexist, which was not true at all, since the picture on the free t-shirt voucher and it was not actually part of the E3 badge.

        She has used fanart from other people without giving them credit on her videos.

        With regards to Dishonored 2 She has said “A bit sad that #Dishonored2 didn’t make the leap to an exclusively female lead”, which doesn’t sound like she really wants gender equality after all.

        With regards to FIFA 15 She has said “Adding the option for gender-integrated teams to FIFA games could help us imagine that possibility in future real-world sporting events.”, which totally glosses over the fact that there is a tremendous skill gap between men and woman in football and other competitive sports

        The bottom line is, regardless of what you think of gamergate, there are plenty of people who are concerned about lack of standards and journalistic integrity in video games, she represents a lot of what is wrong with video game journalism. Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis of video games are feminism 100 material at best. Her analysis is very shallow, she cherry picks a lot of evidence to make her case, and more often than not she completely glosses over the bigger picture to make a reasonable argument. It’s stuff like her comments on Japan which makes people wonder how out of touch she is to reality.

        As a scholar she is by no means “most qualified person in the world to speak about sexism in games and gaming culture”. She is to video game what new age philosophy is to Plato or Nietze. I don’t follow the scholarship with regards to feminism, but I’ve read essays and books I read by real scholars on sexism in pop culture and I can tell you that Anita’s works are a joke compare to them. As others have said there are plenty of other females working in the industry who actually has something intelligent to say about the issue, and while I don’t condone any of the harassment she has been receiving, I do think she is way too overrated for the work she is doing on the subject.

        • Paul

          So much anger. Methinks the lady doth protesteth too much.

          • sweetoldetcetra

            Howabout actually addressing the actual points I made?

            “The US bombed them back to traditional values – feminism does not exist in Japan. While I don’t like judging an entire culture…that does not excuse them.”

            And yes, as someone who was born and raizsed in Japan I find that comment extremely ignorant and offensive.

          • sweetoldetcetra

            Howabout actually addressing the actual points I made?

            “The US bombed them back to traditional values – feminism does not exist in Japan. While I don’t like judging an entire culture…that does not excuse them.”

            And yes, as someone who was raised in Japan I find that comment extremely ignorant and offensive.

  • hurin

    “The Entertainment Software Association reported that in 2013 nearly equal numbers of men and women played video games,”

    That is because a nearly equal number of men and women own a smartphone. This data is useless for companies who make console and PC games.

    • xdrngy

      A number of other studies have shown men and women purchase and play the same types of games, same genres, same development values. The only really meaningful difference is hours per week, which only really matters to the developers of MOBAs and MMOs, and your favorite microtransaction-loading developers. It could be argued that this matters in terms of merchandise sales, but at that point you need to start looking at the factors that keep women out of gaming communities besides just time invested.

      • hurin

        There are no such studies. which is also why you’re not linking to one of them.

  • Knightwing19

    Anita Sarkessian is one of the biggest con artists and frauds out there today. The fact that she refuses and runs from debate or talks to anyone that might openly disagree with her shows how little she believes the nonsense that comes out of her mouth. This is a person that went to the UN to act them to police the Internet against those that disagree with her. She’s now part of Twitter’s “Trust and Safety Council” which has already censored prominent people that have public stood against her.

    Sarkeesian doesn’t believe in anything she’s saying unless there is a dollar amount attached.

  • ReformedSamurai

    “Rational Wiki”‘

    Yes a site run by feminists isn’t going to be biased at all

  • Elilla Shadowheart

    Rational wiki, a site where conspiracy theories go to grow. And an article edited and mainly written by someone who was banned from wikipedia for failing to ensure a NPOV and harassment(according to ABCOM). And then was banned by rational wiki itself for being insane. Yep, that sure is a source of trustworthiness.

  • popehentai

    It makes me sad anyone takes this charlatan seriously. ts been shown time and time again her “examples” of “sexism” are nonsense, and oftentimes manufactured. Shes stole footage from Youtube “lets Play”ers, shes stolen art assets from Deviantart artists. Her latest video “strategic butt coverings” has prime examples of her manufacturing “evidence”. She claims she spent time attempting to look at Batmans butt but was blocked by his cape, yet if you make it to any combat or even area in which your character is in motion you clearly see the cape billow and Batmans rear end in clear view. She talks about issues with “Tomb Raider”, and then uses the 20 year old version of the game as her example, as if a 20 year old game is indicative of modern trends. She then shows the main character from a more modern version, adjusting the in-game adjustable camera to CREATE the butt and groin shot she was looking for, that doesn’t exist otherwise in the game. There is even a few clips where you can see the in-game camera jerk as she adjusts it to get a clearer “butt shot” to show how bad the game is. Anyone who has played any of these games can tell you this just from watching her footage. This is often the case.

    she isn’t even consistent in the things she praises, as many of the games shes praised in one series share all of the problems shes decried in the others.

    Of course mine, and any of the other comments here, all seem to be considered “harassment” by Ms Sarkeesian, as when she “exposes” all the eeeebil harassment that she gets, (which is really not much more than anyone online, male or female get) sensible statements are lumped in with obviously fake death threats that she will act as if are more serious than they are. The “bomb threat” is an excellent case in point. the police said it wasn’t credible, and yet she continues to act as if her life was at some kind of risk. she has done everything she can the keep from being confronted with her own words, her false evidence, and her lies, blocking comments on her videos, and getting comments blocked on her appearance on other shows such as her Colbert appearance. Shes even stated in front of the U.N. that simply disagreeing with her or CALLING her out as a charlatan is somehow “harassment”.

    Many people have offered to debate her, even offering a 10k bounty. Until shes willing to stand up and let someone review her alleged “triple checked” research, she should be treated as the opinion pushing snake-oil salesman she is. Her videos are so full of holes teenagers on Youtube can debunk them with ease, and, years later, she STILL hasn’t even fulfilled her Kickstarter series despite the piles of money that have been thrown at her.

  • Elfa

    This woman is an Orwellian nightmare. Ever since she got on that Trust and Safety Council on Twitter, even liberal females who disagree with her brand of social justice have seen themselves shadowbanned.

  • Schiller

    Sarkeesian? Are we still in 2014?

    • xdrngy

      Is the video game industry still predominantly composed of and catering to white men?

  • UnreliableLarry

    Jeez. When I graduated from J-school just a few years ago this kind of shitty, pandering opinion piece would never have been allowed to pass itself off as serious journalism.

    The writer is an embarrassment to the school and her profession.

  • Matt

    Glad to know a charlatan was welcomed into my school. Curious that none of the questions challenged her positions or was even remotely critical of her message or her past actions.

  • JTReader

    I would say that she’s Jack Thompson 2.0, but at least Jack Thompson was honest about everything…

  • Pitchguest

    Oh, enough with this “impact exported games can have on the community as a whole.” She keeps asserting that sexism can be “reinforced” by playing games with either sexist themes or games in which women are sexualised (she dismisses games where men are sexualised from this equation). Numerous studies have been made on the impact video games have on violent tendencies and there simply is no correlation, and recently a study that was conducted over several years confirmed the same thing about sexism. You do not get more violent playing video games, you do not get more sexist playing video games, video games do not “reinforce” violent or sexist behaviour.

    Can we please stop giving this sham-artist a platform to voice her snake oil salespitch?

    We laughed when it was Jack Thompson who called games like GTA4 “murder simulators”, we laughed when Lyndon LaRouche called children who played Pokémon “Nintendo killers.” Why do their claims suddenly gain legitimacy when it’s uttered by a woman?

  • Bobby

    Rational Wiki is the evil step child of Wikipedia. Nobody takes that site seriously. I’ve read parts of that page. I could destroy most of those “arguments” without batting an eye.