When Anita Sarkeesian, a lifelong gamer, launched her KickStarter campaign for a video series set to be titled “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” last May, it is safe to say that nobody could have anticipated the enormity of the response.
The media critic, who holds a Master’s in Social and Political Thought from York University in Toronto, didn’t intend to upset any fans, nor did she want to thoughtlessly bash the games in question.
“The idea that you can love something and be so critical of it is so important to the work I do,” said Sarkeesian during a Nov. 8 talk at Northeastern University. “But the vast majority of games ignore women or are openly hostile towards us.”
Before her campaign even got off the ground, “gamer dudes,” as Sarkeesian calls them, came out in droves to discredit, mock, and harass her. Fabricated quotes were spread, her phone number and address were leaked on 4Chan.com, her face was Photoshopped onto pornographic photos, and she received threats of rape and violence. Sarkeesian blames this aggression on the need for gamers to preserve the “boy’s club” that is the gaming subculture.
Gaming is no exception to the rule. Many traditionally “nerdy” or “geeky” realms are dominantly male spaces where women – or fair representations of women – are scarcely found. When women are present, they are often mistreated or misrepresented. Last month, a female scientist was called a “whore” when she politely declined an unpaid job offer. Sexual harassment is pervasive at comic and anime conventions. The Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies all failed the Bechdel Test (a three question quiz to determine whether a film is sexist). Why does geekery breed sexism?
“In most of my classes, I find myself one of just a handful of women,” said Emily Shaffer, a fourth-year computer engineering student at Northeastern. “On co-p it is usually a little less severe, but last co-op I found my project team of 14 was all male. On my first co-op I traveled to a training week and my boss and I were the only women in the training room the entire week. The observations that I am a girl in that field, and isn’t that so remarkable, never stop.”
Shaffer is also into videogames, anime, and Magic: The Gathering, so she is used to being the only woman in a room full of male nerds.
“I can attest to the number of men at Magic events who have asked me if it was my first time playing despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Surprise — it’s lots.”
“It definitely bothers me when I’m on the Internet and I see the things some women go through in the gaming industry,” said Carli Velocci, who reviews games for DigBoston and Gameranx.com. “Many smart women who write about games face harassment just for writing about the state of sexism as if it’s the worst crime imaginable and it’s not fair.”
She’s right. Last month, Carolyn Petit, a critic for GameSpot.com, called Grand Theft Auto V “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic” – an understandable criticism of a game whose female characters are overwhelmingly strippers and prostitutes. Even though she ultimately gave the game a 9 out of 10, angry (mostly male) gamers launched a petition to get her fired.
But sexism in nerdy realms goes beyond the mistreatment of real women. Female characters are scarce in nerd media – a 2010 study found that 85 percent of playable characters in games are men. When women are depicted, they are often overtly sexualized. A quick browse through a selection of comics (another traditionally nerdy subculture) will reveal heroines bent into impossible poses to best show off their bodies, or clad in outfits not at all practical for combat – a trope that Sarkeesian calls the “Fighting Fuck Toy” in her analyses.
“Female representation definitely shapes my opinion when it comes to games,” said Velocci. “It’s sad, but when there’s a female character that goes beyond just being the damsel in distress or the love interest, I get excited. My expectations are incredibly low when it comes to women in these stories because there are so few of them.”
Perhaps this misrepresentation and underrepresentation can be attributed to a lack of females in the game design. Women only make up 11% of designers and 3% of programmers. But the industry isn’t doing much to encourage women in the field. This year’s Game Developers Conference was host to a party that featured paid topless dancers, a move that helped feed into the already notorious conception that the industry is home to a “frat boy” culture.
“Women make up 50 percent of the people who consume media, but only make up 5% or 10% of the people who make that media,” said Gillian Smith, an assistant professor of game design at Northeastern University. Smith is currently teaching a game prototyping class of 25 students – and only three are female.
“It seems incredibly imbalanced. Women deserve a voice, and we don’t get it if women aren’t making games,” she added. “There are things that we should be able to express through the media that are being ignored and steamrolled over by the dominant male voice.”
Since men design the majority of games, they design the female characters, when and if they are designed at all.
“It’s often done with the idea that men will be the audience as well, which is why you end up with, ‘We have female characters in our games!’ But they’re not actually the characters that women who are playing the games might want to be. They’re the characters that men who are playing the games might want to see,” Smith said.
Although sexism can seem more pervasive in nerd-dominated media, it is important to note that this gender divide is a result of a greater cultural force – one in which women’s’ voices in and about all facets of media are consistently marginalized.
“It’s such a broad systemic problem that rises from these very strong historical, societal forces,” said Smith. “Patriarchy is very embedded in our culture, everywhere.”