The Legacy of Gamergate: Hatred, Prejudice, and Stereotyping in Video Games

Earlier this year I published a post called “The Problem With Gamers”.  In it, I talked about how I don’t play many video games online with strangers anymore.  The reason for this was just the rampant amount of racist, sexist, and just generally hateful talk that can spew from whoever is on the other end of the microphone.  It got to the point where I just generally either mute people or choose to play only with close friends.  It’s a problem endemic to the gaming community, and it’s gotten some press as of late.

Some of you out there may know the name Anita Sarkeesian.  She is a feminist critic of video games, taking it upon herself to critique the portrayals of women within video games (as well as other forms of media).  She was recently scheduled to give a talk at Utah State University, but decided to cancel it due to certain threats that were made, specifically an email that threatened a “Montreal Massacre” style attack at her presentation.  Due to the state’s conceal and carry laws, they wouldn’t have been able to prevent anyone with a permit from carrying a gun into the event.

This incident shines a light on something most of us in the gaming community are most likely aware of.  There is a sizable number of people who play games that spout off this incredible hate and prejudice on a daily basis.  It’s hard to deal with, considering these people also tend to be the loudest.  It’s a sad truth, and it’s become part of what is known as the Gamergate Controversy.

Now, for my part, I have no issue with Anita Sarkeesian.  From what I’ve read, she seems like she takes a very measured and researched approach to her work, which is more than I can say for a lot of feminists out there, who tend to veer into misandry more than any legitimate avenues of complaint (also, bit of irony but the spellchecker doesn’t recognize “misandry”, even though it is a proper word).  I will say that I disagree somewhat with her assertion that video games are still a haven for sexist, female stereotypes.  I would argue that the video game industry has taken huge strides in that regard.  There are still some very questionable portrayals (look at Ivy from the Soul Calibur series…no seriously, LOOK AT HER), but on the whole I would say gaming has gotten much better in that regard.

There's a joke out there on the internet that with each edition of Soul Calibur the female characters end up with bigger breasts.  From what I've seen...that's not too far off.  (Soul Calibur 5, image taken from IGN.com)

There’s a joke out there on the internet that with each edition of Soul Calibur the female characters end up with bigger breasts. From what I’ve seen…that’s not too far off. (Soul Calibur 5, image taken from IGN.com)

The problem I have with these kinds of critiques is that they tend to single out video games as if they are the sole problem, which they are not (Sarkeesian has focused on more than just games, but her recent efforts seem to put video games squarely in the crosshairs ).  Like I said in my “The Problem With Gamers” post, the issue here isn’t the medium.  Anonymity is a very powerful idea.  It allows for some very angry and hateful individuals to spew their bile without any repercussions.  But we cannot simply erase anonymity because with freedom of speech comes the knowledge that we have to allow some bad ideas to exist in order to preserve the good ones.

From the way a lot of critics of the industry talk, it’s like video games are this festering ground of misogyny and hatred.  But that’s not true.  Look at Sam Greenbriar from Gone Home.  Look at Lilith in Borderlands 2.  Look at Samus Aran from Metroid.  These are all examples of female video game characters who don’t just adhere to traditional tropes and stereotypes (although the skin-tight suit Samus commonly wears these days is a little questionable).  It’s true that there are still overly stereotypical portrayals of women in games, but the same can be said of men.  If you look at a game like Gears of War, what do you see?  Hulked up, roid-raging testosterone sacks on legs.  You can see it in plenty of other games as well.  Men are commonly portrayed as over-the-top heroic, and in many cases, womanizing.  These stereotypes can be just as prevalent as the female tropes, but they don’t get nearly as much attention.

The point I’m trying to make here is that tropes are everywhere, and sometimes it is nearly impossible to create detailed characters in every situation, particularly ones where the character functions only as a background element.  In these cases you will see these tropes used to easily define their behaviors and their purpose within the setting.  It’s a sad truth that’s not just endemic to video games, but to books, television, movies, and so on.  The thing with video game storytelling is that it is often rooted in the styles of books and movies, which both have had their fair share of stereotyping.  So instead of just focusing on games in general, why don’t we widen the net?  There is still a lot of work that can be done, but we’re on the right path.

Another issue I have with current video game criticism is that so many of them just automatically lump all gamers in the same category, namely the sexist, racist, and hateful category.  Check out this tweet from Sarkeesian’s twitter account earlier this month.

Feminist Frequency Tweet

In particular, note the second thing she re-tweets here: “1999: gamers demand we stop blaming school shootings on videogames.  2014: gamers threaten a school shooting because videogames”.

Yeah because the same people who were saying that in 1999 were OBVIOUSLY the same people who threatened the school shooting.  Because you totally know that for sure.  And it TOTALLY represents the entire gaming community as a whole.  It’s just so LOGICAL to immediately assume that everyone who is part of a group behaves the EXACT SAME WAY.

What annoys me is this assumption that gamers have to stand up and say that the actions of these people do not represent all of us.  Why?  Why should we have to?  Shouldn’t it be obvious?  Or are some people so mired in their generalizations that they refuse to acknowledge the wide breadth of people who play video games?  The average age of video gamers is actually somewhere in the thirties, so we’re not all just dumb kids as some people like to assume.

Do we ever demand that Christians stand up and say that the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church do not represent all of Christianity?  Hell no.  We would never even THINK of suggesting something like that.  Yet, because it’s video games, the people who play them are automatically subjected to more rigorous standards than the rest of the world.  It’s stupid, not to mention unfair.

Is there an issue with hate and anger within the gaming community?  Very much so.  But these does not define gaming as a whole.  It’s far too easy to label the gaming community as spiteful and bad than it is to acknowledge the greater issue here.  Where did these gamers learn such hate?  Who told them it was okay to treat women as objects?  Who allowed them to believe that racism at any time is acceptable?  It certainly wasn’t video games, and even if it was, all I have to say is where the hell were their parents?

If we simply lump all the blame on games, we miss the underlying issue.  In order to stamp out the hatred on the internet, we have to find the cause.  Simply pointing the finger at video games solves nothing.  Kids shouldn’t be learning lessons from games, they should be learning lessons from their parents, from the people around them, from real life situations, which is not to say that games can’t engage on an intellectual level.  I mean if movies are allowed to show gritty and glamorous versions of the criminal underworld, then why can’t games?  But if there’s a kid five years of age playing a copy of Grand Theft Auto unattended, there’s something wrong in that household.  And I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t the game.

Sarkeesian does a good job pointing out the negative female stereotypes in games, but we need to be aware that these stereotypes aren’t intrinsic to games.  They have existed in other forms of media long before games really hit the scene.  It’s natural to be a little concerned, especially when games have skyrocketed in popularity over the last couple of decades.  It’s a multi-billion dollar industry now, but it’s still fairly young.  Dealing with stereotypes in video games is a worthy cause, but we need to work on the underlying social issues as well if we truly want to be rid of them.  Hatred and anger won’t simply cease because we took care of video games.  Hatred and anger will persist regardless of games.  Hatred has sparked wars.  Hatred has caused genocide.  Hatred leads to even more hatred.  It’s not just games.  It’s not just gamers.  It’s not just the internet.  It’s us.

It’s always been us.

 

And that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next week for another post, and as always, have a great week.

 

Here’s a link to an NPR interview article with Anita Sarkeesian, if you’re interested.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Legacy of Gamergate: Hatred, Prejudice, and Stereotyping in Video Games

  1. This has got to be the most sensible post I have read on this issue. Thank you.

    I will add though:

    A lot of the stereotypes Anita highlights in her first video have little to do with sexism and more to do with millennia-old, good vs evil storytelling. It’s about heroes having a prize worth fighting evil for; love, freedom, fortune etc… There needs to be a powerful reason for a dangerous quest, right? Otherwise, it’s not much of a game. Whether you are male or female, love and desire are motivators.

    There isn’t a single feminist part of me that views romance or good vs evil in games, like Mario or Zelda for example, as sexist. I’m pragmatic enough to see past the outward appearance of those characters. As I’m sure most gamers are. After all, characters have to look like something, or else we’d still be playing Pong.

    But there exists an entire generation of young women who, as you mention, “veer into misandry” in the name of feminism and by doing so, discredit the movement. Feminism is about equality, not superiority. Some (not all, just some) of Anita’s rationale doesn’t really fit and is more akin to nitpicking for the sake of pushing her own agenda. This hurts the entire sisterhood and I take umbrage at that.

    — CB

  2. Pingback: False Progress: Why I Dislike the Idea of the Ocean’s 11 Reboot | Rumination on the Lake

  3. Pingback: Feminist Fracas: The Debate over Gender Roles in Video Games – Rumination on the Lake

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