Rescuing Anita: Games, Gamers, and the Battle of the Sexes
Jennifer deWinter / Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Carly Kocurek / Illinois Institute of Technology
We finally found a place that we could punch Anita Sarkeesian in the face. Not that we had been looking, in particular. But for a brief moment, it was hard not to find a place to punch Anita Sarkeesian in the face.
Who is this woman, you may be wondering, and why would we want to punch her? We have nothing against her, rest assured. Rather, we are tracing the firestorm that arose around Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women Video Games,”1 a Kickstarter campaign from Feminist Frequency to fund a series of short videos addressing the portrayal of female characters in computer games. The original goal of $6000 was met, surpassed, and is currently at $158,922. This success was in large part due to the game Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. This is not a column about Anita Sarkeesian’s work, although we applaud that work — and, in fact, have no desire to punch Sarkeesian, in the face or elsewhere. Rather, this is a column intended to start a conversation about this concept of “Gamer.”
As gamers and game scholars, we know that about half of all people who play games are women. However, when “Gamers” are represented, these abstracted gamers tend to be male, young, socially awkward, and technologically savvy. Further, they are frequently imagined as misogynistic, sexist, would-be rapists who terrorize people in online venues.
This very concept of “Gamer” is interesting in that it suggests an ethos of interaction with a medium that is absent in discussion of other mass media devotees. For example, if one of our mothers were an avid TV watcher who supplemented her viewing by reading TV Guide, following online television news, and even reading or writing fanfiction, would that make her a TV-er? The same can be said about film. Sure, there is the “Film Buff,” that person who walks around as a living IMDB, who follows upcoming productions, joins film societies, and attends film festivals; however, this label does not connote a narrow identity in the same way that “Gamer” does. In popular imagination, film buffs are diverse in terms of age and gender; gamers are not.
We want to ask why this “Gamer” exists as a easily invoked identity, a young man who is misogynistic, sexist, and who deploys rape threats and otherwise terrorizes people in online venues. This is an extreme representation, we admit, but not one without foundation. Let’s return to the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project, and specifically to Bendilin Spurr’s game Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. When the Kickstarter campaign was announced, a very vocal subgroup of the gamer community went up in arms. They were enraged that a woman would apply her “feminist bullshit” (written so many times, it’s difficult to find a starting place to cite, but try here, and here, and here) to their beloved games. Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian emerged as part of this backlash. When the game was pulled from NewGrounds.com, the author left this comment:
Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian is just the most striking illustration of the deluge of threats of rape and of other kinds of violence that greeted Sarkeesian’s successful Kickstarter campaign. This campaign, we reiterate, had the modest goal of making short videos to address sexism in in-game characters and did not even begin to address the culture of sexism enacted in and around games by communities of players.
This vitriolic response is not unique to the Anita Sarkeesian case. Jenny Haniver’s website NKA: Not in the Kitchen Anymore started as an art installation that recorded and represented the female play experience in X-Box Live’s Call of Duty. This website is her ongoing project to record the types of interactions that she must put up with as a female gamer. Recently, she posted a transcript in which one of the players got belligerent, and peppered the game with this type of charming dialog: “RMP1: Yeah, I’d bet you’d like that shit bitch. I’m gonna fuckin’ finger the shit out of your pussy ’til it bleeds” and “RMP1: Hold up bitch, shut the fuck up okay? Put your damn mouth on my dick.”2
And yes, both of us have been on the receiving end of these types of comments in gaming events online and even occasionally, horrifyingly, in person.
We have discussed extensively why this treatment is so common — not only from men whom we have never met but among our acquaintances and friends as well. The phenomenon seems to deny the easy explanation provided by the Magic Circle, that ephemeral suspension of real-world rules as players subject themselves to the rules of the game (see Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens for an eloquent discussion of this3 ). Within a wide variety of games, once players are in the game space, this type of aggressively misogynistic performance emerges, suggesting that this player behavior doesn’t belong to the rules of a particular game or set of games, but to the general masculine performance of all games.
The problem of masculinity in gamer identity echoes Susan Faludi’s discussion on the construction of a type of masculinity that men are denied active participation in — a kind exemplified by the Schwarzenegger hero who is strong, capable, and sexually irresistible.4 In part because of their historical construction as a medium intended for male consumers, computer games provide a space players can perform this type of identity with few physical limitations or consequences. Often, computer games provide a space in which masculinity can run amok. However, this space is liminal, its foundation a chamber of smoke and mirrors that obscures both the social and cultural realities that undergird gaming and the real, diverse, players who often inhabit game spaces.
Several books have pointed to gaming’s historic ties to military technology. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games5 discusses militainment — military culture and machismo are marketed as entertainment. The essays in Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games6 examine the symbiotic relationship between the military and gaming, and in Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture,7 Patrick Crogan argues for the importance of the military thinking that drove the development of the medium. Video gaming also has long ties to sports, both through the appropriation of the language of athletic competition, which has been broadly deployed in discussion of video gamers at least since the 1970s and which continues to inform gaming both through sports-based games (such as the licensed NFL, and NBA games, as well as games like Wii Sports) and through a rhetoric of athleticism often applied to competitive gamers. Both the military and sports have a fraught history with regards to gender politics, and likely some of these tensions have transferred to the computer game medium.
Gaming’s excesses of masculine aggression may also be a problem of mimicry, of reappropriation. “Gamers” have been maligned in news media for being too violent. Indeed, because of computer games, the Columbine tragedy occurred (by some accounts). This accusation was addressed in Danny Ledone’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a game that acts as part documentary, part critique in the medium blamed for the events. This type of action may be an appropriation of that stereotype: “You tell me that gamers are violent sexists, and therefore, I get to be a violent sexist (at least in the computer game space).” This is not, we think, a conscious decision.
We are aware, in writing this column, that you may think that we are against computer games. We are for them, in the same way that we are for television, film, and music. Computer games are part of our entertainment landscape, and we enjoy them. However, in puzzling through the actions of gamers and how many gamers define and defend their identities, we chose to start at one end of the spectrum because it’s shocking, it’s appalling, and it’s everywhere.
I doubt many of us would deliberately invite a boorish rapist into our living rooms, yet too often, when we log into our favorite games, we do just that. The question we leave with is why — not why do we play, but why do ordinary people decide these modes of interaction are not only to be permitted, but to be violently defended? If you doubt these defenses are violent, consider for a moment the plight of Anita Sarkeesian, endlessly punched in effigy.
1. Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” Game Start Page
2. “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” Game: Representation of Physical Deterioration Due to Violence
3. Author Comments (Eulogy) after Game Was “Blammed” from Newsgrounds
4. Techno-Soldier: Representation of Very Young Male Gamer Violence
Please feel free to comment.
- www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games/posts/245217 [↩]
- http://www.notinthekitchenanymore.com/eww/ [↩]
- Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon P, 1971. Print. [↩]
- Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1999. Print. [↩]
- Dyer-Witheford, Nick and Greig de Peuter. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009. Print. [↩]
- Huntemann, Nina B., Matthew Thomas Payne and Ian Bogost. Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Miliary Video Games. London: Routledge P, 2009. Print. [↩]
- Crogan, Patrick. Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2011. Print. [↩]
Among the most balanced, dialectical treatments of this subject I’ve read in some time. I’m particularly compelled by deWinter and Kocurek’s observation that gamer identities are often strongly privately defended and self-policed; this strikes me as an avenue of research that has yet to be ambitiously explored.
I also appreciate that they note they are beginning “at one end of the spectrum” in this project. Such a gesture recognizes the wide range of alternative behaviors that do in fact exist, but also takes a stand and instead of saying “I have no idea about how to begin this project” says “We’ll start here.”
Well done. I look forward to seeing points on this critical spectrum populated by these authors and others.
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