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Woman Vs. Internet: How Anita Sarkeesian beat the trolls

The Feminist Frequency founder on games, Kickstarter and what she wants to change

Gaming, undeniably, has an inherent problem with gender equality.

Our industry is largely dominated by men. As a medium it has, for most of its history, targeted itself firmly at the young male demographic, making the vast majority of its money from men aged 14-25. Games are made by men, for men.

More recently that has begun to change, the advent of new business models and forms of distribution opening new genres to female audiences of all ages - proving to developers and publishers alike that there's money to be made from broadening games' appeal. Exact numbers vary, depending on who you listen to, but it's widely accepted that somewhere between 30 and 45 per cent of all gamers are female, with many titles counting women of various age-groups as their most profitable demographic.

"Women across the internet are attacked for speaking out on a variety of topics but there seems to be a particular entitlement-based rage directed at any woman who dares to say anything critical about video games"

Anita Sarkeesian

And yet, the business still alienates and marginalises huge numbers of potential female customers by proliferating harmfully stereotypical and insulting portrayals of women. From casual sexism to full-on misogyny, many core games continue to commit a litany of abuses against 50 per cent of the population.

It's partly an issue of workforce. Just 11 per cent of all game developers are women, according to recent figures, with TIGA's most recent Game Developers' Salary Survey putting that figure even lower, at just 6.6 per cent. Initiatives, such as are tackling the issue, as are grass-roots movements in schools and universities. Online debate is helping, but the problem persists.

I'm absolutely not suggesting that the industry is littered with misogynists and sexists intent on culturally repressing women, but men, it seems, are more likely to make games which appeal largely to men, especially when the market data tells them that it's in their interest to do so. Sex sells, and if you're selling to a straight male audience, that means sexualising women. It's economics, but it's no excuse for culturally retrograde action.

There's an obvious vicious cycle of logic here, one which the forces of capitalism will hopefully begin to rectify as core games are forced to look for new audiences, but it's not just the type of games or their portrayals of women which are driving females away from the medium - online abuse from gamers is often well beyond that experienced in almost any other setting, anonymity and distance giving false courage to the voices of idiots.

There are plenty of hardcore female gamers who are happy to queue for midnight launches of CoD but will never use voice chat for the fear of the gender-focused abuse they'll encounter, MMO players who'll spend six hours a day raiding, but will hide the fact that they're female to shield themselves from the howls and unwelcome sexual advances of male counterparts.

If you're in any doubt as to how virulent and unpleasant the hate can be, take a look at some of the messages received by female gamers at FatUglyorSlutty, a website established by the targets of this abuse to highlight the situation. It makes for difficult reading, despite the light-hearted tone of the site's own mocking ethos.

Someone who has experienced the full spectrum of the problems outlined so briefly above is Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency. A long-term fan of games, and an established media commentator on the representation of women, Sarkeesian decided to try and turn what had been a passion project and sideline into a full-time occupation, opening a Kickstarter appeal to fund a series of videos called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games examining the way in which women in games are represented.

The floodgates were opened. Sarkeesian was bombarded with hatemail of the most graphic and disgusting stripe. Her Wikipedia page was vandalised, visual 'memes' were created, hate sites established, threats made.

Vicious, hateful idiocy made itself heard. Bile and frothing entitlement poured forth. Sarkeesian prevailed, her Kickstarter smashed its target gathering over 15 times the original cash target and enabling her to extend the reach and scope of her project well beyond her original goals.

A victory of sorts, then. Reason has, in this instance, triumphed over troglodytes and trolls - but has much changed? Sarkeesian certainly hopes she can make a difference. Below, GamesIndustry International speaks to the critic about her aims for the project, her experiences online and who she feels has portrayed female characters properly.

The tremendous success of your Kickstarter must be hugely welcome after the horrendous abuse you had visited upon you. Are you more confident that your aims can be achieved as a result?

It's a bit of a double edged sword. I'm immensely grateful for the overwhelming support I've received from people of all genders and from all over the world. On the flip side however this type of intense and sustained harassment can be difficult to deal with to say the least.

Initially my Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project aimed to examine the patterns of stereotypical representations of women in video games, but given the intensity of the hate I've been subjected to for simply announcing the video series, the project will now be expanded to include a component about the epidemic problem of harassment in gaming spaces.

"Faith from Mirror's Edge and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil are featured as the heroic protagonists of their own games without being sexualized, objectified or otherwise reduced to their gender"

Anita Sarkeesian

In the past my video series has been a passionate side project funded out of pocket and via small donations on my website. Now because of the fantastic success of the Kickstarter I will be able to commit to working on Feminist Frequency projects full time, which is very exciting.

Do you feel that the vehemence and unpleasantness of the abuse is particular to the gaming community, or is it representative of internet commentary on a larger scale?

I've received some sporadic harassment for my past critiques of movies or TV shows but the sheer ferocity, intensity and coordination of this wave of abuse and threats is on a scale I've never personally experienced before. I should point out though that this is not unique to my situation. Many other women have been the targets of online harassment such as Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler, gaming icon Felicia Day and British columnist Laurie Penny (just to name a few). Women across the internet are attacked for speaking out on a variety of topics from pop culture to politics but there seems to be a particular entitlement-based rage directed at any woman who dares to say anything critical about video games.

It's also important to keep in mind that the gaming industry is currently in the process of transforming as more and more people from across the gender, sexuality and racial spectrums come to love gaming. I have been encouraged by the number of gamers and game developers alike who have sent me supportive messages communicating their outrage at the sexist backlash and expressing their desire for a change in gaming culture.

One of the issues raised in the discussion around the events of the last few weeks is that games are poor at representing anything with any degree of accuracy, leading to claims that the industry is equally misandrist. That has now resulted in a Kickstarter of its own, albeit one which appears to have less than educational motives. Do you think that there's a case for that argument?

There is a lot embedded in that type of argument which I think is helpful to try to unpack briefly. Unfortunately it seems that any attempt to examine representations of women or sexism in video games is immediately met with the predictable knee-jerk "What about the Menz!" reaction. It's a classic derailment tactic with the goal of re-centering every discussion on men and away from the concerns about the stereotyping, over-sexualization or objectification of women in the medium.

There is also the issue of the false equivalency. The fact is, many of the ridiculously macho male characters are created as a power fantasy for straight male gamers while at the same time many female characters are created as sexual fantasies for those same straight male gamers. I'll be addressing this false equivalency issue in more detail as part of my bonus video on the 10 most common defences of sexism in games.

That said the question of harmful representations of men and masculinity in video games is an important topic which would be an interesting one to examine through a sociological lens. It should be noted though that any honest look at the issue would show that the hyper-macho, overly-aggressive, empty, emotionless depictions of many popular male characters has nothing to with "misandry" but is rather a harmful product of a system of patriarchy itself. For those genuinely interested in learning more about how patriarchy and misogyny can harm men too I'd suggest the books "The Will to Change" by bell hooks and "The Gender Knot" by Allan G. Johnson.

What games, if any, do you feel offer a positive or realistic representation of their female characters?

Faith from Mirror's Edge and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil are two of my all time favourite female characters. Both are featured as the heroic protagonists of their own games without being sexualized, objectified or otherwise reduced to their gender. I also really appreciate the fact that Chell is the star of the amazing Portal series even though she is a silent protagonist.

I should note that I will be detailing examples of positive female characters throughout my Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. I'll be providing counterexamples for each negative or stereotypical trope I cover and I'll be making an entire video focusing solely on the more positive representations of women in games.

"The predictable knee-jerk 'what about the Menz!' reaction is a classic derailment tactic with the goal of re-centering every discussion on men and away from the concerns about the stereotyping"

Anita Sarkeesian
Do female characters have to be positive role models in order to be welcome, or should they be represented across the moral spectrum?

The overall goal is not necessarily "perfect female role models" though more heroic women would certainly be a welcome change in all gaming genres. I think the ultimate goal is for the industry to provide a larger and more diverse range of complex female characters from across the moral spectrum. It's important to remember however, that entertainment media doesn't exist in a vacuum - that characters, stories and universes are an integral and growing part of our cultural landscape outside of the game. As such game developers should understand that their creations are always interacting with (and have an effect on) the widespread pre-existing stereotypes and negative perceptions about women in the real world.

Game characters and game narratives are powerful bits of culture and they can be employed to either reinforce harmful stereotypes about women or to actively challenge or subvert those regressive perceptions. Ultimately, I want complex, engaging and flawed yet heroic female characters with transformative story arcs instead of boring, marginalized, overly sexualized, cliched stereotypes

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Dan Pearson