Anita Sarkeesian - Feminism and games?

I guess this is a controversial topic, and perhaps I shouldn’t bring it up, lest it causes heated arguments! In the past I’ve noticed people feel really strongly about this one way or the other, but I think it’s something interesting and worth discussing.

Anita Sarkeesian is infamous in the gaming community for her strong views regarding feminism and the portrayal of women in games. It’s a very broad topic, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about she has made a series of youtube videos about it. For example she posted the most recent one today called Lingerie is not Armour. In general it seems like most gamers have a rage blackout when they see this stuff; if you google her there are hundreds of videos refuting her arguments.

So I wondered what people thought about her ideas. She argues that games are primarily designed for male players, and that strong/realistic female leads are few and far between. Do you think that the representation of women in games is often problematic, that female characters are over-sexualised? Do you think that developers need to change the way that female game characters are portrayed, or that games like Tomb Raider or Bayonetta are somehow harmful to society?

A recent controversial example was the internet outrage over a depiction of Tracer in Overwatch, and the developers even changed the game in response to this.

I would like to think that the Grouvee community is level headed and thoughtful and that you are not inviting a storm. I think very broadly that Sarkeesian is engaging in cultural criticism, something to which all forms of media are subject. Academically, there are various schools devoted to the criticism, analysis and discussion of all forms of media (literature, film, theatre, press, the internet, new media, etc). Video games are one of the more recent forms of entertainment to receive devoted attention from scholars. Video game studies is now a field, and Sarkessian represents an intersection between academic and non-academic study. She has a background rooted in academic work, but currently functions outside the academy. The benefit of this is that she can make somewhat more accessible texts (videos in this case) on the subject matter. She represents the outward, public facing element of what is already happening inside academia, namely specific and intense analysis of games from various backgrounds: engineering, cultural studies, humanities, philosophy, medicine and so on. Video games are a hot topic in Academia.

Largely I think a great deal of reaction to Sarkessian’s work is from groups that are not accustom to academic criticism. They are not necessarily exposed to the types of criticism and discourse on other forms of media, and are now only aware of this type of discourse surrounding video games because video games are an object they hold dear. Some people see it as an attack, rather than part of the larger ongoing discourse of media, media effects, and so on that is happening in both academic and media circles. I htink largely the reaction is one of fear that somehow the state of video games is being attacked or potentially harmed. I think this is a unfortunately a byproduct of both the fact that there are groups unaccustomed to cultural criticism and the fact that Sarkessian purposefully presents the concepts in a simplified way. Her simplification is a means to make her discussion more accessible, but it leads to some misunderstandings among the audience based on a tendency to take theoretical concepts literally rather than accepting them as concepts for discussion and reflection. She presents basic core concepts regarding representation, sexaulization as well as useful and applicable theories that can be employed to discuss these aspects as a means to engage any audience to think about their games differently. Think of it like a theory on game representation class 101. The ideas are presented to give you a starting point. Like in a film criticism class, students are given tools to deconstruct films. To critically dissect and analyze. They are given tools to look at film differently. They are shown how, for example, Hollywood cinema engages in the use of stereotypes and basic ideologies as shortcuts for telling a story, and that some of these elements can be problematic. They are encouraged to scrutinize film. This process may seem mean and destructive of the joy of film watching to an outsider, but it is a way to appreciate films more. You can suddenly see a favourite film as containing problematic elements. You can engage with that film in a new relationship. It doesn’t mean you suddenly hate the film, it merely means you understand it from new perspectives. It leads to greater appreciation of cinema. The same applies to games. Sarkeesian encourages her audience to think critically about their favourite games. She doesn’t want you to hate them, but to see elements at play that you may have previously ignored. She emphasizes that you can analyze games and identify problematic elements all the while maintaining a deep love for said game.

What Sarkeesian is doing is bringing critical reflection to a mainstream audience. It is a useful thing to engage in. It makes us more involved as critical consumers and helps identify areas where studios can expand on the limits of what they are doing. Like with cinema, if all we had were blockbuster after blockbuster full of repeated tropes and boring recycled plots we would tire easily of the movies we see. Smarter, more critical viewers (or gamers in this sense) make for a stronger and smarter industry, because that industry has the challenge to satisfy a more demanding audience.

As for your questions: 1) yes, games have largely and historically been made with a male audience in mind. They were the primary group playing games, especially after Nintendo drove home the idea that the original NES was a toy for boys. Nintendo’s marketing largely hurt gaming in that it limited the focus of developers. It took decades for the industry to recover and convince people that gaming was for adults and not just kids. And the industry is also starting to realize that, despite targeting boys as the main audience, girls and women are playing games as well, and have been for some time (if not always). So games are not for boys or men, but they have been limited in various ways in an address to boys and men,

  1. The representation of women is problematic in all mainstream media. This isn’t new and isn’t really a surprise. Main stream media has treated the representation of women poorly, for the most part. film, television, games, they have all contributed to this phenomenon. There are plenty of media objects that subvert and challenge mainstream representations of women, but they generally represent a lower percentage of the total compliment of products produced. The issue with video games is that, while the representation of women in film and television has been discussed academically and non-academically for decades now, discourse on the topic related to games is very new. And with any new form of discourse comes a lot of push-back. But any discussion of video game representation simply builds upon existing discussions for all other types of media,

  2. Developers are free to do anything they want, but I think that the best thing they can do is to evolve and shape their games to match our evolving society. If we only made games with themes that were suitable for prior decades we would lose whole groups of people who fail to identify with the ideas expressed in those games. Current society is far more inclusive and games should reflect that, or else they are out of sync with the ethos of our time. It is one of the reasons I love Bioware. Bioware has made plenty of mistakes when it comes to representation in the past but they consistently seek to evolve their storytelling and rectify past mistakes. With each game they have introduced elements that increasingly mirror our present culture. The very fact that they invest in creating multi-dimensional queer characters shows a devotion to speaking to a contemporary audience… They have evolved as a company to provide all forms of representation that speak to all players whether those players are straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans and so on. This is significant. Need every game company do that? No, but it is encouraging that we are seeing more that are willing because it embraces real truths about our current culture that makes the games more relevant to the public. Only making games that reflect an absence of things like that, or only representing women as sexual objects means living in a past that our society has departed from. The beauty of our current game climate is that you can have all sorts of games, each with different types of address and representation which makes for full and varied gaming experiences,

  3. are games harmful to our society? No, and largely no cultural critic really claims that. Not at least in terms like that. Media doesn’t make people do things, it doesn’t harm people, or harm our society. What it can do is reaffirm our existing beliefs. Media is only harmful in so far as it corroborates existing ideas, and is only harmful if the ideas in place are harful to begin with. But this is not the fault of the media object, but the fault of problems in our society. Media objects like games merely reflect problems in society, not create them. This is why being critical of games or any media is important. The point of being critical is not to abolish all things just because they contain problematic elements but to be aware of their problems and question our relationships with them. Cultural criticism is all about making us all a little more equipped to think about the things we consume, why, and what pleasure we derive from them. The better we are at intelligently accessing and consuming our media the better our personal experiences. This we can discuss at much greater length, but I am of the opinion that media itself is not harmful.

To quickly touch on Tracer, the issue wasn’t general sexualization in Overwatch, but a comment that a sexualized pose didn’t fit with the personality of Tracer. It did fit with Widowmaker, which was why there were no comments regarding changing Widowmaker. Blizzard was in agreement and restructured the pose to fit with Tracer’s jovial nature. It is far more fun and bouncy, like Tracer. A lot of the anger that resulted was from people who felt that this was censorship, which points to a lack of understanding of what censorship is. Blizard was in the process of making continual tweaks to their characters. This change fits squarely within this camp. Blizzard found something, thanks to one gamer, that they agreed needed tweaking, so they tweaked it. That isn’t censorship because it is an internal change made in pursuit of making the game better, more accessible, etc. And it is important to note that games are large marketed entities. Blizzard is invested in making changes that help sell their product. I largely believe this is one they felt was best suited for selling the character of Tracer. Given the decision to leave the sexiness of Widowmaker intact, the fact that this change to a perceived sexy pose was not game wide, I felt that the reactions from some gamers were a bit overzealous.


(I mean, after @bmo’s comment we can all kind of go home… :sweat_smile: )

Some people I follow on Twitter once made the point that the gaming community has spent years insisting that video games are an art form, that they’re not just an empty waste of time and that they contribute to culture and have value. If that is true, then naturally, media criticism follows. These people made the comment that video games are finally respected enough as a medium that they ARE coming under criticism, and people are looking at games and treating them with the same weight as a movie or book. I think it’s great, and think discussions of every facet of games should be discussed (especially narrative, which is super important to me as a writer [of prose haha]).

Like the above comment (essay :blush:) mentions, women are not represented well across all media. But I think video games have been a “boy’s club” until pretty recently? So changing that is going to of course cause outrage (change is hard!).

And here’s some personal anecdotes for you…

My gaming career began with gameboy color and playstation in 1999 when I was 10. Growing up, games and the gaming community always felt like it didn’t want me around. Going into gamestop in high school was ANXIETY INDUCING. The guys working there were super condescending and rude, always pointing me to the “girl games” and anytime I DID express interest in those (the sims for instance) the eye-rolling got harder. While my brother played a lot of action/fighting/fps games, I sat there watching large jiggly breasts and squealing girls in tiny bikinis (soul caliber especially) and saw absolutely nothing for me. A lot of games were military-oriented, thus all-male. If a girl was featured in a game, she had half the health points as the guys, even if she was a legendary fighter who was training the newbie guy (looking at you, Legend of Dragoon), or she was a healer whose point in the story was to coo over the guy and get kidnapped. A lot of my gamer guy friends are hardcore fanatics of Zelda. But all I saw was a game about a guy trying to rescue a girl. Same with Mario. The girl’s job was to swoon and be whisked off by a bad guy. Not interesting to middle school me, sorry.

And I have a lot of female friends who had absolutely no trouble with that. They adore those games and never felt alienated by them. And that’s great for them. But that was never my experience. Before I knew what feminism was or why I felt like those games weren’t for me, I was a geeky middleschooler who wanted to play awesome action adventure games and all I saw were guy characters, rude gamer boys who didn’t want me around, and an entire industry shoving Lara Croft’s boobs in my face.

So I get really, really excited to see a push for female characters in games, dressed reasonably and given the same role in the story as many male characters. Not just because those are the games I always wanted to play, but because I get really giddy thinking about other geeky middle school girls who won’t have to pretend Link is a girl in order to enjoy Zelda (lol).


Yeah you’re right, it’s weird how we’re all a friendly bunch. Usually internet communities are really toxic, but we’re just one big warm fluffy family. :family: :blush:

That’s great, I’ve always felt a bit neutral on this topic because I’ve wondered what girls really think about it. I mean, I guess everyone’s different. But, for example, when Tomb Raider or other characters are wearing almost nothing, with big assets, I often wonder: “are girls offended by this? or is it just boring or unappealing?”

I think I agree that gaming has been a male-dominated field for a long time and it seems like most games are made with male gamers in mind. I’ve heard people say “Yeah, but that’s because girls don’t like games.” But that’s not true, apparently gamers are actually 50/50 at the moment, half male half female. Though I have noticed something: I could be wrong on this, but I feel like girls play indie games more, and guys seem to play the big studio games. I wonder if this is because big studios are often still stuck in the male-player-paradigm, whereas the indie teams are more likely to take risks with characters and genres that might be more appealing to girl or both sexes.

My overall thoughts on this topic are hard to describe. When I weigh everything up, I think that the most important thing is the preservation of the artistic vision of whatever artist is working on the game, whether it’s a writer, or in graphics or lead developer. We have a huge range of games being made for all sorts of audiences, and I think variety is a great thing. People should be open-minded and I don’t think everyone should try to conform to one set of standards.

For example, suppose a developer is making a VR porn game, aimed toward men. Obviously this kind of game isn’t going to have appeal for most women, and making adjustments and alterations to de-sexualise the female NPCs or to introduce a female protagonist would just be silly. I think it’s ok to have some games that blatantly aim toward one specific demographic if that is the intention of the developer. Besides, the public will vote with their wallets: perhaps if this hypothetical VR game was somehow adjusted for wider appeal and portrayed a more respectful depiction of women, maybe it would sell better overall. Who knows?

I think that all developers, and big AAA studios should recognise that women make up 50% of the gaming audience and they should be mindful of that. Games like Overwatch have been successful and I think they are mindful if you look at the diversity of the player characters. But I also want to stress the importance of allowing people to have creative freedom, because some games should be disgustingly gory or violent, or even games that are marketed purely toward women (I saw a visual novel game one steam that was aimed towards girls, where you play a girl who meets these handsome anime men, all of whom take you on a romantic dinner date or something). The more variety the better, and that might mean that there needs to be a paradigm shift where devs start making more games for girls: but these are definitely becoming more common. I’ve read there are a lot of iOS games marketed toward girls, is that true?

If developers want to be successful, they definitely should investigate making their games more open to everyone. And I think we are definitely starting to see that. Many modern games allow the player to be a male or female character, and to have relationships with either sex. I remember how people were enraged that you could have a gay marriage ceremony in Skyrim. I still get a bit teary-eyed when I think back to the sweet gay wedding of my Khajiit battlemage and his Argonian husband. :heart_eyes: :two_men_holding_hands:
I guess a problem at the moment (in games and film) is the Bechdel test. It basically means token female characters who are placed in the game but they aren’t fleshed out properly. That’s something developers need to work on because it’s just bad writing and bad game development. I think everyone, including male gamers, are pretty tired of the standard tropes like the damsel in distress, or the one-dimensional love interest. I don’t know if I’m weird, but I feel like both male and female gamers want to see strong, interesting, realistic female characters in their games. Like The Longest Journey, one of my favourite games ever.

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Edit: this got long. I apologize for another essay. Full disclosure, my background is media studies (my graduate work was on film) and this is an area of both personal interest and past writing/work. That may not excuse lengthy posts, but perhaps provides context as to why they are so very, very long.

I think it is nuanced. Not every woman that looks at a character like the original Tomb Raider is going to necessarily take issue with her, for a myriad of reasons (cultural, ideological, personal). This is pointed to above by thewritingj:

But I also think that among those who are tired of this kind of representation, we can include more than women. I think all sort of people are starting to tire of one dimensional representations of female characters. They are over things like (to quote thewritingj) “If a girl was featured in a game, she had half the health points as the guys, even if she was a legendary fighter who was training the newbie guy (looking at you, Legend of Dragoon), or she was a healer whose point in the story was to coo over the guy and get kidnapped.” It is just tiresome to see a limited palate of female characters. Of course there are exceptions over hte course of video game history but it has traditionally been slim.

I have a few thoughts about this. First of all yes, developers can and perhaps should follow their artistic vision and there is room for all sort of games. Like with film or literature, there is room for a whole gamut of ideas and representations. That said:

  1. artistic vision is a difficult thing in the world of media production. Very few media objects, least of all ones that require large productions, are the product of one person. They are a team effort. And that means the artistic vision ebbs and flows between people. If the creative director or story writer designed a character and the character designer says “what if that character is a woman?” (as happened with Uncharted 4) both the original idea and the character designers proposal are part of the artistic process. Thus it is hard to pinpoint a single vision within a media production. There is also the influence of the parent company or distributor and their marketing interests imposing strain on a production. Take Assassin’s Creed Syndicate as an example. The game has dual protagonists, Evie and Jacob. It represents the first time a main line Assassin’s Creed has a female protagonist. But Evie is paired with Jacob, which I have always believed to be a result of a fear on the part of Ubisoft the parent company imposing pressure on Ubisoft Montreal to ensure that the game remains marketable to male players who they perceive as resistant to playing a female protagonist. They wanted to introduce a woman as the player character, but only half did so in an attempt to hedge their bet. Or perhaps dual protagonists was the original artistic prerogative. It is hard to know when you have so many layers of influence exerted on a production.

2a) if we simplify and say that a game can have a single artistic vision this leads us to the idea that yes, artistic vision should be allowed. There are all forms of artistic expression that are articulated via film, television, literature, games. I don’t think any cultural critic wants to shut those down. Diverse subjects should be encouraged and will take various forms. That said…

2b) if artistic freedom exists, so does critical freedom. Criticism and analysis, be they academic or not, exists in tandem with artistic work. It is there not to police, but to comment and discuss and explode the work from the perspective of the viewer/reader/consumer. And if something like a game contains problematic elements, such as sexist representations, then the critical analysis will often take that up as part of the discussion. I think one of the misconceptions about cultural or critical analysis is that this analysis or criticism is trying to stop the media objects it addresses. That Criticism is calling for an end to everything except a narrow set of approved games/movies etc. This is definitely not the case. Criticism is about engaging with a text fully, with both its good and bad points. Every mdeia object will contain a bit of both, and is often up for interpretation. Fans perceive cultural critics as attacking their beloved objects. But the critics are fans too, this is why they engage in criticism, to engage more fully with the thing they love. I think there is also some confusion surrounding the critique of an element of a game vs a critique of hte developer or of a player. Critique of a game or game element is often conflated with a critique of the player. For example, if I say a game contains a sexist representation, it is easy to assume I am also saying the game is sexist, that the developer is sexist and thus that the player is sexist for enjoying the game. That is not what is happening however. Games, and the people that make them and play them are more nuanced than that. Developers who are not sexist can embed something sexist in a game because our society does a poor job of reflecting on structures that are sexist within it. We internalize a lot of problematic things dues to history, culture etc, and we don’t notice them. And suddenly when someone, like a critic, points out that there is a sexist element in our favourite game we might react defensively. The thought process goes: “I am not sexist. I like this game. This critic said x in this game is sexist. This critic is saying a thing I like is sexist. This means the critic is saying I am sexist. That critic must be wrong because I am not sexist”. This can also extend to our feelings about a developer and their artistic vision: “I like this game. This developer made this game. A critic said that an element of the game is problematic. The developer made a second game that changed that element. That critic stiffed the developer’s artistic vision.” These are all hazardous ways of thinking because there is no causality between those things. No actual links. One can like a game that has problematic elements and not be a bad person for it.; One can critique a game for problematic elements and still like the game. And a developer can see feedback and say, yes, I agree with that and I will incorporate my feelings in my next game.

True, but I do think a significant issue when talking about games and representation and address is the assumptions developers, or we as viewers or consumers, make. Using porn as an example, more women like or enjoy porn than is commonly accepted. This fact itself has been increasingly acknowledged over the last decade and producers and the public are accepting that porn, even straight porn aimed at men, is consumed by far more groups than that of hte target. I think any developer making a porn VR game would have to be aware of this fact and understand that they may have players that are women. That doesn’t mean they change anything, because the appeal my be broader than one assumes. And that said, having a female protagonist may be very appealing to a straight male audience, if that is the specific audience. Entertainment, and what people like is nuanced, and the definition of what appeals to even just one group (lets say straight men for this example) is not singular because a group comprised of only one demographic is not a homogeneous mass. There will always be variance. To assume your audience is a like-minded homogeneous mass, like the gaming industry has for so long, means that even people in your target group are left out, not to mention people outside your target.

Agreed. The audience is more diverse than has been accepted in past and this matters when it comes to producing games. And also agreed that there should be creative freedom in games. I don’t think that acknowledging that there is more diversity in the audience means that developers need cease making games that are, to use your example, violent or gory. I think plenty of women enjoy violent and gory games. I also think that visual novels and dating games are popular among both men and women, especially if we take Japan into consideration. I think all types of games can have all manner of gamers. I think mostly the criticism that is aimed at the industry right now is not one that asks for less of any kind of game, but for increased diversity. Going off something you mentioned, there are a lot of games with generic white dude protagonists. It gets boring after a while if every character you play is the same semi-gruff dude who is a sort of anti-hero. It is just lazy writing from AAA developers, and developers emulating AAA studios. I think what critics of the industry want is not the end of that, but just more games that have different and varied characters, so that there is more variety and nuance in our games.

Totally, this is a step in the right direction. It is encouraging.

Two thoughts on this topic.

  1. female characters that are not fleshed out properly is a significant issue, and is definitely bad writing and bad development. Agreed. However, I would suggest that 90% of the bad female characters are the ones that have always existed and continue to exist. Women that stand around in the background, or are just a motivator for hte actions of a protagonist are generally tokens. They are not fleshed out characters but npcs that just function for brief interactions to allow the player to move on to the next quest or action. Or worse, they are just objects to ogle. Take Watch Dogs. I think Ubisoft is sensitive about a lot of things and makes a decent effort, but the female characters in Watch Dogs are a joke. They are either kidnapped,held captive or simply killed just so boring old Aiden has a reason to hack four more ctOS towers. They have no depth, especially the ones standing in the background during human auctions. I think Ubisft thought they were being edgy or gritty, but they are just using female characters as token representation for violence, sex, crime etc. This is the kind of lazy writing that can be fixed by creating and including real, dynamically interesting female characters with their own motivations and goals within the game.

  2. The Bechdel test gets misused and misinterpreted quite frequently. It was a tool for evaluating films based on interactions between female characters. It was basically designed to quickly see whether a film gave women depth of character that did not involve solely her relationship to a male protagonist (or other male character). Plenty of good films fail the Bechdel test, and some very problematic or films one would not call positive for women pass the test. The test is a shorthand for one way of critiquing how a film structures its character and narrative development. I personally think it functions as a starting place to discuss a film, but if you rely solely on the test as your means of critique you are not doing your due dillagence as a critic. It is not perfect, and it is limited. It was not devised as a production tool or reference. It was not intended to be a means for writing your game/movie/book. It can be used as a writing to evaluate one aspect of their script, but that one aspect alone is not enough to make a good story or characters. I honestly don’t think anyone making games is using the Bechdel test to structure their storytelling. I also don’t think many studios insert token female characters in games just to pass the test. I think far more studios insert token female characters to fit the descriptions I gave above, to stand in an be either tantalizing for the audience or serve to motivate the actions of the protagonist. It is that tokenism the industry desperately needs to work on.

That is I think exactly what many people want, strong, interesting and dynamic female characters. The problem is that the vast majority of female characters in video games have long been, and continue to be, the opposite. I think things are evolving, just as our society evolves, but it is always worth discussing and continually critiquing, even if only for our personal benefit.

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