Although self-described feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian has abandoned her Tropes vs Women in Video Games project, she hasn’t stopped exerting her influence over an apparently enthralled games industry.
Writing on May 19, 2017, James Batchelor of industry publication Gamesindustry.biz reported on Sarkeesian’s speech at the 2017 Nordic Game conference, an annual event that describes itself as “the leading games conference in Europe”.
Sarkeesian’s 45-minute speech was called “Diversity is Not a Checklist”, and, broadly speaking, was an exhortation to the industry to better represent the diversity of its audience through playable characters, and to tell stories that “recognise the systemic oppression” that women and “people of colour” face.
Not, in itself, a bad topic to explore — though as we’ll discuss in a moment, it disregards one of the key reasons many people turn to video games as entertainment and represents just a single perspective. The main problem is, as with much of Sarkeesian’s previous work, her lack of knowledge and awareness regarding the industry outside the most high-profile parts of the Western triple-A and “in-crowd” indie spheres undermines a great many of her arguments. And, unsurprisingly, Batchelor does not take the opportunity to analyse her remarks in his report, instead simply parroting them uncritically.
Enough is enough. It’s time the industry stopped hanging on Anita Sarkeesian’s every word — or at least started thinking about the things she is saying a little more critically, and researching her claims rather than accepting them at face value. Here are 13 reasons why.
Her subject knowledge is narrow and blinkered
As we’ve already mentioned, Sarkeesian shows little to no awareness of the industry that exists outside of the “bubble” that gets reported on by the mainstream press: a bubble than consists primarily of high-profile triple-A games, and Western indie titles developed by individuals or teams who have cultivated good working relationships with staffers from the big commercial publications.
Indeed, in her Nordic Game talk, the only games she references that are not big-budget triple-A titles are Gone Home (which received a great deal of attention and praise due to it being the work of someone who previously worked on BioShock), Cart Life and Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, the latter two of which are the kind of “fashionable” indie that tend to receive a great deal of attention and celebration from the press.
In particular, Sarkeesian demonstrates no knowledge of the Japanese console games industry outside of a passing reference to Final Fantasy XV (which we’ll come to later), and likewise seemingly no awareness of game-like narrative media such as visual novels.
Is this a problem? Well, yes, it is; Sarkeesian has a habit of speaking in very broad statements that tend to tar the entirety of the industry with the same brush, when in fact the modern games business is comprised of many, many disparate parts, each doing their own thing in their own way.
To speak on behalf of the entire industry, as Sarkeesian aspires to, you need to have an awareness of all these parts, what they’re doing, who they’re catering to and why. But by then you’d probably realise that saying something as sweeping as “it’s time we actually created an industry that’s more inclusive and respectful of its audience” is a bit silly, as there are significant parts of the business that are already doing this.
She doesn’t deliver on her promises
Sarkeesian ran a high-profile Kickstarter campaign in 2012 in order to fund the production of her Tropes vs Women in Video Games web video series. It was nearly a year later before the first video emerged, and by the beginning of 2015, she had tackled only six out of the originally planned 12 topics, instead deciding to meander off in another direction. She explained this situation as being due to her increased commitments to public and media appearances.
However, at the time of writing in 2017, many Kickstarter backers are yet to receive the rewards they signed up for in 2012, and many critics still question exactly how the crowdfunding money was spent, given that the project was never really “finished” as originally promised. Given the rather simplistic nature of the videos themselves, it’s questionable as to how much budget they really required to make.
Her arguments are Feminism 101 level
Since the conclusion of Tropes vs Women in Video Games, a few more people have been willing to admit that the arguments she makes in her videos are rather simplistic at best.
Her first “damsel in distress” video, for example, spends a long time listing examples of women getting kidnapped in video games and stating bluntly that this is a “problematic” thing we should care about, while getting her facts completely wrong in a number of instances — such as inaccurately noting that Peach has “never been a playable character again in the [Super Mario] franchise” since Super Mario Bros. 2, and showing no awareness of Double Dragon Neon’s finale, in which “damsel” Marion demonstrates herself to be more than capable of sticking up for herself by punching the final boss right in the balls.
Her arguments are no more complex than “women are treated badly because of the patriarchy”, and demonstrate little to no attempt to understand how or why such tropes came to be in the first place, or indeed why many of them have such enduring popularity.
More than that, because she is the most high profile feminist critic of video games, she undermines the work of those attempting to use feminism to analyse video games in more depth. She sets the bar low, and in the process causes people to become resistant to criticism from this ideological perspective, even where there are valid discussions to be had.
She is dismissive of disagreement or debate
Comments are closed on most of Sarkeesian’s media on the grounds that she has been subject to “sexist harassment”. And, for sure, there has been a certain amount of that from the jerks of the Internet. Any high-profile figure saying controversial things is going to attract trolls, unfortunately; such is the way of an anonymous online existence in the 21st century.
But she doesn’t welcome any discussion at all. She does not engage with people in debate or tolerate criticism of her work. She demonstrates no awareness of perspectives other than her own, nor any willingness to explore these alternative viewpoints. Her way is presented as the One True Way, and the rather abrasive manner in which she delivers many of her arguments implies that she very much believes that those who feel differently to her do not hold opinions even worth considering.
She applies one theoretical model to an incredibly diverse medium
The trouble with feminist media theory is that it tends to be — in Sarkeesian’s case, at least — rather predictable and straightforward: patriarchy exists, therefore men are in positions of power, therefore women are oppressed, and media reflects all of the above. It is, of course, not that simple.
In the games business, we have people like Tsunako, the female artist responsible for the delightfully distinctive (and sexy) character designs of the Neptunia series and its stablemate Fairy Fencer F; we have Taro Yoko, who made the lead character of Nier Automata a sexy female android because he “likes girls”, but also quietly made her part of a fascinating, detailed narrative, too; we have Kenichiro Takaki, who, legend has it, brought about the Senran Kagura series because he wanted to see breasts popping out of the Nintendo 3DS’ screen, but ended up making one of the most well-realised (and large) all-female casts in all of gaming; we have Fenrir Vier, who made a visual novel about gay girls fighting demons simply because he wanted to, and believes that “diversity should be created by way of creators putting their individuality into their work”.
To write off the hard work of these creators — and the inherent progressiveness and positivity of many of their creations — because of some amorphous concept of “patriarchy” is an incredibly blinkered attitude. Not only that, but many of Sarkeesian’s “favourite” tropes to explore, such as the aforementioned “damsel in distress”, are actually used pretty rarely in modern interactive media, if you take the time to pick it apart.
She offers no solutions, only negativity
“This is problematic,” Sarkeesian will say, and there her argument stops, offering no real solutions for the “problem” she has taken great pains to point out in exacting detail.
Even in her speech at Nordic Game, she accused titles like Dishonored 2 and Watch Dogs 2 of being “little more than lip service” despite having aspects that she approved of, and noted that “they require a more complex understanding of how evil and oppression in society is actually perpetuated to go along with the richer worlds and characters”.
Well, sure, but how? That’s where her arguments tend to stop; she cites examples of games that she thinks are doing it “right” — and plenty that are doing it “wrong” — but offers no practical solutions for developers to follow or the audience to look out for. It’s all “this is bad”, not “this is how we could do this a bit better”; as most of us learned back in primary school, constructive criticism is infinitely more helpful than destructive, pure negativity.
She shows little to no awareness of works outside her comfort zone
We’ll come onto this in more detail in a moment, but a big blind spot in Sarkeesian’s subject knowledge appears to be Japanese games. Conspiracy theorists might suggest that she is actually fully aware of the wide range of Japanese games on the market today and simply chooses not to mention them because many of them completely undermine her arguments and theories, but I would never say such a thing.
No, given that I’ve seen first-hand on a number of occasions how ill-informed the mainstream commercial press can be with regard to Japanese games, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if any awareness Sarkeesian has of Japanese games is purely based on the sort of inaccurate hearsay that bans people discussing titles like Criminal Girls on the inexplicably still-popular gaming forum NeoGAF, or leads freelance reviewers to describe Hatsune Miku fans as “degenerates”.
The fact is, even if Sarkeesian does have an awareness of the industry outside the Western triple-A and indie bubble, she doesn’t demonstrate it or acknowledge it. And, as we’ve already discussed, that’s a major issue if she’s going to condemn an entire medium for its supposedly deeply entrenched sexism problem.
The press does not look at her work critically, instead idolising her
You need only look at Batchelor’s report on her Nordic Game talk for an example of this. He makes no attempt to question her claims or provide his own perspective; her words are presented as unquestionable gospel, and indeed the one acknowledgement of a dissenting view in the piece — a mention of a provocative question from an audience member — is framed as something ridiculous and worthy of derision.
The press’ inability — or unwillingness — to question Sarkeesian or disagree with her observations is primarily what has led to the situation we have with the majority of mainstream commercial sites these days, in which attempts at unqualified, unresearched feminist critique tend to be the “default” approach.
Why has this happened? It’s at least partly due to Sarkeesian’s unwillingness to engage with critics or those who wish to debate her; by lumping together the genuine trolls with those who simply disagree, as she has done on a number of occasions in the past, she has poisoned the well for alternative viewpoints, making a feminist approach the only viable option for sites that hope to maintain a “progressive” reputation.
This is a big problem, because it shuts down discussion, and suggests to the audience that there is only one “right” way to feel about things.
“Male Gaze” is an oversimplification of how players feel towards characters
Speak to a fan of a series like Neptunia or Senran Kagura and ask them what their favourite character is. Then ask them why. Chances are their answer will be considerably more complex and nuanced than “I want to fuck them”.
Sarkeesian dismisses the few female protagonists she is aware of as being oversexualised and designed with the male gaze in mind, and while it’s true that many female characters do tend to be designed to be physically attractive, assuming that this is the only thing players will care about is a gross oversimplification.
For one, this argument completely erases the existence of the substantial female fanbases of series like Neptunia and Senran Kagura, refusing to acknowledge that there are women out there who simply like these characters — or, indeed, that there are gay women out there who find these characters physically attractive, too.
It also denies the feelings of players — male, female, straight, gay — who engage fully with the characters in one way or another. One person might find a character enormously relatable. Another might like a character because they remind them of a friend or family member. Another still might simply find the character’s personality traits appealing and enjoy spending virtual time with them.
It’s pretty rare to find someone who likes a character purely because they want to fantasise about having sex with them — because it’s pretty rare for a character to be designed purely to appeal to base desires like this. Even in the most blatantly sexualised games like the Dead or Alive Xtreme series, players still tend to gravitate towards their favourite characters because they like them as “people”, not just as something to ogle.
Hell, even in outright pornographic games like Custom Maid 3D 2, it’s hard not to get attached to the characters and develop favourites based on far more than just their physical appearance. Believe me, I know.
Japanese games feature considerably more empowered, capable women than men
The explosion in popularity of the moe aesthetic across all forms of Japanese popular media often comes under fire, particularly from people who aren’t a fan of its brightly coloured sugary sweetness. But one thing it’s impossible to argue against is the sheer number of female characters that moe has brought to the forefront of many different works.
This is reflected in modern Japanese games, too. Look at this month’s Cover Game MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death, for example, which features a core cast of five highly capable young women. Or the aforementioned Neptunia and Senran Kagura series, which feature expansive all-female casts, many of whom are gay. Or Dungeon Travelers 2, which makes its male “protagonist” almost completely useless, instead focusing on the capabilities of its huge cast of playable women. Or Nights of Azure, which features a gay woman as its protagonist.
Strong women in Japanese games actually predates the rise of moe by quite a bit. Final Fantasy, for example, has featured women in leading roles since its second installment (first if you believe, as some do, that the White Mage in the original Final Fantasy was female). Gust’s Atelier series has primarily featured female protagonists since its inception in 1997. And visual novels, shoot ’em ups and other Japanese computer games have featured ass-kicking women since the days of the PC-88 and PC-98.
In fact, many of the most enduringly popular characters from Japanese games are women. Off the top of my head (discounting anything from the PS3 era onwards, which is where “moe games” really became a thing) and in no particular order, there’s Nina and Momo from Breath of Fire III; Etna and Flonne from Disgaea; Feena from Grandia; Luna from Lunar; Aya Brea from Parasite Eve; Meryl from Metal Gear Solid; Celes and Terra from Final Fantasy VI; Aeris, Tifa and Yuffie from Final Fantasy VII; Laramee and Arcia from The Granstream Saga (high five if you played that one); and plenty more besides. I could probably go on for hours, to be quite honest, but in the interests of your sanity and my word count, I’ll stop there.
One thing all these characters have in common is that they’re memorable for far more than their physical appearance. Many of them had distinctive designs, for sure, but not one of them was designed as nothing more than fantasy bait for men. Instead, they were memorable for their personalities, their narrative arcs, their relationships with other characters, how much you as a player related to them and many other factors besides.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Cindy from Final Fantasy XV, who Sarkeesian specifically brings up in her Nordic Game speech in response to a question about “power fantasies”.
According to Sarkeesian, “The reason that Kratos [from God of War] is different to someone like Cindy the mechanic [from Final Fantasy XV] is that it is a power fantasy. When men are shown as beefy with rippling muscles, it’s not so men can ogle and sexualise them — it’s so you can live this power fantasy, so that you can be this tough guy that can beat up anyone or anything. That’s very different to when women are sexualised in games, it’s usually so that men can look at their bodies and fantasise about them. That’s very, very different, and living in a patriarchy dictates that we look at men and women’s bodies differently. These are not female power fantasies, because we don’t really know what that means. We haven’t really had space to design and develop that in a lot of meaningful ways.”
Cindy, unfortunately, is a poor example of this, because as we discussed some time ago, she is, by far, the most capable and competent member of the game’s entire cast. To criticise her based on her appearance is objectification in its purest form, since it not only fails to take into account the character’s own stated (and plausible) reasons for dressing the way she does, it also completely erases her contribution to the game’s overall narrative.
When the party’s car breaks down in the intro, it’s Cindy who gets it going again, since none of the core cast know how to fix it. In the latter stages of the game, Cindy is at the forefront of the resistance against demonic forces. And if you take the time to engage with her in the game, she reveals that she has an interesting and complex past that has helped shape her into the highly competent, skilled and reliable person she is today.
As we’ve already mentioned, reducing the player’s relationship with Cindy the character to one of pure lust is a gross oversimplification that is actually rather insulting.
She dismisses the idea of games as escapist fantasies, and the value of them as such
The main thrust of Sarkeesian’s Nordic Game talk was that she seems to believe the games industry has a responsibility to tackle big social issues “seriously and responsibly”.
“Until our narratives begin to reflect the issues that women, people of colour and other marginalised folks face, we’re treating the problems as if they can be solved by checking boxes on a [diversity] checklist,” she said. “We’re applying a band-aid to a deeper wound — and, don’t get me wrong, that band-aid is absolutely essential to addressing the issue, but it’s not the entire treatment.”
She describes games such as Watch Dogs 2 and Dishonored 2 as “striving to be more than mere escapism”, suggesting that escapism, in itself, is a somehow “lesser” goal for games as an entertainment medium to aspire to. And the “power fantasy” discussion ties in with this, too.
Sarkeesian, admittedly, does not suggest that all games need to carry political statements in them, but her words carry the implication that those which do are somehow superior and more worthy of praise.
In fact, there can be a great deal of value in escapist entertainment, which is worth acknowledging — particularly for those who have perhaps found themselves struggling with certain aspects of everyday life. Speaking personally, as someone with both Asperger’s and social anxiety, I have derived great value from engaging with interactive entertainment, both in the form of single-player, narrative-centric experiences and online multiplayer affairs, particularly those which are cooperative, such as Final Fantasy XIV.
As with many things Sarkeesian says, it’s an oversimplification of the real situation. By all means attempt to tackle these tricky social issues through games. But acknowledge and respect the fact that some people really are just there to immerse themselves in something that doesn’t reflect reality in the slightest.
She has played a role in making the enthusiast press boring, uninviting, exclusive, unwelcoming and insular
As we’ve already discussed, journalists in the mainstream commercial games press are completely unwilling to question or analyse Sarkeesian’s statements, and this in turn has led to widespread acceptance of feminist ideology being regarded as the only “correct” approach among many sites. Some follow its dogma more strictly than others — for some time, Polygon has been, by far, the most overt about its political leanings of all the mainstream commercial online games publications — but, much as Sarkeesian does not tolerate discussion or debate, most publications do not tolerate dissenting views when a strongly feminist perspective is laid down in an opinion piece or review.
Far from this making the industry more “inclusive”, all it achieves is alienating many of the people who have been following it for years if they have no interest in getting involved with concepts such as identity politics or feminism. It creates an exclusive “inner circle” of people who have the “correct” opinions on things, and actively discourages diversity of viewpoints.
Perhaps most unforgivably, any games that exist outside of this “inner circle” are barely given the time of day — and regrettably, that includes a lot of modern Japanese games, which are discussed on incredibly superficial levels at best — inevitably with some negative, judgemental comments about the sort of people who might enjoy that kind of thing — and completely ignored at worst.
More than anything, though it’s just plain boring. It’s boring to see members of the press comment how much they think “gamers” are going to hate new game x because it has a female protagonist (spoiler: they won’t). It’s boring to see members of the press write off stuff like Senran Kagura as having no value because of its fanservice. And it’s boring to see the same old arguments trotted out time after time from a stubbornly unyielding ideological perspective, rather than attempting to enjoy a game from the perspective of its target audience.
Sarkeesian isn’t solely to blame for this situation, of course — it’s been festering since about 2010 or so, around the time of the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle — but, without a doubt, her particular brand of high-profile, low-depth feminism has played a significant role in making the commercial games press of 2017 extremely unwelcoming to certain significant parts of its audience.
It’s time the games press stopped idolising Anita Sarkeesian, and started questioning her arguments more. It’s time the games industry as a whole stopped trying to appease people like Sarkeesian, who will perpetually pick fault in everything and seemingly never be able to derive pure joy from anything.
And it’s time Sarkeesian actually played some fucking games.
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