Friday, July 13, 2012

The Video Game Gender Wars Explode!

There is a huge battle of the sexes going on right now in the world of video games. Two battles in fact, one between the developers of Tomb Raider and some angry women, another between a blogger and some hostile boys and men. In both cases there is a target – the blogger, Tomb Raider – in both cases there are attackers – angry males, angry females – and in both cases the attackers are reacting less to what their targets are actually doing and more to their own underlying fears and concerns.

Case 1: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

Let’s start with the blogger.  Her name is Anita Sarkeesian, and she recently started a Kickstarter project to raise money for “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” which is to be a series of videos “exploring female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry.”

The series is a follow up to “Tropes vs. Women,” which dealt with certain common film stereotypes of women, like the “evil demon seductress” and the “manic pixie dream girl.” The video game version will include such game staples as the “damsel in distress,” the “fighting fuck toy,” and the “sexy villainous.”

Sarkeesian figured she could make her series for $6,000. She raised that quickly. But she also raised the fury of male gamers who posted savage comments on the kickstarter video’s youtube page mixing rage, sexism and a big dose of anti-semitism. Sarkeesian encountered a lot of hostility elsewhere, including the hacking of her wikipedia page.

The hostility was particularly extraordinary because her proposal was so mild. She said she wanted to look at clich├ęd female video game characters. Anyone who’s not a complete idiot would have to readily admit that these are quite common. But the attackers acted as though she were going to single-handedly destroy all they hold dear with her series of feminist videos. True, many of the attackers were certainly just sullen 13-year-old boys, but sadly, there are a lot of asshole gamers of every age. On the bright side, this nastiness resulted in a strong counterpunch; Sarkeesian’s project received almost $159,000, and will now have over twice as many videos with higher production values. 

Case 2: Tomb Raider

Around the same time this was going on, a trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider game and an interview with its executive producer created a massive feminist backlash against the game, which, like the Sarkeesian’s video series, does not actually exist yet.

Tomb Raider aims to be a “reboot” of a series that has been rebooted several times before. The game, to be released next year, focuses on Lara Croft before she became the self-assured adventurer of previous games. In the trailer we see a young woman lost in the jungle and terrified, desperately trying to make her way to safety and getting bruised and injured in the process. She is far more vulnerable (and less endowed) than previous incarnations.

There is also a scene where she encounters armed bad guys. While her hands are bound, one of them corners her and does something you’ve seen in dozens of films, he leers at her and runs his hand down her thigh. Then, in a less common occurrence, she bites his ear, gets his gun and shoots him.

At the same time this trailer came out, the game’s executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, was interviewed by Kotaku. During the interview, as he was explaining how the game makes the player feel for Lara, he said “they try to rape her.”

That created a huge explosion. Tomb Raider would be a game in which Lara Croft is bruised and bloodied, almost raped, tortured for the pleasure of male gamers. The developers quickly declared that there was no attempted rape, that what you saw in the video was all there was, but by then all hell had broken loose. It didn’t help that Rosenberg had also said that players see Lara not as an extension of themselves but rather as someone to protect, which suggested that he thought all gamers were male (and that all males could not emphathize with women).

The irony is that one of the purported goals of the game was to create a less sexualized, cartoonish Lara Croft, a goal furthered by choosing as lead writer is Rhianna Pratchett, who has been working on the game since “it’s early inception” and whose game Mirror’s Edge contains one of Anita Sarkeesian “all time favorite female characters.”

What is Going On?

So, a woman says, I’m going to talk about sexism in video games and she is met with outrage, an outrage that seems to have bypassed her previous series on film sexism. A game’s few seconds of sexual menace becomes a huge controversy, even though movies have shown far worse.

What’s going on?  Here’s my take on it:

In the early days of video games they were primarily a male pursuit. In fact, they were primarily a nerd male pursuit. But over the years they became more mainstream and less geeky. While at first only the nerd females were joining the nerd males, eventually gaming was a huge part of the culture, and as women became more and more interested in video games, they began to ask to be treated as something more than interlopers.

Women started asking questions like, why if I choose a female character in a MMORPG do I have to wear a bikini? Why do so many games feature heroic men and simpering women? Why can’t we have games where women are cool, smart, tough, and properly dressed for being shot at?

And when they asked those questions, men who thought of video games as their thing heard, “we are going to ruin games. We want them to be really easy and full of unicorns with pink saddles. We want to get rid of foul language and blood and have lots of games with Barbies. We are going to ruin the thing you love most, because we are terrible bitches who don’t want boys to have any fun.”

And that is the subtext underlying these reactions. Furious boys look at Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and see women coming to take their toys away. Women hear talk of rape in Tomb Raider and think, those men are doing it again, turning us into pathetic torture-porn mannequins.

What is really happening is: video games are evolving. It’s an inevitable process in any art form, but it’s a very messy process, action and reaction, steps forward and backward. And the final irony of these two controversies is that those under attack are essentially on the same side. Sarkeesian wants a dialogue about how women are portrayed in games. Tomb Raider is attempting to portray a tough and resourceful human being rather than a buxom cartoon. Both want games to evolve.

There is something very personal about video games. You do not watch them, you inhabit them, and the video game gender wars are not just about what we play, but what we want our second world to be like. Video games have a pre-feminist quality, and women are fighting battles in the video game world that their mothers fought decades ago in the real world.

Expect the yelling to continue.

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