Hyper Mode: Anita Sarkeesian And The Trouble With Magic Bullets

Games Features

I backed Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter, but I didn’t need for her to make any videos. The promise of supporting a female videogame critic and of getting a sticker of Princess Peach wearing a pair of overalls was enough.

Sarkeesian asked for $6K to make a series of videos about the portrayal of female characters in videogames. She wound up getting $160K, plus a huge collection of anti-feminist harassers hell bent on convincing her to quit her video series.

I always knew she’d make the videos, of course. But I didn’t care so much about what the videos said. I knew there was a possibility I wouldn’t agree with them, or that they wouldn’t be good, or that they’d be too 101-level for me to learn much new information about feminism that I hadn’t already read or written myself. But it means something to me to support other women games critics and researchers, whenever I can.

I don’t think it’s an obligation for women journalists to support other women journalists just because they are women. After all, some of us manage to be apologists in spite of our gender. I do think it’s important to listen to different people’s experiences, and I think most people would agree that the games industry as a whole could use some help in that area.

The trouble with Anita Sarkeesian is that somewhere along the line, I think some of us forgot that she doesn’t have to speak for all of us—least of all for every woman in the games industry, press, development or otherwise.

I see self-identified feminists saying the videos don’t go far enough. I see women writers wondering about Anita’s tone and lack of positivity with regard to videogames in general. How can she expect to reach a gamer audience by being so “negative” about games? Meanwhile, I see almost everyone else asking, “Where did all of that money go?”

I find myself not caring about the solutions to any of these “problems,” because in being a games journalist who also happens to be a woman and who also talks about gender roles from time to time, I’ve realized how difficult it is just to bear continuing to exist online. I’m just thankful that Anita Sarkeesian is still talking, in spite of the impossible and insurmountable expectations that she faces. Was she ever going to be able to please everyone? No. She was probably never going to come close. I knew that before she started, and yet, I backed her anyway.

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If you’re a critic or a journalist, your job is hard enough. You have to love it to do it at all. Don’t believe me? Try it sometime; see how the unforgiving hours and low pay treat you.

If you’re also a woman, you’ll endure more scrutiny and more harassment online just for that reason. If you’re a woman and you write about gender roles in relation to videogames, the harassment will get worse. If you’re also visually present online (in photographs or video), the harassment worsens yet further. Anita Sarkeesian can put a check mark next to every single one of these boxes, and no one should envy her for it. No amount of money could make up for the difficulty of her day-to-day life.

Writing for a living comes with a big “don’t dish it out if you can’t take it” warning. For every mature reader with a thought-out email, there seem to be dozens more who crave the opportunity to see you “die in a fire.”

Dear reader, I know what you are about to say: “stop reading the comments,” right? That plan would work much better if I didn’t still have to moderate comments on my personal blog, sort through my work emails, puzzle at tweet mentions, and give the side-eye to Facebook messages from strangers, as I’m sure Sarkeesian must as well.

Which “shut up and die” messages that I’ve received might constitute actual threats? Which “you deserve what’s coming to you, you stupid slut” comments merit my tracking down an IP address to keep on file, should the cops end up needing to comb through my computer someday?

The problem with the “don’t dish it out if you can’t take it” line is that not all of us get an equal serving. Women and men are treated differently, which may sound fine if you are the kind of person who thinks men and women should be treated differently. I’m not that person. I’m very radical, in that sense.

I am about to reveal even more radical feelings, so brace yourself: It makes me more unhappy and uncomfortable to see criticism of my fellow female writers online than male ones. People may incorrectly assume that I’m saying no one is “allowed” to critique women writers. Of course everyone is “allowed” to—and, in fact, people feel so very “allowed” to do this that we see systemic, viral criticisms of female writers like Sarkeesian far more often than of their male counterparts. I cannot think of a hate campaign of a male writer that approaches what has happened to women writers, bloggers, and critics like Anita Sarkeesian or Leigh Alexander or Courtney Stanton or Patricia Hernandez or, well, the list goes on.

Most of the time, few of these supposedly “valid criticisms” of feminist writers make much of a point beyond “this woman should stop talking”. But more than that, spending time deconstructing criticisms—valid or otherwise—often ends out distracting everyone from the original writer’s points. Before we know it, we’re all arguing about whether Angel’s scenes in Borderlands 2 discount her as a “true” damsel in distress, as opposed to talking about how few dudes in distress we see in our media.

It becomes difficult, in the thick of it all, for writers to tell the difference between valuable critique and pointless derailing. And what about the emails that don’t fit easily into any one category? The guy who loved your piece, but also feels to need to let you know how “cute” you are? The lady who says, right on, and damn to hell all those other women, those bitches who don’t get it? It’s now your job to explain to each of these well-meaning, usually long-winded folks that they are on the wrong track. Or you could just put your head in your hands and move on, because at least they’re not threatening you.

The biggest problem of all when it comes to games journalism, though, is that so few women writers are doing analysis of gender roles in games in the first place. The few women who do this sort of criticism are under a lot of pressure to speak for “all” women, which is impossible. We run the constant risk of being burned out due to excessive public scrutiny as well as stress from the impossibility of the task at hand.

Anita Sarkeesian in particular has endured surprisingly well given the pressure on her to be the Most Perfect Feminist Games Critic. Of course, she has not been perfect; she has not managed to transform every single misogynist into a humanitarian soul, after all. But rather than lambaste her for that alleged shortcoming, I would rather emphasize that the public scrutiny of female videogame critics (and pro female gamers, and female game developers) creates a system that sets us up for failure.

I’ve only written a handful of pieces about gender roles and gaming, and yet I still often consider going dark just so that I never have to worry about frightening emails again. The more visible parts of my job bother me, too—from inappropriately flirtatious comments on Twitter, to admonitions that I “calm down” or stop acting out for “attention”, to unasked-for “helpful” advice. The more popular a piece that I write becomes, the more I feel punished by my own visibility. I often find myself getting fearful about my site’s rising stat counter rather than excited. One might think that getting more compliments would even out the hate mail. Unfortunately, you only remember one thing in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep, and that’s the people who wish you were dead, or at the very least, that your entire career would go up in flames.

So, is it actually worth it?

I don’t talk about this often because I don’t want to hear anyone reassure me that it is. I already know how worthwhile it is to see women journalists; I know because working alongside smart women in my past newspaper jobs and following smart women on Twitter and reading their pieces has influenced me immeasurably, even when I don’t agree with everything they say (women are not a monolith, after all). The more different kinds of voices I see adding to the choir, the more faces and ranges of experiences I hear about, the more I feel that all of our work and stories can get stronger.

I see journalism and criticism and commentary and research like Sarkeesian’s as a necessary public service done out of passion and love. If Sarkeesian truly hated games and didn’t believe that critiquing them mattered, as her dissenters claim, no amount of money could have convinced her to do this kind of work or put up with the stress involved. She could have canceled her Kickstarter mid-way and never looked back. But she didn’t. She’s still here.

Anita Sarkeesian isn’t the only woman out there talking about videogames. She’s also not the only woman talking about feminism and videogames. But the list of women doing this remains quite short, and I wish it weren’t.

She’s not going to save the world, nor cover every nuance and facet perfectly, nor convince every last hater of the error of their ways. Not all by herself. There won’t be one magic publication that saves games journalism, nor one magic game that proves games are art, nor one magic feminist who convinces all of the misogynists. There will be many, many, many voices, and it will be a long, slow grind.

The only way to solve this scrutiny problem, I think, is to somehow get more women involved in this industry across all fronts, until the scrutiny that comes from being a minority begins to lessen, and until misogynists realize more definitively that they are the minority now.

But why on earth would any woman join, let alone stay, in a culture that vocally excludes her? Why would she not just go back to playing against the AI on her own, no longer bothering to frequent public videogame spaces? Why would she keep publishing articles, or keep making games, when so many people have yelled at her to get out, or else?

I don’t have a solution to this, other than to hope it will get better if we all just keep talking.

Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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