Hyper Mode: Anita Sarkeesian vs. the World II

Games Features

It’s always strange to see somebody in person that you only know from the internet. It’s stranger still to see hundreds of them at once. I had always wondered what a room full of Anita Sarkeesian supporters would look like, and I got to find out last week at Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium.

Sarkeesian, a media critic notable for her analysis of gender roles, has become a thorn in videogame culture’s side over the course of the past year. Videogame culture could use a few more people pricking it, of course, and Sarkeesian is one of many—and one unlucky enough to go viral. Yes, I said unlucky. Sarkeesian’s sudden surge of notoriety among misogynist gamers unwittingly allowed her to gain more publicity among non-misogynists hoping to see the industry change for the better. But visibility does not necessarily translate into success, since I define “success” in terms of quality of life.

Almost one thousand people attended Sarkeesian’s talk at Northeastern. I looked over my shoulder during the talk to see people smiling, laughing or nodding their heads in agreement. It felt strange. It didn’t remind me of any other videogame event I had ever attended before. It didn’t feel like a conference panel; everyone was too quiet and too polite. It didn’t feel like a college class, either; most people had shown up early, eager to enter, and I didn’t see anybody falling asleep. It felt a little like a keynote speech at a huge conference, but it’s hard to imagine PAX Prime or PAX East inviting Sarkeesian to kick off their weekend.

I expected to leave Sarkeesian’s talk filled with the same warm glow that No Show Conference had given me; No Show’s diverse set of presentations had left me with an anything-is-possible feeling. I felt, back then, as though videogames were becoming more glorious all the time and as though new faces joined the game industry every day with new ideas and easier, cheaper tools to implement them. I did still leave Sarkeesian’s talk with a firm belief that positive changes were underway, but I also felt a thick, heavy tension in my shoulders as I recalled that these changes occurred in spite of colossal efforts to stop them.

Some people just want to keep videogame culture exactly as it is, and these people hate Sarkeesian and everything she stands for. Many of Sarkeesian’s detractors accuse her of not doing enough, since she critiques the industry as an “outsider” of sorts: She plays games, but she does not make them. (The women who do make games face push-back as well, but that point seems conveniently forgotten in the heat of argument.) Others call her a liar and a con artist, citing any factual errors they can find as definitive proof that her gender role analysis is ill-researched and thus holds no water. She is accused of cherry-picking cut-scenes of violence against women without context—as though added context would help. Sarkeesian is also, according to the internet, both too academic and not academic enough in her work. Still others go the extra mile by making death threats, attempting to hack into Sarkeesian’s various web presences, or impersonating her online.

Sarkeesian kicked off her talk with several screenshots of harassment she has received, some similar to the kind that I have described above, some more graphic and specific. She went on to provide examples of similar harassment campaigns against other women in the games industry, such as Carolyn Petit of Gamespot, and former Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler. These slides were no walk in the park to see, nor should they have been.

Sarkeesian then gave a brief overview of her videogame analyses so far and went on to outline the work she had left to do. I live-tweeted the talk using the hashtag #femfreqNEU along with several others, since no video or audio recording was permitted. This made sense, given the abusive online reaction to Sarkeesian’s TEDx talk (which eventually led TEDx to remove comments from the video entirely), as well as her detractors’ attempts to get her videos removed from YouTube, and so forth.

It’s almost impossible to tell how many people belong to the Let’s Silence Sarkeesian army. In his write-up of Sarkeesian’s talk, Bob Chipman described Sarkeesian-haters as a vocal minority. Some days, I feel like that’s true. Other days, I can’t believe how many jerks I’ve run into or seen writing comments online. Are misogynist gamers a vocal minority? Or a vocal majority? Is change really happening at all? Are any of these people listening to themselves—or anyone else?

The day after Sarkeesian’s talk, I went out to dinner with Sarkeesian herself and a dozen other local women that are involved in the games industry. You’d think this dinner would have felt like the uplifting promise of change that I badly needed. Not so much. I spent my night, as I had the night before, reliving in my mind the comparatively small amount of harassment that I’ve received over the years for writing about gender in videogames. I listened to the women around me talking about sweeping systemic unfairness. I watched doubt and sadness flash over the face of Anita Sarkeesian, who I had seen the night before looking poised behind a podium, the essence of confidence and endurance. I found myself reassuring her that some of the people who criticize her would eventually come around and realize that videogames do have systemic, sad patterns…a thought that I wasn’t sure I fully believed, even as I said it out loud.

I told her a story of a person I’d known several years ago, a male friend who had pushed back against me in 2010 when I wrote my very first piece about gender in games: a skewering of the Gears of War universe. That piece earned me hundreds of comments all over the internet calling me “retarded” and an “idiot,” plus theories that I had never played Gears at all, let alone any other game—but, worse still, it earned me similar vitriol from guys who I had thought were my friends. I had to stop talking to this one guy in particular after that. Recently, he approached me via email to apologize for his actions, to tell me that he had changed his mind about Gears and all the rest, that he was following my work, and even watching Anita Sarkeesian’s online videos.

People can change. Some take longer than others. More often, they never bother to come back around and apologize at all, but they do still feel badly about their past mistakes. I doubt any of Anita Sarkeesian’s detractors will get back to her three years later and say they realized she had some good points. But they might still think it, deep down.

I had to admit to the rest of the table listening to that story, though, that I hadn’t forgiven the guy. He had apologized, he had reformed, and he had totally turned around, like, for real—yet, still, I had no interest in talking to him about his transformation beyond a polite “oh, okay, cool.” He keeps messaging me. And I keep running cold.

People may well change, but the problem is, you can’t always forgive them. As I waited for my bus home from the restaurant that night, I thought about that guy for a while. And I just couldn’t get myself to care. I wanted him to disappear, or at least, to stop contacting me.

I’m not sure that the videogame industry can “apologize” anymore, either. I think the only solution might be to shut it all down and start over. To found our own conferences, to make our own tools and our own companies, and to create our own discussion spaces. The videogame culture we have now? It has too much baggage. I’m just not sure I can forgive it, anymore.

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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