Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Part II

 by Kristin Bezio

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new readers. If you want to comment or share this, do so knowing Kristin is a feminist AND a game critic AND a game player AND an academic, so this is a critical analysis, because The Learned Fangirl’s tagline is “a critical look at pop culture and technology”!

This is part two of Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration” trope video. One of the primary complaints people had about the last one (Part I) was that “Women as Background Decoration” isn’t a trope. Let me just clear that up – yes, it is. A trope is any sustained metaphor or theme that appears repeatedly in cultural works. “Women as Background Decoration” may not have appeared in your high school English textbook, but it is a sustained theme in film, television, literature, and videogames, so yes, kids, it is a trope. Moving on.

As a reminder, in this particular series, Sarkeesian uses the term NPSO – Non-Playable Sex Object – to refer to characters whose primary or sole purpose in the game is to be a sexualized object for the pleasure or horror of the player or other characters in the game. The tavern wench or stripper in the background of a scene is the “standard” NPSO, although there are many other versions of NPSOs in games (and other visual media).

One of Sarkeesian’s primary issues with NPSOs is that they are often the victims of sexual and/or domestic violence and exist solely for the purpose of being victimized within the narrative and/or gameplay. NPSOs differ from Damsels (the subject of her first series) in that NPSOs are not victims to be rescued, but to be discarded or simply treated as “set dressing.”

She focuses first on a sub-trope, the “Drop Dead Gorgeous” trope, in which dead women (or women portrayed as dead) are displayed as beautiful or sexualized (as in L.A. Noire and Hitman promotional materials). As I mentioned in response to the last series, I think promotional materials should probably be kept out of this series (although they could have their own analysis), since the developers often have little to no say about them. But this trope appears in the games, too, where the mise en scene (the way the scene is established or “set” through the use of art and digital artifacts) in many games also contains the “bodies” of dead women, some of them (Hitman: Absolution and Mafia II) scantily clothed and provocatively posed.

What I liked about this particular discussion is that Sarkeesian makes a point of including male as well as female bodies. She points out that the dead men in most of these games are typically fully clothed and not posed provocatively. Similarly, male victims of violence are rarely sexualized, while many female victims in these games are explicitly sexual – often prostitutes (there are a lot of prostitutes in videogames).

The counterargument might be that the narrative or context of the games – for instance, in BioShock II, the scenes she chooses are in a bordello – dictates the type of clothing and poses for the characters. However, the choice of scene and setting, as well as the fact that women even outside the bordello tend to be more scantily clad than the men in full suits, is not foisted on the developers; they have the power to not include a brothel, and by choosing it, they create the opportunity for sexualization. Furthermore, even if a strip club is an appropriate location, there is no law that states that a stripper cannot be killed in her street clothes or in a robe – the choice to sexualize her corpse is a deliberate play on titillation… and is often a cheap excuse for bad narrative or gameplay.

Sarkeesian also addresses cut-scenes, over which the developer has exclusive control (and the player does not). It’s important to remember that these are not women important to the narrative – the “Dead Wife/Girlfriend as Motive” trope is different – even if the player has the chance to interact with them (as in Red Dead Redemption, in which the player can buy a prostitute for $200 to keep her from being beaten, although she will be killed by her pimp later in the narrative). These are women whose purpose is to be victims or sex objects or both – they serve little or no purpose to the narrative.

(Side note – God of War III is now my least favorite game ever, despite never having played it. “I didn’t do it… but I wish I did”?! What the ever-loving hell were the developers thinking? I played God of War and God of War II and I really liked them – but I’m sorry, having a half-naked chained princess act as a literal doorstop until the gate crushes and mangles her body and then GIVING YOU AN ACHIEVEMENT FOR LOOKING AT IT?! Not okay. So not okay.)

Sarkeesian says that “violence against women is essentially used as a set piece to establish or punctuate the seedy atmosphere of crime and chaos” in the game’s fictional universe. In many of the instances she describes, this is true, but I think that the intention of many of these scenes goes beyond that. These victimized women are designed to encourage the player to save them – to feel empathy for them or to condemn the group or individuals involved, what Sarkeesian calls “a lazy shorthand for evil,” and an attempt to “justify the excessive violence required by the player in these games.” As such, it is more than simply “set dressing”; rather, the idea that the player might be fighting against those who perpetrate such crimes (although that is not really the case in GTAV, admittedly) seeks to make active use of images of violence in order to appeal to the player’s sense of humanity or decency.

She points out that “There is a difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply represent misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not in and of itself a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, or changing oppressive social systems.” This is true, but I think that Sarkeesian doesn’t give all of the games depicted in this episode their due. Dishonored, for instance, is the last game the audience sees before Sarkeesian addresses this point. I would argue that Dishonored is making commentary – not explicitly (or only) about women being victimized by their social situation, but about the apathy that permeates the society of Dunwall. The tragedy of Dishonored is the apathy against which the player (as Corvo) is fighting throughout the game, either surreptitiously or violently. The game doesn’t show the end result, but the atmospheric change from Emily’s ascension to the throne (provided the player installs her as Empress) and the fact that Emily herself is in the position of authority suggests a renewal of hope in the otherwise thoroughly despondent city.

In this case, I think the problem the series has is that of the warped critical lens; when you’re only looking through the glasses of sexism and misogyny, all you see is sexism and misogyny. This is reinforced when the vast majority of what you’re seeing is in fact sexism and misogyny, but in the case of Dishonored (and possibly some other games here, as I’m not familiar with all of them), I think some of the subtlety was lost in the viewing. (This is not to say there isn’t sexism in Dishonored – there is, but it’s of a lesser degree than Sarkeesian gives it credit for in my estimation, and is certainly less than GTAV or L.A. Noire).

I’m also not sure that “sanitize” is the right word for what these games are doing to violence against women – perhaps “normalize,” but not “sanitize.” The violence in these games isn’t clean, it isn’t easy to watch, and deliberately so. She is correct, however, when she says that these games don’t typically grant sexual violence the “gravity and respect” that the topic deserves. She offers PaPo & Yo as an example of domestic violence dealt with appropriately, one that presents it from the viewpoint of the victim which also gives that victim agency and legitimizes, rather than dismissing, their experience.

She also very rightly points out that “realism” and “historical accuracy” are completely ludicrous excuses for the depiction of sexual and domestic violence or NPSOs, particularly in science fiction and fantasy games, and makes the very valid argument that even if such fictional worlds contain violence, they can do so in a critical and condemnatory light.

One thing Sarkeesian doesn’t say is that the problem is that such repeated and often graphic violence has become a trope – it is so commonplace that it is the sign not of sophisticated emotional depth, but of lazy storytelling. Having an “innocent” (and women are often telegraphed as innocents, even when they are simultaneously sexualized… although the virgin/whore trope is a completely different animal that needs dealing with at some point) be victimized by the “bad guys” is a sure-fire way to cause the player to react against them – to “save” or get revenge for the victim. It’s effective, yes, which is why it appears so often in media (including videogames), but it’s lazy.

And not only is it a sign of weak storytelling, it perpetuates the idea that women are “natural victims,” whether this provokes the audience to sympathy or callousness. The repetition of sexual violence against women creates an ingrained sense in the audience that sexualized violence – even if they have no interest in participating – is normal and commonplace. The ultimate result of such repetition is not that it turns players into abusers, but that it causes them to be less likely to respond to more “minor” cases of sexism and harassment – a consequence that Sarkeesian herself has felt all too clearly.

Furthermore, the player’s role as potential savoir of these women establishes a different set of problems, known to the internet at large as “white knighting,” or the idea that men can save women in return for some sort of positive (often presumably sexual) reward. This idea that women can “owe” men for having “saved” them from an assailant (whether physical or virtual) is as problematic as the presumption of victimhood in the first place (although different). It creates the opportunity for extended victimization if the “white knight” retaliates for not being “appropriately rewarded,” and it also creates and perpetuates the negative “white knight” stereotype that keeps other men from intervening in problematic situations.

These sorts of presumptions also leads directly to the rape culture – as Sarkeesian explains late in the episode – that permeates our society. It creates, she says, the impression that rape is committed by evil strangers in dark alleys, rather than the reality – that most women are raped by people they know, in places they visit on a regular basis. It also creates the problem epitomized by such real world men as Elliot Roger, who expected women to have sex with him simply because he was not a rapist or abuser.

My final issue with this particular episode is that it seems to suffer from the very symptoms that it derides in the games: excessive depiction of violence against women, deployed here for shock value, which is much the same as its use in (many of) the games to begin with. Certainly, one has to present the evidence to make an argument, and Sarkeesian wouldn’t be able to make her point without the use of some scenes of graphic and gratuitous violence against female NPSOs, but “Part II” suffers even more so than the earlier episodes from the catalogue effect; there are so many clips of prostitutes being beaten and stabbed by the 15-minute-mark that the viewer all but tunes out what Sarkeesian is saying. The shock value dissipates and becomes a low-level disgust that fails to carry the point and instead only becomes a litany of excess.

The other day, I saw a tweet which suggested that Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series was on par with peer-reviewed academic work, and I cringed. I then resisted the urge to reply and say “No, no it isn’t.” Here’s why. I don’t think that this series is on par with academically rigorous criticism – not by a long shot – and I would quite frankly be embarrassed to see an article written at this level of depth and discourse. However, Sarkeesian isn’t creating academic criticism – she’s creating a series of web videos designed to address the average game-playing human without, presumably, an academic degree, and as such, her series has come a very long way since the first episode of “Damsels in Distress.” It’s shaping into a good series for a wide audience that presents a solid base argument that should be the launching point for other, more comprehensive discussions.

Yes, I pick these videos apart, focus on single instances like her dismissal of Dishonored’s criticism of despair or the princess in God of War III, but overall, I think that the work Sarkeesian is doing is valuable on multiple levels. First, she’s introducing difficult and complex theoretical concepts from feminist criticism to people with little or no exposure to them. Second, she’s raising awareness about the negative impact of sexism in popular culture media, including videogames. Third, she’s trying to elevate the discourse we use to talk about gender in gaming, and she’s succeeding; this video is far and away more thoughtful than her early videos, and it’s doing a much better job of pointing out why things are bad and what they can do right.

In short, Sarkeesian has done what many academics and critics hope to do: she’s managed to start a conversation – in which I am now participating – where she isn’t all right, but she definitely isn’t all wrong.

  1. Pingback: TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II | Playing at Leadership: Games, Gaming, & Leadership Studies

  2. Hi Kirstin, thanks for writing such a balanced review! As you say, this series video is indeed aimed at the general gamer, and is (indirectly) intended to open up debate, but I feel Anita undermines the debate by using shock value and repetition to muddy the waters for true open discussion. I appreciate that she is calling out the evil that she sees, and we (gamers) all know there is a lot of terrible content in some games. However I find it a strange thing to do to seek out the worst elements of a group of violent, tasteless games and then cut them all together to show what boils down to a two video montage of misogynistic violence? As you have expressed, this ‘analysis’ seems strange when applied to games that would otherwise be worthy of praise for their narrative, like Dishonored. It seems all things must be judged on their worst elements, no matter how they fit into the overall structure of the game. I worry that people who haven’t played these games will get the impression that they are ‘misogyny simulators’, or actively encourage misogyny.
    In part one of women as background decoration, Anita uses footage of Hitman in which she has filmed herself killing two dancers and then proceeds to drag their bodies around. Yes, this is possible to do in the game, but no-one would do it, however an understanding of the game is needed to know this. By taking these scenes out of context, and then judging them by real life standards is to purposely misrepresent the games. I believe that by misrepresenting the medium, Anita can’t hope to raise much awareness of these important issues, and is merely pandering to those who would already condemn video games as dangerous.

    • Thanks for reading & commenting.

      There is definitely something to what you say here – I also think, however, that it is important to show the elements of games that do encourage (or at least make more palatable/normalized) violence against women in a specifically misogynistic context when they aren’t egregious precisely because of the insidious way that they tacitly “permit” (to use the term a little bit problematically) latent misogyny (or racism, or agism, or what have you). That said, I think there are perhaps better ways to do this, or at least ways that acknowledge that the entirety of Dishonored isn’t about depressed prostitutes.

      Not to dismiss your concerns about people who think videogames are dangerous, but I’m pretty sure they’re going to think that (and cherry-pick their evidence) no matter what Sarkeesian does. Sure, they’ll use her if she’s convenient, but without her they’d just make stuff up anyway. For instance, Adam Lanza’s depiction as an obsessed gamer caused a lot of people to rail against how videogames cause violent behaviors… despite the fact that the one game with which he was obsessed was Dance Dance Revolution (hardly a violent game). The crux of your point is that people who don’t play games might see this video and think that all games are filled with violence against women – which I don’t think is the point Sarkeesian is actually trying to make, but is very likely the point that some people are getting from her series.

      I think one of the fundamental problems with the series as a whole is that it’s trying to take on ALL OF VIDEOGAMES, which is a nigh impossible task and is going to fail no matter how much effort, research, and time one puts into it. There is no possible way to do justice to the games if that is your approach – even if you do a good job. But taking that approach also has value as a survey in ways that individual game analyses can’t replicate. The conclusion I’m getting at is that we need both broad-sweep things like Sarkeesian’s and narrow-scope things that can delve into nuance.

      The key, as it so often is, is balance. So now we need people to do other broad surveys on other topics, and people to do careful detailed criticism… just like in other media fields. Too bad we have to go through growing pains first…

  3. Thank you for the balanced post. This was the most powerful video of the series, and really made me stop and think. The God of War thing was exceptionally gross, but the sheer number of games that featured dead sexy women as background decoration was really shocking. My only beef was with her critique of how domestic violence was used, in that I think that is more of a societal thing than a video game thing. Domestic violence is like racism – taboo but pervasive, and the taboo actually makes it harder to talk about. Racists, rapists, or wife beaters become awful boogie men who are 100% evil, and i’m not 100% evil, so therefore I can’t be one. Not that game designers can’t be more mindful and nuanced about it, but I also don’t trust, say, rockstar to make a good guy a rapist and have it be ok. Although they did make their good guy a woman beater in LA Noire,(right?).

    All of this is moot in the face of the horrendous, abusive reaction she’s had to her video, though. She’s gotten death threats that mention her address. Ironic that people mad about accusations of violence against women in games react by threatening violence against women. It makes me ashamed to be a male and a gamer.

    • Thanks for reading.

      I think your point about domestic violence is probably right – although I would say it appears problematically in videogames because it’s a social issue, and that makes it even more important for media like games to deal with it responsibly. But I would argue that is also true of other forms of misogyny (and racism, homophobia, etc.), although a lot of the violence in the clips Sarkeesian uses is gratuitous rather than “realistic,” in spite of the claims of “realism” occasionally made by creators.

      Thank you, too, for your reasonable comment. I wish it were the norm rather than the exception. :)

  4. Hi, I’m a fairly regular lurker around here (I was originally drawn to you as you seemed to be one of the few balanced look at the Sarkeesian videos). I would like to point out one small complaint I have about this review regarding the God of War 3 thing.

    First and foremost, let me split this into two different sections. First discussing the achievement. It was a stupid joke, it was pretty disgusting and it never should have been added. The GoW series has a bad habit of trying to be hip and funny with their achievements/trophies and this is often the result.

    That being said, I think the action itself in-game has an actual narrative purpose. The character arc of Kratos follows the classic Greek Tragedy formula of a hero driven to ruin through his tragic fault. Kratos’ fault has always been his anger. However, throughout the first trilogy, he descends into pure madness as his rage grows. In the first game, while he is no saint, Kratos tends to save people who deserve it and kill those who attack him (or disgust him with cowardice in a few examples). When he is forced to kill an innocent person (for example, to move ahead via the puzzles in place by the Gods) he expresses remorse. But in 3, he has so completely left his humanity behind him in the name of revenge, he goes on a massive killing spree, destroying all the Gods of Olympus out of anger. There’s actually a big point made about his destruction is causing all kinds of havoc on Earth (with the Gods dead, the elements are going haywire) and yet Kronos continues to kill off more and more Gods. You aren’t supposed to like him. You aren’t supposed to think he’s cool, you’re supposed to think he is a lunatic who deserves to die (and he does at the end, although then they add the hackney “did he live or not” ending to ensure the future of franchise)

    God of War has a lot of issues, particularly regarding its overall treatment of female characters (It would be so nice to see a female in GoW who wasn’t either a hideous monster or a beautiful naked Caucasian), but this is one case where I felt like there was at least a reason to include the situation itself.

    • Having only played GoW 1 & 2, I can’t speak to how well the clip in question fit into the overall narrative of GoW3, but I can’t help but feel it was excessively violent and sexist, in large part because all women in the series are either scantily clad sexpots or monsters (or both). There may have been some amount of narrative justification for the scene she includes, but I still can’t help but think that there must have been a “better” way to do it – that said, you may be right, since I didn’t play that particular game.

  5. Hi,

    I really enjoyed your analyses of her videos. The criticism that I see often does not make valid points at all, and shows no indicator that her videos were even listened to or understood on a basic level by her detractors.

    A shame.

    Which is why I really enjoyed your posts.

    My background: I haven’t been a gamer in a long time. I loved the adventure games that Sierra put out once upon a time. The kings quest series, Gabriel knight, I loved myst, riven, the original simcity (showing my age here), civilization, X-com, heroes, day of the tentacle, loved loved loved these games.

    Now, I haven’t played since starting college. Which was 14 years ago. I couldn’t justify the time needed to play. I play board games like catan and history of the world, but not that often. (Kids aren’t old enough yet- but I’m working them up to it)

    But also? The industry isn’t recognizable to me. I wouldn’t know where to start.

    When I think back to highschool, we had duke nukem types, sure. But we also had a plethora of choices of games which did not have this caricature of a white socially inept hormone driven teenage boy as the target audience. A walk into a game store showed a wide variety of games targeted towards different demographics. In my then 14 year old opinion. I remember not having enough money to purchase the amount of games I was interested in.

    What happened? Do you know? I was hoping that anita would touch on this. But she hasn’t (yet?).

    The main criticism that I have with her series – you’re spot on about the laundry list style analysis not being enough, albeit being a good starting point – is that she’s not talking to anyone in the industry.

    I think the voices of developers and advertisers (I disagree in that advertising discussions are out of place in her series) are missing here. I think it would be important for these people to explain their decision process. Why they chose the story/imagery they did. What the creative process is.

    Not to vilify them, I think it is clear that anita doesn’t consider people in the industry to be sexist, by and large, but just going with a general trend unthinkingly. Lazy. Not necessarily sexist.

    Regardless, their voices are missing. Maybe she’ll include them at a later date. I hope she does.

    Not sure how much time you devote to your blog post comments, but if you have time, Could you comment on those two questions I had?

    1) what happened to those types of games that I so enjoyed? Do they still exist? Or was there a shift in the market?

    2) what do you think about anita interviewing those in the game industry as part of her series?

    Thank you.

    • Lynn,

      1. I also used to play many of those games. Games like Myst disappeared because their technology became outdated (the click-walk through the environment) and we moved on to 3D games. If those are the kinds of games you like, I’d suggest Stronghold, Skyrim, or other games that emphasize exploration over defeating enemies. Back in the day, Sierra had close ties as a company to one of their female developers, and that probably made a huge difference in terms of the genres that company chose to create. Games like Spore, Civilization (still going strong as a series), Fl0w, Braid, Limbo, Gone Home, Journey, Flower, and Contrast would probably also appeal to you for similar reasons now. Most of them are PC or PC+ available (although some are not), so you can download Steam (free!) and try some of them without having to invest in a console.

      In other words, I don’t think those games went away at all. I think that other kinds of games – Duke Nukem, Doom, etc. – became more common as the technology for producing them became cheaper and more readily available. In part because of the way games were marketed in the 1990s and early 2000s, publishers became more drawn to games like CoD and GTA, but games like those you remember still exist – they just tend to be more indie and less in the public eye.

      2. I think that Sarkeesian’s agenda is to look at games from the fan standpoint. Her standard MO for criticism (in film or tv) usually doesn’t include talking to actors or directors, either, so it wouldn’t make sense for her to talk to developers in that frame. Cultural critics often don’t talk to creators because they’re interested in contextual or audience perspectives rather than creator perspectives. That doesn’t mean that creator (or advertising) perspectives aren’t valuable, just that they’re part of a different critical subgenre. I don’t envision Sarkeesian ever talking to developers, no. I could see a different kind of video or web series that does, though – just as I could see criticism of advertising and publicity being really interesting, just not a part of the kind of criticism Sarkeesian herself is doing.

      So while I think it would be interesting for someone to talk to developers and/or publicists about their choices, I don’t envision it happening in Sarkeesian’s series because that’s not what she set out to do.

    • I’m not Kristen (obviously), but as far as I can see they are still here:

      X-Com: Enemy Unknown and X-Com: Enemy Within came out not too long ago. Civilization V came out rather recently. They are still making Heroes of Might and Magic as far as I know. If you care to dabble in the Eastern European markets there are plenty of tactical games over there.

      The Tyccoon and Simulator games cover a whole lot of ground (everything from Rollercoasters and Zoos to Farming, Streetsweeping, Logging, Underground).

      The puzzle games I admit have shifted to the indie and Eastern European side, though they still make some interesting games. Additionally you nowadays have episodic gaming which has given us a Sam and Max-series as well as new Monkey Island content. The West also still does some games including Gray Matter (from Jane Jensen maker of Gabriel Knight). For that matter Jane Jensen is working on a new game Moebius: Empire Rising.

      As far as acquiring them goes you could start a steam account and see for yourself if there is any suitable content.

      As far as back in high school goes even then something like Wolfenstein, Doom and Mortal Kombat always made the bigger splashes.

      • Thanks for the additional suggestions! If you’ve done more poking around on the site, you’ll notice that I’ve been doing a series of posts on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, so I’m not sure how that one slipped my mind!

    • Lynn,

      I hope that you see this reply, its been 2 days which in internet time is YEARS, but regardless, I felt that since you listed several Sierra games that you enjoyed I would post a reply about the fact that Sierra is supposedly going to be returning!

      At gamescom this year, there was a teaser (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0obO0_VE4eE) showing that Activision-Blizzard, the now owners of the brand name, and there are even talks about teaming up with some other studios to produce new King’s Quest games and Geometry War. This is the age of childhood renewed thanks to kickstarter afterall.

      As far as existing games that fall into the click-adventure genre, from what I hear a lot of them moved over to the tablet/phone (Android and iOS) markets, with the lower production costs and price of market entry (free – $100 rather than having to find a publisher or get on steam greenlight) they could produce and distribute these games much easier, however the problem is that you have to dig through the piles of games to really find one that interests you. Also a sort of problem is that the majority of them are from a First person perspective rather than a Third-person.

      I hope you find this information helpful

  6. I honestly don’t know what she’s intending on doing with this series. I mean, I see what’s on the surface, what I think is a facade. That being educating people about misogyny in video games. But, then again, what’s to be had by making these? I think this only serves to drive a wedge deeper between the two camps. What’s worse is it has a more resounding impact on people by soliciting her agenda to the impressionable people who are the pawns of social justice wars than it serves to educate them. That’s a bold statement, but there is practically no nuance in her videos, that’s the only conclusion she offers. I mean, if preaching to the choir is what she set out to do, then more power to her, I guess…but that’s not really going to push the agenda forward. I think a more productive use of her energy would’ve been to use that kickstarter money to put people in school with her ideals, to make a tangible impact on the gaming world. Talks at GDC, and the like, and this series has done nothing but fuel vitriol and toxicity, for the most part. The support from men for the most part comes in the form of the ‘white knight’ trope, as I like to think of it, because it makes us men feel good when we offer our anonymous shallow acknowledgement and support to the easy and obvious choice. And that’s not directed towards all the males who support her, just the opportunistic, self-righteous types that feed on this.

    • I think her intentions are pretty clear and straightforward, and she established them from the beginning of her Kickstarter campaign. She didn’t Kickstart a campaign to give money to schools, and she’s using it as she said she would, so I’m also not sure why you think she should do something else with it. As a business person, she’s fulfilling the contract she made with her backers.

      Also, who are any of us to say that we ought to judge what comes of her videos? If she likes making them, if her viewers like watching them, then why should anyone else have a say in whether or not they deserve to exist? I don’t like GTA, but I have never and will never argue that it doesn’t have a right to exist. I reserve the right to not ever play it, but that’s my choice and not one I will foist off on someone else. Sarkeesian Kickstarted the money to make her series, got support for it, and is doing it – what it does or does not do for anyone else isn’t actually relevant to whether or not it “deserves” to exist. If people don’t like it, they can respectfully explain why and/or not watch.

      I also think that while her series and talks have fueled “vitriol and toxicity” (a good choice of words), they have also done a lot of good in other ways that aren’t as visible. She’s made a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise think about sexism in the games industry think about sexism (they don’t always agree with her, but even considering it is valuable). She’s caused some developers to ask “Hey, is this scene really a good idea?” before they put it in games (she does also speak with developers not in the public eye). They might decide that the answer is “yes,” and that’s great, but asking the question is a valuable practice. It’s just that no one runs around saying “Here are the not-sexist things that have happened because of this conversation!” – in the same way that no one says “Here are 100 women who weren’t raped this week!” The horror shows are what we notice, not the quiet steps in the right direction.

      “White knighting” is problematic on multiple levels; first, there’s the type you mention here – people who do it for attention and praise and possible sexual favors. Not good. But there’s also the fear of being called a “white knight” for actually stepping up and doing what’s right simply because it’s right – in that sense, “white knight” has become – like “SJW” – a pejorative directed at people who disagree with those attempting to silence voices like Sarkeesian’s (“criticism of” and “silencing of” are two different things, please note). This is also a problem. Personally, I don’t think being an SJW ought to be an insult; there is far too little social justice in this world, and anyone willing to fight for it in tangible or digital space deserves a medal.

      • I never said the series shouldin’t exist. I’m just saying I personally see that it’s doing more harm than good. It’s fueling more vitriolic clickbait articles, which i’m frankly tired of seeing. It’s further pounding the ‘gamer’ stereotype guys like me are SICK of being lumped into. I get it, some developer for saints row said “meh, we oughta take a look at what we’re doing” in an article. Now was that just a opportunity to get some good press, or was he sincere? The shareholders, and analysts decide what happens in triple A games, I don’t care what the desperate webpress, especially gaming media (which is much, much more desperate as of late has to say) or what fluff articles they publish, it’s all two faced, self serving pandering as far as I am concerned.. Honestly, the only voice I’ll even consider hearing is Cliffy B’s as he backed up his sentiments with action, the women soldiers in this game, for once looked like they were wearing actual body armor. And that’s coming from a designer, so most likely he had a lot to do with that art direction. And that’s not to say I want every game marginalized. But, if we leave the issue at the hands of people this far into the extreme, that’s what we’ll end up with.

        It’s worth discussion, and maybe the extremists are the only ones who punch through. And yes, for disclosure, I came across your articles, which seem a lot more level headed because of that.. But I’d like to think of myself as someone whose not super impressionable, and have the faculties for some form of discussion, someone who looks deep into things he’s curious about before weighing in on things. I’m 31, been playing video games since like ’85 I’ve gone from being taught to be ashamed, stigmatized for being a gamer, to being accepted, back to lead to think I should be ashamed (based on the actions of people who allegedly sent her threats, and other public figures).. And a lot of it is due to the almost comedic figures jumping up and down about things they see wrong from their point of view, which in turn is stripped of it’s value and served as a vehicle to move ad space. :/

        • You’re absolutely right that there’s a lot of polarizing – and not usually productive polarizing – that happens around criticism like Sarkeesian’s, and the current movement spearheaded by a few journalists to turn “gamer” into a bad word strikes me as overly reductive and as equally wrong-headed as the use of SJW as an insult. I think there are a lot of people – it seems, you included – who want to see an adult conversation happening, and instead are seeing a lot of yelling, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from the two extremes. And I’d rather both extremes took a deep breath, counted to ten, and thought about what it is they really want to say instead of flinging metaphoric poo at one another like adolescent monkeys.

          I think AAA games are less “sold-out” than you fear, though – I know both indie and AAA developers, and the designers even in AAA houses have a lot more story control than you make out here. Yes, the parent companies and publishers can nix an entire project (or force sequels, which I think is a problematic and ultimately lazy practice that is hurting the industry as a whole, generally speaking, but that’s a separate issue), but the core ideas, levels, and stories do still come from inside the development houses. (Given the tendency of developers recently to stick their feet in their mouths on issues of gender and race, I’d guess that any admission of listening to diverse voices is probably genuine, although it may not have much impact.)

          At issue is not simply that developers think about the ideas they come up with, but that they consider diversity as an important criterion for hiring as well as in terms of content. More diversity on staff is a sure-fire way to increase the perspectives within a game as well as help safeguard against racism/misogyny/etc. And there are some reasonable people working on that (Ada Initiative is one place), although there is also a lot of screaming going on there, too.

          I think the thing that’s rubbing you (and others) the wrong way is that once the screaming match starts, it stops mattering who started being unreasonable first; everyone continues to be unreasonable and juvenile, and it makes the reasonable people want to wash their hands of the whole thing. Unfortunately, what that ends up doing is allowing only the crazy people to become visible and audible (and air each other’s dirty laundry). I unfortunately don’t have a magic pill that will fix that problem, although if you find one, let me know.

  7. My largest problem with Anita Sarkeesian is that while I respect her basic idea (more diversity in playable characters, less sexism, brothels, strip clubs, and prostitutes etc.), her method of communicating it is absolutely infuriating. A special mention goes to her/her staff’s skills in picking examples which I would classify as downright abyssmal. There is sadly no dearth of the things she wished to uncover so why are the examples chosen so damn poorly? She is fighting an uphill battle as it is, why does she add razor wire fences to the slope?

    For instance in the Mrs Male character video when discussing female representation in the marketing materials she picks pretty much the only RPG ever to do something about it (Mass Effect 3) as the target. She could have picked, well any RPG in the history of ever and chosen that (IIRC Dark Souls marketing was genderless so it might not have been that suitable but still) and her example would be valid (I was disappointed in Bethesda for not including female PCs in their marketing campaign of Skyrim), but she just had to center on the one example where her legitimacy can be questioned. There was an old video about comic book heroines being depowered and killed (a valid concern), but her list of examples inexplicably manages to contain more superhero girlfriends (a SEPARATE valid concern) than actual superheroines. This sort of hyper-zealous, but sloppy preaching is annoying for someone in the know, but it also does allow people with an alternate view to dismiss her as lacking in knowledge. I would rather not give those people more ammunition (this becomes doubly bad when people hold her up as a paragon of feminism and game research, when someone who plays the games can see that she twists a lot and takes even more out of context).

    She has a bit of that in this video as well there was one Far Cry 3-clip there where is a random event, the look of the civilian IIRC is chosen arbitrarily. So basically in this case treating the NPCs the same regardless of gender actually got changed into seeing it as specifically violence against women. You already mentioned the way that Dishonored was handeled.

    I won’t defend Rockstar though, their track record regarding women is extremely questionable even at best and I am not surprised in the least that a lot of Anita’s material came from them.

    The above is also a reason to why I’ve enjoyed your series of posts about her videos, you seem a lot more more knowledgeable than her when regarding actual game mechanics, as well as tempering the bad with the good. As well as being capable of factoring in the remainder of the media climate (the sad fact being that despite Anita’s video, games still contain the least sexual violence in media, you could probably find more sexual violence in a single TV-series [I’m looking at you Game of Thrones and Rome] than in mainstream gaming combined).

    “””There is definitely something to what you say here – I also think, however, that it is important to show the elements of games that do encourage (or at least make more palatable/normalized) violence against women in a specifically misogynistic context when they aren’t egregious precisely because of the insidious way that they tacitly “permit” (to use the term a little bit problematically) latent misogyny (or racism, or agism, or what have you).”””

    You still have to draw the lines about “tacitly permit” somewhere, e.g. the same freedom in Morrowind that allowed you to purge the island of slavers (because you could kill anybody in the game world), also technically allows for complete and utter gendercide or genocide. A lot Anita’s clips definitely feel like they are playing the game in other ways than intended (compare to someone using Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas as a sexualized corpse stacking simulator or Deus Ex: Human Revolution as a civilian killing simulator).

    E.g. even something like Lego Marvel Super Heroes could be included here if you twist the criteria enough (superhero power arsenal vs female NPC civilians will not end pretty).

    In the wrong hands you could take something like Tomb Raider 2013 and make a whole video just about the female suffering in it (and there is a lot of it if you fail the quick time events). Even leaving out the abuse Lara suffers throughout the game (which would cause even Nathan Drake to squirm), you could see it as an entire game of female disempowerment: my sister views the TR2013 this way, she liked having a female protagonist who wasn’t dragged through the mud and injuries 24/7. From what I’ve seen Lara is saved by others or pure dumb luck in TR2013 more times than in the entire remainder of the series (which is nine games).

    Old Lara was Indiana Jones, she was badass from the start and didn’t need an explanation for it (like the male heroes usually have it). In the end TR2013 wasn’t quite the cluster that I had expected (no doubt that I have Rhianna Pratchett to thank for that), but I do find it slightly ironic that running one of the competent game heroes through the mangler gains praise from feminists (nb. this is in comparison to the earlier games). Given the sheer amount of wishfulfillment characters for males, I have trouble seeing why women couldn’t get one as well (despite the way that she looked, old Lara was pretty respected in her game universe, nobody questioned her based on her gender).

    Finally I do see critics and the games as art-crowd as partially culpable in the way that things have progressed. The trend in criticism has long been that darker and more depressing is better and more mature (on all fronts from literature to TV to movies etc). The go-to-way is to comment on the human condition, which gives us some rather nasty things to process. This has lead to critically acclaimed novels like Red Sorghum, by Nobel Prize Laureate Mo Yan, which contains more sadistic violence than a 13-year-old’s Warhammer 40k fanfic (the maximum intervall between two horrible things happening is two pages), while containing scenes which include gunkata! If I got started on how much HBO loves to milk nastiness, while the critics and supposedly cerebral viewers cheer, I’d probably still be typing here next year (I draw direct parallells to Rockstar and their way to rub filth in everybody’s face, while being lauded for their writing).

    And now it has spread to gaming too.

    PS. While being on this site should probably already show it, my negative views on Sarkeesian’s videos are not meant in any way or form as approval or endorsement of the toxic storm that is directed at her at the moment of writing this. Those people are [insert negative mental image of choice here].

    • First, thanks for reading! Second, I appreciate the “PS,” if only for the sake of other readers. I applaud your caveat that even though you criticize her, you’re not suggesting she in any way deserves to be treated as less than human. :)

      You’re right that one must draw the line somewhere – and my note that “permit” is a problematic term was my way of getting out of having to come up with something more concrete. You’re right that the decontextual clips from many games make them seem as though they encourage violence when the game’s point is to in fact discourage it, etc. Just because one CAN do something in a game doesn’t imply that the designers are tacitly permitting misogyny – gamers the world over have an amazing ability to come up with things (good and bad) to do in games that developers never intended. For instance, in Skyrim one can go all scorched-earth and obliterate everyone and everything one encounters. I would hardly suggest that Bethesda is countenancing genocide. In other cases, however (I’m thinking more God of War 3 or GTA or the leave-a-woman-tied-to-the-train-tracks from Red Dead), there is more permission given than discouraged (you do note that Rockstar doesn’t have the best track record).

      In case you haven’t seen the plethora of Tomb Raider posts on TLF, I’m a fan of the reboot. I think there are a lot of good things that Pratchett did with the new Lara that make her much more of a complete person, which includes vulnerability. I do have a problem with the death-scenes (ugh. Just ugh.), but I think that overall Lara comes out of the reboot as more feminist than her earlier incarnations for a variety of reasons. In part, the new Lara is a recreation of the old Lara’s backstory (except not in a plane crash in the Himalayas) that is seeking to explain HOW she becomes a badass – the old games take place after this discovery (which is contained in text form in the booklet). I like that as the game progresses, Lara rescues herself, has some luck, and has friends (of both genders) rescue her until we reach the final mission, in which Lara and only Lara kicks some serious booty. Is it perfect? God, no. But I’m a fan. I respect the argument that including vulnerability and the need for Roth and Grim to save her a couple times seems to have weakened her, but I think the intention there is to give the origin, not to argue that she’s in any way “soft.” But that’s just my take.

      • Regarding TR2013 I can agree with your view on it as well. I avoided it for a year or so because it appeared to be a Lara Croft-chewaton, though the end result was a lot better than I had expected. From my point of view the Tomb Raider variants fill different dare-I-say feminist niches, the old one, while sexualized (though she doesn’t use beauty as a weapon), was the sort of hero who saved herself, didn’t need much help. It may not be realistic in the slightest, but I have trouble thinking of another female protagonist* in games with her level of self-sufficiency (IIRC she wasn’t subjected to any gendered slurs either), so I do think that she filled an important niche there.

        *When gender can’t be selected in any way.

        The new Lara in turn embodies all the positive qualities that you mention compassion, teamwork, character growth, friendship.

        My point with bringing in TR2013 was mainly though how much one could distort a game by cherry picking footage, you could turn a moderately feminist, though violent, survival story into Female Violation: The Game.

        “””In other cases, however (I’m thinking more God of War 3 or GTA or the leave-a-woman-tied-to-the-train-tracks from Red Dead), there is more permission given than discouraged (you do note that Rockstar doesn’t have the best track record).”””

        Regarding Rockstar I’m compelled to agree, they haven’t had a playable female protagonist since 1999 (GTA II allowed for it) and the way they handle female characters in general is poor. From the big game studios they are probably the worst or at least close it . Max Payne 3 wasn’t mentioned anywhere, but the two main women in the game are a dumb airhead and her less dumb, but really ineffectual damsel in distress sister. If I’m completely honest though I’m not sure that I even want to see what they’d do if they had a female main character (some taboos haven’t been done in mainstream gaming and I genuinely do not want to see them done either).

        As for God of War 3, I don’t own the game but I was aware of the scene from TV Tropes (it was the main reason why I didn’t own the game). Let’s just say that after I saw it there is no way that said game goes into my console. As an aside I watched a few minutes of a critical video of Anita’s videos and read a few of said video’s comment, interestingly enough even a few people who seemed to identify as MRA libertarians thought that the scene was needless, in bad taste and that Anita had a point there (the combination MRA libertarian usually invokes a kill it with fire-reaction from me so if even they thought Anita had a point there…). I find said scene to be even worse than Red Dead Redemption’s “Dastardly” as it is obligatory.

        Lastly I thank you for taking the time to respond to me earlier!

        • You’re welcome! I enjoy conversations about these sorts of things, when they’re real conversations. :) (Which this obviously is.)

          You’re right that one can very easily distort things by cherry-picking, and I think that’s something that can go in multiple directions. For instance, someone recently explained to me that one COULD (not that one should) read Tomb Raider (2013) as misandrous because Lara only kills men. It’s not a good argument, but it does raise some really cool points about Tomb Raider (2013) as a direct response to the generalized misogyny of games; yes, Lara only kills men, because those men are all misogynist (the Solarii kill all the women who show up on the island). It presents an interesting possibility for the game as a direct response to the “conventional” videogames in which women are the objects of violence… I haven’t spent much time thinking about it, so it might break down upon examination, but it’s an interesting thought-exercise, at the very least.

        • St. A.

          If you have not already, please look into a game called Beyond Good & Evil, it recently got an HD remake, I honestly wish more people knew about it and played it, it’s one of my favorite examples of a female PC done correctly. It always seems to be my go to example because of how much I enjoyed the game.

          And as far as the death scenes in games go, honestly I haven’t played TR13 it just hasnt made it to the top of my to play pile yet, but I’ve seen a few of the death scenes via different youtube videos, and I have to say, I’m not sure that anyone likes super realistic(or perhaps unrealistic) death scenes, on male or female characters.
          Without going into a long winded explanation on this I would give the Stroggification process in Quake 4 as an example, although it doesn’t actually kill you, and thence you don’t have to do QTEs to prevent it, you are strapped to a table and basically sent through a meat processing factory. This is the scene, it is rather graphic to watch FYI (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJwyjWpP4XA)

          • @SamusAranon

            Regarding Beyond Good and Evil, it holds the somewhat curious distinction of being a game that I own three copies of (2 for the original Xbox and the HD remake for the X360), but haven’t played very much (my backlog on the X360 alone is in the hundreds). Then again I’ve played through MorphX while still being in the middle of Dishonored, so my prioritization of gaming is completely random.

            Regarding death scenes for my part it entirely depends on how much I care about the characters, the exception being that spoilers EYE POKING MACHINE from Dead Space 2, god damn, as far as general mayhem goes it is probably the least violent death animation in the game, but it gets to me. The Stroggification Processes was for my part so over-the-top that it didn’t bother me (it did bother my brother though).

            @Kristen

            Don’t know if I have anything to add to that. Thank you for the discussion!

  8. Hi Kristin,

    I found this website (and your articles) today and suddenly my world became so much brighter. During the latter half of last week and over the weekend, the vitriol and anger on both sides had started to get to me. Even when I was out and about, it was weighing on me because of the lines in the sand being drawn. (Who would have thought that “SJW” i.e. people who advocate equality for all, or “gamers” i.e. people who play games, would become pejoratives?)

    Finding your articles (via Rhianna Pratchett’s twitter) was just the best thing that could have happened. Your views (like Ms. Pratchett’s and, hopefully, mine) are level-headed and not influenced by the pervasive tribal mentality. That is amazing. Thank you for providing a safe space for engaging with these issues without the name-calling, or just generally classifying a whole group of people as sub-human.

    About Tropes vs. Women, I think Anita’s videos are essential to the gaming industry. I am thrilled that she would continue making them despite the death (or worse) threats. That right there is true commitment to the cause. But the videos are not without problems. My biggest point of disagreement is that Anita believes that certain tropes are bad. I, however, do not think that a trope is inherently bad. I think that execution of a trope can be bad (sexist, racist, lazy etc). Or the frequency with which it is used can be bad. But a trope in itself cannot. I believe every instance of a trope deserve some understanding of the context before being classified as bigoted. I think you and I are on agreement on this point.

    On the other hand, I actually find her “laundry list” style very effective. I know this somewhat contradicts the above paragraph because the “laundry list” does not allow contextual understanding. But when I showed one of her videos to my younger brother, it was the list that got to him. One instance, or two, can be easily dismissed. But 40 of them back-to-back cannot. I think she can still keep this style but add more contextual understanding by letting people know that many of the instances of violence against women are optional and discouraged.

    Thanks again for your posts. Do keep ’em coming. :)

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! (I often dread comments, and this one made me feel all warm and fuzzy.)

      I very much like your reminder that tropes in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. I think that often they are drawn upon out of laziness or ignorance on the part of writers, but you’re right – tropes exist because they connect to things that are fundamental about the way we tell stories. It’s important to remember that just because something is a trope doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be used (and in fact it would be very hard to tell most of our stories without them).

      I think you’re right about the effectiveness of her methodology, too, I just don’t happen to like it. :) I think one of the reasons I find it less impactful than your brother, most likely, is because I already see sexism in games. I think her method is probably more useful for someone who doesn’t see the prevalence of tropes – which is probably more her target audience than, say, me.

  9. Hello,
    First time reader here, i was checking out comments section on the mary sue and someone posted a link to your site.
    I agree with all your points and criticisms of Anita’s work, I have always felt that there was a slight flaw and it bugged me that i was never able to articulate what my issues exactly were, but you have done so quite eloquently so thank you.
    My other feeling is that I find it unfair that the criticisms of her work are not allowed on any of her sites, I would of liked to have seen her address a few issues, but for me i feel like she likes to be in an echo chamber? I just feel it is so one sided like if you do not agree with me, you’re against me? I find that sort of attitude to be concerning.
    Yes i want to have a discussion about games and things that are horrible about them, but only giving your opinion and shutting out other’s valid criticisms is not opening dialogue or having a discussion.
    (P.S. I am not familiar with website designing but under the comments section there are two tick boxes, but because the text is white and the background is white, i had to mouse over them to read what is being asked with the tick boxes).

    • Thank you for reading!

      I agree completely that Sarkeesian’s work (among others, in particular this week, Zoe Quinn) has a polarizing effect on people – either you’re 100% with her or you’re a slathering troll. I’m sure there are a lot of people – like you and me – who fall in the middle, we just tend to be the people who watch the videos and think our thoughts to ourselves (well, not me, obviously, since I feel compelled to write metric tons of text about it…).

      Comments on the internet are a dangerous thing, and I understand why she doesn’t allow them – even reasonable criticisms provide potential fodder for the people who attack her without basis. On the other hand, I have sometimes felt as though people who do want to engage in legitimate conversations about her work (including praise, but specifically criticism) feel as though they can’t speak critically about it without being lumped in with the trollish hordes. It’s a serious problem that is widespread in the gaming community; one must either love something or hate it, according to the dominant voices, one can’t fall anywhere in the middle without being branded either a member of GamerGate or a PMSing feminazi/white knight. It’s sad that we’ve reached a point where conversations immediately devolve into namecalling and threats, and I really hope that posts like this one (and comments like yours!) can help to steer us back into a place where discussion is the norm rather than the exception.

  10. Thank you for these articles! Thank you! Seriously, reading proper intellectual discussion on these issues is exactly what I needed right now, considering what’s going on around the net currently.

    I love what Sarkeesian does, and will promote her videos (as long as they’re worth it, and I suspect they will continue to be), but this critique is very much welcome. I too noticed that her series seems to be getting better, but I also have noticed she does glance over some very relevant factors, and fails to properly problematize some of the issues she brings up.

    Of course, proper cultuar critique is a discussion, and that’s where your articles come in! You’re a great and very much needed part of the “Tropes vs. Women” analysis in it’s extended form. It is very disheartening to first watch something as great as the “Women as Background Decoration” videos, and then proceed to expand on the issue, as usual, by searching for critique, where instead of directly finding this sort of discussion her mostly very good analysis deserves, finding… I don’t even know what to call that stuff… it’s not pretty stuff. Not pretty. So after that, it is so heartwarming to find your writing that is well-written, proper critique instead of just trivial attacks on Sarkeesian’s videos (or, goodness forbid, her *character*! …I don’t even…)

    Now if I could just filter out the (ir)relevant parts of the internet, I’d be quite happy! Do you know if there are any links to other posts, or even better, communities that would be centered on actual critique and proper discussion of these issues?

    • Ilari,

      Thanks for reading, and thank you for such a nice comment!

      Alas, there aren’t a lot of the sorts of things you’re looking for… there has been some good discussion recently on #gamerethics, although there’s also some irrelevant and #gamergate stuff hitting it, as well (on Twitter). There are some good voices out there, but most of them aren’t addressing Sarkeesian directly, I think out of concern that any criticism will feed rather than starve the trolls.

      Some good people to read up on include Todd Harper (http://www.chaoticblue.com/blog/), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra), Maddy Myers (Paste), and Rhianna Pratchett (mostly on Twitter). There are others, of course, but these are the ones that come to mind – although, again, most of their discussion isn’t on Sarkeesian, but on games and gamers more generally. Polygon has also had some really smart pieces more recently.

      I’ve become a part of a couple communities over the years that are open to these kinds of discussion – Girl Gamer is one, although their site appears to be down at the moment (they also have a Twitter and Facebook). There’s a new community called Women.com that has some gaming threads, as well, and it’s invitation-only, but you can Tweet to them to ask for an invite.

      Otherwise, there don’t seem to be a lot of communities like those you’re looking for that haven’t been invaded by trolls… sadly, that’s the way things are at present, although I have the decided feeling that there’s a shift happening and we’re going to start seeing more of what you’re looking for in the years to come. :)