GamerGate, feminism and videogames

Being a retro game blog, we’re always late to the party. That has its perks: now that the heat is dying down on GamerGate, perhaps we can understand it better as a cultural phenomenon, and particularly Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis of videogames, from a more objective perspective. What interests us is why the “feminists VS gamers” debate and Sarkeesian’s analysis of videogames have gained so much traction in mainstream media.

There are a number of problems with the media’s approach to these issues which we’ll get into, but let’s have a disclaimer right here. We definitely don’t endorse or intend here to defend the behaviour of the people who have, for whatever reason, decided that sending death threats and the like to other people is normal and somehow justifiable – especially over something dumb like videogames. The personal campaign waged against Sarkeesian is utterly irrelevant at best and malicious, sadistic and cruel at worst. If you don’t like the ideas someone espouses, come up with better ideas and present them, better. Personal attacks make the attacker look bad, petty, and morally and intellectually bankrupt, not the other way round. That’s why this post isn’t about criticising Sarkeesian on a personal level and instead considers Sarkeesian’s feminist approach to videogames in a specific political and cultural context.

Our belief is that this whole GamerGate issue is not about a crisis within masculine gamer identity, but about a crisis within feminist discourse. We need to introduce critical discourses to videogames and gamers, sure – but good criticism. We are arguing that there needs to be more, and better games criticism. We need criticism of games which does not resort to representational politics, and which understands games as a medium. Frankly, we hold little to no hope for mass media outlets which, past and present, regard games as an excellent scapegoat for the ills of society, and are therefore predisposed toward the kind of reductive analysis that is being paraded at the moment. The blogosphere is a far more likely avenue for good games analysis – and it is already happening, despite a large distance still to travel.

Bad Feminism = Bad Criticism

There are many feminist agendas, not just one intent on cracking down on videogames. For instance, many feminists, including Nancy Fraser, have written accessible and thoughtful pieces about the recent hijacking of feminism by capitalism. In the realm of videogames, so far we have only seen one form of feminism and it’s a highly misguided one at that, in our opinion. Central to this particular form of feminism is an obsession which goes by several different names, representation politics and politics of recognition being perhaps the most commonly used. To sum it up, representation politics disproportionately privileges, is obsessed with even, the question of female representation to the detriment of any other kind of political, social or cultural analysis.

A simple analogy shows just how shallow representation politics can be. What good does it do to change “working for the Man” into “working for the Woman”? Why does the latter option alone automatically mean a better, fairer society? If the world was that simple, then why is Ferguson happening now, when the U.S. has a black President? What did Margaret Thatcher ever do for women in the UK? Does a sweatshop worker in Indonesia sleep easier at night knowing their paymaster is a woman as opposed to a man? Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian’s analysis is narrow since it essentially suggests that games are representations of women and nothing more. For Sarkeesian, games exist only to be horrible (and on very rare occasions kind) to women: there is nothing else going on worth mentioning. She asks why women can’t be “empowered”. What does this mean though, in practice? It seems to amount to the demand that women be the ones holding the gun and murdering people in a first-person shooter.

More troubling is the way Sarkeesian’s analysis simplistically places the blame on the consumers of games for these issues of representation. Violence against women is blamed on games and gaming culture, a typical scapegoating strategy which grabs headlines while it deflects critical attention away from structural inequalities and injustices that produce violence and misogyny in our society. Sarkeesian’s analysis is the equivalent of pointing to examples of oversexualization of women in our media, and blaming the whole phenomenon on the “misogynists” who buy it, read it, watch it. Anything to avoid asking those all-important questions of why it happens, whose ends it serves, what changes are necessary.

The same patronising tone carries over into the mainstream media, which has taken Sarkeesian at face value as representative of feminism, and therefore all women. Patronising articles which describe Sarkeesian as ‘the pop culture critic with the temerity to have opinions about computer games’ are the norm in the current climate. The media condemns any criticism of Sarkeesian as fuelled by misogyny, which only further ensures that the negative perception of male game players who do not actively support Sarkeesian will remain prominent for some time to come. The media that have picked up on the stories of her abuse confirm over and over again the essentialised stereotype of the gaming community (particularly its male members) as chubby, white men who never venture out of their basement, and who only like one woman: their mum.

What next?

The first thing we have to question is the relationship Sarkeesian and the media are attempting to create between games and those who play them: games contain violence against women, therefore, players will be violent towards women in reality. That’s the level of analytical thought we’re dealing with here! It’s the Fox News narrative about videogames – videogames are the cause of school shootings. But videogames do not exist in a vacuum (as Sarkeesian likes to say) and they aren’t the cause of violence in our societies.

A moment in Resident Evil 4 provides a useful reminder of this fact. Replaying Resident Evil 4 recently in which you play as Leon, the gung-ho American protagonist, we were happily mowing down waves and waves of zombie-like villagers in some European backwater, trying to save the President’s daughter. At some point while living out hypermasculine, violent fantasies of revenge and domination, a cutscene interrupts the slaughter to show an interaction between Leon and one of the chief arch-enemies. Leon gets on his high-horse and accuses the baddie in his trademark B-movie style of being “a terrorist”. The response: “that’s a very popular word nowadays”. In that one simple exchange, a very unreal, violent game reveals its debt to the very real violence which is carried out by our governments everyday on a global scale. Here we see how real violence inspires fantasy violence, and not the other way round.

"Hasta la vista...

“Leon’s the name, homeland security’s my game.”

What kind of a society produces the need for violent shooters, gore and extreme weaponisation? Why is this fantasy so pleasurable to so many people, ourselves included? What is it about playing as (or even being) a white, male shooter that is so compelling? We ask these questions with the necessary caveat that games that have a white, male protagonist, lots of gore/guns and passive women represent a fairly small portion of videogames are out there; but they do exist and are over-represented in terms of how many units are sold.

We have yet to see any feminist analyses enter public discourse – or indeed a Sarkeesian video – on simulators used to prepare US soldiers in killing indiscriminately, desensitizing them to the murders they commit, often against weapon-less civilians. Though it goes without saying that simulators are very different to a first person shooter, it is still chilling to consider how such technologies are being utilised. We have yet to see an analysis of the link between the perception of drone warfare in the public arena, and our increasingly “game like” view of the war on terror. Increasingly, it is we, the public, who are desensitised to the targeting of “terrorists” who we are urged to see as irredeemable, inhuman operants, beyond redemption. Are there counter-narratives in videogames, or just regurgitated stereotypes?

This is just one potential avenue I think worth pursuing, one of many avenues which narrow feminist agenda or a media-driven narrative about violent gamers, cannot accommodate. There are undoubtedly many things “wrong” in the gaming industry – a lack of women developers, in our opinion, is one of them – but there are a lot of things wrong in our society. What is needed is more dialogue between people with valuable tools of analysis to converse with critics and writers who have been writing about games for decades in the blogosphere. So, let’s stop demonizing and patronising gamers, victimising feminists, and start exploring videogames as a legitimate cultural entity; new, exciting, and deserving of complex analysis. Let’s ignore the combined intimidation of a scapegoating media, bad feminist critics like Sarkeesian, and a few abusive gamers. They only want you to suspend your critical faculties and take sides in a false conflict.

This is a co-authored piece with Maya, hence the references to “we”. We’ve been sitting on this piece for what feels like an age, making small revisions occasionally and not really knowing what to do with it. Now seems like the right time though since the media buzz has died down a bit. We’d love to hear what you think about Sarkeesian’s analysis, so please drop a comment down below.


  1. Sir Gaulian

    I think you’ve written the most brave article on this issue i’ve read. Well done!

    I havent been particularly vocal on the issue, i think both sides were stoking the fire to some extent until it became irrational crap flinging – but i did write something about sexism starting at home, how discussing women as largely passive bystanders or at times game ignorami helps perpetuate an inherently sexist or biased voice.

    On the issue of the Sarkeesian’s videos, as someone who basically writes persuasive arguments for a living, it’s pretty clear the points she makes are made through fact ommission rather than inclusion. I’ll leave it at that..

    Again, great article both of you!

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for your kind words. I remember your post on the topic of sexism – good stuff. As we discovered, it’s a tough subject to write about. Especially GamerGate, it’s such a headache and there’s so many potential avenues to go down, not to mention the controversy attached. It’s especially strange (and rare) when mainstream media latches onto videogames in this way. It’s like facing an inquisition from your mum over how many hours you’ve spent playing videogames. Not that I would know anything about this! Anyhow this post ended up going through several iterations over a long period and we almost didn’t post it in the end. But, if you have a draft lying around on GamerGate that you’re unsure about posting, I’d say go for it! I’d be really interested to read your take on it.

  2. Jonathan James

    I am a very tentative supporter of GamerGate. I support the fight for transparency and accountability (in all online media, not just games journalism), but there are so many supporters of the movement who believe that there is no place for sociological criticism on the grounds that it has nothing to do with gameplay. While I agree with most of the opinions of currently popular feminist critics like Sarkeesian (I still don’t understand how she became such a huge name), it also expressed my thoughts on the importance of the kind of sociological criticism we subject other artistic media to.

    • veryverygaming

      Hi, thanks for your comment. I think there’s definitely a need when critiquing games to respect interactivity. To me, that means appreciating that most of the time spent with any game (typically) is playing it, as opposed to watching cutscenes. The other part is that talking about something that is part of the gameplay needs to be qualified in terms of what the player is encouraged to do, what is a bug, etc – I’m thinking here of that famous GTA controversy which explained that players could have sex with a prostitute, pay her, then kill her and take the money back. And the response is that technically, yes, you can do that, but the game doesn’t encourage it nor is it especially profitable to take $50 or whatever if you’re a millionaire in game.

      So having said that, I think there is a place for the kinds of criticism you’re talking about when it comes to games, and in fact I also can’t argue with Sarkeesian’s contention that many games use these alienating and/or demeaning stereotypes of women, for instance. What bothers me is the way that fact (I would say it’s a fact) is turned into front page news. As if films, TV, books, real life, are less important, and games and gamers are somehow uniquely predisposed to that stuff.

      I wrote a piece a while back about stereotypes of Arabs in Ocarina of Time for instance, and I had fun writing it.

      I stand by my opinion that those aspects of Ocarina of Time are there and present. The question then is what you do with that, what do you want to achieve. Do you condemn the game as racist and all the rest of it? Do you patronise players and say that by playing it they must be absorbing these views, and that you are uniquely immune to it? At some point I think – and I say this as someone who loves playing and writing about games – you have to step back and recognise that these are just games, just as films are just films and books are just books. They mostly reflect society, not create it, and so I’d rather save my outrage.

  3. Fred

    I’m curious on where you got your information regarding the US military using desensitizing, indiscriminate murder simulators. Can you provide that?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.