Sexism in Video Games: Tropes, Trolls and Terrific Upstanders

June 13, 2012 I love it when positive responses trump negative behaviors to spin outcomes in a favorable direction.

In just 52 hours, Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes versus Women” Kickstarter project challenging sexism in video game culture will not only be fully funded, it will have massive support from those of us who whipped out our wallets in solidarity to trounce trolling and send a mighty message that online harassment is ubiquitous and unacceptable.

Talk about a happy ending! All too often women become “targets” of sexism inside and outside of video game environs, especially those who “use their voice” to call out the behavior point blank. It seems those of us who could give a flying fig about imbecilic reactions are particularly prone to receiving amped up potency of misogynistic vitriol, laced with damaging venom that would make a serpent blush.

As one who has been on the receiving end of cyber warfare tactics, misinformation mop ups and imbalanced, self-righteous wackos, (our Target/snow angel fiasco circa ’08) I can say it’s a life-changer but not a deal-breaker…Adjustments are made for survival (e.g. I’m now fiercely protective of privacy and family ties) but the whole experience of strengthened resolve can be rather empowering in itself.

Knowing that media literacy and critical thinking are paramount to unearthing the underbelly of the beast, it almost arms us with an invisible shield to fight off sexism, racism, corporate snakes and unethical shills with agendas. The raging sexism and show-n-tell examples of Anita’s harassment serves as a shoulder shake for us all, to remind how explosive bullying can be when stereotypes are challenged and the status quo is turned inside out in favor of a healthier worldview. I may not know you, but thank you, Anita Sarkeesian.

It’s beyond heartening to see a ‘negative turned into a positive’ as you can see by the skyrocketing number of backers and pledges surpassing her original goal multi-fold.

Moreover, from a macro lens, when the media spotlight puts on high beams shining a white hot glare directly into the eyes of bullying behavior and yields this kind of positive anti-sexism response, it bodes well for a variety of outcomes beyond vaulting funding forward.

This is a classic case of “upstanders” who chose not to be “bystanders.”

With a vehemence so strong you could almost sense the blowback with a WHOOSH, Anita’s traction serves as a sentinel for schoolyards everywhere.

Just imagine what mirroring a supportive, anti-bullying climate like this would feel like for kids to curb online gaming communities, body-snarking photo captions and plain ol’ recess tormentors. Here’s to the upstanders!

Today’s fabulous guest post on sexism in videogames takes the analysis of a gamer and advocacy of our SPARK anti-sexualization friends, and morphs it into insightful commentary by Bailey Shoemaker Richards.

Bailey is now on her third guest post for Shaping Youth and we’re honored to have her laser sharp wit and wisdom. She’ll also be interviewing pink aisle pro and PhD professor Sara M. Grimes  in a follow up post about gender/gaming research but this feature of Bailey’s today clearly connects the dots and opens up some windows for critical thinking in how this is landing on kids, culture, and society as a whole. Enjoy!

 Sexism In Video Games Moves to Forefront of Gaming Culture Convos

by Bailey Shoemaker Richards

Sexism in video games and gaming culture has been a big topic over the past couple of weeks – from the violent response to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project to the announcement of the new Lara Craft storyline, to the new Hitman trailer controversy (sexualized violence meets fetishism at left), it seems like the subject is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

The sad part is that this isn’t a new discussion: similar blow-ups occurred earlier this year, when a writer for BioWare was attacked by the community for expressing an opinion about different styles of playing, and then suggesting that sexism played a role in the attacks.

These major blow-ups within the community are merely the most visible extensions of the small moments of misogyny that occur on a daily basis for women in gaming.

From the sexist portrayals of women in games (women with absurd proportions, dressed in armor that protects approximately none of their vital areas), the use of sexualized violence in place of storytelling (Lara Croft needs a backstory to develop her character? We’ll have her dropped on an island where the savage natives attempt to rape her! Not a single identifiable element of racism or sexism here!), all the way through to the gendered slurs and threats women get when playing online games create, perpetuate and sustain an environment where these things are not only acceptable, they are expected.

The fact that attempts to get better gender representation in games are perceived as “censorship” indicates how deeply ingrained these sexist portrayals are.

Challenging gaming sexism, as Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian is doing, is one of the easiest ways to expose the sordid underbelly of gaming culture.

For simply daring to announce that she was going to talk about sexism in video games, Sarkeesian has been subjected to outraged cries that she is overreacting – along with targeted, deeply sexist threats (ranging from gendered as well as racist slurs to the vandalism of her Wikipedia page with graphic pornography to more serious threats of violence).

Reacting to criticism of misogyny with overt misogyny does not seem like the best way to convince women – or anyone, for that matter – that the gaming community doesn’t have problems with misogyny.

And, unfortunately for those gamers, there is evidence that exposure to sexism in video games is linked to benevolent sexism outside of them (for those not familiar with the term, benevolent sexism does not mean benign sexism. Benevolent sexism is a set of attitudes and ideas that stereotype women – it is often harder to pinpoint than overt or hostile sexist comments, but comes in the form of attitudes about the “proper” roles and behaviors for women, positing women as subordinate or submissive to men’s decisions and desires).

Psychology of Popular Media Culture’s article, SeX-Box: Exposure to Sexist Video Games Predicts Benevolent Sexism studied a group of regular video game players and found that greater exposure to video games with a higher amount of self-rated perceived sexist content correlated with an increase of benevolent sexism in men, but not in women.

As the canard goes, correlation does not equal causation, but this study reinforces the already well-understood concept that prolonged exposure to certain attitudes in the media does contribute to individual ideas and behavior.

Additionally, it confirms again that men are more likely to have sexist attitudes increased by sexist material than women, because women are members of an out-group with regards to the privileged audience, and most women recognize sexism for what it is. The sexualization of violence in video games is a trend that alienates many of the women who play regularly – and according to the Electronic Software Assn, 42% of gamers are women.

Sexualized violence includes, as mentioned above, the use of rape to create a backstory for a character like Lara Croft, in a bizarre attempt to make players want to “protect” her and “relate” to her. It also includes the attempt of one company to create a tentacle rape card game on Kickstarter, where one of the pledge rewards was having your significant other included as a “target.”

The recent trailer for Hitman contained a highly sexualized attack on what can be described as stripper assassin nuns – following the outcry, IO released a classic non-apology, saying they were sorry to have offended anyone, instead of apologizing for creating content that revels in depicting violence against objectified women. Games like Grand Theft Auto, the horrific RapeLay (a game that allowed the player to pursue and rape another character) and others that portray or create gameplay around acts of sexual violence normalize this treatment of women in-game and contribute to attitudes about women.

Sexualized violence isn’t the only way in which women are marginalized by game development, however. The dearth of well-developed women characters that aren’t defined by their sexual appeal is also a problem.

Women characters are often depicted as submissive to the game’s male protagonist, or as prizes to be won: the glut of princesses needing rescued speaks for itself; there are other instances of this, however.

Duke Nukem Forever has “Capture the Babe,” where the players have to compete for a schoolgirl and spank her to “put her in her place.”

Even Samus (visual at left) was reduced to the status of a reward for a presumed straight male audience, as quicker playing led to more and more of her armor being removed.

Developers create these messages about the expected role of women: objects to be won or conquered, victims or targets of gender-based violence, eye candy.

Challenging this portrayal of women in-game is something that the community at large must work on; insisting that we see more characters like Chell from Portal (at left) is imperative if we want to improve the experience of playing games for everyone.

Well-developed characters of all genders offer more room for better storytelling and a more diverse set of stories to tell.

In-game portrayal of women is also connected to gamer treatment of women. You would be hard-pressed to find a woman who’s played a live game and hasn’t been harassed, threatened with rape or derided for being a woman.

Gaming is supposed to be escapist and fun – for many women, the pleasure of gaming is lessened or destroyed when simply existing means crude propositioning or violent attacks.

For many women, gaming means having to decide whether or not to choose a gender-neutral or masculine sounding user name, and whether or not to avoid live chatting and disguise her identity simply to avoid those things. This silencing of women’s voices leads to many gamers arguing that women just don’t play video games, even when the numbers contradict that.

Many women, myself included, gravitate more toward RPGs (role-playing games) instead of MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) to avoid sexism from other gamers. I love Left4Dead, for example, but the experience of playing with a headset on drains much of the enjoyment – as soon as a feminine voice is detected, the expectation of my abilities as a player drops, and the gender-based insults or requests for sexual favors start rolling in. When I play a video game, I want to be able to play the game, not spend my time defending myself from sexists.

The Mary Sue (A Guide to Girl Geek Culture) featured a piece on the sexist attacks against Sarkeesian and sexism in gaming generally, and included some suggestions about how the community can fight it.

Simply challenging sexism from others gamers when it occurs will go a long way towards stopping it: refusing to allow misogynist behaviors to remain normalized or acceptable will reduce the incidences of those behaviors, and make sure gaming culture is a safe culture for all players. The misogynists are a minority, but they’re a vocal one. By making those vocalizations unacceptable, we can make sure gaming culture doesn’t fall into the hands of misogynists.

Additionally, challenging game development that relies on sexism, objectification and sexualized violence to create its women characters will help get the message across to the industry that these messages are unacceptable, tired stereotypes.

Many developers work in an insulated, male-dominated environment and are often surprised to learn that their depictions of women are unpleasant and disliked. Demanding an environment where women’s voices are heard throughout the development process, and speaking directly to game companies about where they fail and succeed is one way to create positive change.

Bailey Shoemaker Richards, 22, is a recent graduate of Ohio University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, a feminist activist, and a member of the SPARK team.

She spends her free time writing, reading, playing video games and watching Doctor Who. Bailey is passionate about grassroots activism, media critique and giving a voice to young women. Follow Bailey at SPARK and on Twitter 

Heartening Excerpt/Call to Stand UP!

“…I don’t know who these hateful people are, but they are not the gamers I know. They are not the men I know. They do not define us.”

…”So stand up against this, gamers. Stand up for our community, whether or not you are directly affected by harassment, whether or not you agree with what the victim in question is saying…”

“There is nothing — nothing — that deserves this sort of treatment. But when you stand your ground, be smart about it. Don’t resort to insults or mockery, no matter how tempting it may be, no matter how furious you are.”

Shouting someone down isn’t the same as making it clear that their behavior is unacceptable. If you can, get them to listen. If they won’t listen, then shut them out. Be better than them. Hate is not who we are. Hate is not what what we are about. Hate is not welcome here.” — Becky Chambers about Feminist Frequency’s harassment

Amy’s Note: One last footnote to add context about bullying in general, since it’s been receiving rampant press as an ‘epidemic’ when the reality of digital citizenship is quite different. (NOT speaking of sexism, racism, gaming violence for “M” rated audiences but rather online “digital abuse” aka ‘cyberbullying’) The vast majority of online communities successfully give a voice and a platform to areas once reserved for media elite, and it’s important to put internet cyberbullying in perspective and in its rightful place, far beyond ‘predator panics’ and suicide sensationalism.

True, online spheres are not always rosy and bullying is a very real problem…without a doubt social media postings CAN be used to intimidate, objectify, silence and embarrass private citizens in pubic arenas (note new international instance of this on Adios Barbie 21st Century Harassment: Sneaky Snapshots on Public Transportation) but just like in the schoolyards, when it comes to gaming, virtual worlds, and youth spheres, the climate created in each community is key.

As Bailey mentioned, setting the bar and keeping it raised, as well as speaking out as an upstander and NOT a bystander helps create a self-governance and community policing dynamic which internet safety pro Anne Collier at NetFamilyNews calls ‘The Guild Effect’. That’s humane education at its finest, creating a healthier, more collaborative world where we’re ALL better off.

A Few Related Resources: Sexism in Video Games

Media Education Fnd/Film: Game Over: Gender, Race & Violence in Video Games

Media Education Fnd/Film: Generation M: Misogyny in Media & Culture

Anita’s Own Words: On Harassment, Backlash, Women in Gaming Convos/Links (Kickstarter)

Dear Internet Here’s Why You Can’t Have Anything Nice (New Statesman)

Call of Duty Female Gamer Records Her Experience with Sexism (WebPro News)

Awful Things Happen When You Try to Make a Video About Video Game Stereotypes! (Kotaku)

Enough! We Must All Kick Sexism Out of Gaming (VG 24/7)

Xbox Live Survival Guide for Female Gamers (About.com)

Gaming As Women.com : A Collection of Thoughts (Sexism) 

US House Subcommittee Hearing: The Business of Stereotypes and Degrading Images (pdf)

GDC 2012 Can Games Be Friendlier to Women?

Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research (pdf)

Related Reading on Gender/Sexism by Amy Jussel on Shaping Youth

The Bro Code: Media, Masculinity & Misogynistic Misfires

Depravity Gone Viral: A Thin Line For Humanity

What Does A 13-Year Old Boy Know About Dating Violence? Plenty.

Backdraft: DV=Differing Views on Dating/Domestic Violence

Gender, Race & Sexism: Shaping Youth Through Pop Culture Cues

Girls As Boy Toys Takes an Even More Toxic Turn

 Related Resources on Bullying by Amy Jussel on Shaping Youth

Sesame Street Takes on Bullying in Their Shows

Survivor, The Lunch Table Edition: Social Emotional Learning

Tips For Handling a Real Life Sue Sylvester From Glee (adult bullies)

Rachel Simmons on Mythbusting/Mean Girl Media (Odd Girl Out)

Recap of White House Conference on Bullying Prevention

Using Kid Lit to Read the Right Message About Bullying

Bullying and the Special Needs Child: You Must Be the New Kid

Textual Harrassment: That’s Not Cool 

Harris Interactive: How Cyberbullying is Shaping Youth Savvy

Internet Safety: Media Literacy Tips from Industry Insiders Pt 1

Cybersafety Online, Tips from the Inside Out Pt2

Cyberbullying Tragedies & Internet Safety (w/E-Moderation)

Predators=Marketers + Frenemies: Keeping Kids Safe Online

Curse of the Good Girl Interview with Rachel Simmons

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