Monday, October 20, 2014

If I point out the big-breasted bimbos in your game, will you threaten to kill me?

Melted crayon,  Durham, North Carolina.

     We can assume that the men threatening to rape and murder Anita Sarkeesian were not doing so because they wanted to disseminate her observations about sexism in the video gaming world to as wide an audience as possible.
     But that is what is happening.
     Like many, I had never heard of her until she showed up on the front page of The New York Times last Wednesday, after she canceled a speech at Utah State University, not just because of threats of a mass shooting but because Utah concealed carry law forbids audiences from being screened (if you thought, “Why, that’s insane,” then there’s two of us).
     The Canadian-born Sarkeesian has a blog, “Feminist Frequency,” offering dissections of the pervasive misogyny of video games.
     When I was a lad and played video games, they were primitive arcade consoles that for 25 cents allowed you to blast asteroids or repel relentlessly advancing alien invaders.
     The past few decades, however, as gaming developed into a $70 billion industry (larger than the world movie industry and all U.S. pro sports combined), the typical adventure involves a well-armed hero wandering a complex fantasy landscape, one that, as Sarkeesian repeatedly points out, is inevitably chocked with scantily clad women.
     After watching a half hour of her "Women as Background Decoration" lecture, it's difficult to see what the fuss over Sarkeesian is about. As someone steeped in the 1970s, all-men-are-rapists extremism of Andrea Dworkin et al., Sarkeesian is tame, practically Holly Golightly as she sedately narrates between clips of the wooden, puppetlike hookers and dancers in popular video games, images no doubt erotic to 14-year-old boys and workers stranded on North Sea oil platforms, but stiff caricatures to us adults.
     Given that men in these games are there mostly to be bloodily mowed down with a chain gun, focusing on the women and their roles as sex objects who "almost never get to be anything other than set-dressing or props in someone else's narrative" seems to miss the point. I couldn't tell whether Sarkeesian is calling for the women in these games to be given some clothes, or for the creation of new games where female heroes visit death upon cringing, semi-nude men.
     Although, discussing her argument seems secondary, given the echo chamber of malice it touched off, blending into an ongoing online brawl over computer games and journalism called "gamergate," a bolus of ill will that Gawker aptly describes as "a tone-deaf rabble of angry obsessives."
     Since society is less sexist than it once was — glance at any magazine from the 1970s to confirm that — we can safely assume that it is still more sexist now than it will eventually be, and activists like Sarkeesian help nudge us toward that happy day, drawing attention to overlooked aspects of our culture in need of overdue adjustment.
     Those who would intimidate and harass and silence her, however, also tend to silence those who take legitimate exception to certain arguments she makes, and would poke holes in her thesis, but are reluctant to even seem to be on the side of her vile enemies. (Sarkeesian notes that, having gunned down women, the player is "free to go about [his] business as if nothing had happened." Which had me asking: "As opposed to what? Standing trial at the Hague?")
     How she differs from Tipper Gore railing against rock music or Congress investigating comic books in the 1950s is a matter of style - it's all censorship disguised as moral righteousness. She leaps to lay real-world problems at the feet of video games - "these systems facilitate violence against women by turning it into a form of play, something amusing or entertaining" offering no evidence, ignoring the fact that women get the worst treatment in the most underdeveloped regions, places generally free of Xbox. Those who claim violence in video games fosters real violence are like those who claim the fluoride in our water is poisonous - were it true, we'd all be dead.
     Sarkeesian is urging a kind of game world purdah - she isn't quite saying the ladies are too delicate and feminine to be blown apart like the guys, but she comes close.
     She calls online carnage "especially sad because interactive media has the potential to be the perfect medium to explore sex and sexuality." She's right, but give it time. Just as the crude technology 30 years ago only let players blast penny-sized pulsing aliens, so the simplistic, sexist bloodsport of today will be seen as a coarse interval. Someday, games will involve a player struggling over a long weekend to seduce Scarlett Johansson - or, with a button click, George Clooney - putting up with all the setbacks and frustrations such an endeavor might involve. Maybe at the point I'll have to start playing.


14 comments:

  1. I agree with her critique. I oppose the threats against her. But gun laws that restrict the right to bear arms are wrong. The existing laws should be repealed, especially the background checks. Repeals all gun laws now! Arm everyone.

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  2. Hey Neil -

    you crack me up.

    Here is the way I see it:

    Imagine a hobby you enjoy. Now, imagine that every time you went to read/watch said hobby you were asked about Jesus.

    Or references about Jesus were made. All the time. If you didn't want to keep hearing about that, does that mean you hate all people who believe in God?

    No.

    It means you do your hobby to escape *something.* It is different from person to person.

    So I get it. I don't care if women make games, or make videos or whatever. That's cool. But it is in every piece of video game news now, or at least seems to be, and I just want to read about video games.

    But that makes me hate women? Yesh.

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  3. I think you miss the mark in your own criticism of Sarkeesian. What she's doing is basically lit crit, applied to the under-criticized medium of gaming. Movie lovers are used to film crit. Siskel and Ebert did exactly the same sort of thing long ago, in fact, here is them calling out misogyny in films back when they were still on PBS: http://www.polygon.com/2014/9/29/6864379/siskel-ebert-criticism-games

    (I don't think they got death threats for doing that.)

    I have two games-loving teenage boys so I do follow these issues. Yes, they do like violent games, as well as non-violent ones.

    I take issue with you on three points: you laugh off the idea that actions in video games ever have consequences. Some actions in all video games do have consequences. In some games, if you shoot someone (a guard, a soldier, a zombie), it may alert others to your location, increasing the danger for your or reducing chances of success. In one swords & sorcery game one of my boys particularly likes, if you kill a chicken in a town, the villagers get up in arms and either imprison you for it or chase you out of town. A consequence much more severe than killing a woman in many games. No, it's not a tribunal at The Hague, but it is an in-game consequence.

    The second point is the unfair comparison to Tipper Gore and the unfounded claim that what's she's trying to do is censorship. I've watched a lot more of her videos than you have in your 30 minutes, have read more of her writing than you have, and I have yet to see her ever calling for censorship. (I'm pretty sure you know the difference between me criticizing something you've said and me asking the government to silence you.)

    Third, you bust out a variant of the classic "there are children starving in Africa" argument. Why should anyone review restaurants in Chicago when there are children starving in Africa? As if the existence of genital mutilation of girls in Africa means we shouldn't call out misogyny in our own living rooms. If you call out anti-semitism in the US and someone responds with, "hey, bub, it's much worse in other countries, so shut up," you'd rightly dismiss that fallacious logic. But you engage in the same fallacy here.

    I appreciate your pointing out the stupidity of the enraged trolls. Maybe I'm taking your knee-jerk criticism of Sarkeesian too seriously. Admittedly you haven't seen a video game in 30 years and spent only 30 minutes watching Sarkeesian herself. But I'm glad to see you covering the topic.

    thanks

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    1. Yeah, but Siskel and Ebert reviewed movies on their own terms, not based on some single measurement. I never say she's calling for censorship -- I'm not quite sure what she's calling for, but maybe that's revealed in her larger body of work -- why don't you share it with us, since you've absorbed it? What makes you think I haven't seen a video game in 30 years -- I never say that. I have two teenagers. In fact, your critique is pretty much imagining stuff and then importing it upon me. I'm busy enough responding to those reacting to what I actually write. But your reply does have the veneer of sense, and I appreciate that. Thanks for writing.

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    2. "A veneer of sense." Now I know what I've been striving for all these years.

      John

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  4. "How she differs from Tipper Gore railing against rock music or Congress investigating comic books in the 1950s is a matter of style — it’s all censorship disguised as moral righteousness. "

    On the one hand you say "it's all censorship" and then you say "I never say she's calling for censorship." So you're saying she's engaging in censorship, but not calling for it? Or what exactly did you mean when you said "it's all censorship"?

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    1. I meant, "trying to suppress stuff you find disagreeable." But "censorship" has an official quality to it, so it wasn't the best word choice.

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  5. Threatening Tipper Gore with violence would be worse than anything she did. How many speaking gigs did Tipper give up because of threats of violence? Isn't that the story, rather than a commentator we can ignore without harm to ourselves? We ignore those that threaten

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    1. Not to me it isn't. Being threatened is not, of itself, interesting. I found her critique much more worthy of thought. That it provoked a shriek online, well, what doesn't?

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  6. Re "trying to suppress stuff you find disagreeable," what's your take on the kerfuffel over tonight's opening of "The Death of Klinghoffer" at the Metropolitan Opera. A number of New York Jews have labeled it anti-Semitic, demanding not only that performances be cancelled but that the sets be burned. The noonday news reports that now politicians -- Rudy Juliani was mentioned -- are adding their voices to the chorus.

    I, like the protesters, haven't seen the opera, but 'set burning' seems akin to 'book burning.' something people who were not very freindly to Jews in the not too distant past were guilty of.

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    1. Disappointing to hear you ask that Tom. You're a regular reader. Given that I've never met a group of people speaking out against a work of art I thought were in the right, I find the feeble efforts of a handful of leaders of Jewish watchdog organizations to oppose the opera just sad, and counter productive. People keep asking me -- maybe they think, that being Jewish, it's somehow a gotcha moment, even though I had no trouble skewering the ADL for opposing that "Ground Zero Mosque." I'll write something about it tomorrow.

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  7. Sorry to disappoint, but my motives were pure. I expected that with a little nudge you would rise to the occassion. And indeed you did.

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