Video gamers on the feminist frontlines

Anita Sarkeesian has been threatened for criticising the way video games depict women.

A fierce debate over women’s participation in video game culture has erupted online. Known as “GamerGate”, it is a battle over power and sexism in video games.

Women now represent nearly half of those who play video games, and the traditional gamer identity is being challenged. The problem of sexism in video games is part of a wider problem of misogyny in society, and in the same way misogyny is being confronted in parliament or at universities, it is also being confronted in gaming.

GamerGate started when game developer Zoe Quinn was attacked in a blog post by her ex-boyfriend and falsely accused of trading sex with other men for favourable press and career boosts. Details about her alleged relationships with men in the gaming industry were made public.

She was subsequently attacked in a series of forums including Twitter, 4 Chan and Reddit where it was claimed that her actions would lead to her getting press attention for the game she was developing, called Depression Quest.
Those who attack her claim they are interested in defending the integrity of video game journalism. But Quinn has been the victim of a series of death threats, rape threats and misogynistic comments. She was forced to leave her home when hackers posted her address and encouraged GamerGate members to rape her.

This points to a concerted attempt to control and silence women involved in gaming.

Another well-known critic of sexism in video games is Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic and creater of a popular Youtube series, “Tropes vs Women”. The series focuses on the way video games depict women.

Sarkeesian is pushing for women in video games to be presented as more than just helpless princesses or prostitutes to be murdered, such as in Grand Theft Auto.

Her criticism of video games has led to a hostile reaction from gamers who perceive her work as a threat to their identity. GamerGate came out of this debate as a collective and sometimes-organised group of people online who essentially share the belief that gaming and gaming journalism are under threat.

Threats have been made against Sarkeesian, the most notable relating to the Utah State University where she was scheduled to give a talk on the depiction of women in gaming. A caller threatened the “biggest school shooting in American history” if the event went ahead, forcing Sarkeesian to cancel after police refused to stop audience members from carrying weapons.

She has also received a number of death and rape threats, which have forced her to leave her home.

Another independent game developer Brianna Wu weighed in on the debate criticising GamerGate. She has since received death and rape threats.

Male gamers have also spoken out against GamerGate. Actor Wil Wheaton wrote: “I have never, in my life, been ashamed to call myself a gamer. Until now. These misogynist little shitbags are a disgrace to our community. All of us who care about gaming need to step up and save our community, while there is still something about it that’s worth saving.”
But these male critics have not received the same death or rape threats, essentially proving that GamerGate is only interested in targeting women.

What is lost is that GamerGate is just a widely publicised version of something that has been happening since feminism began — patriarchal society feeling threatened by the concept of cultural equality.

As such, ‘gamer’ has become a gendered word. We consistently see women feeling the need to prove themselves by using labels like “real gamer” or “not a girl gamer”, a term which both men and women gamers use to describe a woman who is a gamer simply as a way of getting men’s attention.

However, gaming culture, where women are consistently degraded and pitted against one another for legitimacy or men’s attention, is no different to how women are treated in society as a whole.

History has demonstrated that feminists have had to fight for women's public space. GamerGate is just another example of feminists attempting to do that and men using violent physical force or the threat of it to oppress them. The gamers are not the oppressed group here, women are.

Similarly, in any issue in which feminists call for greater and non-sexist representation of women, they are criticised for threatening freedom of information. However, women such as Sarkeesian did not call for censorship — she called for more creative and less sexist video games to be put out onto the market in order to broaden it, not to constrain it.

All feminists must be careful to not dismiss GamerGate as something that is not related to them just because they do not game. Anything that threatens to perpetuate sexist representation of women and continues women’s oppression in any aspect of society is an issue for feminists to see as their own.

In Sarkeesian’s words: “GamerGate is less about ethics and more about drowning out traditional critics of patriarchal dude-dominated gaming culture”.

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