Internet vs Woman
In May this year, feminist blogger and video producer Anita Sarkeesian created a Kickstarter page in the hopes of funding her next video series, ‘Tropes Vs Women in Video Games’. She had created videos before on sexism and various female tropes previously, especially in film, and this next web series was intended as a curious look into how those issues manifest themselves in the gaming medium specifically.
But unlike her previous works, this pledged video series attracted a torrential amount of criticism – even abuse.
At the hands of a flood of internet trolls, Sarkeesian suffered forms of intimidation intended to silence her. Vulgar comments attempting to invalidate her viewpoint flooded her YouTube videos. Her Wikipedia entry was repeatedly vandalised with sexual and racist abuse; Photoshopped pornographic images of her were even edited into the article. Attempts were made to obtain and distribute her contact information so that people could take their threats offline and cut her down in the real world.
The criticism had already spiralled beyond any reasonable measure. Sarkeesian blogged frankly about mail and comments she'd received, and bravely, she even made public some of the pornographic and defamatory images of her that had been doing the rounds on forums. What really pushed things too far was a Flash game, “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian”, uploaded to Newgrounds. The sole goal of this game was to allow users to beat Sarkeesian's face into an unrecognisable mess of weeping cuts and purple bruises.
It was ironic that her aim of bringing attention to sexism in gaming drew detractors that perfectly proved her point. Just days into her Kickstarter campaign, Sarkeesian would already have had enough material to fill a video series on misogyny in gamers, let alone in the games that they played. But it spoke volumes about how deep the sexism issue had become in gaming; left unchallenged to marinate for so long, it had finally thickened into a relentless stew that bubbled violently at the introduction of this new viewpoint.
In an interview with the New York Times, Sarkeesian praised the gaming industry for its current move towards change, although she noted: “I think there is a small group of male gamers who feel like gaming belongs to them, and are really terrified of that change happening.” The fact that she should even suggest pointing out flaws in the game industry's approach to women – without even a suggestion or call for change – seemed to intimidate gamers, many of whom turned aggressor when the culture that cushioned them was questioned.
While horrific, Sarkeesian's experience was perhaps necessary in helping gamers and the industry evaluate themselves. The behaviour she was subjected to only justified the prevalent, mainstream view that gamers were misogynistic, immature basement dwellers. We game in a gated community, and within its boundaries it's easy to dismiss such events as just being part and parcel of gaming. We needed the embarrassment of being picked up on by the mainstream media; we needed the challenge to move on.
Crofting a backstory
And that's why, in recent years, we've witnessed developers trying to turn things around too. More and more people have been catching onto the problem and committing themselves to addressing it, and conscious steps have been made towards more mature representations of female characters. It's a rocky road, though, and one we still don't quite know how to traverse.
When the Tomb Raider franchise changed hands in 2010, developer Crystal Dynamics felt that the shapely Lara Croft needed an overhaul, a fleshing out of her backstory rather than her bra. Her statistics shrunk to more realistic proportions, and an origin story was chiselled out of the flippant, pistol-wielding female fantasy she had previously been. Gameplay trailers released earlier this year for the rebooted Tomb Raider showed us a Lara that was blissfully normal, a young woman thrust into a tough situation and having to learn to fight for her own survival. This was no longer someone who wiggled her hips as she tucked two smoking guns into her belt after killing a dozen enemies. This was someone who was forced to kill, and visibly shaken by it.
It was a very commendable move on the part of the developers, who had apparently taken on board years of criticism of Lara's shallow sex symbol status and decided to turn the character on her head, evolving her into a relatable person.
Jarring, then, was when executive producer Ron Rosenberg chose to speak for Lara at this year's E3. In an interview with website Kotaku, he described her as somebody who needed “protecting”, specifically by the player, who he admitted was generally male. He mentioned that part of her evolution was having to defend herself against being raped, “literally [turning her] into a cornered animal”.
This coloured Lara as a victim rather than a hero – or perhaps, more disturbingly, a man's idea of what a female hero should be. It's largely women who deal with the constant, horrific threat of rape; to a man like Rosenberg, who will never fully comprehend the rape culture in which women live, rape was apparently seen as some sort of character-building exercise.
That's not to say rape is a topic that should be avoided in gaming. It’s a complex medium; we're very capable of exploring grown-up topics. But here, we were looking at a very surface-level, adolescent idea of rape's effect on a woman. It played on the assumption that women are inherently weak, that they can only be seen as ‘strong’ when undergoing some sort of trauma that a strong male character inexplicably would never have to endure. Why did Lara have to have strength beaten into her? Why doesn't Nathan Drake need a backstory in which he is belittled and wrestled to the ground, becoming a physically and emotionally violated victim to someone else's exertion of power?