What was it about the woman who wants to change gender stereotypes in video games that brought out so much hate?
The last few days, a number of folks have been upset about this bizarre clusterfuck, in which a woman (Anita Sarkeesian) starts a Kickstarter for a project to thoroughly and carefully critique the issues surrounding female characters in video games. Good on her, I say. Mind you, I think male characters in video games are also overdue for some serious examination, but that in no way invalidates Ms. Sarkeesian’s project. As periodically happens on the internet, her project drew a tsunami of invective so misogynistic it makes me want to run off and join a lesbian commune. (I asked—apparently I don’t meet the entry requirements.)
Now, I’ve been downstream from the exact same kind of pseudo-Anonymous attack myself in the past, and it’s frustrating. It’s like being attacked by hundreds of noisy chihuahuas. Individually, they’re ineffectual and annoying, but there’s a bottomless well of them. Adding to the frustration is the knowledge that they don’t even mean half the misogyny they spout, they’re just saying the ugliest things their limited imaginations can encompass, in order to get a reaction. Of course, the punchline is that Ms. Sarkeesian’s project ended up raising ten times its intended budget, because the schmucks calling themselves “the true face of the internet” have somehow never heard of the Streisand Effect.
This case raises an interesting question, though. Gender role representation has been improving in all kinds of media, with men and women increasingly allowed to be complex characters outside of genital-based stereotypes. Video games are running behind, though. It makes me think of a conversation I was recently having with a friend about lagging indicators, metrics that are the last to change, so that by the time a change shows up there, it’s fully propagated everywhere else. Lagging indicators show up in most forms of data analysis; the simplest way to understand them is that when your grandma’s heard of a band, it means they’re not cool any more. Grandma is a lagging indicator.
This makes me think of articles like this one, all about how the big game and electronics companies are still relying on “booth babes” and similar objectification of women to try to sell their products. “Yeah, but they’re just doing what works!” runs the standard objection, but that’s not true. Women are close to half of the market for video games, and more than half of the market for consumer electronics. Cheap T&A marketing tells women, and an awful lot of men, “This product is not for you. It’s for someone else, someone who makes boob-based purchasing decisions.”
What we’re looking at here is an entrenched culture. They’re still doing booth babes because that’s what they’ve always done. Likewise, gender roles in video games tend to still fall into a very few stereotypical models. Video games, like soap operas and sports journalism, are a lagging cultural indicator, and the vicious reaction to Ms. Sarkeesian’s project indicates that some gamers, surprisingly, want a longer lag time.
Photo of young woman playing video games courtesy of Shutterstock