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Tropes vs. Women in Video Games



Guys – and today, unfortunately, I am speaking to the fellas – we really need to talk.

The misogyny and the sexism that’s been slowly seeping into video games and the broader gaming lexicon – the degrading E3 advertising and the constant threats of rape on gaming message boards and on Xbox Live – it has to stop. Now. It’s juvenile, puerile, and vile, and it unfairly tarnishes the entire industry in a way that confirms everything Jack Thompson has ever said about us. If your online persona can best be described as Pyramid Head with a YouTube account, you shouldn’t be posting in public.

I’ve noticed the issue creeping up with increasing frequency since October, when Batman: Arkham City debuted with Catwoman in the role of “bitch.” It’s on my mind again now that I’ve finally completed Arkham Asylum (like Batman, I’m a little late to the party), but the intervening months have provided no shortage of inciting incidents. First there was Cross Assault, where Aris Bakhtanians implied that sexual assault is intrinsic to fighting games. Then there was the guy on Kotaku who bragged about his sexual exploits on a Sonic the Hedgehog bedspread. Now, the hornet’s nest is buzzing again thanks to Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter project, in which she asked for $6,000 to make a short documentary series about the various depictions of women in video games.

Anita Sarkeesian
Anita Sarkeesian

As you’ve likely heard, the reaction to Sarkeesian’s video has been nothing short of disgusting. The harassment and abuse she has faced for engaging in nothing more than standard academic research ranks amongst the filthiest that I’ve ever come across in a message board. And considering that this is the Internet we’re talking about here, that’s saying something.


What’s depressing is that this reaction isn’t even remotely surprising. All of the above flashpoints have served as sounding boards for similar ignorance, where the same tired arguments always get repeated. Hordes of men express vehement and abject denial that sexism exists, and so – like an after school special about an alcoholic uncle – I’m calling for an intervention.

Anita Sarkeesian YouTube Comments
A sampling of some of the awful comments made on Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women video on YouTube

So guys – and again, I’m speaking primarily to my fellow fellas – I’m telling you, the sexism is a problem. The torrent of hate that Sarkeesian has so helpfully recorded is proof enough of that. I couldn’t do a better job of exposing the depth and severity of the issue, even if the people posting the comments don’t seem to be aware of the self-fulfilling (and self-defeating) irony.

Personally, I wholeheartedly support Sarkeesian’s initiative. The games industry has been long overdue for this type of scrutiny. I doubt I’ll agree with all of her conclusions, but I know her perspective will be well researched and she’ll make some excellent points that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. I look forward to her series because they are the kind of discussions that drive the industry forward and help introduce new approaches to design.

Unlike those trying to censor Sarkeesian, I’d love to see more women in gaming. Then again, I consider myself a feminist. I’m also a straight, sports-and-video-game-crazed twenty-something male, and I don’t feel any less masculine for admitting that. I certainly don’t feel threatened when a woman suggests that current video game constructions are demeaning to an entire gender. Instead, I try to understand why she feels that way in the hopes that we can make video games more inclusive.


Sadly, the points of contention are all too glaringly obvious in gaming. It’s the Hitman: Absolution trailer depicting the wholesale slaughter of fetishized combat nuns, or the parade of booth babes masquerading as party favours at E3. It’s a Crystal Dynamics executive telling players they will “want to protect” the new version of Lara Croft, thereby implying that one of the most capable female protagonists in all of recorded fiction – a woman, lest we forget, who spends her free time fighting dinosaurs – is somehow only functional under the protective oversight of a man.

For me, it’s even a game as absurdly platonic as Batman: Arkham Asylum. Nearly every collectible interview tape features male sociopaths using absolutist undergraduate logic to disarm and manipulate highly trained female psychiatrists, beginning with the fall of Harley Quinn and culminating with the presumed murder of another doctor in her own home at the hands of Zsasz. Order is only restored when men step in to clean up the mess – it’s telling that the only competent shrink in Arkham is the man interrogating Scarecrow – while women are discarded as soon as they start getting in the way.

Like everyone else, I loved Arkham Asylum, but it’s nonetheless representative of the gender divide plaguing the industry, where women are diversions noteworthy only through their absence and/or incompetence. Most video games provide a secluded sandbox where men deal with man issues, preferably free from the interloping of any weak-minded and inconvenient women.

I don’t know about you, but I can see why women might find that troubling. Anita Sarkeesian has faced scorn simply for pointing out that these tropes exist, and while much of the commentary is little more than reflexive troll spittle, it’s all designed to send the message that women – and more specifically, the contributions of women – are not welcome in the gaming sphere.


Wreck-It Ralph - Jane-Lynch

To me, that backwards reductionism is repugnant. It reduces the potential audience for gaming and places artificial restrictions on the types of stories we create and quite frankly, I’m tired of macho gunmetal. Shouldn’t we be just a little embarrassed that Jane Lynch’s parody of Marcus Fenix in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph trailer is more engaging than anyone she’s satirizing?

More to the point, can we, as male gamers, please stop acting as if women are invading an exclusive clubhouse? Unlike Augusta National, gaming has never been under the sole dominion of men, and even if that were the case, desegregation happened years ago. Xbox Live is fully open to a public with a rapidly growing female demographic. If you wouldn’t threaten to rape someone in mixed company at a cocktail party, then you shouldn’t do so on Xbox Live, where the company is just as mixed and you’re just as much of an asshole.

The consequences are also just as dire. The sexism and misogyny expressed online has genuine consequences for real-life human beings, especially when current statistics indicate that one in four women will become a victim of sexual assault during her lifetime. Comments like those directed at Sarkeesian force women to confront sexualized violence as a tangible and present possibility, and it saddens me to know that gamers are responsible for perpetrating such discrimination.

I’m sorry if that sounds heavy handed, but I have no interest in sugarcoating this particular subject. I know we haven’t achieved true gender equality because I didn’t have to worry about getting raped when I woke up this morning, and the struggle doesn’t end until everyone – men and women – can wake up with that same level of security. As it stands, everyone telling Anita Sarkeesian that she’s a “bolshevik feminist jewess” “feminazi” that should go back to the kitchen for “a good dicking” is simultaneously telling all women that the game world and the real world are unsafe spaces for women, and I refuse to allow that to be the predominant message in the gaming community.


It’s a shame too, because I’ve always thought of gamers as a tolerant and welcoming bunch, but our inability to discuss gender dynamics with any degree of civility exposes us as the worst kinds of Neanderthals and confirms every repulsive stereotype that’s followed us over the years. My only solace is that the sexist outcry is the product of a vocal minority – despite the trolls’ best efforts, Sarkeesian has already received more than $130,000 in Kickstarter contributions – but it’s still enough to make my skin crawl and question my identity as a gamer.

The cultural roots of the issue obviously go much deeper than video games, but if we can clean up our act we’ll be doing our small part to combat a much larger societal concern. That’s why I’m so thrilled to see someone with Sarkeesian’s credentials asking such insightful questions and why I hope the rest of us will have the good sense to listen.

Because yes, the completely regressive approach to the representation of women in games really is a problem. If you can’t open your mind enough to see how that could potentially be the case, then go take a look in the mirror. The cruelty might surprise you.