Opinion How Anita Sarkeesian (indirectly) gave me new hope for video games: Part 1

The brighter side of criticism.

Liana Kerzner

Published

By Liana Kerzner @redlianak

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, Metaleater Media as a whole.

(Note: the following contains minor references to sexual assault. Please, continue to be respectful in your feedback!)

So... WE SURVIVED! After months of people saying that criticizing Anita Sarkeesian was certain doom, I took up the challenge, and I'm still here. So now it's time to analyze the experience of releasing the series, because it was an education in itself.

The biggest takeaway for me was that fearing the backlash boogeyman was much scarier than experiencing the actual backlash. That's not to say that the backlash was pleasant: it was nasty, spiteful, at times downright underhanded, and some people got some pretty massive backstabs in. But there were some very strong positives as well, and most importantly, I'm still here. I discovered that what was eating at me, more than anything, was that I was being muzzled. Now I've spoken, for better or for worse, and I got my fight back.

Liana Kerzner

Another thing I learned was that gamers appear to be open to a feminist perspective on games provided that said feminist considers herself a feminist gamer. I think that's totally fair. A feminist art historian must be trained as an art historian. A feminist legal expert should have a law degree. Despite the controversy surrounding my articles, there were no death threats, no rape threats, no doxxing, and no suggestions I should kill myself. Multiple people commented on how civil the overall discussion was. I think that's a big win.

And people didn't just respond to what I wrote. Some people were inspired to speak for themselves. That's powerful and humbling and I'm so very grateful to them. And I'm grateful to Anita Sarkeesian for being the catalyst for this whole experience. I'm sure there are people who won't like it very much that I'm showing appreciation for Anita in any way shape or form, but my message all along has been that this is an experiment in defying the feminine catfight stereotype and engaging another woman in the industry based on her ideas and body of work, not through personal attacks or a popularity contest.

On that point, we still need some work, and some of the worst offenders there were men. Which is why the catfight stereotype is so destructive: women who disagree publicly must do so extremely cautiously, in my experience, because once the white knights start charging, someone takes a lance in the gut. Or an arrow in the knee. Ha! I went there! I'm awesome!

Mortal Kombat
Remember: these are just fictional characters.

So I decided to write another series analyzing the response to the first series. People seemed to like the first series, so why not? So to get started, a few ground rules: 1) I'm deliberately not calling out individuals by name, because that's not relevant to the discussion here. 2) I sometimes just makes jokes to lighten things up. If in doubt, I am joking!

The TL;DR (too long, didn't read) version is: much of the criticism I received only dealt with one or two out of context elements of the series, and didn't take a holistic approach to my ideas. This made it very difficult to see the comments as fair as opposed to politically or emotionally driven attempts to debunk my work. Very few criticisms tackled the assertion that Feminist Frequency's methods to date need improvement because they risk causing harm. Instead, they gnawed around the edges of my work, nitpicking. The bulk of the criticism was also only about part one, so my critics didn't even read the whole thing. That's not fair criticism.

Actual game developers, on the other hand, ate up the theory portions in parts two and three, which was extremely validating.

Many women, and men commenting on behalf of women in their lives, told me that they related strongly to part four, which was bittersweet. It sucks that so many people have suffered in silence. It's awesome that we're not silent anymore.

Those of you short on time or just plain lazy, that's the gist. Thanks for your click, you better not have read this off an archive. Everyone else, thanks for sticking with me.

The tendency to emphasize faction-based conflict and identity of the speaker over the merit of a given idea is, I believe, part of the reason that discussions of gaming (and other stuff) get so negative. Identity politics have become Kafkaesque in that Tumblr activists can just ignore any element of a person's identity that they deem inconvenient to their assertions of privilege.

"Privilege" is being used on the Internet to backstop what George Orwell called "smelly little orthodoxies." Screaming "privilege" on the Internet is like screaming "fire" in a movie theatre: everyone runs for the nearest exit. That's a real shame, because the basic idea that we should appreciate that other people are worse off than we are should not be a controversial idea in a hobby that requires at least one expensive game system and a connection to the Internet.

Incidentally, Orwell postulated that a truly free thinker will be hated by all orthodoxies equally. By Orwell's measure, the series I wrote was a smashing success of free thought since, the hives inhabited by gaming's political radicals all thoroughly hated it. When I die, I can only hope that I can reach the same heights as fellow Orwell admirer Christopher Hitchens: a tweet from Jonathan McIntosh posthumously slamming me. Whatever the dude says, put it on my tombstone.

Nah that was a joke. I want my tombstone to say "Levelled up! GG! Next Map!"

But that personal success doesn't address the serious problem that women in gaming are still expected to be afraid - since my series was published, we were treated to the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit's Very Special Gaming episode. Poor Ice T.

"Reefer Madness" style comedy gold aside, the approach of Law and Order: SVU connects to a massive perception problem: profiles of women in gaming are turning into death threat gamerscores. That's a trend we need to reverse, but it's not a problem unique to gaming.

Girls are trained from a young age to treat ambition and self-determination as negatives, and I think this is fuelling some of the fear. In her book Odd Girl Out, Girls' Leadership Institute founding director Rachel Simmons observed that some women and girls responded negatively to other women who they thought "acted like they were all that." I sure saw signs of that in some of the negative feedback I received. I've noticed that it's fashionable these days for people to add various caveats to praise of my work that distance themselves from me as a person. Since these people don't personally know me, this is curious.

According to Simmons' work and Rosalind Wiseman's observations on teenaged cliques, many women and girls resent confidence in other females, discourage authenticity, and punish young women with clear purpose and determination. Simmons follow-up book was notably titled The Curse of the Good Girl, and dealt with the idea that training girls to be polite, modest and selfless curtails their authenticity and potential.

Ken Levine
Game developer Ken Levine.

This is a serious issue since a fundamental requirement of getting into the video game industry is aggressive self-promotion (at least according to Ken Levine's recent medium. You have to keep making noise and getting in front of people until they start to take you seriously - also note that Levine came up as a screenwriter, not through a STEM path, so there goes that narrative.

Speaking from experience, "stopping at nothing" as Levine put it, is an inherently exhausting, humiliating process for anyone, but it's a process that young women are uniquely socially trained against. To put yourself out there even though you may make a complete fool out of yourself violates feminine modesty paradigms. That's "all that" territory, and that'll get you stomped by other women. Brianna Wu found that out when she dared to act like a grown up and sit down for coffee with her dreaded Gamergate-related adversary Brad Wardell. Instead of treating Wu's gesture like a step towards reconciliation, many of her "fans" turned on her.

George Orwell

Screaming ‘privilege’ on the Internet is like screaming ‘fire’ in a movie theatre."

I was well aware that, in writing the series, I was violating an unwritten female gender politic by challenging Anita Sarkeesian. But I was also aware that I was violating that same gender politic by believing I had something unique to offer in the first place. A funny chain reaction took place among some groups of "girl gamers" wherein these women would examine my work, announce that they "didn't like me, but there were some things they agreed with." Then they'd use my work to attack Anita Sarkeesian by proxy. These tactics don't support anyone. They were just attacking both of us without owning their own aggression. The same thing happened with Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, and other women in the video game industry. A Thunderdome-like pattern is emerging in that women in the video game industry are being artificially pitted against each other like we're Mortal Kombat characters.

Add that to the culture of fear that's currently hanging over gaming regarding women and you get a potentially crippling cycle of self-doubt in many women who attempt to achieve. Overcoming these norms and reworking them for future generations is a glacial process. It's happening, but it's happening slow.

I've never denied the flaws in radical feminism."

As Simmons outlined, ambition and authenticity are more likely to be seen as negatives in women, which passively denies women equality of opportunity. And this is the part where people start saying "I don't agree." Unless you've read the research, how do you know if you agree or not?

I saw the footprints of these motivators all through the terribly odd knee-jerk responses I received, even with those who went too far in my defence. If anyone suffered unfair accusations from someone who didn't stay respectful, I apologize for whatever part I played in inspiring that. I did my best to discourage ad hominem attacks, but I take responsibility for the "cheap shot" element of feminism that lends itself to that. I do not condone it, but I accept some guilt by association. This crap has to stop, and it stops with me.

I've never denied the flaws in radical feminism. Any concept, taken to an absurd extreme, becomes a problem. I chuckled seeing the comments that said "Liana K is a feminist who isn't completely insane." It's progress.

Women are going to disagree, just like men do, which is why the idea that any single woman can speak for all women in an industry is madness. Expecting 100% agreement is dehumanizing. We have our own minds. Meanwhile the stereotyping that gamers are, by default, men, has made gamers easy to demonize, which is wrong for so many reasons.

Furthermore, an underlying assumption to the whole thing is that men who are awkward with women are equated with men who hate women. My experiences since the release of the five-part series have not been in line with that thinking, so I thought it was important to share act two of this journey, so to speak.

Of course, everything wasn't roses. There was a surprisingly strong reaction to a glib reference I made to "beta-males." I wasn't aware that "beta-male" was a contentious term. Had I known, I wouldn't have included the reference, since it was clearly a distraction. I admit that I don't quite get why, but it's easy enough for me to not use the term anymore. There are other terms that will do just as well.

I also learned that "spazz" is apparently a slur against neuroatypical people in the UK. I didn't know. Sorry about that. Lesson also learned.

After accepting those two criticisms, I'm going to push back against the sneering over my comments regarding the desire demons in Dragon Age. These criticisms missed the point completely. My point was not that I especially liked the desire demons. My point was that Dragon Age Inquisition removed the demons with distinctly female forms and left in the distinctly male-looking pride demons. It was a point relating to equality of representation, not an analysis of the specifics of gender identifiers displayed by the demons.

And wow, did people get angry about my reference to the Dragon Age Inquisition character Cole. Multiple people decided to "educate" me, rather rudely, regarding Cole's origins as a spirit taking on human form. I'm well aware of Cole's origin story. An origin story doesn't change the reality that Dragon Age Inquisition's roster of party members was unnecessarily overloaded with male characters, and that's not okay in a game that claims to be progressive. I singled out Cole despite a personal fondness and attachment to the character because his gender adds nothing outside of a cool cosplay opportunity for dudes. He could just as easily have been female. I can't allow my personal fondness for a character to get in the way of objective analysis... that's why it's called objective analysis. Please tell me that's not a foreign concept in video games?

Pointing out something like this isn't saying the character himself is a bad character. In this case it's pointing out that unintended results can occur when a game focuses on bald political points instead of focusing on story and gameplay. By way of obvious support of the legitimacy of gender identity over biological sex, Dragon Age has now asserted in the game lore that mortal souls have gender, but spirits... well the lore is mixed on that one. Solas refers to one spirit of compassion as a "she." Dorian refers to a male desire demon. Yet the designs have been mostly stripped of gender. It's completely fair to point out that Bioware's process of back-pedalling for political reasons has lead to some confusing elements of retroactively reprogrammed game lore, and yet they still overloaded their adventuring party with male characters. I'd say this is precisely why developers should pander politically at their own risk: there's no way to possibly be politically correct enough once you venture down that road.

Cole

Moving on to something far less catty, one bit of feedback completely surprised me: a request for citations. I stated off the top of the series that the article was an op-ed, not academic, and it was labelled as "opinion" on Metaleater. But I take the request for citations as a vote of confidence in my work.

When I spoke of "science says," I was referring to scientific consensus, no one specific study. We know that violent video games don't cause people to be violent because decades of research have shown this, not individual papers. I thought that was a commonly understood point of fact, and when that's the case, traditionally, an article doesn't need to cite that. If I misread common understanding on that point, I apologize.

Furthermore, while there has been a great deal of study on the impact of exposure to violent video games on people, there has not been enough study on sexism for me to be comfortable claiming there is consensus on anything. One person got quite angry that I didn't cite specific researchers who have adapted cultivation theory to video games, but a lot of the opinions expressed were entirely my own inductive reasoning. It turns out that apparently others have come to similar conclusions. I was unaware of this, and the similarities are purely coincidental. Other research concluded that more research needs to be done, which didn't do me a lot of good. Other studies are not available to the public, so linking to those... well, what good is additional reading that a reader can't read.

I respect that many people want a more academic challenge to Feminist Frequency's videos, but I felt there needed to be a personal anchor to my series so that people could have a human point of connection. But despite these caveats, I will agree that there were a couple of times where I referenced scientific consensus -- or lack thereof -- and I should have been more clear about what I was talking about. I'll keep that in mind going forward. Cain ejw is currently working on a more academic approach to a similar topic, and I didn't want to step on his toes in that way -- deliberately stealing his thunder after he took the time to give feedback on my pieces would have been horrendously wrong. Check out his publicly available work to date. He's more qualified to approach things from that perspective.

Gears of War

We know that violent video games don't cause people to be violent."

The Evil Within

The great thing about this sort of heavy scrutiny is that through it all, my core concepts held up. That's how things are supposed to work. I didn't go into this to get one-hundred percent agreement or win a popularity contest. This was an exchange of ideas. It was a very real joy to read other perspectives, absorb other people's stories, and gain increased perspective on our relatively young but vibrant industry and art form.

My gaming lifetime started in 1981, and since then "geek" has gone from something you didn't want to be (but I was) to something that's cool. Some of us have already lived through Dungeons & Dragons being linked to various bad things and the 1990s war on video game violence. There's a lot of rejection in that history, so gamers don't respond well to demands from "outsiders" criticizing games. In the summer of 2014, this resentment exploded and the industry panicked. But we survived that revolution, and I come out of this with Star Wars levels of new hope.

The bright side of this experience was huge. It's shown that, with attention and patience, we can bridge the culture war currently engulfing gaming. Parts three and four of this wrap-up will talk about what I learned in that regard, but I'd be remiss if I didn't specifically examine the surprisingly positive response from many in the allegedly "misogynist" pro-Gamergate faction. So that's coming up in part two! Keep your respectful responses coming!

Images courtesy of Bioware, Microsoft Studios, Electronic Arts, Warner Bros. Interactive, Bethesda Softworks, Irrational Games and South China Morning Post.