Over the past week, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has been subject to some truly vicious harassment, the kind that only the internet can deliver. Sarkeesian is currently running a Kickstarter project to fund a new video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The associated YouTube video has been flooded with thousands of hateful comments, a sampling of which can be found on the Feminist Frequency website (warning: graphic language).
Whether or not you like Sarkeesian’s work is utterly moot. You might disagree with some of her points. You might disagree with all of her points. You might even vehemently disagree. That’s not the issue here. The issue lies in this: A woman declared her intent to publicly voice her opinions about video games. For that, she was called a bitch, a whore, a slut, a cunt, a dyke, and a baffling assortment of racial slurs. She was threatened with violence, rape, and death. She was told to shut her mouth, get back in the kitchen, and die of cancer. Her video was repeatedly flagged for terrorism in an effort to get YouTube to pull it. Her Wikipedia page was defaced with pornography and profanity. All for the crime of being a woman talking about women in video games. No, not for being a woman talking about video games. For being a woman who had announced that she would, at some point in the future, be talking about video games.
As vile as this story is, it’s depressingly unsurprising. That’s the worst part, that this isn’t some isolated incident. My stomach sank as I read through the appalling list of comments, but I knew I was seeing something that is far too common. It happened back in February, when an angry internet mob decided to tear BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler limb from limb. It happened later that same month, during the Cross Assault debacle, in which sexual harassment in gaming was lauded as a time-honored tradition. It happened two weeks ago, when the backlash against the sexualized violence in the Hitman: Absolution trailer drew its own backlash. It happens daily, as we can see in the archives of Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Not In The Kitchen Anymore. And it’s not limited to the world of gaming. Author Cat Valente detailed several of her friends and colleagues who weathered similar attacks after voicing their opinions about popular SF/F books. Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant sketched a response to someone who had drawn some porn of her out of spite (link both NSFW and outstanding). The list goes on, and on, and on.
Now, of course, men are often victims of online harassment, too. This is the internet, after all, and one of the downsides to a free and open forum is that it so often lacks the consequences that discourage people from speaking hatefully out in the real world. I have no intention of discrediting or downplaying the painful experiences that some men have gone through. However, harassment against women is a problem with different root causes. All too often, being a woman online — especially in public multiplayer gaming — means questioning whether or not you should have a gender-specific screenname. It means considering the option of pretending to be a man, just to avoid trouble. It means hesitating before putting on your headset, for fear that the slightest sound of your voice might spur someone to call you a bitch or ask to see your tits. This is not a reality that men share. So while bullying and harassment in all forms must be addressed, this is an issue that, for now, must be examined separately.
The comment I have seen repeated most often in conjunction with these stories is something I have wondered myself: What can we do about this? That’s a difficult question, and though I don’t have the faintest idea of what to do about the internet at large, I believe the climate within the gaming community, at least, could slowly be improved through the joint efforts of both developers and gamers.
Developers, you are free to tell whatever stories and portray whatever characters you want. You have no fight from me there. But when you create a character, think about the message you are sending. Think about the example you are setting for your fanbase. Think about hatefests like the ones detailed here, and consider how your work might be encouraging them. Take, for example, the uproar against the Hitman trailer. Rob Fahey at GamesIndustry expertly tackled this one last week in an article entitled “Can’t We Discuss This Like Adults?”
Let’s be absolutely clear that it’s [sexualized violence] which is the issue. It’s not the fact that there are nuns in the game who then turn out to be sexy nun assassins in suspender belts. You want sexy nun assassins in your game trailer? Be my guest. It looks ridiculous, and I don’t see them getting much assassinating done while wearing those heels, but if you think your target audience is the demographic slice of people who get turned on by poorly CG rendered assassins in habits and stiletto heels, go for it. Nor is the issue the fact that Agent 47 commits violent acts against women. He’s a hitman, assassins are attacking him, he kills them. That’s not the problem.
The problem is the interaction between those two things. The thought process of the creators of this trailer is naked for the world to see. Gamers like sexy women. Let’s have sexy women, and let’s make them sexy nuns because that’s edgy. You know what else is edgy? Having the dark anti-hero kill women, rather than the usual faceless male soldiers and thugs. That’ll get headlines. Let’s do that.
…The imagery is deliberately powerfully sexual. It’s also deliberately powerfully violent. Square Enix intended both of those things to be present in the imagery. I don’t think (wishful, perhaps) that they quite intended their interaction to be so horrific. In a society where 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence, Square Enix just released a video of violence against women presented as sexy and fetishised. That’s the issue.
A few days after that article was posted, Hitman developer IO Interactive apologized for the trailer, tellingly stating that they were “surprised” by the negative reaction, because all they had intended was “to make something cool.”
So, developers, consider your audience, and consider the social climate you’re wading into. Make your mark, but do so wisely. Remember the lessons of Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. You can ignore that, if you want. That’s your right. Only you can decide where the line between censorship and consideration lies. It’s a hard question, but it’s one that you need to ask yourselves with every game you make.
And gamers, we need to keep talking about gender portrayal (and race portrayal, and everything else portrayal) in games. Storytelling tropes and the harassment of women players are two separate topics, but as the attack on Anita Sarkeesian has shown, they are closely intertwined. Our debates and critiques about game content are how the industry checks our pulse. These discussions are the most recent chapter in the ongoing analysis of artistic meaning, something that our species has been engaged in for millenia. It is vital to the further evolution of games as a creative medium that we keep talking about these things. We may argue and disagree and fail to reach consensus, but as long as the conversation can flow unhindered with civility and respect, everybody wins in the end. Forcibly silencing someone through bullying or disingenuous tactics (such as erroneous YouTube flagging) is reprehensible, regardless of which side of the debate you’re on.
As for harassment, I know how hard it can be to speak up against a stranger. There is no phrase in the English language that is more patently absurd than the following: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I think we all know how laughable that is. At the end of a long day, when all you want to do is play a game and have some fun, ignoring a mouthy troll is often so much easier than facing him (or her) head on. But pretending that the problem isn’t there won’t solve anything. Don’t just mute the person. Report them. And if you’re feeling brave, tell them to stop. Tell them that whatever “joke” they’re making isn’t funny and that it’s not okay. Tell them this even if they’re targeting someone else. But if you are the one being harassed, then you also need to do the scariest thing possible: Tell someone else about it. That’s terrifying, I know. I’ve been there. But ignoring it won’t make it go away, and other people won’t know to back you up. In my eyes, Sarkeesian did the best, bravest thing she could do by making those comments public. You don’t need to be as public about it as she was, but tell your friends, at least. Tell your guild leader, tell a GM, post about it on the game’s official forums. Let people know what’s happening within their own community. Here’s another comment I have seen many times in response to the Feminist Frequency story: “I had no idea this was a problem.” Those are the people who need to know about this the most. As unpleasant as it is to find something like this lurking within your own house, becoming aware of it is the only way to solve the problem before the whole foundation rots out.
I have heard from people — men and women both — who have chosen not to play online at all because of this sort of thing. I’ve heard people say that stories like this make them ashamed to be a gamer. I can’t tell you how much that saddens me. I love being a gamer. To me, being a gamer is about celebrating exploration, discovery, teamwork, magic, wonder, and unabashed joy. I don’t know who these hateful people are, but they are not the gamers I know. They are not the men I know. They do not define us.
So stand up against this, gamers. Stand up for our community, whether or not you are directly affected by harassment, whether or not you agree with what the victim in question is saying. There is nothing — nothing — that deserves this sort of treatment. But when you stand your ground, be smart about it. Don’t resort to insults or mockery, no matter how tempting it may be, no matter how furious you are. Shouting someone down isn’t the same as making it clear that their behavior is unacceptable. If you can, get them to listen. If they won’t listen, then shut them out. Be better than them. Hate is not who we are. Hate is not what what we are about. Hate is not welcome here.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.