Saturday, 22 August 2015

Anita Sarkeesian's Interview with Wired UK

The Conference is a yearly event in Sweden where "creators, communicators and innovators of all kinds" arrive to discuss digital media and give speeches on working in creative industries. As she did back in 2013, Anita Sarkeesian took to the stage, discussing what it's like to be the victim of abuse online.

What I'd like to focus on is a follow-up article done by Wired UK, which is something of an edited highlights version of Anita's talk. Let's start with this:
There are three ways in which men attempt undermine women online, Sarkeesian tells the audience at The Conference in Malmo: through the denial of women's earned accomplishments, the denial of their life experience, and the denial of their professional expertise.
Those three ways that men -- not simply critics of Anita's or the social justice warrior crowd that has chosen gaming as its scratching post, specifically men -- attempt to undermine women online are three of the things I'd like to focus on.

The Denial Of Women's Earned Accomplishments

In the case of Anita, I can see how she'd feel like she is a victim of this. People have criticised everything about her methods, from her Kickstarter campaign, to art theft, to using videos without the permission of their original owners.

I don't deny that Anita has accomplished many things but not all of them are what I would call "earned". She earned her degrees in Communication Studies and Social and Political Thought. I'd certainly say she's earned everything she's gained from giving college talks around the U.S. on sexism. She's marketed herself well, it can't be denied. I wouldn't say she earned any of the money that was donated to her through Kickstarter or given to her by Intel. That's a different kettle of fish entirely. Likewise, is making videos really an accomplishment? Not especially. Is being critical of them "denying" that accomplishment? Not at all. However, the Tropes Vs Women series has been watched by a lot of people. Again, that's undeniable and it certainly is an accomplishment.

It also makes me wonder whether fictional women are being included in that statement too. If so, there are plenty of people who would seek to deny the accomplishments of video game heroines entirely because they have a quality they disapprove of (such as a large chest). Take Lara Croft for example; prior to the reboot, there were thirteen games named, or spun off from, Tomb Raider. There were two feature films. Three novels. An animated series. A fifty-one issue comic book run. A place in the Guinness Book of Records as the "Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine."

The character herself is intelligent, witty, cultured, a capable hunter and survivor (of a plane crash, no less). She's also a published author and in spite of her wealthy upbringing, remains grounded and easy to root for.

In spite of all of this, many feminist critics have reduced Lara Croft to being nothing but a pair of breasts. The idea that these are the same people asking for strong female characters in video games is laughable. No matter how you cut it, that is the denial of women's earned accomplishments.

The Denial Of Women's Life Experience

Let's just stop and think for a second; since Anita Sarkeesian came to prominence, who is the biggest demographic whose voices have been consistently ignored by both her and the gaming media? Women.

Look at the short paragraph I quoted above. "Three ways in which men attempt to undermine women online". The narrative that is constantly being encouraged by Anita is that she is the victim of widespread abuse online and all of the perpetrators are male. Yet there is a sizable contingent of Anita's critics who are women. The closest I have heard to Anita acknowledging their existence was in a report on a college talk she did -- unfilmed, as Anita allows filming of her talks on abuse but not on gaming -- when she said something along the lines of "I've received criticism from women but not abuse".

However, to listen to Anita or the many gaming news outlets that report on her (or Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu or anyone else currently in the spotlight), it sounds as if there are only two sides: the infallible hurt party on one side and the inevitably demonic, foaming-at-the-mouth male abusers on the other. Nothing in-between.

What do you call ignoring the many women who disagree with you if not "denial of women's life experience"? What do you call it -- other than arrogance -- if you feel you can speak for women as a whole and not take others' life experiences on board? Life experiences that aren't ones of sexism, abuse and oppression.

While we're on the subject, ignoring your male critics is just as big a denial of their life experiences too. Regardless of the sex of your critics, their life experiences are no less significant than yours and no more worthy of being dismissed.

Yet that's what gaming journalists have done; erased women from the discussion. When women "step out of line", so to speak, they cease to exist. That is, if they aren't accused of having "sockpuppet" accounts; men using female avatars. Again, assuming that women couldn't possibly disagree with Anita can only be described as arrogance.

The Denial Of Women's Professional Expertise

Once again, since Anita came to prominence, whose professional expertise has been consistently ignored? Women.

If you frequent Twitter, one of the responses to the accusations that #GamerGate is a misogynist movement has been to popularise this image of women who work within the games industry. It's a way of highlighting the hypocrisy of the gaming media; in spite of their claims of being progressive and pro-woman, they have made zero effort to raise awareness of or promote women who actually work in the games industry:
Left-click to enlarge.
Instead of putting any of these women in the spotlight, gaming sites devote article after article to women who often have little-to-no experience in the games industry. I can't quite put my finger on a particular reason why: the cynic in me wants to say it's because a retrospective of the several-decade career of an accomplished female developer doesn't earn as many pageviews as a "culture critic" ranting about how everything is sexist.

Alternatively, it could be because, through their desperation to appear "pro-woman", no gaming website dares to deny a platform for the Anita Sarkeesians of the world to speak for fear of being labelled misogynistic. And if you read that sentence and thought, "but wouldn't a spotlight on one of the successful female game developers work to counteract that?" bear in mind that even raising $23,000 for the Fine Young Capitalists' game -- with concepts taken from women all over the world and the game itself being created by an all-female development team -- wasn't enough to quell the accusations that #GamerGate was against women in gaming.

Basically, several of the women in the image above have had their professional expertise dismissed outright by the gaming media and many a critic, in spite of them being far more experienced in the games industry. For instance, Mari Shimazaki, character designer for Bayonetta, was hit particularly hard with arguments such as, "just because she's a woman doesn't mean she can't be sexist". The statement itself isn't incorrect but I'm failing to see any respect for her professional expertise.

Similarly, where was the acknowledgment of Gabrielle Toledano's expertise when she spoke out against the trend of blaming the lack of women in the games industry on sexism, when there are other factors in play? As the executive vice president and chief talent officer of EA, she is likely in a far better position to judge than a wealthyYoutuber or the developer of Depression Quest. How about Christine Phelan's expertise, when she challenged the viewpoint that because she's female, she must face sexist behaviour in the games industry at the hands of her male coworkers? In an interview with TechRaptor, Jennifer Dawe, developer of Seedscape, expressed concern that the fearmongering caused by gaming's critics may push women out of the industry more than invite them in.

Also, let's not forget that female developers can be accused of being "sockpuppets" too. Just a couple of evenings ago, I was directed to this on Twitter:

Left-click to enlarge..
I wouldn't normally take issue with a single example but "Ernest W. Adams", who is making that accusation, is the founder of the International Game Developers Association. Pretty darn significant for him to be assuming female game developers couldn't possibly exist.

Keep in mind, that's only covering women working within the games industry itself. What about fellow outsiders who don't agree with the sexism narrative, or at the very least take issue with some of the arguments put forward by its proponents? I've written before about Liana Kerzner's excellent five-part series called "Why Feminist Frequency almost made me quit writing about video games". Liana is a writer and producer who has worked in her field for over a decade. You don't have to be in the games industry to have professional expertise and Liana Kerzner is far from being the only woman to oppose Anita's viewpoints.

To sum up all three of the points argued by Anita in her talk at the Conference, this denial of women's accomplishments, experiences and expertise certainly exists. Yet she's one of the biggest proponents of doing this (or, if she isn't, certainly hasn't shied away from the spotlight or spoken out against the media for not focusing on other women). In fact, she's actively profited from it; with the media arguing that the games industry is a horrible place for women and gaming culture is a toxic environment for anyone who isn't a straight white male, Anita Sarkeesian appears to be proven correct from an outsider's perspective. The more women are ignored and their experiences eliminated from all mainstream discussion of gaming, the more Anita can speak on their behalf.

The "too long, didn't read" version of this can be summed up as follows: regardless of sex, skin colour, sexuality or any other characteristic, everyone is ignored in the sexism debate. Non-white, non-male, non-straight people cease to exist if they disagree with the sexism narrative and straight white men are all lumped into a "misogynist abuser" category.

The Wired UK article doesn't end there. It mentions two statements by Anita that have been some of the most heavily-scrutinised over the last few days:
"I am an expert on the depiction of women in video games. I know my stuff and I'm pretty good at what I do."
"My analysis is very well researched -- it's double and triple checked."
The following picture from the Conference also tends to accompany the first quote above:

For those of us who have followed Feminist Frequency for a substantial period of time, this raises a bunch of questions. The one that springs to mind immediately -- and this is not intended to sound snarky, rude or critical at all -- is, "if Anita Sarkeesian is an expert on the depictions of women in video games, why does she get so many things wrong?"

That is a genuine question, not intended to be insulting or amusing. The Tropes Vs Women in Games series contains a lot of incorrect information. As tempting as it is to write out all the ones I can recall, it feels like everything that has already been said about Anita's failure (or refusal, in some cases) to report on the depictions of women (and men) in video games accurately. However, a Twitter user named Jasperge107 is putting together a gallery of Anita's inaccurate claims -- although only 6 out of a total of 25 have been completed so far -- and Adrian Chmielarz wrote an article about Anita's controversy over Hitman, which she revisited during her conference speech. Yet while both of these go into detail about specific errors Anita has made, they only scratch the surface when it comes to the number of mistakes Anita has made.

The fact that Anita considers this analysis "well researched", which was "double and tripled checked" does not strengthen her viewpoint in any way. All it means is that she was very thorough when being wrong.

The second question that is raised by Anita's claim that she is an expert is how can she claim to be any such thing when she has never engaged in a debate over her views in the three years she has been in the public eye? She hasn't even debated her claims with a village idiot, let alone a fellow expert. In fact, consider the ways she has walled herself off from all criticism; Youtube comments are closed. She blocks people on Facebook and Twitter with alarming regularity. Filming is not allowed at her college talks. Even her Wikipedia page doesn't have a "Criticism" section and the "Reception and public appearances" header does not contain any criticism of her work.

This all takes place under the guise of "preventing harassment" but if your definition of "harassment" is having your viewpoints challenged, how can you possibly claim to be an expert in your field?

It also goes without saying that putting up a big slide about how much of a genius you are is incredibly arrogant. Humility is obviously not Anita's strongest suit. Although if I was in her shoes, with every gaming website singing my praises and one person even comparing me to Rosa Parks, my ego would probably be too inflated to consider being humble too.

There is one final quote I would like to focus on before ending:
"The cultural norms of male-dominated spaces can be changed."
There are three problems with this statement; firstly, assuming that the things Anita dislikes (violence, sexuality) are "cultural norms". Secondly, assuming they need to be changed. Thirdly, assuming that gaming is male dominated.

Since the first point is debateable and the second is obviously just Anita's own opinion; I didn't write a blog following E3 but she and her producer, Jonathan McIntosh, were famously complaining about the violence in Doom being "the norm". They didn't give reasons why it shouldn't exist but still shamed it for existing and the people who enjoyed it. It's the Jack Thompson argument, only in 2015, by people who are supported by the current generation of gaming journalists. Just like their arguments against sexism, it's their sensibilities that are being offended, nobody else's, yet they speak as authorities on what should and should not exist in the medium.

That's a separate issue though. What bothers me is the third point: the idea that gaming is "a male-dominated space".

Every year, the Entertainment Software Association publishes an "ESA Essential Facts" guide and makes it available online to read. You've probably already seen it but if not, it's available to view here. The pages are filled with helpful infographics about game genres that people are playing, the age of players and the gender of the players:

Now, read into the slight dips and rises in female players however you like but speaking as a general overview, the number of women and girls playing games has held steady for the last five years and it's in the 40-50% range. Or, to put it another way, around half of all gamers are female.

For Anita, feminists, gaming websites and the mainstream media to continue pushing the idea that in this day and age, gamiing is still "a male-dominated space" is ridiculous. It could not be further from the truth and the facts above prove it. Unless these critics are being pedantically literal and saying that a 12% difference counts as a hobby being "dominated" by a particular sex, the evidence works against them.

What's more, Anita's claims demean and insult the women she claims to be fighting for. Plenty of women were fans of gaming before she came onto the scene. To say something that basically boils down to "this pasttime needs to change before it's appropriate for women" is condescending. It basically treats women the same as children and, as was the case with female game developers, ignores women who have been enjoying gaming for years. What's more, when gaming has an almost equal split between the sexes before you start campaigning to end sexism in gaming, that may be a pretty good indicator that (a) it isn't male-dominated and (b) it doesn't need someone to change it because women are clearly capable of enjoying gaming without it being changed.

It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same for Anita Sarkeesian and the media. The actions that have served her well in the past continue to serve her well in the present day and her arguments are as flawed as they ever were.


I apologise for the long wait between blog posts. In the last year, a lot more people opposing the "games are sexist" argument have started to speak out, on bigger platforms than this one. There are some excellent articles on sexism in games on TechRaptor, Breitbart, Metal Eater, Medium and more. It feels like the voices speaking out are more diverse too, as well as having a wider range of backgrounds; journalists, academics, people within the games industry and many others have raised objections to what they see as an unjustified attack on gaming (because, when developers, games and gamers themselves are all being insulted and told "gamers are dead" and "gamers don't need to be your audience", we're long past the point where it can be called "criticism").

So while all of the raised awareness about the issues of sexism in gaming and the flawed arguments put forward by gaming's critics is wonderful, it makes things trickier for me. I know the more voices speaking out, the better, but it can be a bit disheartening to see a better writer than you talking about a subject you wanted to write about, on a larger platform than your own. It's an exciting development for gaming and gamers as a whole but it puts me in a trickier position.

That's why I didn't write an article after E3. I started it but never got back to it. I may go back to it at some point, just because some of the arguments put forward by the gaming media after E3 were pretty ridiculous but there was a lot of backlash against those flawed articles by gamers and gaming's supporters.

Feel free to leave a comment below and ... I never check my e-mail anymore but you can send me an e-mail if you like. Follow me on Twitter, @TheMalesOfGames.

Edit: A big thank you to /r/KotakuInAction for all the attention this post has received. It's much appreciated.