Gaming, Anita Sarkeesian, and the marketplace of ideas
“The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”- Oliver Wendell Holmes
I don’t usually write about gaming, but I’m passionate about it, I’m passionate about feminism and recently, someone I admire came under a sickening amount of abuse for combining the two.
I majored in English largely because I love a good debate. I’m as happy to talk to someone who dislikes one of my favorite films or shows as I am to share the love with fellow fans, and not just to prove them wrong. New, fresh perspectives can shed light on things you’ve never thought about.
That’s why I’m a huge fan of Anita Sarkeesian. I found her Feminist Frequency page on Youtube during a procrastination session towards the end of the spring semester. I ended up watching almost every video of hers in one night.
Her thoughts are challenging and well-argued. She rarely goes after easy targets, and often calls out her own favorite shows and films. She’s exactly what a critic should be, and what they so rarely are: someone who thinks critically about everything she encounters. For my money, she’s one of the best contributors to the marketplace of ideas.
Considering new ideas is always a challenge, but it’s worthwhile. I was initially surprised by her inclusion of Clementine Kruczynki from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” on her piece on her piece about “Manic Pixie Dream Girls”. After all, I’d wrote the exact opposite in a blog post a few months ago about that film, which is one of my all-time favorites. But then I thought about it. Yeah, while it’s clear that Clementine, as an off-screen human, is meant not to be a Pixie (ie, her “I’m not a concept” rant) she still serves the role functionally in the film’s primary setting (Joel’s memories). More than that, realizing that about the film didn’t make me like “Eternal Sunshine” any less. I was just a bit more aware that even the best films still succumb to tropes like that.
While I don’t agree with all of her assertions, I respect her approach and her arguments. It’s not always about being right, after all, and I have nothing but respect for Sarkeesian’s goals and her approach. Anyone who calls her a “man-hater” is simply looking for something that is not there, like Don Quixote’s giants.
And that’s why Sarkeesian is such a valuable critic. She doesn’t say “Everything I mention is sexist and therefore awful”. She gets into the dirty details of movies and TV shows and how even the best shows, some with superb female characters (including Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) often still rely on sexist tropes. It doesn’t make the shows inherently sexist or bad. It’s just something to think about. And thinking critically about what we watch is always good.
That’s why I was thrilled when I found out she was planning a series of videos on video games. Good lord, does that industry need to sort out its issues. I love video games. But it’s a male dominated industry, and games that don’t rely on sexist tropes tend to be in the minority, and even some of the best games can be problematic in that regard. That doesn’t make all games bad, even ones that contain sexist tropes. Some of my favorite games of all-time are guilty (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, God of War, and the Soul Calibur series come to mind). It’s worth discussing, and Anita Sarkeesian is just the person to discuss it. She’s level-headed, fair, and willing to challenge even the highest mountains of targets. She said she wants to discuss the problematic aspects of Metroid, for example, despite Samus Aran’s status as perhaps the most beloved female character in gaming. And you know what? I really, really want her to. The marketplace of ideas needs challenging thoughts and new concepts.
But a lot of people weren’t too keen about her ideas entering the market. I don’t need or want to rehash the sick, sick abuse she received. You can find it elsewhere. It’s very sad that that in 2012 someone like Sarkeesian would be subject to this level of abuse for merely proposing to discuss the presence of sexism in video games. And it’s absolutely befuddling that those who would deny it would so thoroughly prove Sarkeesian’s point with such astonishing misogynistic ferocity.
Ideas like Sarkeesians are invaluable to the marketplace. And her critics, for the most part, would try to shut her up before she can even put them up for sale.
At the very least, even if you disagree with Anita Sarkeesian, you owe her the ability to present her arguments. And if you don’t think she should’ve taken to Kickstarter for this project, what the hell does it matter to you? Don’t donate any money. It doesn’t matter to you if anyone else does. The marketplace of ideas is just that- a shop chock full of differing thoughts that deserve consideration. Even if you disagree with Sarkeesian when her videos come out, reacting to them with venom is unproductive at best and damaging at worst. In this day and age of partisan news coverage tailored to fit your views, and the ability to create insular worlds where we see and believe only what we want, anyone willing to try and make us think critically about what we love is doing something worthwhile.
While I have no idea how the comments and harassment leveled at Sarkeesian reflect on the gaming community as a whole (I hope it’s the work of a loud minority) the gaming community as a whole NEEDS more discussion about sexism. Check any thread about it on Kotaku and IGN. The threads become hellholes of back and forth spitfire and rage. Hell, look at the kneejerk defensiveness in the comments of this IGN article about the recent Hitman trailer. Seriously, a trailer that bad (not even from a moral standpoint; it’s just a really, really awful trailer) generates pages of instant defense against those creeping feminists, trying to ruin everyone’s fun.
There was, at least, a positive coda to all this. While trolls attacked Sarkeesian with words and Wikipedia vandalism, there was a massive monetary response. Her $6,000 request was met before the hullaballoo even began, and the project ended up grossing more than $158,000 total. Sometimes, money does talk.
When she does make these videos, I imagine that people who agree with them will enjoy them. I also imagine that they’ll make the rounds on the message boards that fueled the hate-parade that descended on Sarkeesian, where they’ll be subject to even more hate. But I hope that some people will have the same view that I did when I first discovered Feminist Frequency: that when someone challenges your thoughts on something you love, maybe, just maybe, it’s good to listen, and think. A little nuance never hurt anyone, but it can do everyone a lot of good. There’s always room for a little variety in the shopping cart.
A superb response to Feminist Frequency’s critics