A screenshot from Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games series, featuring an ad campaign for Hitman: Blood Money with sexualised images of dead women. Image: Screenshot
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Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian: on passing off anti-feminist nonsense as critique

Anita Sarkeesian makes videos looking at how poorly women are represented in games, and gamers hate her for it, insulting her work and accusing her of dishonesty. It's almost like they're trying to prove her premise.

Hello, and welcome to Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian. Today, we're going to be looking at the representation of Anita Sarkeesian on the internet, as part of an examination of the wider issues affecting those women who appear online with opinions.

Let's start with a quote from the film critic Pauline Kael. In 1972, she reviewed A Clockwork Orange in the New Yorker. Here's an extract:

There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don't believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there's anything conceivably damaging in these films - the freedom to analyse their implications.

If we don't use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us - that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?

We expect this kind of analysis in a film review - it isn’t enough for Kael to merely state that she did or didn't enjoy the film. She also looks at the film's relevance to, and its possible influence on, the society which produced it. Where did it come from? What does it mean?

Kael could have picked up the phone and called Clockwork Orange's director Stanley Kubrick - or even Anthony Burgess, who wrote the original novel and hated the film adaptation - to ask what he meant, but it should be obvious that that’s a dumb thing to do. She doesn’t call Kubrick or Burgess because A Clockwork Orange is no longer theirs. Movies - like TV, literature, painting, culture - are orphans. They have parents who produce them and nothing more; their effect upon those who meet them later - the audience - is determined by all kinds of other factors. What an artist intended with a piece of art is mostly irrelevant, because what a work of art is is not defined by that intent. 

If this all seems terribly basic, that's because - it is. But it's relevant when talking about Anita Sarkeesian, the pop culture critic with the temerity to have opinions about computer games. To recap: she raised $158,922 on Kickstarter to fund a web series called Tropes vs Women in Video Games - the idea being that each episode deals with a common cliché when it comes to the representation of women in games. (It directly follows her Tropes vs Women series, which deals with more general representations of women in media.)

The seventh episode, “Women as Background Decoration (Part 2)”, was released yesterday. Here’s part of Sarkeesian’s concluding remarks - it’s typical of the tone and content of the rest of the series:

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

But the game stories we’ve been discussing in this episode do not centre or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.

The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

There’s nothing in what Sarkeesian says about games that you wouldn't expect in a Kael-type film essay - but the bile that she’s had to put up with for saying it has been extraordinary. Even before the Kickstarter fundraising finished she was subjected to death and rape threats. Someone made a game where players could beat her up, she was subjected to racial and sexist slurs, and she was labelled a liar and a con artist. Sarkeesian became a lightning rod for attacks from anyone pissed off at the concept of serious literary criticism of gaming, especially from a feminist perspective.

And, again, what Sarkeesian is doing is standard pop culture criticism, of the kind that films and books have been subjected to for decades - and TvsWVG is pretty good. It’s thorough and accessible, and it’s both a good introduction to the concept of feminist cultural criticism and an example of the increasing respect that games receive as an artform. The world was a very tedious place when all people asked was whether games were art at all; now that we know that they are, in their place come both external critiques (which includes TvsWVG) and intelligent responses from the industry itself (such as Jonathan Blow’s Braid, a platformer which deconstructs the “damsel in distress” trope).

Yet for pointing out obvious, incontrovertible evidence of sexist and misogynist parts of popular games, Sarkeesian gets vitriol. To be clear, this is still going on, two years later, every time a new video is released:

A few days ago, Sarkeesian tweeted that she had left her home to stay with friends because she had received specific threats - ones so serious that she had reported them to police.

In light of this, some of the games industry's high-profile figures have publicly backed Sarkeesian - as has geek hero Joss Whedon. But not everyone is convinced of the need for the kind of critique that she is bringing to videogames.

Two of her more dedicated critics are currently crowdfunding a feature film documentary they call The Sarkeesian Effect, a ludicrous project that seeks to expose the "social justice warrior" movement and its grip on the mainstream media:

(“A serious work of investigative journalism,” indeed.)

Today, we're going to be looking at some of the common ways in which Anita Sarkeesian is portrayed in the gamer community, and how to assess and critique the mistakes that are made in responding to her work. There are lies passed off as truths and meaningless non-sequiturs presented as devastating proofs by the kinds of people who like to bang on and on and on about the "marketplace of ideas" as if that justifies being a total ass. They don't send death threats, but they build and sustain the environment that means a woman like her is treated the way that she is.

(They won't agree with me. I don't really care.)

 

Trope 1: Goody Sarkeesian is a witch

Perhaps the most common trope to be found in criticisms of Sarkeesian is that she was dishonest in her intentions - a liar who misled her Kickstarter backers, making her a "scammer" or "con artist":

The fact of the matter is, that's what sells. Some people like it, and some people - like Anita Sarkeesian - don't. But just because some people don't like it doesn't mean we should give them money.

She asked for $6,000 on Kickstarter, and ended up with more than $150,000. There's no way she can spend all that on games, ergo, she must have pocketed the difference to make a tidy profit. Minor delays in producing the first episode, common to many Kickstarter projects, reinforced this perception among her critics. 

God forbid a woman should make money from her work, it seems.

The strangest thing about this criticism is that none of the people making it will have given money to the TvsWVG Kickstarter. They're complaining on behalf of people who willingly paid to an overfunded project, and kept donating even when they knew it was wildly over target.

It's a critique that oftens refers to some faceless, voiceless majority which is being disenfranchised or misrepresented in some way by TvsWVG, and that "everyone" - except those pesky, fun-hating feminists! - hate her. Therefore, the only reason people gave so much to Sarkeesian's Kickstarter was as a response to the abuse she received, not in support of her project. After all, if the market wanted feminist themes in its media, then it would pay for it, no?

Quite what would constitute evidence for a gap in the market for feminist criticism of video games is a mystery.

This has led to the situation where everything Sarkeesian does or says regarding the abuse she has received is treated as if she's "whining" for the sake of sympathy and money, with her TEDx talk on the subject in particular cited as an example of how she exaggerated her abuse (or even encouraged it by daring to eg advertise her Kickstarter on 4Chan) to gain sympathy and money.

It's classic victim blaming - for everyone who sends outright death and rape threats to her, there's a cloud of people who follow behind, thinking they're being so clever pointing out her "lies". There isn't some stark divide between online abuse of women and online criticism of women - they often overlap in ways that never happen for men in the same field, and the most violent and dangerous threats are explicitly influenced by the crap that presents itself as objective critique.

The work of obsessives like jordanowen42 - he's one of the two guys behind The Sarkeesian Effect, and here's just one of his many, many videos where he claims to be "exposing" Sarkeesian's false credentials or conspiratorial control of the media through digging through her employment history and her old work - is directly responsible for encouraging this:

This is what happens when women in the online space are marked out as a witch - push back against the abuse, try to stay afloat, and you're burned for it. The "evidence" compiled by her worst critics feeds the pyre, while the evidence of the actual abuse she's had to compile to prove her side of the story is dismissed. We'll come back to this.

Trope 2. Girl gamers vs “real” gamers

Within (male) gaming communities, there's a trope to disregard or look down upon women because they're "fake" gamers. The premise is that girls don't genuinely, sincerely enjoy gaming, and so when they appear to do it's because they're pretending for the sake of male attention, or they're trying to claim they're part of the hardcore gaming community when all they really want to do is play Farmville. Sarkeesian gets hit with this a lot because her background isn't from within the games industry.

Earlier, we saw a tweet from Sarkeesian featuring a hate email that cites the work of thunderf00t. He's a prominent YouTube capital-A Atheist, who mainly focuses on Dawkins- or Hitchens-type criticism of organised religion, but with a sideshow channel devoted also to debunking prominent feminists. His videos are often masterclasses in substituting smug for substance, with his Sarkeesian critiques particularly good examples. This one features a short clip that is often used as damning evidence that Sarkeesian isn't a "real" gamer (1:18 onwards):

...so it's not exactly a fandom, I'm not a fan of video games. I had to learn a lot about video games in the process of making this. And also, video games, I would love to play video games, but I don't want to go around shooting people and ripping off their heads, and it's just gross, so..."

That clip is taken from a longer lecture Sarkeesian gave on the subject of remixing pop culture videos to change their meaning, at Santa Monica College in 2010. It's used far too much as "proof" that, in thunderf00t's words, she "lied to everyone's face [sic] for her Kickstarter". (And, of course, it helps reinforce the narrative of her lying about being abused as a promotional tactic.)

The idea that tastes change over time doesn't appear relevant here. Nor the idea that ripping a five-second clip out of context might not be a watertight proof of duplicity and deception.

Pauline Kael was an ad copywriter before she became a film critic; Roger Ebert wrote science fiction. It's never been necessary to have experience creating something before being allowed to critique it. As for experience of playing games...

Photo: Anita Sarkeesian

...how many games makes a gamer?

Trope 3. Manufacturing outrage

This one's a doozy. Sarkeesian is alleged to have deliberately created the sexist in-game scenarios she's critiquing in her videos, therefore rendering her argument irrelevant. Over to you, thunderf00t:

The idea here revolves around a section in Hitman: Absolution, where the character has to sneak past two exotic dancers in their dressing room while on the way to assassinate someone else. There are two choices: sneak past the dancers, or kill them and hide their bodies to avoid suspicion. Sarkeesian's example video shows her killing them; thunderf00t presents multiple examples of where players have chosen not to kill them, thereby showing that the game isn't encouraging the player to kill every woman they meet. The hypothesis that the game, by design, is meant to create misogynist violence is therefore redundant.

This is literally as stupid as saying that, in games where you can fall to your death, you're being encouraged to fall to your death."

Of course, it's not the same at all. This video is specifically referring to Sarkeesian's discussion of women as background decoration - that is, they don't have any influence on the narrative, and their existence is entirely predicated on their usefulness or otherwise to the player. Hitman: Absolution does penalise the player (slightly) for killing the exotic dancers, just as it does other civilians, but the crucial point is not whether the player chooses to kill them or not. It's that the game presents it as an option at all.

(Yeah, that definitely makes everything better...)

When women are featured within many games, Sarkeesian is arguing, their appearances conform to a narrow range of identities, body types, social roles and occupations. The repetition of the same kinds of possibilities, presented to players over and over again in game after game, is the visible example of structural prejudice against women, regardless of whether the player chooses to take that option.

 

There's a common trope of framing Sarkeesian's work as "cherry-picked", as she takes isolated examples from many games and presents them as a stream of misogyny in order to create the illusion that all of these games are entirely misogynist, the entire way through. That's a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is Sarkeesian is doing with TvsWVG, and what cultural criticism in general is. These are tropes - they're fragments of a whole. By definition they don't make up the entirety of a work of art by themselves, but are instead definable cultural touchstones which artists, writers, developers etc, can use when creating a fictional reality.

In other words, Anita Sarkeesian only presents sections of games as sexist because she's only talking about the sexist bits of games, and how, of the tropes developers choose to put in their games when designing for female characters, they frequently fall back on sexist ones. Seriously, she couldn't be clearer about this - in the introduction to the very first video she says:

This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects."

Remember The Wire? One of that show's greatest strengths is in illustrating how a group of individuals can each make choices which, to them, seem noble or just, but where the collective impact is one of corruption and violence. For example - spoiler alert - Carcetti gets elected as mayor on a platform of reducing crime and tackling corruption, but quickly finds he has to make compromises in order to stay in his job. He needs his job because otherwise he can't fulfill his election pledges, but remaining in power requires exactly the same backroom shenanigans that he hated his predecessor for. By the end of his term in office he's become everything he hates, because the structure of power within the city, and its competing interests, restrict the possibility of change coming from one individual's actions.

It's basically that, but with the games industry and sexism. Countless unconscious and conscious compromises get made as a game is developed - just like a film - and it's easy to miss that, sometimes, the sum effect of those decisions can be that Assassin's Creed 2 ends up with a sequence where sex workers get their throats slit as a way of marking checkpoints. Pointing out how fucked up this is isn't tangential to experiencing games as art, it's necessary. Calling the derision of Anita Sarkeesian rational debate is an insult to both her and the idea of debating ideas.

Ignore these tropes when used against her and other women, and those of us who have the privilege of having our opinions not automatically dismissed because of our gender - howdy! - have an obligation to call out the nonsense as we see it, not pander to childish ideas of what debate and critique are.

EDIT [18:06 28/08/2014]: The title of this piece originally contained the word "lame" as a pejorative, and has now been removed.

EDIT 2 [09:58 29/08/2014]: The piece referred to the most recent episode of TvsWVG with the title of a different episode - "Damsel in Distress (Part 2)" - and has now been corrected.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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