Being a woman in the gaming community is scary.
For pointing out demeaning stereotypes of female characters
within video games in a series of YouTube videos, feminist cultural critic Anita
Sarkeesian has received bomb threats, shooting threats, rape threats, and death
threats from certain parts of the gaming community. Just this past week,
Sarkeesian canceled a speech she was going to give at Utah State University,
citing possible dangers and insufficient security measures after an anonymous
threat promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history”
in response to her presence on campus.
This is in the wake of a hashtag campaign on Twitter called #GamerGate,
ostensibly a call for better standards for journalism ethics within the video-game
industry, which has extended to harassing and threatening women who speak
against it, ultimately forcing women in the game industry to leave their homes
— and some to leave the video-game industry entirely.
The first instance of the Gamergate
hashtag came from actor Adam Baldwin at the end of August with a link to a
video on YouTube. The video was inspired by a blog post written by an
independent game developer’s ex-boyfriend, who disclosed personal details about
their relationship with pictures of their conversations. The post included
accusations that the game developer had sex with a journalist for favorable
coverage of her game, Depression Quest.
This review does not exist and has never existed.
Following this false accusation from her jilted ex, Zoe
Quinn, who has made several other free games
in addition to Depression Quest,
received death threats. GameGaters also posted her home address online and
distributed nude photos of her with the intention of intimidating her and
causing harm to her and her family. Quinn had to leave her home in August and
has not felt safe enough to return. Threads on a message board called 8chan
continue to post her personal information.
Another independent game developer named Brianna Wu has had
to flee her home after her home address was posted on 8chan and a Twitter user
sent violent threats to her with her address included. Wu, the head of
development at Giant Spacekat, recently released a mobile game called Revolution
60 with several female characters, showing that women in games don’t
need to play the role of the wife, sister, sidekick, prostitute, or so on.
Since last Friday night, when she left her home, Wu has spoken with mainstream
media outlets about harassment and sexism in the game industry and written
about her experience as a GamerGate victim.
Unfortunately, this type of extreme harassment was here long
before the GamerGate hashtag began, and Sarkeesian has had to face a lot of it.
Kickstarter campaign for her feminist video series Tropes vs. Women succeeded in June 2012, though a
lot of people tried to stop that from happening. These people left hateful
comments on her YouTube channel, defaced her page on Wikipedia, and harassed
her through Twitter, Facebook, and email. These hate campaigns ended up
increasing visibility for her project, and Sarkeesian raised over $150,000; her
initial fundraising goal was $6,000.
A month later, a man named Ben Spurr, known as “Bendilin,”
made a flash game in which the player would click on a picture of Sarkeesian to
punch her, with bruises and contusions appearing on a picture of her face. (An
image from the game appears above.) The game has since been removed by the
Such campaigns have not stopped Sarkeesian from making
videos, which critique casually sexist tropes like “The
Damsel in Distress.” Sarkeesian also regularly gives speeches about
feminism, her video series, and harassment directed at women, such as her talk
at XOXO Festival. This
past Tuesday was the first time she has canceled a speech. She did not feel
safe, due to Utah state gun laws, which would have allowed the carrying of a
concealed firearm at the event.
GamerGate’s proponents claim they are campaigning for a
better gaming press. Indeed, there is a problem with the too-cozy nature
between game developers and video-game journalists. But GamerGate activists actually
seem perfectly fine with game developers’ hold over its critics. Earlier this
month, for example, some GamerGate
members announced to Nintendo their intention to blacklist the gaming and media
site Polygon over an unfavorable review.
Meanwhile, another blatant attempt by a video-game studio to
buy positive reviews went ignored by GamerGate. But an investigative
article back in July reported that these quid pro quo schemes, in which
YouTubers were accepting money from publishers to make videos about their
games, were quite common in the industry. Even more alarmingly, a GamerGate
to Intel pulling its ads from certain gaming publications with a feminist
And keep in mind, the three major targets of GamerGate —
Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Wu — are not members of the press. And that’s sadly
unsurprising, because GamerGate isn’t really about journalism ethics — it’s
just the latest attempt to intimidate women into silence.
As GamerGate has received national coverage from outlets
like MSNBC, CNN, CBS, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, another
hashtag has emerged: #StopGamerGate2014. After this began trending worldwide,
GamerGate supporters responded with #StopSJWs2014. “SJW” stands for “Social
Justice Warrior.” The hashtag once again affirms, in case there was any doubt,
that this is not really about ethics in game journalism, but an attack on
social-justice causes like feminism.
Things don’t have to be this way. Many of the women in the
game industry would rather talk about programming or narrative structure
instead of sexism. They want to and should be seen as “game designers,” rather
than “female game designers.” However, if a section of the gaming audience — and
it is just a very vocal minority — believes that sexism is not a real problem
despite the harassment campaigns against Wu, Sarkeesian, and Quinn, it’s up to the
leaders in the game industry to be more conscious of their hiring decisions and
their workplace culture. In both the industry and the gaming press, men are the
majority of leaders.
I believe games and its audience are changing. Women 18 or
older represent a significantly
greater portion of the game-playing population than boys 18 or younger.
We’re seeing more independent games, more experimentation in both forma and
content, and more mobile games reaching out to different audiences. There are more
game critics talking about social issues and using a feminist critical lens
when reviewing games.
Games are complex, evoking emotional responses in players,
and they can inspire empathy through their interactive nature. Games can be whatever
people want them to be, and plenty have shown they want people of different
genders and minorities to be heroes and protagonists, too.
Carly Smith is a
freelance journalist who writes predominantly about video games. Her work has
appeared in The Escapist, where she writes news and reviews for video games, TV
and movies, and comics and cosplay.