Minutes after I walked through a metal detector — and some time before she was flocked by well-wishers at the best-attended gaming lecture I’ve ever been to at New York University — I recently listened to the media critic Anita Sarkeesian describe eight things she’d like to see changed in video games.
To be specific, she was describing “eight things developers can do to make games less shitty for women.”
The list was a surprise — not really for its content but for its explicit charge for change.
For the last three years, Anita Sarkeesian has been talking about how women are treated in games and has slammed the widespread sexism she sees in the portrayal of female game characters. She’s done this through a series of online videos for her non-profit, Feminist Frequency, and in lectures at conferences and even at some game studios. Her supporters cheer the idea that her influence may transform the medium; her critics fear that. They both infer a lot from her analysis of games, but at her NYU talk she left no ambiguity. She spelled out what she wants to see done, what she thinks game developers should think about doing differently.
Her list was brand new. “You get to be my guinea pigs,” she said as she took to the podium in front of a couple hundred developers, game design students and gamers, “to see how this all works.”
Near the start of her talk, she apologised for being sick and said it was the first time she’d been ill in two years. She fought back a bad cough throughout an hour-long presentation but frequently elicited applause or laughter as she spoke. This was a friendly and game-savvy crowd.
I had attended Sarkeesian’s NYU talk because I wanted to hear her outside of the pre-recorded Tropes Vs. Women In Video Games that she’s been making for the last couple of years.
I’d met her in person briefly last spring, before she won an Ambassador Award at the Game Developers Conference for her work critiquing video games. We’d e-mailed several times when I was reporting stories.
I’d seen most of her Tropes gaming videos, of course, and, frankly, not had much issue with them. Much of what she showed in them — the propensity for games to depict a disappointingly narrow range of female characters, of often using women in games as props to motivate players, of regularly sexualizing female characters to a comical degree — had rung true to me. Her material had rung true to me even as I’d recognised the complications of calling for diversity in creative work and even as I’d noticed that, sure, if you look closely enough, you can find an admirable female character even in a game that is frequently described as being insulting to women.
Sarkeesian is an advocate. She talks about issues that she feels have been entrenched in games but go under-discussed. Throughout her NYU talk I was struck by both her negativity and her positivity. During an unscripted Q&A, she said that modern gaming’s depiction of women was really bad. “It’s very much like one step forward, two steps back,” she said. “There are small things that come up that, you’re like, ‘That’s awesome.’ And then five other things that come up that’s like, ‘Are we still doing this?'” Throughout her description of the eight changes she’d like to see, she repeatedly mentioned games that she thought were handling things badly, but she also routinely highlighted games that she thought were doing things well.
She also kept talking, surprisingly, about how easy change in gaming could be.
- “Fixing this is, of course, incredibly easy,” she said when talking about games that may have several playable protagonists but offer few, if any, who are women.
- “Happily, this is another easy one to solve,” she said, when lamenting the sexualised grunting that she often hears from female game characters who are supposedly engaged in combat.
- A variation, when talking about how male and female characters animate very differently in some of the big-budget games she’s been playing: “The solution is obvious: just animate your women moving and sitting the way real women might move.”
The metal detectors, and the overall heightened security presence at Sarkeesian’s talk, were impossible not to notice. I heard a few attendees mutter about this being necessary or finding it absurd that a talk about women in gaming, of all things, required this kind of presence. An NYU rep told me they hadn’t set up metal detectors for any Game Center talks before. The people who make Dragon Age didn’t get this kind of security.
The added protection, I was told, was “the result of NYU Public Safety’s extensive security audit of the situation,” though NYU did not specify, despite my asking, if they were there in response to any specific threats. I’d previously reported about a bomb threat against Sarkeesian’s GDC acceptance speech nearly a year prior. An NYU security guard stood in front of the audience, watchful, as she spoke.
Sarkeesian never acknowledged the security, and she only briefly mentioned the online harassment she’s received for her work. She fielded one audience question from a guy who said a female Gamergate supporter had been at the talk, had shaken her head at much of what Sarkeesian had said, had left early and, this questioner wanted to know, what Sarkeesian would say to this woman.
“I’m happy if she cared at all and wanted to come,” Sarkeesian said, “but I seriously doubt people from Gamergate’s intentions of coming to an event where I am speaking…I think if anyone in this audience is here for Gamergate they are not here because they genuinely care and want to learn. They are coming here to be, like, ‘oh my god, that woman, that horrible evil woman that’s ruining video games.'”
She said she’d written Gamergate off, that there was no convincing them. She wanted to reach “fence-sitters,” people “who are like, ‘I’m interested, and I don’t know if I agree with you, and I’m curious.'”
As little as Sarkeesian mentioned her critics, I sensed that a lot of the start of her talk was designed to address their criticisms. First, she seemed to be challenging claims that she thinks games make people do things. “When I say that media matters and has an influence on our lives, I’m not saying it’s a 1:1 correlation or a monkey-see, monkey-do situation,” she said, “but rather that media’s influence is subtle and helps to shape our attitudes, beliefs and values for better and for worse. Media can inspire greatness and challenge the status quo or sadly, more often, it can demoralise and reinforce systems of power and privilege and oppression.”
And, second, it seemed to me she was being careful to clarify whether she loves games. In a vacuum, this might seem strange, but the idea that Sarkeesian doesn’t care much about games has been part of the narrative against her. There’s a pre-Tropes vs. Women in Video Games clip, after all, of her introducing a video about gaming by telling a college class in 2011 that “I’m not a fan of video games. I actually had to learn a lot about video games in the process of making this.”
At her talk, she showed a photo of herself as a kid, playing the Super Nintendo with a childhood friend. She recounted her efforts to get her parents to buy her a Game Boy. She talked about getting nostalgic while in college and buying a Super Nintendo to play Super Mario World.
She described her relationship with gaming as “complicated,” credited the Wii for getting her back into gaming and showed a slide of Mario Kart Wii, World of Goo, Guitar Hero and Angry Birds. She said that she knew that some people didn’t consider those “real” games but that she counted them as some of her favourites.
Sarkeesian mentioned her time in grad school, which I believe was the same time she was saying in that clip that she wasn’t a fan of games. “If you asked me at the time, I would probably have said I wasn’t a gamer,” she said. Under her breath she added: “I don’t even know if I want to say that now, but whatever.”
She said she’d “bought into the bogus myth that, in order to be a real gamer, you had to be playing GTA or Call of Duty or God of War or other testosterone-infused macho posturing games which often had a sexist, toxic culture that surrounded them. So even though I was playing a lot of games — these kinds of games — I still refused to call myself a gamer, which I don’t think is uncommon.”
She would later emphasise the idea that “you can love something and be critical of it.” That, she said, “is so important to what I do and is really important to engaging with any kind of pop culture.”
“So, you’ve heard of The Wonderful 101?” Sarkeesian asked her audience, as she finally got into the Eight Things Developers Can Do To Make Games Less Shitty For Women.
“It was released in 2013 for the Wii U. There are seven main heroes. They are all colour-coded. Can you guess what colour the woman is?”
Several people in the audience shouted the predictable answer: “Pink!”
“Yeah,” she replied, and rolled the character intro for Wonder-Pink.
That’s how she set up her first request to game developers: “Avoid the Smurfette principle,” a reference to both having just one female character in an ensemble cast and the character limitations that can spring from that. There are actually some other female characters among the 101 heroes of the Wonderful 101, but of the playable ones, only one is a woman. Wonder-Pink wears pink. In her intro video she’s worried about her makeup. “Because she’s the Smurfette, her personality is: girl,” Sarkeesian said.
She showed a slide of Left 4 Dead 2. Four playable protagonists, one of them female. She complimented the latest Borderlands for upping the number of playable women heroes in each of the original base games from one to two (more if you count the DLC). She showed Team Fortress 2. Nine playable classes, none of them women.
“Fixing this is of course incredibly easy,” Sarkeesian said. “Just give players more diverse options. Giving players more playable female characters is the first step toward female characters, like their male counterparts, being defined more by who they are rather than simply by their gender.”
What Sarkeesian was talking about sounded like a quota, because, well, it is. “At least half of the options should be women and, really, it would be great if it was more than half the options were women, and I know some people think I’m completely loony when I say that.”
I noted her words, about what “should be” and what “would be great” and it got me thinking again about the enthusiasm and anxiety people have about her influence. It’s a tricky argument, right? Would it be bad to have more playable female characters? Would it be bad for a given game not to?
Gamers are obviously debating this. And in my experience, confident creators could deal with this kind of critique, could take from it what they found productive and stand up for their authorial independence about what didn’t mesh.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer, and it doesn’t seem to me like there’s a rule that would work across the board.
As Sarkeesian pointed to fan-art that imagined Team Fortress 2‘s cast as being all women I thought about her position as an advocate. She’d push. Developers, publishers and gamers could hear and decide for themselves what’s best to do.
Sarkeesian’s list of eight things included several straightforward requests. She called for more body diversity in female characters, lamenting the “Victoria’s Secret catalogue” physiques of so many playable women and yearning for the kind of bodies that the male characters in the upcoming Blizzard game Overwatch have.
“The blue one looks cool,” she said of the women. “The other four are similar, long legged, slender, mostly sexualised armour, high heels, lack of pants.” She contrasted that to the men. “The male characters get to be short and stocky or heft gorillas or equipped with a massive power suit. You just don’t see anything approaching this variety of body types in weights and sizes with female characters.”
She pushed for more representation of women of colour in games, and more that are neither reducing such women to ethnic stereotypes nor so divorced from their cultural history that it “is eased or invisible.” She praised Never Alone, a game featuring a female character from an Alaskan tribe. “It should not be too much to ask for for representations of people of colour whose cultural backgrounds are acknowledged and woven into their character in ways that are honest and validating.”
After playing what she said was an audio clip of a female League of Legends champion in combat (above) she called for less sexualised female-character voice-acting/grunting — “start with trying to make pain actually sound painful instead of orgasmic”. And she rejected clothing female characters in cleavage-emphasising armour whose “only functionality is to titillate young straight male player base.” For the latter, she said the amount of skin shown wasn’t the issue and recommended that game designers look to the outfits of real female soldiers and athletes for inspiration. Sarkeesian recommended that designers of fantasy and sci-fi games put female characters in similar armour and uniforms as their male counterparts and praised Dark Souls, Natural Selection 2 and XCOM for having more practical outfits.
Occasionally, as she went through these suggestions, Sarkeesian would mention counter-arguments. For example, she said that impractically-sexualised costumes communicate that a female character’s “value and worth is tied to ability to arouse straight young men.” But she added that some of her critics say that male characters are sexualised, too. She doesn’t buy it, pointing out that it’s common to, say, see female characters’ breasts jiggle and rare to see male characters’ penises do the same.
Moreover, it’s worth bearing in mind the obvious, that she’s a feminist and that her view is that men and women are perceived very differently in society. “Equal opportunity sexual objectification is not the answer here,” she said. “It actually isn’t equal.” Her view of how women are seen in much of society and culture is fundamental to her arguments: “Women are thought of and represented as sexual objects to be used by and for the sexual pleasure of others in society, and men are not viewed that way. There’s no long-standing oppressive construct of men being seen as sexual objects and reduced to that in real life.”
If you agree with her worldview, you’re likely with her on many or all of these eight things. If not, well, you’re unlikely to see much here you can back.
Going through her list, she called for game developers of third-person games to “de-emphasise the rear end of female characters,” which she said after contrasting how Catwoman’s butt sways in the third-person Batman game Arkham City with how male characters like God of War‘s Kratos have their butts covered by loincloths or trenchcoats. By contrast, she praised the presentation of the female character in the new third-person game Life Is Strange. It seemed like a subset to another argument about female character animation.
“Motion capture and animations for female characters often have them looking like they’re walking down a runway at a fashion show,” she said. “It’s as if the person directing the mo-cap session told the model to walk in the most seductive or sexy way possible rather than just asking her to walk the way a soldier or intergalactic bounty hunter or any ordinary woman going about her business might walk.”
Even sitting could be a gender issue, she showed. She ran clips of how male and female characters sit in Destiny, a game that imbues its heroes of either gender with the same capabilities. When the guy sits, he just sits, feet and butt on the ground, knees up. When the female character sits, she lays on the side of her legs. “This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior and yet she is still sitting around like she’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid,” Sarkeesian said. “I mean, what the hell?”
The animation arguments were interesting but also demonstrated Sarkeesian’s emphasis on the critique of what players see, more than what they do. She has certainly been critical of the interactivity that leads players to rescuing damsels in distress, but if, say, developers changed many of the Eight Things she requested in her talk, it wouldn’t make games play differently, if at all. That might explain why her criticisms of gaming occupy a different spot than other people’s criticisms about, say, free-to-play game design, game length, or downloadable content. Those latter arguments clearly and directly pertain to whether a game would be more or less fun or engaging for any player, which for many gamers is the paramount gaming concern.
Arguments about the depiction of women, however, will find a sympathetic ear among those who, like Sarkeesian, believe that less sexualized and more diverse presentations of women will make games more approachable — more fun — for more people. They won’t move people who might linger on the likely fact that changing how characters sit in Destiny or walk in Arkham City probably won’t make those games play any better.
Sarkeesian talked about how a more expansive range of female characters can open games up to new stories and experiences, but she doesn’t flat-out say that it’d make an ok game more fun. That’s not really her point. So it’s easy to see how two people might sit through the same Sarkeesian presentation and think “This completely matters” and “This doesn’t matter at all.”
Talk of gameplay brought Sarkeesian to her final point. She said she’d spoken with “well-meaning” game developers about how to handle female enemies. Many games use violence as their main means of interaction, she noted, and some developers were uneasy about if or how to put female enemies in harm’s way.
“Simply putting women in the line of fire is not in and of itself a problem,” she said. “Everything depends on framing, right? So, with that in mind here are two things to keep in mind when designing female characters. One: avoid violence in which women are framed as weak or helpless. When we critique violence against women, we’re often talking about violence in which women are being attacked or victimised specifically because they are women, which then reinforces or perpetuates a perception that women as victims and men as noble, brooding heroes…
“Two, avoid violence against female characters in which there is a sexualised element.”
She praised BioShock Infinite‘s presentation of a Columbia police force whose male and female cops wear similar uniforms. “The ideal here,” she said, “is to design combatants who just happen to be women.”
Of all of Sarkeesian’s requests, I could see this being viewed as the most well-intentioned but creatively stifling one — Why not sometimes have a sexy female enemy? Why not sometimes let a character of any type be helpless or play up their gender? — and yet it also seemed to be the one where she was trying hardest to find ways through it and where she felt like there were the worst potential negative impacts.
“Don’t make the enemies or villains sexualised,” she said, “because again it creates a scenario in which violence against women is gendered and infused with elements of titillation. Violence against female characters should never be sexy.”
I saw her trying to draw clear lines all throughout her NYU talk, and I could sense what a fraught endeavour that was. As easy as she had suggested some of the changes in gaming could be, so much of this is likely to be controversial — and not just because someone might be sexist. How do you balance creators’ freedom with the need or desire to open a game up to a broader audience? How do you assess which portrayals of women in games attract or repel male or female gamers? How do we truly determine the impact of the characters we see or control on how we relate to those characters or view the world?
Sarkeesian didn’t lay out those questions, but those are the ones implicit in her critique. Those are the ones that supporters and critics of her views on women in games are likely to debate for a long time to come. Little of this is bound to be easy, and each of her eight requests are likely to stir debate about what gamers want, what developers can or should do, and what makes for better video games that more people will enjoy playing.