A Response to Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’


So by now you’ve probably heard of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series, ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’. Controversy has followed the series since its initial launch in May; with hate mail and bullying countered with vocal online support for the project. But despite all the controversy, does the first ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ installment live up to expectations? The Dusty Cartridge crew weigh in with their reactions.

What do you think of the first episode?

Brodie: I’m a flawed character. I don’t attribute this to any deep-rooted imperfections, but due to the fact I’m often quite reactive and have a malleable mind. It’s like play dough, I swear. It worked with the Kony campaign, for crying out loud. I’ve still got the shirt. But because I’m reactive and believe in good causes – and phasing out the admittedly problematic sexism within the games industry is one – I was quick to accept the community consensus that Anita’s project was tier-one, essential viewing. Anita is brilliant, not because she’s a strong-minded and clearly intelligent woman, but because she had me fooled. Hook, line and sinker.

What I thought would be unbiased analysis was no more than carefully constructed and exceptionally considered propaganda, designed with a clear agenda in mind, without any semblance of even-handed criticism. That said, I feel it comes from a good place. The thing that irks me the most, though, is the fact that it seems the series, like all of her videos, are going to be a closed text. Not open for discussion, as she closes down the discourse leaving no room for a spirited talk on the matter. Of course, her defense will be that the knuckle-draggers might belch obscenities at her, but surely it’s worth taking the good with the bad if you’re aiming to educate?

Or perhaps it’s enough to preach ‘gospel’, count your hits and not defend your beliefs when challenged? Her “damsel in distress” seminar relied on a lot of dated examples from simplistic games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Looking forward, there are still examples of this trope on the horizon, but because writing has improved tenfold I feel the women being imagined are far more realistic and in touch with reality.

Look at BioShock Infinite, a game that sees its male protagonist sweep into a cloud-drenched metropolis, pluck Rapunzel from the tower and abscond with her. Sounds like the basic concept behind most of the games Anita took exception to. While still playing the damsel in many ways, Elizabeth still became a critic favourite thanks to her well-written, endearing character. Aside from that though, a lot of the “rescue the girl” ideas remain. They’re just masked by exceptional storytelling which expects more of you than to simply thump your way through a faceless horde to retrieve the girl that’s draped over the bad guy’s shoulder.

Chris: I missed the memo about Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign; by the time I had discovered it, the project had already greatly surpassed its goal. That the project attracted so much attention, caused so much controversy, and ultimately gained such generous financial backing, expectation is understandably high – perhaps a little too high.

The first video in the series has created a foundation upon which it needs to build. It’s well presented and clearly articulated, but it has only skimmed the surface of the topic at hand, and its lack of depth will probably be the source of the early criticism it faces. Though we were perhaps hoping for more, we should remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint – there are more videos to come.

Rather than jumping in at the middle of a discussion, Sarkeesian lays the foundations for younger viewers, or those less familiar with the debate, and covers the absolute basics. Given how much funding the project received, however, I only hope that the subsequent installments will cover more a little more ground.

Is the series important?

Brodie: In a lot of ways, yeah I’d argue that it is. Given the publicity of Anita’s Kickstarter campaign, there’s a great deal of reach that this series is going to have. And unlike complaints that Sony are misogynists or that Santa Monica Studios are inhumane monsters, there’s a legitimate concern underlining these video episodes. So it’s important to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.

Is it important to me? Well no, not in the larger spectrum of things. But like I now see the Invisible Children campaign to hunt down a child slaver, I see Women vs. Tropes as a social experiment about hopeful enlightenment that I feel might be worth paying attention to. Even though Anita doesn’t entertain discussion, there are plenty of feminists that’ll let you bend their ear, should you feel the urge to be educated further. If you’re a part of the problem that is, not all of us are.

Anita's extensive 'research' obviously missed the credits of Double Dragon Neon.

Anita’s extensive ‘research’ obviously missed the credits of Double Dragon Neon.

Chris: Whilst the project’s goal is hardly ground-breaking, it is nonetheless important: Sarkeesian means only to identify and criticise the negative portrayals of women in games, and isn’t claiming to have the solution. The identification of the problems, however, is the first step to resolving them. Whilst I don’t expect the video series to be revolutionary, it shapes up to be an insightful, freely accessible resource for players, critics and developers alike.

If the video game industry is to mature we cannot shy away from problematic discussions, and we shouldn’t be afraid to analyse and expose its failures, even if that means using heavy-weight names like Shigeru Miyamoto. I don’t believe, however, that the series is calling out individuals with the intent to shame them.

Popular and successful developers cannot be excused from criticism; if anything, they should come under closer scrutiny because of their influence within the industry. That Sarkeesian identifies the legendary Nintendo developer as a pioneer of poorly represented female characters is not a malicious attack, rather, it highlights the importance of the issue at hand.

Will it impact the industry in any way?

Brodie: It’s hard to say at this point. A lot of the commentary I’ve read on the topic don’t so much speak to the content of Anita’s opening episode, but more to the sheer amount of money she’s raised for her cause and, of course, the abuse that instigated that wealth.

Because women’s rights and sexism is such a hot topic, it’s ignorant to think a lot of developers won’t pay keen attention to this. Cliff Bleszinski, an on-hiatus developer of so-called “dudebro” games, spoke out on the matter. His blog didn’t speak so much to the content of her series, but to the ‘trolls’ who didn’t exactly wish her well as he leaped to her defense.

This move that was applauded by a number of feminism activists online, but isn’t this the exact behaviour that the “damsel in distress” episode spoke so passionately against? I’d say it is.

Mario rescuing Peach, the classic video game trope.

Mario rescuing Peach, the classic video game trope.

Chris: Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign sparked so much controversy that the project itself is unlikely to escape its own shadow; its impact on the industry may well have already peaked. The cynical reaction to the campaign and its subsequent over-funding portrayed the industry in contrasting lights: as a childish, contemptuous boy’s-club frightened of criticism, and as a community of players wanting desperately to overcome its own stereotype.

It’s unfortunate that when compared with the controversy of its inception the actual videos will probably generate far less discussion. That the project might be remembered for the misogynistic abuse and sexual harassment directed towards its creator, rather than for the stimulation of critical discussion is a genuine shame; it did emphasise, however, how deeply the problem of misogyny runs throughout the industry.

Video games have always advanced at an incredible pace; however it seems that in our haste we have allowed a few things to be neglected. If the project proves anything it is that our needs as gamers are changing – we want to reverse our neglected failures of the past. Sarkeesian’s video series will not single-handedly revolutionise the industry, but it might just reflect the changing attitudes of a community of players who are striving to make it a little bit better.

So what do you think of the first episode of Anita’s series? Are you a fan or just not impressed? Let us know in the comments below!

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