We here at PMS clan have a very explicit mission statement -- provide a competitive, fun and positive environment to female gamers. It’s a shame that for that environment to exist, gamers needed to develop a clan to create it. The gaming community can be harsh and unwilling to accept women into their ranks, partially because the media they consume is reminding them why women don’t belong here. Gaming still feels developed by men, for men, and that leads to a lot of negative portrayals of women in video games as well as negative actions towards women in gaming. I studied the media through my college tenure because I wanted to understand video games’ impact on society and the messages it presents. I wanted to create something that would hold up a mirror to the industry and ask if it truly liked what it saw.
As it turns out, someone beat me to it. Not only that, she did it far better than I had ever imagined. Anita Sarkeesian, host of the Feminist Frequency blog, posted a Kickstarter to create a video game themed series of her web show, Tropes vs. Women. Her work is impeccable and I am ashamed I had not heard of her before the campaign. As of the writing of this article her Kickstarter is 700% overfunded and still climbing with 5 days left to donate. She obviously tapped into a market that, much like myself, was dying for an intelligent breakdown of women representation in video games. Anita was kind enough to give me an interview over e-mail last week.
Erich Sherman: The last Tropes vs. Women series applied to all forms of media; what made you want to do a set of videos focused specifically on video games?
Anita Sarkeesian: I decided to focus on video games for this series because while I really enjoy gaming, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the awful representations of women. I believe that gaming is the medium of the future and as such I wanted to contribute to the already ongoing conversation about making games better. As the video game industry changes, transforms and grows there is a real opportunity for developers to create better representations that can appeal to people of all genders.
Erich: How did you decide on the tropes that will be examined in the series?
Anita: I keep a running list of the patterns I see when it comes to representations of women and other marginalized groups in games, TV shows, films and comics. I kept seeing the same stereotypes and tropes used over and over again across games of various genres so I took the list of the most common and most harmful that involve female characters and decided to focus specifically on those. For many of these tropes, I think viewers will instantly recognize them and will be able to recall many characters that fulfill these stereotypes. Certainly, there are more tropes but these are the ones I felt were most common and prevalent.
Erich: Are there any tropes that are exclusive to or more common in video games?
Anita: Since tropes are just reoccurring narrative, plot or character devices, we see many of them used in movies, television and comics as well. I would say that some, the “Damsel in Distress” for example is having something of a resurgence recently in gaming which is not mirrored in movies or TV shows to the same degree. Similarly, the “Woman as Reward” trope does exist to some extent in other media but its more central in gaming because of things like unlockable costumes and alternate endings.
In many cases, big budget movies and TV shows also tend to be made for a slightly broader audience. Hollywood studios often expect women will watch their productions even when they’re primarily intended for a male audience. In the gaming industry however, I sometimes feel like developers don’t even bother to consider the fact that people other than young straight men may be interacting with their games.
Skullgirls is featured prominently in Anita's Kickstarter image for obvious reasons.
Erich: For positive portrayals of women, how do video games compare to other media?
Anita: While far from perfect, television probably has the most positive portrayals due to the longer format that provides the opportunity to flush out characters, relationships and motivations. Hollywood studios are still largely unwilling to risk making blockbusters that center on female leads (though maybe this will change slightly with the success of the Hunger Games film). The gaming industry does have a slightly higher number of female leads but most fall into the hyper sexualized “Fighting Fuck Toy” trope which is designed to appeal to a straight male audience. Considering that many games are created to be experienced over many hours, days or even weeks, developers could also build-in more nuanced, complex and transformational character arcs. There really is an epic level of potential for the medium and it’s sad to see that potential so often squandered or traded for clichéd story lines and sexist gimmicks.
Erich: How long does a typical episode of Tropes vs. Women take to create?
Anita: Typically each episode takes between three to four weeks to finish. I begin with the research phase which varies depending on the topic - in the case of my recent video about the 2012 Oscars that involved watching all nine films nominated for best picture and taking detailed research notes on each. Next comes the brainstorming and writing phase where I sit down with my co-writer to script and storyboard the video. This involves laying out the arguments I want to make plus collecting all the appropriate images, video clips and quotes I’ll be using in post production.
Once that's done we move onto shooting and editing which includes cutting the whole video together with images, music and media clips. When the video is rendered and exported, I create transcripts and subtitles and publish it to various online video hosting sites such as YouTube and Blip.tv.
Erich: The project is Kickstarter funded and is currently well past its initial goal. How well did you think the project funding would go? What is your reaction to the money raised and the fan response so far?
Anita: To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect, as this is the first time I've attempted to raise money before I began a video series. When planning the Kickstarter I kept the initial goal low and the scope of the project smaller for that reason. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. We reached our initial goal in the first 24 hours. Because of this I’ve been able to expand and evolve the project to cover a wider variety of tropes and characters. Of course there have been a handful of sexist trolls expressing outrage that I would even dare to make these videos but for the most part the reaction has been inspiring. It gives me hope that so many folks (including a growing number of male gamers) have been incredibly supportive of this endeavor. It’s clear that many people who love video games are regularly disappointed with how the industry represents women and think its time for a change.
Over the last few days this project has been subject to a coordinated online harassment effort waged by various internet video game forums vowing to "take me down". I always expect a certain level of harassment when discussing gender issues online. This time however, it's a more organized and sustained effort that includes a truly staggering torrent of misogyny, threats and hate speech. The sad thing is this kind of backlash happens all the time whenever women dare to speak up about gender and video games.
[You can find blog posts about this harassment here and here]
Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is often touted as a female in gaming done right.
Erich: What do you hope people will take away from the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series?
Anita: There are a few things that I hope viewers will take away from this series. I’m making these videos to help promote media literacy and provide some tools for folks to look more critically at gaming (and other forms of popular culture). Part of the goal is to present issues of sexism in gaming as a reoccurring systemic pattern across the entire industry because harmful gender representations are not just limited to a few games, genres or companies. I also want to reach out to young women who may have shied away from gaming and let them know they aren’t alone in their frustration and annoyance at the limited ways that women are portrayed in games. As a bonus, I think it would be great if some folks from the industry were to watch this series and take these tropes under consideration when developing new games and characters.
Erich: What are some of your favorite video games or gaming genres?
Anita: There are really too many to list and it’s complicated by the fact that I will often really enjoy a game but simultaneously be extremely annoyed about the female character design. On the positive end of the spectrum, the Portal series is pure genius, of course. I also really liked Beyond Good and Evil and Mirror's Edge. More recently I found thatgamecompany’s Journey to be an absolutely stunning experience. Overall, I find myself wanting an interesting plot and story with good character development and/or something innovative in the game play.
Like many longtime Nintendo fans I have a real soft spot for anything in the 2D platformer genre. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Rayman Origins despite all of the annoying and totally unnecessary “Nymphs in Distress.”
Erich: What is your fondest gaming memory?
Anita: That's a hard one. I suppose like many people who grew up in the 1980s we all have our classic Mario stories. Though what sticks in my mind most is probably my quest to acquire a Gameboy when I was about 9 or 10. I worked hard to convince my parents that the Game Boy was, in fact, an acceptable thing to buy for a young girl and that it would not, contrary to popular belief, rot my brain. At the time it didn't even occur to me that it was called a Game "Boy" and was marketed exclusively to male gamers. All I knew was here was a video game console that you could hold in your hands and I had to have one. I can still distinctly remember opening the box on Christmas, popping in Kirby's Dreamland, switching it on and hearing that Nintendo “ding” sound for the first time.
More recently, like many people, I was really blown away the first time I played Flower on the PS3 – I remember feeling that something really transformational was happening. It was probably less about that particular game and more about the possibilities that the experience represented for the future of the medium. To this day whenever anyone I know says they aren't really interested in video games or think games are all just gory shoot ‘em ups - I sit them down and have them play Flower. After the experience, without fail, they walk away with an expanded idea of what gaming is and can be. Next I show them Beyond Good and Evil, Portal and Mirror’s Edge and they’re often hooked.
You can follow Anita’s criticism on her blog, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and donate to her Kickstarter.
Written by Erich "H2O mystakin" Sherman. Erich is the PMS|H2O Editorial Director. Keep track of him and his shenanigans on Twitter!