Anita Sarkeesian Receives Death Threats for Calling Out Misogyny in Video Games

Photo: Alex Lazara
Photo: Alex Lazara

By Matthew Jent

White Knights, Social Justice Warriors, Fedoramancers, Neckbeards. They sound like heroes and villains from a big-budget video game, but those are actually the epithets being thrown around by players, gamers, developers, and even some journalists in an increasingly toxic battle being waged for the soul of video games and games journalism. It’s a battle involving reviews scandals, ethics discussions, dueling YouTube videos, and threats of violence. What is going on in the world of video games?

Since 2009, Feminist Frequency has produced web videos that explore the representation of women in popular culture and art. Since 2012, when series creator Anita Sarkeesian launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to create a series of videos called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, she has been on the receiving end of vile and inexcusable threats against her safety and her life. Do you know what she’s saying that’s so controversial?

“This project will examine the tropes, plot devices, and patterns most commonly associated with women in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters. But remember that it’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”

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Sarkeesian brings a critical eye to video games and their representation of women as damsels to be rescued, gender-swapped versions of male characters, and nameless characters that exist to be carried around, or even killed, by the main male characters of the game.

Feminist Frequency’s videos are straightforward, cleanly produced, and long. Each episode is about 20 minutes, and “Damsel in Distress” itself has three parts, so it’s longer than an hour altogether. They feature game footage and commentary from Sarkeesian, who discusses the games and women’s roles in them. She discusses tropes and recurring stereotypes in a way that -- even if you understand, intellectually, that video games often portray women in a sexist manner -- is shocking and unacceptable.

She does not try to take anyone’s games away. She does not call for boycotts. She simply shines a light on an aspect of video games that many vocal opponents of her point of view would rather not be discussed in an open and critical way.

For trying to have that discussion, and for making videos that say things like, “These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players,” the Feminist Frequency Twitter account receives messages like, “Bitch, Shut your f***ing mouth and stop pmsing all over the media you don’t like.” Sarkeesian sometimes screencaps and shares them, tweeting this past August: “I usually don’t share the really scary stuff. But it’s important for folks to know how bad it gets.” In 2012, Sarkeesian also spoke at TEDxWomen in 2012 about being targeted for harassment during and after the successful Kickstarter for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.

With each new video from Feminist Frequency, it seems like the level of vitriol gets even worse. Released on August 25th of this year, the response to “Women as Background Decoration, Part Two” included tweets and posts of support from Joss Whedon and BoingBoing, but it also provoked threats of violence against Sarkeesian and her family that were so severe that she contacted the police and left her home for her own safety.

Photo: Alex Lazara
Photo: Alex Lazara

But it’s not just about trolls and gamers taking on Anita Sarkeesian. It’s not even strictly a battle against feminism. There is a systematic harassment of women in games.

In the week before the latest Feminist Frequency video was released, indie developer Zoe Quinn, whose award-winning game Depression Quest is a largely text-based game about living with depression, saw her career and personal life turned upside-down when an ex-boyfriend posted a widely read, and very lengthy, blog chronicling the intimate details of their breakup. A lot of it was personal and nearly all of it was mean and condescending, but the accusation that her detractors latched onto most was that Quinn had traded sex for positive reviews of Depression Quest.

Quinn’s accusers claimed they were battling corruption in games journalism, and that the review in question had been written by Nathan Grayson for the games site Kotaku. And while there is a post by Grayson mentioning Quinn on that site, and a while a subsequent post on Kotaku revealed that Grayson and Quinn had a personal relationship, the review itself that was supposedly traded for sex? It doesn’t exist. If it was written, it was never posted. Quinn has refused to comment on the matter, saying it is entirely personal and has nothing to do with her work or her place in the industry.

Quinn did nothing illegal. Quinn and Grayson did nothing professionally unethical. Someone’s feelings certainly were hurt, whatever allegations are true or not. But that’s unfortunate, not unethical.

What is illegal and unethical is the harassment that was turned against Quinn and her friends after these allegations were made. A group of anonymous hackers turned their outrage against Quinn and anyone who spoke up for her. Phil Fish, designer of the innovative, post-modern puzzle/platform game FEZ, had his website taken down, Twitter account hacked, and bank account and email information made public after he expressed support for her. Fish, who has a history of volatile responses to the games media, tweeted that he was quitting games, putting FEZ and his company, the Polytron Corporation, for sale. He also advised aspiring developers to “give up on your dreams. RUN AWAY,” rather than get involved with the video games industry.

Maybe that seems drastic, but the attacks against Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn are just the parts of the iceberg we can see. I reached out to journalist Kate Cox to ask for her input, as a former games journalist who has largely left the industry and moved into public interest work for The Consumerist.

“Having changed fields, I realize in retrospect how constantly tense and nerve-wracking professional games journalism was,” she said. “My work still generates disagreement and angry letters, because every journalist’s occasionally does, but not having to wade through a few hundred hateful, potentially abusive or even threatening comments and emails on every piece I write has taken a huge weight off my shoulders. Starting from the place where you know a very vocal segment of your readership hates you just for existing -- which is doubly, triply, quadruply pronounced for any woman in the field -- is just a hard way to live.”

Video games are a young art form, but it’s one of the fastest growing forms of popular media. There’s some debate over what the first video game was, but the Magnavox Odyssey, the first commercially available video game console, was released in 1972. Its prototype resides in the Smithsonian. For a long time -- for decades -- video games were the province of mostly middle-class, straight, white, male gamers.

That’s simply not the case anymore. Nearly half of all video gamers are women, and there is a pop cultural sea change happening with regard to feminism and other voices that have gone unheard. The bigots aren’t going quietly into the night, but the close-minded, misogynistic point of view that has been the dominant one in video games is disappearing.

Art belongs to the artist only until they share it with the world. After that, it belongs to the audiences and critics who engage with it. They can challenge that art, pick it apart, love it and hate it at the very same time.

“I think it’s sad when a niche becomes so virulently toxic that reasonable, mature people can consider walking away the best option,” Kate Cox told me. “I know a lot of people of all genders who are sticking with it and doing excellent, amazing, vital, necessary work that I love to read and share. But sometimes I do really wonder for how long.”

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Only a handful of game developers and companies have stood up and supported women like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn when they’ve come under fire. And it’s true that a bigot’s money will spend just like anyone else’s. But if all of the rational, open-minded Social Justice Warriors decide it’s not worth talking about games anymore, it’s the bigots who will be left in charge. Is that who you want to sit down and play a game with?

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