Trigger warning, in advance, for discussions of and links to documentation of rape culture, threats of sexual violence, death threats
There has been a fairly intense – debate? Argument? – happening on Twitter and across blogs for the last few days regarding sexism, misogyny, violence against women, online conduct, and gaming culture. Maybe you’ve seen it; Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist pop culture media critic, launched a Kickstarter to fund a series examining the depictions of women in games. Tropes v. Women in Video Games has already been fully funded, with nearly $159,000 donated by nearly 7,000 backers. This is my first exposure to Feminist Frequency and Sarkeesian’s work, but I’m looking forward to what’s shaping up to be an insightful project.
Anyway, instead of supporting this project across the board, cisgendered male gamers came out in force to do what cisgendered male gamers seem to do best these days: stand up in support of rape culture.
In short, Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia page was vandalized, she received thousands of comments on her YouTube channel, received harassing images depicting her being sexually assaulted. Tweets, messages, etc. They all contained a common thread: boys disagree with her project, and are attacking her very specifically as a woman about it. Sarkeesian’s opponents tapped into an upsetting set of norms – rape culture, and the allowance of violence against women – to threaten and silence her.
I thought this would get to its most disgusting with the development and release online of a game called Beat Up Anna Sarkeesian, which is exactly what it sounds likes. Players could click a photograph of Sarkeesian, and damage would appear – split lips, black eyes, bloodied nose.
A Toronto-based blogger, Steph Guthrie, took the game’s creator to task on the internet. She publicly called out Ben Spurr for his misogyny and for promoting violence and threats against Sarkeesian. The internet turned on him, tracked down his Steam profile, and generally rallied to the cause – but, almost immediately, things went south. Guthrie was attacked on Twitter with escalating vigour, culminating in a death threat.
Here’s where I find it difficult to discuss. What is there to say that hasn’t been said? The deniers of any kind of rape/misogyny culture in gaming still have their heads in the sand, even while they’re proving that there is a problem. The fact that there is a need for this conversation shows that there is something seriously wrong with gaming culture – which is an ugly, introverted, adolescent mirror for broader cultural issues. So how do we solve this problem?
Parents: you need to play games with your kids. You need to be able to understand what they are consuming, and you need to be able to monitor, to an extent, their interactions and what they’re being exposed to while gaming. And more than that, you need to be able to discuss it intelligently with them. Whether it’s sexist depictions, gender-motivated violence, or coupling sex with violence.
What’s needed more is that you game with them while they’re playing online. Even if you’re being attentive to ESRB ratings (which are frequently inaccurate anyway) to ensure age-appropriate content, there’s a frequent disclaimer: online experience not rated. That’s because the moment you log into XBox Live (which deserves note for its rampant harassment), or any online game, you’re at the mercy of other players.
Online gaming is an echo chamber. Any relatively small community is. And the sexism and homophobia in online communities gets amplified to the point that threats of murder, rape and other sexual violence are not only accepted but encouraged. So, again, parents: game with your kids. Be present in the room, have the console in a central location, and insist on speakers instead of a headset. And be bold enough to address what you see and hear with your kids.
And, teachers: don’t be afraid to look at this stuff. Sexism and racism and homophobia don’t just exist in novels that have gone mouldy from being stuffed in a book closet all summer. They exist in today’s most popular form of entertainment media, too. Draw your parallels, talk about it in class, and don’t let it drop.
Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals.