Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Reality Reflecting Criticism: Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Meet Anita Sarkeesian. She runs the media criticism site Feminist Frequency. One of her focuses is on the use of tropes in media. Essentially, she breaks down how certain character types repeat over a broad range of media.

Here’s a sample. In this video, she analyzes the use of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games through the lens of realistic responses to violence and trauma. Her analysis is even-handed and backed up by evidence every step of the way. She defines her focus and presents her arguments in a clear and logical way.

Sarkeesian decided to launch a Kickstarter project to examine five tropes used again and again in video games. She does not use loaded language or judge the repetition as overtly negative or positive because she hasn’t completed her research. True, she says that the tropes are “harmful.” That’s when she also mentions that there are games that hit on these tropes in more positive ways.

The goal was to raise $6000 to cover the costs associated with playing hundreds of video games for five videos. Presumably, these include acquiring the games, capturing images and playback, research expenses, and the actual labor that goes into putting a video series together. It’s a small amount for a video game project. Plus, that’s a genre that has really taken off on Kickstarter recently.

The project has been so successful that Sarkeesian is going to produce 12 videos: another six videos on tropes and one video on common defenses of sexism in gaming. She’s even writing a classroom curriculum to accompany the videos. What a great and positive use of resources for education, right?

Not so fast. Anita Sarkeesian has gone from pop culture critic to an example of how women are portrayed in media. Apparently, some male gamers have decided that Sarkeesian is a bad person for even suggesting that there might be female stereotypes in games.

That’s the kind way of saying what they’re doing. The reality is disturbing. A group of 4Chan users–though I doubt they’re the only ones doing it–are trying to get her Kickstarter project taken down for various TOS violations. They’re flagging her YouTube videos as hate speech because, to them, feminist means someone who hates men. They edited her Wikipedia page so much that it got locked. They flooded her comment sections with hate speech, telling her to lie back and take it, go back to the kitchen to get them a sandwich, or shave off her hair and stop wearing makeup if being a feminist matters to her.

It doesn’t matter that Sarkeesian hasn’t said any of the things they accuse her of saying. They’re trying to redefine the argument as “video games aren’t designed for women” or “men are portrayed poorly, too, so this project is invalid.” They’re actively campaigning against her success for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with her project. It’s clear that most of the participants in this effort did not watch her Kickstarter video or read her project proposal. They’re setting up straw men while demonstrating the continued need for this kind of research at all.

Tropes vs Women in Video Games Logo
Maybe the outrage proves how much we need an analysis of harmful tropes in video games
To Sarkeesian’s great credit, she has not removed the comments. They are, if nothing else, evidence of the harm that stereotypes and tropes can bring through pop culture. The arguments they’re making are arguments that are constantly fed through the channels of pop culture.

Cartman says most of these things on South Park and he’s quoted verbatim in many of the comments. You can find references pulled from Peter Griffin, Stan Smith, and a host of other TV and movie characters. In the context of their shows, this behavior is funny because the writers realize how absurd the comments are. In the real world, it’s disturbing because these people actually believe what they’re saying.

Anita Sarkeesian’s project is funded so long as the Kickstarter stays up. As of this posting, she raised over $92,000 for the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project. I look forward to seeing her finished videos and can only hope that these objectors actually take the time to listen to her actual arguments. I’m not holding my breath.

What do you think? Any games you think Sarkeesian should look into for the project? I think Haunting Ground provides an interesting angle for Damsel in Distress. Fiona is the active investigator in the game, but she is incapable of defending herself against any attack unless her big strong dog is by her side. One game mechanic is actually running away and hiding to decrease the risk posed by a hulking male menace.

And what about this whole “they’re only trolling” defense I’ve seen pop up? Does that mitigate the outrageous nature of the attacks at all? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.

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  • http://cheerfulcynicism.blogspot.com kelsy

    I really like Anita Sarkeesian’s series about tropes. Like you said, her arguments are always well reasoned and don’t necessarily give a judgment. Usually it boils down to, “Get more creative, people including women in their art.”

    Unfortunately, internet trolls, especially on YouTube which might be the bottom of the “websites that allow comments” barrel, are the worst. It disturbs me that there’s so much ignorance about feminism that is looking for equality(the kind Sarkeesian seems to tout). Somehow feminism = man-hating, lesbian, with short hair and no make-up. Anything against that is hypocritical and not feminist. It also disturbs me that they don’t bother listening to what she has to say. I would hope most people would look at these comments as irrational responses to a well thought out argument. Deep sigh.

  • Peter

    Hi Robert. I’m not very fond of Anita’s series about tropes, it has good production values and the idea is good, but for me it’s kinda too brief and she really doesn’t say anything new. And from time to time she gets kinda preachy which is anoying.

    About her video game series i have few problems.
    1.) Gaming isn’t the same medium as Movies. It has diffrent orgin, diffrent history, diffrent target audience and diffrent development. Gaming is changing very drasticly. I don’t trust that she understand the medium enough to comment one it. I hope i’m wrong
    2.) Games ARE designed mostly for male 15th years old boys. Most of the designers are male (thankfully we have more female devs than ever). It’s just bussines. It may be the strawman argument but you don’t expect playboy to treat women respectful. Don’t get me wrong i want more women in our community, but they are minority in AAA industry. You can’t comment and influence the community you aren’t a part off (sad but true).
    3.) As you said. Man are not portrayed better. And i don’t know why you dissmis this argument. The problem with stereotypes in games is a BIG problem in industry. Gaming is the industry of trends. And good characters always were minority in gaming. The idea to talk about only female tropes is onesided and just briefly tackling interesting broad topic. If she could talk about all tropes, if she could go deep then this could be intresting.
    4.) I know what she will say. It will be the same as her youtube series just with video characters. She says the same thing over and over. She doesn’t say how to fix it. It is supposed to be document but i know around 80% of it’s content. I hope i’m wrong.
    5.) 6.000$ cost of playing video games (researching)… Oh boy that is just stupid. For 100 minutes of content she gets 6.000$+youtube revenue from each view. She has the good equipment. Why does she need that kind of money once again? To PLAY games? But ok it’s a lot but she wants to get some money from it right? But she got over 100.000$? You know that she doesn’t deserve that kind of money. I just hope she will give some of that money to charity.

    About the haters and trolls. Welcome to the internet, enjoy your stay. You can’t do anything about it. And the attacks she got are… to be honest pretty standard. Youtube comments are always worthless, and trying to take down her videos…pffff… meh. You heard saying “there is no bad publicity”, on the youtube it works. Haters watch your video spam comments and boom, your video goes up in the search engine. Haters show each other your page, more people know about it. As far as i know they didn’t threat her or stalk her so… It’s good for her, as strange as it can be.

    btw
    “Anita Sarkeesian has gone from pop culture critic to an example of how women are portrayed in media.”
    that doesn’t sound biased at all mate. And how women are portrayed in media? Which media? What are you talking about?
    She became victim of the feminist stereotype not the “women portray in media”.
    “Apparently, some male gamers have decided that Sarkeesian is a bad person for even suggesting that there might be female stereotypes in games.”
    Yeah i call bullshit on this. This is just too stupid to be real. Just trolls and if you talk about trolls don’t associate them with the gamer community, because it simply offend me. Thank you.

    • http://thesketchydetails.net/ Robert

      And thank you for cherry picking out specific comments in this post and proving my argument at the same time. You complained that she doesn’t need the money. You said games are designed for 15 year old boys so suck it up. You accused me of being biased for pointing out that the language used in television and movies is being thrown at a feminist critic to try to discredit her work. You claimed my entire argument was stupid because of a few choice quotes taken out of context. You proved what I wrote, what she wrote, and what the article I linked to wrote.

    • http://thesketchydetails.net/ Robert

      And while we’re on it, it’s amazing that you already know what her research is going to say before she even conducts it.

      I’ve followed her videos for a good while now. Her arguments are based in the context of the media she’s examining. Do you really think her videos on The Hunger Games are the same as her videos on cartoon series? Feminism may be her main school of research, but it is hardly the only thing she does. She approaches each media text like a literary theorist. The way this style of criticism works is that you take a particular theory and see how it applies to a given text/artifact. The language repeats because that’s the frame of reference for the argument. It does not mean that she argues the same thing over and over or comes to the same conclusions.

      Of course, if you don’t actually do this kind of criticism on a regular basis or haven’t before, you might not understand how it works.

      As for the gamer thing, if the shoe fits. One of my regular collaborators is one of the girl gamers who has to stay off in game chat if she doesn’t want to be called every sexist name and female slur under the sun. It’s easier to pretend to be male than take the abuse that female gamers get if they dare to play a male-targeted game.

  • Peter

    “One of my regular collaborators is one of the girl gamers who has to stay off in game chat if she doesn’t want to be called every sexist name and female slur under the sun. It’s easier to pretend to be male than take the abuse that female gamers get if they dare to play a male-targeted game.”
    I’m sorry to hear that. Really i am. Tell your friend that she is great that she still plays even against the odds. This is a problem, which we should talk in our gaming community and trust me some of us try. The thing is most of the abuse is comming from the teens and educating them takes time and to be honest this should be done by parents.

    “You claimed my entire argument was stupid because of a few choice quotes taken out of context.”
    First of all contex of quotes doesn’t change anything. Second i didn’t tell that your entire argument is stupid nor did i say her work is stupid. I used first quote to show you how over the top that sentance was and because i’m an asshole. Second quote was used because i felt insulted that you put equal sign between gaming community and obvious trolls. I didn’t like it so i pointed it out.

    “You complained that she doesn’t need the money. You said games are designed for 15 year old boys so suck it up.”
    Yes i did and you didn’t counterargument those claims. And i didn’t say suck it up i just said because of that the ground for disscusion is drasticly diffrent than for other media.
    btw Discussion 101, you can’t say you have right you have to prove it. Any sentance without backing it up is worthless.

    “You proved what I wrote, what she wrote, and what the article I linked to wrote.”
    how?

    “And while we’re on it, it’s amazing that you already know what her research is going to say before she even conducts it.”
    whenever i was dark visioning this document i added at the end i hope i’m wrong. I want a good document about women in games i just don’t think she is the right person to do it (my personal opinion based on my personal experience with her serie about tropes vs women). I would want a gaming journalist someone who knows the industry as his own pocket. That’s my concern. It’s not resonable?

    • Lysana

      In fact, there is an easy refutation to your claim about games being aimed at 15-year-old boys because they’re the majority of the market so women should just suck it up and deal. Women spend the majority of the money on video games. No, you can look it up. It’s the truth.

      And no, the parents cannot and will not teach opposite to the games’ content. Why? This society encourages the stereotypes they promote. And the game producers need to realize, as do the authors and screenwriters, that merely reflecting society is not helpful. Reinforcing the patriarchal norms hurts everyone. Men are victimized by that system, forced into roles that require them to behave in certain ways and deny them their full expression.

      But the fact I even have to argue this is part of the problem as well. Why can’t you find sympathy for fellow human beings? Why do I have to tell you men suffer from the tropes to even have half a hope of reaching you?

      • Peter

        Hi lysana. It’s true that the avarage gamer is female. But only if take games like farmvile and bejweled into accout. Those are valid games… But… it’s another market. It’s casual market. When we talk about games in general we talk about the AAA studios which big majority of playerbase is male so my argument still stands. You know what is funny avarage player is not a teen nor a kid, but still games are made for those markets. It’s anoying.

        And yes parents should look up what kind of games/books/films kids watch. Of course there still is a peer presure, but totaly not giving a shit what kids are doing on their consoles/pc is stupid and very common.

  • Peter

    “I’ve followed her videos for a good while now. Her arguments are based in the context of the media she’s examining. Do you really think her videos on The Hunger Games are the same as her videos on cartoon series? Feminism may be her main school of research, but it is hardly the only thing she does. She approaches each media text like a literary theorist. The way this style of criticism works is that you take a particular theory and see how it applies to a given text/artifact. The language repeats because that’s the frame of reference for the argument. It does not mean that she argues the same thing over and over or comes to the same conclusions.”

    So she is someone with a few frames that goes from point to point and checks if the frame fits the picture. If it does then great we can say it fits… It isn’t entertainging. It would be if she did something with it aside from showing it. But as i said earlier it’s my personal opinion.

    btw. Cartoons and hunger games are almost the same medium. One is a cinema and one is a television. There is no really big diffrence. Games are not films, films are not books, books are not music songs. So yes i think she uses the same background since cartoons and hunger games may be diffrent genres (which changes the language a bit) but the background of knowladge stays the same.

  • Peter

    I want to ask you something.
    Do you really thing this document can in any way be a force to change something in gaming?
    Before you anwser i will tell you this. Nowdays most devs use stereotypes because they are pressured by publishers to release game fast so there is not enough time to fully develop character. Back in the day devs weren’t even able to create good character so they were using any popular and easy to make trope (first game devs weren’t writers, they were just few programers). Also writing for gaming isn’t prestigious so we don’t even have good writers. And also creating a story for a game is diffrent than for a movie so we really lack in that department. As i said gaming spins around trends, everyone know about this. Why do you think in the last 5 years we only generic space marines and token girls from AAA studios. We are in this system because there are few huge corporations that want to play safe. And people buy those games, so they produce more of them, and people buy. Most of the buyers are kids which have this fantasy that they are big manly man with huge gun (teens that sometimes use game to boost their ego or relief stress etc.), so because the companies want to max the revenues they create games to cater to that demographic. Our gaming industry is changing like hell, few years ago we had a big boom in casual gaming. Which introduced a lot of women into gaming. The thing is designing AAA game for both genders was almost imposible back in the day. Most of the devs were male so there was a lack of female influence. At this point industry is slowly trying to appeal to both genders and we slowly get more expierience with what we can achive with our medium (play journey on ps3). If you would look at core design of World of Warcraft you would see that devs wanted women to play. Anyhow… Whole community KNOWS that we use stereotypes. Most adult ones are fed of it. The thing is the internet is… kinda messy, community of gamers is very, very not organised. We as a consumers are weak. Her style of criticism presented in the series tropes vs women is mostly telling what’s wrong… but the thing is we know what’s wrong. Add to this that document will be made someone who doesn’t have significant gaming background. Now let me once again ask question.
    Do you really belive that document in the form of few 20 minutes talk about the tropes that most of us know, really can change something, when big majority of community doesn’t see the producer of this document as any authority figure?

    pro tip: the anwser is no, since without the massive appeal you can’t do jack in the community this size and with such a big problems on the dev/publ side. And without gaming knowladge, the more picky ones will rip everything apart (and trust me, we are good at this). And lastly we already have people trying to change this who actually matter in this community.

    • http://thesketchydetails.net/ Robert

      By itself, no. The idea is to create discourse. That’s the goal of all academic inquiry. One project alone does nothing. Creating a dialogue that encourages people to further pursue and share this research field does. We’re still at a place with gaming where respected critics feel there is no artistic merit to games. That does not mean that putting the effort into exploring the rhetoric of gaming, so to speak, is worthless.

      It’s like saying there’s no point in being one of the first people to evaluate a modern novel for literary merit because it’s not going to be in the canon yet. That’s true. But today’s critical groundwork becomes tomorrow’s major field of study.

      Let’s use an example. Thirty years ago, it was unimaginable to think that colleges would teach courses just on Gothic literature. It was considered pulp literature with no merit. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen was considered the other, less desirable text because it was a Gothic novel. Yet, some academic critics chose to investigate these texts through various critical theories, including feminist analysis.

      Now, it’s rare to see a literature program that doesn’t offer such a course. Texts presumed missing for centuries have been found in private collections because people actually wanted to study them. Northanger Abbey is studied as literary satire, not silly fantasy, as the books she referenced have been found, read, and analysed to see if they match her descriptions. They do. A neglected field of research has become a strong and growing presence in literary theory because people were willing to put the groundwork in years ago to say “hey, you’re not the only person interested in this. Go for it.”

      Who is to say whether or not video games will one day be examined with the same sincerity as film or television? Why work so hard to silence someone who wants to take that chance now? So you don’t like her research. Why condemn her as a human being–call her a slut and a whore (and much worse), threaten her livelihood, attempt to destroy her reputation as a critic–because you don’t like her field of research? What does that say about the discourse concerning this topic?

      To me, it sounds like some people don’t want the topic discussed at all and find it an affront that someone would dare to look at video games like this. It’s such a threat that they choose to lash out and attack a researcher because they don’t agree with her research. It’s like saying you hate science so you’re going to punch your high school chemistry teacher square in the teeth. What does that accomplish?

      If you don’t like the rhetoric, propose your own analysis. Argue against her issues, not her standing as a person. Don’t say “but someone else said this” because she’s not that other person. She has her own views on the subject. Debate those. Don’t throw out the most sensationalist arguments you can think of just because you don’t agree with the field. Do you think that these 11 tropes pose no harm at all? Great. Argue why. Don’t say “no they don’t” and attack anyone who doesn’t agree. She started the debate. You have to approach her on the same terms. Her research suggests one interpretation. Scrutinize her research and propose your own alternative. You get nowhere being aggressive and dismissive of alternative viewpoints.

      And you certainly get nowhere if you say the research is pointless, won’t make a difference by itself, and shouldn’t be conducted because she’s only one person.

      • Peter

        Ok you still don’t get this.
        Title of her series is tropes vs. women in video games. It suggest that it’s format will be similar to the format of tropes vs. women. That series is more or less in this format:
        1) What means the trope we are talking about
        2) Examples where it is used
        3) what is the role of the trope
        4) talk how much the women are opressed in the art
        and that’s all. You may think that this spring discussion but it doesn’t. She present her way of thinking as the ultimate truth. There is no question, everything is black and white.
        Now her series tropes vs women in video games is in 20 minute episodes which suggest it will be made in simmilar fasion just more examples and maybe a bit of history.
        It doesn’t sound like a document at all. It will be her youtube episodes just bigger.
        The ONLY episode that will be in any way new for her will be about positive characters. This will force her to do something outside from her usual format. Which is great. But it was last episode on her list. It already tells a lot about her point of view on this matter.
        She will talk games not because she is passionate gamer and feminist and want to educate. Show what is bad and what is good. She started as feminist critic and saw that video games are popular so she should do series about them. She doesn’t care about the industry or the gaming artistic value and you know it. And if she does, she surely hide it very well since she didn’t talk about it once. This may sound like a rant but am i wrong? Do you belive that she does it for the art of gaming or she does it because we are easy and meaty target for her show?
        If her goal was what you imply she would do something more broad than this.

        anyhow
        “She started the debate”. Nope… As i said. We know about those tropes. Let’s see…
        1.) Damsel in Distress – yeah that’s really not new. Most cliche trope ever.
        2.) The Fighting F#@k Toy – fighting games and oversexualisation of women… yeah that’s not new.
        3.) The Sexy Sidekick – yeah that’s not new.
        4.) The Sexy Villainess – that is… not new. It comes from the fantasy mostly
        5.) Background Decoration – not new…
        6.) Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress – fantasy oversexualise tribal culture… not new, but still can be intresting
        7.) Women as Reward – It’s a cliche… not new. Just boring.
        8.) Mrs. Male Character – comics loved to do this… and… i can’t remember that we still do this. I mean Nintendo but they did this few years ago… is it even relevant? Still not new
        9.) Unattractive Equals Evil – yeah… Hello Disney… not new
        10. ) Man with Boobs – i don’t even… Is it talking about character that are tomboys? I can listen to that
        11. ) Positive Female Characters! – that’s new… we don’t talk about it enough.

        BTW i don’t know what in her picture does Heather from sillent hill… She is amazing.
        And Lara Croft in the eyes of creator was really really good character. Problem was marketing and the fact that tomb raider series was just bad and lazy after first two.

  • Thursday

    “The thing is most of the abuse is comming from the teens and educating them takes time and to be honest this should be done by parents.”

    There are few thing that are more worth spending the time to do than improving and educating children.