BY STEPHANIE SHAMP GEEK SPACE CORRESPONDENT Two weeks ago, the invisible troll army of the so-called “#GamerGate” keepers — kind of like the ISIS of video game culture — reached peak infamy when feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University because of death threats. To be more specific, it wasn’t just the death threats, Sarkeesian is used to that by now, rather it was the fact that Utah state open carry laws meant that security could not restrict audience members from bringing guns into the auditorium. (Thanks, NRA!) If #GamerGate vibes less like a social movement than a hateful testosterone-fueled backlash hiding behind a hashtag, know that its adherents prefer to think of it as a “consumer revolt” against what they characterize as dubious ethics in video game journalism. Sarkeesian became the target of gamer trolls for her YouTube series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” which points out the sexist, racist and homophobic tropes, both blatant and latent, in popular video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, Hitman, or even Super Mario Bros.
Notably, the #GamerGate trolls have made a point of attacking more female voices (known as SJWs or Social Justice Warriors) than male and has repeatedly run these women, including and particularly Sarkeesian, out of their jobs and homes with threats of rape and death. Searching the term “#GamerGate” on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or TUMBLR reveals a vast trove of angry memes, cruelly photoshopped JPEGs, and flame-throwing response videos that characterize Sarkeesian as the sour face of the SJW movement that aims to infiltrate the boy’s club of gaming community and censor the content of their beloved games in the name of feminism. In short, take all the fun out of it.
So what is it about Sarkeesian’s videos that has sparked so much kicking and screaming amongst the trolls? “Tropes vs. Women” is a video series by a woman discussing the misuse of female characters in popular culture and video games. That’s it, that’s all it is, videos expressing opinions. There are millions of those online yet it seems only the ones that critique sexist cliches in male-dominated entertainment fields get this violent, savage reaction.
Now why is that?
Sarkeesian’s series examines sexist tropes across the spectrum of popular culture, including television and movies, not just video games. Episodes of “Tropes vs. Women” are organized by seasons stretching back from now to 2009. The first season of her series is a general examination of what was trending in pop culture at the time (i.e. Twilight, True Blood, and Caprica) and which shows presented nuanced, three-dimensional female characters and, more importantly, which ones were sorely lacking in that regard. None of these early videos spurred the kind of seething misogyny and online harassment and abuse Sarkeesian and others like her have been subjected to as of late. Why were these videos so inoffensive, so unworthy of troll vitriol? Because they were critiquing “chick flicks” or fads and therefore of little interest or value to the #GamerGate gangsters.
Over the next few seasons, Sarkeesian broadened her focus and examined mass media consumed by men as well as women, highlighting sexist tropes in online advertising and television, and exploring how gender perception is ingrained in children’s toy ads and video games. And that’s when the trouble started. When the first “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” was uploaded a year ago, Sarkeesian was routinely called a “bitch” and a “feminazi,” a term coined by none other than Rush Limbaugh. Her credibility was questioned, she could not be a “real” gamer if she espoused these opinions said the troll choir. She was being “dishonest” and disingenuous, they said. The haters looked for anything, absolutely anything, to disprove or undermine her opinions. Often it got personal. One anonymous critic of her work critiqued her appearance and how her wearing lipstick and jewelry is hypocritical because she was discussing overwrought gender signifiers in video games. Essentially saying that if she was going to espouse man-hating bull dyke opinions, she should look the part.
As with many sub-cultures of the geek universe, the content of video games was created by males for males, i.e. the male gaze. It was a bonerific boys club and the #GamerGate gangsters meant to keep it that way, despite the fact that females now make up nearly half of all videogame consumers. These angry gamers cannot believe a woman would have the audacity to criticize their games, their revered industry or pretend to be one of them—you know, the REAL gamers–they believe she should just be grateful to have video games with any kind of woman in it, even if, as in Grand Theft Auto, they are merely hookers there for the raping. As if simply having the ability to play the games resolves the problem of representation and equality.
Until fairly recently the only females invited to the party were the ones who tried to be “one of the guys” — which invariably means rejecting feminist principles. I speak from experience. Like many women of a certain age and era, I went through my too-cool-for-my-vagina phase so I can almost hear the small group of gender-traitors in #GamerGate screaming “BUT I’M NOT AN SJW, RIGHT GUYS? NO STUPID GIRLS HERE!” Get real, girlfriend.
The original strategy of #GamerGangsters seemed to be ‘If I scream loud enough the world will reset to exactly how I want it.’ Notably, that is the same strategy that newborn babies employ to get their needs met. But as of late, things have taken a dark turn. If #GamerGate was nothing more than an army of angry man-babies foaming at the mouth online about the invasion of women into the dicks-only club, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But things have escalated from comments section flame-wars to death and/or rape threats. The threat sent to Utah State promised “the worst massacre in U.S. history” if Sarkeesian was allowed to speak her mind in public. No one deserves to be ambushed daily by threats of violence or rape for expressing their opinion. That’s Taliban tactics, people, and it needs to stop yesterday. This can be done voluntarily or with the assistance of the F.B.I. There is nowhere to hide on the Internet, yo, sooner or later they WILL find you. And then we’ll see who’s the “little bitch.”
At this point, I should admit I do not play video games. I went from a Sega Genesis to an Xbox 360 like 4 years ago and never got into gaming because that is a rough transition. So many button combinations. Anyway, my lack of gaming skills has never stopped me from enjoying gamer-related shows like “Red vs. Blue” or “The Guild” nor has it prevented me from enjoying watching someone else play these incredible games for me. Yes, I am the gal sitting on the couch watching her boyfriend play “Alien: Isolation” in awe. So my perspective on this “#GamerGate” controversy comes from the remove of a casual observer, and as a feminist geek who believes no one should be harassed, abused and threatened with violence and rape for trying to start a conversation about the place of women in the vast and growing empire of gaming.