According to widely circulated study from the Entertainment Software Association, women now outnumber teenage boys among the ranks of videogame players. That's despite the fact that many best-selling video games still notoriously rely on tired, hyper-masculine narratives with women as little more than a scantily-clad garnish on a hearty meal of combat scenes and weapon upgrades.
Outside of mainstream game culture though, female game developers are at the forefront of challenging sexism in games, creating titles that include women as authentic characters and that center on personal narratives instead of predictable power fantasies. Indie games have actually become a incredibly exciting place to be a feminist in recent years, offering fresh perspectives on what games should be about and welcoming an explosion of new talent, particularly from women. Many have explored underrepresented topics like queer coming of age, reproductive rights and trans experiences. Contemporary journalism and critical writing about games are also full of feminist voices of all genders from blogs and zines to industry sites, game writers are shaping a robust critical dialogue around representation and diversity in games.
Some days, it feels like we’re at a crossroads in games, that the power of thoughtful transformative work is pushing us forward. But then the death threats start up again and we’re reminded that the process of untangling gaming culture from toxic misogyny is still very much a work in progress.
Despite (or because, as keen observers suggest) of the hard work that has made game culture more inclusive, backlash against female designers and critics who push vocally for change has become near constant on social media. This past month, game developer Zoe Quinn has been at the center of a perfect storm of hate-speech-laced conspiracy theorizing. Quinn is an accomplished developer best known for her game, “Depression Quest” an innovative indie title that explores depression and mental health. In August, an ex-boyfriend published a lengthy account of their breakup online, which launched a campaign of harassment by online vigilantes that spiraled into physical threats on her life.
Swirling amid the free-floating hatred and sex-shaming of Quinn are infuriating questions about her work. Message boards and comment sections are awash with armchair investigators claiming her relationships with journalists were tantamount to jury-rigging the reception of her critically acclaimed game. Putting aside the irony of attacks that involve hacking and theft of personal information over what is being characterized as an issue of "journalistic ethics,” or that charging cultural critics with “corruption” is profoundly missing the point of how critics have always been integral to the development of art and culture—what often goes unmentioned is that none of these alleged acquaintances ever reviewed Depression Quest and that (unlike your typical racketeer) Quinn released her game for free or pay-what-you-wish. It’s a situation women in every professional field are made to fear: that unfair judgments about our personal lives will not only follow us to work, but that at any moment a rumor can be weaponized to tear down our hard-won success.
Right on the heels of that debacle, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian was also hit with a wave of misogynist abuse. On August 25th, Sarkeesian released the latest video in her acclaimed and popular series on gender representation in video games.
Sarkeesian has received widespread praise for her clear-cut analysis of the way women are represented in mainstream games, but she has also been the subject vicious online harassment before. Sarkeesian gave an excellent TEDxWomen talk in 2012 about her experience dealing with the online abuse that accompanied the successful kickstarter launch of her video series. However, this recent wave of attacks (which she has been candid about online) is a new low, as Sarkeesian received such extreme threats that she was forced to leave home. She tweeted that when she spoke to police about following up on the specific and violent threats, they seemed unsure about how to deal with online harassment—an experience other writers have detailed.
While its easy to dismiss this as "business as usual" in online discourse, those of us concerned with the status of women in tech and in public life more broadly need to be vigilant as we watch these stories play out. The old adage to “never read the comments” is not a solution when careers and personal safety are being threatened. These recent cases illustrate that those who harass women and marginalized folks online aren’t just acting out—they are using organized hate speech to exercise power over the people they’re attacking.
Given this approach, there continues to be a sadly ironic theme of fear and paranoia to the language of those perpetrating harassment. Twitter users have earnestly adopted hashtags like #GamerGate and #Quinnspiracy, trading screenshots they allege to be proof that Sarkeesian is secretly rigging her own abuse, and bamboozling followers with false complaints. Others have gathered dozens of names or headshots of journalists and developers, crudely photoshopping them into widely circulated flyers, calling for boycotts of all supposed “SJWs” (Social Justice Warriors) who they charge with “ruining” games.
Fortunately, for all the mortifying conjecture about this rumored "social justice conspiracy," the response from women and allies to so called #GamerGate has been full of solidarity and support. The developers of the game Saints Row, which Sarkeesian critiques in her new video, have come forward to call the criticism deserved, agreeing that, "This is something we all should be better at." Other journalists, game designers, nerd celebrities like Wil Wheaton, and gaming industry veterans like Tim Schafer and Phil Fish have lauded Sarkisian’s work and are speaking out against harassment. “SJWs” themselves, in responses to this manufactured controversy, have been delivering barbs of quietly hilarious antagonism to brighten any beleaguered feminists’ day whilst infuriating irony-averse trolls.
Writer and illustrator Elizabeth Simins' popular meme and t-shirt campaign Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati was recently joined by game developer Maya Felix Kramer's new t-shirt created for any and all “cuties” in on the clandestine campaign to kill games.
For those of you who favor a more proactive approach to taking videogames down from the inside, game developer Caelyn Sandel has also launched Ruin Jam, a two week game jam which began Labor Day and promises that “any games that contribute to the downfall of video games are good candidates for submission.” You can check out the first entry, by IGF-nominated game developer Dierdra “Squinky” Kiai for free or donation today, the appropriately named, Quing's Quest VII: The Death of Videogames!.”
A sea change is coming to games, as evidenced by the explosion of projects supporting women game developers like Toronto’s Dames Making Games, NYC’s Code Liberation and the international organization Girls Make Games. But we can’t expect folks like Quinn, Sarkeesian and many other vocal women in games to take the fall in the meantime. If more stakeholders in games, like game studios and publishers, don’t proactively work to create a safer and more inclusive culture, they’re not only complicit in the dangerous harassment of women, they’re alienating their best customers.
Editor's Note: This article originally misattributed credit for the "cuties killing video games" t-shirt design. The error was corrected on September 9.