Thursday, 6 June 2013

Sarkeesian Dualism

Once upon a time (well, yesterday actually), fellow blogger and freshly minted author Rewan over at The Hyperteller made a bit of a point about feminism in his post The Women are Taking Over. Read it. Assuming of course that the women haven't already taken over, in which case ask your nearest woman for permission, and then read it. Now far be it from me to write a blog post that could easily have been a simple reply, but there is another debate going on at the moment about Anita Sarkeesian, she of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games fame. It's an ongoing video series, and the second part was recently taken down via abuse of YouTube's flag system. Which is a shame, because leaving it up does more harm to her argument than good. The problem with her piece is not what it says, but the way it goes about saying it. If you were to ask the YouTube flag spammers "Do you think Anita Sarkeesian has a point, and women are misrepresented in video games," I think the reply would be a resounding yes, and we are aware of the problem. If however, you were to ask "Do you agree with the examples used, the way she worded it, and the misrepresentation of a beloved hobby," then I think it's easier to understand why the pitchforks came out. It didn't help that the whole thing started with a $6,000 Kickstarter campaign that ended up raking in over $150,000, and the best she could do with the money was a new mac and a copy of CS6 so she can slap flashy popups all over what amounts to a series of twenty minute vlogs. It's also surprising that with so much of the money earmarked for production costs, she presents the videos herself rather than hiring someone who can enunciate correctly. See, she's very up-front about the fact that the Kickstarter money was going to be used to buy games and equipment, but what that shows is that she's not going to have played them like a normal gamer would. We spend a few evenings a week, weekends, entire summer holidays soaking in these worlds, learning their quirks and their charm. We play them to win, sure, but we also play them to experience them. But Sarkeesian does not strike me as the gamer she claims to be; more someone who has noticed gaming is getting popular, and has decided that's going to be what she does now that she's graduated. With the timescale she's giving herself between updates, she's probably only got time to rush through the basics of each game before moving on, all the time looking for more points for her next video. And given that she's now closed avenues of dialogue with non feminist gaming channels, the list of recommendations she recieves are obviously going to give a biased view.
I think this guy sums it up best - he also acts like a complete dick in making some of his points, but a lot of them are good points nonetheless. He notes that Sarkeesian interprets the desire to rescue a damsel as a "male power fantasy" - a direct quote from her second video - which is an interesting reinterpretation of a primal instinct in human beings to rescue people they care about. I say interesting. I mean interesting in the way that a therapist would write down and underline in red pen. This is the frustrating thing about the videos. Her reasoning is built on a chain of conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere, or at least have no impartial and objective truth to them. In the first video, Sarkeesian put a lot of people's backs up when she tried to quash the video game trope that stock male characters tend to be stronger, while female characters are faster. "This simply isn't true," she states, before moving on without providing any evidence to a statement that runs contrary to evidence that can be seen all around us. What she means is that she doesn't want it to be true, or that there are reasons it is true that she feels we should be fighting against. The axiom that the sexes are equal does not mean that there aren't differences between them. And whether through nature or nurture, the fact is - as many morphologists, physiotherapists and statisticians will tell you - male bodies tend to have more upper body strength, which can have an impact on dexterity. There's a reason men and women's weightlifting contests are divided by gender and tend to have different scores. Your average woman can train to be as strong as most men, it's true. But for whatever reason, they don't. As a statistical trend, men tend to be stronger. Another leap in reasoning comes when she examines the motivations of The Darkness II's Jackie in rescuing his girlfriend's soul:
"The implication being that she belongs to him, that she was his posession."
Maybe that's what she got from it - I got from it that the mob guy is a dick, and now I hate him. I'll agree absolutely that the scene in question is about feelings of loss of power, of helplessness. He killed someone my character cared deeply for, and so by the transitive property of human emotion, she's someone I also cared for. And I couldn't do anything to stop it. But she then goes on to state factually that it's all about loss of masculinity. Maybe it's more about loss of girlfriend, Anita. Or loss of another human being. Sometimes a cigar is just a fucking cigar.
She goes on though, claiming that "Depictions of female vulnerability are used as an easy way for writers to trigger an emotional reaction in male gamers." I don't know how easy it can be to emotionally attach yourself to one of your creations and then put it through that kind of abuse. As George RR Martin put it when talking about the now infamous Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones:
"That was the hardest scene I’ve ever had to write. It’s two-thirds of the way through the book, but I skipped over it when I came to it. So the entire book was done and there was still that one chapter left. Then I wrote it. It was like murdering two of your children. I try to make the readers feel they’ve lived the events of the book. Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed. You should care. If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?" - George R. R. Martin
So why doesn't Anita Sarkeesian seem to understand this fear of the death of a beloved character? This is one of the key problems I have with her analysis - it reflects a superficial experience. She is not on the gamer's side speaking out, she is on the outside looking in, telling us what the experience looks like without engaging enough to give a true reflection. She doesn't engage with the characters in any meaningful way, and it shows in her detached analysis. Where she sees game developers manipulating players by doing horrible things to women, I see the antagonist doing it. There's a well established distance between the intentions of the author and the intentions of their characters, and thank god, or George RR Martin would be licking the inside of a cell in Broadmoor. It shows a basic lack of understanding of the way art works - it'd be like saying how antisemitic Spielberg is for portraying the atrocities in Schindler's list, or how much of a fascist Orwell was for writing 1984. A good writer has to be inventive and know how to push his audience's buttons, and the drive for compassion can be an effective form of that drive. I wonder though if it says more about our society that we now have to spell out to people that they should feel compassion for other people, even if they're fictional. Viewed that way, instead of Prey being the hateful attack on women Sarkeesian claims it to be, the experience with finding your mutated girlfriend is there to make you feel conflicted and horrible. Yes, it involves the mutilation of a woman, but that's to show how evil the antagonist is, not the developer and not the victim. Sarkeesian claims that women in this role are written to beg the players to perform violence on them. I really hope she realises that at no point did anyone think this was supposed to be a good thing. And again, when it forces you to fight your girlfriend, it's the antagonist being evil, forcing you to fight what you were trying to protect. You're supposed to think 'Isn't this horrible,' not 'Let's raise $150,000 that feminists could have donated to domestic violence causes so I can complain about this on the internet.' After all, as she points out in the second video, "Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States; and on average more than 3 women are murdered by their boyfriends, husbands or ex-partners every single day." While that's shocking enough, more shocking is the idea that the $150,000 raised for these videos came from feminist-leaning donors with disposable cash, the kind who might have otherwise used it to support domestic violence charities. Hey, if she can level her personal impressions as factual conclusions, then so can I.
Look, gamers - like any audience - need to feel good and bad to be motivated to invest in a story. They need to feel that the antagonist is a bad guy, and the protagonist is a good guy; so we get them to do good and bad things. Maybe there is a problem with it usually being women in that role. But most of the games quoted as examples in both videos are from Japan, a culture with it's own fairly major issues against women - tarring the western gaming industry with the same brush just isn't fair. Sarkeesian names five examples of a specific scenario, namely 'Your wife is murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter,' to imply a medium-wide trend. And some of the 'modern' examples she quotes date back to the early 2000s, and the mid nineties in one case. It adds further fuel to the idea that she is just 'skim playing' these games in the same way that bad college students get the cliff notes instead of reading the set texts. She claims that violence is the only option presented in games. Really? I just finished the Mass Effect trilogy, in which a female commander unites the entire galaxy primarily through diplomacy and moral choices. My wife is playing Minecraft, in which she tends to set up a shelter on the first day that will enable her to avoid enemies once night falls. My favourite tactic on Civilisation: Revolution is to go for a cultural victory by turtling down and amassing trade and research. I even knew someone who completed the original Deus Ex using only a small crate. She even admits herself that these games do not exist in a vacuum and have a responsibility to a broader social context. They do - it's just that she is missing as much of the game's context by skimming it as she accuses the game of missing in terms of social context. Look at it this way: I spent half of GTA: Vice City trying to rescue Lance fucking Vance. Does that disempower black people? No, I was trying to rescue a friend. By allying a decent notion with a spurious and high profile, self-serving campaign, Sarkeesian is doing her supposed cause more harm than good. I watched both videos, and ended up trying to counter her arguments not because I disagree with them in principle, but because of the arguable way they are presented and the tarnishing effect her conclusions have on a hobby I enjoy. And I think ultimately, that comes back to the original point in Rewan's blog. Women are not equal in status to men, and that needs to change. But damseling? In video games? Given a budget of $150,000 and an eagerly waiting audience that's the best you can do? Damseling is one of the least problematic aspects women face playing video games nowadays; from openly acknowledged abuse by the community, objectification, patronisation and under-representation. And that's aside from all the other social issues which conspire against them from the outside. There are so many other things this money could have gone toward rather than a self indulgent rant about the gaming industry. At least mine are free.