She started with a YouTube account and wound up on the front page of the New York Times. In between, all that the Canadian-American feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian did, via her video series Feminist Frequency, was calmly, comprehensively collect and explain examples of the shoddy portrayal of women in video games. Titled "Tropes vs. Women," her series on gaming pointed out that the roles most often available to women — from princesses to be rescued to prostitutes to be murdered — are both sexist and unimaginative. If these roles were rethought, diversified and expanded, Sarkeesian argues, gaming's creative class and audience would be diversified and expanded in turn, and games would become more fun to boot.
Hardly controversial stuff, you'd think. But for this, Sarkeesian has been treated like Public Enemy Number One by a reactionary community of hardcore gamers who've gathered under the "#GamerGate" hashtag. Under the guise of pushing for journalistic reform and anti-censorship in gaming, GamerGate has targeted prominent women critics and designers like Sarkeesian, Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu and Leigh Alexander with a relentless campaign of threats and harassment. Sarkeesian has been driven from her home by the threats; just this week, she canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University after an anti-feminist detractor threatened a mass shooting when police refused to search attendees for weapons, citing the state's concealed-carry law.
But the backlash has only made her point for her: Gaming has a problem. And as this interview demonstrates, gamers like Sarkeesian are determined to solve it.
You've described yourself as a folk villain to a certain subset of gamers, and you've become a folk hero to another. I can't imagine these were your goals when you started making these videos.
[Laughs] No, they weren't. Feminist Frequency started in 2009 when I was in grad school. It was my way of pulling feminist theory out of academia into a more public space for a wider audience. I used popular culture because I'm a big geek, and these are the things that interest me: TV, movies, comic books, video games. But also, it's the common language that we speak. Most of us could walk into any room and not know anyone there, but we could probably start a conversation about whatever TV show was on last night, or what movie we saw, or what game we played, right? It's a common language that we can use to talk about these larger societal and social concerns.
What inspired you to do a whole series on video games?
In 2011, I made a series of videos called "Tropes vs. Women," looking primarily at harmful tropes that depict women poorly in movies and TV shows. That was actually met with a lot of positive responses. What I heard from a lot of people as they watched the videos was, "Yeah, I had noticed that thing in what I was watching, it made me uncomfortable, but I didn't know how to explain it."
"There's a toxicity within gaming culture, and also in tech culture, that drives this misogynist hatred"
I know it sounds super basic — Comm Studies 101 – but having the language to name things in the world is really powerful. Providing the language for these overarching patterns — identifying the trope, giving them a name and description, and explaining them — really helped improve people's literacy, their ability to unpack and to be more critical of the media they're watching. I wanted to do another series like that, and some of the tropes that I was thinking about doing were really prevalent in video games.
Why do you think the video game series hit such a nerve?
That is really complicated [laughs]. A brief answer would be to point toward the toxicity in gaming communities that was around long before my video series. The year that my Kickstarter happened, Jennifer Hepler, a writer at BioWare, was attacked for comments that she made five or six years earlier. She was attacked in many of the same ways I have been, in terms of inundating her social media and threatening her and her children.
There's a toxicity within gaming culture, and also in tech culture, that drives this misogynist hatred, this reactionary backlash against women who have anything to say, especially those who have critiques or who are feminists. There's this huge drive to silence us, and if they can't silence us, they try to discredit us in an effort to push us out.
But something about this recent, really intense backlash has gotten the attention of a lot of people who were on the fence about whether the harassment of women was actually an issue. Now, if you're involved in gaming in any capacity, you can't help but see what's happening in terms of women being driven out, women being attacked, being silenced, having horrific harassment and assault done to them. You can't avoid it. There's no way to not see that this is happening.
GamerGate is really a sexist temper tantrum [laughs]. That's kind of a silly, funny way of putting it, but it's kind of what it feels like, right? They're going after and targeting women who are trying to make changes in the industry. They're attacking anyone who supports women.
Tweeting critically about GamerGate in any way guarantees hours of random people filling your mentions.
There are people I've blocked for a long time who will still respond to every single person that replies positively to me on Twitter. I have quite a few cyber-stalkers like that.
But if we're gonna dig down a little bit further, what's happening is that the industry is changing. This consciousness-raising is happening. People are starting to acknowledge that the industry has a problem with women, that sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent both in the larger culture and within the games — of course, not in all of them by any stretch of the imagination, but in quite a few, as my videos point out. Developers are starting to talk within their studios about how they want their games and their representations to change. Communities are starting to determine what is appropriate behavior within their communities. There's this overarching feeling of, "We have a problem and we're gonna fix this."
That's what the GamerGate temper tantrum is reacting to. It's trying to hold on to this status quo, this illusion that gaming is for men, that it can never change, that it can never be more inclusive than that. We're thinking, "Well, inclusiveness is a great thing! Bringing more people into gaming, telling a wider range of stories from different perspectives — that can only be good!" They take that as an attack on their little base of male-dominated gaming. Does that make sense?
It does, particularly when you actually watch your videos. You go out of your way to say that just because sexist tropes exist in certain games doesn't mean those games have no redeeming qualities, or that you can't enjoy them. Yet you're being treated like Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table and yelling, "We will bury you."
The vitriolic reaction far outweighs the content. If we are going to be honest about what I do, if we explain the academic language around it, it's really rather boring. I like to think that I make interesting, engaging videos that aren't as boring as all that, but… [laughs]. It's straightforward textual analysis. I'm looking at patterns and presenting evidence and arguments to back up those claims. That's what I do! [Laughs] And the reaction is like I'm trying to say that all games are bad, or all games should be taken away, or that these games shouldn't exist, instead of "Hey, we are complex and intelligent creatures and we can hold multiple ideas in our heads at the same time." We can be critical of the things that we love. That is possible.
You've made the point that aside from all their sociopolitical failings, these shopworn tropes are also simply a failure of imagination in a field that's capable of imagining pretty much anything, right?
Right. If for no other reason, improving the representation of women will hopefully help to inspire more creative writing. The media are in a rut. We have big blockbuster films every year that are the same stories recycled over and over again. We have video games every year that are the same brooding antiheroes over and over again. Creating new stories with new perspectives is going to make games more interesting. It's going to make storytelling more expansive and exciting and engaging.
But you're dealing with people who not only believe that the opposing viewpoint is wrong, but that something conspiratorial, even criminal, is responsible for its propagation in the first place.
It's sad that they can't just be like, "Hey, people actually care about this." It has to be for duplicitous reasons, right? Men who support women are "white knights" who just want to get laid. There are conspiracy theories claiming that I'm not actually a feminist, that I don't actually care about this stuff. It's easier for them to believe that I am planning some sort of long con to dupe everybody — which is not only ridiculous and wrong, it's amazingly laughable. They say this with a completely straight face, and it's hard to take that seriously because it's so disconnected from reality. But these conspiracy theories contribute to a larger culture of harassing and undermining women's work.
You've been threatened when attending events and speaking engagements in the past, but this week's appearance in Utah is the first you've canceled. What made this situation different? Do you see the anti-feminist threat and the authorities' response as part of the same overall climate of hostility to women and speech?
The staff and faculty at Utah State University received several very specific death threats against my life and those of the students attending my lecture on the role of women in video games. The e-mails sent to USU included a list of firearms at the perpetrator's disposal. Not only did these e-mails threaten to carry out the worst school shooting in American history, but the language in the messages was also very reminiscent of, and even mentioned, previous misogynist school shootings such as the Montreal Massacre at Ecole Polytechnique committed by Marc Lépine and the UC Santa Barbara shootings committed by Elliot Rodger this past May.
I have gone ahead with events that have been threaten with bombing attacks before — three times, in fact — but each time I felt appropriate security measures were taken by law enforcement and venue security personnel. This time it was different. When I spoke with Utah police about what security measures were in place to protect the campus, I specifically requested metal detectors or pat-downs to make absolutely sure no guns were in the auditorium. Police responded by stating that they would not do any type of screening whatsoever for firearms because of Utah's concealed-carry laws. At that point I canceled the speaking event because I felt it was deeply irresponsible for me or the school to put everyone's lives at risk if they can't take precautions to prevent firearms from being present at an event at an educational institution — especially one that was just directly, clearly threatened with a mass shooting spree.
Despite all the bullshit, you've had an impact on your field of criticism that most critics can only dream of having.
I appreciate that. Back when I was starting out, I was trying to find a name for my web series, and it took me six months to come up with one. I was throwing around ideas with friends, and a lot of them were like, "You shouldn't put feminist in the title. People aren't going to pay attention to you." I don't remember exactly what happened, but finally I was like, "'Feminist Frequency' has a nice ring to it. Fuck it, right? This is what I am. I am not apologetic about being a feminist."
While I am attacked for being a feminist, it's nice to see that people who might be on the fence or be a little uncomfortable with the term "feminism" are still willing to listen, and at least hear what I have to say. That's pretty amazing. A lot of times, feminist conversations are very insular, almost preaching to the choir. I feel very lucky that the work I've done has been able to reach far beyond that space. I mean, I'm being interviewed for Rolling Stone, so… [laughs].
Yet you've been targeted in ways that are literally criminal. Have you ever wanted to say "OK, that's enough" and walk away?
I'd be lying if I said I'd never considered stopping. I mean, anyone in this position would have doubts now and again. I've been terrorized nonstop for over two years now. It's a lot for one person to take in.
But I feel like the work I'm doing is really important. The amount of support that I get for doing it, the actual change that I am starting to see, the really sweet messages that I get from people about how they were resistant to identify as feminist, but then they watched my videos and they were like, "Oh, obviously! I agree with these things!", the parents who use it as an educational tool for their kids…all of this is really inspiring to me. When I was in Portland for my talk at the XOXO Festival, this little boy came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm a feminist gamer." How do you stop doing this work after that?