Move Over, Mario

(Courtesy of Anita Sarkeesian/Flick)

Anita Sarkeesian's Wikipedia page, which was vandalized after she put together a Kickstarter to raise money for a documentary about sexist tropes in video games.

If you’re in any way connected to the world of gaming, you will have noticed in the last few months a series of nasty dustups over the role of women in the community. 

The ugliness kicked off in May, when vlogger Anita Sarkeesian put together a Kickstarter to raise money for a documentary about sexist tropes in video games. Various male-dominated gaming forums organized a harassment campaign against her, which included posting porn on her Wikipedia page and creating a video game in which players beat her up. (Warning: Pictures from the game are upsetting.) A month later, Slate culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a thoughtful piece about why she thought the rape scene in the new Tomb Raider was a bad idea. The commentary incited a bunch of trolls to share their ugly rape fantasies with her. Around the same time, actress and gaming enthusiast Aisha Tyler faced a sea of abuse for having the nerve to be a presenter at a major gaming conference. Within the community, a long-standing battle has also been waged over the presence of booth babes—women hired to wear sexy outfits and stand around booths to attract attention—at conferences

The fights have not just been about the right to criticize sexism in games but also about whether women belong in the community at all. While the geek world has usually seen itself as a repository for outcasts and a place where all types are welcome, women have often been the exception to the rule. Video gaming started as male-dominated, and men with anger and resentment toward women have always had a loud voice in the community. Marketing for video games assumed a mostly male audience and therefore traffics heavily in sexist tropes, from sexually objectifying women to tokenizing the few female characters. Even the family-friendly Super Mario Bros. world has only a single female character with any real power, and she’s a nauseatingly giggly princess. 

But in recent years, an increasing number of women have made their presence felt, using the internet to reach out to each other and to resist sexism in gaming through venues such as Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a site where women can share incidents of gaming harassment. The Entertainment Software Association’s demographic research shows that 47 percent of gamers are now women. Outspoken women have increasingly begun to take on visible roles in the community, such as game designer Alli Thresher hitting panels to talk about equality in gaming or the writers tackling woman-centric geek subjects at The Mary Sue. What we’re seeing here isn’t the reaction of a community that’s male-only and trying to keep it that way, so much as a small minority of men who are flipping out at the realization that women in gaming are here to stay. These harassment campaigns are a last-ditch effort to restore the boys-only status to the world of gaming before it’s lost forever. 

The most recent misogynist explosion, involving Felicia Day, the actress and writer behind the popular show The Guild about a group of online role-players in a game much like World of Warcraft, is a case in point. 

The kerfuffle started when Ryan Perez, a contributor to the game-enthusiast website Destructoid, had a go at Day on Twitter, accusing her of being “nothing more than a glorified booth babe,” who “doesn’t add anything creative to the medium.” What was remarkable about his attack was his choice of a target, since Day has become popular among gamers by rendering their world with remarkable accuracy and a great deal of love that softens her often-scathing satire. Anyone who has seen The Guild—and I ended up spending my weekend watching every episode, because it’s just so funny—can testify that Day knows her geeks inside and out. Unless you’re willing to say that geeks don’t deserve to have their culture captured on screen, the idea that Day contributes nothing is simply false. The utter absurdity of Perez’s attack made it clear that he held only one thing against Day—her gender. By coming at Day, Perez also exposed the anger at women’s gains in the world of gaming. 

The defenses of Day, in contrast, demonstrated that the angry sexists are probably too late if they want to turn back that tide. Actor and geek icon Wil Wheaton made an example of Perez, singling him out as one of the “idiot men” that give women “grief in gamer and geek culture.” Destructoid immediately disavowed any agreement with Perez and cut ties with him. The message was clear: The day when you could successfully discount a woman’s intelligence and creativity in this world simply because she’s female is over, and if you try to do it, you will meet resistance. 

Sarkeesian’s story had a similar happy ending. Despite the horrible abuse sexist gamers foisted on her, she raised more than $150,000 for her project, giving her the chance to do a much bigger project than she had initially planned. The sexism backfired and showed that sexism in video games is something the broader community wants to talk about and address. 

The sexists aren’t winning the war; they’re throwing a large-scale temper tantrum because they’re losing.    

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