16
Aug
12

Of Video Games, and the Women in Them

My wife recently alerted me to an article she read on Wired.  A woman named Anita Sarkeesian of the website Feminist Frequency launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise several thousand dollars to “…explore five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games” via video documentaries.  The project lines up with her interest in depictions of females in pop ‘geek’ culture, judging from the content of her website and her master’s thesis.  A relatively long story short, the campaign attracted thousands of people to her website and Youtube channel, some percentage of whom left comments like “Tits or get the fuck out.” and “Get back in the kitchen, if you hate it go make your own games”.*  This type of behavior pissed off a lot of more reasonable people who went to the Kickstarter campaign and have donated $158,922 to date (original goal: $6,000).

So…all’s well that ends well?  After all, those idiots anonymously posting hateful comments about her gender, beliefs, possible Jewish heritage**, etc, didn’t get the last laugh.  Ms. Sarkeesian pocketed over $150K and goes about her business, albeit with financing far in excess of what she ever might have hoped for***.  And for that matter, it seems to me that you probably can’t go far on the Internet without attracting the trolls at some point along the way.  Particularly if you’ve ever expressed an opinion about anything.  Youtube videos that talk about politics or global warming tend to attract some real crazies.  Even in the relatively well-behaved forum environments of some tech websites that I read, there isn’t a single author who isn’t routinely accused of being biased or on the take or incompetent.  Still, I think the reaction to her project was exceptional in its viciousness.  In my mind, this is largely because the specific community that she wishes to examine, video games/gamers, has (1) a majority male population, (2) has a terrible reputation for this kind of thing****, (3) a broader reputation for being (sometimes very loudly and rudely) fickle, entitled, opinionated, and obsessive, and (4) contains at least a similar % of assholes compared the rest of the Internet population.  Typical then, that the members of point (4) reacted to nothing but the project outline and perhaps some vague inferences based on the content of her website.  If anything, criticism should come when the finished documentaries are presented to the world and not before.  But then, actually watching the videos, examining their data and conclusions, and then writing a reasoned critique might be difficult and time-consuming.  God forbid.

Anyway, here, I’ll demonstrate the technique in a passable manner:  Having read Ms. Sarkeesian’s master’s thesis entitled “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You:  Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television”, I would like to make a few points regarding its content and conclusions.  First of all, I think the overall premise of the research, that strong female characters in sci-fi and fantasy television tend to be given their strength by possessing stereotypically masculine traits, is solid.  I think the clarity and cohesiveness of her argument would be better served by maintaining the narrow focus outlined early in the paper – in particular her discussion section really broadens out too much – but generally her original point is well-supported.*****

Second, a more specific series of assertions that she makes is first that strong female characters are underrepresented, also that women of color are more underrepresented, and finally that queer characters are even more underrepresented.  These are reasonable conclusions, though the latter two could easily be said on the male side of things as well.  It is definitely a problem in American television/movies at large, not just sci-fi and fantasy, that white, straight actors, writers, and directors predominate.

Finally, I’ll address Ms. Sarkeesian’s ‘research’ portion of her paper.  In fairness, I thought the paper as a whole was a well-written expository and argumentative essay…but the research portion was, in a word, disappointing.  I’ll let Ms. Sarkeesian set up the research portion herself:

…I noticed a scarcity of queer characters, representations of disability, and women of colour in television, and when they did appear they were more often villainized, demonized and killed than their white, straight, female counterparts. …I watched and thematically categorized the female characters in eleven prominent science fiction/fantasy television shows…  …I began by finding all the female characters who appeared on the show in three or more episodes, tracked their intersections of privilege, identified whether they were evil (and if so, whether they were eventually redeemed) and if, when and how they died. My results…corroborated my casual observations, that when women of colour and queer women are represented in television they die more often than white women.

This is technically an accurate statement based on her data, which is as follows.  Total female characters – 207, 43% dead.  White female characters – 153, 35% dead.  Women of color characters – 53, 36% dead.  Queer characters – 6, 50% dead.  The discrepancy between the total and the sum of the categories can be explained, I think, by the fact that some characters fall into more than one category.  However, anyone familiar with statistics should be cringing already when examining the validity of her claim.  Put simply, consider an ‘experiment’ where you flip a coin ten times and tally the number of heads.  The uncertainty in this measurement is plus or minus about two (the square root of the average number of heads one expects).  To extend the principle to this data set, if the writers for these shows were just completely random in determining whether or not a character died, the % of characters killed could vary significantly given the sample size that Ms. Sarkeesian considers.  If just one queer woman of color character found herself alive at the end of a television series instead of dead, it would invalidate Ms. Sarkeesian’s statement…a statistical knife edge, and definitely nothing on which to base a conclusion.

I guess the reason I go into such detail here is that really (really), I’d like Ms. Sarkeesian’s research regarding female video game characters to be successful.  I want to her to show the slack-jawed punks that left those messages on her Youtube channel that there is something to be worried about in how females are (typically) portrayed in video games.  Of course, they probably wouldn’t even watch her videos, so maybe I’d just better hope that whatever the outcome of her research, that it is good, statistically and logically sound, and inspires future video game writers to think just a bit before copy-pasting the last game’s generic damsel in distress****** into their current opus’ plotline.  I’m looking forward to the outcome.

* These are nowhere near the worst of them.

** No really, there was almost as much bile about this in those comments as there was about her appearance and gender.  Welcome to the Information Age.

*** Better be some sweet video documentaries.  Just saying.

**** For a related example, see the saga of Bioware’s Jennifer Hepler.

***** I would, however, argue against her use of Ellen Ripley as a character who is not a “fully complex female action hero”.  If Ripley is not one of these, there are none (of either gender).

****** Or for that matter, the last game’s badass female warrior who inexplicably wears armor that barely covers her breasts let alone vital organs.

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1 Response to “Of Video Games, and the Women in Them”


  1. 1 Brianna
    03/15/2013 at 15:02

    She just posted her first video in the series – pretty good in my opinion: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2013/03/damsel-in-distress-part-1/


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