Rated S for Sexism: To Fix Misogynistic Games, We Need a Better Filter
Editor’s note: This article contains language and imagery that may be objectionable to some readers.
I closed my last commentary on sexist videogames by saying: “I’m tired of feeling like being a ‘gamer’ means I’ve signed off on sexism.”
That feeling has never been stronger than in the past two weeks.
In that time, a group of self-proclaimed representatives of the gamer community has lashed out against the women within it, in hurtful and utterly frightening ways. Many have spoken out against this harassment already, but that’s not enough — actions will speak louder than words.
First, the short version of what’s happened so far: A female game developer, Zoe Quinn, and a female academic, Anita Sarkeesian, have been targeted by a virtual lynch mob for the crime of being women in gaming. A jilted ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s sicced the darker corners of the Internet on her under the guise of a paper-thin business/journalism ethics j’accuse, and the ensuing online conflict bubbled over into the latest of Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women YouTube videos, which deconstruct sexist tropes in games.
Quinn’s and Sarkeesian’s attackers, it should be noted, largely come from places like Reddit, 4chan and Twitter, where they can threaten and harass while largely remaining anonymous.
The women, their families and their supporters can’t hide behind similar protections. Their online accounts have been hacked, their personal data has been compromised, and Sarkeesian was temporarily driven out of her home after one attacker who dug up her current address threatened via Twitter to “kill your parents,” “rape you to death” and worse.
Clearly, there is something deeply wrong with gaming culture, which has prompted many writers to address this as a cultural issue. Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander urged game developers to walk away from “gamers” altogether; writer Dan Golding described a dying gamer culture bound up in ignorance and misplaced masculinity; The Verge’s Adi Robertson outlined how big-budget games like Bioshock: Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V treat women as less than human, but concluded that Sarkeesian’s critics are the ones doing the greatest harm.
These writers are all 100 percent right about one thing: Some things are changing. As Robertson put it, “The AAA [big-budget] gaming industry Sarkeesian is criticizing is no longer the undisputed face of gaming,” thanks to the rise of smaller independent games on all platforms and new platforms like mobile and social. But AAA games are still hugely influential, their sexist attitudes still exist and wishing them away won’t work.
After all, the whole point of Sarkeesian’s videos is not that one game is doing something sexist — it’s that dozens of them do it, ignorantly and carelessly. Despite growing numbers of women gamers, these games keep coming out, and people keep buying them.
“A lot of the stuff in those [Tropes vs. Women] videos are really just examples of sloppy craftsmanship,” Double Fine Productions CEO Tim Schafer said. “You’re like, hmm, how do I make the main character care about this mission? Well, I’ll kidnap his girlfriend. That’s the easy thing to do.”
And the unpleasant reality is that hateful gamer culture — dying or not — gains power from silence, particularly from game makers. Until consumers vote with their dollars to reject a misogynistic game, fixing the things that create the culture, the games themselves, will remain low on the priority list.
To their credit, many independent developers, like Schafer and Polytron’s Phil Fish, tweeted in defense of Sarkeesian and Quinn. And the board of the International Game Developers Association publicly condemned their harassers’ “abhorrent behavior.”
These harassers, Schafer explained, are “really scared” that even talking about games’ problems will somehow undermine their culture.
“I’m fine with there being adult content in games if it really is — I’m not trying to control the content of games at all,” he said. “I’m just saying, let’s look at this stuff and raise our consciousness about what it means when we see it in games, and think about the impact it has on people.”
His proposed route is raising developer awareness, which is good. But for lasting change, the public needs to be better informed as well.
For the past 20 years, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an industry self-regulatory group, has flagged games for having things like “suggestive themes” or “intense violence.” However, it isn’t equipped to inform buyers about demeaning stereotypes and attitudes. For a consumer, there’s a lot of relevant information that an ESRB rating’s description leaves out.
What if there were an independent group that evaluated and rated games purely for their use (or avoidance) of abusive tropes?
Just as Charity Navigator breaks down the trustworthiness of nonprofits, this hypothetical group could catalog why equality-minded consumers should or shouldn’t open their wallets. A list of what tropes and traps a game falls into, which easily could be written in the style of TVTropes to limit plot spoilers, would help players make more informed decisions about just what they’re getting into before they drop $60 on a game.
Crucially, this list or rating should not be incorporated into the existing format of videogame reviews; it should have a life of its own, divorced from an evaluation of a game’s quality. As the fanboy freakout over Grand Theft Auto V last year demonstrates, daring to rate a game slightly lower because of its negative social attitudes unhelpfully invites only sound and fury, giving defenders easy avenues to insult a reviewer’s credibility and dig deeper into their filter bubbles.
Preemptively flagging games for these tropes will make better consumers of us all. And maybe, just maybe, it will put some good old fashioned free-market business pressure on game makers to think before they ship.
I’m still tired of feeling like being a “gamer” means I’ve signed off on sexism, and I’m also tired of feeling like I don’t know enough to do anything about the problem, until it’s too late.