I play video games. I don’t play them religiously. Well, not anymore at least. The pressing nature of my junior semester, ownership of my first dog and infatuation with reading and writing for pleasure, your stereotypical English major activity, I suppose, get in the way of my shameless “wasting of my life in front of a screen” as my parents call it.
That’s not to say that I still don’t pick up a controller from time to time. My justification is that I’m an English Communications major, and video games are a medium, therefore I’m simply consuming media narratives in a relatively interactive form or something like that.
Anyway, my major has also forced me to question media and to analyze the messages, such as who is sending the message and why. It’s somewhat frustrating really. Sometimes all I want to do is watch TV without dissecting the typically “white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal” tropes that the cultural critic bell hooks discusses in her book, “Outlaw Culture”. Within the past few years, I’ve found that I increasingly look at how women are portrayed in media.
I am no expert feminist. It’s a title I loosely claim. I use “loosely” because I’m not certain what would or wouldn’t distinguish myself as one. I have been exposed to this movement in many forms in and outside of the classroom, and I’m glad that the population of Fort Lewis College generally considers this a matter of importance. It’s a fluid movement that can mean many things to many people, so I find it heavily intriguing from a personal and critical-cultural viewpoint. I also like the purpose that follows it: the potential for an egalitarian society.
So, how do these matters intersect?
This all came about while perusing my Twitter feed. An article from Newsweek caught my eye. It talks about how an established culture critic, who happens to be a woman, examined how videogames and the messages they portrayed could use a heavy dose of feminism. She received horrendous backlash from video game fans, ranging from tasteless women-in-the-kitchen jokes to outright threats of rape and other violence.
The aforementioned culture critic, Anita Sarkeesian, was slated to speak at Utah State University. The school received threats of a shooting because of this, and she cancelled. Last I checked, we were not still living in the dark ages. Apparently, I was wrong. How backwards of a society do we live in if a woman cannot speak an opinion without the threat of violence to her?
This is only one instance tied within a hotbed issue in gaming culture dubbed “Gamergate,” often seen on social media sites as #gamergate. This rose initially as a criticism of interactions between the gaming industry and journalists and blossomed into a social criticism of the gaming industry. The criticism took an early and unfortunate twist to become characterized by misogynist harassment and backlash that detracts away from the actual criticism of the industry. The actual meaning and purpose of the term Gamergate is now heavily convoluted and up to debate.
It’s no secret that the representation, or lack thereof, of women in media has some problems. In the case of video games and most other industries, media production is heavily dominated by white men. These games are then generally marketed to men, often playing on old traits of what is considered to be “masculine”: brutal violence, disregard of women, manly-men main characters, etc. They do this while simultaneously backing them up with sexist tropes against women. What is the problem with this? It perpetuates the same old song and dance that the white male producers feel everyone can relate to and care about. It limits the voices heard, preventing ideals that could empower women and help form a more egalitarian culture.
This sort of criticism is felt by gamers, some of whom don’t just consume games as a hobby, but as an identity. It’s more than just a game. Thus, the criticism is felt as an attack by many in the culture and various subcultures of video gaming, resulting in passionate backlash to those criticizing the culture.
So, why does any of this matter? It’s mostly men that play video games. Right? So, who cares that sexist tropes permeate here? And, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to play the games. Do you?
Shouldn’t men have an outlet where they can be real, manly, cussing, womanizing, violent men?
I say no. They seriously shouldn’t. I think we as a sex can, and more importantly should, get over this idea of needing to be the most masculine, manly, ‘merican man out there. It isn’t healthy for men or women, and it absolutely can’t be good for our culture.
Besides, men aren’t the only consumers of video games and women aren’t the only population affected. Recent statistics state that women make up 48 percent of the gaming population. Children start playing games from an early age, learning from what they see. Whether conscious or not, people of all ages learn from and emulate what they see. Media, regardless of format, are not benign.
So what? If you don’t like it, turn off the TV. No one is forcing you to consume these messages. This is false. Do not collect $200 and pass “Go.” The messages are out there regardless if you consume them or not, and someone out there is consuming them, learning from them and then perpetuating them.
So, before you go blasting the oblivion out of people in a virtually womanless, nationalistic “Call of Duty” game, before you brutally remove the head of a dark-skinned Orc playing as a white, heterosexual male in “Shadow of Mordor,” before you try to rescue the apparently inept princess, who is inevitably in another castle, in any “Super Mario” game, think. What are you seeing? What is the message?
I’m not asking you to deny all media, to shut yourself in a cabin in the woods and deny the world and all its media pleasures. I’m also not saying to never play video games again. To be honest, I’ll likely play “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” for only a few hours tonight. No, I ask you to take a first step: glance and understand just what it is you’re looking at. Think on what this means to you, what it means to the groups who are or aren’t represented and how they are represented. We can learn and adapt. We have a chance to improve ourselves. In an interview with the Utne Reader, I think bell hooks put it best:
“When you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities, then you can see that people can change, and there is hope.”