By now, you've probably read about the first video in Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Gaming series. The short doc, a plain-English, plain-as-day exegesis of the disturbingly common passive-woman motif in the medium, has been alternately celebrated and pilloried among gamers. The division in opinion has largely fallen along public/private lines. That is, people who put their real names to their writing have been positive and people who don't have not.
You can see the split for yourself by glancing right now at two of the most important spaces in gaming. As of this writing, the first post on Reddit's /r/gaming is an image of Princess Peach, Sarkeesian's patient zero of passivity and helplessness, prostrate on a mattress, dress hiked up to her waist, toes arched, head cast to the side in romance-novel arousal. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the gaming site Kotaku republished a Tumblr post by the renowned developer Cliff Bleszinski, admonishing game culture for having grown so hostile to the female perspective:
"Heaven forbid a woman actually take a magnifying glass to our beloved hobby and actually try to unravel and figure out why things are the way they are in the effort that somehow she might change things?
We're the gamers, the dorks. We're the ones who were on our computers during prom. We're the ones that were in the back of the lunch room who were playing D&D instead of tossing a football around on the quad. We were supposed to be the open, friendly ones, the ones who welcomed all into our wonderful geeky circle.
We're not supposed to be a mob that's storming the gates with our pitchforks and torches.
We're not the bullies. And that's what happened to Anita."
For Bleszinski to write this is a big deal. He's the creator of the macho Gears of War series, and he is a gamers' gamer, a guy of the culture who loves the culture. And for Kotaku to give it an even larger platform is admirable as well.
So it's tempting to cast this as a conflict between a mainstream of gamers moving steadily toward progressive enlightenment and an intransigent faction of sexists who pound their keyboards behind the cover of anonymity. In this framing, we can see as signs of progress the recent condemnation of a special edition of Dead Island: Riptide that included a headless, limbless, bloody bikini-body statuette, and an online achievement called "Bros before Hoes" in the new God of War game, awarded for stomping in the head of a female character before impaling her on a spike.
It seems like it's only a matter of time and application of social pressure until the bullies stop bullying. And if we police the most flagrant examples of misogyny and objectification, gaming's woman problem will be largely solved.
This sounds like an effective plan of action, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. The truth is, popular segments of the gaming media are complicit in perpetuating the rampant sexist depictions of women in games. By uncritically republishing images of women as objects, game writers and bloggers help complete the public cycle of objectification out of which rise the anonymous extremists. The headless bikini body and the throngs condemning and threatening Sarkeesian are not bizarre outliers — they are simply the radical extreme of a broad coalition, like the people holding racist signs at a Republican rally. And it's time we stopped denying it.
It's not news that sex sells in mainstream games, or that game developers and publishers are all too happy to give gamers what they seem to want. Here are six major characters from six of the biggest games of last year, characters whom gamers spent hours and hours looking at:
These pictures are not opportunistic screenshots; some of them are intentionally rendered press materials. Because these games are a huge business, it's unrealistic to think that the people who make and market them might control themselves, however much we might want them to. Businesses respond to consumer decisions, not cultural mores.
So who should check the worst impulses of a giant industry? Well, that sounds like the traditional role of the press. And at times the gaming press grumbles or publishes grumbling about the depiction of women in games. More often, though, we are content to stay silent. Or in some cases, we choose to benefit from this juvenile culture of ogling.
Take Kotaku, the site that republished the Bleszinksi editorial. Part of Gawker, Kotaku breaks news and does all kinds of valuable reporting and analysis. It's a must-read publication for people who think seriously about games. But to read Kotaku in an RSS feed, as I do, is to be absolutely bombarded with top images that I'd be ashamed to show any of my female friends.
To start with, there are the posts that anyone who has ever read Kotaku will be familiar with, such as "First Details on New Jiggly Ninja Game include Inevitable Destructible Outfits" and "This Miss Universe Contestant Is a Giant Comic Book Nerd" and "Can You Handle The Boobs? The 3D? The Insanity?" and "Picking Boobs is Harder Than You Think" and "For a Game with Big Boobs You Need a Girl With …" and "Team Ninja Explains How It Researched Breast Physics" and "Latest Dead or Alive 5 Patch Brings Enhanced Boob Control" and "When You Need Help Getting It Up" and "Square Enix Gets Chun-Li's Thighs Right (But Not the Knees)" and "Everyone Needs Companion Cube Women's Briefs. Everyone." and "Testing Game Graphics with Women's Underwear" and "This Manga Inspired Lingerie is Not Cheap" and "Hello Kitty Says 'Hello' to Lingerie" and "Evidently, Dead Island's Xian Does Not Wear Panties" and "Lingerie Football League is Ready to Tackle Video Games" and "A Topless Fashion Model Makes This Commercial More Memorable" and "Watch a Woman Strip Naked Using Only Magic!" and "She's Got a Bikini and a Cowgirl Hat. We've Got Screens" and "The Return of Demon Tits" and "Skirts? Where This Game is Going It Doesn't Need Skirts" and "Bigger Boobs With the Nintendo 3DS" and "Boobs Are Going Crazy in Phantasy Star 2" and "The Harley Quinn's Revenge Trailer Features Boobs, "B**ch" and a Little Bit of Batman" and "Testing a Boob Pillow is Tough" and "Ivy Jiggles her way to Defeat In this Soul Calibur V Gameplay Footage" and "When Plastic Skirts Makes Plastic Butts Pretty?" and "This Sexy Underwear Won't Get Ruined If You Pee on Them" and "It's Cold, Time for Hot Panties" and "Turning Women's Thighs Into Billboards" and "It's Not Just Weather But Women's Undewear" and "From Bikini Idol to Bloody Wrestler" and "3DS Game Sends Gamers to Big Boob Hell" and "What is Japan's Fetish This Week? Giant Breasts" and "Here Are Some Of The New Voluptuous Ninjas Coming To The PS Vita" and ""Huge Boob" Producer Hopes For Interactive Hologram Technology. I Wonder Why…" and "This "Sex Invaders" Art Show Isn't Quite As Naughty As It Sounds".
You can imagine the art that accompanies these posts. Or actually, don't.
(Brian Ashcraft, who covers Japanese culture for Kotaku, is a common byline on these posts. He is by far the most popular writer, by traffic, for the site.)
(Correction: By the numbers, Luke Plunkett is regularly the most popular writer on Kotaku. Ashcraft is second.)
Quite often, Kotaku uses an image featuring cleavage, or bare thighs, or some other alluring part of the female body, even when there is a non-sexualized image that might fit the story better. So for a story about a Chinese gamer who got sick after playing games for too long, we get an accompanying busty, leggy fantasy drawing — is this a character from the game he was playing? Or is she just a generic "game woman" who is Asian because the man in question was Chinese? For a story about a video that found real-life locations featured in the new Grand Theft Auto, we get not a real world/game side-by-side but promo art from the game featuring a bikini-wearing blonde. For a story about about a Chinese director who is accused of stealing scenes from a game for one of his movies, we get a picture of an attractive actress in one of his movies, not the director or the game.
I asked Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo how he feels about running content like this next to smart, vital reporting and analysis. He replied:
"The Kotaku impulse to present well-argued opinions like Cliff Bleszinski's or our staff's — and to report news about issues of gender — is not incompatible with the willingness to publish stories about sex, drugs, or anything else we think that our grown-up readers will find interesting. The resulting content can appeal to curious readers who are capable of respecting men and women. As you know, smart people can have wide-ranging tastes."
Totilo's last point is well-taken. The juxtaposition of viewpoints, of high and low culture, of subject matter, is part of what animates modern online publishing. But context matters. What is the effect of dozens of posts along these lines in a stream of information that is largely about gaming, intended for a readership that is 95% male and 88% ages 18–34?
For example, the morning after the Bleszinski post, Kotaku ran a story about some Japanese bread that looks like a vagina. (So did BuzzFeed, though the context is different.) The post was called "Okay This Bread Really Looks Like Vaginas." Totilo noted in the email, "The photos…of bread that Japanese message board users are certain look like vaginas are surely no more alienating than our May 2012 Kotaku East item about a man who cooked and served his own penis."
I asked Totilo if he thought that game editors had a responsibility to try to shift the culture toward representations of women that are less retrograde.
"Editors and writers have a duty to write and report the truth and to share with readers content that they find interesting and not simply some boring filling of space," he responded. "In being honest with their readers they may reveal themselves to be progressive on the topics of gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Or they may reveal themselves to be troglodytes. Their readers will judge and react accordingly."
Polygon, Vox Media's game site that launched in October, directly competes with Kotaku for traffic. A recent scroll down the Polygon homepage revealed no images that I would be ashamed to show my female friends.
Polygon's editor, Chris Grant, says that this isn't the result of a specific policy but "because the staff shares common values and a common goal for the site to be an environment where every reader feels comfortable." I asked Grant the same thing I asked Totilo: Do game journalists have a responsibility to help change the culture of objectification around women?
"I think journalists have a responsibility to be truthful, and part of that responsibility includes eroding ignorance, in its many forms," he responded. "While I wouldn't say that journalists covering video games have any kind of acute 'responsibility' or 'task' to shift cultural opinion with regards to the representations of women in gaming, I think doing so is an obvious product of challenging readers to reconsider the embedded messages in the games they consume and the culture surrounding them."
Susan Arendt, the editor of the Escapist, says that she and her staff overtly avoid publishing lurid images of game characters. "We're very conscious of crafting a site that is welcoming to all types of gamers: hardcore, casual, male, female, tall, short. We think more highly of the gaming audience than to believe that the only way to attract their attention is with a pair of perky breasts pushed up in their face."
Arendt doesn't think that all game site editors have a responsibility to move the conversation in a progressive direction. But she does think that they need to be honest with themselves about what they're doing. "I do think they have to constantly do gut checks about their content — what they're saying and how they're choosing to say it. Because it is a choice."
And that choice has to be made in the context of anonymous people threatening Anita Sarkeesian, and ogling drawings of Princess Peach, and spewing hate. Especially in the comment threads of our sites.
Game writers are fond of complaining about their commenters. We call them racist, and stupid, and of course, sexist. A lot of the time this is true. And yet there's this enormous cognitive dissonance, this idea that the commenters exist in another culture, in another world. Maybe it's time we start wondering what draws people like this to our sites in the first place — and if we have a responsibility to stop providing an environment for them to spawn, or ever better, to help them.