One night in October, before the media critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to give a speech at Utah State University, someone e-mailed the school, threatening to commit mass murder. “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history, and I’m giving you a chance to stop it,” the message read. “I have at my disposal a semiautomatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs,” it went on. “I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.” The message mentioned Marc Lépine, a man who shot and killed 14 women at an engineering college in Montreal in 1989 before killing himself.
Sarkeesian had been invited by the university’s Center for Women and Gender to give a talk about sexism in the video game industry, which has lately become the kind of topic that generates death threats, in large part because of Sarkeesian’s work. As her plane made its way toward Salt Lake City, school officials quickly discussed the e-mail with police and decided it was safe for the talk to go on—it wasn’t the first time someone had promised to create havoc at one of her appearances, they reasoned, and nothing too terrible had happened before. The “terror threat,” as it was called, was reported in a local newspaper, and Sarkeesian learned about it after she got off the plane and checked Twitter. Her friends were e-mailing: “Are you OK?” She was too scared to leave the airport and called the school. After learning that the event staff couldn’t screen for weapons because of Utah’s concealed-carry laws, she canceled her talk, got back on a plane, and returned to California.
“Harassment is the background radiation of my life,” says Sarkeesian. “It is a factor in every decision I make. Any time I tweet something, or make a post, I’m always thinking about it. When I post our videos, it’s a consideration. It affects where I go, and how I behave, and how I feel walking down the street every day.”
The strange part is that Sarkeesian is essentially an academic who has spent the past two years putting together a scholarly criticism of video games as a medium, through a series called “Tropes vs Women in Video Games,” published on her website Feminist Frequency. She finds disturbing, recurring themes in the ways that women are depicted in games, from blockbusters such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty to obscure titles such as Splatterhouse and MediEvil 2.
The Utah State incident raised her profile yet again, landing her on the front page of the New York Times the following day. She broke 200,000 followers on Twitter and is in demand on the speaking circuit, where she talks about online harassment almost as much as she does video games, deconstructing and dissecting it like one of her game motifs. “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” was on track to become the kind of minor academic work that professors make their assistants churn out to help them get tenure. But it tapped something that was waiting to explode. And it might change an industry that’s by some measures now larger than Hollywood.
Petite and fair, with long, shiny hair the color of merlot, chunky boots, and nails painted gold, Sarkeesian, 31, telegraphs an earnest grad student—part activist, part literary theory major. She was studying for her master’s at York University in Toronto when, as a kind of hobby, she started making videos about women in popular culture. Her degree was in social and political thought—her thesis was called “I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television”—and she was interested in creating something that might make feminism more accessible. After graduating in 2010, she produced “Tropes vs Women,” a series of six videos about movies and television, looking at the show Glee, rap lyrics, the marketing of toys for boys and girls, and so on. She hoped that by focusing on “tropes”—storytelling devices—through popular culture she could help viewers become more critical consumers of media.
In 2012, Sarkeesian was invited to speak about creating strong female characters at Bungie, the game studio near Seattle that made the Halo series. She got surprisingly good feedback and decided to push her thinking into video games, which she’s loved since playing on a Game Boy as a kid. Sarkeesian started a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter: “Have you ever noticed that with a few notable exceptions, basically all female characters in video games fall into a small handful of clichés and stereotypes?” she asked at the start of her pitch.
She set a goal of $6,000 and reached it in less than 24 hours. Two weeks later, after passing the $22,000 mark, she posted a video describing the project on YouTube, and it started to draw the attention of hard-core gamers. Thousands of comments flooded YouTube, Kickstarter, and Sarkeesian’s own website. Some asked why she wasn’t looking at male characters and argued that the things she was pointing out weren’t sexist, necessarily, but realistic or historically accurate. But many comments were couched in vicious language: “I hate ovaries with brains big enough to post videos,” “f--- you feminist f---s you already have equality. In fact you have better s--- than most males be glad what you got bitch,” and “get back in the kitchen, if you hate it go make your own games.” Sarkeesian took screen grabs of the comments and posted them, which in turn drove more comments, and more people to contribute money on Kickstarter. The campaign ultimately raised $158,922 from 6,968 backers during the 30 days it was open.
Then Sarkeesian got to work. There are games stacked in piles around her San Francisco home, where she has a Wii; a WiiU; a PlayStation 2, 3, and 4; an Xbox 360; Xbox One; PS Vita; Nintendo 3DS XL; iPhone; iPad; and a gaming PC spilling out of various Ikea shelves and TV stands. The place is a jungle of cables and wires—she has three power strips behind her TV—and also includes capture equipment to record segments of games, as well as a recording studio where she creates the scripted portions of her videos.
Each video can require hundreds of hours of game playing, which she does herself or with the help of her co-producer, Jonathan McIntosh, who’s created his own share of viral cultural critiques. Getting the right snippet of a game—the appearance of a particular character, for example—can require playing it 10 or 15 times to drive the narrative up to the desired point and in such a way that the footage will be clear to anyone watching it later. A common joke among gamers, Sarkeesian says, is that even when you’re inhabiting one of the rare playable female characters, you can leer at her butt up close—you’re playing a woman and checking her out at the same time. At one point, Sarkeesian spent two days replaying every game to satisfy a hunch that first-person characters had the capacity to stare at the butts of female characters, but not at the backsides of men. She was right.
Some of the images of women she assembled were subtly diminishing—a princess trapped in a crystal, for example—but many were brutal. In a clip from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, a marquee game made by Ubisoft Entertainment and introduced with a national TV campaign, the throat of a barely dressed maiden is slashed. Women are beaten and kicked in other games. They are slung over horses, dumped in trunks, and run over with sports cars. Often, when they are killed, a player is rewarded with money. Each trope video opens with a similar disclaimer: “I need to stress that this video comes with a content warning and is not recommended for children,” Sarkeesian says to the camera. “This episode includes game footage of hypersexualized female characters as well as extremely graphic depictions of violence against women.”
The videos last about 20 minutes to 30 minutes each, with Sarkeesian narrating, often using dense terminology imported from feminist theory (“building off of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work on objectification theory …,” etc.). She focuses on the darkest, most violent and sexualized parts of the games and the limited range of their female characters, whom she terms “nonplayable sex objects”—often barely dressed streetwalkers, pole dancers, and barmaids spilling out of their corsets; helpless mistresses outfitted in shredded dress-bits with double-D cleavage; and the ongoing parade of women who are stabbed, shot, and mutilated in service of plots about heavily armed male antiheroes.
The first three videos in the series examine the “damsels in distress” trope and the ways in which women appear not as characters with power to take action but as victims in need of rescue and “a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.” Sarkeesian draws an engaging line through history, from Perseus and Andromeda, to King Kong and Fay Wray, to Popeye and Olive Oyl, to Super Mario and Princess Peach. Two more installments look at a second trope, “women as background decoration.” They open with a clip from a Sega game called Binary Domain, set in a purple-hued brothel. “Sorry, all booked up,” says a hooker breathily, puffing on a cigarillo. “Too bad, too, ’cause I would’ve given a stud like you a free sample.” As Sarkeesian illustrates through clips of Grand Theft Auto and other games where “whore” is often a synonym for “woman,” the nonplayable females are just elements sprinkled into the environments to make them edgier and more titillating to men. There are more trope videos coming, including one about women as rewards and another about women as erotic sidekicks.
Each time a new video comes out, the harassment spikes. People impersonate Sarkeesian, creating fake accounts with her photo. Some spread false information. There was an effort to get the IRS to investigate the nonprofit status of Feminist Frequency. She gets private messages and pictures showing her image being raped by video game characters, some with her face Photoshopped onto porn stills, in addition to the standard threats and insults.
In August an independent video game designer named Zoe Quinn was swept up in a separate Internet storm when her ex-boyfriend posted a rambling 9,000-word essay about their relationship on several online forums. Quinn was best known for a game called Depression Quest, about suffering through mental illness, something she has experienced. The angry boyfriend’s post led to accusations that Quinn had a romantic relationship with a video game critic for the gaming website Kotaku. Although Depression Quest is available for free and the critic never reviewed the game, Quinn became the target of rape and death threats, obscene calls to her father, and online petitions to try to sabotage her career.
The campaign grew and morphed and got a name, “gamergate.” Very few people came out looking good in the ensuing hashtag war—an example of social media at its worst, with childish insults, sarcasm, disingenuousness, and threats of rape and other violence. Quinn fled her home in Boston and hasn’t been back in months. She periodically gets reports that strangers are lurking outside. She’s working with criminal prosecutors and the FBI on some of the more serious threats, but she says that her life has been practically destroyed. “I talk to my therapist,” Quinn says, via Skype from London. “She says, ‘I don’t even know what to tell you, this is so f---ing far outside anything I’m aware of.’ ” Other women involved in game development were affected as well.
When Sarkeesian released a new trope video in the weeks after the Quinn incident, the threats against Sarkeesian escalated yet again. “In several hours I’m going to drive a truck loaded with ammonium nitrate into your apartment,” someone tweeted to her, including what was purported to be her home address. “I’m sitting outside your apartment … with a loaded gun,” read another Twitter message, which also included a home address. “The moment you step outside, I’m going to blow you away.” Sarkeesian was “doxxed,” online slang for when a person’s personal information, such as phone numbers and bank data, are made public with an implicit invitation for further stalking, and people called and menaced her parents. The FBI got involved.
Unfortunately, law enforcement hasn’t shown a willingness to take online threats seriously, says Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. There have been some successes prosecuting so-called revenge porn websites, for example, which encourage the posting of nude photographs of ex-wives and girlfriends, and often demand money to take the pictures down. But in other cases, the FBI and police say that virtual threats aren’t as serious as other types of threats, urging the victims to not look at their e-mail if they don’t like what’s there. “The Internet brings out the best and the worst in us,” Citron says. “Anonymity lets us be our true selves, so the domestic violence victim or the LGBT person can communicate in a way they couldn’t before. But the trolls and the stalkers also act with impunity, because they can.”
McIntosh, Sarkeesian’s male co-producer, was also harassed online, but nowhere near as vehemently, and it had a less sexist tone. “It’s really important that women be free to share their opinions online without being shouted down,” he says. “In the video game industry right now, women don’t want to speak. There’s a real fear, and it really is silencing people.”
Sales of video games already exceed Hollywood’s box office revenue, with console games generating $25 billion in the U.S. in 2013, compared with $10.9 billion for movies. Video games may someday surpass Hollywood in cultural and economic relevance, but the industry will first have to develop an inclusiveness and breadth of artistic expression that reaches beyond guys in their man caves. In March 2013, game designer Cliff Bleszinski, a creative force behind Gears of War, the post-apocalyptic game that features female soldiers who fight alongside men, acknowledged as much when he wrote on his website of a “cancer” plaguing the industry.
“[I]f we’re going to grow up as an industry, we’re going to need the consumer to grow up a bit as well,” he wrote. “The latent racism, homophobia, and misogyny online are black marks on an otherwise great hobby. Anonymity is the gasoline on the fire of hate that flares up on forums, chat rooms, and Xbox Live on a daily basis.”
The industry’s main trade group, the Entertainment Software Association, tries to emphasize how mainstream the industry is, even as many of the games themselves undermine its message. The ESA trumpets the fact that the proportion of women playing all video games—not just on Xbox-style consoles, but also on tablets and other devices—has grown to 45 percent, and that 51 percent of U.S. households own at least one video game console. The range of games being produced overall has grown, with a far broader swath of the population engaging in online play as it’s become a fixture of smartphones and iPads. But a single hit console game, such as Call of Duty, can generate more than $1 billion in revenue a year, and anything that might disturb that revenue stream presents obvious economic risk. A clip from the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, produced by Rockstar Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, features a first-person character who picks up a sickly looking hooker on the street, has sex with her in his car, then gets annoyed with her chattering and punches her in the face before running her over and driving away.
In October the ESA issued a statement. “Threats of violence and harassment are wrong,” it read. “They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community—or our society—for personal attacks and threats.” Most of the individual game companies in whose name the war is being waged haven’t spoken about it. When asked to comment, a spokesman for Take-Two Interactive referred to the ESA’s statement, while one for Activision Blizzard, which makes World of Warcraft among other titles, pointed out that the company’s co-founder Mike Morhaime recently said at a conference that the industry should “take a stand” against online harassment. Ubisoft did not respond to requests. John Reseburg, a spokesman for Electronic Arts, says: “We strongly support the ESA’s position, and believe there is absolutely no place in games for threats, harassment, and abuse. It is behavior that simply must stop. As a company, we are focused on continuing to take steps internally to protect our employees and make sure they feel safe.”
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo this year, an Electronic Arts executive addressed the question of why so many games seem to exclude women. “My thesis is that it’s a male-dominated business,” said Patrick Söderlund, an executive vice president at the company, which publishes a much-praised game called Mirror’s Edge featuring a ninjalike woman protagonist and several other titles with strong female characters. “I’m not sure that flies, but I think it overall may have something to do with it—that boys tend to design for boys and women for women. I’m just happy that we have a game with a female heroine.”
“As a woman with a background in technology—I started in computer science—the issue I’ve seen is the lack of balance,” says Robin Hunicke, an independent game designer who began her career at Electronic Arts working on The Sims. “There’s a ratio issue, in technology and computer science and the sciences in general. But the lack of balance creates problems, and the problems begin with that skewed ratio.”
“Major publishers need to enforce a zero-tolerance policy of sexism and racism and homophobia,” says Sarkeesian. “Developers need to start moving away from the entitled macho-male power fantasy in their games. They need to recognize that there are wider stories that they can tell.” She has drawn up her own schematic for such a game. It would start with a princess trapped in a tower. But no one would come to rescue her. Eventually, she would have to break out herself.
On Oct. 30, Sarkeesian is drinking tea at a cafe near Columbus Circle in Manhattan the morning after she appeared on The Colbert Report. It had gone relatively smoothly, although the comedown was almost as intense as the buildup. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” she says. “I woke up at 3 a.m., and my mind was racing.”
“I speak for all gamers when I say the media should stop talking to critics like Anita Sarkeeeeeesian,” Colbert had said by way of introduction. “Let’s call this what it is,” he went on in his pretend right-wing pundit character. “You and the other feminazis in the gamer world are coming for our balls, to snip ’em off, put ’em into a little felt purse, and take ’em away so we have to play your nonviolent games.”
“No, that’s not true,” Sarkeesian said, with an uncertain smile.
“It’s a culture war!” Colbert replied, grinning. “It’s a subculture war!”
The segment ended with Colbert asking if, as a man, he was “allowed” to be a feminist. “Do you believe that women should have equal rights to men and that we should fight for those rights?” Sarkeesian said. “Yes,” Colbert replied. “Great!” Sarkeesian said. “Then you’re a feminist.”
As online hatred has continued to pour in, Sarkeesian’s voice has only gotten louder. The morning of her Colbert appearance, the New York Times published an op-ed she’d written, “It’s Game Over for ‘Gamers.’ ” In it she tries to cast a hopeful spin on the way the culture of video games is evolving as more people who aren’t young men have started to play them.
“People are talking about women and games seriously; people are taking the critiques seriously,” Sarkeesian says as she stirs her tea. “It’s been a huge shift. This discussion is becoming more mainstream.”
A blond woman sitting at the next table before an array of New York City street maps begins squirming excitedly in her seat. “Are you talking about the article about gaming in the New York Times yesterday? I read it!” she says excitedly. “Did you write that? It was great!”
Sarkeesian, looking a bit embarrassed, says yes. She turns back around on her stool. “On any given day,” she says, “I can feel super hopeful or super depressed.”