Make no mistake, I disagree with Christina H Sommers.
However the recent Polygon article on her new video “Are Video Games Sexist” is an embarrassment. It’s basically a description of the video with lots of scare-quotes and personal attacks. So I’m writing this because they couldn’t give enough shits to write anything decent about it. Maybe I shouldn’t give any more of those shits than them but I think this Video is a good encapsulation of the Anita Sarkeesian detractors so if I’m going to respond to anything this’ll do.
“Conservative” or not, Sommers’ made a vacuous pandering video that’s obfuscated by a few irrelevant facts. First, the title question: Are Video Games Sexist?
I answer that by asking you ‘Who’s accusing Video Games of being sexist?’ Media can’t be inherently sexist, just those who create it. Video games are for everyone and by setting up the argument as Video Games being either sexist or not sexist she’s creating an easy target to take down. Video Games AREN’T sexist. I’m not claiming that, Anita Sarkeesian isn’t claiming that. Nobody is claiming that. Anything she says beyond this point is rendered moot because the question is one of her invention. It’s, essentially, a strawman.
Lets move on though to her first ‘fact’. She draws an imaginary line between ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ gaming. By doing so she can say that gaming is indeed a boy’s club because most studies show that people self-identified as gamers are overwhelmingly male. The problem with this first irrelevant fact is where you draw that line between ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. World of Warcraft is notoriously welcoming to women as are many MMOs. Are they casual or hardcore? What exactly defines a game as hardcore? The distinction is unnecessary and is only invoked to serve as a way to conveniently remove millions of women from the discussion because they’re threatening to Sommers’ point.
What is that point? It’s that Gaming is for boys by boys. She wants to answer the question “Are Video Games Sexist?” with “Yes, but it’s okay because they’re for boys.”
Lets not talk about that yet though, there’s more irrelevance between here and there.
She asks “Are there video games that are rife with sexism, is that true?” and “Do they promote a culture of misogyny and violence that must be dismantled” She doesn’t pause to answer the first question which any person taking themselves seriously would answer yes. Of course. While Video Games over all can’t be ‘sexist’ anything individual examples are most certainly “rife with sexism”. So of course, she answers no, without providing any relevant counter-examples that would disprove the claims of activists in the community. The second question is loaded. She’s basically asking two more within it; 1) Do they promote a culture of misogyny and 2) Do they promote a culture of violence.
Video Games were for a very long time connected with violence. That’s because we had a limited understanding of how violence manifests and what can cause increases in it. Psychological studies have recently began to debunk the idea that media is a direct cause of violence and Sommers uses these studies to somehow imply that since they don’t cause violence they cannot reinforce inherent sexual bias. She never presents any relevant data to show that they don’t reinforce a culture of misogyny. We’ve long understood that unconscious and inherent biases are reinforced when someone is presented with images and narratives that agree with those biases.
We’ll tie all this together in a second but first I wanted to point out that while people are upset that Sommers is called an ‘anti-feminist’ when she self identifies as an ‘equality-feminist’ she refuses to accept the idea that Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist. Calling her a ‘gender activist’ and a ‘hipster with degrees in culture studies’ but not ‘feminist’. That refusal is purposeful and shady as fuck. If you claim the title of Feminist then you cannot petulantly withhold it from someone else just because you disagree with them. It’s possible for both yourself and Anita Sarkeesian to be feminists while simultaneously disagreeing. Also, gaming is a hetero-patriarchal capitalist pursuit and I don’t think she would disagree with me.
Anyway, back to the main point. She says that many women involved in feminist activism inside video games want the male Video Game culture to die. This is simply not true and is more pandering to the specific audience the video is meant to make happy. Not a single serious critic has called for culling of video games targeted at men. Like any media (this is a pattern) there’s enough creative latitude to make games for everyone. That includes gross pigs. As with most of the bullet points brought up by the video, it’s all in an effort to stroke the ego of gamers. She even goes so far as to give matronly compliments to gamers in a sickly-sweet voice.
She ends the video by telling critics to “stand down.”
So what should we take from this video? She proves that gaming is a boys club and she proves that vocal critics are attacked. Then she has the audacity to tell these same critics to shut up. This ‘keep your head down’ mentality is repeated through the, yes, patriarchal culture of video games. People say that there are plenty of women in games development and culture who aren’t attacked because they don’t speak up. That’s the important bit I italicized there. They say ‘keep your head down’ and anyone who doesn’t is subject to harassment. So of course they’re encouraged to not speak up.
Are Video Games sexist? No. Of course not. And nobody claims they are. Are they mostly patriarchal media that reinforces unconscious gender bias? Absolutely and Sommers does a great job of proving that to be true.