Last month, more than 150,000 people came together at the Javits Center to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the New York Comic-Con. For those unfamiliar with the convention, or who found themselves somewhat confused by the hoard of costumes momentarily descending throughout the city, Comic-Con is a widely popular pop culture event dedicated to comics, graphic novels, video games, and television, to name a few. While some fans don't dress up, others spend weeks or even months perfecting their costumes - a true testament to the ampleur of the gathering.
Comic-Con, infamously, also draws complaints of sexual harassment. Year after year, dozens of women come forth with stories of unwanted comments or groping. So, not surprisingly, the convention triggered further discussion on the prevalence of misogyny and sexism in geek culture. That same week, the team behind the Reply All podcast discussed Gamergate, and the repercussions it has had on Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and many more outspoken women in the gaming industry. PJ Vogt, one of the hosts, put it plainly:
"[Gamergate] is a group of like, loosely affiliated people who think that video game criticism is essentially too progressive, that there's so much pressure on game developers to make games that have things like playable female characters and women who are wearing entire pieces of clothing. [...] but many of their concerns seem to just be, just like, frankly outright misogyny."
Gamergate of course, in the age of online bullying, has stretched far beyond the personal opinion of particular gamers. The group is controversially known for making extremely violent and sexual threats toward prominent outspoken women within the gaming industry. Such threats have progressed to the point of validated issues of personal safety. Take the case of Anita Sarkeesian, who was forced to evacuate her home after a slew of threats and leaked personal information.
So what, exactly, gets people so riled up? Sarkeesian is the host of the web series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, in which she critically looks at the portrayal and roles of women in video games. She brings attention to the recurring theme of the "damsel in distress", whereby a generally beautiful woman is awaiting to be rescued by the male protagonist. It seems that calling for better representation of women in games is to be unequivocally asking for violent backlash.
Where does that leave us? One could argue that purchasing and playing games that range from being problematic to deeply misogynistic inherently perpetuates the cycle of abuse against women in the gaming industry, whether they be fictional characters or actual people. This violent backlash against critical voices exposes a wider problem of gender-based violence in a patriarchal culture, and in this case, is supported by our current consumerist societal and economic model.
However, this same structure perhaps lends some bargaining power - i.e. purchasing power - to the consumer. While deeper exposure and industry reform are essential, it seems critical that we, as consumers, take on the moral and conscience responsibility of driving demand toward games that portray strong, healthy, and nuanced female characters. Thanks to Sarkeesian's project, Feminist Frequency, it's actually possible to refer to a list of games with well-developed female characters:
This gradually building outcry for better female representation in the gaming world has not gone completely unnoticed. Evidence of public pressure and consumer criticism has already resulted in impact. Ubisoft, one of the largest game developers and publishers, was faced with bad press just last year after releasing the much-anticipated Assassin's Creed: Unity, and failing yet again to include any playable female character. In this case, public disapproval paid off. About a week ago, Ubisoft released the latest installment of the multi-million franchise, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, and gamers can now opt to play as a female protagonist. While this is just one example, it does show that driving positive change is possible.
A positive and empowering portrayal of women in games reaches beyond the screen. Representation matters. Driving demand for games with positive inclusion of female characters will economically push developers to comply by market standards and address concerns, as depicted by the Ubisoft example. Until then, more challenging questions will continue to be raised, and uncomfortable discussions will be had, all in an effort to ultimately, make gaming a better place.