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Why Anita Sarkeesian's Work is Important

Anita Sarkeesian is easily the most divisive figure in modern gaming culture. Portrayed as anything from a feminist icon, an average YouTube blogger to the true enemy of video games in the community, everyone will have an opinion on her, and most likely a strong one. Regardless of whether or not you agree with her assessment of gender depictions in video games, I would argue that her work is inherently valuable for one simple reason: the fact that she has, almost single-handedly, created awareness of gender issues in video games.

It would be difficult for even the most stubborn detractors to deny that the portrayal of women in video games has been, for the most part, less than equal. Women have, as Anita has pointed out, been subjugated, objectified and sexualised as a matter of routine for decades. That’s not really up for debate here. The sad thing, however, is that we simply accepted such portrayals as routine. We never stopped to question them, because they were so ingrained into the medium.

That reason right there is where I believe Anita’s videos serve a purpose. She points out that the problematic depictions of women we’ve been living with for so many years are wrong. It’s a simple wake-up call, a reminder that just because something has been accepted by the majority, that doesn’t make it right. As is so often the case when questioning the status quo, the reaction has been vicious.

I would go as far as to argue that the simple fact that someone dared to question the default state of video games is what caused the masses of online harassment. The videos themselves are somewhat docile, much more so than your average YouTube rant, for example. The idea that someone is trying to disrupt the natural order of gaming and make some changes, however, is an inflammatory prospect, regardless of how sensitively it’s handled.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms you can level at Anita’s work. Plenty of people question the depth of her research, the lack of suggested solutions and the production values of her videos given the vast wealth she accrued from Kickstarter. Not that any of these criticisms are ever heard over the sea of rape threats but still, they are nonetheless valid.

The simple truth, however, is that people are now discussing gender issues in gaming, and that can be attributed in no small part to Anita Sarkeesian, and that, regardless of her other debateable achievements, is a success in itself.

Think about it: Serious and widespread discussions of gender issues in gaming are a relatively recent phenomenon. We never questioned Zelda or Mario for their depictions of females, and we never lauded Resident Evil for its relatively progressive approach to female protagonists. There were discussions to be had, certainly, but it was simply never considered.

Nowadays, however, gender portrayals are right up there with graphics and gameplay as topics of conversation when discussing new video games. Discussions of Dragon’s Crown were dominated by gender issues. The launches of BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Remember Me and many others carried hefty conversations on the topic of gender. As video games become ever more mainstream and, as such, ever more exposed to a wider and more varied audience, such discussions are vital for the progress of the medium.

Regardless of whether or not you feel we should be having these discussions; although if you don’t you probably haven’t made it this far through my article, there was clearly a vast silent section of the gaming public that did want to have these conversations, as evidenced by the massive response to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter.

It seems as if they were just waiting for someone to start the conversation, and that someone was Anita Sarkeesian. Simply by being the first to speak up and say “It’s okay to discuss gender issues in gaming”, Anita has achieved vast success, as few would disagree that this is a positive step forward for the medium.

That’s not to say that raising awareness of gender issues is her only success. Her third video is particularly strong, noting the trend of “ironic” sexism in indie games, with developers mistaking reproduction and self-awareness with parody and satire, a particular pet peeve of mine. The hypothetical game pitch is also very enjoyable, showing how her ideas could be put into action and also answering critics who posit that she does not offer genuine solutions to the problems she observes.

That’s also not to say that she’s perfect. As noted earlier, the production quality of her videos and the depth and quality of her research have both been called into question, especially in light of receiving $160,000 in Kickstarter money, a massive increase on her original goal, which are points that I can’t really disagree with. She certainly didn’t suggest any real solutions to the problems she pointed out until her third video, a gripe I raised with the second video myself, which caused her videos to come off as a series of complaints, rather than criticism.

Anita Sarkeesian is not the best blogger on YouTube. Not by a long shot. She’s not even really the best feminist blogger. It could be argued that Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition episodes on sexism are far more effective at conveying problems and suggesting possible solutions, for example. She was not the first feminist YouTube blogger, just as Resident Evil was not the first survival horror game and Grand Theft Auto III was not the first 3D open world game.

However, as with these games, she was the populariser of the concept. She took an idea that was formerly somewhat niche and made it mainstream. Others may have surpassed her, as they inevitably do, but she was most likely the one that inspired them to do so, which is a laudable achievement.

Putting all of her academic successes and failings aside, Anita Sarkeesian created a revolution in gaming culture. She forced us all to question what we accept as the standard, and prompted the medium to move forward and begin to consider gender roles as an important part of creating video games. With that alone, she has achieved success.

SilentHeaven109 | 1st September, 2013

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