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Sarkeesian lectures on exclusion of women from gaming world

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: News

November 6, 2015

Anita Sarkeesian, founder of “Feminist Frequency” website and YouTube channel and avid gamer, argued that video games’ portrayal of women reflects and contributes to sexism during a Martin Weiner Lecture in Computer Science. Sarkeesian’s lecture focused on the role of video games in education, offering ways to transform the world of gaming to better include women. The talk took place on Nov. 2 in the Wasserman Cinematheque after being rescheduled from Feb. 9 due to snow.

The world of videogames, as Sarkeesian explained throughout, caters to a straight, white male audience, creating a sometimes hostile environment to those outside this group. She explained that the portrayal of women in video games, like in many other forms of mass media, is often hyper-sexualized.

“It is no secret that most games are made by and for straight white men,” Sarkeesian asserted.

Even in her childhood, Sarkeesian said, the world of video games felt closed to women. The titles of gaming systems, like the popular “Game Boy,” reinforced the sentiment that “games were for boys.” For many years, she refrained from calling herself a “gamer.”

“I bought into the bogus myth that in order to be a ‘real gamer’ you have to play Grand Theft Auto” or other “testosterone-fueled” games, she said.

Since then, Sarkeesian said that male-dominance in the gaming world has only gotten worse. “In the last four years, we’ve seen an increase in intense and violent hostility” toward women in video game sphere, she argued.

She discussed how the recent “Gamergate” controversy, in which women gamers such as Sarkeesian were subject to harassment, including rape and death threats, represents the overarching problems in gaming culture.

The “abrasive reactions” that Sarkeesian and others experienced “are an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to preserve male-dominance.”

Sarkeesian herself received death threats, leading to an investigation by the FBI and other authorities. To enter the room for her lecture at Brandeis, everyone had to go through a metal detector and leave any water bottles behind in TSA-style security.

“There have been periods in my life when the constant sexism and alienation … became too much,” Sarkeesian said. To educate on and combat sexism prevalent in video games, she began making videos that discussed common tropes for women in games. One frequent issue gamers come across is the lack of female characters. Often, there will be one female character among an ensemble of male characters. While the male characters have varied personalities, body types, values and skills, the female character will be defined by her gender. Sarkeesian described these often “hyper-sexualized” characters in detail, emphasizing their skimpy clothing.

“Lingerie is not armor,” Sarkeesian said, at which point the audience clapped loudly.

To combat the alienation of women gamers, Sarkeesian has a list of “eight things [developers] can do to make games less shitty for women.” For example, female characters should make up at least half of the characters in a game and should have diverse body types and traits. Their clothing could be modelled after female athletes, she suggested.

In trying to change the status quo of videogame culture, Sarkeesian has faced backlash. One of the most popular counter arguments is the “what about the men” argument, one that she finds can be easily challenged. Male characters are presented with much more diversity, she argued, and don’t face a “long-standing oppressive construct” that defines them by their gender or hyper-sexualizes them.

Though Sarkeesian finds many faults in the way women are portrayed in video games and in broader culture, she still considers herself to be an avid gamer. “You can love something and be critical of it,” she explained. The importance of mass media in shaping culture can be harnessed to combat sexism, and video games can be a tool for involving women and groups not well-represented in computer science into the discipline.

The Computer Science department invited Sarkeesian to speak at the Martin Weiner Lecture in Computer Science, co-sponsoring the event with several other offices and departments within Brandeis.

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