I have no problem with feminism as a political or social movement. I believe women should be paid equally, have equal opportunities to live the lives they wish, work the careers they want to work, etc.
However, feminism as an approach to video games is a little different – it’s where I start to have some issues. A while back I addressed this issue a bit, but I don’t think I really did it justice. While Anita Sarkeesian, the current face of feminist game criticism, is certainly a self-aggrandizing sensationalist who tends to get her facts wrong (unforgivably wrong for a “journalist”, but let’s leave it at that) and although some other reviewers who have used the label of sexism are undeniably hacks, that doesn’t mean every point she or every other feminist game critic has ever made is without merit. There may be some legitimate issues about the depiction of women in games raised by the feminist perspective, so let’s cut through all the bullshit and have a look.
It’s hard to deny that a lot of video games put female characters in provocative outfits and give them attractive designs. While we might say the same for male video game characters, the definite focus is on the female form. Even some games that don’t put it front and center throw in some fanservice, typically in the form of optional DLC.
As far as I can tell, Sarkeesian and other critics who generally follow her line of thinking believe that this is always wrong. They point primarily to the sexualization of female characters and the prevalence of weak/submissive female roles in games (see especially the princess-style characters in Mario, Zelda, etc. needing to be rescued) as evils that have to be corrected.
However, these arguments don’t hold up unless we make a couple of assumptions. First, that video games are a form of art, and second, that the artist always has a duty to be socially sensitive.
Video games, art, and social responsibility
Nobody can really agree on what makes something art, and the same goes for video games. Film critic Roger Ebert thought that video games were not art and never could be art, and while I think he missed the mark, I can understand his position. Games were originally created to be fun, nothing more. Nobody in the 1980s questioned the moral standing of Pac-Man to eat the ghosts that constantly pursued him or the right of Mario to institute regime change in the Mushroom Kingdom. While a lot of craft went into these old games, their developers probably didn’t intend for us to search our souls when we played them.
Times have changed, and I think some games have fully crossed the threshold between “art” and “not art.” Just look at a game like The Last of Us – the story in that game was clearly intended to make the player think about the human condition. However, many other games are still firmly in the “just meant for fun” category. They might still be “art”, but if they are, they’re definitely popular art as opposed to important, all-capitals SERIOUS ART. And it’s my contention that games like these have no real duty to advance the human race or empower any particular group of people. If a game doesn’t hold itself out to the player as serious, it doesn’t express any messages to the player about how he or she should act or treat other people. The Grand Theft Auto series, for example, doesn’t claim to depict realistic situations, and the fact that you can murder entire cities of people with miniguns and missile launchers in those games doesn’t mean that Rockstar Games is saying that you should do so. Although this is a somewhat extreme example, most games fit in the same mold, and so when critics call out GTA, or Senran Kagura, or take your pick for being sexist – even if they have good points – I can’t really credit their arguments because I don’t believe their developers have any duty to depict their characters in a particular way.
If a game does hold itself out as a serious work of art and expresses a serious message, then I think a feminist critique is probably valid. However, proper criticism needs to take context into account. A game that depicts a man beating his wife, for example, isn’t sexist simply for having such a scene. If the game depicts the man in a realistic light – as a total asshole or a highly disturbed man – then the beating itself is not intended as a denigration of women. If the game puts forward the male character as a model for the player, that’s a serious problem that should definitely be addressed.
Video games as escapism
Determining when game developers have an affirmative duty to be socially sensitive is difficult. It’s not likely that anyone will agree on where that line should be drawn. However, the one thing that the current strain of feminist game criticism seems to ignore is that fact that most games are meant not as art but as a form of escapism. And escapism takes as many forms as there are players. If a game contains loads of sexual fanservice, that’s an instance of a game developer catering to their target audience. If you find games that put girls in bikinis for no real reason to be offensive or denigrating, well, don’t play those games. Instead of a lot of finger-wagging and calls for what would amount to censorship, a more positive solution to the issue would be to press other developers to create games that depict strong, non-sexualized female characters. In fact, a lot of developers are already responding to these calls, and there are some excellent games out there that do feature strong female characters who aren’t just perfect Mary Sues. There’s room in the massive video game market for both this type of game and the other type of game.
If anyone is curious as to why some gamers get so pissed off about the views of Sarkeesian et al., it’s likely because they (rightly) believe that these critics are trying to shove their way into their own escapist refuge. They’re not merely interested in creating an alternative sort of game that advances their concept of positive attitudes of gender – they want every game to take on this responsibility, and they subordinate every other aspect of the game to this one, including personality, distinctiveness, and entertainment value (i.e. the reason the great majority of people give a damn about games in the first place.) Video games should allow the player, whether a man or a woman, to live out his or her fantasies. In general, video games act as a release valve for the player, a way to flee from the pressures of real life for a little while. They don’t have a duty to lecture the player on the proper way to treat other human beings. I work for a living, and my work is stressful and complicated. Sometimes I just need to escape into a world where where I can legally punch someone in the face without provocation and also a world where cheerleaders kill zombies with chainsaws. So I can’t appreciate the views of critics who condemn every single instance of lack of social sensitivity in video games. The misfit freaks of the world, myself included, need that escape in some form. And we form a pretty significant part of the market, if the sales numbers are any indication.
So that’s my take on it. I’m not interested in insulting anyone for their views, and I think the death/rape/etc. threats that have been addressed are reprehensible, but there are in fact two sides of the “women in video games” issue, not just one. Sadly, traditional media outlets, when they’ve bothered to report on this nonsense, have bought that one side of the story (pathetic insecure guys in basements typing insults at totally reasonable and nice people who just want to improve the games industry.) The issue isn’t quite that simple.