June 19, 2012

In Defense of Constructive Criticism

More articles by »
Written by: Joanna Moylan
Tags: , , ,

Lately, I’ve been mulling over the controversy over the Kickstarter project entitled “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” by Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian.  Sarkeesian is known for her Youtube channel, where she discusses and highlights issues with the portrayal of gender roles in the media.  I’ve a very mixed opinion of Feminist Frequency as it brings up some topics I agree with, some I’ve never thought about before and others where I outright disagree altogether.  With her latest project, Sarkeesian intends to study and highlight the tropes in which women are represented in video games.

Now, she hasn’t even started her project yet, but here is just a fraction of the backlash she’s getting for just talking about starting this project.  Enraged yet?  Ok, good.  Let’s just put aside for a second the hate, death and rape threats, name calling, and from what I can make out, the curious notion that Sarkeesian has just waged some sort of gender war.  What piqued my interest most was the “Oh yeah? Well guys are stereotyped in video games too!” rebuttal.  Now, it’s fair to say that hyper-muscular male characters and hyper-sexualised female characters don’t really give off the same vibe as each other, i.e. one is an emphasis on power, the other an emphasis on sex.

But let’s humor these concern trolls for a moment.  Let’s pretend that hyper-muscular male characters reflected negatively on the portrayal of men on video games or were indeed designed solely to titillate young women; why is everyone ok with that?  Why is there such a defeatist attitude when it comes to such problems with video games?  Many of the commenters exclaim that this is just how things are and we should just deal with it.

Kratos: A true lady's man!

There’s always been some sort of controversy surrounding video games, be it the assumption that they encourage violence or that they often portray offensive stereotypes.  I love video games enough that I tend to ignore what is generally terrible writing, glorified violence or character design; I’ve done so for years.  At this day and age, however, I’m starting to expect a better standard of video games and certainly more variety.  It has gotten to the stage where I walk into Gamestop and stare dismally at the new release wall, barely able to count anything that isn’t a generic war game on one hand.  The majority of triple A console titles these days bore me.  Everything is the same.  Brown on brown shooters, Fast and Furious copy cats, a game for every sport ever invented, and half assed attempts at squeezing more money from a current movie title.  Booooooring!

This is why I appreciate what Sarkeesian is doing.  I’m not going into the “women in video games are sexist” thing, because there are people like Sarkeesian who are already doing just that.  What I do applaud is that someone is actually criticising an area of video games that needs much criticising.  When we are being bombarded with the same crap like this over and over, I recommend that someone should also consider criticising other areas such as: the stereotypical manly, manly male characters that everyone is apparently so upset about, half-assed story writing, short campaigns and tacked on multiplayers, terrible voice acting, recycled plotlines, and sequel after sequel after sequel, to name but a few.

Anita Sarkeesian is not a big evil feminist looking to strip retail shelves of Lollipop Chainsaw and have them all dumped in a landfill.  If the internet trolls would get their head out of their ass long enough to realise that “feminist” and “games” do not equate the preceding image, they’ll see that she’s simply pointing out one area where games persistently fail to do better in.

I have tried to engage with a handful of the YouTube trolls in an attempt to properly pick their brains about the topic.  After being bombarded by some baffling logic and a demand to suck their unmentionables, they all more or less came to the one conclusion: it’s not a big deal, games are fine the way they are.

Ok, let me tell you a quick story here. When I finished up college last year I made it a personal project of mine to figure out how to make games more appealing to women.  This wasn’t a feminist, girl power crusade to achieve gender equality in video games, this was simply market research.  I want video games to appeal to all demographics because, you know, more people equals more money.  Anyway, due to that wretched human diversity thing I came to no discernable conclusion (other than maybe guy gamers should be a little bit nicer to girl gamers).  Different girls like different games for different reasons.  Who knew?

I had a discussion about it with a friend of mine before, and I mentioned that appealing to a non-gamer girl with existing console titles is difficult because the majority of them are marketed towards young men.  At one point during the conversation my friend stopped me and said, “But I love violent games!  I love blood and guts and gory stuff.”  I was somewhere between a face palm and a consolatory cuddle (Cuddle palm? Face cuddle?) when I explained that no one is going to take away the violence from video games, simply because it already sells so well.  The only thing I’m looking for is a little wiggle room for something that appeals to a broader market.  Is that so much to ask?

Video games may still be a young entertainment medium compared to movies and literature, but it really needs to get with the times.  Geek culture is starting to bleed into popular trends in society and the games industry needs to realise this and seize a potentially huge market.  That’s why we need people like Anita Sarkeesian to poke holes in tired, recycled formulae such as stereotypical female characters.  Sooner or later someone will listen, but it’s up to gamers to not go out of their way to silence constructive criticism.  So guys, seriously, enough with the torches and pitchforks.  No one is going to take away video games, we just want to make them even better for everyone.  Surely you can appreciate that?

About the Author

Joanna Moylan
I've had an unhealthy obsession with video games for as long as I can remember. When I wasn't playing video games, I was thinking about video games. I write, draw and dream about video games. Most of the time my friends can't get me to shut up about video games. I have just graduated from a computer game development course and while the techie nerd in me enjoyed programming, I just didn't feel content in settling down to the life of a code monkey. I blog about stuff I think about a lot, mostly issues with the gaming industry. I don't know how yet, but I will change the world of video games, one rant at a time.


  1. Matt

    The reaction the Kickstarter has received is totally understandable. When you consider the portrayal of men and women in games and realise that for a lot of incredibly insecure men, a power trip and a sex fantasy are a big deal. The film threatens that status quo (in their minds, obviously). The same puerile industry that supplies the fodder for immature males is obviously defensive when it comes to their products being attacked. What it boils down to: men are not women. As a man, I haven’t the first idea how to make a game that appeals to women. I just about understand how to make games that appeal to middle-ages, time-poor white guys (and luckily they’re just fatter, greyer versions of their younger selves).

    I’d love to see a serious discussion of good, no, great games for women where the player feels like an actor in the game. My daughter really enjoys Mirrors Edge on iPad but can’t stomach it on PS3. She adores Minecraft and MovieStarPlanet. She’s 10 – so a little young for these discussions.

    • I think a decent enough writer can bring to games something wonderful and thought provoking that appeals to everyone. Men aged between 18 to 30 are but a teeny tiny percentage of the world’s population. The gaming industry shouldn’t sell itself so short every time.

      • Matt

        I’d like this to go further than “teh Twittorz OutRaGe” but at the moment, that’s where it is.

        Has anyone done a serious study about what women want in games? We know what 13-18 year old males want and their desires (and wallets) are driving the industry.

        I don’t agree that men and women really like the same things – I think that women have learned to ‘tolerate’ almost inexcusable things in order to play games. If you love games and your only choice is the hyper sexualised violence-feats on offer, you might end up playin them.

        This movie might give this section of the market some sort of voice. I just hope it informs rather than complains. More games developers focusing on the “other 90%” of the market would be great but they have to be told what to build for people who currently have no market presence. We know game-long women exist, we just have no idea what they want.

        Much more interested in what they want than just going over, again, what they don’t want. I know the latter nearly by heart – it’s obvious. But let’s hear about what was great and promote the great stuff.

        • If it’s game mechanics you’re referring to, women generally like the same stuff men do. You’ll be surprised how many girls play Call of Duty.

          I think when people try to appeal to women they end up trying too hard and end up on the pink and fluffy end of things which is bad. Stop thinking about women based on their gender and think of them as humans with thoughts, needs and wants. When you appeal to men with sex and violence you’re not really appealing to their human side, but rather something more primitive, which to me is a lazy cop out of doing something truly creative.

          I think the question you should be asking is what women like about games/films/literature/tv already. Take the stuff that does work and improve on it.

          • Matt

            See, the pink/shiny/fluffy thing is the MALE answer to what women like.

            I wasn’t really referring to game mechanics. There are reasons my daughter likes Mirrors Edge over Mario – even though both are simple function platformers at their core. Probably the female protagonist has something to do with it. But she doesn’t get the same thrill from PORTAL – probably because in an FPS, it doesn’t really matter what gender you are.

            Twitch-gaming is always going to be aimed at the Lizard brain. So, what is there out the and how can you make it more palatable to all races, creeds, genders and sects? And if not all, just the ones who will pay to play :)

        • Why don’t you ask her why she likes Mirror’s Edge so much? I think girls at that age tend to seek a role model.

          You’re obviously not going to please all of the people all of the time, but it helps to not specifically exclude or offend certain groups.

          I might actually write an article about what the industry does do right in response to your question. It’s got me thinking =)

  2. I don’t really think it’s a case of writing or making something to appeal to women, much of the time women and men enjoy the same kinds of things. I think the point of all of this is that it is incredibly easy to make something that doesn’t insult women or portray them in the variety of horrible ways that games currently do.

    Gamers being defensive is nothing new but the past few months have started to teach me that maybe the mainstream has our number a lot of the time. Games need to start moving forward and we need to acknowledge that there are sections of the community, media and developers that seem really resistant to this idea. Those people need to be left behind if the medium is to mature and earn its place alongside films, literature and television.

    Some of the best things ever created by human minds have been borne from confronting difficult issues that upset people. I would take a game that changed the way one person thinks about gender than the feelings of every insecure gamer in the world.

    If we learn to ignore those people and learn that gaming isn’t infallible and doesn’t always deserve our undying and unquestioning protection then we can start having grown-up conversations about issues like this. As horrible as the controversies over the past few weeks have been it is heartening to see these conversations begin to happen. Minds are changing and hopefully with time studios like Crystal Dynamics and the people who made that Hitman cinematic will learn that they can’t use rape or sexualised violence to sell a product or make it seem more appealing.

  3. Pazma

    I think you made a fair point. Well said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>