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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Anita Sarkeesian and the Adventures in Video Land

I feel like I gotta get this off my chest, because it's been on my mind lately. (Don't you love blog posts about stuff that happened weeks ago?)

First some backstory you already know. Anita Sarkeesian has done a lot of YouTube videos, most notably stuff relating to feminism. I respected her views -- I learned a lot about the Bechdel test, on how it's best applied (as in not per movie, but on a less-than-scientific global/informal level). She made sound points.  She seemed intelligent.

She made a Kickstarter to do a series about women and/in video games. For some reason, this drew down the thunder of the Internet gods, a pantheon of good and evil alike. Some gnashed their teeth, some jumped to her defense.  Both sides went to battle. The result brought her campaign to front-page notoriety. In the end, she made her goal quite quickly.

Eight months later...

The first video comes out: "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games-Damsel in Distress". The Internet watches with hungry eyes, eager to see what she's done in the aftermath of the hoopla. And those eyes are even more hungry because she's going to talk about video games, a subject near and dear to many of our hearts.

I wonder why she chose to single out video games for her topic. It's a medium that's got a long sordid history of misogyny, true. But it's getting better. And movies, TV, literature, web comics, comic books, RPGs can be just as bad.

First, a prologue. If I'm going to discuss this, I've got to make sure I criticize the right things: the content. I'm not going to talk about her appearance, her legitimacy as a video gamer based on a photo. The point of feminism is allowing females to do whatever they want to do (1). If they want to wear big hoopy earrings, who cares. And I won't talk about contradictions in her thesis. It does concern me, but she has the right to change her mind.  And I'm only concerned about the information presented in this single video.

Second, I don't want to have to talk about this, but it bugs me: the Kickstarter. Sarkeesian needed $6,000 to make these videos. She got $159,000 -- almost 400% more than what she needed. And during the time between the end of her Kickstarter and the beginning of March, there was very little word.

Some people think she took the money and ran. Some people thought she could do whatever she wanted with the money. Some people thought she didn't need a Kickstarter for doing what she's been doing for free all this time. Some people said that there's nothing wrong with getting paid for your work.

I fall somewhere in the middle. A contribution is just that. If you give money to a homeless guy, you have no say in what he does with the money. You hope that he uses it to get back on his feet, or get something to eat. But it's just as likely he spends it on crack. I like to think Sarkeesian is more professional than that.

I think when you contribute to a Kickstarter -- one with a particular goal -- that money should be used just towards that goal (plus or minus expenses). It's a bit of a contract: I give you money with the expectation of seeing the final product you produce. Not to feed your family or fund your lecturing tours (I'm not saying that Sarkeesian is doing this).

But I wonder what she did during those eight months, because this video doesn't seem very different from her others. I wonder what would have happened if she hadn't made her goal -- could she have made the videos anyway?

I wish Kickstarter would set a cap on funds you receive, some kind of max cut-off. Because I think getting over-funded tends to backfire, and creates controversy where there is none (case in point). I think if she was more transparent with her plans -- more updates, a video schedule, topics -- it would go further towards legitimizing this project (not that she isn't legitimate already). In fact, I wasn't going to make this post until her second video, but it's been so long...

Okay, now to the video proper. As one should do in any criticism, let's start with the good points. I like how she explains the roots of the trope in video games. I knew about Greek myths and the monkey-kidnapping trope and Popeye leading to Donkey Kong and princesses in peril, but I never put it all together. Especially with how Donkey Kong served as the granddaddy for protagonist-antagonist driven video games.

I like her disclaimer that you can still like something while still being critical of it. No work is perfect.  That's something even I have trouble reconciling.  However, I think if you're going to present something in a critical light, you need to admit when things are both good and bad.  Even Spoony admitted that the concert scene in FFX-2 was really good.

All right, that's all I can think of. Now on to the negative.

1) THE TITLE: The first thing I see is that the actual title is "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games". First, why "versus"? Why is Sarkeesian pitting tropes against women? Tropes are simply story-telling elements that appear with enough frequency to be identified. They're not inherently bad. A better title might be "Tropes AND Women" or "Tropes WITH Women" or "Tropes OF Women". By using "vs.", she's creating conflict where there is none. It's unnecessarily incendiary.

2) THE LAUNDRY LIST: My main complaint with the video, as a whole, is that this is just a laundry list. Most of the time, she's iterating through the many video games that feature a damsel in distress, concentrating on the Mario and Zelda series. A series that comes from one company, one creator (Shigeru Miyamoto).

If she's not doing that, she's listing off games from the '80's and 90's with the all the in-depthness of Wikipedia. I feel like she just went to for her information. This makes me uncertain of her level of expertise in this medium, as well as her knowledge of the games she selected.  Which leads into...

3) CHERRY-PICKING INFORMATION: The very first point she opens with is Star Fox Adventures. Sarkeesian complains that Nintendo took out a "strong female character" (her opinion) and replaced it with a boy.

No. They replaced it with Star Fox, a recognizable name, a recognizable license. Licensing is Nintendo's bread-and-butter, and they change things all the time. Kirby's Epic Yarn had Prince Fluff as the main character. Doki Doki Panic became Super Mario Bros. 2 for internationalization (more on that later).

Sarkeesian says that this "strong female character"'s game, Dinosaur Planet (N64), never got released. No. It got changed, then released, as Star Fox Adventures, a launch game for the GameCube.

Sarkeesian implies that they changed the main character because she was a woman. Does she think the developers said "This game is great, but no one will play a game with a woman as the main character" or "We can get more sales, especially for a launch title, if we change the main character into someone recognizable." I guess we'll never know. (To close the history, the game scored moderately well, especially in Japan, but got criticized for not being a true Star Fox game.  All subsequent sequels did not Star Fox Adventure's format.)(2).

Every other game she talks about are accompanied by fleeting screenshots, many of which I couldn't recognize. There's no discourse beyond "this game has a damsel in distress". She makes a point of mentioning Dragon's Lair with its "ditzy Princess Daphne" being ported to so many systems. Dude, just because it gets ported to every system doesn't mean it's a popular game. It means the company wants money. It also doesn't mean it was a good game.

When she talks about Mario, she makes sure to specify the problems with the CORE SERIES. Well, duh, of course the core series isn't going to deviate from a traditional formula. That's why it's called the core series.  Star Trek 11 isn't going to take place with the Klingons, where Kirk and Spock are bit characters. And furthermore, why don't the Spin-Offs count? Many of those games are just as popular, if not more, than some of the core series games (Super Mario RPG, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Mario Party).

Sarkeesian calls Peach "accidentally playable" in Super Mario Bros. 2, because it was a conversion of Doki Doki Panic. So she calls that "not a good example" of averting the Damsel in Distress trope. Except that Doki Doki Panic originally featured two female characters, so that completely contradicts your point, Anita. And no, they could not just have easily had Bowser in that role, because the sprites wouldn't have matched. Part of video game design is working with your limitations. Heck, the reason Mario has a mustache was because there wasn't enough pixels to show a mouth.

When she talks about the Zelda series, there are some points I have to concede to (see my review of Skyward Sword) about Zelda's history of portrayals. But she completely neglects Twilight Princess. Zelda may have been trapped in a tower for most of the plot, but she does demonstrate some instrumentality. When the forces of the Twilight Realm invade her hall, and she sees the awesome power of King Zant wipe her soldiers out, she surrenders her kingdom. That takes balls.

Sarkeesian also conveniently forgets to mention all the other female characters in the Zelda series: Malon, Ruto, Saria, Nabooru, Impa, Romani and Cremia, Anju, Medli, Midna, Telma, Agitha. I think the LoZ games have been very diverse in gender.

Last, she completely neglects any positive portrayals of females in video games, ones who aren't damsels. She seems to be keeping to the SNES era and prior, so the examples are few and far between.  But they are there, like Metroid, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Chrono Trigger, Castlevania, Ms. Pac-Man. She says there'll be more in part 2, but I don't see why they can't be mentioned now.

4) NO INVESTIGATION: All throughout this laundry list, Sarkeesian never mentions once WHY the "princess in peril" is so common in video games, especially early ones. Maybe because it's so simple, she didn't feel the need to mention it, but I will.

Video games are targeted at white male adolescents.

They always have been, they always will (to some degree). And especially during the '80's and '90's. They have the most disposable income. And any video game aimed directly at girls is ill-fated (e.g., Barbie games and Purple Moon). When it comes down to it, video games are a commerical venture, just like movies and books.

Companies create these works of entertainment to make money, not art. Art doesn't make a profit. Sure some games are exploring new visual mediums, experimental styles, but to paraphrase John Scalzi "If you're not a commercial [creator] to some extent, very few people will know whether your [creation] is any good or not."

There are secondary reasons too. Most games in this era were made in Japan, where females have been extremely disenfranchised until recent years. Also, early video games had limited resources. Stories were written out in the accompanying manual.

Before Donkey Kong, games were like DefenderSpace Invaders, and Asteroids. They didn't even have characters. (Although Extra Credits had a nice analysis of the Missile Command "narrative".) If you could push in a storyline, you automatically received kudos. And the best games never eschewed gameplay for story.

So what's the simplest storyline to put in without a lot of hoopla? Damsel in distress. Same reason most games are combat-based and contain amnesia: it's easy and exciting.

Sarkeesian's statements imply that the purpose of these video games is to shut women down. They keep getting kidnapped, and that removes the power from them. When men are kidnapped or imprisoned, it's a brief change in gameplay or storyline. That's the insidious thing in that, no matter how powerful these women, they always get put in a place of disempowerment where the man needs to save them.

Video games only have three types of gameplay: growth, exploration, or puzzle-solving. Most games fall under growth: getting stronger, achieving a sense of power. When Anita talks about women becoming disempowered, she neglects to mention that most often, the men are stuck in the same way. Hero Protagonist's love has been kidnapped or the bad guy has a doomsday device or attempts some form of conquest. In any case, the bad guy has all the power, and the good guy has none. Even the underlings are stronger than you, from the bulky Abobo to the untouchable Goomba.

Oh hai Jimmy Lee
Until the hero sets out, and slowly gains experience and abilities over the course of his journey, until he is at a point where he can face the big bad.

5) NO QUANTITATIVE DATA: "I've heard it said that in the game of patriarchy, women are not the other team. They are the ball."

Who said that, Anita? Where is your source for that quote? Where are your sources for anything? Where are you getting your data from? What are you using for research? What is your criteria? (Fun note: this quote featured a clip from Mario Sports Mix, where Peach is a playable character. See "cherry-picking".)

Like her famous videos about the Bechdel test, this analysis employs unscientific, unmeasurable data (she even admits this). If you don't have numbers, can you call it an analysis? It's more of an exploration, or an editorial.

She seemed to be focusing on old school games, even though she never explicitly said so. I didn't see a game mentioned that was past 1992, except when it was convenient, like the Mario and Zelda series. She's missing lots of post SNES-era games, even though she mentioned those would be in the next video (what's the over-under on how soon she mentions God of War?). Culture changes over years. This is like saying movies are racist by examining Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (hope that's the right amount of S's).

So pick a date range, Anita. And then tell me how many games had plot lines. How many games had a damsel in distress? How many featured a female playable character? How many games had no male protagonist? How many games had no protagonist at all?

6) WHAT IS YOUR POINT, ANITA?: The first thing she says is that this video series will explore the role of women in video games. It will offer critical analysis and so forth. All I learned at the end of the video was there was a lot of pre-1992 games that featured a kidnapped woman as the main objective/bad guy motivation. I feel like she's standing in front of a video screen, doing the shame-shame finger at us. She's indicating that the video game culture is wrong for works they did 30 years ago.

I think when Sarkeesian keeps saying "disempowerment", she really means "agency". The boys are the ones who get to do stuff. The boys get to beat people up or jump on Goombas. Girls hardly show any power in operation or opportunity for choice. Yes, that's a problem. But refer to my point above -- games are aimed at male adolescents. Know thy audience.

Also, games don't need to feature a female to gain female audience, and vice versa. Look at IMDB's Top 50 Titles as rated by women. Not one succeeds the Bechdel Test until number 17 (ironically, a movie from Japan). So really, the question is, even though a lot of games don't let you be a woman, does anyone care?


Maybe I'm not the right audience for this video. Maybe she's aiming at an older crowd that's not terribly savvy about video games. That might make her selection of criteria all the more devious -- an attempt to misinform an ill-informed crowd -- but I have no evidence of that.

And at the end of the video, I feel like I didn't gain anything from it. It feels as vapid as Lana Del Rey's "Video Games". Chaffing and sardonic. Full of sound of fury, but at the end, signifying nothing.  I would not want to show this video to my daughters, because it's full of misleading data and trickiness.

Now, I don't mind that she closed comments on her YouTube video. That's fine. I would have done that too, if I'd gotten the hate she had. And YouTube has some of the worst scum the Internet has to offer (case in point). But to give no avenue for feedback? No forum or web page? I hope she's receiving these responses in some form. Use all that money you got to hire a comment moderator. If she doesn't offer an opportunity for discourse, I have a hard time accepting that Anita Sarkeesian is not just a rabble-rouser pushing an agenda, no better than Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.

So like it or not, Anita Sarkeesian, you have become a figurehead for feminism. You may have come into the Internet with the same amount of power as the rest of us, but that's changed. That means people will be shaping their beliefs based on what you do, just as a writer shapes his craft by the other writers he/she admires. That means it's time to step up to the plate.

Oh, and here's an excellent video about female characters in games. One that has a thesis, and provides some solutions, instead of just shaming.

(1) Patrick Rothfuss, a declared feminist and world's nicest guy, has an excellent post where even he has trouble defining what feminism is.

(2) I never played Star Fox Adventures so take everything I say with a grain of salt.
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