This week, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Christina Hoff Sommers published a video on sexism and misogyny in games, essentially denying that it's a problem.
In her view, hardcore games are something for the lads to enjoy. For her, the depiction of women as sexual toys, pleasing decorations and victims is a harmless diversion. She dismissed feminist critics of misogynistic games as "concernocrats."
Sommers, whose books include The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, said that male gaming culture is under attack from "gender activists and hipsters with degrees in cultural studies."
Hers is a reactionary view, in the sense that she is hostile to the scrutiny of, and implicit changes to games suggested by progressives. Gaming's feminist critics broadly believe that constantly hostile depictions of women in fiction help to justify unjust treatment of women in real life, manifested in fewer opportunities than men, lower wages than men, violence from men ... the list is almost endless.
The idea that games ought to be left alone because they are somehow separate from the rest of existence is not uncommon, especially on the political right. Denial that a problem exists in games helps reactionaries to deny that it exists elsewhere. If a problem does not exist, it requires no change.
So what about the detail of Sommers' argument in the video? What did she actually say, and does any of it stand up to scrutiny?
In the aftermath of publishing an initial story about her video, I received a deluge of Twitter messages from her fans, mostly hostile and insulting, demanding that I address the facts of her argument.
Her argument did not provide much in the way of relevant facts
Sommers is also fond of insults. She tweeted that I am a "mansplainer" and invited me to address what she describes as her "ideas." Others added that because I question the views of one woman, I must be a misogynist. One person compared me to Napoleon (the pig, not the emperor.) I am not the first person to face the wrath of video game sexism-deniers, and compared to the vitriol some have faced, my experience was very mild.
It is true that Sommers offered plenty of cited studies in her video. She bandied stats around like jelly beans. Unfortunately, her argument did not provide much in the way of relevant facts. She offered up well-documented stats on the demographic breakdown of games players, informing us that women play games, but not really games made for men. This is all well known.
Games made for men, she said, are violent and feature sexualized images of women, because they are made for men and that's what men like. This was delivered with a sarcastic twist, as if questioning such an obvious notion were pure stupidity.
This, she suggested, is all harmless fun. It is a banal observation that certain entertainments are created for certain demographics. But it is a stretch to suggest that popular entertainments in which women are repeatedly denigrated have zero consequences. The mantra of gaming's sexism-deniers is that fictional misogyny does not translate into the denigration of women in real life. To suggest otherwise might be to invite change.
I do not agree that it is acceptable for such a large chunk of men's entertainment as blockbuster video games to be a reliable source of regularly delivered nastiness about the role of women. Repeated insults against women in general is wrong. We may not know what we ought to do about it, above and beyond recognizing that it exists, but to wave it all away as the nanny-ish concerns of busybodies seems to me to be an irresponsible abrogation of our shared humanity.
Bafflingly, Sommers inserted some research on how violence in games does not make people violent. Her point? A game cannot turn a peaceable citizen into a crazed mass-murderer, so how could it persuade anyone to hold onto their own negative social assumptions about the role of women? It is a weak argument to suggest that gaming's inability to create extreme behavioral reactions also absolves it of supporting widely held negative prejudices.
So much for the facts. What about her opinions? What did she say that ought to give pause to those of us who have become convinced that games have a case to answer about their depiction of women and minorities?
Her arguments come down to three basic elements, all of which are common currency among video game's reactionaries and all of which are just plain wrong.
Hardcore Games are Men's Entertainment
Early in the video Sommers acknowledges that gaming is now something that everyone enjoys, offering up some widely cited research from the Entertainment Software Association. But she quickly makes the distinction between casual games and hardcore, the latter being traditionally a male province. Among people who play games for 20 hours a week, the ratio of men to women is about 7-to-1.
She did not address the obvious point that women might prefer not to play games that are often crammed with lazy and insulting stereotypes.
She continued that if hardcore games are something that men enjoy, what right does anyone else have to complain about it?
To illustrate her point, she said that it's like "a group of gender critics attacking women-centered shows" such as Oprah or women's magazines for "privileging the female perspective."
This allusion is curious. No daytime TV shows, nor even the most downmarket women's magazines, stand accused of portraying any large portion of the population in a negative light. On the other hand, there is plenty of visual and highly convincing evidence of games depicting women as weak and supplicant to men.
There is a reason why games are being scrutinized. It is not, as Sommers believes, because they are harmless larks for boys, being unfairly bullied by bolshie feminists. It is because they often trade in the negative exploitation of the notion of womanhood. Smart people have noticed and, rightly, are making a noise.
Undoubtedly, a certain type of game provides constant and extreme visual representations of extant assumptions about women being victims and sex objects. I believe that these images, which represent the conscious or subconscious prejudices of the games' makers, can reflect and sustain similar prejudices (to varying degrees, and not all the time, of course) among the consumers of those images.
This does not concern Sommers. She believes that, because there exist games that women enjoy, there ought to also exist games that men enjoy. This is reasonable, but to argue that the content within those games is nobody else's concern, because they can have no effect on how their consumers live their lives, is nonsense. If entertainment culture provides a stream of ideas that are hostile to women, it is absurd to suggest that these will have no effect on the attitudes of consumers.
She says that the gamers she meets are "smart and creative" and that the generation raised with video games is the least likely to embrace misogyny and homophobia, as if this were all the evidence we need that the shitty portrayal of women in the media can have no effect. Clearly, she has not paid attention to the wrathful treatment of women who, in recent weeks and months, have dared to question video gaming's lazy stereotypes. But I think it goes further than online bullying. Games reflect notions of superiority among men that stretch back a very long way, notions that ought to be challenged.
Hardcore games are not deemed by nature to be for men
It is enough for Sommers that male gamers are consumers with a right to consume what they wish. How dare the feminists question the sacred link between a boy and his women-hating fictional adventure?
Everything Sommers says comes from the assumption, asserted early in her video, that hardcore games are consumed by men because they are made for men, as if they were in the same category as aftershave and Men's Health magazine.
But although male domination has been the status quo for many years, the influx of women playing games is a sign that women like to play games. "Hardcore games," of the kind that women don't play so much as casual games, are not marketed to address a particularly male need any more than blockbuster movies are; they are male-centric because their makers have failed to figure out how to make them more interesting to women.
All entertainment features subsets of products that are clearly aimed at men or women. Just take a look at the bookshelf in your local supermarket. But games have fallen into this male-centric locus because their makers have not been smart enough to reach outside their historic core target.
"Hardcore games" is shorthand for games that are expensively produced, graphically rich fantasy adventures. They certainly originate from a male-dominated consumer culture, but that is not an eternal given. As they become more sophisticated in terms of their power to tell stories, they attract new audiences.
Just this week, Andrew Wilson, the CEO of EA, said that games have more power to tell great stories than movies. He is not interested in making games that continue to appeal to men. He wants to make games that appeal to everyone.
It seems reasonable to me to look forward eagerly to fewer games that follow boring narrative patterns about good-looking, violent men saving pretty, sweet-natured women from peril.
So-called AAA games are currently consumed by men because they come from a traditionally male-dominated culture of computers and computer gaming, and the men who make them have been brought up to enjoy and produce content within this frame of reference. But even they acknowledge that change is desirable.
The dichotomy of casual and hardcore gaming is a useful one, up to a point. But to use it as a justification for its own worst aspects, such as unnecessary and inhibiting gender disparities, is to ignore the creative potential of its own destruction. Games are stories and the best stories are blind to gender.
Gaming's Feminist Critics are Dangerous
Sommers saves her most colorful language for women who have worked to highlight misogyny in games. She name-calls the "feminist tech writers" in various tiresome mocking phrases familiar to anyone who has endured those corners of the media that revel in scare stories about the alleged troubles caused by academics, educators and other care professionals.
The person she focuses on is Anita Sarkeesian who, in my view, has provided some of the most detailed, arresting and convincing documentary work ever produced on the cultural role of video games.
To Sommers, Sarkeesian is contributing to a culture in which men and boys are threatened by the rise of wrong-headed and radical feminism.
In one of her books Sommers writes that "there have always been societies that favored boys over girls. Ours may be the first to deliberately throw the gender switch. If we continue on our present course, boys will, indeed, be tomorrow's second sex."
Her most noted book is an attack on feminists with whom she disagrees. Sarkeesian's actual research is not addressed in Sommers' video, but Sarkeesian herself is an object of scorn and may now presumably be counted within the group of "women who have betrayed women," as Sommers' book is subtitled.
"Most gamers seem to support equality feminism. What they reject is today's male-bashing, propaganda-driven, female chauvinism," she recently tweeted.
Male Gaming Culture is Under Attack
Central to Sommers' work is the idea that men are under siege from feminists determined to undermine their rights. Her books are marketed according to the theme of feminists who are trying to destroy masculinity.
This is not a popular view among those who believe that it is not men's rights that are the issue for feminists, so much as special privileges that are denied to others.
Hers is a view that is familiar to those who subscribe to the "men's rights" movement, which claims that feminism has gone too far. Gaming, a cultural area where the role of women is a hot topic, has become a new battlefield for men's rights activists as well as for feminists.
Sommers asserts that "they want the male video game culture to die," but apart from quoting one editorial from the writer Dan Golding, she offers no evidence.
The subculture of male gaming is actually pretty difficult to define. Obviously, if you join an online game or attend a game industry event, men are in the majority. But a predominance of male gamers is not the same as saying that these are all men who view themselves as 'male gamers' as opposed to just gamers. I have heard many people call themselves gamers, but very few refer to themselves as being a "male gamer" which, just to put this whole thing in its proper context, would be creepy and a bit mad.
If such a subculture is targeted for destruction, it is not clear how or from whom. Feminist documentary makers and "academic pontificators"? The terrifying thought police, hiding under our beds?
In her ugliest moment during this video, Sommers goes so far as to question who might be behind threats against Sarkeesian, asking "if it was indeed gamers who sent the threats." Who else might it be? Enraged beekeepers? The Illuminati?
No one that I know of has argued that games should not be for men, or that masculine themes and images ought to be expunged from gaming. Feminists are asking that game makers recognize tropes and stereotypes that repeatedly portray women as inferior to men.
The destruction of male gaming culture looks like yet another bogeyman.
Is it possible that the men who are most vociferous about the undesirability of change are merely concerned that the products they consume will change? The answer to that is a definite maybe.
Feminist critics of games are not demanding some sort of dictate, stating that all male characters in games must have a woman equivalent, or that sexually attractive women in games must be balanced by women who do not fit traditional beauty standards. Change comes gradually, from within, from the desires of consumers and the aspirations of creators. But this change is coming.
Games companies comprehend that times are changing
Hardcore games are made by corporations that can generally be trusted to seek the lowest common denominator in order to maximize profits. Games that feature male leads and tropes that are demeaning to women have been popular in the past, and games companies do what they know will minimize risk. But they are smart enough to comprehend that tastes and audiences change over time.
Additionally, these companies are made up of human beings. Churning out games that depict women in such mercilessly poor light is no longer good for their self-image. They are as apt to be swayed by a good argument as anyone else. See how women are appearing, slowly but surely, as game characters with agency and personality. I have heard more than one game-industry man say that he wants to change what he makes, so that he can talk about his work to the women and girls in his life without feeling ashamed.
Many people who work in games crave artistic acceptance, which is always going to be difficult if what you are producing is widely viewed as being just a few branches down the obnoxious-tree from pornography and saucy reality television. We have seen a lot of press in recent weeks accusing the video game industry of sexism. It is certain that the execs who run games companies are concerned about this. At some point, their concern must translate into action.
Many of this autumn's big games offer only a male lead, or are clearly skewed towards a male aesthetic. But from talking to developers I believe that there is an emerging acceptance that games ought to be as inclusive as possible, in order to attract new markets, salve the consciences of their makers and avoid unpleasant PR gaffes like the one that hit Ubisoft around E3 time.
The recent success of games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider, in which women protagonists are (mostly) written with care and sensitivity, would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The piss-poor portrayal of women as something other is just not cool. It's a bit sad and a disgraceful waste of an opportunity to create great fiction about human beings.
Why such a shift in attitudes, such an improvement, would be a problem to anyone, is beyond me. But here we are, looking glumly at yet more vicious Twitter messages, death threats and loony conspiracy theories.
Games that feature old-fashioned male hunks rescuing distressed and weak women might naturally become something of an anachronism.
If you look at, say, a 1950s Western on Netflix, you will be struck at how ridiculous the women's lines are, just as the men's interactions with women are impossibly corny. Even if it takes a long while, even if there are outrages along the way, this obsolescence will be the fate of games that fail to recognize changing times. Cretinous portrayals of women and minorities were once something that reviewers ignored. Not anymore.
Ultimately, the market gets to decide. Anyone who wishes to continue to produce games in which women are portrayed negatively is free to do so. I won't buy them. You may take a different view. We live in a free country.
All change comes with its difficulties, and there are lots of people who despise progress. Sommers' video is an attack on people who are actually doing the research, the hard thinking, the shit-eating that it takes to effect the changes they believe are going to make the world a more just place.
Ultimately, Sommers has used gaming to take a shot at the feminists whose worldview she plainly loathes. But it would amaze me if her work had anything like the same impact on game makers as that of Sarkeesian.
Anita Sarkeesian's work is compelling and persuasive. More women are playing games, working in games, writing about games and making demands on the people who make games. More feminist commentators are taking the game industry to task. Feminists have made the effort to point out the current crassness of some games, and I find it hard to imagine this will fail to leave a deep impression on game makers and game consumers in the years to come.
Games are changing, for the better. This reactionary rear-guard action, ranging from Sommers' video to the disgracefully lurid internet comments and Twitter hounding from anti-feminists, will ultimately be for naught.