Anonymous Internet Boy Taliban Tropes
by Clifford Bleszinksi
Disclaimer: I was a key creative in what is often considered one of the more "dudebro" franchises out there, Gears of War. I'd also like to remind everyone out there that I went out of my way in working with our team, the writers, and Epic's artists to make sure that female characters are represented well in that franchise. By the time we got around to Gears 3 the female soldiers were kicking butt right alongside the men in outfits that weren't drastically different than the men's, and with a restrained depiction of hair and makeup. (I was just tired of seeing stripper looking female game characters after all of those years...ironic, considering how exaggerated the men were.)
(I'm also not the best person to post about misogyny on the internet as I'll be the first one to post a sexy picture of my wife or give young boys tips on how to flirt with girls.)
However, I can't let this one slip, because there's a deeper cancer plaguing our business.
Let's talk about Anita Sarkeesian.
The "Tropes Vs. Women" controversy caught my attention when I noticed, right on Anita's main Kickstarter image for her campaign, that there was Anya, front and center. I was surprised and a bit confused by this. As I mentioned above, she wasn't an object to "win" in the Gears franchise. She was far from helpless as the franchise matured. Even then the franchise was famous or characters such as fan favorite Bernie, who was an older woman who kicked plenty of enemy butt as well.
Once her first video launched, I found it to be smart, informative, and well put together. She clearly knows what she's doing and, even if you knew a lot of the information she was sharing it's worth watching for the nostalgia of how comedic the repetitive nature the business has been with the Damsel in Distress motif. After watching the video I went to my Twitter feed to see what the fuss was about ... were there really people out there who were still so very angry at what this woman was doing?
As it turns out, yes, there were. I heard a variety of responses. Before we dive into some of the thinking behind them, let's look at some of the Kickstarter numbers and break it down a bit.
Anita was asking for 6000$ for her campaign. News hit the internet of the campaign, and the Taliban of videogaming responded in droves. Who was this...this...woman who wanted to analyze women in video games? How dare she! An army of bold (and, naturally, largely anonymous) men...no, wait, boys, because even adult males that acted in this manner are boys - proceeded to give her a digital stoning. We saw a public display that mirrored the worst of what the anonymous internet male culture has to offer. That young guy who assumes that a girl playing an online game is fat, ugly or slutty now had a CAUSE to rally behind!
And then a funny thing happened. Anita shared some of the heinous virtual abuse - bullying, in fact - on her website and people rallied behind her to the tune of over 150K. Folks who responded to my Twitter query were enraged by this fact! How dare she ask for money and then get ... well, a whole lot more money! One guy even made a flash game where you can beat her up. How much of a bored, hateful loser must you be to even consider doing something like that?!
I'd like to take this moment and remind everyone out there that my good friends at Doublefine, not so long ago, also killed it on Kickstarter. After asking for 400K on Kickstarter they wound up with a final tally of 3.3m. Now, I read the Kickstarter page about campaigns that succeed and I didn't find a single line about doing too well at Kickstarter. As far as I can tell, if you put up a campaign where you ask for 500 bucks to artistically photograph your ham sandwich and it becomes a thing online you're welcome to do whatever you need to with the difference as long as you fulfill your promises to each backer.
So let me get this straight. Doublefine can win Kickstarter but a woman who wants to analyze the treatment of her gender in our business is somehow...exempt from this?
What color is the sky in the world you trolls live in?
I'm assuming you can do a decent web series for a pretty low amount of money. $6,000 sounds like a healthy budget, even maybe a bit much for what the Anonymous Internet Boy Taliban thought was needed for the videos. Here's the thing, though, boys. It's not your call on how much the series should cost, or how much she should be allowed to make on Kickstarter. (The Boys were so enraged by this as they believed she "scammed" money out of people. One man's "scammed" is another's "shut up and take my money.")
You know, maybe people were just happy to donate money to a project that should see the light of day because of irrational immature male fear on the internet. It's called voting with your dollars.
So let's assume that Anita fulfills the promises to all of her backers and is then left with $144,000.00. I'm gathering this project is a self employed gig, so she most likely has to pay self employment tax. Fulfilling everything to the donors also costs money. When you earn that amount of money you are also in a higher tax bracket and you make more, you pay more. I'm not an accountant, but I'd estimate that when all is said and done and this project takes her a year then she might actually be able to pay herself a (gasp) good salary for her year's work.
How dare she!
Heaven forbid a woman actually take a magnifying glass to our beloved hobby and actually try to unravel and figure out why things are the way they are in the effort that somehow she might change things? Why aren't there more female protagonists? Are you protecting Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider or are you empowering her? And god dammit, where's my Buffy game?
Shame on all of you.
My wife and I had dinner with the always amazing Warren Spector and his brilliant (and sharp tongued) wife Caroline last night and this very subject came up. Caroline was rather eager to speak up about it. We went back and forth on the subject and, I'm paraphrasing, but the takeaway that she said to me (and I'm sure she'll do a great talk or article about it) is that we're not supposed to be this crowd.
We're the gamers, the dorks. We're the ones who were on our computers during prom. We're the ones that were in the back of the lunch room who were playing D&D instead of tossing a football around on the quad. We were supposed to be the open, friendly ones, the ones who welcomed all into our wonderful geeky circle.
We're not supposed to be a mob that's storming the gates with our pitchforks and torches.
We're not the bullies. And that's what happened to Anita.
Recently at the DICE summit in Las Vegas David Cage called on the industry to "grow up." In some ways, David, I agree... we can do better in many, many areas. We can make more mature and engaging plot lines and explore unique game mechanics beyond sawing someone in half. The reason we haven't? It's because it's f***ing hard and we're looking at an industry that is ever more risk averse as more and more money is needed to craft product.
However if we're going to grow up as an industry we're going to need the consumer to grow up a bit as well. The latent racism, homophobia, and misogyny online are black marks on an otherwise great hobby. Anonymity is the gasoline on the fire of hate that flares up on forums, chat rooms, and Xbox Live on daily basis.
Why are there so many shooters? Because it's easy to make a trace in code to see if you virtually "tagged" someone. Why were there so many princesses in need of rescue? Because it was easy, and for many years we didn't have the tools or desire to try something else. Why did Mario have a moustache originally? Because they didn't have the graphical fidelity to depict much more. The purpose of research is to encourage rational thought in areas where there may have not been much before. If, by watching Anita's videos I, as a developer, can reconsider how I depict women in any future product of mine then her work may very well be worth it.
And maybe, as a result of this, years later we may see more and more girls who are comfortable playing games, online or off, or going to a conference ...or joining the industry in a professional manner.
This is where change sometimes starts, merely by asking "Why?"
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I am increasingly becoming a fan of this man.