By Anthony Rossi
Last Friday, I attended the Digital Ethics Symposium to see Anita Sarkeesian’s keynote speech. Sarkeesian is an important social figure and media critic who has recently made waves by commenting on the negative attitudes towards women in the videogame industry. Growing up, Sarkeesian was a fan of videogames even though her parents didn’t support the hobby. They initially refused to buy her a Gameboy because they were convinced it was “for boys”. Sarkeesian noticed that, indeed, most of the games and their advertising campaigns seemed targeted at men. Instead of being powerful heroes, female characters in videogames were reduced to sexual objects or helpless damsels in distress. Sarkeesian found it hard to connect with many games because of these tropes, and began to discuss her frustrations in web episodes of her blog, Feminist Frequency. She pointed out that there are an increasing amount of women playing and developing videogames, so it is ridiculous that sexism is still so prevalent in the field.
When her videos were posted, there was an immediate wave of intense criticism from certain members of the male gaming community who where convinced that Sarkeesian’s remarks would somehow ruin videogames. These gamers, who eventually became branded “Gamergate”, began to attack her with comments, tweets, and invasions of her privacy. They hacked into her files and leaked her personal information, mass-flagged her videos to get them removed from Youtube, and sent her specific rape and death threats. They also created crackpot conspiracy theories about Sarkeesian, claiming that she was bleaching her skin to appear more white and that she was sending herself the death threats in order to get more attention. These theories were used to portray Sarkeesian as a selfish, raving lunatic who was stealing money from those who donated to her Kickstarter.
Sarkeesian has continued to stand strong against these threats and attacks on her personal image. In her speech, she pushed for social change that would not only decrease the presence of sexism in videogames, but also reform social media networks to make it more difficult for harrassment to occur online. She suggested adding shareable block lists or the option to autoblock messages containing certain keywords as ways to innovate sites like Facebook and Twitter. She also suggested that these sites make it an option for users to report abuses against their friends so that the victims will not have to relive the abuse. Adding functions like these will make social media more secure and prevent serious threats and abuses like she has experienced. As she pointed out, it will also encourage more people to report offenses commited against them or a friend online.
I am very glad that I had the opportunity to see Anita Sarkeesian speak in person. She made some very important points about social action while giving us a window into her life and her personal experiences. I hope that her ideas continue to have an impact on new media, because she has some very valuable opinions and points that could make social media and videogames more inclusive.