This open letter is in response to your latest video, Damsel in Distress: Part 2.
As many others working in the games industry, I have watched your first video and was interested to see where you take your line of thought, addressing more recent games.
It was interesting to see which games, or rather which particular scenes from certain games, you used as examples to showcase your views, and I have to admit I was a bit shocked to see some familiar titles appear in your video.
First of all let me state that I have no doubt in my mind that sexism and violence towards women is a reality in our times. There are people in the world who do not understand that women are equal and should be treated equally in every way. I would also agree that some games can contain sexist scenes as well as violence towards women (your example of the Grand Theft Auto 3 ending was well chosen).
However as a gamer, as a developer and as a man I would like to take the time to contest some of your examples and arguments.
Violence towards women in games:
I think it is important to look at violence in video games in general, as a developer and gamer I feel we are creating too much content that relies on violence. You made a similar statement in your video and I felt that was a good point to make. We do rely on violent gameplay activities to progress the player through our narrative and our game worlds. I share your hope of things changing and broadening up and I feel the (current) indie development industry is a driving force behind this. With the recent success of some non-violent indie (and also mainstream) games, I think it will only be a matter of time before we see more of those games, catering to an ever broadening demographic.
By your own statement though, that violence is a game mechanic, I think it is worth noting that it is, for the most part, indiscriminate. Violence to women is the same as violence to men in these games. The important criterion, which I think you fail to apply, is to see if women are subjected to violence BECAUSE they are women. In my opinion the vast majority of examples you use to further your argument in this case, shows violence to a character. The antagonist does not subject the character to violence because she happens to be female, but rather because it is the role of that character, in that story, to be subjected to violence.
To me, as someone that has created characters and that is telling stories in games, the test here should be simple: can the gender of the protagonist and the person being subjected to violence be swapped. If the answer is yes, if the scene would still work with the protagonist being female and the “victim” being male, then this is not what I would consider “violence towards women”.
The difference might well be subtle to some, but it is the intent that matters. Yes there will probably be some people who interpret the scene incorrectly, but the average gamer (consumer) will not. The average consumer will see the victim as genderless, as an element in storytelling. Few people will play a videogame in which a woman is subjected to violence and walk away thinking that the intended message was “it’s ok to hurt women”.
There are plenty of games in which male characters are tortured and killed. Again, the message here is not that it’s ok to do this in real life. But it is a story telling element.
As I said previously, you are correct that violence is overused in general in games, but I contest your insinuation that depicted violence on women in games relates to gender hatred and that it is specifically constructed in such a way because the character is a woman. The link towards violence to women you make at the end of your video, is a stretch to say the least.
Damsel in distress:
The Damsel in Distress element of stories to me is quite interesting, and I can see why you picked this as your primary headline for your work. It is easy to spot in many games and so there are plenty of examples which you can use for your arguments.
However I think you do not sufficiently explain to your audience exactly why the games industry uses this particular story arc, nor do you make any concession to business model or core demographic of games, which I think is a crucial omission.
Please let me expand a little and give a, brief, explanation as to why I think games have not evolved further.
Many games in our times, in particular big blockbuster AAA games, still try to emulate and follow classic movie story telling elements. As an industry we have not evolved sufficiently to tell stories our own way, make use of our medium to the full extent (interactivity) or go our own way. There are, as you also rightly pointed out, some excellent exceptions. But as of yet, they are still exceptions. Over time, many of us in the industry hope, we will evolve and our story telling will evolve. Some companies lead the way, not only through narrative, but also through environmental story telling.
But right now, many games still suffer from being chained to traditional story telling. Many games stories, particular those of a violent nature (see my thoughts on this above), feature a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist needs some kind of incentive to progress through the story, to eventually face his antagonist in some shape or form.
It is a classic, tried and tested (and yes overused) method to take something the protagonist holds dear and use that as an incentive to start him or her on their journey.
In itself, this way of storytelling is not bad. Overused, sure, but not necessarily bad, and it is (or can be) gender neutral.
So why is it, we developers use a female character so often to function as the “incentive”? The answer to this is simple: core demographic.
Creating a “Damsel in Distress” has nothing to do at all with looking down on women, diminishing their worth, their role or their prowess. It has nothing to do with degrading women or sexism. It simply has to do with the fact that young men between the age of 12 and 22 are the core demographic of many games (in particular violent ones). And a young man between the age of 12 and 22 will emotionally react stronger to a female character being in “distress” than if the roles were reversed.
Now, an argument can be made towards particular character modeling and appearance of female characters, and in some cases that does suggest catering towards more erotic male fantasies, however I would also argue that this in itself is not done with a view of degrading women or open sexism. There are many games where the woman in “distress” has a normal, everyday appearance, just as her male counterpart. It all depends on setting, story and all the characters in the game.
Interpretation – a different view
As I mentioned at the start of my letter, I recognized some of the games in your video and I have played a fair few of them myself. As stated I was a bit shocked, because I failed to see sexism or stereotypes were you seem to imply they are present.
I looked at one game again in particular, Dishonored, and I compared your statement with my own experience and how I saw the scene.
Your video shows a few choice cuts and audio snippets from the game, all seemingly supporting your point of view. However I strongly feel that these were taken out of context and, combined with your comments, present a vastly different experience of what is actually intended and indeed presented in the game.
Without going into too much detail (though I would be happyto, see end of letter), I would just like to point out that the Empress to me was not a powerless woman, a victim. She was the head of a large empire, a powerful and yet benign leader. She cared deeply for her subjects and risked much to try and find a cure for the plague. At the same time she was a single mother, raising a daughter and potential heir to the throne. It took 3 powerful men and a large conspiracy to dethrone her. And the male protagonist was powerless, unable to prevent it.
This goes to show, in my opinion, that it depends on who is playing the game, how the approach a game and how they interpret a scene. It is obviously hard for me to determine just what your frame of mind was when you played Dishonored, but if you played it as part of your research, it is no stretch to imagine you were looking for scenes to support your point of view.
I believe it is easy to find sexism and mistreatment of women in games, if that is what you aim to find. But it is a different thing entirely to claim that this is intentional or desired. I would argue that a lot of thought has been put in by the developers of Dishonored to create a strong female character, yet a 5 second video clip in your presentation degenerated her to a damsel in distress begging for help.
The exact same thing is true for many of the examples you listed where a female character is sacrificed at the end of a game, or killed by the player. I have played some of these games, and again my experience was different. Rather than seeing a weak female character, I saw a strong woman who was willing to sacrifice herself to save others (sometimes the world, depending on the game). This story arc was used very successfully in 2 Star Trek movies. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Both scenes were incredibly emotional. And I would neither call Spock (Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan) or Kirk (Star Trek: Into Darkness) weak characters.
Out of context, without looking at the entire story, the development of a character and the outcome of a game, it is easy to pick scenes and claim foul play. But when experienced as a whole, the interpretation can look vastly different.
Japanese (Asian) games:
The last major point of contention I would like to address in this letter is your mixed use of Japanese (Asian) games in the same space as western games. I feel this does neither culture any service. It has long been established that Japanese (Asian) pop culture has distinct differences to western pop culture. Game content as well as actual game play often are vastly different, as is characterization.
There is no doubt that, from a western standard point of view, many Japanese (Asian) games can be seen as sexist and that they contain female stereotypes. Female characters often wear skimpy outfits and are definitely portrayed as damsels in distress or objects of desire (lust).
I would caution in using them as examples however, because of the difference in culture. What we might well find to be questionable content is perfectly acceptable by their cultural standards (for example I don’t think you would find a “used panties” vending machine in the streets of London).
I don’t think anyone should be the judge of an entire culture, nor necessarily does anyone have a right to call for a change, other than someone coming from and living in that particular culture.
What would be good, I feel, would be one part (or several) of your series dedicated to Japanese (Asian) games to highlight the difference. Although, this might well reduce the overall material you can draw examples from, and highlight that western games development has moved on substantially since the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Ms. Sarkeesian, while I very much appreciate the time and effort you have put into drawing attention to storytelling and characterization in games, as well as sparking a much needed debate on the subject, I feel the examples and arguments you have produced in the first 2 videos is far from ideal. The games industry needs to mature, no doubt. We need to broaden our horizon, address important issues and use our medium to the fullest extent possible. But I feel your portrayal of games is very one sided and highly inaccurate.
It is my opinion that you take too much content out of context and present the material in such a way to support your arguments and views. In my opinion your agenda dictates your approach to games and your interpretation of a character or scene. You leave no room for an alternate view, and (one or 2 comments made in passing aside), you do not give the developers the benefit of the doubt, nor do you give them time or space to express their views and arguments.
While watching your videos it feels like you made your mind up before you even picked up a controller. Obviously, this is an assumption on my part, but this is substantiated by a distinct lack of positive examples. In your last video you named 3 indie games as positive examples vs. dozens of titles in the negative. Considering the vast amount of games coming out each year on a lot of different platforms, I would think that giving equal time to positive and negative examples would be easy enough. I feel this would also give your arguments more weight and actually facilitate the change in game development you obviously want to see.
The current videos do little to sway minds I think. They cater and speak for those whose opinion and views are already aligned with your own. They vindicate those who feel the same way you do. But, again in my opinion, do not present arguments well enough to sway the minds of those who sit on the fence and are undecided.
Your videos certainly spark debate, and that is never a bad thing. It is a shame though that you yourself do not participate in that debate. I would be delighted to discuss the points I made above and elaborate. I would also be happy to expand on the Dishonored example I gave above, discussing with you other games we both have played and find out what we saw differently, and (most importantly) why we saw things differently.
This is an open invitation to you, Ms Sarkeesian, feel free to contact me via this site, leave comments or even organize a public debate at a games conference.
In my opinion games are entertainment, and while they do represent a reflection of society to a degree, i do not think that games should be seen to form society. Games and other media can not be held accountable for people’s actions. If this was the case we would to look at more than “just” sexism. We would need to look at how violent games could, after all, be responsible for the actions of some individuals going on killing sprees. In my opinion it is the responsibility of parents, education and society as a whole to educate young people in treating everyone equal. Games should be seen as an entertainment, a diversion, they should not be linked to real world behavior or used as an excuse for anti-social behavior. This does not mean the industry should have no standards, or has no reason to change and mature, but at the same time the industry should not be held accountable if someone thinks it’s ok to punch a woman, just because he/she saw that in a game.
In the meantime, let me wish you all the best with your future videos. I will most certainly be watching them and I am looking forward to future lively discussions and debates with my colleagues and friends.
NOTE: as mentioned in the letter I welcome debate and discussion. Feel free to comment below with your views and replies. I will “approve” every comment, however I will not tolerate any hateful comments or threats directed at Ms. Sarkeesian (those directed at me are fine of course)