Friday, July 26, 2013

Feminism, Video-games and Kickstarter Projects

This topic has been floating around in my brain for about a year now ever since the Anita Skarkeesian Kickstarter controversy last June, but I've been struggling to actually work out what the issue is, and I've had a bunch of confusing conversations with my boyfriend where I basically switch points half way through. So this is probably going to be messy and convoluted but I'm going to try and break it down and make it make sense. Hopefully.

So for people who don't know, last year Anita Skarkeesian, a well known feminist vlogger, started a kickstarter campaign to create a series about women and tropes in video games. Instead of the $6000 she asked for, she ended up raising $158,000 (which is AMAZING) but was also subject to some of the most vicious and insane cyber bullying ever seen. And I mean, really, really horrible stuff. Along with the typical twitter/facebook/email hounding, people made games where you'd punch her face until she bruised and bled, wrote malicious articles and blog posts about her, wrote derogatory things on her wikipedia page, and basically acted like the misogynistic pieces of shit that they were. Their issue basically was "wahhhh, don't you dare say something mean about my video-games you ugly bitch", and their childish response has basically made it impossible to criticise the project without people labelling you a petulant child with misogyny issues of your own.

This is my first issue. Because of the controversy tied up with this project, it's impossible to view her videos and critique or discuss it without people going "oh you're just another Skarkeesian bully". But you know what, fuck them. I have every right to disagree with her project, and just because she was bullied doesn't give her a magical shield against all criticism for the rest of the project. There are flaws in her project and I'm going to talk about them and that doesn't make me un-feminist (anti-feminist? non-feminist?) or a bully because my issues are with the project, and not the who or the why. Because no shit there are serious issues pertaining to females in video-games and the video-game industry, and it's definitely a topic that needs to be discussed, but I don't think Skarkeesian does it well. This, by the way, is a fantastic counter-argument to her first video by a female gamer and a definite must-watch.

Now this is where it's going to get messy. Because a large chunk of my criticism is wholly reliant on the Kickstarter aspect of the project, so I guess I'd better get into what those issues are. For the most part I think Kickstarter is pretty great. I've backed a couple of projects, and it's great to see those talented people given an opportunity they might otherwise miss out on. That said, the fact that Kickstarter doesn't have a cap worries me. Other crowd-funding sites have you set your goal and once you make it, you're done. You don't make an extra $10,000 or $100,000, you make what you determined to be the necessary amount for your project and you go on your way. On Kickstarter, however, the sky is the limit. In some cases, such as the Penny Arcade Kickstarter project which made $525,000 (on a $250,000 goal) they introduced stretch goals which basically meant that with the money over their original goal they dedicated it towards a bunch of extras, in this case it mainly went to a reality TV show called Strip Search (which is so great you guys, and about drawing comics not strippers btw). In other cases though, the stretch goals are either kinda lame (I'll send pledgers a badge! Woo!) or they're non-existent and people begin to feel like they're being a little ripped off and question where all that extra money, often hundreds of thousands of dollars, ends up. Which is a ridiculously valid concern, because we might love you Mr/s Artist, but that doesn't necessarily mean we want to buy you a new 60" TV.

Anyway, Anita Skarkeesian had stretch goals. Instead of the original 5-episode series, she expanded it to 12, and she supposedly put some money towards better production quality for her vids. But two videos in, I don't feel like we're seeing a project worth $158,000. So far they conform to Skarkeesian's Feminist Frequency videos. It's just her against a blank coloured background with clips slotted in to illustrate her point. There are 1000s of videos on YouTube saying the same thing she does, looking very similar and they cost us NOTHING. Which leads to a more integral issue. The first two videos have basically just been regurgitated academic arguments that people have been making about video-games, films and television for years. Skarkeesian is articulate, but she's not actually adding anything new to the discussion. The tropes that are issues in video-games are the same tropes we've seen in film, and there have been feminist recitations on this subject for decades. Transposing film theory into games theory is also at least a decade old, so there needs to be more to this discussion than simply putting this information together into an expensive series of YouTube videos.

You know what would have been awesome? An actual documentary, interviewing actual women about this. What we need is to see the faces and hear the voices of female gamers and women within the gaming industry. $158,000 isn't a lot to put towards a doco if you're thinking Michael Moore size, but Indie Game: The Movie* had a budget of $100,000 and it provided an immensely interesting and valuable look into the development of  indie games. Indie Game kept it's focus small, focusing on the development of three games (Fez, Super Meat Boy and Braid) with smaller interviews with a handful of other developers, journalists and experts. Anyway, a doco that looks at women in games, especially one that looks at the sexism, misogyny, bullying, exclusion, and lack of relevant games for female gamers is EXACTLY what the industry needs. The Creator's Project wrote an article on the issue of Skarkeesian's video and whether it's relevant, and in maybe 1500 words manages to be more relevant than Skarkeesian's 50 minutes of videos so far. They ask three women in the industry (a game journalist, an artist and an editor) what they think of the project and the response is mixed, but they're the women we should be talking with at length. Rather than what they think about her video, what do they think about these tropes? About getting employment in this industry? About playing video games? Have they been bullied or victimised by male gamers? Are they sick of how few female protagonists there are in the video-game world?

A few weeks ago at a party we played a game of categories, and 'female protagonists in video-games' was chosen and we barely got around the group. Yes there are female characters, but protagonists? And primary protagonists, not secondary to a male protagonist? When it gets down to it, they're super rare. But, to me anyway, more damaging than the lack of female protagonists or the proliferation of patriarchal ideals within video-games, is the misogyny that exists in  video-game culture. As a female gamer you are constantly met with raised eyebrows or outright disbelief when you talk to some guys about video-games. Either you only like the "girl" games which are either childish/very easy, or you're in it to score points with a boy you like. Heaven forbid you actually like Mass Effect or Bioshock because you think they're cool - you must always have an ulterior motive.

So I guess what my issue is, is that I feel like Skarkeesian** has wasted an opportunity. She had the money and the support (especially in light of all the online aggression) to create something which looked at the real issues of sexism and the gaming industry and do something different. I wish she'd move outside of the YouTube vlogger comfort zone and use that $158,000 to do something amazing, challenge the audience and contribute something new, not simply a regurgitation of arguments that can be found in 30 year old academic texts. If I felt like I had a better grasp on the topic or the capacity to get in touch with the right people, I think I'd actually make the documentary myself. It would be so kick-ass to see a bunch of ladies talking about video-games, and their experiences in the industry and their favourite games and what they see for the future of the industry. Maybe one day I will. And maybe I'll market it on Kickstarter. And then someone can write a long and meandering blog post about how I wasted an opportunity to do something different.

So there you go, I said my thing, and now I can have the head room back so I can go back to imagining myself, Ginny, Luna and Hermione forming a wicked girl band.

* It really is worth a watch guys, even if you don't like video-games, the amount of blood, sweat and tears that go into developing these games (and seriously, they're all on the brink of nervous breakdowns) is unbelievable.

**And in a way it's less about Skarkeesian per say and more, why the F hasn't anyone done anything substantial on this subject yet?


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