Arcade Sexism… game over.

A review of Tropes Vs Women in Video Games.



At its core, “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” is a 13 part youtube video series that plays like a series of investigative reporting pieces. It describes itself as the following:

“The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.”

The idea that video games are sexist is not a new idea, but this digital project takes a scholarly approach to the masses. Segments examine the role of the female characters in video games who historically and currently portrayed as damsels in distress, simple variants of established male characters (think pac-man with a bow  becoming ms. pacman), and the double standard of the portrayal of male and female body image. In addition there are examples of the outliers in the video game industry. There are two segments that focus on Positive Female Characters in Video Games.

The creator of this project is Anita Sarkeesian who describes herself as:  “A media critic and the creator of Feminist Frequency, an organization that explores the representations of women in pop culture narratives. Her work focuses on deconstructing the stereotypes and tropes associated with women in popular culture as well as highlighting issues surrounding the targeted harassment of women in online and gaming spaces.  Anita earned her bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies at California State University Northridge and her Master’s degree in Social and Political Thought at York University.  Much of this information is buried in the about page, linked from the main youtube channel. When departing from academia into the mainstream, credentials seem less important. In fact, in order to market this video to its intended audience (that of a gamer), it pays to have less credentials. The idea of one gamer communicating to other gamers gives Anita “street cred”.  Beyond this, Sarkeesian is published frequently in mainstream magazines and newspapers as well as mainstream gaming magazines and sites, usually as a commentator to similar themes covered by this Feminist Frequency youtube series.

The project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on Kickstarter is a site that allows for creative type projects to be funded. This grassroots type of backing makes it a more independent “no strings attached” project, say if it were funded through a University or through NEH. The fact that the funding came from 6968 individuals help give the project credibility. The organization that is linked to the funding and video series is the non profit Feminist Frequency.  The organization is small. Its intent looks to put pressure on the video game industry to be more accommodating to feminist views. This all seems to come at the right time, as many industry analysts have showed a shift in the demographic to this once male dominated activity

This video series has a polished, professional feel to it. There is a director, producer, graphics and sound engineers and writer. Sarkeesian and one other person receive the writing credits. The writing is on target, partially witty and smart without losing the audience on cultural vernaculars. This all totals to a collaboration of about six people. I found it reassuring that such a quality product can be created with such a small production team. the production value has a professional feel. As a classroom teacher, it is a style I would be proud to replicate if I were to create instructional type videos. From the technical aspects video and sound come together seamlessly.

The internet and Youtube in particular has many outlets focused on the video game industry. Gamers may look to Youtube for information on upcoming games, strategy on current games and ways of connecting to other gamers. The fact that this digital humanities project is in fact a study on gender using video games as its primary source means that it is looking for an audience of gamers that may not be accustomed to such discussions. Therefore Anita Sarkeesian speaks two languages. As a scholar of feminism and gender, she is able to use historical references that transcend the video game genre. She is also able to use her scholar voice to help layout her argument. This gives her an authority to those in the field. An example of this is seen on her argument on how even fully developed damsels in distress do not offer producers of games off the hook. Sarkeesian says: “These token gestures of pseudo-empowerment don’t really offer any meaningful change to the core of the trope and it feels like developers just throw these moments in at the last minute to try to excuse their continued reliance on the damsel in distress.”

It is her second voice as a gamer that I feel brings her an even greater authority to the intended audience. Her scholarly can voice can help her preach to the choir, but as a gamer, she is able to talk to the gamer. When Sarkeesian explains that the princess was good for beating the ice levels in Super Mario Bros. 2 she builds her credibility to her hardcore gaming audience. It is this running secondary commentary that helps sugar coat some of her more scholarly speech. We can imagine that this project had the intention of breaking through to reach a broader audience. With numbers in the millions we can safely say that this Digital Humanities Project had achieved this goal.

The open access that the internet gives can also wind up hurting a project. The anonymity that the web gives seems to have caused the project to be trolled. Comments had been turned off because of this, therefore eliminating any sort of discussion the project meant to start. A quick search on the project brings up that Anita Sarkeesian had been harassed with rape and death threats as well as having her site hacked. This is all in spite of Sarkeesian refrain in this series “remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.” I feel that this is an example of one of the biggest challenges faced by digital humanities. As much as an open forum is instrumental to the digital humanities, it can also lead to ruining its goals.

Could have it been reasoned to keep the comments coming? This “see what I mean approach” might have given evidence to one of Sarkeesian’s points. Given the personal nature of some of the comments and attacks, I would refrain from pressing this issue. Examples of comments made, as well as in-depth discussions on this  be found in this New Yorker article as well as in many other publications. A quick google search brought a trove of youtube rebuttals of Sarkeesian’s arguments, one in particular that I had viewed lacked a real argument and had little if no intellectual voice and production value.  In traditional Humanities debate is formal, has rules, and accountability to what is said. Digital Humanities plays like the wild west. The formal institutions that govern peer debate is missing. 

Lastly, when these two voices come together we can get a true reading of the sources. Sarkeesian makes distinction on when a game should and should not be criticized as showing violence against gender. It usually occurs when female characters are what is referred to as non-playing characters. When a female character is on equal footing, such as when they are a playable character, then she fairly states that it is not an attack on the character’s gender.

Continuing with the idea of two voices, one academic, one populist “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” pleases both. There is a bibliography of sorts listed in the website. In addition to the countless primary sources used, there are a list of secondary sources most stemming from feminist studies. There is little name dropping or citing, even in the transcript which is included. Instead, arguments flow one after another using and explaining terminology usually found in scholarly works.

The Primary Sources (mostly video games) are creatively woven into the report. As Sarkeesian takes the anchor chair, viewers are treated with clip after clip of video game footage. This approach makes the source material handy to the viewer as Sarkeesian creates her argument. The end product achieves both informative and entertaining segments. Viewers will become nostalgic about some of the games, while at the same time revisiting the characters with a new perspective. Truth and humor is found in the editing, as viewers are treated with an onslaught of examples for each point. 

All 13 episodes are accessible through youtube. There is also other video content that includes media appearances of Sarkeesian as well as sci-fi movie reviews.  In addition to this, there is a link to which provides the organizations information, transcripts, citations, and links to a tumbler page that showcases more primary source material. In this way, the youtube channel acts as a calling card or publicity to the organization. The line between academia and activism is crossed in this piece but as is the case whenever an argument is presented to the people. This is the intention of an political organization piece, which is what this represents.


About Ron

I am a social studies teacher at Carlstadt Public school and I attend Rutgers, Newark part time. I am looking to graduate sometime next year with a Masters in Teaching History. I enjoy traveling, the outdoors and technology when it makes life easier/more interesting.
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