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Anita Sarkeesian: What I Couldn’t Say

Last week, Anita Sarkeesian spoke at the All About Women conference in Sydney about how almost three years of harassment has affected her life and what she’s been unable to say to those who target her. In it, she talks about how death threats become routine, how she’s forced to suppress any emotional reaction at risk of being seen as “hysterical” and further discredited, how she can no longer use humor in her work, how she has to watch herself wherever she goes.

As far as I know, this is the first time Anita Sarkeesian has talked so openly about the impact that her harassment has had on her. It’s a powerful and important speech, and at only four minutes long, I think everyone should take the time to hear it.

I also think it’s important to remember why Anita Sarkeesian has been continually harassed and threatened, both on and offline, for almost three years.

She made a Kickstarter to fund a new incarnation of her Tropes vs Women series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games.

That’s it. That’s what led to not only to an avalanche of rape and death threats every week (as if that wasn’t enough), but also to bomb and mass shooting threats against her speaking engagements, a flash game where you get to beat her up, and threats against her family that drove them out of their home. She thought she had something worth saying, and she thought others might be willing to fund her to say it. And as she wanted to talk about sexism, and specifically sexism in video games, that was deemed worthy of literally years of constant harassment.

I’ve included a transcript of her speech below the cut.

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Women as Background Decoration in Video Games

Sometimes, you don’t see how bad things are until the evidence is laid out in front of you.

I don’t always 100% agree with Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis on Feminist Frequency, but her latest video on Women as Background Decoration in video games is pretty hard to argue with. In it, she gives a rundown of how violence (and especially sexual violence) against women is used in video games as a kind of “mood setter,” to give a sense of grittiness or allow the player to play the hero.

Just one of these examples would be horrific. And Anita has enough to fill an entire half an hour video. The bulk of the video isn’t analysis or explanation. It’s just clip after clip after clip, paired with descriptions of the role this moment plays in the game. And it’s pretty stomach-churning stuff.

Of course, not everyone is happy with her expose. Anita Sarkeesian was driven out of her own home earlier this week because of serious threats against her and her family, and she’s previously reported that she gets abuse every single day from irate gamers because of her videos. And why, exactly? Because she criticizes video games? Because she wants them to be more inclusive for women? The irony, of course, is that in threatening and abusing her, these gamers are simply proving her point that video game culture is incredibly sexist and needs change. When people attack her for daring to suggest that gamers might be misogynistic (which she does not even do — she comments on the content of the games themselves), they reveal all the misogyny that fuels them. It could almost be amusing if it wasn’t so terrifying.

I would like to think that people react so horrifically because they feel like she’s criticizing them for liking video games, and because they don’t want their games to be represented by these “blips” of sexism. But it’s hard to believe that. It seems like the people reacting so strongly to Sarkeesian value the misogynistic elements under discussion, especially the ones shown in this video. Why else would a huge chunk of the mods available for Skyrim involve making women in the world more scantily clad? Why else would there be “realistic rape mods” (yes seriously) for the game? People are willing to work hard to add these elements to games that don’t already include them. They enjoy them and want them to be there. And by simply pointing out the existence of this attitude and how pervasive it is, Anita Sarkeesian is threatening their fun and making it seem like it could all be taken away.

#notallgamers, of course. And not all games. But the attitude does exist, and it needs to be tackled. Because when simply mentioning it leads to a woman being driven out of her home, you know you’ve got a problem that runs far too deep to be ignored.

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Zombies! Run and Counting the Women

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A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be at the Zombies! Run panel at the Nine Worlds Geekfest. Mostly I was there to fangirl the game that turned me from somebody who could barely run for 30 seconds without dying into someone genuinely considering doing a 5K. But during the panel, I actually learned a lot about writing a truly balanced and inclusive game.

In short, good intentions are not enough. All of us have internalized sexism and racism and many other isms, and so we can’t simply trust ourselves and our inclusive leanings to get it right.

Many people are now familiar with the study from the Geena Davis Institute that found that women only make up 17% of the people in crowd scenes in movies. Viewers have therefore been trained to see a split of 17% women and 83% men on screen (or in person) as 50/50, and a presence of 33% or more women as women dominating the space.

Which leads to a rather unnatural-feeling conclusion. As creators (and maybe even as viewers), we have to feel like there are “too many women,” like female characters are dominating the story, in order to have anything close to equal representation. We have to feel like we’re being too feminist, and allowing female characters to take over the story with our feminist agenda, to even see close to as many female characters as male ones. And that is uncomfortable and challenging, even for the most determined among us, but it needs to be done.

So Zombies! Run headwriter Naomi Alderman literally counts the women in this game. And when she finds out that there are more male characters than female ones, as is often unintentionally the case, she flips the gender of originally male characters until the split is equal. And, interestingly, she changes nothing else about the characters except their gender. She doesn’t change their role in the story or their personality or background. She keeps all of their relationships exactly the same. She just changes “he” to “she,” and finds a good female voice actor to bring the character to life.

The result is not only a stronger presence of female characters, but also more varied and well-thought-out female characters, along with the extra bonus of more same-sex relationships into the mix. Because again, for all a writer’s good intentions, it can be far too easy to let internalized sexism influence characters, especially when it comes to background and their role in the story. In fact, Zombies! Run writer Rebecca Levene revealed that she finds it helpful to write characters as male and then flip them on purpose, as way to get around all that internalized BS.

I have to admit, I hadn’t realized how many of the voices in the first season of Zombies! Run are female until it was pointed out to me. And that’s probably a sign of how well the game has been handled. The writers take the responsibility to make people feel safe in the game environment very seriously, and so inclusiveness, including a gender neutral perspective, is their main priority. They didn’t want to have your radio operator be the stereotypical flirty female voice, so they made sure the radio operator was male. They didn’t want the typical “one man, one woman” radio show setup for their Radio Abel feature, and so they made them a gay couple. And in response to all of these male voices, they made pretty much everyone else in the first season of the game female, including the Major, the doctor, and the fellow runner who’s scarily handy at dealing with zombies with a shovel. And it just works.

Or mostly works. Apparently the game developers have received many emails from male players saying that they seem to have downloaded “the girl version,” because the radio operator was a man and they picked up sports bras among the other supplies they collected on their runs. Because even running from zombies must be gendered, and if girls are included, it must instantly be something solely for girls, right?

And I have to admit, even I am sometimes surprised by how “girl-oriented” this gender neutral game really is. With “girl-oriented” actually meaning “not solely male-oriented,” when I think about it more carefully.

Which is depressing, but I think ties back into that first point. Good intentions are not enough. Trusting yourself to be a good judge of balance won’t cut it, and feeling inclusive and being inclusive are not necessarily the same thing. Our internalized sexism can trick us. And so we need to start by counting the women, and relying on fact, not feeling, to move us to a more gender-balanced place in our stories.

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Long Live The Queen

Long-Live-The-Queen

I’ve written about the strategy RPG Long Live The Queen before, but as the game’s now on Steam (and in the Steam sale), I thought I would rave about it again.

Long Live the Queen is a seemingly simple game with a simple goal: keep 14-year-old Elodie alive until her coronation in 40 weeks time. Each week, you can choose to train her in two of a wide variety of skills, from elegance to sword fighting, naval strategy to economics, and her ability to learn these subjects is affected by her moods. Her moods, in turn, are affected both by the weekend activities you choose for her (will she attend court or sneak out of the castle? Visit the treasury or play with her toys?), the weekly events that crop up, and her/your decisions.

And she will die. A lot. It isn’t easy being queen, especially when the common people want one thing, the nobles want another, foreign forces are threatening your weakened shores, and assassins are hiding in the woods. If you focus on keeping your people happy at the expense of the nobles, the nobles may rebel. Accidentally insult someone’s honor, and you may find yourself in a duel to the death. And let’s not forget about the mystical beasts lurking in that creepy old treasure-filled forest that you’ve been forbidden to visit.

The game itself takes about 30-45 minutes to play through, assuming you don’t die before the end. But it’s completely addictive, as you try to figure out how to survive certain situations, and the replay value is amazing. Every time you play it, you’ll uncover more possible options, more secrets, and probably more deaths. It’s so much fun to see what different kinds of Elodies end up doing, whether they survive, and what their kingdom looks like during her rule. How does ruthless dictator Elodie fare (there’s a hidden “cruelty” stat as well as the visible skill ones)? What about a book-smart Elodie who knows all the history and is also an expert in court manners and deportment, but who runs screaming from a fight? What if Elodie becomes a Sailor Moon type magical girl? Or if she decides that all magic is evil and must be wiped out? Does a spymaster fare better than a queen well-versed in military strategy? Or is well-rounded, but not particularly strong in anything, better than a one-sided queen? And that’s not even touching the marriage issue.

The Steam achievements also add a new level of addiction to the game, bringing me back to it after a couple of months away. Some of them — like dying or ordering an execution — are fairly straightforward to get. Others are a mite more complicated. Can you find an extra magic crystal, survive a trip to the old forest, or save the day with the power of music? Have you held a hostage to ransom, ordered a human sacrifice, or been blessed by cats?

Long Live the Queen really proves that something can be cute and girly and also be incredibly badass. The characters are drawn in manga-style, dialogue boxes have frilly pink borders, and every death is illustrated with a cute chibi sticker (see if you can collect them all!). But beneath the cutesy exterior, this is a serious, fiendishly difficulty political strategy game about the difficulty of ruling. It’s not a princess game; it’s a queen game. And it’s awesome.

It’s definitely worth the less-than-$10 it costs, and you can even get a free trial at the developer’s website.

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Long Live the Queen by Hanako Games

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I’ve spent the last few days completed addicted to Long Live the Queen, an adorably brutal strategy game from the female-run indie developer, Hanako Games.

This is not a “princess” game. It’s a queen game. Elodie is a young girl who’s been placed on the throne far earlier than anyone expected, and now she has to survive the year before her coronation by learning all the skills necessary for ruling and navigating the treacherous world of politics and favor.

The game mechanics are really simple. Every week, you get to choose two subjects for Elodie to study, ranging from public speaking to poison. How much she can learn in each subject is affected by her mood, which in turn is affected by events and by the weekend activities you choose for her. Each week also brings an event, where you have to make decisions and put Elodie’s skills to the test. Do you negotiate with the people threatening war, or attack? Should you tell your spies to keep an eye on the nobles, or on ? Should you take the risk of going out to give a speech to the people, or stay inside where it’s safe? Which decisions are available to you, and their outcomes, are affected by Elodie’s skills, and sometimes by her personality (is she cruel or generous, for example?). And decisions have knock-on effects. Insult a noble early on in the game, and you might find them attempting to depose you later on. Lose soldiers in one petty war, and you might lack the manpower to fight off greater threats later.

It’s both really, really pink and girly, and really, really brutal. The game has a manga/Japanese RPG aesthetic, with huge character eyes, pink hair and a potential “magical girl” costume. The text boxes are outlined with pink ribbons, even as they gleefully inform you of every perilous situation you encounter. When you die (and you will die), your demise is illustrated in gory yet adorable chibi fashion. I’ve been stabbed, shot with arrows, attacked by a tentacle monster, and on and on and on. Actually living until the end and taking the crown feels like a real achievement. I’ve played through it many times, and I’ve only managed it twice.

The great thing is that our pink, girly protagonist can be any kind of ruler that you want. She can focus on deportment and court manners, or she can study economics and history and military strategy, or she can become a badass with a sword. She can turn into a meek, manipulatable ruler, a fair and just one, or a cruel one who burns people to a crisp for disagreeing with her. She can make marriage pacts to help keep the peace, stay independent until love comes along, or carry on an affair with a woman. Anything is possible.

Long Live the Queen is a simple game, but it provides far more character and opportunity for its female protagonist than many supposedly deeper and more immersive ones. It’s tons of fun, and really addictive, as you obsess over strategy and how to get the best possible outcome for Elodie (or maybe just how to collect every death in the game). You can get a free demo at the website, so I recommend you check it out!

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Zombies, Run!

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Zombies Run is unlike anything I’ve ever reviewed here before. Mostly because it’s a running app.

Or, as I like to think, an interactive story that also gets you to run. Thinking of it that way has been tricking me into exercising for several weeks, at least.

The “game” is set about six months after the zombie apocalypse. You’re one of the survivors, and you find yourself in Abel Township, a fairly large settlement that is struggling to fight off the zombies, avoid attacks from the increasingly vicious New Canton settlement, and generally stay alive. But no-one gets a free ride here: the old “Runner 5” recently died, so you’re going to have to take her place, running outside of Abel’s safe(ish) walls to gather supplies, deliver messages and generally be a helpful soul.

And it’s awesome.

In Zombies Run 5k, which I’m currently limping my way through, you’re a newbie runner getting trained in the fine art of fleeing from zombies by the Doc, Maxine Myers, and adorable radio operator Sam Yao. I don’t know enough about exercise to say whether it’s good at this, but I’ve gone from barely being able to run 15 seconds to running for 10 minutes straight in five weeks, so it must be decent at least! The main app, Zombies Run, has you as a fully-trained runner, going on missions and fleeing from zombies, as the real story and drama unfolds.

One really striking thing about the story is that the creators have really made an effort to create a vibrant and diverse cast of characters, despite the fact that we never see them. We not only have both male and female zombie runners and base officials (and zombies!), but characters of many different ethnicities, sexualities and backgrounds, from Doctor Maxine, who’s still grieving over the death of her girlfriend, to that guy Rajit who’s in charge of the dorms and just really wants to find someone willing to read his novel.

And despite the fact that they’re only voices in your ear, you really start to care about these characters. They make you laugh (even as you’re in running-related agony), you might cry over them, and when some of them inevitably die, I will be more than a little heartbroken.

In the end, it’s just an incredibly compelling world, where you get to play a part. And it’s you, physically you (and your imagination), not some avatar you created. Kinect, eat your heart out.

So if you’re a reluctant runner, like me, or just want some great zombie-apocalypse tones to your usually routine, it’s more than worth giving it a look.

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The Legend of Zelda, starring Zelda


I think most people by now have heard of awesome dad who redesigned the original Donkey Kong so that the princess can rescue Mario, instead of the other way around.

Now an animator has created a similar set-up for the original Legend of Zelda. The story behind the design is here, and it’s a pretty awesome one.

These are awesome projects, and I hope that people continue to do them, and even that the modded codes become available for download (although that’s very complicated, I’m sure). Even in Nintendo games like Harvest Moon, with any particular plot or relevance to the protagonist, it didn’t become possible to play as a girl until quite recently (and some of those options were actually removed from the games before they were released here in the UK). As Tropes vs Women has already made clear, even in these unrealistic fantasy settings, the girls are always the damsels (or just plain not there), and the heroes are always male, even if they’re not actually human.

You can’t even play as a girl in Super Mario Brothers Wii, which has options for four players.  There are at least two non-evil female characters in the series, yet players get to choose between Mario, Luigi, and two generic Toads. It doesn’t make any difference to gameplay, but it does reflect the general tone of even non-character focussed gaming.

Meanwhile, there are now a few major series that feature female protagonists… but many players could be non-the-wiser about them. As far as I can remember, a player could go through the entire Portal series, and most of the Metroid games, without ever realizing that their first-person protagonist is female. If someone wanted to tell their child that they were playing as a male character, I don’t think they’d encounter any problems.

It’s all pretty depressing stuff. But hopefully, game designers will see this as more than a little novelty, and consider their female customers (both young and old) in the future. In the meantime, I’ll keep playing my “design your own character” fantasy RPGs… and then spending hours trying to find suitable armor to match.

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Guild Wars 2 and the quest for good armor

I’ve spent too many hours over the past couple of months playing Guild Wars 2. GW2, for the uninitiated, is an online fantasy RPG where you run around as a hero, completing quests, learning to be awesome, and ultimately trying to save the world.

The thing is, I’m kind of a girly player. All my characters are women. I tend to spend quite a while picking out my characters’ armor based on how they look, my mesmer has ribbons in her hair, and my badass level 80 thief wears a pretty fabulous swoopy bright pink coat. Not subtle, but she seems to like it. I could happily spend a good chunk of time having a fashion show of different armor and weapon types.

And then I started to notice something about the armor: half of my choices were… impractical at best.

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“Females” in Video Games

Can anyone explain to me the current trend of calling women “females”? It seems especially common in video game forums, as people talk about “females,” the games they do or don’t play, and the role of “females” in games. Not “female gamers,” or “female characters.” Just “females.”

It makes me feel rather like an exhibit at the zoo. Like women are some strange, foreign creatures that you learn about on the nature channel, in the broad, sweeping terms that you might hear about lions’ hunting patterns or the hibernation of hedgehogs. And I think this word, more than anything else, shows the casual, deeply internalized misogyny of video game culture. When a large and varied group of human beings are referred to as “females,” they lose that humanity, allowing them to be more easily dismissed, mocked, stereotyped and rejected. They are labelled as “other” from the very beginning of the conversation, and their concerns, their very presence, is “female,” secondary and so easily put to one side.

Perhaps I have just been lucky in my game choice, but I feel like games have improved somewhat in their sexism and their inclusion of female gamers over the past couple of years. It’s still not always good, but it’s better. Yet as long as the discourse labels female gamers not only as “other” but also as somehow foreign and inhuman, these problems with the video game industry, and with the fan culture around it, will persist.

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Skyrim

I’ve spent an almost embarrassing number of hours this summer playing Skyrim (thank you, Steam summer sale!). If you’re looking for an immersive RPG with almost total player freedom, gorgeous scenery and a real sense of adventure… well, you’re probably already playing it, but if not, check it out!

At first glance, Skyrim doesn’t really offer anything “feminist” to talk about. All male and female characters are basically interchangeable. But for a fantasy video game, this is actually a very big deal.

Apart from the occasional “lass” instead of “lad,” no NPC treats your protagonist differently for being a woman. All the plots are the same, and the conversations vary a little based on the race and background of your character, rather than every other stranger saying “lol, you’re a woman.” Even the armor is completely interchangeable between male and female characters, whether you’re going for heavy steel plate, light leather or mage’s robes. There are no armored bras and unprotected midriffs here. And when it’s time to marry, the game developers skipped any complications entirely. Male and female protagonists have the same pool of characters to choose from, men and women alike.

Skyrim is also full of female characters, doing every job in equal numbers with men. There are both male and female Jarls (the rulers of Skyrim) and advisors and court magicians. The leader of the Imperial army is a man, but the character I take most of my orders from is female. The Thieves’ Guild is full of both male and female thieves, and the main plot there centers around a wonderful exiled female character/master thief and bowwoman. I’ve had male allies and female allies (warriors, rogues and mages), bought from both men and women at the market and in stores, learnt smithing from both male and female smiths, and been contacted by both male and female assassins.

Skyrim is, of course, not perfect. You occasionally stumble across uncomfortable tropes — the annoying shrill woman and the horrid boss who must be shamed by revealing her sexual indiscretions, among others. But compared to many games in this genre, or most video games period, Skyrim is a celebration of equality. It’s clear that the developers realized that one way to make a feminist game does not require a lot of thought or effort. Simply make male and female characters interchangeable and involved in all aspects of the game, and a lot of the problems with RPGs and invisible or sexualized women disappear. Of course, some problematic things remain, but you end up with a huge female presence in the game with a wide variety of personalities and roles, from strong allies to detestable enemies.

And in this genre, that is a massive step forward.

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