Thursday, February 12, 2015

I Went. I Saw. I Respond. The Tropes vs. Women Lecture by Anita Sarkeesian

First off, you all are funny readers. Yesterday's last minute blog posting that I was sitting in on a lecture with Anita Sarkeesian got more views then all of my posts for the week. Two sentences and you were hooked!

Last night Sarkeesian visited the campus of the University of Texas at Dallas for the Center for Values in Medicine, Science and Technology 2015 lecture series. The focus this year is on the issues of gender, society and their interaction with science and technology. Her topic focused on the portrayal of women in video games and how developers can start changing the culture surrounding them to create content that holds more meaning.

As you know, oh faithful readers, my response to Sarkeesian's theories and critiques don't always match her zest. There are some points that I can agree on, and others I feel she misses the mark. That's not to say that her points are invalid, that she isn't doing a good job researching and reviewing, nor that she isn't doing something meaningful. I just don't agree with Point A. And that's okay. That's part of the process. You can disagree with things. Just don't be a dick about it.

So I went into this lecture with an open mind. I was curious to see how Sarkeesian spoke to a live crowd versus the produced YouTube videos or interviews on news segments.

Initial impression: Sarkeesian should give herself more credit. She's meant to be a speaker. As easy to digest as the Feminist Frequency videos are, she is more personable, engaging even, when you speak to her in person. My impression of her has changed after this speaking engagement. While some of her content is still iffy on my mind, she won me over in this discussion.

It would have been very easy for her to focus solely on the online harassment she has received for talking about video games. That has been the bulk of the news surrounding her. I'm glad that she didn't. We were treated to a real lecture, something I rarely get to see. Typically these scenarios are held by PhD aficionados, who tend to sputter about their latest book in hopes to add to their bank account.

Sarkeesian began by talking about her work, her goals with Feminist Frequency, and why she didn't associate herself as a "gamer" for the longest time. Note: It's not because she did not play video games. She did. Her library is extensive and she's a Nintendo fan. It's because she didn't play Halo, Call of Duty, or the "hard-core games" people associate "gamers" with at an extreme level. She fell into that trap as well, like so many of us-we're not gamers because we don't play those games. There was also a picture of her as a kid playing a Nintendo in floral pants. We all did it in the 80's and early 90's, so don't try to hide it. The discussion then turned to #GamerGate, which she says is not dying out like many believe. It'll come back in other forms. She also described GamerGate as a movement to stop change. It's a group of people with a strong, hive-mind opinion, that games should be this way, and only this way, and it's meant for men. It's not about journalist integrity, as some claim.

This only took up about 10 minutes of the talk. The rest of it focused on things developers can do to make women realistic in video games. It was a lecture filled with thoughtful insight, critical theory, and humor. We're talking about video games. If you can't inject some form of lightheartedness, you're not doing it right. What Sarkeesian did well was to take top tier theories that can be difficult to comprehend and made them more digestible to a wider audience in the form of video games. She's challenging the notion that academic discussion is only for those with degrees. And just as with movies, television, theater, books, when we start to take these entertainment mediums seriously and discuss them in a critical manner, they can evolve into something greater. By critical I don't mean that we bash it on the internet. To critique is to analyze or assess something. The word has transformed over the decades to mean negative comments, but that's not the case. It means reviewing and providing a response, positive, negative, and everything in between.

I enjoyed the lecture because it gave me a new side of Sarkeesian I haven't seen before. A personable side. I could easily imagine this being a discussion a group of friends would have over dinner, and she spoke in a manner that showed research beyond her years. She probably spends quite a bit of time playing video games, again despite when people believe. Now that I know the story on why she doesn't consider herself a gamer, it makes sense on how easily her words can be taken out of context.

The Q and A section afterwords was a bit tame. I was hoping for it to be more of an open forum. We were asked to write our questions on note cards, and they were handed to a staff member, who dwindled it down for the moderator to review. So of course my question never would have made it past the first round. Not that it was a bad question or would have stirred trouble. It was quite tame, actually. I wanted to know what Sarkeesian hope the future of video games would be, and what her greatest fear was with the medium.

But it did allow me to digest further what Sarkeesian's focus is in the future. Feminist Frequency isn't just about women in video games. It's about feminism in the media; all media. There won't be an end to it, because content will always exist when it comes to entertainment (tv, movies, etc.). She chose video games because they married her interest in female tropes and gaming's overuse of the content. She plays video games and likes them, but feels that today's content doesn't live up to the standards we, as consumers, should expect. "Today's games suck." And she's not wrong.

I do have a couple of light criticisms about the presentation. The one that twitched me the most was that she spent quite a bit of time reading from her notes. As much of a note-taker as I am, when it comes to speaking, I want to give the audience my undivided attention by looked out at them. I want to see their faces, connect with them, and keep them engaged - which is difficult to do when one looks at a note pad. To play both sides of the coin, she did mention that the lights were really bright when she looked up and she couldn't see out into the audience. And given how much vile hate she has received online, she probably has to be very careful with her words in case one said individual happened to attend the lecture. So I get it...but I'm all about eye contact.

I would have liked for her to go more in-depth with her content. The YouTube videos are meant to be accessible to a wider audience. The setting last night focused on scholastic discussion, but I felt some concepts were still too broad. I would really have liked to hear more about feminist and social theory regarding non-white female characters in games, and how stereotypes continue to play out in multiple forms of media. Another example: the sex noises. An uncomfortable 30 seconds of hilarity. It didn't flow as well as the rest of the presentation. It felt like an after-thought and wasn't discussed at a level that it should have been by comparison to the rest of the lecture. Why are women reduced to sexy fighting noises? How can we combat that image in other forms of media? Can we say it's objectifying women when even the female heroes of the game, who are not designed to be sexy, undergo the same treatment?

I'm glad I made the trip to the lecture. I was curious to see how she was as a speaker, and was pleasantly surprised. To Ms. Sarkeesian: I may not always agree with your point of view, and I do feel that sometimes you gloss over topics and pick content to fit the narrative framework you are trying to convey.

At the same time I respect the fact that you are trying to get gamers to think critically about their medium of choice. That you are prompting discussion into uncharted territory, and people are listening. I admire the fact that you are carving this path for video games to allow it to evolve into something more. As fans, people, gamers, whatever you wish to call yourself, we deserve better content, and you are helping push us into the right direction.

I'll continue to wait and watch for the latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, with my fingers poised at the keyboard, ready to debate.

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