RENATA ŠPARADA 2018
Feminist Art and Video Games as a Litmus Test for the Rise of the Alt-Right
by Renata Šparada
How can art be an ally in detecting, experiencing and explaining contemporary social issues? To answer this question, I will view several works which tackle feminist issues in the context of video games, including games which specifically deal with not only the women’s position in video games, but also in society at large. This kind of art in challenging times such as ours points towards larger issues which go beyond feminist issues.
Angela Washko’s work can be viewed as both a reaction and commentary to a hostile environment around women in gaming and beyond. Since 2012 she has been creating her art within the online video game World of Warcraft to tackle sexism exhibited by predominantly male players. Her exploration of the "misogynistic, homophobic and racist language" used in this environment (1) focused on the opinions of gamers frequently unconcerned with political correctness within gaming space. Her "research performances" included discussions about feminism with gamers. For example, when she asked them why there were so few women players in WoW, they stated that gaming is a natural male activity and when women do play WoW, they choose "healer" characters. In her video "Playing a Girl", she discovered that men choose to play a female character because they enjoy watching pretty girls (2).
According to David Neiwert, the culture of trolling and the anything-goes- attitude on the Internet, outside the academia, traditional media and journalism, considerably contributed to the birth of the alt-right movement with anti-feminism as one of its defining characteristics. This was also something Angela Washko discovered in her work because feminism was the most heated topic packed with negative responses and rude messages (e.g. "get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich"(3)) with a noticeable lack of awareness about misogynistic behaviour among the researched gamers. The common belief that "women are not biologically wired to play video games (but rather to cook, clean, produce and take care of babies, maintain long, dye-free hair and faithfully serve their deserving men)"(4) thrived. However, some women gamers defined feminism as a man-hating business while others dropped the subject altogether to avoid verbal attacks in the gaming community (after receiving the feminazi label, for instance).
Reigns: Her Majesty(5), a video game written by narrative designer Leigh Alexander, displays a direct connection with women’s experience and what it means to live as a woman, especially in comparison to the men’s experience. In this video game, the protagonist is a queen who tries to govern and survive, which largely depends on opinions of the people around her, including members of the church and military. This usually means she gets killed much more often than her male counterpart (in a previous edition, Reigns’ protagonist was a man). The way she is perceived greatly affects her; whether she conforms to the expected norms or fights back is irrelevant sometimes, she gets killed no matter what she says or does. She is concerned with monogamy in her marriage, the perception of her (un)chastity or the type of clothes she should wear to avoid unwanted judgments. The game is a well-crafted metaphor of the women’s position in the gaming community where sexism is apparent, but also of the women’s position regarding work in the IT sector. Today, women face great challenges working in this field, facing sexism in game development related workplaces(6), even though programming historically wasn’t viewed as a
primarily male job. Things changed in the 1960s when programming became more in demand and women were pushed to the side while salaries grew(7).
It is also quite instructive to observe the situation regarding women and information technology geographically. The situation is particularly problematic in societies in which patriarchy is more prominent than the average, which is reflected in the gaming community. This was the case with a 17-year-old South Korean gamer who was accused of cheating and threatened after winning the Overwatch championship (she was killing the enemies in the game with unbelievable accuracy)(8). The situation was finally resolved when the gamers who threatened her apologized to her. The difference between countries becomes clearer if look at the statistics of the World Economic Forum on gender equality, where South Korea is 118th out of 144 countries. This is why women in South Korea organized a feminist group called For D.Va, named after a pro-gamer character in Overwatch who is. For D.Va’s aim is to achieve equal treatment for women, so that they are able to play games without insults and sexist statements in their communities(9).
Challenging the status quo can sometimes lead to dire consequences as we saw in Gamergate controversy which showed how quickly things can escalate and become violent. The Gamergate movement was characterized as a reaction to more diverse gaming projects and as opposition to a more inclusive gaming community. Gamergate was connected to political events of the time, at the eve of Donald Trump’s campaign. Some of the most well-known figures of the Gamergate movement were involved in publishing news in alt-right media. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos was a fierce Gamergate defender while acting as the technology editor for Breitbart News. Gamergate began in 2014 and included doxxing, i.e. spreading personal information on the internet with bad intent, including rape and death threats targeted at women involved in video games development. One of the targets was Zoe Quinn, who created the game Depression Quest in the genre of interactive fiction(10). Quinn was publicly attacked by Gamergate supporters who tried to destroy her reputation by accusing her of using sex to get good reviews which was later dismissed as a false narrative.
Anita Sarkeesian was also attacked. In her videos Tropes vs women in video game, she analyzes the portrayal of women in video games and highlights the common narrative patterns such as Damsel in Distress, Women as Reward or the Smurfette Principle. Her critics often use the argument of protecting the freedom of speech to complain about her critique as a step towards censorship of video games, even though her work is a much-needed cultural analysis that can be protected by the same argument. If we put this argumentation aside, the most shocking were the threats of violence against her. At one point a game Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian appeared, in which players were invited to beat up a picture of her by clicking the mouse. In 2014, she was scheduled to give a lecture at Utah State University, but received a threat which referred to the killing of 14 women engineering students in Montreal Canada in 1989, so she canceled the event(11). Gamergate attacks targeted almost exclusively women and when men defended women, no significant threats were directed at them.
10 This game tries to better the understanding of the depression to the unaffected public, as player play the role of a person suffering from it.
Toxic masculinity of geek online culture has its arguments and uses specific language. While writing about video games, Gamergate supporters' arguments included the defense of ethics, as well as the attack on "social justice warriors" and "cultural Marxism"(12). They also talked about "culture war" that was first inaugurated by Pat Buchanan during George H. W. Bush campaign(13). They often called their enemies "snowflakes" or ridiculed their need for "safe spaces". What links the Gamergate episode and the broader alt-right movement is supposed liberalism and demand for free speech, even though the political arguments they express are, in fact, typical for extreme, far-right conservatism which specifically targets women and minorities(14). This polarizing tactic and its cynicism are especially attractive to young white men and often present rigid gender and race differences as scientific facts, while completely minimizing their social influences. Gamergate controversy was eventually over, but the alt-right movement lives on, pushing its social policies forward and gaining traction among the predominantly white male population.
In her work The Game: The Game Washko deals with the subject of the "Manosphere" in its creepier version of pick-up artistry. In the article "An Establishment Conservative's Guide to the Alt-Right," Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulous stated that "the online 'manosphere', the nemeses of left-wing feminism, became one of the alt-right’s most distinctive constituencies". An interaction with pick-up artists in this game reveals the way they predate on susceptible women, as this is the scene packed with questionable characters. It may be the most beneficial to play this game if you are a male as the artist herself said that with this inversion of gender roles "cis men who play the game have responded to it with a lot more shock."(15) So this game has an empathy-inducing quality, in which women’s experience becomes tangible to men who are unfamiliar with difficult situations women endure. It is indicative of the underlining mechanism happening in the pick-up artist community that employs male vulnerability as motivation for impudent behavior. This form of "self-improvement" relies on the fact that desperate people are easy to manipulate, especially if nobody else addresses their problems. Part of the problem is what Michael Kimmel calls "aggrieved entitlement" which means men expect entitlement and misdirect their anger when their dominance is challenged.
Both Gamergate controversy and the "Manosphere" were specific parts of the movement that was and still is thriving on the internet. Online anonymity and unmoderated Internet groups created space for "unbridled conspiracism, angry-white-male-identity victimization culture, and, ultimately, open racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic hatred, misogyny, and sexual and gender paranoia."(16) This is a small part of what Angela Nagle calls contemporary culture wars that rose from marginalized online underground groups and individuals to political and social mainstream. It is a demonstration of a polarization linked to the rising of the far right.
These were only a few selected examples that showed how art, video games and feminism are relevant and how they react to the radicalization of the right. There are also many examples in other cultural domains like science fiction fandom, movie industry or cynical appropriation of certain internet memes. The kind of art that could give us critical knowledge and experience to contemplate and determine our response to such developments is very much needed, especially art which fosters empathy as an antidote to bigotry.
The adoption of "the culture of transgression"(17) already proved massively effective for the alt-right movement. Therefore, we should dive into art that deciphers the meaning of the alt-right movement and pinpoints different strategies of confronting it.
12 This term was first used in "culture war" context in late 1990s by religious paleoconservatives such as William S. Lind, Pat Buchanan, and Paul Weyrich
16 David Neiwert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, Verso, 2017
17 Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right, Zero Books, 2017