Fun, games, and misogyny at E3

E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) is meant to highlight upcoming video games and advances in game technology. But this year’s event, which took place from June 11-13th, was overshadowed by a few unfortunate incidents that highlighted the still-present sexism in video game culture instead.

On the first day of E3, feminist video game critic, Anita Sarkeesian, tweeted this observation: “Thanks #XboxOne #E3 press conference for revealing to us exactly zero games featuring a female protagonist for the next generation.”

Sarkeesian was flooded with nasty retweets from angry male gamers saying things like “Stop pushing your feminist agenda in video games”, and “Maybe if women were more interesting and capable at life there might be more female led games, like super floral arranger” (and those were the nice ones).

And then there was the rape “joke”.

At the reveal of a new Microsoft game, a male producer and female community manager demonstrated a battle in the game. The woman (Ashton Williams) began losing very quickly. While pummeling Williams’ character, her male colleague said: “Just let it happen, it’ll be over soon.”

Williams later said she hadn’t minded the joke and Microsoft apologized for the “offensive” comment, but there was still a great deal of online debate about the incident.

Commenters questioned whether it was a big deal because this type of trash talk is common in gamer culture, whether the guy in question meant any harm by it, and whether it was a rape joke at all.

But in truth, it doesn’t matter if the Microsoft presenter meant any harm by it or if Williams was offended by it. It also doesn’t matter that rape-themed trash talk is common and not necessarily offensive to all people. In fact, it doesn’t matter if any single person is offended by this or not.

What matters is that many people did see it as a rape joke and are offended by it, and it matters that a Microsoft employee felt like he could make a comment like this at a highly publicized event, at the expense of a woman. It matters that people said horrible things to Anita Sarkeesian simply for being a female with an opinion about video games.

And what really matters is that these two events happened despite the fact that women now constitute almost half of gamers.

What these events show is that the male-dominated and often sexist culture that has existed since the birth of video games is so institutionalized that it still exists despite the growing female gamer population.

And the internet backlash against any critical discussion of these issues shows that many male gamers are threatened by the fact that their world is changing.

One threatened male gamer making rape jokes or insulting Sarkeesian isn’t the issue. The issue is that the frantically offensive online response by many male gamers to any feminist presence in the gaming world is slowing the inevitable progress of the industry.

Despite the growing female gamer population, very few games feature female protagonists, and the ones that are featured are usually overtly sexualized. Games are still largely being marketed towards the “frat boy” demographic even though this is no longer their only audience.

Clearly, game developers are still either too lazy or too scared to make changes to accommodate female gamers. And it’s because the events at E3, and more importantly, the online response to them, perpetuate the institutionalized sexism in the game industry.

The gaming world has been slow to change, but it is making progress. “As critics and as fans and interested parties, we need to put pressure on the industry,” said Sarkeesian in an interview with The Boston Globe, “[to say] ‘we expect more from you.’”

Let’s just hope there are enough feminist gamers brave enough to face the inevitable backlash.

Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.

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