Games Really ‘Are’ Art Now : Critique With Feminist Frequency
Over the last few days, I’ve become acquainted with the online video series “Feminist Frequency” run by Anita Sarkeesian. She funded a Kickstarter to do a range of videos on the subject of women in videogames. Her recent additions have been the use of the “damsel in distress” trope and the use of women as sexy lampshades (they don’t serve a point except to be attractive set pieces).
Now, as a female gamer there is obviously a vested interest for someone like me. Not necessarily because I’m already riled up about sexism in videogames (I mean, I see it but I love videogames and get on with it anyway) but because someone’s taking an interest in talking about ladies in games. However this series has promoted a lot of emotion and what’s immediately noticeable is the anger. None of which really matters in relation to the videos.
Some of it seems to be linked to the Kickstarter and people questioning where the money went. If the backers are wondering that then I hope she’s given a response but I’m not really interested in that. I did not spend money on this web series, and I haven’t seen any articles complaining about it from the perspective of someone who did. Some of the hate seems to be on a personal level, and there may indeed be unpleasant facets of her character that I have not seen. I also am not particularly interested in this either. I know that many actors and singers have personalities that trouble me (like Kanye West telling people not to read) but if they released a great song or movie, it would be petty of me to say the song or movie is bad because of who did it. I can say I don’t like it because I really dislike the author but I can’t say it’s bad because that would be lying.
About Feminist Frequency and Games
I just want to talk about the videos themselves, which are of a high quality. Each video lays out a point and demonstrates examples of the trope or theme in question. The subject matter is given a thorough run down, with examples, context of examples and often references to other critics who have given opinions on the subject (but not necessarily games). There was something oddly familiar about this approach, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. At times Anita strays into territory that I don’t feel is relevant to a critique (in one video she goes into a lot of detail about domestic violence in real life, which I’m not sure was entirely necessary) and sometimes I don’t feel she protects herself from holes in her arguments (one example she gives is how casually you can hurt women in sandboxes and most gamers will see the flaw in that logic) but overall I think her critiquing is excellent.
I discovered that there is a lot of anger directed at this woman’s opinions. But a review of this backlash from The Newstatesman really nailed on the head what it was that I was finding so familiar about the series. She’s carrying out a feminist critique but it’s a literature critique. To phrase this better, Anita is vlogging a feminist reading of videogames and then creating an online essay to outline her opinions. This is an art critique. Not a review. An art critique.
Videogames are officially art.
I might be the only one but this went straight under my nose! I’ve been fighting the judgement of blowing virtual people up in my spare time for years and I had no reason to think it would end. On some level it probably never will, the same way people still respond to violent movies or profane books. So, what’s changed for videgames? When did we potentially pass over?
Well, until relatively recently, games were an expensive and extremely niche hobby. It would still take a lot of money today to purchase the consoles to even begin researching. I created an Amazon wish list of every Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo console since the Gamecube and had a basket worth £1,300+. This, plus all the games she presumably played, ends up as a hefty bill. I’m not saying Anita could not have made a critique without this huge purchase, all I know is that the videos seemed (for the most part) well researched as an end result.
It’s also easy to forget that not many people had experience in how to play games until recently, making it a strange learning curve just to get started (dual analogue control for a new gamer is funny to watch). It can be loosely compared to the first advent of books, which in turn created a VIP class of those few people who could read and afford the expensive early handmade copies available. Since then, games are most certainly mainstream and it’s acceptable to say you have a console at most ages. Mobile gaming has also given wider access to non-gamers into things that I like to call “gamer logic” (e.g. If you’re given a new power it’s almost certain you’ll need to demonstrate it to continue the game). They’re not as complex as console or PC games but the foundation is still there and it’s incredibly popular.
Crossing Over into Academia
In this fertile ground, digital games are becoming a bigger part of everyday life, which means there’s more academic curiosity about their themes and values. This has lead to productions such as Feminist Frequency. Anita freely admits that she wasn’t a gamer at the beginning of this project, a fact that is often quoted by gamers as a reason to ignore her. But from an academic perspective, this argument makes little sense. I read dozens of books for my degree that I didn’t purchase for the joy of reading them. It was for studying purposes and I had to read them with a critical mind, which is exactly what Anita has done. It only reinforces the idea that games are an art form when people who are not already invested take the time to research and create something assessing their qualities.
Anita has also chosen to talk critically from a feminist perspective, which means that she generally comments only on female interactions with other characters. This has led to some people stating that she is “cherry picking” her examples. When you’re looking at a body of works from a set critical perspective then it narrows what you comment on. If you wanted to create a psychoanalytic piece on games that looks specifically at dreams and hallucinatory experiences this would cut down on the games relevant for such an inspection. Anita makes it clear that she is talking about the female body and the female form within games and she does take steps to prove context and counterexamples in many cases. Her video premise is very clear.
People have been making commentary on videogames using critical theory for years, communist and political interpretations of games like Super Mario and this is hardly the first look at female characters with a feminist slant. But many of these were created by those within the gamer community for the gamer community, often with a lot of consideration on how that community would react. Clearly, Feminist Frequencies doesn’t seem to care about the negative backlash it’s getting from some gamers (though not all gamers, it must be remembered). It’s another sign that games are getting bigger than the community of gamers themselves, moving into the strange world of formal critique and inspection. It’s scary to know that it’s out of our hands to some extent, like when an author has to partially give up ownership of a novel that enters the literature canon to face critical analysis. I hope that political analysis of games, Freudian analysis and cultural analysis with the same depth that Feminist Frequencies offers will soon be forthcoming.
By no means do I think Anita Sarkeesian has created a perfect feminist critique of videogames but she’s done it in a way I’ve personally not encountered before. It’s a far more methodical approach than a review, it’s a full-blown, reference-filled video-essay on the subject. Whilst there are flaws in her approach and execution, I see no reason why this won’t become more and more common online.
Of course, it’s important to remember that art critique won’t always be aimed at those within the demographic of those who enjoy the art. It stands separately and aims to speak to everyone, including those who don’t know the subject matter. This is pretty new ground for games and only confirms it’s status as a widespread artform.
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Kayleigh is a copywriter and video game geek from the South West of the UK. Find me on Xbox Live @Kazuwacky!