Six years ago, the nonprofit media organization Feminist Frequency debuted its “Tropes Vs. Women in Games” series, a comprehensive look at how the game industry characterized female characters in consistently negative ways. In hindsight, its creator, Anita Sarkeesian, describes that series as “a hit,” and not in the way you might think.
“I don’t mean ‘hit’ like a blockbuster hit, more like an attack hit,” Sarkeesian said in a phone interview with Ars Technica. Her Tropes Vs. Women series became a cornerstone of hateful Internet movements, but the videos’ allegiance to data and research—their bend-over-backward approach to proving points about largely negative portrayals of women in games—has endured. Now, Sarkeesian and her Feminist Frequency colleagues are taking that approach to gaming’s negative LGBTQ trends.
Anybody who has seen a gay stereotype in Grand Theft Auto or heard homophobic slurs in online voice chat may assume that LGBTQ representation in games isn’t very positive. But what if someone tried to catalog the full state of queer representation in games? What happens when a data-first approach goes beyond anecdotal impressions?
This week’s launch of “Queer Tropes” attempts to answer those questions. The 46-minute Feminist Frequency mini-series isn’t necessarily a definitive answer, but it’s a good step—an enlightening series that revolves around provable trends found in decades of video game history.
A different kind of game “coding”
The available data isn’t very positive. Some of the content that Queer Tropes’ three episodes label as trend-worthy—or indicative of repeating patterns—includes violent leather daddies who dry-hump anything they see; seductive “sissy” villains who lick your hero’s face before declaring their evil intentions; and deceitful, murderous cross-dressers players are encouraged to set on fire. But the new series, like Feminist Frequency’s prior output, comes with hope: by naming the worst stuff, future game makers might identify when they’re falling into bad trends, root them out, and hopefully make more interesting games in the future.
This week’s series could have stretched on even longer if it focused solely on negative LGBTQ representation in games, Sarkeesian tells Ars. But a glut of nasty, cherry-picked examples would have violated one of the nonprofit’s principles about video content.
“As we were going through the research and figuring out what tropes we can talk about, we realized, the history of video games doesn’t have that much queerness,” Sarkeesian says. “Like, it does, in really bad ways, but when we talk about tropes, we’re talking about examples that are plentiful. It’s not useful to talk about something that only happens once or twice when we’re looking for recurring patterns in a medium.”
That adherence to repeating data was paramount to Sarkeesian, she tells Ars, because Feminist Frequency’s various Tropes videos speak to a bigger issue than complaints about rude or unsavory portrayals.
“White male fans have always had media for them,” Sarkeesian says. “They’ve always had media where they could see themselves: they could be the heroes, the villains, the sidekicks. They could be whoever the hell they wanted in this world, because they saw themselves over and over and over again. Marginalized fans have always had to adapt and use their imaginations to picture themselves as the heroes or villains or whatever they wanted for themselves. People are always like, ‘Just stop playing the games or stop watching the movies.’ But we want to have that enjoyment as well. We want to get that validation.”
Hence, the central message of this week’s Queer Tropes videos, much like Sarkeesian’s Tropes Vs. Women video series, focuses on the bigger-picture impact that comes from patterns, not one-off calamities. For example, “queer coding,” or the act of implying gayness, is explored at length in Queer Tropes’ first episode. Host Carolyn Petit, with the help of researchers at the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, points out how queer coding is attached largely to villains in video games rather than heroes (and thus follows Western cinema’s decades with the practice).
Those three listed examples above, including the leather daddies, have something in common: they attach loud, one-dimensional LGBTQ stereotypes to game characters whose sole purpose is to antagonize or attack the hero. Worse, that implied queerness is the only indication we receive as players to explain the characters’ evil. You can try to explain away a single apparently queer-coded character if you’d like, but Feminist Frequency’s data points to a persistently negative trend in gaming—and a historically consistent one.
Sarkeesian admits that the series forges ahead at certain times without enough material to confirm an outright “trend.” The most blatant example is the series’ lack of positive examples of three-dimensional queer relationships, especially in terms of mixing dating into a game’s mechanics. Feminist Frequency only turned up one notable example of that specific trait: Dream Daddy, an award-winning relationship simulator released for PCs in 2017.
“We definitely provide positive examples, and I’m sure people are going to be disappointed that we didn’t talk about their favorite queer characters,” Sarkeesian says. “But it was really important to recognize that there’s still a huge limitation in the representations of queer characters in games. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to see sincere, genuine, non-offensive representations of queer characters, especially in triple-A games.”
What are games reinforcing?
This is Feminist Frequency’s first major video series since the last Tropes Vs. Women episode aired nearly two years ago. For this new series, Sarkeesian handed hosting duties to Feminist Frequency contributor Petit, a trans woman. One reason was to put FF’s “representation” money where its mouth was, but Sarkeesian points to another reason that might not be evident from outside the production process.
“Tropes [versus Women] nearly killed me,” Sarkeesian says. “I didn’t want Queer Tropes to be that way. I didn’t want to create an environment for my staff like I had when I was making Tropes [Vs. Women], because the pressure of the way that the public was engaging with us on this and the fear of getting things wrong made making Tropes [Vs. Women] so much more difficult in a lot of ways.”
Sarkeesian says that some of that pressure changed when she brought more collaborators on, including Petit, another co-writer (Christopher Persaud), and members of the LGBTQ Video Game Archive. The original intent was to shore up as much data and research as possible, but Sarkeesian says she noticed another side-effect: a more “communal” production nature, as opposed to the “isolating” work that Sarkeesian found herself in when she served as lead for much of Tropes Vs. Women.
There’s no arguing with Sarkeesian’s fears about Internet outrage, no matter how well or badly her channel’s content is researched and presented. (A cursory search of her name in YouTube brings up predominantly negative coverage about her as opposed to the wealth of videos made by her.) But Queer Tropes absolutely passes the sniff test in terms of clear theses, research depth, concessions to counter-arguments, and a deeper look at the ways these games’ negative examples do not exist in a vacuum.
In one Queer Tropes episode, Petit takes a moment for a sidebar explanation about sexist, anti-black attitudes (aka “misogynoir”) that are made more dubious in one classic game series by adding anti-trans attitudes to the mix. The game in question, 1993’s Leisure Suit Larry 6, sees its swingin’-bachelor hero duped and then raped by a presumably cisgender black woman who turns out to be a trans woman. In the video, Petit catalogs the unpleasant and outright hateful depictions of this game’s black trans character, then follows that up with anti-gay and anti-trans attitudes in various Grand Theft Auto games before making an important pivot.
“You may argue that [GTA] gives you the freedom to do this [kill and rob bystanders] to anyone, so there’s no problem,” Petit says in the episode. “These characters aren’t being singled out. We can take that line of thinking further and say that these games lampoon pretty much every aspect of our society.”
But Petit challenges this idea by pointing to power dynamics in our society. Leisure Suit Larry‘s protagonist, like those in GTA games, is lampooned on occasion, Petit acknowledges. “But even if we laugh at these men, they’re still centered in the story. It’s them we identify with and relate to when we take on the role of the protagonist in these games. Also, as white men, they aren’t members of a disadvantaged, marginalized group. Mocking them doesn’t reinforce harmful, limiting stereotypes, and it certainly doesn’t foster widespread hatred of white men as a group. And it doesn’t contribute to existing social prejudices or disadvantages that white men have to face.”
Thus, so long as video games at large have a repeating trend of their queer characters being one-dimensional bystanders, serving either as villains or as easily murdered members of a crowd, the “it’s just a joke” defense doesn’t give marginalized communities any other places to hang out comfortably.
The case of the sinister seductress
In our chat, Sarkeesian reminded me that Feminist Frequency designs its videos to work in standalone format—to be informative and impactful without requiring previous episodes for context. She admits that this can lead to some redundant re-explanations in videos, but it’s a cost she’s willing to pay to make her videos appropriate for classrooms and for parents to share with kids.
And that educational thrust is evident, though you’ll want to be sure anyone you watch these videos with is comfortable with curse words and violent, potentially triggering content. But when it comes to educating viewers about negative anti-gay trends, that language is par for the game-industry course. And Sarkeesian wants more members of the industry to be fluent in it so they can name it and avoid it in future games.
“If you can give people the language to name the thing that is sort of nebulous, it is so much easier to comprehend. So when I say ‘sinister seductress,’ you’re now going to have an idea of what that means [and examples]. As opposed to ‘why do I keep seeing these women who are like, kind of evil, but like, really sexy?'”
Beyond anecdotal and off-the-record stories about her videos being used at game studios, Sarkeesian confirms that Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckman and Arkane’s Harvey Smith have spoken about the insights they’ve gleaned from Feminist Frequency videos and used in their later games. In Arkane’s case, “Dishonored 1 was awful to women, like, in every way is so bad,” Sarkeesian says. “While I loved that game, I was very vocal about how bad that was, and so were many other people. [Arkane] heard that and they were like, ‘Damn, we fucked up,’ and then they fixed it [in future Dishonored games].” And The Last of Us‘ expansion pack, Left Behind, pops up in Petit’s new series as a positive example of three-dimensional representation of a queer relationship within an action video game.
“The international attention that Tropes Vs. Women got allowed a conversation to happen in games that was previously only happening in the shadows,” Sarkeesian says. “And it allowed space for more and more women and marginalized folks to start talking about what it means to be a fan of games, to make games, and yet to not see yourself represented in games. We can see today the progress that was made from that point, which again, is not that long ago.”
Sarkeesian clarifies that “games aren’t perfect—they’re not even fucking close to perfect, and we still have a long ways to go to get to a much more inclusive gaming space.” But while she recounts the game industry’s progress, she is led back to serious cognitive dissonance about her efforts, all while answering the basic question of “what’s next for Feminist Frequency?”
“Our initial [message] of ‘Hey, game industry, maybe have some female characters who aren’t sexualized, cool, thanks,’ turned into ‘How fucking dare you, you need to die,'” Sarkeesian says. “That happened. The fact is, now [the triple-A games industry] has more female characters, more women of color, more people of color in general, some representations of disability, some trans representations… some people’s stories being told that aren’t historically told.
“Like, that was the easy step,” she adds with a laugh. “And it doesn’t seem like it because of the world of shit we got just for saying, ‘Hey, maybe tell some other people’s stories occasionally.'”
Going forward, Sarkeesian identifies two areas where she’d like to apply more collaboration and groundswell efforts. Her first hope is that seeing wider representation will open the doors to more interesting games from a sheer mechanical level. “You might have a female character in your game, but it’s still the same goddamn mechanics that we’ve seen forever, right? So how do we marry narrative and mechanics in much more interesting ways? How do we use the interactivity in a way that’s uniquely special? We can’t keep relying on violence as a primary solution to everything in games.”
But she also knows that wider representation won’t mean much if marginalized communities see a giant “you’re not welcome” sign on the gaming industry’s front door.
“It’s about validation”
“The game industry did not speak up when GamerGate happened. In fact, they were so silent, and we were just like, ‘Hey, it would be really nice if you could say that harassing women is not cool.’ And they were like, ‘Nah, we don’t want to do that. Because maybe those are our fans and we don’t want to piss them off.’ So what are they doing to build more welcoming, inclusive communities? To me, that means ‘How do you get marginalized folks who have felt like outsiders in the games industry and games communities to feel like they are important, and also to protect them and to create safer spaces where there are actual consequences for harmful toxic behavior.'”
When I ask, “Why stay in this toxic relationship with games publishers?” Sarkeesian immediately laughs with a loud, “I don’t know!” After collecting herself, she offers a firm statement: “Because we love media, and we have very limited options.” She proceeds to talk about loving stories and entertainment in ways that inspire online communities, fan fiction, lengthy videos, and other heartfelt attachment. Suddenly, she’s in a rapid-fire conversational zone, recounting her most positive connections not only with games but with fellow fans, then with the zeitgeist of gaming. Then she pauses.
“I keep saying words hoping I’m going to get to the word I want to say because… sometimes, it’s not about, like, fun, right? It’s not about enjoyment. It’s about validation. It’s about connection. It’s about being seen. It’s about imagining new worlds.” To this, Sarkeesian begins talking about the power of storytelling and shared cultural values in entertainment—about mythologies being handed down as much for fun as for building cultural values and lessons—before remembering the Feminist Frequency series’ anecdote about “transmisogynoir,” about older games offering only one kind of negative story about certain communities. “My brain immediately just went to like, ‘God, is it better to not be represented than to be represented like that?'”
Feminist Frequency’s answer seems to be that as fans of the medium, they can call out the industry’s past and speak in the language of gaming fandom about beloved characters and novel game mechanics. They can express hope for more interesting games and more welcoming spaces in the hobby.
“I hope to god we are turning a corner in our media representation—that this is a relic of the past that we can look at historically and be like, ‘Man, we really had some issues as a society back then. And we are not doing that again. We’re moving forward to humanize and validate everybody’s existence.'”
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