The Sarkeesian Question, as I’m calling it, is what many gamers and anti-feminists are asking everyone around them. It’s something we all ought to approach with care because everyone on all sides is very concerned with the implications of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes Vs. Women video series. The message itself? That sexism pervades our media. Sensitive nerds everywhere are spontaneously combusting and clawing their keyboards bitterly over this, but I’m glad there’s a creeping sanity spreading through the conversation every time a new video is released. The problem is that when a lot of people believe they’re being called sexists or otherwise being attacked by this message, then we’re all just watching the fuse burn down to an explosive, horrible ending while the angry refuse to be consoled or open minded. We can let it blow up in our faces or come to our senses and snuff out the flames before disaster strikes.

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Ms Pac ManThe Tropes series has one very deafening (and I do mean deafening) message that some gamers hate to hear. The message is not that developers are malicious, sexist pigs looking for opportunities to denigrate women. It’s not that games are evil and we need to shut them down. Those represent one extreme and inaccurate interpretation, and people on that end can sleep soundly tonite knowing that neither of these things is the moral of the series. Another extreme is the fatalism, the idea that unless we allow sexist tropes to prevail then games will disappear, that stories can’t be written, that censoring is being suggested, and that games will suddenly be less interesting. That’s also an over reaction and both are based strictly on fear. No one has proposed such nonsense and no one wants that, including fellow gamer Anita Sarkeesian. The message of the series is simple: sexism is structural.

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So why does the series make many of us feel bad? There’s a couple common ways people react to things which have the potential to reflect poorly on them: denial and guilt. To save face, gamers are often violent in their denials but I’m here to tell anyone up in arms that you don’t need to feel bad about someone pointing out sexism in games. Players ask me all the time and I see it repeated in comment threads around the internet wherever people are discussing the videos: How is this series helpful? It’s helpful because it shows us that sexism is¬†structural, that none of the ridiculous propositions mentioned earlier need to be true for sexism to happen to games; that games aren’t immune to culture. Neither are we, the gamers. However, just because other forms of media employ sexist tropes doesn’t mean games ought to continue in their footsteps. There’s sexism in our games. No one need be offended by this observation and if you want to see how that’s true, the Tropes series does an excellent job while dragging you down memory lane with games you may love.

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To say that sexism takes practice is to say that it doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not something games or their developers accidentally put in their games, nor is it always deliberate. It’s just custom and conformity most of the time. Just think of all the times you or others have trotted out the old “sex sells” or “games are by men, for men and that’s the way it is.” That’s conformity to structural sexism. Tropes illustrate the pattern of sexism by showing us it’s embedded not in our DNA, but in our culture. It’s part of the fabric we’re all wrapped up in, but which we’re fully capable of cutting ourselves out of. This is why we can say sexism isn’t unique to the games industry and be correct about it. It’s why we can say our developers are well-intentioned and be correct there as well. We can also say that gamers can’t be written off as a group of sexists.

bit-girlSocial structures are designed to set cultural expectations and make certain actions or ideas normative, which works to encourage some things and discourage others. This is part of what makes it difficult for many gamers to understand because so many arguments try to reconcile good intent with bad results while ignoring the framework they take place within. I see so many people arguing that since developers aren’t sexist themselves, then the games they make can’t possibly be sexist. However, the reason the average developer doesn’t have to be a flag bearing, overt sexist to employ sexist tropes and make sexist video games is due to this structural element. We participate in the sexism by conforming to cultural norms. We become complicit, even unwittingly, by not questioning and challenging those norms.

Some of my favorite games are sexist and that’s OK. That’s not an attack on me as a gamer or the developers. It’s an observation of structural sexism at work. But just as human beings have an amazing capacity for self-deception we also have an amazing capacity for self-awareness. If we can only know something and acknowledge it’s existence, we’ve proven to be a species who can deal with it. We’re resilient and intelligent like that. We’re completely capable of addressing sexism in games. It’s just a question of will.

The work Anita Sarkeesian doing is valuable because it’s an excellent lesson on how structural sexism works. It can help many gamers understand how something can be sexist even with the best of intentions. It shows us that we love problematic stuff and there’s nothing wrong with it. The next step is to acknowledge it so we can get on with making better games.

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