Last week, Christina Sommers released a video as part of her series The Factual Feminist asking the question “Are video games sexist?” (A bizarre and inflammatory headline and not a question anybody has ever asked, but nevertheless). You can watch this video below.
Sommers’ video has seen overwhelming support from people who feel “social justice warriors” are taking over gaming, but she has also been labelled as a conservative and neocon by her critics. However, Sommers political leanings — and she’s a registered Democrat voter, for what it’s worth — are wholly irrelevant.
What is relevant is that the arguments she makes in her video are, despite the research cited, wide of the mark, ignorant, and largely irrelevant to current calls for better representation in gaming.
Here’s the video:
Sommers makes the following key arguments in her video, as I see it:
- People who only play casual games or smartphone games aren’t reeeeally gamers, which means that women aren’t reeeeally gamers
- Gamers are under attack from “gender activists and hipsters with degrees in cultural studies”
- These activists and hipsters “ignore the fact that the world of gaming has become more inclusive”
- Some people “want male video game culture to end”
- Games which show “male heroes and sexy women” are fine, because most gamers (see point 1) are men
- There is “no evidence that these games are making males racist, misogynist, or homophobic”
- There is no problem with gamer culture
1) People who play casual games or smartphone games aren’t reeeeally gamers, which means that women aren’t reeeeally gamers
Sommers cites research from the Entertainment Software Association of America, which claims that 48% of gamers are female (very close to the 47% identified here in Australia by the IGEA’s Digital Australia report). Sommers dismisses this and uses her own experience briefly playing Pac-Man as an example that people who only casually play games aren’t reeeeally gamers, and then goes on to cite further research showing that the only people who really play games are overwhelmingly male.
In dismissing these people as not reeeeally gamers, Sommers not only plays right into the hands of the harmful gatekeeping belief that only some people who meet abstract criteria are “real” gamers, but also ignores that these people self-identify as gamers and are thus wholly entitled to be counted as them in a representative survey. While it’s completely fair to break down gamers by what type of games they play and how often they play, the point is that they are all gamers. Somebody who plays Candy Crush for 20 hours a week is just as much of a gamer as someone who plays Call of Duty occasionally on the weekends.
Sommers is guilty of cherry-picking herself here, by selectively engaging only with the research that supports her existing belief (and Sommers political history, which is freely readable online and in her books, clearly suggests that she was not going to come into a debate like this with an open mind).
2) Gamers are under attack from “gender activists and hipsters with degrees in cultural studies”
In a case of some spectacular weasel-wording worthy of FOX News itself, Sommers attempts to market a fictional scenario in which she is the calm, reasonable defender of games and gamers, despite failing to articulate exactly who is attacking them. She has since stepped up the battle through Twitter, claiming to be “defending gamers from censorious hipsters & gender policewomen”.
This is absolute trash and nonsense, and — despite Sommers being a registered Democrat — is exactly the sort of base classical scaremongering identified as a tactic of conservative politics, which screams “A faceless group of people want to take something away from you! Be angry! Trust the things I say!”. If games were really under attack then I dare say multinational megacorporations with billion dollar budgets could do a heck of a lot better job defending them than Sommers.
There is no “gender police”. There are no “concernocrats” (but okay, hipsters really do exist). There is no faceless group out there trying to make you feel bad. There are just people who think games could maybe stand to be more welcoming.
Sommers decision to deride her foes as “hipsters with degrees in cultural studies” is also passing strange as she herself holds a philosophy degree, which is quite arguably less relevant to video game criticism than one in cultural studies. At any rate, it’s a bizarre comment to make, especially when it has no bearing on the merit of the argument being made by those “hipsters” (this is commonly known as argument ad hominem).
3) These activists and hipsters “ignore the fact that the world of gaming has become more inclusive”
This statement is misleading for two reasons: firstly that it paints those calling for better representation in games as somehow ignorant of the advances that have been made (when nothing could be further from the truth) and secondly that it seeks to reassure viewers that everything is fine.
Everything is not fine. I’ll happily proclaim that things are getting better. We’re definitely getting better at being more inclusive. If you were to say “A very small amount of large, big-budget games and a moderate number of smaller titles are starting to become better at representing women”, I would say in response: “Yes!”. Because that is what is actually happening. And it’s happening very, very, slowly. But it is happening, and that is great.
However, even a cursory glance — such as one that Sommers presumably did not do — at the big names in game releases for even the last five years, the most inclusive years, will show that most of them feature male heroes, are broadly more representative of men, and designed to appeal to men. It is nonsense of the highest order to even try to imply that the problem is solved and things are fine.
So are these hipsters and activists “ignorant” of these improvements? Of course not, and — as Sommers would again know if she had done literally any serious research into her opponents — improvements in inclusivity are celebrated and shouted from the rooftops. Every single step in the right direction is wonderful and important.
The idea that anybody could be “ignorant” of the small, but important, strides that have been made in better representation only makes sense if you buy into Sommers fictional scenario where those small strides are somehow enough and the struggle is somehow finished. It is not finished, and it is not fine.
4) Some people “want male video game culture to end”
There have, indeed, been a recent spate of articles arguing that the male-dominated video game culture is changing and that people who strongly identify with that culture are struggling to come to terms with a more inclusive world of gaming. See what I did there? I just wrote a nuanced description of what is actually happening, rather than creating a shallow soundbite villain that I could then defend against.
What does Sommers think about this assertion? We don’t know, because she doesn’t engage with it. Instead, she tacitly admits that male-dominated video game culture is broadly sexist, and goes on to say that…
5) Games which show “male heroes and sexy women” are fine, because most gamers (see point 1) are men
It is, of course, correct to say that hardcore gamers are more likely to be men. That’s not up for debate. This is a classic chicken-and-egg question, though, which Sommers shows no interest in addressing: are “hardcore” gamers mostly men because the games they play appeal to men, or do the games they play appeal to men because the people who play them are mostly men?
Sommers seems to think that it’s the former, which she punctuates by saying — in an extraordinarily condescending manner — “could it be because they are, uhh, male?”. The point, which Sommers completely fails to address, is that it doesn’t matter.
The point is that nobody loses if games become more inclusive. Nobody loses if these games which are for men start to offer content for women. Sommers doesn’t acknowledge the possibility that women might be more interested in becoming “hardcore” gamers if the games were more appealing to them; instead she simply uses the data showing men play them, to justify the fact that they largely appeal to men, which in turn justifies the fact that men play them, which in turn etc.
This is circular logic at best. Making games more inclusive harms nobody. Call of Duty would be functionally identical if the protagonist was a woman.
6) There is “no evidence that these games are making males racist, misogynist, or homophobic”
Sommers fails to substantiate who, exactly, is suggesting that games are making men racist, misogynist or homophobic, but goes on to refute these claims anyway, and cites evidence to suggest otherwise. Good and fine, great even, but… who is actually saying this?
Sommers hints that people like Dan Golding or Anita Sarkeesian have said these things, but fails to provide literally any evidence to back it up. In fact, the gap between what people think Anita Sarkeesian has said and what she has actually said is alarming to say the least, and this sort of inflammatory scaremongering from Sommers certainly isn’t going to help people like Anita stop being the target of death, rape and even bomb threats.
Ultimately, however, Sommers again misses the point: Maybe if something is sexist, we should… try harder to stop it being sexist? I don’t know, just putting it out there.
7) There is no problem with gamer culture
Sommers ends her video by saying that she’s spent “a few weeks” talking to gamers and that they seem pretty nice. Now I’m not on board with painting literally all gamers as insane misogynists (not all gamers), but there are reams and reams and reams and reams of evidence that show, quite clearly, that there are some serious problems with gamer culture that need to be addressed.
Sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which catalogue in-game sexual harassment of women, don’t just exist in a vacuum. These sorts of non-stop sexual harassment and rape threats that people like Anita Sarkeesian receive every day do not exist in a vacuum. Events like Call of Duty: Black Ops developers being threatened with rape and death for altering weapon reload speeds don’t exist in a vacuum. People threatening to boycott Gamespot and cancel pre-orders because a female writer (quite accurately) called Grand Theft Auto V “profoundly misogynistic” in a review (while still giving it 9 out of 10) don’t exist in a vacuum.
(That same reviewer then went on to receive death threats. This sort of thing does not exist in a vacuum!)
There is a problem with gamer culture. Talking to a few gamers for “a few weeks” and saying everything is fine is ludicrous. I’ve been developing, studying and writing about games for over ten years, which has included top-level management one of Australia’s largest gaming networks and websites. There is absolutely a problem. Anybody who has run a games website for even the slightest amount of time can confirm the torrent of abuse that you can be subjected to from angry gamers.
Again, this doesn’t mean that literally all gamers are insane misogynists, and I don’t in any way believe that. But just because Sommers didn’t get any rape threats in the “few weeks” that she spent talking to gamers, doesn’t mean everything is magically A-okay. Maybe Sommers should try jumping onto a few online games and listening in on the sort of abuse that women get when they reveal themselves, or even the misogynistic language often hurled around as “harmless banter”? Maybe Sommers should literally do, like, anything, beyond “I talked to some people and it was fine I guess”.
Sommers assertion here is basically the equivalent of “I read that one in five people are Chinese. How can this be? I know hundreds of people and none of them are Chinese.”
Sommers also takes part in some more spectacular weasel wording here:
“Recently, two feminist critics received and publicised email death threats. No-one knows who sent them. There are millions of gamers, and I’m sure they include a few sociopaths, if it was indeed gamers who sent the threats. But many of the new culture critics have seized on the emails as a sure sign of patriarchal pathology at the heart of gamer culture. According to one academic pontificator..”
Several more issues present themselves as a result of this closing tirade:
- Sommers shows a picture of Zoe Quinn as a “feminist critic” when Quinn is in fact a developer, and not a critic.
- “No-one knows who sent them” is a very cute way of trying to muddy the waters and suggest that, hey, it might not have been gamers who did it (but really? Really? Come on.)
- Sommers acknowledges that every culture contains a few bad seeds, and then suggests that we shouldn’t judge the culture on the bad seeds… but she has already spent the whole video trying to tar every single critic of gaming with the same fictitious brush and paint them as out to destroy men. Even if these people existed, they would be exactly the same sort of vocal minority that Sommers, by her own logic, would have you ignore.
- Sommers suggests that it is these death threats and these death threats alone that have driven people to criticise male-dominated gamer culture, which is of course exactly the sort of incredibly shallow interpretation that somebody would come to if they had only done the sort of most base, cursory investigation into issues in gaming (like Sommers did). As I stated above, none of these things exist in a vacuum, and if Sommers isn’t prepared to actually do her research, maybe she should hold off making sweeping statements that aren’t grounded in any form of reality.
- The irony of somebody who has literally six published books on feminism and ethics issues denigrating somebody else as an ‘academic pontificator” is impressive to say the least.
I welcome Sommers’ contribution to the ongoing debate around gender representation and issues in video games, but unsurprisingly, it turns out you can’t solve a decades-old discussion with a six-minute video — especially one full of shallow research, wilful ignorance and bizarre weasel-wording ad hominem attacks.
I also note that nobody seems to be criticising Sommers for “not being a gamer” (as Sommers herself admits), but Anita Sarkeesian (who actually does play video games) is constantly under attack over this premise. It is absurd hypocrisy of the highest order to decry Sarkeesian as “not a gamer” and therefore not qualified to criticise games, but to accept that Sommers who is vocally and admittedly not a gamer is qualified to defend them.
Update: I’ve just been alerted to the existence of this video and it’s amazing.
My name’s Tim Colwill and I’m the editor-in-chief of games.on.net, where I most recently became Internet-famous for posting this article outlining our stance on equality in gaming which you may have read (or at least the screencapped imgur version of it). You can find me on Twitter as @burgerdrome.