by Juliana Kenny
The GamerGate controversy that arose last year has brought forward a broader discussion of the role of digital game imagery in culture and the art world. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that video games are protected as an art form, and deserve the same protections that other media enjoys under the First Amendment. The court struck down a California law enacted in 2005 that was intended to ban the sale of certain violent video games to children without parental supervision. But video games and their constant evolution have remained a hot topic since the ruling as graphics advance, themes change, and the technology of digital interactions improves.
Now, the gaming market is under scrutiny once again, thanks in large part to Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic, who releases video blogs through her nonprofit organization Feminist Frequency that highlight the misogynistic, sexist tropes apparent in some video games. Her critiques point out damaging representations of women in various elements of pop culture, but her analyses of video games in particular have prompted an uprising, and encouraged a debate over the cultural implications of violence in video games, particularly gender-based violence.
True to the cycle of artistic criticism, Sarkeesian has been lambasted for her own critiques. Except that criticism of her has included death and rape threats — so many that she felt the need to vacate her home, and cancel speaking events. As she wrote for the New York Times:
“[Utah State University] received emailed threats to carry out ‘the deadliest school shooting in American history’ if I were allowed to speak on campus. When the Utah campus police said they could not search attendees for firearms, citing the state’s concealed carry laws, I felt forced to cancel the event.”
The point here is not how good Sarkeesian is at analyzing games, but rather that she reveals an uncomfortable reality of a male-dominated art form — i.e., that sexist tropes are actively perpetuated by game creators, and subsequently enjoyed, or at least tolerated, by many gamers.
The questions then become: what is the role of violence in art; how does art illustrate the present mindset of society; and how does technology play a role in all of the above? Indeed, the inextricable presence of technology in art forms like gaming — and its relative lack of oversight — has become a looming issue. Television and film came under similar fire in past decades (as their respective technologies evolved) for having sub-par self-regulation in terms of exposing impressionable, often young people to violent scenes. Of course, in the United States, there are now industry regulations which dictate appropriate age groups for certain violent and/or sexual content. And a content rating system also exists for video games. But as video games progress technologically as well — particularly with with much-improved graphics and realistic content — are different rules needed to govern content that asks and allows users to interact with violent imagery, some of which is man-on-woman violence?
The debate around video games’ role in inuring its participants to violence is a fraught one. Studies abound demonstrating a link between exposure to mature video game content and aggression later in life, but this evidence is often rejected by courts. Indeed, the Supreme Court itself — in that aforementioned 2011 case in California — ruled that the state “cannot show a direct causal link between violent video games and harm to minors.”
Critics of the 2011 ruling often note that there is a distinct difference between video games and other art forms. The player is directly interacting with the imagery and actions of the settings and characters in the game, as opposed to passively viewing a painting, reading a book, or watching a film. Of course, one can actively engage with a painting, book, or film in order to appreciate it or understand it, but not by influencing the painting, acting as a character in the scenes of a novel, or altering the outcome of the film. The direct interaction of the participating players is what sets video game art apart, and what makes violence in games a greater concern for groups seeking tighter regulation.
More worrying still, perhaps the explicit violence in video games — particularly gender-based violence — has now become a barometer for how society treats rape and other acts of gender-based violence. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says that an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes. There is no question that it is a systemic problem.
So the debate now becomes whether or not to challenge the violent, often sexist tropes in video games. Obviously, Sarkeesian is already doing that. Yet she has received much flack from the gaming community for pointing out a problem that doesn’t need to be fixed. Are new rules necessary to regulate the creation of and participation in video games that include gender-based violence? Is the current rating system for game content adequate? What is the extent to which society should address the treatment of women in gaming culture? Should the art in video games also be left untouched? While such questions are likely to stay, there is hope that advocates like Sarkeesian will propel a needed dialogue — thanks to the video game content on their radars — on how gender inequalities perpetuate and rule in various artistic creations.