"We live in a nation of emasculated cowards too afraid to challenge the vile, misandrist harpies who seek to destroy them," read one threat directed at popular culture critic Anita Sarkeesian on Tuesday. "Feminism has taken over every facet of our society, and women like Sarkeesian want to punish us for even fantasizing about being men. This is why I’ve chosen to target her."
This diatribe is one example of the vitriol that has been directed at Sarkeesian, a woman who talks about video games online, often pointing out the sexism inherent in those games. For the transgression of suggesting that those who make and play video games could benefit from a small dose of feminism, the same anonymous person who threatened Sarkeesian said he would “write [a] manifesto in her spilled blood.”
Sarkeesian is the latest woman to be threatened as a result of her criticism of gaming culture. This week, following some discussion, she withdrew from a speaking engagement at Utah State University after a threat that a school shooting would occur if she did. Threats against her, as well as against game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn in recent months, have been a potent—and for some surprising—illustration of how gendered gaming culture is and how hostile it is to criticism.
The seriousness of the threats leveled against Sarkeesian, and her steadfast reaction to them in recent weeks, have made her an unofficial spokeswoman for those trying to improve the representation of women in gaming.
Sarkeesian was born near Toronto and is of Armenian descent but identifies as Canadian-American. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communication studies at California State University Northridge and her master’s degree in social and political thought at York University in Ontario, according to her website. She currently lives in California.
Since 2009, Sarkeesian has produced a YouTube show called “Tropes vs. Women,” in association with Portland, Oregon–based Bitch Media, a nonprofit feminist media organization. The show casts a critical eye at how women are portrayed in various media.
In 2011, buoyed by the success of her show, which attracted hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, Sarkeesian planned to produce another series, this time narrowing her focus to portrayals of women in video games. To fund her series, she created a Kickstarter campaign which passed its $6,000 goal, eventually netting nearly $160,000.
Every woman who spends any amount of time online likely experiences sexual harassment, but what Sarkeesian went through after announcing her Kickstarter was “a campaign of brutal online harassment, including pornographic drawings (such as one of the video game character Mario raping her) and an online game, since taken down, in which players could physically assault her,” Jesse Singal wrote in The Boston Globe in June.
Sarkeesian addressed the harassment in her own words on her Kickstarter page:
The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as "terrorism," as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website. These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen "jokes" to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.
Despite accusations from critics that Sarkeesian somehow “scammed” donors out of their money, or was misusing her Kickstarter funds, she has so far produced seven videos that examine various sexist tropes—such as the “Damsel in Distress” and “Women as Background Decoration”—within the video games industry.
In April of this year, she was awarded the Game Developers Choice Ambassador Award, an industry accolade given to individuals “[helping] the game industry advance to a better place, either through facilitating a better game community from within, or by reaching outside the industry to be an advocate for video games and help further our art,” according to the award site.
As Sarkeesian continued to produce videos and advocate for fair representation in games, the threats and abuse toward her intensified. In August, she said she fled her home after receiving “[some] very scary threats” on Twitter and went into hiding for a short time.
After the threat at Utah State University, Sarkeesian requested officials have pat downs and metal detectors at the entrance to the building where she was scheduled to speak. In Utah, the right to carry concealed weapons in public schools is legally protected, and school officials denied her request, so she canceled the speech. “If they allowed weapons into the auditorium, that was too big a risk,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune.
One of the anonymous harassers identified himself with #GamerGate, an amorphous online movement that on one side of the spectrum claims it is advocating for ethics in gaming journalism and at the other end, has focused its sights on stopping messages like Sarkeesian’s from becoming part of the conversation.
GamerGate was spawned from an accusation in August that an independent video game developer—Zoe Quinn—had been involved personally with a video games journalist—Nathan Grayson—and that Grayson had written about Quinn’s video game, Depression Quest favorably, as a result of their relationship. Such an arrangement would have been a serious breach of journalistic ethics, but Grayson’s employer, Gawker Media, maintains no such thing happened. Grayson did write about Quinn once—for an article about a reality show—but this was before they got involved personally, said Stephen Totilo, editor-in-chief of Kotaku, a Gawker Media–owned blog about video games.
In theory, GamerGate is about preventing relationships between video game developers and video game journalists from becoming too cozy. In practice, however, it is a tidal wave of online misogyny directed against women like Anita Sarkeesian—who dare speak up against sexism in video games.
Sarkeesian has since come out against GamerGate on Twitter.