The Poisoned Well of Public Discourse: Anita Sarkeesian, #GamerGate, and the Value of Humanities Education

Saturday, November 8, 2014

by Jonathan Glover

At the University of Massachusetts in 1975, Chinua Achebe delivered a lecture criticizing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for perpetuating colonial stereotypes of Africans. Later published as “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Achebe's argument added a new and highly contestable dimension to Conrad studies, exploring how literature—like language itself—can help shape a society's understanding of the world and thereby normalize all sorts of attitudes and behaviors, including imperialism/colonialism.

Imagine if, instead of intellectual debate, the response to Achebe’s criticism had been death, rape, and even bomb threats, leading to forced flight from his home and cancelation of a public university lecture. Such abominable behavior is precisely the response that Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic, has received for her web series, Feminist Frequency: Tropes vs. Women in Videogames. Drawing from literary and gender studies, Sarkeesian analyzes representations of women as docile playthings and one-dimensional victims in video games. Exceptions abound, but these common tropes can normalize toxic attitudes about women. Amiably, however, Sarkeesian notes that critical analysis and aesthetic enjoyment of a video game are not mutually exclusive, because artistic works are complex.

For these claims, which should sound familiar to anyone with a passing interest in literary/film criticism, Sarkeesian has been facing online harassment for two years, including victim-blaming conspiracy theories that she fabricated the abuse for attention.[1] Any reasonable criticism of her work has been regrettably drowned out by the maelstrom of vitriol. Within the last three months, the #GamerGate Twitter hashtag,[2] a purported consumer revolt against cronyism in videogames journalism, has been used to perpetuate the notion that Tropes vs. Women is part of a vast feminist conspiracy to censor and emasculate video games.[3] As Sarkeesian recently put it in The New York Times, she is now a larger-than-life “folk demon” in reactionary gaming circles.[4]

Boy’s club tribalism, online misogyny, and gaming’s diversification have all fueled the backlash against outspoken women in gaming (Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Felicia Day, for example). But this poisoned well of public discourse also has its roots in the devaluing of humanities education. #GamerGaters’ obsession with Sarkeesian (a critic, not a journalist), reveals confusion over the differences between reviewing and journalism, journalism and criticism, criticism and censorship, feminism and misandry, and qualitative and quantitative analysis: concepts that figure largely in the humanities.

Website comment sections about Sarkeesian often contain the most crassly sexist language imaginable, but the faux-rationalism of her more reasonable detractors may be even more damaging to public discourse, as it misunderstands disciplinary differences between the sciences and the humanities to disastrous effect.

Misapplying the standards of quantitative research to Sarkeesian’s qualitative, humanities-based approach, popular YouTuber “thunderf00t,” a British scientist and atheism activist, hastily dismisses her examination of tropes as “cherry picking,” apparently misunderstanding the meaning of “trope,” and then mischaracterizes her criticism as con artistry and “professional victimhood.”[5]

Frequently cited by Sarkeesian’s opponents, thunderf00t’s flawed claims are at the center of an anti-Sarkeesian/#GamerGate echo chamber, which now includes such strange anti-feminist bedfellows as Christina Hoff Sommers and Milo Yiannopoulos. Literary/media scholars make distinctions between text (game), artist (developer), and audience (player), but thunderf00t and many other #GamerGaters fail to grasp this fundamental aspect of arts criticism, misconstruing Sarkeesian’s analysis of an art object as a personal attack on gamers themselves.

With her methodology completely misunderstood, Sarkeesian becomes, to her detractors, a charlatan opportunist deserving of whatever she gets: misogyny and anti-intellectualism get wrapped in a self-righteous mantle of “logic” and “ethics.” Limited understanding of humanities research fuels much of this conspiratorial thinking, but as a relatively new art form, video games can and should be analyzed with the same seriousness as literature and film.

Ironically, the backlash against games criticism has done much more to devalue video games in the public eye than any actual censorship campaign could hope to achieve. Taking humanities education seriously can help detoxify the atmosphere of this public conversation, minimize the appeal of conspiracy theories, and clarify the differences between criticism, which fosters healthy intellectual discussion, and censorship, which—like harassment and willful obfuscation—seeks to silence it.



[2]The #GamerGate hashtag was coined by actor Adam Baldwin as a way to circulate the baseless rumor that game developer Zoe Quinn traded sex for a favorable review of her game Depression Quest, rooting #GamerGate in obsession with a young woman’s sex life.




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