The vicious and ugly coordinated campaign to drive video blogger Anita Sarkeesian off the internet for the temerity of trying to raise money to support a series about the depictions of women in video games was one of the biggest stories in the feminist and geek spheres this year, and I’m glad to hear from Sarkeesian herself, through a talk she gave at TEDxWomen, precisely how unsuccessful that campaign was:
It’s amazing to hear that Sarkeesian is able to do this work full time, that a curriculum came out of her efforts, and perhaps most encouraging, that video game studios have invited Sarkeesian in to speak to them—the organizations that make the games that Sarkeesian’s haters would like to see stay reductive and as attuned to straight male fantasies turn out to be interested in her voice and perspectives.
But even more than knowing that Sarkeesian is still standing, still fighting, and appears to be bearing up psychologically just fine despite a campaign even more intense than some that have succeeded in pushing other women offline or out of covering certain areas of popular culture, it’s the way she explained what happened to her that is important. The attacks on her, she explained, were coordinated like a massively-multiplayer online game. Participants psyched each other up like they were fellow guild members, providing reinforcement for each other even as other voices condemned their actions. The escalation of the campaign was a form of leveling up. And Sarkeesian herself was turned into a boss character. That dynamic made the game sustainable, encouraged other people who might have otherwise sat on the sidelines to join in, and incentivized steadily worse behavior towards Sarkeesian. It worked at getting people participating. But at the end of the climactic boss fight, she’s still standing. For people who are considering gaming dynamics as an organizing tool, this is a powerful, if very negative, lesson about how to get participants to enlist in a campaign, if not how that campaign can be successful.
And the designation of Sarkeesian herself as an ultimate enemy is very telling. It’s one thing to enjoy depictions of attractive people of whichever gender you happen to be attracted to. It’s another to think you have a right to depictions of those people. And another entirely to be so attached to those depictions, and so uncomfortable or insecure about acknowledging that they might be problematic, talking about it, and enjoying them anyway that you get hysterically angry when someone proposes simply to analyze them. That says a lot more about you than your rational, intelligent, easily-supportable target. And it means that even if you succeed at whipping up a small, dedicated subculture to try to shut the thing you hate down, your chances of succeeding, and of being taken seriously by the outside world, are necessarily going to be limited. In a way, Anita Sarkeesian’s haters are like the Westboro Baptist Church: they can cause real emotional pain, but not substantive change, and they mostly exist as a reminder of their own increasingly marginal role in cultural or political life.