The Cult Of Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian and the importance of controlling the discussion

If you’re interested in video games or feminism and had an Internet connection during the last two years, you probably have an idea who Anita Sarkeesian is, but in case you don’t;

Anita is a self-identified media critic and feminist who in 2012 began a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a YouTube video series. It is called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games; a series based around identification of features of video games that reinforce negative perception of women. She sought $6000 for “production costs, equipment, games and downloadable content” Unfortunately as is common when dealing with the Internet, video games and anonymity (Especially when dealing with all three) the trolls emerged with a defensive cavalcade of vitriol aimed at Sarkeesian.

I do not agree with what was said to Sarkeesian. I love video games but I will be the first to admit that gamers and gaming culture can be vindictively defensive of what they perceive as an imposition on them by outsiders, which regrettably often includes women.

I would not wish threats of rape and death on anyone, for any reason. That being said, I would be willing to wager that Anita Sarkeesian would not change anything about how her Kickstarter campaign played out.

Due to the massive backlash, Anita gained infinitely more support (primarily from feminists) as a counterattack to the ongoing harassment. She was transformed from a minor YouTube personality to a martyr for females in video gaming to the tune of raising $158,000, more than 25 times what her initial goal was.

Many framed this story as the troll hordes shooting themselves in the foot with their own toxic messages and creating a victory for feminist video gamers. And it was, by trying to silence this woman they gave her a soapbox to speak profound change to a stalled industry. Or this would have been the case had the campaign been quarterbacked by anyone but Sarkeesian.

The Fallout

Supporters of Sarkeesian must have been overjoyed; with $158,000 dollars she could do so much more than she could have with $6,000. Anita was quick to tweet about all the research she was doing, posting pictures of all the games she was able to buy for the series thanks to her generous donors.

I am not here to critique her content, though I disagree with the majority of her arguments, hundreds of video responses have done that already.

I am here to call into question whether Anita Sarkeesian is the person to be leading this crusade for equality of the sexes in videogames; based on how she has behaved since she raised this money and who she is as a person.

Where is the money?

Before the Kickstarter Anita was releasing about a video a month of around 5-10 minutes in length. The videos consisted of Sarkeesian on screen with a monotone backdrop with superimposed images popping up to her side a la televised news broadcasts.

It took nine months for her to release the first video in this new series. It consisted of Sarkeesian on screen with a different coloured (!) monotone backdrop with superimposed images popping up to her side a la televised news broadcasts. You can see the difference below.

Before

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 6.53.37 PM

After

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 6.53.00 PM

Her hair appears to be more professionally done, her makeup also seems more professional, the picture appears a bit clearer and she now wears exclusively plaid shirts.

So where did all the money go? One of her stretch goals was based around improving the production quality, so the donors should not be satisfied with a quantum leap forward relative to the videos she was making before she was bestowed with tens of thousands of dollars.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 6.58.24 PM

Some supporters claim that the money went towards buying all the games she would have to play to get all the information for her videos. From the picture she posted, it would seem she purchased a great deal of games from the previous console generation (PS3, X360, Wii & PC). My estimate based on counting the visible games and approximating the hidden pile is there are ~190 games pictured. If Sarkeesian paid full release retail for every one (which is highly unlikely as game prices drop over time) it would have cost approximately $13,110; [60 x 190] x 1.15 accounting for taxes.

sarkeesian-video-games

Sidebar: If Anita is a lifelong gamer as she claims to be, shouldn’t she have had some of these games already? It stands to reason that a serious fan of video games would have already played Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, Fallout, Borderlands, the Orange Box and Twilight Princess. Or at least one or two of them.

I’ll also assume she spent some money on older games which by then would have been much cheaper. Being generous we’ll say she spent $5,000 on older games.

We can also account for equipment purchased, but as we have seen no great jump in quality or production value I find it hard to believe a hundred thousand dollars was spent on equipment. The new videos appear higher definition and better lit, so we can assume she purchased a new camera and lighting setup. Let’s say for our argument Sarkeesian spent $10,000 dollars on new equipment.

So if $28,110 was the amount of money spent on equipment and content for the series, where is the other $130,812?

The logical conclusion from Sarkeesian’s supporters is that this massive sum of money allowed Anita to work full time on this project with her boyfriend/producer Jonathan Mcintosh. That’s fine, that’s a common result of successful Kickstarters and it would have been perfectly acceptable in this case.

So what she has done with this wealth of time and money?

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 7.31.10 PM

Five videos.

Five videos totaling just over 2 hours of content.

She only just began her second topic (of a planned 12) after almost a year and a half. At this rate it will take nine years for her to finish the video series.

Yes, obviously it took more than 2 hours to film and produce these videos; she wasn’t paid 1000 dollars per minute of work. But it’s still an amazingly small amount of content produced for an exorbitant amount of money. People who are paid next to nothing for producing YouTube videos do so at a much faster clip, and people who make their living this way typically release videos weekly, or at least, monthly.

So what was she doing with all that time instead?

Well it’s become increasingly clear; she was building her personal brand. Establishing Anita Sarkeesian as the preeminent Feminist gamer. She’s been invited to games conferences, TEDX talks and was interviewed dozens of times about the internet vitriol as well as her new role as the best judge of female portrayal in video games, her qualifications of which we will get into later.

That’s fine, I have no issue with Anita pursuing these opportunities. You have to be your own hype man but it seems increasingly clear that Sarkeesian pocketed tens of thousands of dollars and went on her pariah world tour instead of doing the only thing that money was supposed to be for.

I don’t care that she didn’t make more videos; I think they are a mess of confirmation bias fuelled self-indulgence. But her donors should care that she seems to have pocketed the money she was paid.

Obviously I don’t know the financial breakdown of this video series. The guesses I made above are likely flawed but since Anita has never once made public the expenses on the project, all we can do is make these sort of assumptions. If Anita publishes the invoices for the project and it is clear that all the money went to video production I will be the first to admit I was wrong, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening any time soon.

Anita the Thief

Sarkeesian of course has made 5 videos with her $158,000 dollars, and argumentative content aside there are significant problems with what she’s done.

Tropes Vs Women Logo

When Anita made her initial Kickstarter campaign video she made this flashy logo of the series title, surrounded female video game characters. Included is an image of Princess Daphne from the 1983 game Dragon’s Lair. This image however bore a suspicious similarity to a work created by an artist known as cowkitty. The below image created by @Sarochi1 proves the image was stolen from her. Sarkeesian seems to have gone hunting for images that fit her needs, once she found one that worked she took it with no regard for the artist who created it.

Comparison picture (tammy)

Similarly in the videos themselves, viewers began to notice that the game footage she uses were incredibly similar to Let’s Play videos that had been uploaded to YouTube. Now obviously there will be similarities, games are only so variable, but the images used were identical; with the same scores shown at the exact times, the exact same decisions made and actions taken in game. Smarter people than I compared the lets play videos to hers and they confirmed; Sarkeesian had lifted these videos directly too.

Sidebar: What was Anita doing with all those games then? She lifted her video content and draws her conclusions from the videos she stole. If she wasn’t capturing footage from the hundreds of games she bought and she wasn’t using them to formulate her arguments, then why did she even buy them? Maybe they were just a prop for that one picture.

Every time Anita or her producer Mcintosh are called out for lifting content for their own use they cite the fair use clause in copyright law as their justification. Never mind that fair use necessitates that the work is non-profit which Tropes vs. Women doesn’t seem to qualify for; Anita has never once credited the creators, a requirement of fair use. Even when called out for her theft Anita has never rectified the issue by providing due accreditation; she simply quotes the copyright law that she is bastardizing and moves on. This has become the norm for Anita Sarkeesian, state her side of the issue and carry on as if any opposition is not only wrong, but not worth addressing… but again, more on that later.

Anita the Fraud

In every piece of promotional material, every interview she’s ever done and in her Kickstarter materials Anita Sarkeesian is referred to as a gamer. She speaks about growing up a girl gamer, faced with people telling her that her game boy was for boys, that girls shouldn’t play video games. This is a situation that was regrettably common for young girl gamers until recently.

Anita %22Gamer%22

Fortunately Anita Sarkeesian never had to deal with any of that, because by her own admission she is not a fan of video games.

In September of 2012, a YouTube channel called Flying Turkeys posted a video of Anita Sarkeesian in 2010 giving a lecture to a classroom when she mentions a project she recently completed. It was a video criticizing the lack of women in video games and while introducing it she says, “I’m not a fan of video games, I actually had to learn a lot about video games in the process of making this”

When she saw the video, Sarkeesian took to twitter to defend herself claiming she was the victim of “angry gamer dudes bravely defending the status quo”. While it is true that far too often women are burdened with the responsibility of “proving” that they play video games to the male fans of the industry, in this case it seems justified.

Before her Kickstarter campaign, the only evidence that Anita was even aware of video games was a video (since deleted) criticizing Bayonetta. But as soon as she stood to profit from the industry, suddenly Anita was a gamer, she had been playing games since she was five.

The default response to a woman saying she plays video games should not be to shout, “prove it!” but we have a video of Anita Sarkeesian, the canonized saint of female gamers saying she doesn’t like video games. That does necessitate proof.

If someone who didn’t like movies told you how to fix your film, you wouldn’t take them seriously. If someone who hadn’t read a book since grade school told you how to write your protagonist you would ignore them. So why should we listen to anything Anita Sarkeesian says about video games?

She said herself she isn’t a fan of video games, she’s blatantly stolen content from several people and it seems like all the money she raised as a result of the harassment she experienced has gone to line her own pockets.

Why do people still care about what Anita has to say? Let’s find out…

Controlling the discussion

I wish to reiterate that I do not endorse anything that was said to Sarkeesian during her Kickstarter campaign, threats of rape and murder should not be employed simply because someone disagrees with you. That rude behaviour was despicable, but it is also the reason she is still at all relevant in the gaming world.

The insults and threats levied at Sarkeesian were what allowed her to raise 158,000 dollars, but they also gave her something even more valuable; total immunity from all criticism.

The harrassment gave her justification to disable comments, ratings and statistics on all her videos as a countermeasure to the avalanche of vitriol being thrown at her. While that was certainly for the best at the outset, it also gave Anita license to ignore any criticism. While YouTube comment sections are not historically known for rational debate, when no disagreement is visible it’s easy to pretend there’s no disagreement at all.

The harassment didn’t only create a rationale to silence low-level disagreement on her videos it provided an easy way to explain away any well thought out criticism. Sarkeesian and her legion of followers have made a habit of dismissing critique (indirectly of course, lest a dialogue be started) as the machinations of the trolls, the gamer dudes, the misogynist masses; faceless groups that can be summarily disposed of without ever truly being addressed.

It really was this perfect storm of conditions that made Sarkeesian the respected figure in video gaming that she has become. By suffering the worst Internet anonymity had to offer, Anita was justified in building a system of insulation from any dissent. Because criticism fell on deaf ears, it became increasingly popular to stand with Sarkeesian rather than opposite her. To reap positive PR companies like EA and events like GDC began making their support known and Anita became the media darling she wanted to be.

The Aftermath

If there was never any harassment against her, if Anita hadn’t been turned into a pariah by the lowest common denominator of the gaming community then we could have better called her on all these issues. But now if you say, “what did you do with all the money” you are bitter that a woman is successful. If you call her an unapologetic thief, you are just trying to derail an important conversation and if you question whether she even cares about video games at all you are trying to tell women they can’t be gamers.

By controlling the terms of any discussion of her work, Sarkeesian effectively manipulated an entire industry into believing she was a necessary part of it. She’s no longer daily headline news but she has created lasting effects for the industry; such as the drama over AC Unity and Anita’s role in the development of Mirror’s Edge 2.

It’s easy to complain about Sarkeesian, just look how many words I wrote up there. But we need to remember she is the monster gamers created; without the vitriol to rail against, Sarkeesian would have remained relatively unremarkable and very little would have changed in the gaming world.

Instead we built body armour for one of the biggest con artists in gaming history.

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4 thoughts on “The Cult Of Sarkeesian

  1. Nice write up. While I don’t particularly care “where the money went”, as there was no way Femfreq could have estimated the success of their kickstarter, a couple parts of the Femfreq narrative have raised my concerns.

    When it was shown that Femfreq lifted Cowkitty’s work, Cowkitty requested proof of their 501c3 status as a non profit. Shortly after, the TvW logo changed and things returned to normal. However Femfreq was seen to be a corporation on listing.

    It emerged in the last couple weeks that Femfreq is only now successful at being a 501c3 non-profit. what were they before?

    Having known cults before, there are some remarkable similarities between Femfreq and a cult: the unquestionable single figurehead, the constant requests for money, the positioning of their philosophy as “the pure. true way”, and the presentation of tenuous facts to prove the philosophy.

    Femfreq also baits by attempting to link games content with behaviour, but then retreats by saying that they’re only “pointing out a trend, so I’m not saying games are bad”. Even in one study they cited as “proof”, the study itself says that the test wasn’t comprehensive enough and cannot be used broadly as proof for anything.

    The project hasn’t deserved the threats and attempts at intimidation. It’s opening up a dialogue about the portrayal of women, and that’s fine. But I’m finding facets of the project questionable and possibly a little cynical.

    In short, I think Femfreq is going to milk this victimhood for as long as they can, while the gravy train sustains their lifestyle.

  2. I bet she paid royalties and rights. She did extensive research, and it shows throughout the videos. Some of the money clearly goes to her Youtube account. Some of the money has clearly gone to equipment. I bet she bought some books. She probably bought a lot of games, yeah. But … so? She’s at least doing something with them besides just sitting around and playing them. And to that end, she travels, and she speaks, and she may be doing the whole thing on a full time basis. Much of that money was solidarity money, the best way we could show her that we needed her to continue the project despite the abuse she went through.

    Furthermore, I’ve played games for a long time, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Just because you’re an enthusiast, doesn’t mean you’re a fan(atic). (That’s where the word comes from. Ask Seven of Nine.) See, I couldn’t call myself a fan of Star Trek, either, because while I like the narratives and engage with them, I don’t speak a word of Klingon. (I don’t even know how to spell the word K’plah! Does it have a ! at the end?) See, there are different games, different media for games, varying subcultures. (Remember “Ladybug”? I used to play it with my father on a table-top arcade console when I was 4.) I know a guy who got FFVII tattooed on his arm. I wouldn’t do that with KQIV, but I loved the game; it affected me deeply and for life. There’s a level of commitment attached to the word “fan” that I think most people just aren’t comfortable with.

    I think Anita Sarkeesian is smarmy in her tone of voice and tone of face, and it doesn’t attract me to her (kinda pedantic) points, but I can guarantee you — anyone who went through what she went through would change that. There’s no amount of money that can make up for that kind of abuse. And you’re kind of perpetuating it by literally accusing her of felony offenses. (What’s up with that?)

  3. A few things.

    She does not pay royalties or seek rights to the material she stole for her work. Here (http://cowkitty.net/post/78808973663/you-stole-my-artwork-an-open-letter-to-anita) cowkitty explains exactly what happened with regards to the piece of artwork that was stolen. Anita took it, when called on it she claimed she is a non-profit so its fine and she made no effort to credit the artists. With regards to the let’s plays she lifted, those she does not need to pay for, but the terms of Fair Use (which she invokes constantly) require her to credit who she took material from, which she also never does. If she bought new equipment, the videos should have improved in quality, they haven’t. Youtube accounts don’t cost any money so 0 for 2. And bottom line, she made stretch goals saying she would do more in under a year than she has in over two, if she was doing this FULL time, then she probably would have finished by now. Solidarity money spends just like any other money, but the money she received was supposed to be for a project, not first class tickets on her flight to GDC. Face it, that money went into her own pocket, or as some people have been speculating; into the pockets of SilverString Media.

    Secondly, Fan does not mean “fanatic” anymore. Yes that is the root of the word, but words change depending on how they are used over time. For example (and I don’t believe in using this sort of language, it is simply the best example i can think of) “faggot” used to mean ‘bundle of sticks’, now it is primarily used as a pejorative term for a gay person. Trying to hold a word to its original root definition is folly. While its true that playing games doesn’t make you a “fan” or a “gamer”, I believe that if you aren’t willing to say I am a fan of “X subject” whether it is movies/games/books/etc. then you shouldn’t be the one trying to radically change it. In the video I sourced, Anita doesn’t say “I play games but I’m not a fan” she says “I’m not a fan of video games, I actually had to learn a lot about video games” and she goes on to say “I would love to play video games but I don’t want to go around shooting people and ripping off their heads, its just gross”. The important part being when she says “I would love to play video games”, meaning she doesn’t play video games, or didn’t as of 2012. Bottom line, if she is going to go through gaming with a fine toothed comb telling us why everything is misogynist then she should be “comfortable with that level of commitment”.

    Finally, I don’t believe that someone’s work should be above reproach based on backlash that person has sustained in the past. Literally everything I said in this article that Anita did is a fact, she did steal art, she did steal footage, and she was recorded saying she is not a fan of video games. I do not believe I am perpetuating a cycle of abuse, I never once attacked Anita as a person, just her actions which were and are morally and legally wrong. I can sleep at night knowing that.

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