The Thing About Hitman

For better or worse the recent issues in the gaming world have reinvigorated a discussion of Anita Sarkeesian’s work. We’ve resumed a debate that most believed we were done with as the Tropes Vs. Women series dropped from millions of views to a hundred thousand. The question being should Anita Sarkeesian have any influence in the future of gaming?

I say no for a number of reasons, other people say yes for a number of reasons. In these discussions, whether cordial or vitriolic, one subject appears frequently; Anita’s analysis of Hitman Absolution.

This has been a fixture of the Anti-Sarkeesian crowd for a long while and in a recent tumblr argument (I know, I go for the hard-hitting sources) I saw someone say “You always bring up Hitman! Don’t you have any other points you can make!?” And they were right, a ton of attention is paid to a small part of her over 2 hours of content. So why is the Hitman point so prevalent? Thats what I’m here to answer.

The following might seem like a patronizing over-examination of a small part of Sarkeesian’s work but to understand why everyone uses this as their go-to point against Anita, fine examination is necessary.

The first issue is what Anita does in-game. She shows a small section of gameplay where the player character (in this case controlled by Anita) kills two exotic dancers and proceeds to drag their dead bodies across the room. The two dancers are not the target of the mission, there is no goal/indicator/objective that says “kill these women”. They are NPCs which are meant to be avoided, lest they see the player character and cause an alert/failure in the mission. The killing of such NPCs (male and female alike) is discouraged by the game’s scoring mechanics; which rewards stealth and non-lethal tactics. Yes these characters can be killed by the player, as can hundreds of male NPCs; Anita chooses to zero in on this and kill them. I contend that Anita going out of her way to kill two female “sex objects” (as she calls them) that she is under no obligation to kill says much more about Anita as a person than the game says about the gamers who play it. To see the treatment of women as equal to men, who can be killed in droves in this and countless other games, as an issue seems counterintuitive to a movement which champions equality

Secondly Anita uses small fraction of a relatively long game as her example in this instance. The game has 20 missions in total. Of those 20 missions, Anita looks at one mission. Of that one mission, 2 parts take place in the strip club. Of those 2 parts, Anita looks at an approximately 30 second snippet of gameplay. Which as stated above, only exists because of choices Anita made in-game. To use this tiny section of a particularly long game as damning evidence for the game itself would be a stretch, to use it to draw a conclusion about all video games is simply absurd.

The final issue is the conclusion she draws, using Hitman as her touchstone. She states that, though the harm of women is not always mandatory, by having it as an option in games (multiple, Hitman included and highlighted) it is implicitly encouraged behaviour for the player. She then continues that the player “cannot help but treat these female bodies as things, to be acted upon. Because they were designed, constructed and placed in the environment for that singular purpose. Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.” Her ultimate conclusion is that gamers internalize violence against women as acceptable and encouraged and if a gamer professes that they are able to divorce themselves from a perceived negative message that means they are all the more likely to internalize it.

“The more you think you cannot be affected, the more likely you are to be affected”

-Anita Sarkeesian

Her belief that the option to treat women in a video game the way the player has the option to treat men in a video game is misogyny is woefully misguided. Using this Hitman footage as one of her centrepieces for this conclusion demonstrates just how absurd her arguments ultimately are.

Why this game?

But Anita’s detractors, myself included, don’t just have a problem with her opinions on Hitman; they disagree with the majority of the conclusions drawn from Tropes Vs. Women series. So why does Hitman appear so frequently in the responses?

Because the Hitman example is the quickest, most effective way to demonstrate the most glaring flaws in Anita Sarkeesian’s crusade.

It is widely believed by dissidents, myself included, that Anita has no interest in games as a hobby or artistic medium and she is using them as a platform for an agenda. She chose to murder the dancers when SHE played it, contrary to the actions of dozens of other players‘ choices and the intention of the designers. This demonstrates a willful ignorance of how this game and essentially all games work. This treatment of the freedom of modern games as an endorsement of a certain type of real life behaviour is a position commonly seen in outsider critics. For example, Jack Thompson’s crusade against game violence or mainstream news’ Mass Effect “Sex-Box” controversy. At best she is misunderstanding how the game functions, at worst she is playing the game just to make choices that benefit her argument.

Cherry-picking has also been a consistent complaint about Sarkeesian’s work. Taking a small snippet of a 10, 20, 40 or 100 hour experience can hardly be called representative, of either the game or the medium itself. Hitman forms the best example as the small snatch that is displayed in the video is the only part that could be construed as endorsing violence against women for its own sake. Even that is a stretch, as the section displayed only occurs if extremely abnormal choices are made. If something is to be used as support or proof of an argued position, choosing to show only the smallest part of it is disingenuous and harmful to the argument as a whole. This is a large part of what the Tropes Vs. Women series does in its analysis of video games, and Hitman: Absolution is the most telling example.

The last issue is the conclusion she draws. If Anita chooses to believe that video games are imparting deeply misogynistic sentiments in gamers, that is her right. If Anita wants to try to convince the world that games are sexist by their very nature, that too is her right. But using incorrect, cherrypicked information to come to a weak conclusion that is then held up as fact in the gaming world is deeply troubling.

Really the only Hitman is mentioned so much in rebuttals of Anita Sarkeesian’s position on the sexist nature is that it is shorthand. It is easier than writing a diatribe like this one. It is easier than trying to explain in paragraphs that freedom in games is not endorsement of the least common behaviour. It is easier than explaining how out of context snippets cannot and should not be used as a representation of “gaming”. These arguments have been made and made and made so instead of making them for the umpteenth time, people who disagree with Anita’s conclusions on video gaming just say;

“Look what she said about Hitman”

And that really says it all.

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The Untouchables of the Video Game Industry

I’m scared guys.

The Zoe Quinn story broke last week and divided the gaming industry quite effectively. The majority of developers, journalists and industry personalities supported Quinn and chastised the toxic public; while a large portion of gamers see her actions as an offence to the industry that she represents for better or worse.

First I want to say; I don’t support the public disclosure of everyone’s indiscretions. Your life should not be an open book for the world to read. That said, we would be idiots to ignore a situation like this because it’s part of someone’s private life. Donald Sterling made racist comments in private, he was fined 2.5 million dollars and banned from the NBA for life. Bill Clinton had an extramarital affair and was nearly impeached. It does not matter where information comes from, you cannot un ring that bell. We can’t give you a pass on abhorrent behaviour because we technically should not have found out about it.

I’m not here to write a scathing indictment of Quinn’s affairs, better writers than I have already done that. I’m here to talk about what this controversy has revealed about the industry we love.

I’m scared.

Not of the Feminist Gaming Illuminati as one media critic put it, but of what we are doing to certain figures in the industry.

Major personalities in the gaming industry; Totilo, Sessler, Phil Fish and others have been vocal in their support of Zoe Quinn. Thats fine, and expected in a controversial event such as this one. Whats missing is the other side of the discussion.

Quinn abused the Youtube DMCA to get a video critical of her pulled. The only gaming news outlet that covered the Quinn story impartially (a site called GamesNosh) reported their host wanted the story pulled and shortly after the site began displaying a 403 error. It was also reported that Quinn sexually harassed someone at a recent wedding, a claim summarily and tactlessly dismissed by Phil Fish. Finally a redditor; SillySlader reported that when Zoe found an issue with a project designed to promote women in games development she marshalled her troops to destroy it.

(Sidebar, this project has been revived and is thriving. Donate here)

Any coverage by significant gaming media outlets has been universally sympathetic of Zoe Quinn. All the dissenting opinions have been limited to user comments on sites like Reddit; a large portion of which were censored by moderators or personalities with an interest in supporting Quinn.

In my last post I spoke about body armour that angry gamers built for Anita Sarkeesian. This is the evolution of that idea. We have created an environment of untouchables; personalities that will not be criticized regardless of their actions.

This frightens me.

Anita Sarkeesian was the first example, and frankly her case would be preferable to what we’re currently experiencing. Her videos are bad, nowhere near worth 20,000 dollars each, she steals content and she admitted in 2012 that she does not like video games; she is in fact using them selfishly. None of that matters, we can make all the youtube videos and blog posts we want but Anita is untouchable. It is suicide for a gaming journalist, developer or publisher to oppose her so whatever we do or say, we’re not going to make a dent.

The Quinn situation is worse. She achieved an unprecedented level of immunity to criticism. Quinn is so ingrained in this industry that her supporters, friends, coworkers etc. actively and for a time effectively censored any negative mention of her to protect her image as “one of gaming’s only strong voices for equality” (Her words). Coverups of this scale are not seen outside government administrations, but an indie game developer somehow made it happen.

Her army of censors were ultimately not successful, but if you believe that anything besides Zoe Quinn’s ego has been damaged, you are dreaming. A large portion of the gaming public hate her, but the people who matter still love all things Quinn. Game devs, games journalists, trade shows and panels all support Zoe. Whether they are true believers in her as a person or they know they can make money by pandering to her crowd is irrelevant, she is not losing support from them.

To Conclude

We should be worried about how this is playing out. This is the only case I can think of where the major players in an industry have decided that certain people are above criticism. Whatever reason you want to give that the industry has not turned on these two personalities; harassment, under-representation of women, or genuine universal praise for Sarkeesian and Quinn. The fact of the matter is that gaming is an industry where it has been decided that some people are above reproach.

Doesn’t that scare you?

It scares me.

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.