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”
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.