During an emotional talk at GDC 2022 Anita Sarkeesian looked back at the 10 years since her influential YouTube series. “Tropes vs Women in Video Games opened a conversation that changed the industry fundamentally.”
When Anita Sarkeesian started the Kickstarter campaign to fund her series of videos on misrepresentation of women in video games 10 years ago, two things happened. She reached her goal (a modest $6000) in less than 24 hours. In total the campaign reached $159.000 from almost 7000 backers. But she also became the target of a large-scale online harassment campaign that filled the comment sections under her YouTube videos and vandalised her Wikipedia page.
“I had no idea back then that my life would change so dramatically”, said Sarkeesian while showing the initial Kickstarter campaign video. “But the fears from straight, male gamers that I would somehow attack their beloved ‘grizzled dudes save damsel in distress’ type of video games, opened the floodgates for extremely aggressive comments and sentiments. The fear that women are presented as more human would be funny if it wasn’t so goddamn tragic.”
Despite all the backlash Sarkeesian and her team went on to produce 10 episodes in season 1 and later an additional 8 episodes in season 2. Here Sarkeesian would talk in depth about tropes like ‘woman as reward’, ‘woman as background decoration’, ‘lingerie is not armour’ and ‘strategic butt coverings’. To clear that last one up Sarkeesian explained: “When there is a female protagonist the camera is positioned to capture her butt right in the center of the screen. Usually she wears tight outfits that accentuate her forms. But for male protagonists, developers will sometimes go to absurd lengths to avoid calling attention to the butt of their heroes.”
The videos made their impact felt around the games industry. Ubisoft felt pressured to explain why their games didn’t have female leads. ‘Because female characters are too hard to animate’ wasn’t exactly a smart answer. Other companies started to commit to more female leads. And 2015 was hailed as the Rise of the Female Hero when E3 came around. But was it really? Only 7 out of the 76 announced games had a female lead. That’s 9%. The next 5 years that number actually went down. Yet, things were changing slowly.
“I haven’t been angry at video games in a while”, said Sarkeesian half jokingly. “In the west games have changed. It would be much harder to do a series like Tropes with the games of today.” There is still plenty to do though. And the answer lies with indie games. “Indie games are trailblazers. They tackle all the subjects that are still underexposed. Triple A follows later.”
And while there is plenty wrong with the industry, Tropes definitely had its impact in how women and minorities are portrayed in video games. “‘Tropes’ was essential in that change. We planted the seeds ten years ago and now we can say that we won!”, concluded Sarkeesian.