Friday, 12 September 2014

Different Points of View

Anita Sarkeesian makes videos about how video games use tropes that portray women as non-people or that encourage violence against women. She has quite a number of critics. When I say critics, I mean people who are critical of her work and her message, not people who are making threats - that's not really being a critic.

So by "critic" I am talking about people who address the message of her videos, but I'm not necessarily talking about people who are doing a good job of this or being even vaguely reasonable. I had actually made a point of avoiding any link to an article or video that was criticism of Sarkeesian because I didn't think that I was going to be treated to a reasonable or well-thought-out point of view. The other night, at the behest of a person who honestly wanted a reasonable discussion, I watched on "rebuttal" video to Sarkeesian.

I definitely regret giving the maker of that video a hit on his youtube channel. He spends quite a long time making a simple point. Sarkeesian claimed that players were "invited" to murder strippers in Hitman Absolution and then drag their bodies around, and said that players were meant to derive a "thrill" from doing so. The rebuttal points out that players are, in fact, penalized for killing the strippers - or anyone else who is not the target of their hit - and that if you watch youtube videos of people playing the game you will never see someone killing the strippers. In summary, Sarkeesian's claim that players are enticed into being violent towards representations of women is untrue.

So that is what I would call criticism. And it would be very good criticism if Sarkeesian's overall point rested on the incorrect idea that a perfect playthrough of that game means killing strippers. I don't think it does. But that's what criticism does, it opens the discussion up.

What good criticism doesn't do is paint the person who delivered the message as a liar. I would say the message of the video I watched could have been delivered very effectively in about two and a half minutes. I say that because there are a good two and a half minutes of the video where he shows clips of various playthroughs of Hitman Absolution where people go through the room that Sarkeesian depicted the violence in. He contrasts what the LPer's say - "One of those strippers sometimes wanders into the path we are going to go through, so you have to watch out for her" - with the things Sarkeesian says about being invited to act upon the strippers bodies.

But the video is ten minutes long. It has a screenshot of Sarkessian's kickstarter showing how much money she gathered to make these videos. The guy who made it goes into an extremely long-winded metaphor about what a lying liar Sarkeesian is.

I did a search on youtube for "Hitman Absolution Stripclub Scene." Of the top five videos, one was an LP that avoided the stripper's dressing room completely. Two featured killing strippers and dragging their bodies around the strip club for fun. One was a top N list of sexy moments in video games. One was a short video meant to showcase how incredibly detailed the strip club was - I think this was also supposed to be sexy.

The idea that people are playing a strip club scene in a video game to be titillated is very embarrassing for me to contemplate. If I were going to watch one of those videos it would definitely be the LP and I would be interested in the gameplay elements. Presumably that same kind of preference for content is what led the maker of the rebuttal video to watch many LPs where strippers were not killed and to not watch the videos of strippers being killed when he did his own research. I believe him that he watched a bunch of videos, and I don't think he intentionally selected against videos that would have stripper murder.

Sarkessian, on the other hand, rather than being interested primarily in the gameplay of the game, or in watching pro play of the game, is interested in how the game represented women and how people who play the game treat those representations. So she probably would have watched both kinds of videos.

The gameplay videos I'm most interested in are usually speedruns. In creating a speedrun that is not exploiting some geometry glitch to skip the whole level, you can bet that the makers would definitely try routes that involved killing strippers and routes that didn't to see what was fastest. That's what Sarkeesian means when she says that the game invites us to explore and exploit violence against these women. Video games invite us to explore and exploit everything within them. That's why I play video games.

So we have a hardcore gamer and a feminist culture critic who watched videos of a video game - either or both may have played the game as well. They watched different sets of videos and drew different conclusions about them. Then we have the gamer calling the cultural critic a "liar" and "dishonest" for the conclusions she drew. To conclude Sarkeesian is dishonest, the gamer must sincerely believe that: 1) He has access to The Truth; and 2) Sarkeesian does as well.

To be charitable to the gamer in question, it's possible he has a broken theory of mind and doesn't really understand that people think and know different things than he does. But that charity only goes so far. It's one thing to have a disability and it is another thing to be a complete jerk. And making a youtube video to go on and on about how a cultural critic is a money-grubbing liar is pretty much being a jerk, especially when that person is already the target of death- and rape-threats.

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