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Turning the tables on trolls: 'Tropes vs. Women' creator talks harassment at GDC

Turning the tables on trolls: 'Tropes vs. Women' creator talks harassment at GDC


Anita Sarkeesian relays her experience climbing out of a 'cybermob'

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Anita Sarkeesian
Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian recently released the first episode of "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," a web series critiquing "damsels in distress" and other stereotypes. But its success on Kickstarter and now YouTube has come at a heavy price: not long after launching the Kickstarter, she became the target of an uncommonly focused and vitriolic backlash from people who took her website offline, flooded the internet with obscene or violent photoshops of her, and repeatedly threatened to kill or rape her. Almost a year later, she's had to scrub almost her entire personal online presence, and she continues to receive threats from angry trolls. In a talk at GDC, Sarkeesian outlined why her opponents succeeded as much as they did — and how to help diminish their impact.

Sarkeesian's "cybermob," as she calls it, wasn't representative of normal online experience, but its starkness illuminated how internet harassment works. "People don't believe women when they say they're being harassed," she says. "Part of documenting and sharing was to say 'No, it really is that bad.'" And unlike plenty of other cases, which end up mired in questions of whether or not the victim acted appropriately, all Sarkeesian wanted was a few thousand dollars to make a video series.

"Part of documenting and sharing was to say 'No, it really is that bad.'"

Even to someone familiar with the "Tropes vs. Women" saga, it's hard to listen to it being recounted — especially when it's a reminder that gently critiquing beloved pieces of pop culture is enough to put you at the center of a sustained campaign of hacking attempts, defamation, and threats of bodily harm to both yourself and your family. Sarkeesian has said repeatedly that her experience wasn't the work of a few teens, or just another day on the rough-and-tumble internet. "While there were boys involved," she says, "I was harassed by thousands of grown men as well — let's just be clear about this."

The support on "certain parts of Reddit and certain parts of 4chan," she says, helped spur on the campaign, giving trolls an audience even if they didn't successfully get a rise out of her. And the moderation tools meant to prevent harassment ended up being used to enact it, as people flagged Sarkeesian's videos or reported her to moderators. "All of the places that I was harassed were completely inadequate for dealing with this kind of harassment."

"All of the places that I was harassed were completely inadequate for dealing with this kind of harassment."

The specifically gendered attacks, including rape threats and pornographic drawings, stem from internet and real-world subcultures where any deviation from the racial or gender "norm" is a weakness to be mocked and exploited. Calling Sarkeesian a Jew or telling her male supporters that they must be gay wouldn't be a feasible insult if it weren't based in existing bigotry. But Sarkeesian also sees her harassment partly as a sign that progress is happening — and that some people are threatened by it. "The industry has been male-dominated for so long, but we're currently witnessing an early process of changing," she says, noting prominent men in the gaming community who spoke out in support of her.

Parts of GDC and the games industry still cater to men, but many are supportive of Sarkeesian's goals

To be sure, parts of GDC, gaming, and lots of other powerful industries cater to a male audience. I did a quick double-take when interactive fiction designer Mordechai Buckman described a scenario involving a woman and her wife — there are queer and female characters in games, but the unspoken everyman is still male and straight, and that's what I'd become used to hearing about in sessions. This morning, IGDA member Brenda Romero resigned from her committee position after an official after-hours party featured female dancers in skimpy outfits. But many participants are actively working towards broadening that scope, and the environment at Sarkeesian's talk was overwhelmingly supportive.

It's that kind of environment that Sarkeesian hopes to bolster. "Women shut down their blogs," she says, after seeing the misogynistic hostility they face for simply being online. "They shut down their videos. They stop gaming online. They mask their gender." This isn't having a thin skin — it's the result of enough people saying over and over that women don't belong in the tech or gaming world, and that including them is "forced diversity" or "reverse discrimination."

Sarkeesian certainly doesn't want to stamp out the anonymous or pseudonymous communities that helped enable her harassment, but she supports creating spaces where harassers — not women or minorities — are the odd ones out. "We really need to all change the culture to make these places not friendly to people who are doing the harassment," she says.