Earlier this week, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian posted the latest in a series of crowdfunded videos called Tropes vs. Women, devoted to aggregating and analyzing games that portray women as damsels in distress, ornamental eye candy, incidental victims, and other archetypes that tend to be written in service of and subordinate to male players and characters. The videos — which are essentially subjective cultural criticism — come with transcripts and lists of the games mentioned, making it possible to check them and critique her analysis, which can be reasonably disagreed with in places.
Obviously, this is not what's actually happened. Since the project launched on Kickstarter way back in 2012, the gaming community has been treated to an incessant, deeply paranoid campaign against Tropes vs. Women generally and Sarkeesian personally. This includes a flood of violent comments and emails, videos documenting ways in which she's not a "real gamer," a game in which you can punch her in the face, and a proposed documentary devoted to exposing the "lies" and "campaign of misinformation" from what is, again, a collection of opinions about video games. Also, now, she's apparently spent the night with friends after contacting law enforcement about "some very scary threats" against her and her family. She's published a page of extremely violent sexual threats from the person who apparently drove her to call the police; in it, the user mentions the location of her apartment and threatens to kill her parents, who the user names and claims to be able to find.
I’m safe. Authorities have been notified. Staying with friends tonight. I’m not giving up. But this harassment of women in tech must stop!— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) August 27, 2014
This is an unusual low in the Anita Sarkeesian saga, but death threats in general are more or less par for the course for many women (and men) online. They can easily cross the line from bluster to menace — UK journalist Laurie Penny, for instance, contacted police in 2013 after being sent a very specific bomb threat. In this case, the vitriol might have been compounded by the support her latest video received from popular developers and media figures. Joss Whedon and William Gibson, among others, mentioned it, and Tim Schafer of Double Fine — known for Psychonauts and the Kickstarter-funded Broken Age — spent several hours fielding responses after urging everyone in game development to watch it "from start to finish."
Death threats are more or less par for the course
It's also coming on the heels of another woman-focused gaming community tempest regarding Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn, who internet denizens have accused of starting an affair with a games journalist (who never reviewed her game and, as far as I can tell, mentioned her in precisely one piece, which was written before they're supposed to have started dating) in order to secure favorable press for her non-traditional text game. The "corruption" allegations Quinn's critics put forward have started a discussion about how to handle friendships and crowdfunding support within a relatively small community of writers and developers. Our sister site Polygon updated its guidelines and now asks reporters to state if they have given crowdfunded support to developers through the Patreon service, and Kotaku banned such contributions outright. Intriguingly, the harassment and threats sent as part of this anti-corruption campaign seem to have focused mostly on Quinn herself, not the male journalist whose integrity would actually have been compromised by said corruption.
The threats against Sarkeesian have become a nasty backdrop to her entire project — and her life. If the trolls making them hoped for attention, they've gotten it. They've also inexorably linked criticism of her work, valid or not, with semi-delusional vigilantism, and arguably propelled Tropes vs. Women to its current level of visibility. If a major plank of your platform is that misogyny is a lie propagated by Sarkeesian and other "social justice warriors," it might help to not constantly prove it wrong.
Update August 27th, 2014 4:00PM ET: Updated with copies of threats as posted by Anita Sarkeesian.