As I look forward to plans and goals for Feminist Frequency in 2015, I’m reflecting on our Tropes vs Women in Video Games project and how far we’ve come. Two years into this project, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about what we set out to do, and what we’ve accomplished so far.
The Original Plan
Back in 2011, I created a series of six relatively short videos called Tropes vs Women that examined a handful of harmful gender tropes primarily found in television and movies. After their release, I received many positive messages from viewers who had felt uncomfortable when they saw these themes in their favorite media, and after watching my video series, they could finally articulate why. Because of the positive feedback I decided to do a follow-up series. I had been wanting to do some extended episodes on video games and since many of the tropes on my list were highly prevalent in gaming, the Tropes vs Women in Video Games kickstarter was born.
Initially, I imagined that each of the five videos would be about 10-12 minutes, give or take, with episode structures similar to the original series: description of the trope, relatively quick overview, a handful of game examples from major titles, and a brief 101-style ‘why does this matter’ analysis. I envisioned my audience primarily as young women, largely feminists or those already dissatisfied or uncomfortable with the status quo. I budgeted the initial project at $10,000. I set the Kickstarter goal to $6,000 and was anticipating an additional $4,000 in grants. This would cover the costs of production, equipment, games etc. and I would continue to volunteer time to produce the episodes.
So What Happened?
Much to my surprise and delight, I raised the initial $6,000 within 24 hours. As support for the project continued to pour in, I quickly expanded the number of videos I was going to produce and set up more stretch goals including an increase in production quality and a classroom curriculum. It wasn’t until halfway through the fundraiser that the harassment campaign began, and it’s never stopped. Not only did this harassment change my life, but it also forced me to fundamentally change the way I approached this project.
Due to the attention, both negative and positive, I had a much bigger spotlight on my work than ever before. I had new supporters: passionate geeks, curious onlookers, those horrified by the harassment, and of course, detractors and dedicated harassers. Perhaps most interestingly, game developers started paying attention as well. While Feminist Frequency started as a literacy tool to help folks be more critical of the media they are engaging with, I was now talking to the people that actually make that media, giving me a chance to send my message directly to those who can make real and substantial change in the industry.
This felt daunting, but exciting! Attracting a broader audience outside of the feminist sphere meant that I could reach more people, but also that I could no longer assume that my viewers had prior experience with sociological or feminist theory. My new videos would need to break down basic concepts so that viewers could follow along without any pre-existing knowledge while simultaneously challenging the status quo in gaming culture (a culture where many enthusiasts react defensively or even aggressively to the idea that sexism is a problem at all).
Back in June of 2012, I never imagined that the initial surge of harassment would not only increase in volume, but continue for years to come. One thing was immediately apparent, however: the harassers had made it their mission to pick apart and distort every minuscule detail of my work and even my personal life in order to try to discredit, defame, and ultimately silence me. My arguments and examples had to be airtight; I felt I could not afford to make a single mistake or error. That was, and is, a lot of pressure.
Making these videos is a balancing act of trying to offer comprehensive theoretical frameworks stated in widely accessible language while also trying to be bulletproof. We aim to reach as many people as possible while making our arguments solid enough so that folks who are on the fence won’t be easily lured in by the harassers’ torrent of misrepresentations and fabrications.
It’s hard to quantify the emotional costs that accompany daily harassment both for me and those bystanders who support me online. Every time I post anything online there is a predictable wave of harassing messages in response. However, when I publish an episode of Tropes vs Women in Video Games the vicious wave of harassment can carry on for weeks or even months. Instead of the satisfaction that typically comes with completing and publishing a big project, I am often forced to turn off my computer and avoid Facebook, Twitter and email, sometimes for days at a time. In addition to the sexist harassment, the death and rape threats have been persistent and have ranged from annoying to criminal. Local and national law enforcement agencies are involved in investigating the worst of these crimes. While the harassment existed long before the mob began self identifying as “GamerGate”, the emergence of this organized backlash in August 2014 caused the hate and vitriol targeting women in gaming to intensify exponentially with widespread ramifications across the gaming industry.
While Tropes vs Women in Video Games was originally a project examining women’s representations, the extreme harassment that I experience has become an intrinsic and inseparable part of this project, fundamentally changing my life and the landscape in which I release my videos. Gendered online harassment is not a new phenomenon, but the intensity of cyber mobs, especially in gaming, is increasing in frequency and severity. It became apparent to me that I should speak up and use my experience to help expose the epidemic of online abuse. Nearly half of my time is spent raising awareness on the epidemic of online harassment and working to help change policies on the institutional level. Some of these efforts are done publicly through Feminist Frequency’s website and social media presence, as well as countless media interviews and at public speaking events. But there is also work being done behind the scenes in private meetings and consultations with major social media and gaming platforms, and by partnering with other organizations to form a task force with the goal of ending online harassment.
The Current Scope of the Project
The goals of Feminist Frequency have changed due to all these factors. Here’s an overview of the ways we have evolved and expanded the Tropes vs Women in Video Game project:
- Instead of examining a handful of examples for each trope, we sift through hundreds of games across a variety of genres and platforms. For example, we referenced 182 games in our coverage of the Damsel in Distress trope alone. We have also catalogued and documented over 548 examples of the Damsel in Distress throughout the history of video games.
- Originally, I anticipated creating 10-12 minute videos for each trope. However, as the depth and breadth of our analysis grew, so did the videos.
~ The Damsel in Distress became a three-part miniseries clocking in at just over one hour
~ Ms. Male Character was 25 minutes long
~ Women as Background Decoration became a two-part miniseries clocking in at one hour
- Our desire to be more specific in the analysis meant that we made connections to other related tropes, including some that we identified and named ourselves. For example, in the Damsel in Distress videos we also discussed new tropes such as the Helpful Damsel, the Damsel in the Refrigerator, the Disposable Damsel and the Euthanized Damsel. With all that and more, it’s easy to see how we ended up with an hour long multi-part mini series just on this one topic alone.
- Many of my previous videos were off the cuff and only half scripted. In this series I have become much more intentional. Every sentence and every word is carefully considered and evaluated. There is nothing flippantly or casually stated. This can lead to hours of discussion about the accuracy of a particular term or rephrasing a single sentence until it is just right. Rather than small, casual analyses, each trope video has ended up feeling like we are trying to put together a master’s thesis in just a few months.
What We’ve Accomplished
I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with Feminist Frequency over the last two years. We’ve released six long-form episodes in the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series plus an accompanying animated video narrated by Jennifer Hale. Our YouTube channel has garnered over 17 million views and our Twitter account now has over 230,000 followers. Feminist Frequency writer and producer Jonathan McIntosh turned an article he wrote on male privilege into a highly popular video with the help of 25 male gamers including veteran games journalist Adam Sessler and beloved game developer Tim Schafer. I’ve done countless radio, television, and print interviews discussing online harassment and the representations of women in games, as well as speaking on these topics at dozens of schools and conferences globally.
We are one of several prominent voices that has helped bring about a paradigm shift and stronger awareness to the inequities in gaming culture. Just in the last couple of years there has been a significant transformation in the way gaming press outlets are reporting on issues of gender representation. Game reviews are beginning to include commentary on how women are depicted, and reporters are questioning developers and publishers more frequently on the lack of female protagonists in their games. After we released our episodes on the Damsel in Distress, several reporters at E3 asked Shigeru Miyamoto why he continued to use the Damsel trope in many of his popular Nintendo games and he said he hadn’t really thought about it before.
One of the most hopeful signs for me is how often developers have expressed their appreciation for my work. I have been invited to speak at game studios like EA DICE, Bungie, and ArenaNet. Developers at both indie and major game studios continue to reach out to me personally to tell me how our video series, and our larger work at Feminist Frequency has played a significant role in shaping internal conversations at all levels of production. Developers who were responsible for some of the games that I have critiqued in my series have graciously accepted the criticism and have promised to do better in the future.
Players, creators, and educators are taking our videos as a starting point and expanding the conversation about representations in games within their own communities.
When our kickstarter campaign ended on June 16, 2012 we raised a total of $158,922. Here is a breakdown of how the funds have been used:
Over the past two years Feminist Frequency has shifted from a side project I did in my spare time to a full blown organization. In May 2014, Feminist Frequency officially became a 501(c)3 nonprofit. This is exciting for a number of reasons, and will allow us to expand the organization and bring on additional support to help us do even more. It means more critical media analysis, more videos, and more efforts to raise awareness and develop solutions around the epidemic of online harassment. My long-term vision of Feminist Frequency includes a network with a variety of different programs and hosts analyzing media from a systemic/intersectional/anti-oppression lens. My team and I are growing the organization carefully and deliberately by bringing in new writing and support staff and by working to create compelling new educational programing. As a very young nonprofit and as we grow into a fully staffed organization, fundraising efforts will become increasingly important in sustaining our growth. If you are interested in learning more about Feminist Frequency as a nonprofit and our work, please take a look at our 2014 Annual Report [PDF].
I hope this update has provided you some insight into this ongoing project and our process in putting together each episode. I know many of you wish we would produce episodes faster, but each video is a massive undertaking and I do not want to compromise the comprehensive, in-depth analysis and high production quality that you have come to expect from Feminist Frequency. Tropes vs Women in Video Games is still my top priority and our next episode Women as Reward is currently in production. I am very proud of the work we are doing and the impact it is having on the industry at large.
I thank each of you for supporting this Kickstarter before you had any idea what these videos were really going to be about and I thank you for your patience as we continue on this rollercoaster of a journey.