Thursday, September 18, 2014

Discussing Sarkeesian with 16-year-olds

Today, I used Anita Sarkeesian's "Women as Background Decoration" in class. The pupils are 10th graders, which in Germany means they're about 16 to 17 years old. The class is small, consisting of ten boys and one girl. Much testosterone to fly around, I can tell you. Since I know that all of the ten boys are playing video games, asking them whether they heard of #Gamergate, I expected some positive answers. In fact, two people had heard of it, and two others joined in once they understood what I meant. The term itself was new to them. We watched the aforementioned video together, with me pausing several times to explain some of the heavier vocabulary, but refraining from taking sides. During watching, they constantly shouted out their disapproval, citing that men get beaten and killed in these games, too, and that it's just "normal", and that if Sarkeesian didn't like it she should stop playing. Two pupils grew a bit more thoughtful after a while, pondering the arguments, but didn't get on Sarkeesian's side. All pupils stated how dismayed they were at the fact that Sarkeesian countered all their own arguments in advance, calling it unfair.


After the movie was over, we discussed about it. All of the pupils except the girl, which is not gaming and was bored by the whole affair, were very engaged and wanted to talk about it. The interesting thing is that, as I have witnessed many times before, they simply didn't listen. Sarkeesian's arguments were lost on them; they were instead heavily drawing on the aspect of her supposed denounciation of violence in video games or the fact that women were represented in sexual ways at all, both of which are claims Sarkeesian doesn't make. The point most sticking out to me, however, was how quickly the pupils referred to the usual debate about violence in games, equated it with Sarkeesian's criticism  and drew the conclusion that her aims are the same as the ones of the culture pessimists that would like to ban all these video games altogether without ever having played them. 

This is the most important point I want to add to the debate. The previous two decades of constant agitation against "violent" video games from people without any intimate knowledge of the topic and often radical agendas with their calls for complete banishment of these games has thoroughly poisoned the well for any kind of meaningful criticism on game mechanics and narratives. I used the better part of an hour only to explain to the pupils what Sarkeesian had said, something that wouldn't be necessary had they paid proper attention in the first place. However, as soon as someone is starting to criticize GTA, Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty, they're going into a kind of defensive stance, totally deflecting anything that comes at them. This points to a long internalized defensive stance against the onslaught of criticism at their favorite hobbies from people trying to take it away from them, be it parents, teachers or the media. 

After this fear was finally put to rest, we could start to seriously talk about Sarkeesian's arguments. However, at that point, virtually no time was left. A lesson takes 90 minutes in Germany. Sarkeesian's video (and the previous setup) had taken a good 50 minutes out of it, and nearly all of the rest was spent debunking what they thought she had said but actually hadn't. If there is one fault that Sarkeesian herself is guilty of in this process I have watched several times by now it's her degrading visuals of depicting the average gamer. While the footage originates in GTA, it is still an unhappy choice as it makes her vulnerable to claims that she hates and derides gamer culture, unnecessarily opening a flank and promoting the behavior I witnessed in my students. My wife, by the way, criticized the same thing when I showed her the videos, and she's not a gamer at all. I'm interested to see whether we'll continue the discussion, which will depend on the mood of the pupils next week. It'll be interesting to see whether or not they're still enraged then.

15 comments:

  1. You left out a few other things Sarkeesian is guilty of:

    Stealing art from other people to use in her Tropes vs. Women branding materials without giving credit (now rectified, but she originally refused to give credit until legal counsel was brought in to force her hand)

    Stealing footage from Let's Play series on YouTube, also without permission and without giving credit, rather than playing the games herself and capturing her own footage (YouTube has extensive breakdowns of where her game footage comes from)

    Lying about being a gamer, and lying about enjoying games and gaming culture (YouTube again: "Anita Sarkeesian is not a gamer", by her own admission)

    I could go on, but those are the major offenses related to her video series. Before you present someone as a legitimate critic, perhaps you should make sure they are actually involved with the culture they are critiquing.

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    1. The points you name are totally irrelevant in discussing her argument.

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  2. Very weak ad hominem argument Anonymous. I don't have to be involved with the culture of Al-Qaeda or the US Army or biker gangs to criticise them as a bunch of violent thugs.

    Sarkeesian's argument can stand or fall on its own merits no matter how bad a person she supposedly is.

    Pete

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  3. Ad hominem? Booooring!

    Let's try something more fun: Investigating Sarkeesian's arguments.

    I'd consider this a fair compression of the linked video: Female NPCs often are nothing more than sex objects in games, fulfilling male power fantasies. This is bad, because in Sarkeesian's own words "viewing media that frames women as objects or sexual playthings, profoundly impacts how real life women are perceived and treated in the world around us. And that is all without even taking into account how video games allow for the more participatory form of objectification".

    Sarkeesian links to some studies on her website which seem to support her view. Interestingly I can't find any which aren't build around a short term exposition model with rather small sample groups. It would be a fallacy to deduce long term behaviour impact from these studies. In fact, if long term behaviour changes can be caused by playing video games is a very disputed hypothesis with no strong indication to construe from the available data.

    Besides, a multitude of studies show Millennials - like your pupils - are far less prone to prejudices including racism, sexism, and homophobia, despite of rising video game sales.

    So in my opinion it is very clever of your students to link the modern discussion about misogyny in video games to the past one about violence, because they basically operate with the same, unproofen argumental structure: Video game X has violent/sexist elements. Playing it will therefore lead to more violent/sexist behaviour in real life. Arguably Sarkeesian uses smarter words than Jack Thompson, but that isn't really hard, is it?

    Because blogspot's commenting feature is utterly horrible, here are some related links in bulk:

    http://www.feministfrequency.com/2014/06/women-as-background-decoration-tropes-vs-women/
    https://medium.com/@cainejw/the-factual-feminist-a-factcheck-f5ae584f56da

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    1. Sorry for the function, it is horrible :(
      The important claim of Sarkeesian is not that these games create this behavior, because this argument is stupid. She claims that the games are able to reinforce harmful stereotypes already existing (a fact that I can easily observe in my Millenials classroom) and to increase the tolerance against social wrongs of all kinds, in this case, sexism and misogyny. That's a different beast entirely, and I am inclined to agree.
      And by the way, picking "Call of Duty" as the one hardcore-gamer game with its 92% men isn't exactly the best way to represent the real female percentage in "hardcore" gaming. Of course it's far from the 48% of all "gamers", but it's also more than only 8% in a title very specifically pandering to male stereotypes.

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    2. Ah, Google giveth, and Google taketh away. Nothing you can do about it.

      >> The important claim of Sarkeesian is not that these games create this behavior, because this argument is stupid.

      Agreed, but have to call Strawman here, never argued that as far as I can see.

      >> She claims that the games are able to reinforce harmful stereotypes already existing (a fact that I can easily observe in my Millenials classroom) and to increase the tolerance against social wrongs of all kinds, in this case, sexism and misogyny.

      I'm a little unclear here: Can you observe the existence of harmful stereotypes or their reinforcement by video games? I wouldn't doubt for a minute that 16 year olds are stereotyping with the best of them, but how can you directly observe that this behaviour is reinforced by playing games? For example, are they talking about how they enjoyed participating in sexist actions in games or something like that? I'd be willing to consider your anecdotal evidence if you'd point out how you did avoid confirmatian bias.

      Not sure where you are going with the last paragraph. Undoubtedly the male/female ratio in hardcore gaming is very high, maybe not 11/1, but I'd argue 7/1 could be realistic at a rough estimate. So?

      Just out of curiosity: Are your pupils reading this blog? I would have loved the chance to pick my teachers minds like this.

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    3. Then I misinterpreted you.

      Well, they're 16-year-olds, so the usual chauvinism is in there. As I wrote in the article, they were shouting out agreement on the coolness of these scenes. As of overcoming confirmation bias, I'm helped by the fact that I'm a relatively new Sarkeesian convert, only about 4 to 6 weeks (check out when I first linked that video of hers) and have talked with them about current games for over a year now.

      Regarding the numbers, I just wanted to point out that while the numbers of total "gamers" are more or less useless, resting the point on a singular polarizing game like CoD isn't helping much either.

      And I wouldn't if they read it. I don't think that one of the 16-year-olds reads it, if only for lack of language skill, but might be some of my older pupils do. I'm not making a secret of the blog, but not really promoting it, either. I don't make it a piece of discussion in lessons because it's my private life and doesn't belong in the classroom.

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    4. "And I wouldn't know", the beginning of the first paragraph should read.

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    5. >> As I wrote in the article, they were shouting out agreement on the coolness of these scenes.

      I know this will make me sound like a jackass, but maybe you should read your article again :D "During watching, they constantly shouted out their disapproval, citing that men get beaten and killed in these games, too, and that it's just 'normal', and that if Sarkeesian didn't like it she should stop playing." I'm reading this as if they feel their games misinterpreted, not as an endorsement of sexist content. Didn't they even try to steer the discussion in the direction of simply sexual depiction? Are they accepting the fact that Sarkeesian's examples are sexist at all?

      Btw. this made me laugh hard: "All pupils stated how dismayed they were at the fact that Sarkeesian countered all their own arguments in advance, calling it unfair." Adorable.

      >> As of overcoming confirmation bias, I'm helped by the fact that I'm a relatively new Sarkeesian convert, only about 4 to 6 weeks (check out when I first linked that video of hers) and have talked with them about current games for over a year now.

      Fear the converts, they really believe the stuff ;-) But this could be constructed against you rather easily: You've watched the videos, agreed with the points and now find behavioural instances of sexism reinforced by video games in your pupils. Wouldn't that be a classic Psychologist's fallacy?

      >> Regarding the numbers, I just wanted to point out that while the numbers of total "gamers" are more or less useless, resting the point on a singular polarizing game like CoD isn't helping much either.

      Agreed. But the fact of a high male/female gamer ratio remains regardless.

      Interesting insights on the challenges of teaching in the internet world, thanks.

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  4. Hi Stefan, I found you blog through twitter.
    Since I´m a first time reader, I don´t know what kind of class you´re teaching, but the way you are inserting personal bias into your teachings is very problematic.
    I can certainly appreciate your passion for the topic, but it is misplaced in the classroom. You are supposed to educate, not indoctrinate.

    Regards

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    1. Yeah, thanks, I'm perfectly aware of that. As you might have taken out of my description, I did not indoctrinate them. I talked with them about the video. In the whole class, I didn't once mention how my stance toward it was. If they don't read the blog, they wouldn't know from the lesson. I teach a lot of history and politics, and there a lot of controversial topics, of which I of course have my own opinions. I do my best to keep them out of the classroom, and often enough, I defend the other side of the debate simply for the heck of it, so that the pupils have something to argue against.

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    2. Hi Stefan,
      I didn´t mean too sound too harsh.
      Calling yourself a "new Sarkeesian convert" just implies a less than neutral stance.

      I would certainly agree, that many games feature sexist attitudes, yet they also contain other "politically incorrect" content. I can see where your students are coming from comparing this topic to the debate about violence.
      Their common argument is that video games shape real life attitudes, yet no one has ever been able to prove a reliable link between games and violence.

      Where exactly do you see the difference between the two?

      Regards

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    3. I'm certainly biased on the issue, but again, everyone is. The question is whether I can keep the bias out of the classroom, and while I certainly don't succeed always and totally, I think I manage most of the time. But no hard feelings.

      Sarkeesian's argument is not that the games create real life attitudes, but that they reinforce those already existing, serving as agents of the status quo. I guess that's the main difference, and it's a much more narrow and therefore more believable claim than the singular "games destroy kids" bullshit of earlier debates.

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    4. Interesting, thanks

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  5. Your students are smart people with sense.
    https://medium.com/@cainejw/dishonesty-feminist-frequency-part-1-fe937f6a791e
    https://medium.com/@cainejw/dishonesty-feminist-frequency-part-2-damsels-in-distress-pt-1-2309ce61c2a5
    https://medium.com/@cainejw/dishonesty-feminist-frequency-part-2-damsels-in-distress-pt-2-fde349026b7d
    https://medium.com/@cainejw/dishonesty-feminist-frequency-part-4-b26293b4755b
    https://medium.com/@cainejw/dishonesty-feminist-frequency-part-5-f2cc3fb91ccf

    Five chapters of a stunning critique of Anita. It's massive and dense, like an academic text, but well worth reading. Do so and question your decision of ever using Anita's videos in an academic context.

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