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.