A decade ago, an hitherto obscure cultural criticism project called Feminist Frequency -- created by a Canadian-American woman named Anita Sarkeesian while she was studying at New York University -- launched an extensive web video series analyzing in-depth and critiquing the representation of women in video games throughout the history of the medium. That web video series was called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and it made Anita and Feminist Frequency famous for a time, becoming the site's flagship series. (You can find the entire series here.)
Like most people who did, I discovered Feminist Frequency through Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The series was announced as a developing project on Feminist Frequency that was intended to be composed of several parts, each about five or ten minutes in length and examining a separate female trope commonplace in video games; Anita's biggest project up to that point. She requested $6,000 on crowd-funding site Kickstarter to finance it and was reportedly stunned to receive the entire requested sum within 24 hours, so unexpectedly high was the demand for this particular work. Then the backlash began.
A large-scale harassment campaign was mounted against her over the project. I like to highlight that point of origin to point out that the opposition campaign began here, well before the publication of the first video in the series; a fact that highlights the reality that, to many of Anita's detractors, the contents of her work didn't actually matter. Simply knowing that she was a feminist who was to critique portrayals of women commonplace in video games was enough on its own to start sending rape and death threats, rape porn depicting her as the victim in massive quantities, hack her social media accounts, saturate her Wikipedia page with pornographic images and anti-lesbian and anti-Semitic slurs, and even create a computer game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian and anyone who dared criticize any of this could be and often was treated similarly, moreover. (For example, when Toronto feminist Stephanie Guthrie criticized Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian, she began receiving rape and death threats as well.) The campaign was of a scale and viciousness sufficient to generate some notice and coverage in the gaming press. That coverage is how I first learned about the project and, through that, discovered Feminist Frequency.
At the time, nothing like such a project existed and I was personally at a place of feeling highly alienated from gaming culture in general and drifting toward abandoning video gaming as a hobby for reasons I felt much more deeply than I understood and felt even more scared and ashamed to try and voice. The second I saw a picture capturing the essence of the project, I instantly knew that it concentrated those feelings I often couldn't find the right words to explain myself and greatly sympathized with Anita's plight, to which end I contributed what little I could toward increasing the fund for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games beyond the requested sum. Many others did the same, resulting in the eventual donation total of nearly $159,000 from just under 7,000 backers. The entire series had originally been planned for publication in 2012, but got pushed back because the additional resources allowed Anita to drastically expand the scope and scale of the project. In the meantime, I took the opportunity to explore earlier Feminist Frequency content, which in turn only made me more excited for the Tropes series. The first Tropes video (Damsel in Distress, Part 1) was released on March 7, 2013 (the day before International Women's Day) and the series wound up spanning the subsequent four years.
The first four videos in the series, all of which launched in 2013, focused on the damsel in distress and "Ms. Male Character" tropes and were all viewed over a million times and positively reviewed by the Boston Globe and the New York Times and generally up-voted contemporaneously (there was a like-to-dislike ratio bar attached to YouTube videos at the time). Early the following year Sarkeesian received the Ambassador Award at the annual Game Developers Choice Awards on the grounds that these videos helped the medium "advance to a better place", becoming the first woman to receive the award. I highlight these points to make it clear that this initial body of work was contemporaneously well-received not only by feminists, but also by most gamers, video game developers, and media critics in general, perhaps because these initial commentaries focused on points that were both glaring and pretty easy for most to agree with.
The next several videos in the series though centered on the sexual objectification of women in the medium in ways that were, to my view, ahead of their time in that they included critiques of "mainstream" pornography and the prostitution of women, thus drawing the ire of liberals and praise from the radical feminist community to which I belonged. (No more awards for you! ) The infamous (mostly) 2014 Gamergate harassment campaign against female and "pro-feminist" video game developers and critics (a handy, comprehensive and well-sourced timeline of which can be found here for the edification of anyone wishing to dispute that characterization) was in part a direct response to the first batch of these videos, called Women As Background Decoration. Anita was forced to flee her home more than once during this window of time. I was harassed online by this movement contemporaneously for speaking out in defense of Anita and its other victims. To me, the ferocity of this reaction, if anything, proved the importance of those sorts of critiques. Over-sexualization of women in the gaming landscape was, and to a much more limited extent remains, a problem that most women ourselves I think find more demeaning and alienating than patriarchal chivalry and such, and also clarifying of the cultural battle lines; clarifying of who is really on your side and who is not. (It was very clarifying, for example, that the sex industry directly participated in Gamergate: example 1, example 2.)
It may be worth noting that, in larger feminist politics, Anita had notably been an early critic of the Slut Walk movement and of liberal "choice feminism", and to some extent hook-up culture itself (to which I reference her positive takes on the 2016 indie game One Night Stand). These positions would've fit her in much better with today's post-Me-Too movement landscape wherein you've more recently seen phenomena like the return of the feminist porn wars and the popularization of "high-value dating" and the politics thereof than it did with that of the early-to-mid 2010s. Indeed, as you can see at the first link in this paragraph, Anita back then described radical feminism in positive terms and would cite areas of agreement with thinkers like Gail Dines and Meghan Murphy, in addition to more conventional theorists; stuff she certainly wouldn't do today. On the flip side though, Anita's work was always intersectional and trans-inclusive in nature (although gender ID stuff was hardly the focus of her work), thus evading a stray too far in the radical direction. My point here being that, if some of her critiques -- particularly the stuff from from 2014-15 (Women As Background Decoration part 1 and part 2; Women As Reward main video and follow-up) -- felt different from / more "prudish" than what other feminist commentators of the time were offering, that's because they were indeed coming from an unorthodox place that was not strictly liberal-minded or strictly "woke", though definitely not conservative either, and one that I connected to a lot.
Anyway, the general tone of Feminist Frequency changed after the election of Donald Trump in November of 2016, and that tonal shift was for the worse, IMO. From this point forward, Anita and the rest of what was now her Feminist Frequency non-profit organization just simply converted to what I like to call more conventional wokeness in direct response, and you could feel this tonal shift in the subsequent final two entries of the Tropes series that launched early the next year. In Not Your Exotic Fantasy, for example, which incidentally is overall an excellent and recommended critique of the sexualized exotification of women of color in video games, she uses the term "sex workers" to describe women in the sex industry for the first time in the series instead of "prostituted women" or "women in prostitution" or just "prostitutes", thus implicitly accepting the sex industry's own preferred terms for its chattel instead of ones that originate in the women's movement. And in The Lady Sidekick, Anita explicitly weighs in against criticizing the political far left on the grounds that they can't be as bad as rightists.
The subsequent post-Tropes era for Feminist Frequency was marked by a shift away from both video games and women's issues as central topics of the organization's attention, to which end public interest quickly waned and donations dried up, resulting ultimately in the organization's reduction back to obscurity. It still exists today, but it's now just a widely forgotten audio-only podcast where she, co-hosts, and occasional guests discuss stuff like the importance of abolishing the prison system and such like this in the context of critiques of mostly obscure films and TV shows that few others will have even heard of before. In short, from my standpoint, Anita and Fem Freq have gone from feeling distinctive and ahead of their time to feeling more conventional and behind the times. I miss her awesome feminazi era!! It made a difference.
Speaking of that difference, recommendations from Tropes series and broader work of Feminist Frequency introduced me to many games I've come to cherish, including Dear Esther, Papo & Yo, Thomas Was Alone, Aquaria, Fez, Sword & Sworcery EP (here's the specific commentary that proved decisive in my choice to buy it), A Case of Distrust, Firewatch, One Night Stand, That Dragon Cancer, Kentucky Route Zero, Pyre, Butterfly Soup (one of my top five favorite video games of all time!), Florence, and Celeste. Indeed it was furthermore the review by Carolyn Petit, who later went on to join Feminist Frequency the following year, that persuaded me to buy Gone Home as well, which also ranks in among my very favorite games ever. In fact, Feminist Frequency in general, those who worked for Fem Freq, and the Tropes series in particular, played an enormous role in building my interest in indie games and even the way I write about games has been influenced by Petit's writing style because I just love it!
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games has had a profound impact on the medium over the years. As Colin Campbell wrote for gaming publication Polygon shortly after the final Tropes installment was released, "video games have seen a rise in the number of positive women and minority protagonists and a decrease in the tropes [Sarkeesian] discusses" since the launch of the project. Indeed, during a Game Developers Conference talk referenced in Axios last year, Sarkeesian herself said "making [Tropes] videos today might be 'not impossible, but harder,' as there are fewer examples and 'the pattern is less egregious.'" The question of whether a game character today is treated as a subject or an object no longer breaks down half as neatly along gender lines as it did a decade ago and titles centering on female subjects, ranging from the Horizon series to The Last of Us Part II and the new Tomb Raider trilogy to even the little indie platforming gem Celeste, among others, have been known to sell millions, and sometimes even tens of millions, of copies. It's a different gaming world today and one that I'm now happy to be a part of. Anita Sarkeesian herself may not be someone I still follow very much, but the legacy of her flagship work, the Tropes series, lives on in the best possible way. I just wanted to honor that legacy with these reflections this morning.
If you've never seen Tropes vs. Women in Video Games before, here is the first and most widely-viewed video published in that series as a primer and a powerful glimpse into the origins of the damsel in distress trope both across history and, in a specialized way, in the very foundations of the video gaming industry and at exactly how it empowers men at the expense of women. It's about 23 minutes and a great place to get started. The caveat, of course, is that it's a reflection on the gaming landscape as it had existed up to that point in time; up to 2013.