As her YouTube series 'Tropes vs. Women in Video Games' wraps, we talk past, present and a bright future with the founder of Feminist Frequency
As her YouTube series 'Tropes vs. Women in Video Games' wraps, we talk past, present and a bright future with the founder of Feminist Frequency
Anita Sarkeesian’s talk at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco falls at an unfortunate time: 10am on the last day of the conference – a Friday. Most attendees – a mix of indie programmers, mainstream publishing teams and media – are still bleary eyed from the night before. And yet, at five-to-ten, the small room on the third floor of the Moscone Convention Center is standing-room only.
Sarkeesian’s talk is part of GDC’s Advocacy Track, which focuses on increasing support for marginalized communities in games. Ten speakers have five minutes and 20 seconds each to present a talk on the topic of their own choosing. Sarkeesian is last. As her turn arrives, she makes her way to the stage.
“You might know me as the woman out to destroy all video games,” she deadpans. The crowd cheers.
In recent years, the 32-year-old Sarkeesian has become a feminist heroine of sorts, whose powerful commentary on pop culture and the media has made her both a celebrity and a target. Her website, Feminist Frequency, encourages readers to think critically about the representation of race, gender and sexuality in pop culture through analysis and reviews of films, television, video games, books and other media.
But Sarkeesian’s largest output by far is in front of the camera. The Feminist Frequency YouTube channel, which Sarkeesian started in May 2009, has over 200 thousand subscribers. Her two most popular video series, Tropes vs. Women and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, both look at different negative female stereotypes in pop culture. In one video, Sarkeesian unpacks the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope – “the shining beacon of childlike joy” that exists solely for the hero’s happiness. (Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown; Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer; Natalie Portman in Garden State.) In another video, Sarkeesian talks about the “strategic butt coverings” of female video game characters. Video game designers, Sarkeesian argues, go to great lengths to actively discourage players from identifying with female characters like Lara Croft by routinely positioning them as objects of desire. “If you want to get to know a character – learn about their interests, goals or desires – their butt is probably not going to give you that information.”
Sarkeesian delivers these commentaries – both on screen and in real life – with clarity and shrewdness. Her analysis is grounded in a deep knowledge, and appreciation, of her subject matter. The only thing she doesn’t do is try and be funny. The somberness isn’t by choice, more a forced result of years of harassment from a vitriolic group of online trolls and harassers who have systematically hacked her social media accounts, reported her to the FBI and IRS as a terrorist and fraudster, and barraged her with a neverending stream of rape and death threats.
Sarkeesian figured cutting the humor from her videos would give her harassers one less thing to attack – not that this saved her from becoming one of the main targets of Gamergate, the 2014 online movement that purportedly sought to expose the ethical shortcomings of video game journalism but which quickly turned into a targeted hate campaign against women and minority groups in the video game industry. It was aided by influential alt-righters like Adam Baldwin and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who sought to capitalize on the movement’s anti-feminist message.
When microprocessor giant Intel was accused of endorsing Gamergate after it pulled advertising from video game website Gamasutra in late 2014, the company sought to make amends by announcing a $300 million fund over five years to help improve diversity in the tech industry. This included undisclosed donations to organizations like Girls Who Code, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – and Feminist Frequency. “Thanks @Intel for stepping up to lead by example and take real action in addressing rampant gender disparity within the technology industry,” Sarkeesian tweeted after the announcement.
Although she can’t disclose the amount she received from Intel, Sarkeesian has spent the past two years quietly putting it to good use. She hired a small staff and established Feminist Frequency as a nonprofit organization, with the aim of extending the site’s reach. Last year, she rented her first office space in San Francisco. That’s as specific as Sarkeesian dares to be: in August 2014, a harasser tracked down Sarkeesian’s address and posted it online. Sarkeesian notified the police and left her home. She’s since stopped giving away too many personal details.
I was the most annoying person to be around – I’d be like, ‘That’s racist, that’s sexist, that’s homophobic’
One afternoon in early March, Sarkeesian gathered her team around a large boardroom table in the back office to discuss Feminist Frequency’s new series, "The FREQ Show" – which will premiere May 4. The site’s managing editor, Carolyn Petit, commutes from Oakland. She handles a lot of the content on the website, including writing film and video game reviews. The other employees work remotely: Ashley Fellows, the site’s fundraising coordinator, lives in Philadelphia. Ebony Aster, the operations director, is in LA. Everyone was in town for the annual Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), where Sarkeesian was scheduled to give a talk.
The women begin by discussing the format of the new show, which will go beyond pop culture to look at the current political climate, immigration, health care, and the justice system. “After Trump was elected, I was like wait – are we really going to keep talking about video games?” Sarkeesian tells me later. What Sarkeesian calls the “so what” of the new show will remain the same as Feminist Frequency’s past work: giving viewers the language to discuss important social issues through a feminist lens. But should the show be reactionary? Or should it be more like a John Oliver segment – a deep dive into a particular topic?
“If we’re producing work regularly, that will be a surprise to everyone, including ourselves,” Sarkeesian jokes. (Past Feminist Frequency videos have not been published with any kind of regularity, in large part due to the fact that up until recently Sarkeesian has had to do most of the scripting, shooting and editing herself, in-between speaking engagements and consulting work.)
Sarkeesian asks the others: “We’ve always been pop culture, and this is a drastic change from that. Are we shifting our organizational focus completely?”
“I love that we ask hard questions, and we ask other people to do that too,” Astor says.
“From a fundraising perspective, I’m hesitant to change organizational direction [of FF] based on new programming: sponsors want stability,” Fellows replies. “We have an established identity.”
Sarkeesian thinks about this for a minute. “I think we can kick things up a notch and be a media channel,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “I think of this as a group thing now. It’s no longer just about what I want.”
ANARCHY IN THE O.C.
It’s hard to overstate the gratitude those who have experienced online or public harassment feel towards Sarkeesian. At events like GDC, where she is instantly recognizable, people approach her all the time. Most of the time it’s to say “Thank you”, followed by some version of, “You gave me courage to do X.” Sometimes, men will come up to her and apologize on behalf of their gender. Some developers ask her if she can review their games and check for any problematic representations. Women who approach her tend to talk about how they feel alienated in online spaces. A lot of women thank her for making feminism accessible to them.
Sarkeesian is always polite and humble during these interactions, if a little restrained. She smiles, shakes hands, hugs. But the years of harassment means she’s naturally guarded. The one exception is when she’s around her friends. The rare glimpses into her goofiness are worth the wait. I join Sarkeesian at a GDC cocktail lunch celebrating women in games, where almost everyone she bumps into seems to be a close friend or acquaintance. Sarkeesian is undoubtedly in her element, gossiping about GDC parties and flagging down floating trays of mini quiches. At one point, she mentions the fact her cat, Tig, has her own Instagram account. Later, a young lady in a bright red dress approaches Sarkeesian and says, timidly, “I’m super proud of you. I just wanted to say that.” Sarkeesian beams, and hugs her. “What’s your name?”
Sarkeesian grew up in the suburbs outside of Toronto. Her parents immigrated from Iraq in their twenties. “Being the child of Middle Eastern immigrants shaped my politics in very different ways to my peers,” she tells me. This included a healthy skepticism for the American press. “We’d watch [news reports on the Gulf War] on TV, and my parents were horrified because my family was being bombed, while my white American friends sat around cheering.”
Sarkeesian’s father, a computer engineer, taught her how to build PCs. Later, he introduced her to internet chatrooms, and Sarkeesian would stay up until the early hours of the morning talking to strangers. “There was a ton of that ‘strangers on the internet will abduct your kids’ fear, but my parents didn’t monitor what I did online, so it didn’t actively affect me,” she says.
She taught herself how to make websites by building GeoCities fan pages, most of them for the singer Courtney Love. When she was 15, the family moved to Orange County, California. The move wasn’t easy on Sarkeesian, and she responded by getting into drugs – acid, ecstasy, cocaine – shaving her head, and listening to punk. She might have even stopped showering. “I didn’t look good, but that was the point.” She fell in with the alternative crowd at school, made a bunch of queer friends, and began rallying around gay rights. She delivered her first political speech in a grade 11 English class, lambasting an earlier version of California’s Prop 22, the precursor to Prop 8, which invalidated same-sex marriage in the state.
But the real activism didn’t kick off until community college. At the time, campus politics was mobilized around the Iraq War, and Sarkeesian found herself attending marches and sit-ins on everything from immigrant rights to climate change. “I was the most annoying person to be around – I’d be like, ‘That’s racist, that’s sexist, that’s homophobic’.” She discovered feminist politics through the works of authors like bell hooks and Allan Johnson. She was struck by how easily hooks was able to break down dense academic theory into ideas that Sarkeesian – with no prior knowledge of feminism – was able to understand. Whenever hooks tried to talk about philosophical theory in her classes, her students’ eyes would glaze over. “And then she’d say ‘Fine, then let’s talk about this movie.’ And suddenly, her students would sit up and pay attention,” Sarkeesian says. “You have to meet people where they are.”
It was Sarkeesian’s first attempt at putting into practice what she’d learned from bell hooks
Sarkeesian slowly began integrating her activism into her school projects. She wrote a paper for her rhetorics class on military ships and planes with macho names like Tomahawk and Falcon and Black Hawk, arguing they had been specifically chosen to invoke particular notions of masculinity and aggression. After graduating, she moved to New York with her sister. They rented a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights. During the day, while her sister was at work, Sarkeesian contacted local student activist groups. She began attending meetings and rallies. She discovered she had a knack for media training – getting the press interested in the whatever cause the groups she hung out with were rallying around. She began using video to document instances of non-violent action in order to paint a sympathetic portrait of the causes she supported: people locking onto buildings, climbing up flagpoles, and so on. “I became very interested in how to get the message bigger,” she tells me.
A year later, she was accepted to grad school in Canada and moved back to Toronto. She sunk all her time into her thesis, which, thanks to her harassers, is available online in its entirety.
It was Sarkeesian’s first attempt at putting into practice what she’d learned from bell hooks – making feminism more accessible through pop culture. As her subject matter, Sarkeesian picked characters on her favorite sci-fi television shows: Sarah Connor from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Zoe Washburne from Firefly, Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica. While all these are typically considered strong female characters, Sarkeesian argued they are only regarded as such because they have been assigned characteristics and traits that are considered male: aggressiveness, assertiveness, intelligence. None really possess traits that are considered feminine: empathy, cooperation, compassion. The only one that comes even close is Buffy – she may solve her problems through violence, but at least she doesn’t use her sexuality to accomplish her goals.
Sarkeesian is the first to admit she has the same impulse watching these characters as many other women – watching a woman be strong, powerful and commanding is immediately gratifying. “It’s just that I turn on my critical lens and see the problems. And the problems are that our perceptions of power and strength are patriarchal.”
It’s possible to listen to Sarkeesian’s feminist analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and come away with a greater understanding of both Buffy and feminism. Her command of her pop-culture subjects probably stems from the fact that she geeks out over this stuff as much as anyone else. She can spend hours talking about Joss Whedon’s Firefly, or explaining why the character Aloy in Sony's open-world sci-fi epic Horizon Zero Dawn give us some reason to be hopeful for the future of female representation in video games.
This, in large part, is why she’s been so successful at getting people to listen. The first video Sarkeesian made was about Twilight. She set up a small Canon Camcorder in a corner of her one-bedroom apartment in Toronto and used an old tungsten studio light she borrowed from a friend. “Ladies, I’d really like to chat about this whole Twilight craze,” she began, smiling at the camera. “First off, Edward’s a stalker – not sexy. He’s controlling – also not sexy.” As for Bella: “She has no interests, no hobbies – she really has no self worth.”
Sarkeesian launched Feminist Frequency in 2009 with a short video about Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. She was peeved that Fox had chosen to renew the show over Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which she argued had more nuanced characters and better storytelling. (Not to mention the show was about a kickass single mom.)
Later, she made a video about the Bechdel test, which assesses whether a work of fiction meets certain criteria for female representation: namely, the requirement that there are at least two female characters, who have names, and who talk to each other about something other than a male character. The video is only two minutes long. Sarkeesian spends the first minute explaining what the Bechdel test is, and then the second minute showing posters of films that don’t pass the test – at one point, she gets up, grabs and apple and sits back down, eating it while the examples continue to roll on in the background. The video – short, snappy, funny – was widely shared.
Sarkeesian began thinking about an ongoing series: except this time, instead of highlighting television shows or films that misrepresented women, she would identify several recurring tropes, therefore giving her viewers the power – and language – to do their own detective work. Tropes vs. Women, produced by Sarkeesian for Bitch Media, a Portland-based feminist media organization, launched in March 2011 with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl video.
When Tropes vs Women ended, Sarkeesian wanted to do a new show: the same format, but specifically for female representations in video games. She’d always been interested in games, and saw an opportunity to contribute a strong feminist analysis – something that had, up to that point, been sorely lacking. The only problem was that she was running out of money. She was self-funding the videos in-between other jobs and making them in her living room. She didn’t want to put ads on the videos and the donation button on the Feminist Frequency website had so far failed to yield anything significant.
They were ugly, violent threats of sexual abuse and rape. So she decided to write about it.
Sarkeesian wondered if Kickstarter could work. The crowdfunding platform was starting to take off and, with her small but loyal following, she thought she could safely raise at least $6,000. On May 17, 2012, she launched a Kickstarter campaign for Tropes vs Women in Video Games. “I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented,” Sarkeesian wrote on the project’s front page. She hit her target within 24 hours. Excited, she realized that she hadn’t told her YouTube subscribers – which only numbered around 25K at the time – about the Kickstarter campaign, so she made a quick video about it and posted it on the Feminist Frequency channel.
“And that’s when things went to shit.”
Sarkeesian geeks out as much over games as the films and television shows she critiques. She mostly plays in the Feminist Frequency office, on a large flatscreen in the back office next to a Joust arcade cabinet, which she snagged from a local record store. Most recently, she’s been obsessing over Night in the Woods, an indie adventure game focused on exploration and storytelling. “I definitely play games for fun – but I'm more selective about it since I have such limited free time,” Sarkeesian says. “At the same time, all media that I watch or play factors into my work as a critic – how could it not?”
It was clear from the barrage of comments on that Kickstarter video that something had shifted. It wasn’t that Sarkeesian hadn’t come across patronizing or sexist YouTube comments before. But these weren’t your typical get-back-in-the-kitchen jabs. They were ugly, violent threats of sexual abuse and rape. So she decided to write about it. On June 10, 2012, she posted on Feminist Frequency: “I went back and forth about whether or not to share this publicly because I don’t want to inadvertently encourage this kind of behavior or scare other women into staying silent out of fear something similar may happen to them. But ultimately I’ve decided I’m going to document and strategically share what is happening to me because these types of online harassment tactics are used against women, feminists and people from oppressed and marginalized groups every day.”
She documented the rape and death threats. She detailed how someone had vandalized her Wikipedia page, rerouting the external links to pornography sites and adding a drawing of a woman with a penis in her mouth. “I’d just like to reiterate that this is not a trivial issue,” Sarkeesian wrote. “It can not and should not be brushed off by saying, ‘Oh well that’s YouTube for you’, ‘Trolls will be trolls’ or ‘It’s to be expected on the internet’.”
“Back then, nobody took you seriously when you said you were being harassed online – the best advice was to just ignore it, it’s just boys being boys, etc,” Sarkeesian tells me later. “There was no media coverage of it. It wasn’t a thing. But I was like, 'fuck this, we’re going to talk about this and I’m going to show you what happens.”
Her harassers responded in turn. Her social media accounts were hacked. A discussion board appeared on 4Chan, the internet’s “greatest factory of memes and mayhem”, as David Kushner once put it, dedicated to tracking Sarkeesian’s online movements. Someone contacted Kickstarter to try and get Sarkeesian’s campaign taken down for fraud. She began receiving child pornography in the mail, images of mutilated female bodies and pictures of herself being raped by video game characters. Some men would print out photos of her, ejaculate on them, and send them to her. An online game, called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian, invited players to repeatedly punch and ‘bruise’ an image of Sarkeesian’s face.
Sarkeesian turned off comments on her YouTube channel. She slowly learned to differentiate between different levels of rape and death threats. The sheer amount directed at her over social media meant it was impossible to report them all. Plus, the Kickstarter had ended by now – with just under $160,000 raised – which meant she had to deliver on what she’d promised. It took her eight months to make the first Tropes vs Women in Video Games video. It was 25 minutes long and examined the Damsel in Distress trope, a widely used cliche in gaming, in which a female character is placed in a dangerous situation and must be rescued by a male character. “I felt there was so much pressure on these videos to be absolutely perfect,” Sarkeesian says.
The 2014 Game Developers Choice Awards – an annual industry awards night held in San Francisco as part of the Game Developers Conference – was almost called off because the organizers received an anonymous bomb threat in protest of Sarkeesian receiving an ambassador award for her work on the Tropes vs. Video Games series. “There is a sentiment in these spaces that games are for men,” Sarkeesian says. “The games industry has perpetuated that. There’s a sense that these boys were bullied in school and games saved them and they didn’t get the hot women and the jobs and so video games are their thing and how dare women come into their space. But we were bullied, too. And we’ve been also playing and making games since the beginning.”
As the harassment increased, so too did the support. Mainstream media outlets began covering Sarkeesian’s story; messages of encouragement flowed in from all corners of the internet. Video game developers began contacting Sarkeesian, asking her for help. “I watched a bunch of women get sliced up in video games and now I’m watching it on my twitter feed. @femfreq is just truth-telling. Deal,” Joss Whedon tweeted.
When Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt-righters began drumming up support for Gamergate and championing the abuse of female game developers and critics, a lot of women turned to Sarkeesian for help. Once, in an effort to draw fire away from Zoe Quinn – the game developer at the heart of the Gamergate firestorm – Sarkeesian began tweeting jokes about the feminist illuminati. In October 2014, she was forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University after an anonymous email to the school threatened a mass school shooting if her talk went ahead. “She is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU,” the email read. Sarkeesian was almost at breaking point. “There have been only one or two moments where I’ve thought about giving up. This was one of them.”
The Utah incident attracted nationwide media attention. Articles on Sarkeesian appeared on CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. Sarkeesian, who was teaching some communications classes at a local community college, had to politely ask her students not to tell the internet that she was their teacher. Later that month, she appeared on The Colbert Report. “Let’s call this what it is,” Colbert began, leaning across his desk. “You and the other femi-nazis in the gamer world are coming for our balls to snip them off, put them into a little felt purse and take them away so we have to play your non-violent games, right?”
Sarkeesian held it together. “Maybe the princess shouldn’t be a damsel, and maybe she could save herself?” she posited, raising one perfectly arched eyebrow at Colbert. When the cheers from the crowd finally subsided, Colbert rolled his eyes. “I didn’t know you bought a posse,” he said. Sarkeesian smiled and shrugged. “I’m well liked.”
Looking beyond the lunatic fringe of threats and accusations, it’s possible to find measured, well-reasoned critical responses to Sarkeesian's work. A common complaint seems to be that the harassment campaign around her has drowned out any valuable criticism of her work – like the point, frequently raised, that it's not just women who are harassed in online spaces. "Feminist Frequency frequently addresses the depictions of sexualized violence against women in video games. It doesn't compare and contrast them with the instances in the very same games where men are victims of abuse as well," one critic wrote.
Others have found Sarkeesian's analysis as too shallow, arguing it doesn't try hard enough to preach beyond the choir. Longer, more academic deconstructions have pointed out that Sarkeesian's critique – especially of video games – fails to take context into account. "Sarkeesian never attempts to justify her criticism of video game tropes on the grounds that they lead to bad games, or poorly told stories, but rather with the utilitarian argument that these tropes damage society too much for any story, no matter how well told, to include them," wrote another critic.
When Ola Rogula, a female game developer, posted one of Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games videos on her Facebook page, she was surprised to discover a lot of the negative feedback on the video came from female users. She decided to try and investigate why and came to the conclusion that while she agreed with Sarkeesian's analysis on the representation of women in video games, she was disturbed by the implication that this was because video game developers themselves are sexist. She argued that perhaps the problem was more to do with the lack of female developers in the industry, something she acknowledged was happening more and more, especially in the indie scene.
Sarkeesian acknowledges some feedback she's received has been useful: when she used the term "both genders" in one video, for example, she was told this was reductive. She now uses the term "all genders". "It is important to me, that we don't get trapped in a bubble or are releasing work that is wrong, offensive or is not accessible," she says.
In recent years, Sarkeesian has been invited to speak at – and in some cases consult for – a number of high profile game development studios, including Destiny creators Bungie, Ubisoft, makers of The Division, and Call of Duty publisher Activision. She’s not allowed to say much more than this due to non-disclosure agreements, but in general, these consulting gigs consist of giving feedback on character and story, pointing out any potential pitfalls that could reinforce harmful stereotypes, and offering solutions. “You can see in the games coming out now that they’re trying to do better,” she tells me. “Some studios are paying attention – that’s new. Having the press report about representational issues and asking developers about women – that’s also new.”
Neil Druckmann, creative director and writer at the award-winning Santa Monica studio Naughty Dog, has often spoken publicly about his support for Sarkeesian and the influence her work has had on Naughty Dog games. He presented Sarkeesian with the 2014 Game Developers Choice Ambassador Award. “Anita’s work was highly influential in my approach to writing for The Last of Us – greatly improving its story,” Druckmann said as he introduced Sarkeesian. “Many developers now have a greater understanding of character tropes and the shortcomings they can lead to.”
Sarkeesian’s work helped Druckmann avoid cliches when designing the character of Ellie in the post-apocalyptic The Last of Us. This extended to the promotion of the game: Druckmann says his team had a number of “back and forths” with publisher Sony about Ellie appearing in all the trailers for the game as well as front and center on the box art after one of the early proposals for a trailer suggested that Ellie not be included. Later, Druckmann asked for Sarkeesian’s opinion on the story elements of The Last of Us: Left Behind. “There’s been a huge shift in thinking and talking about diversity [in the games industry], and it’s in large part thanks to Anita’s work,” Druckmann tells me, pointing to Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last of Us Part II and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy – games with multimillion dollar advertising campaigns, all starring female characters. “The fact that the next Uncharted is starring two women of color goes to show how far we’ve come as a studio.”
On one of our last days together, I meet Sarkeesian for lunch at Brenda’s, one of her favorite cafes located in SF’s Tenderloin neighborhood. There’s a 20 minute wait for a table so we stand outside on the sidewalk. Sarkeesian is preparing for a few months of travel – mostly conferences and game studio visits. She was recently in Sweden to accept something called the Penguin Award, which recognizes individuals who have “acted with bravery and resilience in the face of opposition, in an effort to motivate and inspire others”.
it took a lot of people and turmoil and breakdowns, but I fucking did it and I am proud of that
Sarkeesian has been so used to working alone that it’s taken her a little while to get used to the idea of being a boss. When I first met her, in September last year, she had just started reading a book aimed at those in management positions about having difficult conversations with employees. “Oh no, that was a terrible book,” she says, when I ask her if she learned anything from it. A short time ago, one of the Feminist Frequency staff members asked her about the organization’s time off policy – Sarkeesian just made one up on the spot. When Aster came on board, she asked Sarkeesian how often they would have one-on-one meetings. Sarkeesian shrugged – she had no idea. So she started organizing regular staff meetings. She now has “five minute dailies” with Aster to talk about the day-to-day running of the organization. “It’s taken a lot of work for me to say, yes I am a boss and that means that my employees are going to interact with me in a specific way,” she tells me. “I think the longer [Petit, Aster and Fellows] are with me, the more they realize that when I say I want feedback, I mean it. Every decision we make, me make collectively.”
She mentions she’s halfway through wrapping up the script for the last Tropes vs Women in Video Games video. “I will have finally completed what I promised to do [in the Kickstarter campaign]. And it took a lot of people and turmoil and breakdowns, but I fucking did it and I am proud of that.”
A few weeks ago, a Seattle radio station emailed Feminist Frequency asking to interview Aster about her review of the film Get Out. It’s the first time the media has asked to interview someone other than Sarkeesian. “It was a big moment,” Sarkeesian says. “It really means Feminist Frequency is finally moving beyond me.”
After her GDC talk, Sarkeesian visited the indie game booths to film a video segment for the Feminist Frequency website. These videos are more fun and relaxed, and Sarkeesian allows herself to be unscripted. (The video starts off with Sarkeesian and Petit getting lost. “Well shit, we don’t know where we’re going!” Sarkeesian yells into the camera.)
Her first stop is Tacoma, the upcoming game from developer Fullbright. “The game takes place in a spaceship, in the future, and I think one of the primary characters is a woman of color – which is pretty awesome.” The studio’s previous game, Gone Home, is one of Sarkeesian’s favorite games. “The thing with Gone Home was that there was no combat mechanics and no puzzle mechanics – it was entirely environmental storytelling.”
Next, Sarkeesian visits an alternative control exhibit, full of games with weird and unusual control schemes. Sarkeesian wanted to try Space Box, designed by a team from Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center. Players sit down in a cardboard box and use their body to move it around in order to control an on-screen spaceship. The objective is to avoid asteroids. Sarkeesian sits down in the box and is handed a “helmet”: a stainless steel colander with pipe cleaners, which contains a pair of headphones emitting "pew pew" sound effects. Later, she spends entirely too much time playing Stardew Valley, an indie farming simulator. “Stardew Valley is awesome and I hate it because I was like ‘Oh, I’m just going to check out this game and like, 30 hours later, I was still playing it.”
Later that day, I join her for a demo of a new virtual reality game, which involves players pulling out their own teeth with a variety of realistic looking dental equipment. “I’m finally relearning how to be a human in the world again,” she says, when I ask her if she’s having fun. “I don’t want to be forever known as a victim.”