Feminists in Games Meet in Vancouver

by | June 5, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Pop Culture

Emily and Anita Sarkeesian

Emily and Anita Sarkeesian

by Emily Yakashiro

This past weekend I attended the second annual Feminists in Games conference here in Vancouver. I’m personally not much of a gamer (although I spend a lot of time encouraging murderous plants to take down zombies), but I attended out of interest in supporting feminist media. Furthermore, I was keen to hear about the many gendered and sexist aspects of the gaming community, most infamously highlighted by Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, who was a keynote speaker at this two-day event.

Unbeknownst to me when I registered for the event, the conference had a mission of not only supporting feminists already involved in the games industry, but to also show to those who don’t identify as feminists the importance of this philosophy and movement when doing this type of work. As such, discussions of what feminism is, and its significance to the creation of interactive media were at the forefront of many conversations over the weekend.

Of particular interest was the apparent tension between different understandings of feminisms across the generations of conference attendees. The opening of the second day saw an inspiring reminder that while yes, differences exist, intergenerational dialogue on experiences with sexism and workplace discrimination are integral to maintaining sustainability of this relatively small community. 

Not only is it possible for women of different generations to work together on games, it has already had compelling results. One example is PsXXyborg, an experiential art game from Emma Westecott, Hannah Epstein, Alex Leitch and others who weren’t able to attend the conference. PsXXyborg is a heady mix of psychedelic art, feminist theory and appropriately disorienting questions to guide the player through the experience, which, according to its creators, is ultimately a project of reclaiming cyberfeminism. The innovation and cooperation of this team seemed to be headed by Westecotte, who has over 15 years of experience in the games industry, but she refuted this assumption, stating that the PsXXYborg team was “lead by Hannah’s art,” destabilizing assumptions of leadership based on age.

In considering intergenerational differences, I was further inspired by the incredibly well-spoken Katherine Cross (seriously–she should  be President), PhD candidate, co-editor at The Border House and blogger behind Nuclear Unicorn, who noted in a wrap-up discussion that her identity as a woman of trans experiences was in fact very much inspired by second wave feminism, an epoch of feminist history that often seems to have a particularly bad reputation these days. This statement seemed to resonate in the room, and at the very least caused me to check my own assumptions about second-wave feminists.

Something that struck me as rather odd about this conference was the lack of Canadian speakers and context: the majority of the speakers were from the U.S. or Europe. This may seem like a relatively minor detail, but it was cause for my confusion in some cases. For example, there were a lot of references to things not all that relevant to the Canadian experience, like stories about the American military. While Canadian experiences and the experiences of oppressed persons are invariably interwoven, it just struck me as somewhat odd to discuss at a Canadian conference that takes place either in Toronto (as it was last year) or Vancouver, and is funded by the SSHRC. All this considered, it was a breath of fresh air when Harsha Walia and Sozan Savehilaghi, two Vancouver-based activists with No One Is Illegal participated in a panel discussion about feminism and its applicability to creation of feminist games. It was good to hear Walia remind us of the unceded Coast Salish territories we were all meeting on, and refer to events and projects happening in this city.

For me, the highlight of the conference was seeing keynote speaker Anita Sarkeesian. She presented a version of her TED Talk, speaking about her experiences with extreme sexual harassment from massive, misogynistic cybermobs whose focus was to bring down her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter project (she succeeded, by the way, raising nearly thirty times the amount she’d asked for!).

Having seen her TED Talk previously, and having followed her case closely, I was not expecting to be as shocked to hear her talk live as I was. Let me emphasize: I have a background in anti-violence work, and as such, have heard some pretty difficult things in my time. So when I say how hearing about Sarkeesian’s experiences with harassment and violence was particularly upsetting for me, it indicates the extent to which Sarkeesian has been targeted by absolutely horrific acts of misogyny. Her triumph has not ended the fight; the harassment is ongoing even today and it speaks to the very deeply-entrenched sexism and sense of male entitlement that women involved in the media deal with daily.

Coming out of this event, I have renewed appreciation for women and feminists who are involved in creating video games. Whether it is workplace discrimination, disappearing funding, or general dismissal of their intellect and experience, the women that I saw speak at the conference were absolutely remarkable in their tenacity to continue making media from a feminist perspective; their work is invaluable, and I can’t wait to hear and see more from these talented activists, critics, and scholars.

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