For those who follow the video game industry and its community, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian is a familiar figure. Her video series "Tropes vs Women in Video Games" analyzes how women are represented in games past and present.
Sarkeesian is also known for the amount of backlash she receives for her criticism. This week, she canceled a talk at Utah State University after the school received an email that threatened a "Montreal Massacre style attack" at her presentation.
Sarkeesian was scheduled to talk on Wednesday and didn't find out about the threats until she landed in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Tim Vitale, the executive director of public relations and marketing at USU, told NPR that they'd planned extra security and sweeps for explosive devices after they received the threat on Monday. But because of Utah's concealed carry laws, he says, they could not restrict those with permits from carrying a firearm to the event, and that's what ultimately drove Sarkeesian to cancel her talk.
"We still think we had everything in place to ensure a safe environment," he says.
Vitale says he understands Sarkeesian's concerns regarding Utah's gun law in light of the threats against her. But that is a debate yet to be had, he says, and perhaps this incident will "spur that debate to happen more quickly." He says the threat is still under investigation by local law enforcement and the FBI.
The threats against Sarkeesian and other women in the gaming industry are part of a larger ongoing debate about sexism, misogyny and harassment in the video game community. These issues have been running parallel with the #Gamergate movement, an effort that claims to be squarely focused on ethics in video game journalism but often intersects with these incidents of harassment and threats.
This strife in the billion-dollar gaming industry has now vaulted out of the niche gaming press and into the mainstream. The New York Times gave it front-page treatment after these most recent threats against Sarkeesian. She spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about her history of harassment and why she thinks she, and women like her, are such targets by certain segments of the gaming community.
On why she canceled her Utah State University appearance
I eventually got on the phone with the police at Utah State University and they informed me that they would not allow for backpacks and have additional security there. When I asked them about Utah's concealed weapon laws, they informed me that they couldn't do any kind of screening for weapons, which was a little mind-boggling to me, because the threat received was very reminiscent of sort of copycat killers of these misogynist massacres that had been done previously. I was like, 'Can you at least have metal detectors or do pat-downs?' And they refused to do that. So I declined and canceled the event because I felt like that was too high of a risk to put me and the students in.
On her critique of how women are portrayed in video games
Sadly, it's actually kind of worse than I thought it was going to be when I initially started this [Tropes vs. Women] project. Often women are framed as helpless or they're prizes to be won or they're highly sexualized male fantasies. The other piece of this too is that there's this enormous amount of violence against women that's used in these games often times as sort of set dressing. Just in the background these women are hurt or beaten up just to make the world seem more gritty. These representations are really harmful to women, and so we're asking for better representations and better stories having more female protagonists that are full and complete characters.
On her history with harassment
Since I announced that I was going to be doing a video series specifically looking at the representations of women in video games I have been attacked, and ultimately terrorized, for two years because of this series. Everything from my social media accounts flooded with misogynist and racist slurs to trying to hack into my social media and email. ...
Oftentimes there are very specific rape threats ... that are also connected to my home address or attacks on my parents and my colleagues and their families as well, so they kind of go after everyone in my vicinity. And I'm not the only woman being attacked right now in games. There have been a number of other women who are fearing for their lives and leaving their homes because they're receiving threats as well. So this is actually a larger problem within the gaming community right now.
On why she thinks this is happening in the gaming community
In some ways there are some men who have gravitated toward gaming culture because they have been rejected by this larger, alpha male culture. The problem with that is that gaming allows them to fulfill that role — the alpha male role — the macho testosterone posturing you get in a lot of these big, AAA [big-budget] games. So they're actually kind of re-perpetuating that alpha male culture by attacking people that they perceive to be weaker than them. So they're going after women, they're going after queer folks, they're going after trans folks, and especially anyone who speaks up and is critical in any way about gaming.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
You can carry a gun just about anywhere in Utah if you have a permit. And the state's Right-to-Carry law was back in the news this past week. Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist cultural critic. Ever since she started hosting a web series calling attention to women's portrayals in the videogame industry, she's received vicious threats. Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday. The University received anonymous death threats, massacre threats actually. That's never swayed Sarkeesian before. This time though, she canceled the event because police said they wouldn't stop people from bringing their guns, citing the state's concealed carry laws. Anita Sarkeesian found out about the threats when she landed in Salt Lake City.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: I eventually got on the phone with the police at Utah State University and they informed me that they were going to check - not allow for backpacks and have additional security there. And when I asked them about Utah's concealed weapon laws, they informed me that they couldn't do any kind of screening for weapons, which was a little mind-boggling to me because the threat received was very reminiscent of sort of copycat killers of these - you know misogynist massacres that had been done previously.
And so they said - you know, I was like well, can you at least have metal detectors or pat downs? And they refused to do that. So I declined and cancelled the event because I felt like that was too high of a risk to put me and the students in.
RATH: Now, this is not the first time you've been threatened. Can you talk about how you've been receiving threats recently?
SARKEESIAN: Yeah. Well, since I announced that I was going to be doing a video series specifically looking at the representations of women in video games, I have been attacked and ultimately terrorized for two years because of this series. So everything from, you know, my social media accounts flooded with misogynist and racist slurs to trying to hack into my - you know, my social media and e-mail.
RATH: And people can go online if they want to get a sense of this because these threats are really - I mean, they're vile. They're specific. They're the things - we couldn't read them on the radio - couldn't even come close.
SARKEESIAN: Yes. Oftentimes, there are very specific rape threats, which are a highly illustrative that are also connected to like my home address or, you know, like attacks on my parents and my colleagues and their families, as well.
And, you know, I am not the only woman being attacked right now in games. There have been a number of other women who are fearing for their lives and leaving their homes because they're receiving threats as well. So this is actually a larger problem within the gaming community right now.
RATH: So what is it with the gaming community that, you know, gets to this level of nastiness and misogyny online?
SARKEESIAN: Yeah, I get asked that a lot.
RATH: I'm sure.
SARKEESIAN: And it's a really good question that I think is pretty complicated. But, you know, one of the things is that in some ways, you know, there are some men who have gravitated towards gaming culture because they've been rejected by sort of this larger alpha-male culture. But the problem with that is that gaming allows them to sort of fulfill that role of the alpha-male role, right - the macho testosterone kind of posturing that you get in a lot of these sort of big AAA games.
And so they're actually kind of re-perpetuating that alpha-male culture by attacking people that they perceive to be weaker than them. So they're going after women. They're going after queer folks. They're are going after trans folks and especially anyone who speaks up and is critical in any way, you know, about gaming.
RATH: Can you give us a little bit of your - the critique as you've made it of videogames?
SARKEESIAN: Often women are framed as helpless. Or they're prizes to be won. Or they're highly sexualized sort of male fantasies. The other piece of this too, is that there is an enormous amount of violence against women that's used in these games, often times just a sort of set dressing, just like in the background. These women are hurt or beaten up just to make the world seem more gritty. These representations are really harmful to women. And so, you know, we're asking for better representations and better stories having more female protagonists that are like full and complete characters.
RATH: Anita Sarkeesian created the media criticism site Feminist Frequency. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Anita, thanks so much.
SARKEESIAN: Thank you.
RATH: We also reached out to Tim Vitale. He's the Executive Director of PR and marketing at Utah State University. He explained the University's response.
TIM VITALE: When we got the threat, we started adding extra security measures. We were going to sweep the rooms for explosive devices and any other weapons and enclose it. We added police officers who were going to come to the event. We were not going to allow backpacks or large packs that could carry the weaponry that the person alleged to have in the e-mail - large caliber rifles and pipe bombs and other explosive devices. We thought we had, and we still think we had, everything in place to ensure a safe environment.
RATH: Would people have been allowed though to bring guns to the event?
VITALE: Yes. Utah state law says that if a person has a legal concealed carry permit, they are allowed to attend public events. And we are not allowed to restrict the lawful possession or carrying of a firearm.
RATH: Anita Sarkeesian was going to be giving a speech. There had been threats which you also considered serious. Can you understand her fear and not wanting to come to the event knowing that people would be allowed to bring firearms there?
VITALE: Absolutely. There is some debate going on now and this is starting to get some air time in the state - what should our state laws say? But that's a debate to be had. Maybe this will spur that debate to happen more quickly. We're certainly looking at that. This is important to us, too.
RATH: That's Tim Vitale from Utah State University. He says that local law enforcement and the FBI are still looking into the matter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.