Sarkeesian, a lifelong gamer and trained media scholar, first came into the limelight with her 2012 Kickstarter for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a Web series exploring common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games, such as damsels in distress, or “Ms. Male Character.” The videos are produced under the aegis of her nonprofit, Feminist Frequency, which has expanded its operations to a wider range of advocacy for women who make, appear in, and play games. Their latest video, above, highlights Sword & Sworcery EP‘s protagonist, the Scythian as the first in a series of positive female characters in video games.
As the medium of gaming has matured, so too has the subject matter of games. The cultural footprint of games has grown so much over the past few decades that it is starting to be weighed alongside other popular media such as film and television. Accordingly, criticism has started to mature, as well. Sarkeesian’s work is akin to Laura Mulvey in the 1970s, who theorized the role of the male gaze in popular film. Using the established framework of feminist theory, Sarkeesian is shedding new light on some of the inherent assumptions and biases in a video game industry that primarily targeted young men during its foundational decades. Unlike some of her academic forebears, however, Sarkeesian aims to bring these issues into popular discourse, using YouTube videos and accessible language to reach wider audiences.
The initial Kickstarter drew a substantial, misogynist backlash from defensive gamers who conflated criticism with the threat of censorship, and Sarkeesian became a major target of online harassment. Along with fellow critic Leigh Alexander and developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, Sarkeesian drew heat over the last year from the so-called GamerGate movement, which targeted outspoken women in the gaming community with online abuse and violent threats under the justification of an inquiry into the ethics of gaming journalism.
“A lesser person may throw up her hands and unplug her game console, but Anita is determined to ensure that video games are inclusive and representative of everyone who plays them. As her detractors grow increasingly unhinged, we have proof that her efforts are working,” Wheaton said in Time.
Previous gaming figures to grace Time’s list in recent years include Minecraft creators Markus Persson and Jens Bergensten in 2013, and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto in 2007, all listed under the Builders & Titans section. Sarkeesian is listed under Pioneers, alongside Serial host Sarah Koenig and Orange is the New Black actor Laverne Cox.