Anita Sarkeesian and Hitman

Adrian Chmielarz
Aug 19, 2015 · 13 min read

Anita Sarkeesian spoke about Hitman: Absolution at The Conference 2015 in Sweden. You can find the relevant fragment at around 14:20 here.

So a bunch of gamers are very unhappy about my analysis and alleged that my video is deliberately misleading. They claim the game does not encourage players to attack civilians but instead punishes players for such actions and therefore by showing footage of the player character killing exotic dancers that I was deceptively trying to make the game appear sexist. Everything about this claim is false.

In reality, everything about this claim is true.

This is an edited version of the original post. Initially, I thought that some gamers did get Hitman: Absolution’s score penalty wrong, because you can nullify the penalty by hiding the bodies. It was not the core of Sarkeesian’s accusation in the original video featuring the game, but I did believe she got that one side issue right.

I even attempted to explain why people made this “mistake”. Here’s how it went in the first version of this post:

In the original “Women as Background Decoration (Part 1)” video, Sarkeesian talks about Hitman in the context of murder. Right before the relevant fragment we hear this: “[Women’s] status as disposable objects is reinforced by the fact that in most games discarded bodies will simply vanish into thin air a short time after being killed.” Which is hilarious (corpses — both male and female, a fact that Sarkeesian never mentions — are removed in a game for performance/memory reasons, not because developers hate people), but nonetheless gets everyone locked in the murder zone.

Then in the Hitman segment there’s talk about desecrating bodies. And right after this we hear that: “[…] you just murdered a sexualized woman in cold blood.”

So even though the video showed the subdue feature at work, the lines read suggested that Sarkeesian talked about killing the strippers. And if you kill a civilian in Hitman: Absolution, the penalty is much higher than if you just knock them unconscious. Hiding the body will not be able to nullify such a move, your ratings will go down and achieving top ranks will be impossible.

But don’t get me wrong — even though I get why it happened, whoever lamented about the penalty issue in the Feminist Frequency’s video was wrong in this particular case.

But — it was me who was wrong, not gamers. After listening to the feedback I need to change my original assertion that “some gamers got it wrong” to “nope, they were right”. Allow me to explain.

Being able to recover from a penalty is not the same as not having a penalty. You can lose health in Doom, but no one sane would say that’s not a penalty because all you have to do to nullify the loss is to find a health pack.

The reason why both losing health in Doom and knocking civilians unconscious in Hitman are penalties is that the nullification process often puts you at risk.

In Doom, you can die before you reach the health pack, and even getting one might not get you back to full health. In Hitman, when you subdue a civilian and then start the mini-quest to hide the body, you are no longer in the shadows. You do not move quickly anymore, and you are exposed and in danger of being spotted, which not only lowers your score and denies rewards, but makes the mission itself that much harder.

It’s actually even worse, as if you are seen from afar and whoever spotted you comes to investigate, they will always magically find the hidden body and raise the alarm — as discussed here.

Health packs in Doom and body containers in Hitman exist to nullify the penalty, but both come with their own risks and challenges.

You may lose some health in Doom on purpose, for the greater good (e.g. take a few low damage shots from weaker enemies while focusing on eliminating a strong enemy first). You can do the same in Hitman: neutralize a civilian to gain advantage, e.g. grab a disguise. But to say that there’s no penalty for these actions because the nullification process exists, and to not address the risks of such process — well, that is simply wrong.

As a side note, I dislike the score system in Absolution. It creates conflict between a simulation (“be the hitman you want to be”) and a streamlined, forced experience (“be the hitman the designers want you to be”). I don’t hate it, as I get it that Hitman is not a general simulation of a hitman, but the simulation of a specific hitman, but I very much prefer the intrinsic motivation to the extrinsic one (read here on how Far Cry 4 did it right).

Some gamers never brought the issue of the score penalty anyway, because that’s actually not the real problem with Feminist Frequency’s claims. So let’s now talk about more important things.

For example, see how in this brand new 2015 speech, Sarkeesian no longer talks about attacking women, but about “attacking civilians” instead. Meanwhile, in the original video, the focus is almost entirely on attacking women. To someone who never or rarely plays video games, the video looked as if a man was never killed in a game. As if the misogynistic developers purposely filled the world exclusively with women, ones just waiting to be murdered by the player.

And this is exactly why gamers were correct in their assessment that Sarkeesian was, as she calls it, “deceptively trying to make the game appear sexist”. You knock down or simply murder infinitely more men than women in the Hitman series, and yet we never hear about it. And that is because it would render the whole “sexism” argument as nonsense. Sexism is a form of discrimination, and if it was revealed that our hitman does not discriminate between his victims, how could we peddle the “Hitman is an example of a sexist game” narrative?

Sarkeesian continues:

It’s common for strawman arguments like these to focus on minute details with are then blown out of proportion in an attempt to create a scandal. If you’re familiar with these kinds of games I’m going to get a tiny bit technical about game mechanics for a moment of it so bear with me.

I actually agree with the first sentence. A lot of people do. Dismissing an entire thing because of a single mistake or two is awful. This is what highly biased people use to ignore everything they disagree with, facts be damned.

However, we talk about such a small thing today because Sarkeesian herself has chosen this particular fragment of her old video to show how everybody criticizing it is wrong.

First, in my video the exotic dancers are not being killed, they’re being pacified — which is what the game calls it when you knock someone out without killing them. The game indicates this in the top left-hand corner of the screen. Next, the game does not punish players for non-lethal pacification. The point system in Hitman Absolution functions of a way to track performance stats. It has nothing to do with success or failure of the mission. All you need to do to pass a level is to kill your intended target and get out alive.

While the low score does not stop you from completing a mission, it does stop you from achieving a good rank, unlocking a reward, or earning an achievement.

The very fact that such achievements exist (e.g. “Silent Assassin“) shows that the developers do not just count on people trying to role-play as a “silent assassin”. They actually actively encourage it.

I mean, that is the whole ethos of the Hitman series, after all. The sequel was literally called “Silent Assassin”. Most people buying the game know exactly what the series is about. It’s not about a butcher, but a ghost — even if the game gives you options.

Emphasizing the fact that performance has nothing to do with reaching the end of a mission in Hitman is like saying that the quality of food does not matter, all that’s important is to be full.

Furthermore, the game provides ways to mitigate minor statistical penalties. In fact, if you keep watching my playthrough, you’ll notice that the 140 point pacification deduction is nullified when the unconscious bodies are hidden inside one of the many containers that the game designers have placed in each level for that purpose. Meaning, there is no penalty. This is really basic stuff in the Hitman series.

I discussed that earlier. “There is no penalty” is simply false.

Finally, the assertion that the game does not encourage players to attack civilians is simply incorrect. It most certainly does both implicitly and sometimes explicitly. Hitman Absolution is what’s called a sandbox game. That means it is designed to be played in many different ways.

So which is it: does the game encourage the players to attack civilians or is it a sandbox designed to be played in many different ways?

Note how Sarkeesian talks about “civilians” again. Meanwhile, in the original video…

The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon, because they were designed, constructed and placed in the environment for that singular purpose. Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.

It’s a rush streaming from a carefully concocted mix of sexual arousal connected to the act of controlling and punishing representations of female sexuality.

I know it may come as a shock to many people, but in general quite a lot of entities and objects are put in a game to be “acted upon”, i.e. interact with them.

More importantly, sandbox games are often simulations. Limited ones, as we still have millennia of technical and design progress ahead of us, but still — simulations.

It is extremely hard to force a reaction in a simulation. When the players reach the room with the strippers, the designer has no guarantee of their thoughts and behavior, and that is actually the whole point of the simulation.

And so, some players will kill the strippers, and some of them will love it and some of them will regret it. Some will knock the strippers unconscious, and some of them will like it, and some of them will not. And some — most, if YouTube Let’s Plays are any indication — will try to find a way to pass the room without being noticed, and all of them will love it.

There is some guidance from the developer, of course. I mean, this is not a game called Life in General, but a game called Hitman. When you purchase such a game, you expect that some virtual people will get hurt. But within these walls of a game about a professional hitman, a whole room of possibilities awaits. Be a mass murderer, or never hurt a civilian — it’s up to you.

As I mentioned it before, the game does try to move the needle towards the “good-hearted silent assassin” (score punishment for killing an innocent, achievements and unlocks for stealth, etc.), but there’s still enough freedom in the game to maintain a proper player agency and a sim tag.

Assuming that the strippers exist in a game for a “sexual arousal connected to the act of controlling and punishing representations of female sexuality” is a very unhealthy projection and tells me more about McIntosh and Sarkeesian than it does about the developers of the game.

Worse, it also exposes the lack of basic understanding of what a simulation video game is.

I mean, what is the alternative here? That we never show strip clubs in a game about a seedy underworld? That we remove women from the game? Or that attacking a woman always magically alerts both the police and the thugs?

Please explain to me how to make a simulation of an assassin in today’s world, one in which any negative interaction with another human being is severely punished and does not stop the game from being a plausible — even if the technology limits that plausibility — mirror of the reality.

For example, each level includes multiple ways to kill each target. It’s essentially a playground for creative violence. In fact, the only options provided for interaction with most characters are either murder them or subdue them.

Neutralizing NPCs is the core mechanic in the Hitman series. It’s often necessary in order to clear a path to objectives or prevent a character who has seen you for raising an alarm.

You know what are some other core mechanics? Disguises. Finding alternate entry and exit points. Sneaking. Hiding. So you can get past people without harming anybody.

In this stage, for example, there’s a specific challenge that explicitly encourages players to knock out a stripper and draw her body out of the line of sight. This action then allows the player to hide inside the stripper cake and wait for the targets to arrive before popping out and murdering them in slow-motion.

Another challenge requires the player to save two civilians. Not kill them, not subdue them, not avoid them. Save them. Can I cherry-pick that challenge and claim the game is about saving NPCs?

The whole point of the game is to offer a wide range of possibilities for experimentation which is why even if you murder civilians you don’t get a game over. Saying that this game doesn’t want players to interact with civilians in the only ways that are provided is like saying that GTA discourages players from stealing cars, because sometimes they get a police wanted level for doing so.

The developers obviously put a tremendous amount of work into designing and implementing these systems. They didn’t do so with the hope that no player will ever use them. As I said in my original video on the topic, game systems and everything in them including sexually objectified female characters exist to be played with. So there’s absolutely no truth to the allegation that I misrepresented this game.

Forgetting that the whole objectification nonsense for a second, who objectified these characters? Is Sarkeesian saying here that the strippers in the game are the creation of the developers, something invented? Is there any chance this is a representation of reality? That strip clubs with connections to the criminal underworld exist in our world? Or is that a silly fantasy?

But let’s go back to the misrepresentation:

Those who repeat these false claims do not understand my argument or perhaps more likely they’re just trying to pass off bad faith strawman argument as legitimate criticism, while making no real attempt to engage with the substance of my analysis.

On the contrary.

Sarkeesian cherry-picked the one thing from the Hitman segment that she thought some gamers got wrong, focused on it for three minutes, and whitewashed her own video by claiming it talked about “attacking civilians” and not “female bodies as things to be acted upon”.

The real problem everybody opposing these videos and this fragment in particular had, was that Hitman was presented as a sexist game. Presenting a fragment of the game without giving it context or top level view is exactly the misrepresentation that Sarkeesian dismisses.

With such an approach, I can take the desert section of Uncharted 3 and claim the game is like Dear Esther or Gone Home, or I can take the car scene of Titanic and claim the movie is soft pornography. It’s just not how logic and professional honesty work.

If we took a comprehensive look at Hitman and discussed whether it’s okay to produce a murder simulator or not — sure, that is a fine discussion and disagreements to have. But cherry-picking a fragment and consciously hiding a vital info — like the fact the hitman never cares what gender his victims are — is a textbook example of manipulation.

The sad thing is that Sarkeesian accuses their critics of “no real attempt to engage with the substance of my analysis”, which is not only a lie, but also exactly what she did in her speech. She took the easy target, a shallow issue — but even that was not enough, to help her case, she misrepresented her own original video — and never engaged “with the substance” of the critique, which was the disagreement that Hitman or its fragment is a good example of a sexist design.

Obviously, good faith, respectful, constructive criticism of women’s work can be useful and valuable. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Accusing women, who are in fact experts in their field, of ignorance or intentional deceit because you don’t like the conclusions they reach in their work is used as a way to discredit and discount perspectives that challenge the status quo. Automatically assuming ignorance when women speak on video games, technology, science, politics or other subjects typically associated with male-dominated arenas is a form of sexism.

Does sexism in the world exist? It does. Regrettably, it does. Like many other things that make our world worse. But in this case, the resistance towards whatever Feminist Frequency duo produces is not a result of sexism, but a result of actual knowledge of video games. Dismissing that critique as “sexist” is nothing but a shameful attempt to shield one’s self from any critique. An attempt that actually only reinforces the image of Feminist Frequency as incompetent social activists, and not serious video game critics.

Feminist Frequency duo has never engaged in any debate with their critics, and never addressed any reasonable or horizontal critique of their videos. When they fail to defend their work even when they cherry-pick and talk about something on their own terms, now it is clearer why.

Anita Sarkeesian: “I’m an expert”. Source: Anita Sarkeesian

    Adrian Chmielarz

    Written by

    Creative Director @ The Astronauts (Witchfire, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter). Previously Creative Director @ People Can Fly (Painkiller, Bulletstorm).