Today, the University planned to welcome feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian to give the Martin Weiner Lecture in Computer Science at the Shapiro Campus Center. Sarkeesian, who is best known for her YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, was forced to cancel the engagement, as the University was closed on Monday due to a severe snowstorm. Tickets were free, and the event was to be well-attended, with a nearly sold-out audience. It was hosted by the Computer Science department but also sponsored by the English, Sociology, Women and Gender and Sexuality Studies and Social Justice and Social Policy departments and programs. 

This board is pleased to see critical and controversial speakers like Sarkeesian being invited to the University to speak and debate, and, moreover, applauds the initiative among faculty to explore video games and the emerging field of game design at Brandeis. As one of the most popular mediums of the 21st century, video games deserve thoughtful critique and analysis at Brandeis, and inviting Sarkeesian—a popular and hotly debated figure within the field—as a guest speaker is an excellent way to start. We encourage the sponsoring departments to reschedule the event with Sarkeesian so that students can hear her speak once the weather clears up.

Sarkeesian has criticized game narratives for their frequently sexist tropes, such as damsel in distress and woman in refrigerator archetypes. This has drawn significant negative backlash within video gaming culture. Unlike the University’s offering of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali last year, Brandeis is in no way endorsing Sarkeesian’s views by inviting her to speak; it is simply offering her perspectives to students interested in listening and creating a public forum to debate them with her should students disagree. This represents the type of free speech academia is founded upon, and it is a choice this board wholly commends. However, criticism of Sarkeesian has often crossed a critical line into physical threat of violence: Sarkeesian was forced to cancel an engagement at the University of Utah last October after the university received a threat for a mass shooting if she spoke. In addition, Sarkeesian has received direct rape and death threats, as well as a threat that included the names of her parents and her home address, forcing her to move. Regardless of whether and how much one agrees or disagrees with Sarkeesian’s views, direct threats against her person are criminal and intolerable and are made even more so when others, including Sarkeesian’s family and the University of Utah students, are imperiled simply because they wish to listen to someone with whom another person disagrees. Inviting Sarkeesian to speak at Brandeis speaks to our University’s commitment to both free speech and social justice; her acceptance of the offer and the large anticipated audience reaffirm those commitments. 

When asked why he spearheaded the effort to bring Sarkeesian to Brandeis, Prof. Jordan Pollack (COSI) wrote in an email to the Justice that he wanted the University to “expand its teaching and research efforts into video games,” which, in his words, have become “a larger industry than books or films.” Prof. John Plotz (ENG) wrote that his department is “interested in seeing how new narrative forms emerge in the 21st century.” This board is pleased to see faculty taking the new and quickly popularizing medium of video games seriously. Game design has emerged as a new field of critical thought and discourse over the last 30 years yet has been notably absent from our University’s course offerings and events. This is in sharp contrast to institutions like Northeastern University, New York University and the University of Southern California, all of which offer Bachelors and Masters degrees in game design. We are pleased to see collaboration between the Computer Science and English departments in beginning to explore this medium—games occupy a space in between a science and an art form, which is reflected in the types of degrees offered in the field: the University of Southern California, ranked the #1 school for game design in the country by the Princeton Review, offers Bachelors of Arts, Masters of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees all as part of the same game design program. This type of collaboration between the sciences and arts is necessary to fully explore game design, and we applaud this early collaborative initiative here at Brandeis.

In an email to the Justice, Pollack stated that he was “in communication with her agents regarding a reschedule.” This board hopes the University will reschedule with Sarkeesian quickly: inclement weather should not prevent a critical conversation. We hope to see more speakers and lectures exploring games and game design, as well as more controversial speakers like Sarkeesian, in the near future.