When feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian was invited to Utah State University in 2014, her lecture was canceled due to security concerns. While listeners passed through metal detectors to get to her lecture on Monday at Wasserman Cinematheque, Sarkeesian spoke freely and passionately with the University community about her area of focus: sexism and feminism in media, particularly video games. The fact that the University invited this important speaker shows our commitment to academic discourse and should be celebrated.

This board commends the Computer Science department not only for inviting a preeminent speaker who has expertise in a growing field of study within mass culture, but for properly sponsoring and framing her talk across multiple disciplines which rarely intersect. As the department chair Prof. Jordan Pollack (COSI) said at the event, computer science and women’s studies do not often interact with one another, but speakers like Sarkeesian allow these fields to share discourse and find key commonalities. Hopefully, the University will continue to bring speakers to campus who have cross-disciplinary appeal and offer vital voices on predominant social issues.

As a school that prides itself on a commitment to social justice, it is especially important that the University invites speakers who are social justice leaders in their fields. Sarkeesian uses her Feminist Frequency videos to force video game consumers, including members of the Brandeis community, to re-evaluate conceptions, tropes and unspoken biases in how video games depict, treat and interact with women. Even at Brandeis, we still can unconsciously uphold harmful stereotypes and ideas, and it is important to have speakers who identify false narratives and narrow-minded depictions of gender issues in media, particularly in young media forms like video games whose rules and conventions are still widely being defined and explored. 

Video games are now a major part of popular culture and mass entertainment, yet they remain greatly underexplored in the academy. All too often, it is easy to ignore their societal impact, including how minority groups are affected by their video game portrayals — as Sarkeesian pointed out, far too few games depict heroes and heroines of color, yet data from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that African American young men play games for 30 minutes longer than white young men daily, with Hispanic young men playing for 10 minutes more. The experiences one has playing a video game — and the emotional and intellectual takeaways from it — are as important, valid and deep as experiences one has with film, literature and other forms of mass media. 

Games have great potential for enriching culture, but sadly also have great potential for diminishing it. Voices like Sarkeesian’s explore the latter effect, and they are voices which must be heard more in academic contexts as games grow in popularity as a medium. We hope the University will continue to engage with this particular dialogue and begin other culturally critical discussions.