Stamps Speaker Series lecturer discusses misogyny, video games

Thursday, February 6, 2020 - 9:53pm

Angela Washko, artist, writer, and facilitator devoted to creating forums for discussions about feminism in spaces often hostile toward it, presents for the Penny Stamps Speaker Series Thursday afternoon in the Michigan Theater.

Angela Washko, artist, writer, and facilitator devoted to creating forums for discussions about feminism in spaces often hostile toward it, presents for the Penny Stamps Speaker Series Thursday afternoon in the Michigan Theater. Buy this photo
Kelsey Pease/Daily

Angela Washko, an artist, writer and activist, began her lecture speaking about her project targeting hate speech in public video games — specifically World of Warcraft — at a crowded Michigan Theater. 

“I thought that I could use my background in performance art, grassroots activism and collective organizing to directly talk to players about why the community had become so homophobic, misogynistic, and racist in its public communication channels, at least on all the servers that I’ve played on,” Washko said.

As part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, Washko spoke to Art & Design students and community members Thursday evening about her various art pieces targeting misogyny and promoting inclusivity in niche online spaces. 

Hate speech is especially prevalent on online games with users targeting certain players  once they realize the player is a woman, a person of color or part of the LGBTQ+ community. Christian Sandvig, a faculty member in the School of Information, spoke about this commonality in his introduction of Washko. 

“All you have to do is turn on the audio and wait,” Sandvig said. “I know that there are gamers in the audience and I think you know what happens next. I mean it’s reliable, it only takes a couple of minutes before you hear something horrific. It is disturbing, offensive, it could be racist, it could be sexist, homophobic, Islamaphobic. It really thinks of something that bothers you and It’s likely to come up if you wait long enough.”

To combat the prevalence of hate speech, Washko would host public meetings in populous towns within World of Warcraft. Her project gained large scale attention in World of Warcraft and an intentional inclusive in-game guild was created as a part of these discussions. Washko’s work was displayed in galleries though large-scale projections of these conversations, as well as in writing. While this wasn’t the first time Washko promoted feminism in her pieces, this project became a baseline for future works.

The second project Washko spoke about was an online video game titled The Game: The Game. A play on words of the book “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists” by Neil Strauss, The Game: The Game players navigate the world of “Pickup Artist Gurus,” featuring real-life gurus, who approach players using the tactics the gurus market as successful in on their websites, online modules, books and lectures. 

The Game: The Game is based on Washko’s research in the community, which she called misogynistic alt-right or the Manosphere. In The Game: The Game, players have to interact with “pickup artists” who aim to seduce the player, blurring the lines of consent and manipulating women into sleeping with them.  

Washko was able to get an online Skype interview with “pickup artist” Guru Roosh V, a notorious figure in the Manosphere, as part of her research, but she said she had to act submissive and ditzy and cater to what Roosh wanted to talk about to keep the interview running smoothly. 

“If you don’t feel like a creep you’re not pushing hard enough,” Washko read from one of Roosh’s books. “You must always be making the first move. You must always be pushing. If you’re scared that she’s going to think you’re a creep, that means you’re on the right path.” 

Following her vocal criticism of Roosh, his online community began harassing Washko on social media platforms, though direct messages, in comments in new stories and across the internet. Washko noted the difference in reactions between the World of Warcraft community and the Manosphere was related to her personal position within the communities.

“In WoW, I was recognizable as a long term, a high-level member of the community with high-level gear only obtained through years of commitment to the game,” Washko said. “Clearly a participant in that space and not outside. By virtue of just being myself, a woman, a self-identified feminist, a person with a job, I would always be an outsider in the manosphere.” 

Washko played videos from the creators as part of the lecture.

Art & Design senior Elizabeth Doyle commented on the impact of those videos.

“I found a lot of it difficult to watch and disturbing,” Doyle said. “A lot of the men she was focusing on in the beginning were really, really disturbing and hard to watch.”

While the content of The Game: The Game is in some cases disturbing, Washko said she didn’t create it to unsettle players. Instead, she said she wanted to create a platform where players can better understand what it feels like to be a target of these target techniques. 

Washko also commented on the personal impact of delving into the Manosphere and this online community and spoke about how her current project is almost a polar opposite of what she has worked on in the past. 

Washko finished the lecture with a bold outlook at what she wants to do with her art. 

“I have had a commitment to examining the cultural byproducts of media and entertainment, not only in an effort to rethink them and create hopefully future cultural objects that are more inclusive in a wide range of ways that we choose as humans to perform and present, live and love,” Washko said. “And I hope to continue to tell what I think is complex, underrepresented and unconventional stories about the media that we consume from unusual perspectives using a wide range of forms and distribution strategies.”

Reporter Isabella Preissle can be reached at ivp@umich.edu