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Gtfo Documentary Review Essays

Ms. Sun-Higginson first started work on “GTFO” in early 2012, after she had seen a clip from Cross Assault, a live-streaming competition series in which a player, Aris Bakhtanians, sexually harassed his teammate Miranda Pakozdi for several minutes during the show, commenting repeatedly about her thighs and bra size, telling her to take off her shirt, and pretending to smell her. Ms. Sun-Higginson initially planned to focus on this sort of harassment, but her approach broadened as she spoke with more women. “I decided to take a step back and explore what it means to be a woman in gaming in general, both the positive and the negative,” she said.

One of the challenges was figuring out how to make the admittedly sedentary activity of gaming visually compelling. “Pretty early on, I realized that shot after shot of people looking at screens wasn’t going to work,” she said. The film includes amusingly animated intertitles, screen shots of typo-filled texts and footage of computer techies from the dawn of the information age, with nary a woman in sight. “It’s actually pretty easy to find footage of a bunch of white dudes hanging out together, making stuff,” Ms. Sun-Higginson said.

In the scenes with Ms. Haniver, you hear the messages in all their stark awfulness. In 2012, Ms. Haniver, now 26, began recording live comments and voice mail messages directed at her and posted them on her website, NotintheKitchenAnymore.com. The messages range from sophomoric to vile; the speakers sound like characters on reality shows about American jails. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of 13-year-old boys,’ ” she said. “The voice recordings let you hear it’s not just kids. You can tell these are adult men.”

In one scene, Maddy Myers, the assistant games editor at Paste magazine, describes growing up playing video games and suddenly discovering that no girls were left in her circle of gaming friends. “I went to a tournament a couple years ago, and there were only two women who entered,” she said, speaking by phone from her home in Boston. “It’s really demoralizing. How many women decided not to enter because they’ve had bad experiences, or didn’t even know about it, because there wasn’t any marketing of it for them?”

“I don’t think that women just naturally aren’t interested in gaming,” she continued. “I think gaming culture itself has driven women out.”

When Lester Francois began talking to indie developers for his documentary “GameLoading,” similar stories arose unprompted. “We’d talk to these women about game design and whatnot, and when we weren’t filming, they kept mentioning different aspects of harassment in the workplace,” he said. “Early on we realized, hang on, there’s something going on here.”

Originally intended as a short about the indie game scene in Mr. Francois’s native Australia, “GameLoading” soon transformed into a feature about indie developers worldwide. Among the interviewees are Ms. Quinn, who created the free, text-driven interactive fiction game Depression Quest in 2013. Instead of battling dragons and demons, players fight clinical depression. Ms. Quinn’s creation enraged some gamers, who objected to its subject matter and to the fact that, like more conventional video games, it was being released on Steam, a popular digital store. Anonymous trolls sent her rape and death threats and posted her home address and phone numbers online, prompting her to relocate.

Mr. Francois has struggled to understand why fans of mainstream games would feel threatened by an indie like Depression Quest, since they’re hardly in competition with one another for fans. “The reality is, we’re going to see more games, and more variety of games. Obviously, Activision isn’t going to kill off their first-person shooters.”

The interviewees in “GTFO” and “GameLoading” offer possible remedies for the industry: more female coders and game creators, and a wider range of female characters; more peer pressure on the small minority who ruin things for everybody; and more women attending gaming events — as horrible as many of these events may be for female attendees now.

“My biggest fear for this movie is that it scares young women away from this industry, which is really growing and thriving right now,” Ms. Sun-Higginson said. “Obviously the more women and the more diverse people in general who join the industry, the better.”

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The pervasive sexist abuse that women often face in the video gaming world — from online multiplayer games to tournaments to industry boardrooms — is spotlit in “GTFO.” Shannon Sun-Higginson’s documentary takes a less angry/appalled tone than one might expect, while nonetheless charting plenty of instances in which female players, designers, programmers, et al., get endless flak simply for being the “wrong” gender in a realm traditionally seen (and treated) as a boys’ club. Given that the relevant issues had their profile recently raised by the GamerGate controversy (briefly covered in an epilogue here), this entertaining, accessible survey should prove popular among niche buyers in various formats, with download sales its primary outlet.

More than 90% of teenage girls, and an ever-rising 48% of women in general, play videogames. Yet the notion persists that it’s a “guy thing,” not least among those guys who design and play them. This has repercussions on myriad levels, from the ridiculously low share (4%) of women programmers employed in the industry, to the almost inevitable depiction of female characters in games as over-the-top fantasy sexual objects with enormous breasts and minimal clothes. Despite the diversity of their audiences, companies that spend millions developing games are reluctant to stray from a commercially safe basic blueprint that targets the presumed tastes of straight white young-adult males. When they do mix it up a bit, there are howls of protest from those for whom “Grand Theft Auto” and its ilk are sacred texts not to be messed with.

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Such imagery has apparently helped create a vocal if not necessarily majority population of male gamers who seem to think all women can be divided into two categories: (a) cunning vixens and (b) Mom. When confronted with actual, live, non-mom females in multiplayer games utilizing headphones — some women even consider buying expensive equipment to render their voices gender-neutral — these dudes seemingly can’t stop themselves from unleashing torrents of abuse entirely focused on gender (which only gets worse if the woman is actually winning the game). Insults “bitch,” “whore,” and “slut” are dropped incessantly. Conversely, some male players often seem to assume that any female player must be a fat, unattractive loser — oblivious to what that implies about their physical attributes, let alone degree of socialization.

At tournaments, women often get unequal attention, not all of it remotely helpful or wanted — again, centered not on their playing, but their appearance, gender and sexual desirability. One notorious instance shown here is from the 2012 fighting-game web-TV reality show “Cross Assault,” in which one of the lone females on two competing teams is subjected to incessant physical proximity and verbal harassment from her side’s “coach,” who in turn was egged on by viewers. After repeatedly asking him to back off, she finally quit the game to escape the discomfort. Her tormenter (one Aris Bakhtanians) exacerbated the offense by later suggesting “sexual harassment is part of a (gaming) culture” — so who cares, and P.S. “free speech.” It’s doubtful he’d feel the same if viewers incessantly commented on his own portly-junior-member-of-ZZ-Top looks — but of course, that would never happen.

Women who’ve publicly criticized this loud (if minority-dominated) climate of adolescent-minded sexism — most infamously, culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn — have found themselves targets for aggressive intimidation tactics. Those include death threats, rape threats, dissemination of home addresses and phone numbers, and so forth. Nor is it encouraging that “rape” is a term constantly trivialized by usage among male gamers as a cheeky synonym for besting an opponent.

Several other documentaries are currently in the works on the same subject, and many will no doubt be a lot slicker than “GTFO.” But the rough edges of Sun-Higginson’s Kickstarter-funded feature lend it an ingratiating, unpretentious modesty, and its lack of rancor on a topic that might’ve easily supported a more sensationalist approach can only be a plus in reaching male gamers most in need of its wake-up call. (Although you needn’t surf the Web too long to find major misogynistic-troll blowback against a film few have even seen yet.)

Packaging is basic but effective, with enlivening contributions from Naoko Saito’s graphics (which satirize sexism in mock primitive-video-game form) and Andrew Lappin’s original score.

SXSW Film Review: 'GTFO: Get The F&#% Out'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 18, 2015. Running time: 76 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Shannon Sun-Higginson production. Produced by Sun-Higginson.

Crew: Directed by Shannon Sun-Higginson. Camera (color, HD), Sun-Higginson; editors, Ephraim Kirkwood, Ian C. Park; music, Andrew Lappin; graphics, Naoko Saito; sound, Jon Lee, Ian C. Park.

With: Anita Sarkeesian, Courtney Stanton, Jennifer Hepler, Maddy Myers, Todd Harper, Jessica Hammer, Brenda Romero, Robin Hunicke, Rhianna Pratchett, Mattie Brice, Brianna Wu.

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