Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati Is a Real Thing

And it's becoming a social movement attacking sexism in gaming.

May 27 2014, 9:00am

Growing up, illustrator Elizabeth Simins didn’t know any other girls playing video games. In her online comic piece Manic Pixel Dream Girl, she recalls struggling to fit in and feeling distanced from other women because of how many hours she sank into role-playing games. 

Being one of the few female voices in gaming culture, Simins’s comic garnered a dedicated audience. Kotaku sent her as a fish-out-of-water correspondent to the Game Developers Conference, illustrating her adventures as a first-timer amongst the massive industry hullaballoo.

One of her highlights was mingling with other women who work within games. She called them “Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati,” a little gag that became a shirt and now a social phenomenon among female gamers tired of sexism in gaming culture.  “Fueled by misandry” as the official site puts it, the t-shirt took on an identity of its own and sparked droves of supportive selfies from men and women.

Screenshot of the Gaming's Feminist Illuminati website.

And just as women become more vocal in the gaming industry, so too do groups of dudes who think there’s a feminist conspiracy in gaming. Like when community manager Dina Abou Karam joined the team for Mighty No. 9, the Mega Man successor: Angry fans thought Karam would single-handedly transform a game about laser-shooting robots into a feminist manifesto. Between sexist comments on message boards and male-dominated conventions, the gaming world can be a boys' club.

I got to meet Simins at Bit Bazaar, an indie games craft market in Toronto. She was selling new  Illuminati merch and hanging out with a posse of other gaming women. We played Ms. Pac-Man, and discussed Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati and the unfortunate encounter that led to its existence.

Motherboard: When you first posted Manic Pixel Dream Girl online did you have any idea how much traction it would receive?
Elizabeth Simins: 
The thing about Manic Pixel Dream girl is that it was four parts, and I published it over the course of about six months. At the beginning of it a lot of the problems I was talking about were still problems, I still didn’t know any other women who felt the same way that I did about video games. I still felt a certain amount of exclusion.

By the time I finished it, because of it, a lot of those things had been solved. I know, it was really weird. People had come out of the woodwork on the internet. “Me too.” “Me too.” “Me too.” “I relate to this.” I became friends with them. I became part of a community because I was writing about not having that community.

Did you have any idea how far into gaming it would take you?
No, I really did not. This part gets a little bit weird, navelgazey, but the last 18 months of my life have been fucking bizarre. I was a person who nobody knew, pretty much anonymous. I had no connection with the games industry. I had been into video games since I was a kid, but 18 months ago I was not part of any community.

Now people know who I am and care what I have to say. The speed of that and the degree to which that is different to how things were recently is jarring.

Let’s talk about Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati. That seems to have gone beyond being just a shirt.
So Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati was a throwaway, one-line joke that I made in the Game Developing Conference wrap-up for Kotaku. I was doing my top five things from the week, and one of them was, totally tongue-in-cheek, "rubbing shoulders with Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati."

That sounded like a man coming up to me and saying, “Hello, I am a rapist.” That is what I felt like he was saying. Pure terror.

The basic gag is that there’s this large contingent of men in the gaming community who thinks that there is a secret conspiracy of women planning behind closed doors to take away their fun.

No more Call of Duty ever.
Exactly. That is the primary goal of feminists. Men can no longer play their games.

I knew it.
Feminists just hate fun. I’m being very dead serious. Zero percent sarcasm. Feminists hate fun and they want men to be sad all of the time. I’ve never had fun before, I don’t know what fun is but I know that I’d hate it. So, that’s generally the stupid fucking joke that I made.

In retrospect I’m lucky that I thought really hard about how I was going to phrase it. I was sitting at this table at GDC, drawing my comics, this dude comes over, and is like, “Do you mind if I watch what you’re doing?” I tell him it’s fine. He reaches forward and touches the page. 

“No, you can watch, do not touch.” And then he sees the part where I mention rubbing shoulders with Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati. He said, “If you see gaming’s feminist illuminati, tell them that I said I’m very pro-woman, except when they legally lie to put me in jail.”

That sounds like a lot of internet comments I have seen in this world.
That sounded like a man coming up to me and saying, “Hello, I am a rapist.” That is what I felt like he was saying. Pure terror. What the fuck else could he have been talking about? I don’t know if anyone has any idea what he could have been talking about, other than being a rapist? I thought that was fucked up. And then he gave me his card.

Yep. I gave it back to him. I was there alone and terrified. So I turned to Twitter, as I do. I told them what happened, that I felt gross, like I needed a shower. That this guy was a fucking creep... What the fuck... I started angrily joking about making a t-shirt that says ‘Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati’ on it.

And what a good idea that turned out to be.
I know. When I got home, I made the t-shirt, and it hit a nerve with people. I guess a lot of people have had similar analogous experiences. At this point, I feel like it’s this defiant gesture.

There isn’t really—well now there is—but there wasn’t really a secret cult of feminists conspiring against the game industry. In some way, in a really good way, it’s a way to react to the constant barrage of people who think that there is. People who respond to any criticism like it’s some personal attack. 

Now if people say we’re part of some secret conspiracy, we can say yeah, that’s right, we’re Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati. The power has shifted hands, that’s what’s going on.

And you have that section of the internet that employs these routine conspiracies and deflections, to excuse themselves from criticism. I found those talking points are turning into memes.
Like "Not All Men."

I’m so happy "Not All Men" has become an ongoing joke. 
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati shirt took off just as people were taking power away from the "Not All Men" thing. Taking these things that people say, that are clearly bullshit, and turning them into jokes at the expense of those who are saying them, is like we are reclaiming it and putting it in our court.

So now, if someone in the comments says, “not all men,” someone will throw the Kool-Aid guy image in there and the person who said "not all men" looks like an idiot. Now if people say we’re part of some secret conspiracy, we can say yeah, that’s right, we’re Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati. The power has shifted hands, that’s what’s going on. That’s happening in a lot of different ways.