The Interacting Game …

I was musing over the new issues with video games, and thinking about the previous issues, and one thing jumped out at me: while they tended to talk about issues that pretty much all forms of media have, they also tended to claim that it was worse with video games. And when they didn’t talk about them corrupting the youth, they tended to focus on one particular facet: their interactivity. Which Anita Sarkeesian talked a lot about in her video on women as background decoration:

…but since video games are an interactive medium, players are allowed to move beyond the traditional role of voyeur or spectator. Because of its essential interactive nature, gaming occupies a unique and potentially more detrimental position vis-a-vis the portrayal and treatment of female characters.

A viewer of non-interactive media is restricted to gazing at what the media makers want them to see. Similar to what we might see in video game cutscenes, the audience is only afforded one fixed perspective. But since we’re talking about interactive gameplay within a three-dimensional environment, we need to consider the fact that players are encouraged to participate directly in the objectification of women through control of the player character, and by extension control of the game camera. In other words, games move the viewer from the position of spectator to that of participant in the media experience.

On a very basic level, we can think of non-interactive media as engaging audiences in forms of “passive looking”, while video games provide players the chance to partake in forms of “active looking” or “active observing”.

These active viewing mechanics encourage players to collaborate with developers in sexual objectification by enabling gamers to scope out and spy on non-playable sex objects.

This is especially sad because interactive media has the potential to be a perfect medium to genuinely explore sex and sexuality.

I should note that this kind of misogynistic behavior isn’t always mandatory; often it’s player-directed, but it is always implicitly encouraged.

In order to understand how this works, let’s take a moment to examine how video game systems operate as playgrounds for player engagement. Games ask us to play with them. Now that may seem obvious, but bear with me. Game developers set up a series of rules and then within those rules we are invited to test the mechanics to see what we can do, and what we can’t do. We are encouraged to experiment with how the system will react or respond to our inputs and discover which of our actions are permitted and which are not. The play comes from figuring out the boundaries and possibilities within the gamespace.

So in many of the titles we’ve been discussing, the game makers have set up a series of possible scenarios involving vulnerable, eroticized female characters. Players are then invited to explore and exploit those situations during their play-through.

So whereas in traditional media, viewers might see representations of women being used or exploited, gaming offers players the unique opportunity to use or exploit female bodies themselves. This forces gamers to become complicit with developers in making sexual objectification a participatory activity.

While these come from many different places in the video, the main thrust is essentially this: the player isn’t just watching the violence or sexualization, but are actually doing it. And this supposedly makes the harm worse, and has more of an effect on the player. Which is pretty much the same sort of argument that people made about violence: you aren’t just watching it, you’re doing it … and that’s much, much worse.

And yet, in all of the various scares over just plain violence … that doesn’t seem to be the case. No one has been able to make a case that participating in these actions is worse or has more of an impact on a person than watching it. And Sarkeesian doesn’t provide any evidence of that either; all of her studies are about observing, not participating in the actions. So, at least, we’re going to need some evidence that participating really is worse. And while it may seem like common sense or just obvious, no one has been able to actually establish it yet, at least in a way that’s convinced anyone. So if you fail to prove what seems to be common sense, maybe that common sense isn’t sense at all. And I think there might be a reason to think that participating in these things is, in fact, less likely to impact the person than watching does.

There are three main ways you can participate in a game:

1) As yourself, in that world.
2) As the PC, in that world (ie playing the role of that specific, fleshed out character who is not you).
3) As yourself, playing a game.

In the more immersive games — which are the ones that should be the worst if interactivity is really a problem — you’re going to be playing as 1) or 2). Let’s start with 1). As you play the game, you are making the choices and doing the things that you, yourself would do, and so all of your choices reflect who you actually are. Thus, if one has an optional choice to, say, enslave someone, if you do that it reflects what you, as a person, would do … and if that disgusts you, then you wouldn’t do it. That’s assuming that it’s a free choice, and that the game isn’t forcing you to make that choice. If the game forces you to make that choice and you wouldn’t make that choice, it breaks immersion in the same way as a “But Thou Must!” does: you are being forced to do something that you think is a really bad move to do. The only exception to this case is when the story is structured so that it’s actually a difficult choice. For example, you’re forced to kill a kitten, or an entire city will be killed. If you choose to kill the kitten, that’s a choice that you’d make … but you’re doing it to save an entire city. These sorts of dilemmas are actually good things, and things that we want to see more of in games.

So, in 1), if you are the sort of person who wants to murder random civilians or rape and objectify women, then you will in the game … but, then, you were already the sort of person who wants to do that, so it can’t have much impact on you.

In 2), you take on the role of the PC, which may be one that the game defines for you or one that you define yourself for the game. For example, I tend to play as Corran Horn in most Star Wars RPGs. Here, you take the actions that that character would make, even if that isn’t what you’d do yourself. As Corran Horn, I played a lot more confrontationally than I would myself. Playing the original Knights of the Old Republic as Corwin from the Amber series, I turned at the end to gain power for myself, which I wouldn’t have done playing as me (why in the world would I want that power?). And when I played as a Sith woman … well, that was nothing like me [grin].

So, in these cases, you play as the character, not as yourself. And so when you participate in murder or objectification or whatever, again you take the actions that the character would take, not that you would take. So having the option to play as a completely brutal thug, or a complete degenerate, is something that these sorts of players desire not because they want to be that way themselves (usually) but because it can be fun to take on another role for a while and not be yourself. And note that if you want more female protagonists in games, you have to accept that this playstyle is not only possible, but common, or else male characters will not play as female protagonists … at least in any game where being immersed in the game is desirable.

So here, since most people learn quite quickly the difference between fantasy and reality, the actions you take in the game have relatively little impact on you, because you aren’t playing as you, but as someone else. Seducing Carth Onasi has no chance of making me attracted to men, because it’s not me that does it, but instead that female character. So here, again, it doesn’t seem like it can have much impact on you.

So, we turn to 3). These are the least immersing types of games, because in these games you play them like a game: you calculate your moves not based on what you want to do, or what the character would do, but on what gives you the most points or gets you through the game the most efficiently. So, if we take the example from the Grand Theft Auto series where you can pick up a prostitute to recharge your health and kill her to get your money back, in this mode the player is treating that like a way to recharge your health for free. It doesn’t matter that it’s a prostitute or a life drink with a glowing aura when you drink it. You’re doing it to game the system, and so in this case you really treat the prostitute like an object … because at that point it is an object, like your party members and everyone and everything else in the game. Because you’re treating it like a game, and not like anything real. And, again, things we do in games aren’t things that we think we want to do or would do in real life.

Now, these things aren’t always easy to divide into neat categories, as sometimes you play as yourself and at other times — when immersion is broken — you play it as playing a game. But the key difference between a video game and a movie is that at the times when you are most immersed in it, and when its setting is filling your consciousness the most … in a video game, that’s when who you are is most involved, and when you are imposing the most on the game and what is happening. When the game stops letting you be yourself or the persona you yourself have chosen to adopt, that’s when you stop being immersed and remember that it’s just a game. Whereas in a movie, in something you just observe, when you are most immersed is when your consciousness believes that this is, in fact, just how the world is. So, in that case, it seems reasonable to posit that when you watch a movie, you might learn things from it just like you learn them from the world: often passively. While for video games you don’t learn things passively because you are actively involved in it. To explain this further, many of our attitudes we adopt simply because that’s how the world is and we just get it by osmosis. These become subconscious biases and these are the hardest to overcome if they’re wrong. Thus, the more actively involved you are, the less of these passive attitudes you would adopt … at least, passively and subconsciously. And games require you to interact far more with the world that you’re observing than a movie does.

Now, this is all speculation, and much psychological work needs to be done to decide what is the case. But it isn’t obvious that actually participating in an activity or being forced to do that is worse than simply observing it, and that’s what a lot of the panic around video games relies on. It seems like common sense that actually doing a bad thing is worse than just watching it, but that may not work when doing that bad thing is part of a game as opposed to something that you know and accept as real. Media depictions may matter, but participating in it may move it from depiction to role play … and we all know the difference between what we role play and what we’d do.

Don’t we?


One Response to “The Interacting Game …”

  1. Tropes vs Women: Women as Background Decoration(Part 1) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] And, of course, the obvious answer here is that because games are interactive, the player has to choose to do so. This means that if they do look, they have to either want to look/participate, or have to be playing a character that would look/participate, or have to be thinking of it as a game mechanism and not something that reflects any sort of characterization at all (the characters are literally game objects). So, for example, my Shepard in Mass Effect stopped once or twice to watch the Asari dancers because, well, that’s what the character would do. My Grey Warden and my Champion of Kirkwall never frequently the brothels because they wouldn’t do that (my Champion was tempted at one point, being a bit more open than my Warden was). _I_ never stopped in because it didn’t interest me that much. And there were no reasons in terms of gameplay to do it, as you gained no advantage, unlike the Grand Theft Auto examples. So either the player is doing what they want to do, doing what their character would do, or is wrapped up in treating it all like a game. None of these mean that they are going to map this onto the real world in any way than they already do, unlike the “passive looking” cases where one can fall into treating that presentation as the real world. I’ve already talked about this in more detail. […]

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