Tropes vs Women: Women as Background Decoration(Part 1)

So we move on to another topic, that of Women as Background Decoration. What she means here is not of female characters that are only in the background and are used to “decorate” a world, by presenting it as being one where women exist but are always secondary to a male narrative, but instead as decoration in a specifically sexual sense:

I define the Women as Background Decoration trope in video games as: The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.

So, essentially, NPCs in the game whose role is nothing more than to provide sex appeal to the presumably male player.

Now, starting from this and dropping the language that assumes the conclusion — such as “exploited” — is it a problem to have characters in the game, male or female, that are essentially there as fanservice? Is it really sexual objectification to have NPCs whose role is provide either sexual services — Sarkeesian talks a lot about the various sex workers in these games — or simply be something to look at that appeals sexually to the audience? I’m not sure it is. I find, in general, some of these depictions to be juvenile, but can see how it might appeal to some gamers. That games might have these is not, in my mind, an actual problem. That a game might be nothing more than this sort of appeal is not a problem in my mind either. The biggest concern I have about this is that the fanservice is, arguably, only one way. Again, it’s not a problem to have games aimed at a male audience, but if all games provide such benefits to male audiences and provide nothing for female audiences, then that would be excluding women from games. Now, is that in and of itself some kind of moral wrong? I don’t think so. I think that it’s stupid, though; the female audience is big enough and the things that they at least ought to want are not likely to lose that much of a male audience, so any business with half a brain ought to at least try to be neutral on the subject if they can. So I think that providing equal fanservice for women is a good thing in general, which means, for me, creating appealing romance options for female characters as well as for male characters. Or, for the most part, what Bioware is doing (they even typically provide male options for their brothels, which I have never actually frequented as none of my characters would do that).

Sarkeesian disagrees:

But even if sexualized male NPCs were more prevalent, equal opportunity sexual objectification is still not the solution to this problem, especially considering the existing power differential between men and women in our society. Women are constantly represented as primarily for sex. Men may be sexual too, but they can also be anything else, they are not defined by or reduced to their sexuality and their sexuality is not thought of as something existing chiefly for the pleasure of others. Which means the fundamentally dominant position of men in our culture is not in any way challenged or diminished by the rare male depiction as sex worker.

There is, again, a potential issue where if women and men are equally “objectified” in a game, then the history of women as being nothing more than sexual objects might mean that the female sex objects support that view which is not true for the male sex objects. But to me the solution to that is to have many female characters that are not just sex objects, clearly presenting the world as containing both sex objects — ie characters that you are thinking of primarily in sexual terms — and real and complete characters as well. As I don’t see anything actually wrong with thinking of people as primarily objects when that’s what their role is to you — as long as you always consider that in the background so that you still treat them morally, as per Kant — then this simply, to me, represents the real world as it should be. Yes, when I’m walking down the street and see an attractive woman walk by, I may think of her as nothing more than an attractive object. But when I’m dealing with my waitress, I may also see her as only a “food serving” object, and not in any sexual manner at all. And when I’m dealing with an intellectual collaborator, I am unlikely to think of them in a way that considers their sexual and food serving capacities. Unless one wants to insist that sex can never be simply casual but has to express some kind of deeper relationship — a view that comes across as pretty religious — one has to accept that sometimes thinking of someone only in terms of their sexual traits is no worse than thinking of them only as a shopkeeper or a quest giver or someone to provide answers. Either we always have to think of the whole person, or we can “reduce” them to certain traits at certain times.

Sarkeesian doesn’t agree with this either:

Incidentally this trope also exists in games that may allow players to pick a female avatar. But the presence of a woman inhabiting the role of protagonist, even if well developed, doesn’t do anything to negate the fact that non-playable sex objects are still specifically coded to pander to a presumed heterosexual male ego.

But what it does do is highlight the fact that not all women are, in fact, simply sex objects. At this point, Sarkeesian is reduced to saying that depicting female characters in a sexual manner is just bad in and of itself … but since her overall complaint is about the impact that has on the player’s ideas about women, that argument doesn’t seem to hold if women are being portrayed in a variety of roles, one of which is sexual.

Anyway, let’s move on to talking more about the overall trope. Sarkeesian discusses the difference between being an active participant and between being a passive observer, and argues that being the active participant is worse:

…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”.

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.

Even Sarkeesian’s example can be treated differently in the mind of the player/character:

The opening moments in The Darkness 2, for instance, teaches players how to operate the game’s control scheme by instructing you to actively objectify women in the environment.

Clip: The Darkness 2
“Hey Jackie, check out the rack on the brunette to your right. No, no your other right.”

The player can react to that in ways ranging from “Where?!?” to “Rolling their eyes at how juvenile their compatriot is and looking out of a sense of ‘Let’s just deal with the crap'” to “None of these characters ought to act this way; the game screwed up”.

Sarkeesian, of course, doesn’t agree with this counter:

Now inevitably whenever these game mechanics are criticized, some gamers try to dismiss and distance themselves from the issue by insisting that they don’t personally partake in the provided options for exploiting virtual women. But whether or not an individual player chooses to use an object for its intended purpose is irrelevant, because that object was still designed and placed in the game environment to fulfill its function.

A toaster is still a toaster regardless of whether or not you choose to make toast with it. It’s still designed for the express purpose of toasting bread. And it still communicates that fact even while sitting unused on your kitchen counter.

Likewise a sex object is still a sex object regardless of whether or not you personally choose to use and abuse her. And that fact, in and of itself, still communicates extremely regressive ideas about women.

But then this falls back on the idea that simply presenting them as sexual is problematic, no matter how diverse the representations are. There’s a lot of risk here that simply having sex or hiring a prostitute is in and of itself exploitative, which is not what she wants. She talks about using games to, as she puts it “genuinely explore sex and sexuality”, but never really says how that will work. Outside of not including strippers and sex workers in games at all — or, at least, outside of refusing to include them doing their job — there’s really not much you can do here. Again, this is boiling down to Sarkeesian being opposed to fanservice, which extends far beyond these sorts of NPCs.

So, let’s look at more of the regressive attitudes that Sarkeesian thinks this promotes. As one should expect, the link between this and violence is a major concern of hers:

Of course, we can’t really talk about sexual objectification without also addressing the issue of violence against women, since the two are intimately connected. Once a person is reduced to the status of objecthood, violence against that object becomes intrinsically permitted.

Which has nothing to do with the sexualization, per se, as all NPCs are objectified in that manner, and so can be treated the same way. In fact, in most games it is male NPCs that the game explicitly encourages the player to commit violence against. Female sexualized NPCs aren’t usually put in the game in ways that encourage the player to commit violence against them. The player may indeed be able to do that, but the game is not encouraging them to do so. Which leads to her problematic summary of the issue while a clip from Hitman: Absolution plays in the background:

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.

The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon,because they were designed, constructed and placed in the environment for that singular purpose. Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.

It’s a rush streaming from a carefully concocted mix of sexual arousal connected to the act of controlling and punishing representations of female sexuality.

In-game consequences for these violations are trivial at best and rarely lead to any sort of “fail state” or “game over”. Sometimes areas may go on high-alert for a few minutes during which players have to lay low or hide before the game and its characters “forget” that you just murdered a sexualized woman in cold blood.

The first problem here is that it contradicts her other statement about them being in the game even if players can choose to not interact in that manner. As I’ve pointed out, most of the time games are not in fact encouraging players to kill sexualized characters. In fact, in most games it is rare to be able to actually kill female characters; they are usually not presented as valid targets. So not only can the player actually indeed help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon in a violent way, and avoid desecrating them, usually the game is in fact discouraging you from doing so. Sarkeesian scoffs at the purported penalties, but you would generally get points from killing the NPCs that come against you or might stop you from achieving your goal, even if you do so in a way that gives them no chance to fight back. In fact, in games with that sort of mechanism you often get rewarded for doing it that way — ie in a way where they are helpless — instead of making it a fair fight. That these characters penalize you in any way definitely counts as in-game consequences that are more than just trivial, comparatively speaking.

She also uses Hitman: Absolution as an example as the scene from it plays in the background over this speech … and it’s a really, really bad example. The game in no way encourages you to kill the women in that scene. You are penalized, there are other options, and doing so can even cost you a trophy. But even worse, the game does what Sarkeesian claims that games rarely do:

Indeed nothing about the design, behaviors or mechanics associated with female characters that serve as background decoration encourages or engenders any sort of human empathy. In fact, quite the opposite, the rudimentary algorithms governing interactions lead the player to interface with these characters in ways that can only be dehumanizing and exploitative. As sexual automata, they don’t have any individuality, they don’t have their own stories, players are never supposed to identify with them or care about them, outside of what they can offer either sexually or materially. They exist on the outskirts of humanity, placed beyond the reach of empathy by their creators.

Except if you listen to the conversation they are having, it is in fact designed to get you to feel empathy for them and think of them as persons instead of simply sexual objects. They comment on how what they have to do as strippers sucks for them. They comment on how much of a sleaze their boss is, and how he essentially pays the police off with their bodies. A player is clearly not meant to think that this is a good thing, or that they are enjoying the attention … which is a stark contrast to how they are presented out in the strip club. So the example that she plays in the background is in fact doing the exact opposite of what she claims the trope does. And I found this out by a) watching Thunderf00t’s criticism of her and listening to the conversation and b) doing a quick search to find out how they talk out in the strip club proper, so not a lot of research at all.

Why is this a problem? Mostly because there are pretty much only two reasonable possibilities here. Either Sarkeesian did not know that the game presented them that way, or she did and used it as her background example anyway. If it’s the former, then she didn’t actually do the limited research necessary to actually make her point, and is being unintentionally misleading as she implies that that game fits the trope. If it’s the latter, then for some reason she decided that that game — despite it not being a good example of her point — provided the best footage she could find to support her case, in this case the violence towards sexualized NPCs. But if that’s the case, then she’s being deliberately misleading, and it implies that all of the other options there didn’t provide the ability for that kind of brutal interaction, which means that none of the other games are as bad. That doesn’t really support her case well, either.

It’s also interesting to note what she says next:

Typically all the non-essential characters in sandbox style games are killable, but it’s the sexualized women whose instrumentality and brutalization is gendered and eroticized in ways that men never are. The visual language attached to male NPCs is very different since they are rarely designed to be sexually inviting or arousing, and they are not coded to interact with the player in ways meant to reaffirm a heterosexual fantasy about being a stud.

Translation: Yes, you can kill everyone in the game as if they were mere objects to be slaughtered, but at least they aren’t sexualized. But since many of them are created for the sole purpose of being killed, often brutally and creatively, which is not the case for the NPCs, by her own admission: by her argument, they are there to be thought of things to have sex with, not to be killed.

But Sarkeesian also doesn’t understand how the open world games work:

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.

Uh … no. The whole point of open worlds is that the game tries to remove as many rules and restrictions as they can from the game, and by that allow the player to play the game however they want. Ultimately, in all games the rules and restrictions are merely there to set up a context against which the player can play the game. Players in the most restrictive games are not encouraged to explore the rules at all. The closest we have to that are games that encourage the player to try to maximize their efficiency through learning and exploiting the rules, but in general games that bank on that are games that don’t have characters at all. When a player is engaging and exploring the rules, they are doing nothing more than simply playing a game, and all of the objects inside that game are game objects, where the player is encouraged to think of them as such. And in that case, the object of the game is not to explore the world, but instead to gain a high score or a faster completion time or to complete more levels. Characters are pretty much irrelevant to this.

In the open-world games, players are encouraged to explore the world as they see fit, not to find out what the boundaries actually are. The ideal in an open-world game is that the player never, ever notices the rules of the game, and never notices that they are in a game. The same thing applies to the story; in an open-world story, the player always has to feel like the action they are taking is their choice, even if they have to make that choice for the story to proceed. Thus, the game is trying to make things as consistent to expectations as they possibly can. Thus, if the game allows the player to kill NPCs, then all NPCs have to be killable, just in case the player tries. In terms of plot, especially in the grittier games, the player has to be free to be evil or to be good, to be the paragon or the villain, or else they feel railroaded. The game, then, is trying to discourage the player from figuring out what the boundaries in the game are by presenting the world as having all choices be open and never letting the player see behind the screen. If they do this successfully, the player is immersed in the world. When they fail, immersion is lost and the game becomes just a game again.

Thus, we can see in the GTA and Hitman examples that the behaviour that Sarkeesian derides is not behaviour that the game invites, but simply emergent behaviour from what the game allows. In Hitman, you can kill any NPC in the game. The setting is a strip club, which is perfectly reasonable given the overall setting of the game, and not one that they seem to overuse. Thus, you have strippers. Since this is the dressing area, it is reasonable that they’d be in their outfits. So, they are NPCs that fit the setting, the setting isn’t overused, and you can kill them just as you can all other NPCs. The actions that Sarkeesian performs are ones that follow from the mechanisms and what the game allows the player to do, and blocking that would break immersion. But we have to note the cases where someone would do this. Either a) the player wants to kill strippers (or all NPCs), at which point they are doing what they want to anyway and so the game isn’t having an impact on them, b) they are playing as their character would which is not the way they themselves would act (otherwise you had best lock up all D&D players who have ever played an evil character, and all players who choose to play as female characters are really trans) or c) they are doing it to get a gaming advantage by exploiting the rules of the game … but in this case, there is no such advantage. None of these seem at all problematic to me.

So let’s look at the GTA example. In this game, you can hire a prostitute to get a health recharge, and then kill her and loot the body to get your money back. Again, either this is something the player decides they want to do, something they think their character would do, or something they do as an exploit to the rules of the game. If it’s the first, then they already have problems. If it’s the second, then that doesn’t reflect anything about them and most of them will be able to keep their imagination separate from reality. Here it’s the third one that’s the most interesting, because you do have a gaming benefit from it. But if you do so, then it seems to me that you aren’t even thinking of them as a prostitute or even as a character. Instead, you are thinking of them as a vending machine that you can exploit by hitting the coin return as the can of soda is dropping. Or, to put it better, this situation is no different than selling a bunch of stuff to a vendor in an Elder Scrolls game and then pickpocketing it all back … and then selling it back to them until they run out of money. At this point, you are playing a game, and know you are playing a game, and aren’t thinking of it as a world anymore. And since you aren’t thinking of it as a world anymore, it can’t impact your view of this one.

In order for all of her comments on sexualization and its problems to matter, you have to be immersed in a work as a representation of a world not unlike this one. But for the three cases we have in games, that’s not the case. Either you already accepted that idea and so are acting on it of your own volition, you are playing as a character and do not think it represents the world, or you are playing it as a game and so aren’t relating it to any world at all (and you’re not immersed). Because Sarkeesian doesn’t understand the nature of games, she interprets the potential effects wrong, ending up making a similar argument to “Violence in video games makes people violent”, which at a minimum has not managed to provide its case. Sarkeesian needs to do better than that if she wants us to accept her conclusions here.

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2 Responses to “Tropes vs Women: Women as Background Decoration(Part 1)”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Just dropping in to say that you’re series on Sarkeesian’s videos is really outstanding. Basically an in-depth demolition of almost every point she makes – and the best part about it is that I know you’d give her credit if she deserved it. Well done.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think I already have, in some cases. Mostly, though, doing this series has revealed to me that Sarkeesian does not understand games or why people play them, which really hurts her analysis.

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