Tropes vs Women: Women as Reward DLC

So, Anita Sarkeesian next talks about Women as Reward in Downloadable Content and pre-orders in a video she introduces thusly:

This is a special DLC add-on for our episode examining the Women as Reward trope.

Ha, ha. How cute.

Let’s move on.

As I said, this video examines “Women as Reward” in DLC and pre-orders. Which allows me to talk about one topic that does bother me about the “Women as Incentive” trope that was barely touched on in either of Sarkeesian’s videos: the idea that these rewards are aimed at a male audience, potentially without equivalent rewards being offered for a female audience. Using one of her examples — that of “Tekken Tag Tournament 2” — that features this “Come and get your game!” calls as a bonus:

“This is Anna Williams, calling in on behalf of GameStop with some juicy news. Turns out your copy of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is ready for pickup. Better run along to your nearest GameStop tomorrow morning to pick it up or I might just swipe your copy for myself. And if you happen to have any old games lying around put some of that business savvy to work and trade them in for 30% extra in-store credit when you purchase Tekken Tag Tournament 2. But if you really want to impress me, let’s see how you handle a one-on-one fight. Or to make it interesting, let’s try two-on-one. You game? Either way, I’ll be waiting. Just remember: Power to the Player.”

I’m going to take Sarkeesian’s word that the voicing is indeed sultry, and thus implying something sexual here, mostly because I just need a framing example. It’s hard to imagine that a female gamer would find this sort of message in any way appealing, or make them want to buy the game. Giving only sexy costume options as part of a pre-order isn’t going to appeal to them either. So since players are supposed to see these rewards as things that make them want to buy the game, it’s a bit problematic if the rewards are, in fact, strongly male-oriented. Or, at least, it’s problematic in a game that isn’t trying to appeal only to the male audience. Now, there’s nothing really wrong with a game deciding that it wants to appeal to a male audience, as long as it’s honest about it. And if all games were trying to appeal only to a male audience, I’d at least object that they’re probably missing a big market by doing so.

Thus, my issue here is that games have to be honest here. If they want to appeal only to a male or young male audience, they need to stand up and put their name on that. And if they want to appeal to a general audience, then they need to make sure that their pre-order rewards and DLC are things that can appeal to the general audience. So if, they, their DLC costumes feature sexy costumes for women in an attempt to appeal to male players, then they ought to feature some costumes — in the same or in different DLC packs — that female players will want to dress the characters up in. I think that there is often a presumption of a male audience for games, and I really want to make them be explicit about that, or start thinking about what they can include to appeal to their entire audience.

That being said, if we look at Sarkeesian’s examples, a lot of them are indeed either unabashedly aimed at a male audience, or alternatively do provide those other options. Again, most of Sarkeesian’s complaints are that the options they provide should not be there, as she says at the end:

When games offer hyper-sexualized DLC outfits for players to buy, publishers and developers are telling presumed straight male players, in not so subtle terms, “YES, these women do indeed exist primarily as toys to fulfill your personal sexual fantasy”.

Well, again, as I said last time, no, not really. Sarkeesian sees this as reducing the characters to that, while I see it as expanding the characters to include that. While it’s not really a “sexualized” outfit, after getting the cocktail dress in ME2 I had my Shepard wear it the entire time, because I thought she looked good in it. Does this mean that I reduced my Shepard to some kind of toy or doll? No; I still considered her to be as strong and capable and tough and interesting a character as I had before. Just because I might want to see a female character in a sexy outfit doesn’t mean that that’s all I want out of her, and that applies just as much in games as it does in the real world.

I have to point out a case where Sarkeesian finally seems to give Bioware some mostly unvarnished credit:

Now, of course, it’s entirely possible for DLC costumes to avoid the Women as Reward trope. For example Mass Effect 2 offered two “Alternative Appearance Packs” that added new clothing and armor for your squadmates which ended up actually providing less sexualized outfits for both Jack and Miranda that are more appropriate for the mission at hand.

Finally, let’s talk a bit about the argument Sarkeesian tries to rebut that says that “Sex sells”:

When discussing representations of sexualized women the argument I hear most often is the old, adage, “sex sells.” This boring excuse isn’t even accurate.

First, just because people will buy something doesn’t automatically mean that thing has value or isn’t harmful. It’s also not a guaranteed avenue to success.

Second, and more importantly, when it comes to the Women as Reward trope in gaming we are not talking about actual “sex”; the ways women and women’s bodies are turned into trophies for gamers to win or unlock has nothing whatsoever to do with acts of consensual human intimacy. So when people say “sex sells” what they really mean is “sexualization” and “objectification” of women’s bodies sells” or more succinctly and more accurately “sexism sells.” And why does sexism sell? Well because it’s not challenging dominant paradigms, it’s simply reinforcing ideas about male privilege and entitlement to women’s sexuality that are already entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist.

Now, the first thing to note here are the links and resources for this video from the web page:

“Sex Doesn’t Sell After All, Study Says” – Bloomberg Business
“Do Sex and Violence Sell? A Meta-Analytic Review of the Effects of Sexual and Violent Media and Ad Content on Memory, Attitudes, and Buying Intentions” by Robert B. Lull and Brad J. Bushman

So .. her resource links are all about how sex doesn’t sell, and yet in her response to the charge she mentions that once … and even translates it into “sexism sells”, ignoring that if sex doesn’t sell — as her links imply — neither does sexism.

Now, the links themselves seem to be mostly irrelevant, because what they studied was whether sex and violence in an ad or in a show might decrease the probability that someone will buy that product … but what Sarkeesian is talking about here is, in fact, actually selling sex. You’d need to ask if, say, shows with sex and violence in them are watched more than those that aren’t … and even that might be misleading just because there’s a bigger potential audience for more family-friendly works. Given that, we can move on to her actual arguments.

First, she’s right to say that just because something sells, it doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful. Of course, she actually does have to demonstrate the harm here, and her citations from the earlier parts don’t cut it, especially since most of those are just “it buttresses the current attitude” … which, as it turns out, is the actual sex sells argument that she seems to be missing (mostly). The argument is that game developers do this because this is what the audience wants; if these things are there, they buy the product. So the game developers are, in fact, just giving the audience what they want, which is what a game developer really ought to do. Thus, we can ask what Sarkeesian thinks the solution is to this. Take elements out of games that the people who buy them like and even want to see more of to satisfy her ideology?

Her nitpick about it not really being “sex” would work better if she didn’t use words like “sexualized” all over the place … and even in the very paragraph where she does. She herself associates it with sex, but then thinks she can refute an argument of “Sex sells” with a nitpick over whether it’s really sex? Please. And it is a ludicrous argument to say that simply putting out what is common and expected actually sells in and of itself. Just doing things that are acceptable in a society does not make people flock to your product; you have to also give them something they really want, not just avoid “challenging” them. So, again, if this sells, then it’s because people want it, so if Sarkeesian wants this to go away, she’s going to have to fix that. This argument also implies that the sort of challenging of cultural zeitgeists that Sarkeesian explicitly wants to do might not sell; given the current culture, gamers might — not unreasonably, by her own argument — turn up their noses at it as being too far and so not buy the products. What game developer would take that chance?

Also, she still needs to demonstrate that it is objectification and mere sexualizing. Which means that she needs to be able to distinguish between sexual presentations and sexualized ones. Simply appealing to fetishization doesn’t work because, well, perfectly normal and reasonable people who are fully into consensual sex have fetishes. So she needs to build on an idea of what this will be while taking into account what people in the real world are really like … and what they like. As Sarkeesian seems to limit her arguments to feminist theory, that might be a tough task for her, but it’s what she needs to do to make her case … and would be a useful discussion if she could pull it off.


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One Response to “Tropes vs Women: Women as Reward DLC”

  1. Tropes vs Women: Strategic Butt Coverings | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Coverings”. To my surprise, this video is actually shorter than her bonus mini-episode on DLC. As it turns out, this is how things are going to be from now on as she tries to finish the series […]

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