Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of gaming’

Tropes vs Women: Sinister Seductress

February 1, 2017

The next video of Anita Sarkeesian’s that I’d like to examine is the one on the “Sinister Seductress”. To be honest, on re-reading it to post about it it seems to me that Sarkeesian kinda mailed this one in. It bridges different topics on the matter as if they could easily be subsumed under the same topic, but doesn’t really work to do that. Sure, there’s potentially a link between using sexual elements in a disturbing way to bring horror and using a sexually seductive exterior to hide an inner horror, which you can link to female characters and particularly villains using sexuality to achieve their ends, but the main problem is that using sexuality to generate horror is quite different than using it as a tactic and plot element to show how a female villain achieves her ends, and even the horror cases rely on radically different elements in order to achieve their end. Getting from those disparate tropes to one overwhelming case is going to be tough …

With all of these character types, their femaleness or sexuality is an intrinsic part of what is intended to make them dangerous or repulsive. As a result, when male heroes defeat them, their victory is often explicitly gendered, emphasizing that the male protagonist has overcome the female threat and reasserted his dominance and control.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to have female villains who don’t reinforce the idea that female sexuality or femaleness itself is threatening or repulsive.

… unless, of course, you simply assert that the main thrust behind these disparate elements is an attempt to make femaleness or female sexuality repulsive or dangerous. Then you can do it without, well, really arguing for or understanding why these elements are used.

Let’s look at how Sarkeesian talks about the first element, in talking about Doom 3’s Vagary:

One of those new monsters was the Vagary, a monstrosity with the upper half of a naked woman and the lower half of a giant spider, who also happens to be pregnant with a demon fetus in her abdomen.

It’s no mistake that the Vagary blends female sexuality and fertility with elements designed to be unsettling or horrifying. The book The Making of Doom 3 reveals that the game’s creative team summed up the driving concept for the Vagary with the equation, “sexy + gross = creepy.” What the makers of Doom 3 may not have realized is that this equation was in no way new, original, or innovative. On the contrary, by singling out the Vagary, the only female enemy in the game, for her gender and using this to make her uniquely repulsive, the designers were participating in a very long tradition of creating female creatures who function to demonize femaleness itself.

Well, chances are that they already realized the link between sexual attraction and disgust that can be an important element in horror. If you take something that the viewer or player would normally find sexually attractive and pervert it in such a way that it is, in fact, disgusting, that can engender a specific horror reaction; one reacts stronger to the disgust than one would to something that is just merely disgusting. But the main reason for this is that it is the juxtaposition of the highly appealing and desirable sexual elements with the gross ones; normally, one would find it incredibly appealing, but not in the way it has been presented. In that sense it doesn’t serve to demonize femaleness because it relies on us, in fact, revering it. It can be argued that this works better for female sexuality than for male because in general neither men nor women find female sexuality — at least sexual presentations — inherently disgusting, but both men and women find male sexuality itself inherently disgusting and/or something to be feared. It’s only if you wouldn’t normally find, for example, naked breasts on your screen something disgusting, to be feared, or to be looked away from that your urge to look away now strikes you as particularly horrifying. Thus, it relies on female sexuality not being demonized.

And this carries on to the second category, which is the externally sexually desirable exterior hiding the monster inside. If people — men particularly — spend a lot of time and effort to try to get sex from them, it ends up changing from someone getting something wonderful to having that all utterly dashed by evil, which then feeds into the horror. However, the link between this and female sexuality in particular is a little weak. Sarkeesian lists some examples:

Among the most famous female mythological creatures are the Sirens, whose voices were irresistibly alluring to men who sailed near their island and heard their songs. But the music of the Sirens was as dangerous as it was captivating, and the sailors who were seduced by the sound soon found themselves shipwrecked and stranded. Some interpretations characterize the Sirens as cannibals who murdered the shipwrecked men and feasted on their flesh.

And there are endless other mythological creatures created explicitly to demonize women such as the succubus: a female demon who sexually lures and seduces men; the harpy: a screeching bird creature with the face of a woman; and of course the classic witch, a dangerous myth that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of real women across Europe and the American colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Well, first, I’d like to point out the oddity of listing “witches” here, when later Sarkeesian again talks about how great and non-stereotypical Kreia from KotOR 2 is … despite her being old, unattractive, harsh, and someone who relies heavily on magic and, in fact, often “black” magic (Dark Side powers). Sure, she’s arguably Grey, but her powers lean more Dark Side than Light Side, as you’d expect from, well, the main villain of the piece. How is it that Kreia is non-stereotypical, while someone like Morinth from Mass Effect 2 is, and how does Kreia escape critical analysis as the main villain — and, for a long time, a party member — while Morinth, an option side character gets called out as being particularly problematic? Even when, as Shamus Young says her potential introduction is clearly a major plot point for the character you’re really supposed to recruit, recruiting her is something that almost no characters have any reason to do — good characters won’t want to recruit a psychopath over a space paladin, and evil characters have no reason to trust to want to put up with Morinth’s tendencies — and the main victim — given much empathy through dialogue with various characters — and the only one that has to be involved is a woman. Sarkeesian would have much more reason to complain about Samara’s outfit than about Morinth (which, yes, Shamus complains about as well).

Second, there are no shortage of male monsters that fulfill similar lines. For example, we have a direct link from succubi to incubi, which is the male version and works in pretty much the same way. And mixes of human and monster are often seen as, well, monstrous, and so are often used in horror. You can’t get from harpies to demonization of femaleness.

And finally, while she mentions the Sirens, she ignores the long standing ur-example of the “monster behind the incredibly attractive mask”: vampires. Despite being a self-identified Buffy the Vampire Slayer enthusiast. At any rate, the prototypical vampire is a strangely attractive man who seduces women and kills or turns them into his servants. While I’m sure that Sarkeesian can find some misogyny there, what she can’t find is demonization of female sexuality in the vampire itself. It is more reasonable to think of vampires as representing what was the worst view of male sexuality: the outwardly charming exterior that hides the demon inside that defiles the innocent women who fall for it.

Now, I’m not going to argue that vampires demonize male sexuality, because that would be a stupid argument. What I am going to argue is that the mix of sex and monsters, titillation and horror, is a long standing and effective on in horror, that has nothing to do with demonizing sexuality. Like the first case, it relies on sexuality being desirable to be the bait in the trap, and the horror often comes from the conflicting feelings of attraction and fear. There’s a reason why a lot of vampire seduction scenes are, in fact, so seductive.

So, we have to turn then to the final category and the one that is most related to the title of the video: female villains that use their sexuality to their advantage in order to get what they want:

This tradition of sexualized, evil women in the temptress mold includes characters ranging from the Dark Queen of the Battletoads games to Elizebet from Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. In Hitman: Absolution, if players track the target, Layla, to a secret room in the penthouse, she strips for Agent 47 in an attempt to distract him before drawing a gun and trying to kill him.

The problem with these representations is not that they depict female characters who are sexual. It’s the way that sexuality is presented, as a threat or a weapon rather than as something to be enjoyed by these women and those they choose to consensually share it with. It’s a false notion of female sexuality rooted in ancient misogynistic ideas about women as deceptive and evil.

Um, except that these women are aware that they are attractive, are aware that they can use that to get what they want, and are not averse to using it to get what they want. Morinth is a bad example because she wasn’t a psychopath just using sex to get what she wanted — killing people — but instead was someone who needed to feed on people. She’s definitely more in the “vampire” camp than the “vamp” camp. But all of these women villains are, in fact, comfortable with their sex and sexuality, so much so that they are willing to use it to their advantage whenever it would do so. The standard criticism of this dynamic is actually the opposite, that it presents the world as “bad girls” are comfortable with — and enjoy — their sexuality in any way they can while “good girls” save it for marriage or for “the right man”. But these “bad girls” in fact treat their sexuality more the way Sarkeesian would want them to, despite her protests otherwise.

Once again, Sarkeesian misunderstands the tropes she is criticizing, to the point of criticizing one trope for the things that she ought to like instead of the things she ought not to like. Given this, it is unlikely that she could change these tropes to something that would maintain the purpose of the tropes and thus the unique elements they provide while removing the things that she finds problematic, because she finds the use of any aspect of the trope itself problematic, not the problematic elements themselves. But these tropes exist and are popular for reasons, and I am not convinced that the reasons Sarkeesian asserts for their popularity are the right ones, to say the least.

Tropes vs Women: All the Slender Ladies

January 25, 2017

After a few months off because I was really busy, let me return to my discussions of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs Women” series. In this one, Sarkeesian takes on body diversity and laments that it seems that there are a variety of male body types represented but that the women are all slender and arguably traditionally attractive.

Now, I’m not going to argue against body diversity. I really like the fact that when creating a character you can create using a wide variety of body types, faces, costumes, and so on and so forth. This was one of the best things about “City of Heroes”, as allowing that allowed for various superheroes and superheroines, with various powers and backstories, and even allowed you to emulate more heroes that you would otherwise. So while I’m not going to agree with Sarkeesian’s standard tough line about it all being so that they can be sexually appealing to straight male players, I think that having the choice of a wide variety of body types is good, whether that be for your male, female, or invited transgender species characters.

So there might not be much to talk about … oh:

When female characters’ bodies are liberated from the need to uphold narrow, limiting cultural beauty standards, the resulting range of representations can not only make games themselves more interesting; it can encourage us to see all women as the desirable, autonomous, fully human individuals that we are.

So this is about more than just allowing people to build their characters as they see fit, and in some sense being able to see people like themselves in games. We’re supposed to see women of all body types as desirable. This means that we aren’t going to give people the choice when building their characters, but are instead going to create characters with those body types and put them in those roles regardless of what the player — or society — really thinks someone in that role should be like.

To highlight the potential problem with this, let’s look at her examples of male body diversity. Specifically, let’s look at Street Fighter:

In Ultra Street Fighter IV, characters such as Dhalsim, Hakan, E. Honda, Rufus and Vega represent a significant range of male body types.

Except … these were pretty much all cultural or racial stereotypes. E. Honda is heavy because he’s the stereotypical sumo wrestler. Dhalsim, down to his powers, is a stereotype of India, and likely Hindu mysticism. Vega is a stereotypical Spaniard. Arguing that these represent a good example of a range of male body types is a rather odd argument to make since they are only that way because of racial stereotypes.

Which is a point that Sarkeesian misses. While she argues that male body diversity exists to allow male characters to show off their personalities, the problem is that it’s usually the other way around: the developers pick a personality and then pick a body type to emphasize that purported personality. This is usually based around a stereotypical idea of what body types go with those personalities. More importantly, this is often used to mock those body types and personalities, or to take a stereotypical idea of them in culture to do the emotional work for the writers … which is exactly the sort of thing she criticizes the character Jo Slade for doing.

Additionally, this reveals something that you can do for women that you can’t do as easily for men. The reason that they change the body types for men is that it’s harder — though not impossible — to represent differing personalities in any other way for men. For women, a lot of the visual difference in personality comes down strictly to clothing and hairstyle, but for men clothing doesn’t vary that much, and so it’s a lot harder to indicate personality that way. So it’s not unreasonable for them to stick with the same rough body type that most people find attractive in some way for women and use varying styles to reflect varying personality types. Note that in games that do rely heavily on costume and style to differentiate the personalities of male characters — the Persona games, for example — the body types don’t vary that much.

At any rate, in order to treat female characters the same as male characters here means treating female characters as stereotypically as male characters are treated. It’s interesting to note, then, that one of Sarkeesian’s examples here is of Kreia, who is presented in personality and appearance as a stereotypical witch. Note that we can contrast that with another Bioware character that fills the same “mentor” role — Wynne from Dragon Age — and note that that stereotype is not used. Flemeth and Morrigan are the witches … and don’t conform to the stereotype in appearance (Morrigan rather, ahem, visibly so). Again, Sarkeesian’s analysis seems to be based on shallow personal preference rather than real, detailed analysis, since she doesn’t mention Wynne at all and talks about how great Kreia is in multiple videos.

So, Sarkeesian is certainly not going to want women of differing body types presented as simple stereotypes nor as objects of ridicule. In order to have them be seen as, for example, desirable, she’s not going to want to give characters the option to skip them, either as playable characters or as romance options. If she goes as far as she usually wants to, this would mean creating, say, heavy women as the main character or as the main — if not only — romance option. This clashes with player choice. How many players really want to play as a heavier character? Do even heavier players, in fact, really want to play as a heavier character? Or would they rather play as someone who is at least more conventionally attractive than they are? If games are power fantasy — as so many of those criticizing games suggest — then even the audience Sarkeesian would want to appeal to here might not actually want to be forced into that role. Ironically, it might be the traditional straight male audience that might find that option surprisingly refreshing.

And the romance option becomes more problematic, because it might run into the issue that the player is forced into romancing an option that neither they nor their character would find appealing. We’ve already run into this in RPGs, which is one reason for the increasing diversity of romance options. But even doing that has its issues. If you don’t match the body type to its “stereotype” (personality), the character might be off-putting. If you do, then that’s stereotyping and not what Sarkeesian ought to want. It also runs the risk of a problem experienced with Samantha Traynor from Mass Effect 3, where male players found her the most appealing option — and, in some cases, the only appealing option — but couldn’t romance her because she was same-sex only (in my case, my Shepard was a lesbian female and so didn’t have that problem). The best way to do what Sarkeesian wants is to give the least physically attractive characters the most appealing personalities, but this could leave players with no reasonable romance option … an issue that happened to me a couple of times in “The Old Republic”. While this sometimes can’t be avoided, it hurts the game and the game playing experience if it happens. Since romance options are almost always determined by a combination of physical attractiveness and personality — like real-life romance options — this approach would make that more likely to occur.

At the end of the day, in general more player choice is good and less is bad. Sarkeesian’s attempt to insert Social Justice goals into games, however, works against player choice, or else all her desired gains vanish as most people holding the views she wants to change simply ignore all of the content … unless she forces it on them. But then it might ruin the experience even for those people she wants to help with her changes. I’m not sure a clearer example of Social Justice vs Games can be found.

Tropes vs Women: Are Women Too Hard To Animate?

September 9, 2016

So, the not-quite-latest video in the Tropes vs Women series is Are Women Too Hard To Animate? Female Combatants. It starts off by looking at the controversy over “Assassin’s Creed Unity” where Ubisoft claimed that they couldn’t add playable female characters to the multiplayer portion of the game because doing the animations and models would be too expensive. Sarkeesian notes this about it:

A number of experienced game developers joined the chorus of voices calling out the absurdity of Ubisoft’s claims. Animator Jonathan Cooper, who had previously worked on Assassin’s Creed III for Ubisoft, tweeted, “I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations.” And Manveer Heir of Bioware summed up what Ubisoft was actually saying: “We don’t really care to put the effort in to make a woman assassin.”

This … is pretty much the extent of her research into what it would take to do. She references another case, that of Far Cry 4:

Ubisoft’s disregard for female character options didn’t stop with Unity. Also at E3 2014, the director of Far Cry 4 admitted to a similar issue with that game’s online co-op mode, saying, “We were inches away from having you be able to select a girl or a guy as your co-op buddy.” Again, the excuse for why this option wasn’t available was that it would just be too much work. And yet again, what they were really saying was that they just couldn’t be bothered to do the work it would have taken to provide that option.

The thing is … Anita Sarkeesian, whether you think she deserves it or not, has a name presence in games at the moment, which comes from having made Time’s 100 most influential people list. If she actually wanted to answer the question that she titles the video with, she could easily have contacted Ubisoft and asked them to explain just what it was that would make it be so much work or be so expensive. Given her name recognition, they’d be far more likely to accommodate her than they would be most other people. And yet it seems that Sarkeesian is uninterested in doing the research to find out what was really the case, instead pretty much implying that it wouldn’t have been that hard and that they couldn’t be bothered to do the work. Which is indeed technically true, but obviously it would be more reasonable for them to take that position if it would require re-doing 8000 animations than it would be if it was only a day or two of work.

Now, I’m not an expert by any means, but I have read a fair bit around the issue and I work in software design, so I’m going to take a stab at thinking out what might have happened here, without insisting that anyone is lying. In software, there are usually multiple ways to do something. Some of them are faster but don’t work as well — or don’t cover as many cases — and some take longer but really work. I’d imagine that Cooper’s solution is simply to re-do the skins and re-use all of the existing animations. And this can indeed work. But the risk you take is that if you take detailed motion captures of men and then put female skins on them you’ll end up with female characters that, well, move like men. This can run into a number of issues, from it resulting in characters that no female would want to play to interaction issues as the skin is based on, say, a bigger or differently shaped frame and so it might mess up hit boxes and the like.

Now, if something really will only take one or two days to do but you aren’t sure if it will work, in software the usual practice is to prototype it: implement a quick and dirty version of it and hand it over the testers to see how it works. So it’s quite possible that they actually tried Cooper’s idea and noted that, yes indeed, it looked stupid and didn’t work. Then, left with only the longer option that would take too much work and time for the effort, they decided to not include the option of female characters in multiplayer.

Now, I can’t say for certain that this is what happened. But that they felt the need to mention it at all suggests that they were considering it — and knew that they’d get some push back on not including it. Given that, it’s not all that likely that it would have only taken them a couple of days to do that and yet they still decided not to.

However, this is mostly an aside — despite it being pretty much the title of the video — because the real question here is spawned by Sarkeesian’s conclusion. She says that they couldn’t be bothered to do it, and the question is: Should they be?

Now, up until now what Sarkeesian has been advocating for are things that don’t inherently or necessarily increase the actual costs of a game, and thus don’t inherently impact the profits of the game. Sure, there might be extra work to create female protagonists or to avoid the damsel in distress plot, but for it’s not necessarily the case. Most RPGs, for example, only need to do different skins for the characters to add female protagonists, which is why RPGs have constantly and consistently done that for ages now. So the only risk to the profits of the company are that some players may not buy a game that has a female protagonist or uses a different story. But here we have a case where, indeed, the claim is that it will cost significantly more to add female characters to the game. So while in the previous cases getting more sales by appealing to female gamers would be a nice boost and a reason to maybe give it a shot, here, those extra sales would be required to avoid taking a loss on that specific feature.

This actually hurts the companies that are more likely to want to appeal to new audiences — including the female audience — in order to expand their profile: indie games. Shamus Young recently created a new game called “Good Robot” with Pyrodactyl, and as it turns out it didn’t make as much money as expected. From the comments in that linked post, it seems that this has put the company on a far more shaky financial position than Arvind — the guy who runs it — is comfortable with. So, a company like Pyrodactyl might, indeed, want to try to increase their audience by appealing to female gamers. But, as outlined in the post, every feature that takes time both delays time to market — which can be critical — and the cost of the product, which directly impacts profits. So they assess every feature to see if the effort to implement it will increase sales enough to increase their profits. Thus, the question to ask is: does it actually do that?

I talked about FIFA 16 in another post, as a game that deliberately added female players. What has happened to its sales since the introduction of female players? Well, FIFA 2015, up until this point, has sales of almost 19 million units. FIFA 16 has sales of about 16 million units. While FIFA 15 has had another year to make sales, that doesn’t look like a huge boost in sales. Also, in at least the UK — a very big and important market for soccer — sales were down in the first week. So it doesn’t look like adding female players to the game added to its sales.

So, pretty much every company is going to — quite reasonably — be wary of taking the time to add female characters if they aren’t likely to see increased sales because of it. If Sarkeesian et al can’t appeal to the idea that it will increase profits to add female characters, then all they have to fall back on is the Social Justice argument: game companies need to be fair and need to promote the Social Justice issues that they think are important. But doing so might reduce their profits, and might actually drive indie studios and even studios in big companies out of business. Are they to be required to drive themselves out of business to satisfy an agenda that is not theirs?

This only gets worse if attempting to address those issues can be a no-win situation. The rest of Sarkeesian’s video discusses whether or not they should include female combatants. The reason she has to address it is that it is a feminist question of whether including them is perpetrating and promoting violence against women or not. Sarkeesian argues that it isn’t as long as they are not sexualized and are capable of fighting back, but the issue here is that a company that tries to address feminist issues risks getting it wrong no matter what they do, as some feminists deride them for not having women combatants in the game, and some deride them for having women combatants in the game, which might mean that they don’t even pick up the limited gains they hoped to see by attempting to address those issues.

Assuming that anyone even pays attention to their attempts. Sarkeesian has been better at highlighting games that do things reasonably lately, but it is still the case that games get far more attention for doing it wrong than for doing it right.

So, should gaming companies put in the extra effort to allow female characters if their framework doesn’t really support it? From a strict profit and loss standpoint, they probably shouldn’t. As a long-time RPG player, I really do want to see the choice … but I’d understand if they don’t want to, and instead want to play it safe. The video games industry is too tight right now to afford to guess at what might benefit, and female characters don’t seem to be a benefit.

Tropes vs Women: Lingerie is not Armor

June 17, 2016

So, Anita Sarkeesian has posted her next entry in the “second season” of “Tropes vs Women”, which is an odd way to put it since she’s completely redone her approach to the series, mostly because as she herself has said she doesn’t really have the time to do what she said she’d do in what was supposed to be a “single season” series. It also implies that there might be a third season, although given what she says in her explanation of the format change that doesn’t seem all that likely, as at least originally there is was implied that the change existed solely to allow her to, well, get the series actually finished at some point. But that’s all an aside anyway.

At any rate, this video talks about “Lingerie is not Armor”. If you’ve never heard of that trope before, the relevant trope on TV Tropes — and, warning, this is a link to TV Tropes — is “Stripperific”. Essentially, it’s the idea that especially female characters are dressed in outfits that aren’t practical for the role they play in a game, but are instead inordinately sexy, highlighting their … ahem … attributes more than you’d expect for someone doing what they’re doing. The most well-known example of this is, in fact, the “Chainmail Bikini”, so it’s been around for quite some time. Now, Sarkeesian, of course, needs to do more than simply point out that the costumes are sexy, because for her feminist arguments to work — meaning, her specific ones — she needs it to be the case that the characters are, in fact, completely sexualized and objectified by such outfits. If they are characters that also happen to be sexy, her arguments mostly fail.

At any rate, let’s start by looking at her first example. She talks about a ad for “Perfect Dark”, that definitely is highlighting the attractiveness of Joanna Dark and does play on both that and her femininity — with the “What are you going to wear?” line — in order to sell the game. But as I’ve said before, it’s going to be the case that even female players want a character that’s competent and confident as well as sexy and attractive and maybe even feminine. So that in and of itself isn’t a problem, and the text itself really sells that she is, in fact, strong, capable and confident:

“Welcome to 2023. Big businesses now merge with alien nations. An ancient war is being fought under the sea. The president is about to be cloned. And it’s your job to try and save the world. So you’ve got an important decision to make: What are you going to wear to work?

From the team you brought you GoldenEye for N64, meet special agent Joanna Dark in Perfect Dark, where you’ll find out that the only person man enough to handle a job like this is a woman.”

I won’t say that this description isn’t problematic — it is — but it does definitely highlight how capable Dark is. Contrast this with Sarkeesian’s “translation” for a male character:

Welcome to 2016. There’s a war out there…somewhere. You’re not sure where, exactly. Anyway, the important thing is, you’re Special Agent Jake Grimshadow. It’s your job to save the world. The only question is: What are you going to wear? …. WAIT… WHAT??

Sarkeesian says that this would never happen, and that it shouldn’t, and she’s right … because this is a commercial that relies on portraying the character as an utter moron who knows nothing and might even be someone who’s simply looking for an excuse to kill things (which seems to be Sarkeesian’s default interpretation of, at least, male game players). The only thing it keeps is the “What are you going to wear?” line, which can easily be interpreted as a line mocking that stereotype of women … one that, however, many of them actually live up to. The problem I have with that line is that that line, specifically, might undermine our faith in the character, making her seem shallow and uninterested in the actual mission, but it’s important to note that since that add was almost twenty years ago that’s based on a modern interpretation. Now, we expect women to not care about what they’re wearing that much, especially when going out to save the world. Then that sort of shallowness was more common, so common that it didn’t seem shallow at all.

In contrast, Sarkeesian leaves out anything that establishes the male character as being confident or capable, adds a line that doesn’t fit with the stereotypes of men, and then tries to get us to see how ridiculous this really is. Yes, what was done there was problematic, but when you use examples like that and that sort of gender shifting what you really want to do is keep the translation as close to the original as possible in both form and intent so that you can highlight the problem. If, for example, Sarkeesian had kept it the same but instead replaced the “What are you going to wear?” line with “Which guns are you going to bring?”, would it have had the same impact?

At any rate, the question you need to ask is “Is Joanna Dark sexualized and objectified here, such that she is or is to be seen as nothing more than a sexual object for the enjoyment of the presumed male player?”. And the answer, I think, is “No”. You are supposed to see her as confident, capable and sexy, not just sexy.

Part of the issue with this video is that Sarkeesian wants to use fighting game examples to prove her case, which is that female characters’ outfits forgo reasonable protection in order to highlight their attractiveness and sexiness, but this assumes that the outfits in fighting games are, in fact, designed primarily for protection. So, for example, she highlights Cammy from Street Fighter:

Cammy from the Street Fighter series is a British special forces operative whose thong leotard does a better job of calling attention to her butt than of offering any kind of protection.

So, let’s compare Cammy’s outfit to that of the male characters in the original Street Fighter II game (because I haven’t kept up with the variants). Like, say, Sagat, who pretty much only wears trunks. The same is true of Dhalsim. And E-Honda, who wears the traditional sumo outfit. And Zangief. Even Ken and Ryu, who are mostly covered up, wear karate gis that, well, don’t provide a lot of protection. The only character who wears any kind of actual armour is Vega, because in character he wants to protect his pretty face. So, based on this, protection is not in fact a main priority in the Street Fighter series. So about the only complaint she can have when comparing her to the male characters is that her outfit and her stances show off her butt a lot. The latter doesn’t fit into a “Lingerie is not Armor” trope, and my reaction to the former is “Just what is your obsession with butts anyway?”.

Later, Sarkeesian talks about more practical outfits:

It’s not hard to imagine what more practical clothing options might look like for some of these characters. But if you’re having a hard time envisioning that, I will let you in on a little secret:

For those of you who aren’t familiar, there is this thing called a sports bra. Sports bras are designed to keep breasts held in place to better facilitate athletic activities. In other words, they are used to prevent “jiggle physics” in real life. In the real world, there are many female martial artists, athletes, and women in combat roles that developers could use as inspiration when designing and dressing their female characters.

So, then, we can look to an example that she missed, which is Sonya Blade from the original “Mortal Kombat”. Sure, her outfit bares her midriff, but is pretty much exactly what women wore while doing, say, aerobics at the time, and thus what people actually wore doing athletics. If Sarkeesian complains about how it doesn’t provide protection for someone who is actually fighting, then we have to look at Liu Kang and Johnny Cage who aren’t wearing any kind of armour either, and fight in what, well, martial artists wear, as seen with Sub-Zero and Scorpion as well. In general, in fighting games characters are dressed to, well, demonstrate their character more than being dressed for protection, mostly because if you try to introduce armour — and “World Heroes” did this with Jeanne — you either have to give it to all of the characters, give that character a huge advantage (because the armour would absorb blows that the other outfits wouldn’t) or else make the armour cosmetic only. The latter is usually what’s chosen in fighting games, which is why we have Jeanne because she’s clearly modeled on Jeanne D’Arc.

Thus, the outfits in fighting games tend to be modeled for character expression, not for protection, and thus also, in some ways, to provide maximum movement, which is why characters — male and female — often don’t wear all that much. In fact, in the Mortal Kombat movie, it’s actually a bit jarring that Johnny Cage fights in a shirt and dress pants, because fighters generally wouldn’t wear that (although, arguably, Cage is more used to that because in the style of movie he acts in that’s what he’d normally wear) because it’d be too restrictive. No, it’s in RPGs that we typically note the issue, because armours are supposed to actually provide protection, and the stereotypical “Chainmail Bikini” leaves critical areas exposed. Sarkeesian’s focus on fighting games, at least initially, hurts her case. Even focusing on first-person shooters runs into the issue that if one is going up again people with guns, until recently armour was not exactly likely to help much.

That being said, when fighting zombies where one bite can infect you and turn you into one, people should wear more clothes. Of course, again, regular, non-feminist gamers have already pointed that out:

I’m not trying to be a puritanical busybody, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s vacation here, but maybe if zombie bites are that much of a concern we should think about putting on some shirts and pants? The plastic sheen on your skin tells me you’re laying on the sunblock really thick. Maybe that’s good enough, but I’m just saying that having a layer or two of cotton and denim between your flesh and their teeth wouldn’t hurt. Just a suggestion.

Sarkeesian highlights the “hyper-sexualization” angle:

Because clothing can shape our first impressions of a character and has a tremendous influence on our sense of who they are every time they are on screen, sexualized outfits can contribute to what’s called the hyper-sexualization of female characters. Hyper-sexualization in the media occurs when a character is designed to be valued primarily for their sexual characteristics or behaviors. In hypersexualized characters, these attributes are highlighted above all else and made the center of attention, while everything else about the character is made secondary.

But the question then becomes: in any of her examples, does hypersexualization actually happen? Are these characters really seen primarily for their sexual characteristics, which everything else secondary? Is Cammy’s leotard, for example, seen as more primary than her being a British Special Forces agent? Sarkeesian, throughout the entire video, simply points to the outfits and says that they’re bad and the problem. She doesn’t examine the characters in detail to see if it fits or works for them, or if they are presented as characters that are competent, capable and sexy. In short, Sarkeesian doesn’t examine whether the sexiness is a defining trait, or a secondary attribute, while insisting that the problem with the outfits is that they, in fact, make the sexiness a defining trait.

Which is where she gets into trouble with an actual feminist theory:

Games and other media often work to frame this sexualization as a positive thing for women. They blur the distinction between female sexualization and female power, and as a result, sexualized female characters are sometimes celebrated for being perceived as “owning” their sexuality in a way that is empowering. But it isn’t actually empowering because the sexuality these characters exude is manufactured for, and presented as existing for, the presumed straight male player.

Sarkeesian has to ride that last part about it being designed for a straight male player very hard, because otherwise she runs the risk of being charged with “slut shaming”. The feminist theory is this: patriarchal society has always put strict limits on women and how they express their sexuality, which mostly meant that “good” women didn’t dress revealingly or sexually at all, and only to the extent that it was required in order for them to do what they needed to do. A woman who would dress “impractically sexily” was seen as, well, being a slut, and being openly available for sex. Thus, as soon as you saw a woman dressed like that, you were encouraged to think of her as, well, primarily a sexual object. The feminist response to that is, in fact, that women have to be able to dress sexy without having it be seen as in and of itself making her into a sexual object. Sarkeesian later references this point when she tries to talk about healthy sexuality:

The sexualization of female characters is about designing them, dressing them or framing them in ways that are specifically intended to be sexually appealing to presumed male viewers or players. Women’s sexuality, on the other hand, exists for themselves, and for those they care to consensually share it with. And sexuality can be expressed or experienced in any kind of attire.

But even here, she implies that women shouldn’t need to dress in sexy outfits in order to express their sexuality, implying that a woman willingly dressing in the way these characters dress is framing themselves as being appealing to men, not for themselves. But this is, in fact, the essence of slut shaming, which is the idea that a woman who dresses a certain way is to be seen as a sexual object for the pleasure of men, and nothing more. Thus, it is a perfectly valid feminist criticism of Sarkeesian to say that all she does is look at the outfit a woman is wearing and immediately concludes that, given that outfit, we should all consider her to have “sex” as her primary attribute, which means that she’s doing exactly the same sort of thing that the patriarchy does.

To settle this, then, we need to find a way to look beyond the outfit and determine if this is a character that wants to wear this outfit and one that is just wearing it because the game designers want to engage in some Fanservice. And the way to do that is to, in fact, look at the character herself and see if the outfit is something that that character would wear. Sarkeesian, unfortunately, has blocked herself off from this way of going about it:

Out of all the arguments that are tossed out to defend the impractical and objectifying clothing that women are made to wear in games, there is one in particular that I hear the most often and that is perhaps the most pernicious. That argument is: “Maybe that’s what she wants to wear!” Which is ridiculous. These women are fictional constructs. That means that they don’t dress themselves or pick out their own clothing. I can’t believe I have to say this. All these visual designs are deliberate choices made by the developers …

She also contradicts herself, however, when she talks about good expressions of sexuality:

These moments aren’t presented as titillating morsels of sexuality for players. Rather, they function as expressions of the characters’ sexuality that deepen our investment in the characters and their relationships to each other.

Except … how can it be an expression of the character or, rather, how can it be more an expression of the character than the former is, that she just wants to wear outfits like that, or has a reason to? In both cases, you have a fictional construct and are trying to derive its wants and desires from that construct, which is done by the designers. So if you can’t derive a “This is an outfit that that character would want to wear!” argument from that, you can’t derive a “She’s expressing her sexuality!” from that either. So Sarkeesian ends up being limited to either arguing that the former argument is invalid and the latter argument is valid only because it aligns with her own thinking on those issues — and thus, all female characters have to align with what she thinks is reasonable, even if other women wouldn’t think the same way — or else she has to rely heavily on the “Well, games are designed with men in mind!” argument which leaves us unable to determine how a game aimed at a general audience ought to work, and ends up being nothing more than an argument of “Don’t just design games for men!” with no real guidance on how to design it for women, too. Neither of these are options Sarkeesian should want to take.

So it seems to me that what we really, really want to do is focus on the characters and not their outfits. Thus, as I said before, Catwoman gets a pass because the character archetype she’s playing would indeed highlight her sexuality, even as a deliberate distraction. Miranda Lawson gets a pass for the outfit, but the game doesn’t get a pass for the camera angles that overly highlight it. More demure characters ought to dress more demurely, and more, um, sexual characters should dress more sexily, according to the overall standards for the genre that it’s in. Even in RPGs, there are definitely going to be some female characters who wouldn’t want to wear armour that’s generically male; they might still want to look like a woman even while totally protected, and thus might wear more form-fitting and feminine armours. But the Chainmail Bikini ought to be right out, since it couldn’t provide the protection a woman in that setting would need.

So, great, we can do this if we can justify it from the character. But then we run into the problem of Ms. Fanservice, which here is more the issue of a character that, it seems, is designed with the idea of being Fanservice first and foremost, and has nothing else beyond that. This, it seems to me, is what Sarkeesian is really annoyed about here, even if she can’t identify it, because it is only here that the character has their sexiness as their primary attribute. Fanservice itself isn’t a problem with a character that is loved for more than that; a shower scene for the character that you most like for their personality is a bonus, not a defining trait. But here, arguably, the character is built to provide fanservice, and the most interesting traits of them are the ones that justify — even if weakly — the fanservice that they provide.

If we look at Sarkeesian’s examples of failed attempts to justify the costumes, it really looks like this is what she’s aiming for. I don’t want to talk much about Bayonetta because she’s arguably justifiable in terms of powers and personality and I don’t know enough about the game to say one way or another. But Cortana and Quiet can provide us with an interesting way to try to assess the situation. Cortana:

The superintelligent AI companion Cortana from the Halo franchise has always been depicted as naked, and when asked about why this is, franchise director Frank O’Connor said, “One of the reasons she does it is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so they’re on their guard when they’re talking to her and that she has the upper hand in those conversations. It’s kind of almost like the opposite of that nightmare you have where you go to school in the nude, and you’re terrified and embarrassed. She’s kind of projecting that back out to her audience and winning intellectual points as a result.”

Meanwhile, male AIs in the Halo universe do wear clothing; the idea of them trying to “win intellectual points” by walking around naked is ridiculous. But we rarely question the extremely widespread association of sexualization and power when it’s applied to female characters.

And Quiet:

So you see, she can’t wear clothing because she breathes through her skin! These ludicrous narrative justifications don’t “make it okay.” Regardless of whatever absurd explanation a game might provide, it should go without saying that the only real functionality of outfits like this is to titillate the presumed young straight male player base.

But is that the case with both of these? How can we tell? Again, fanservice in and of itself isn’t a problem, and a female AI that’s learned that it can seduce or bemuse men by presenting itself naked seems more sexist towards men than women (ie “Show some skin and men fall all over themselves for you!”). As for Quiet, the idea that she needs to absorb oxygen (ie “breathe”) through her skin is an interesting one and has that implication (it would be a plot hole if she was still fully clothed). So how can we tell how to interpret the character and these reasons without doing what Sarkeesian does and dismissing them out of hand?

Remember, the idea is that the “Ms Fanservice” character has those traits only or primarily to provide an excuse for the fanservice. So if that trait isn’t just for that, it should matter to the character for important reasons beyond that. It should become a character point and, ideally, a plot point. So, for example, for Quiet there should be a scene or scenes where you can’t take her along or where you have an issue because you can’t have her swim out because she’d be submerged in water and thus would drown, even with a breathing apparatus. Or, alternatively, you can have her complain about how men don’t take her seriously because she can’t dress more modestly. In fact, you can pair her with someone who dresses modestly and discuss the differences in attention they get from men for that. There are numerous ways to make the point be important to the character more than it just being something that lets then dress sexily, and this is arguably precisely the sort of thing that Sarkeesian wants in how characters in games are built, thought about, and characterized.

I say “arguably” because when Sarkeesian gets into talking about sexuality she seems to kinda miss the “characterization” part:

The Last of Us: Left Behind features female characters who express romantic feelings for each other, rather than exuding a sexualized energy that is directed outward at the player.

And in Firewatch, though it’s only heard and not seen, Delilah expresses sexual desire for the player character, Henry.

Now, I originally had a throw-away point about Sarkeesian potentially treating workplace sexual harassment as healthy sexuality, since Delilah and Henry were co-workers. And then I went to look it up, because I wanted to make sure that I was right and discovered two things: 1) Delilah is Henry’s supervisor and 2) Henry is married to someone who is not, well, Delilah. Thus, one of Sarkeesian’s main examples of healthy female sexuality, in fact, fits the paradigmatic definition of sexual harassment and encourages adultery (because there’s no indication that Henry and his wife have an open relationship). How can she think that that is a reasonable and good depiction of sexuality?

So, even interpreting her charitably leads to a conclusion that Sarkeesian does not consider a supervisor suggesting a sexual encounter to an employee to be sexual harassment … if it’s a woman doing it to a man. After all, she constantly exempts cases where men are put into similar positions to women in her tropes analysis on the basis that given the social context it’s not an issue for men as it is for women. But here, the reason that a supervisor approaching an employee for sex is seen as always being or at least risking harassment is because of the power imbalance; the employee always has to worry if this will impact their job. Sarkeesian can try to claim — a la the sociological definitions of sexism and racism — that men have power and women don’t, but here it is the woman who definitely has power here. She could try to use the idea that the man would never turn down an attractive woman in this situation and so doesn’t this should be seen as always welcome (and so we should ignore the general case that even if welcome it’s a bad idea) but this is just fostering the idea that men want sex with all women all the time, which is as harmful as many of the attitudes she decries. She could argue that because of the way society is he needs to fear losing his job less than a woman would, except that female supervisors can still retaliatory fire and a man that’s out of a job is looked on more negatively than a woman would be. About the only argument that’s left is that he could get a job easier than a woman could, which isn’t true in this economy.

And none of that would justify the encouragement to adultery.

Fortunately — or unfortunately — it’s equally consistent with what Sarkeesian has shown in the past to conclude that she didn’t really play or understand the game when she used this as an example, or that she didn’t think of the implications of the scene. Pick the one that you like the best.

Now, moving onto the examples, what Sarkeesian gripes about in other examples is this:

But sadly, when consensual sex does occur, it’s often presented as a transaction or as a reward for player accomplishment. Whether that accomplishment is completing quests, or just choosing all the right dialogue options to get the sex cutscene to play.

So, returning to “Firewatch”, we note that in that game you can choose how to react to Delilah, including ignoring her. So, presumably, if you ignore her, this scene won’t happen. Thus, you’re going to have to choose the right dialogue options to get that scene. Otherwise, she’ll offer to have sex with you no matter how you treat her, which isn’t healthy sexuality at all. Thus, it is just as much a transaction as anything else she talks about. Also, this implies that in her first example that relationship occurs no matter what you do, which takes away player agency and so in allowing them to create the story to their standards. That’s a huge step backwards for games! Modern games are improved by allowing the player to decide who the PC loves or doesn’t love, hates or doesn’t hate, kills or doesn’t kill. For some reason, Sarkeesian wants to take huge leap backwards in order to prevent, it seems, straight male characters from having any fun she doesn’t like. Okay, okay, that’s too harsh, but she wants to take away something that I really like: the choice of romances and the quests and dialogues that lead to them.

But even as a point of female characters expressing their sexuality, the point fails miserably. See, those quests and dialogue options consist, in most games — Bioware being the leader in these sorts of interactions — of you picking the dialogue options that are right given the character that you are talking to. Heck, even the dialogues are tailored to the person you are interacting with. In Conception II — a game that Sarkeesian will dislike intensely — your interactions with the characters that build towards getting a relationship with them are in conversations that relate to specifics about the characters. You have to help Miss Chloe balance singing and being a teacher, Fuuko with her confidence (and with a ghost), Narika with her fear of public speaking, Torrii with her odd inventions, Feene with her photography and loneliness, Serina with her, sigh, A-Cup Angst and Ellie with the fact that she’s not quite human. Even the thinly veiled analogy for sex — so thinly veiled that it might as well not be there — is actually critical to advancing the relationship, which is why I, myself, never managed to get a relationship in that game when I played through it, because I stopped doing the “Classmating” because I had enough Star Children and wanted to save the Bond Points for combat. Sure, you’re “choosing the right options”, but the right options depend on the person you’re dealing with, and you have to also spend time with them to increase the bond with them.

Also, in Dragon Age, in order to build your relationship with someone you had to give the right responses to other people based on what that person wanted you to do. This is what drove my character to move from a bitter, cynical City Elf to a much better person because of the love of Leiliana, as she had to act nicer to others to keep that relationship up. Again, it’s choosing the right options, but the right options for the character you are dealing with, meaning that it forces you to think of them as more than just an object for sex.

And the quest that I had to do to get the relationship with Josephine in Dragon Age: Inquisition? Challenge her arranged suitor to a duel that I, as a mage, was going to lose and then when asked why I did it say that it was because I loved her. That’s definitely thinking of that as more than simply for sex.

Maybe Sarkeesian doesn’t mean these sorts of things when she talks about only choosing the right dialogue options, but we don’t know because she laments how rare “healthy sexuality” is and then never mentions these as examples. So does she know about them and hate them for some reason, or does she not know about these examples from, well, relatively well-known games that follow the model she’s criticizing? Who can say?

In conclusion, Sarkeesian does a more shallow analysis of the “Stripperific” trope than has already been done. We need to look more at how the outfits fit the character than simply say “Look, boobies!” and think that that reflects some kind of interesting meaning, and Sarkeesian fails on multiple levels to do that, ironically leaving herself open to criticisms from feminists, non-feminists, and gamers in general. A quite astounding achievement for one small video to pull off …

Tropes vs Women: Body Language & the Male Gaze

April 15, 2016

So, when I first read Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video (and yes, I read them, and don’t generally watch them), my first thought, no fooling, was that it made her previous video look really, really bad. After all, it covers pretty much the same issues, but instead of being just a cheap, joking shot at a phenomena that, as it turns out, doesn’t actually exist, it actually goes over them in some depth and says some interesting things. But on later examination, I became much less impressed. As usual, when Sarkeesian is right, she isn’t saying anything new, and when she’s saying new things, she’s generally wrong.

She starts by praising Destiny for its gender-neutrality, which as it turns out is, I think, a major issue with her underlying thesis. At any rate, she moves on from that to talking about differences in how male and female characters sit in the game:

However, there is one way in which the male and female characters are differentiated by gender, and it has to do with their movement. Watch how a male guardian sits down, taking a load off after a long, hard day fighting the forces of pure evil. It’s simple. It suggests confidence. When a female character sits down, however, it’s a completely different story. She sits like a delicate flower. This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior and yet she is sitting around like she’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Now, I had to actually go and watch the video far enough to see the difference, and noted something right away. Let me start by talking about another game that had the motion capture be mostly gender neutral, which is Mass Effect 2. If you play through the DLC that gets you Kasumi, you get evening wear, which for a female character is an evening dress. As with most of the outfits in the game, you can use this as your default clothing when you aren’t in your armour or environment suit. Note that they don’t change the game animations, so if you put your Shepard in the evening dress — as I did — and run around in it, you get a fairly masculine looking run in an evening dress. This isn’t actually an issue in any way, understand, but just something to note (and remember for later).

Now, if you are replaying the game, you can start with all unlocked outfits, which includes the evening dress. In Chuck Sonnenberg’s review of the game, his female Shepard starts in that outfit, which leads to him making a joke about what the scientists were doing with the character while she was out (his joke is about it being a tea party). But, as we get to the cutscene, we notice something: the camera angle and the way Shepard gets off the table aren’t changed if you are wearing the dress, which is unfortunate, because you pretty much get a full upskirt shot in the video.

Now, this is almost certainly unintentional, as the dress came out only in a DLC later, and you could only see this if you left Shepard in the dress and then replayed. And even if it was noticed, it was likely going to be too much work and too expensive to fix. So what we have is, inadvertently, something that we know Sarkeesian hates: an upskirt shot.

Now, look at how the male character in Destiny sits. Note that you can view that from the front. So … how in the world would the Destiny designers arrange it so that you can’t get an upskirt shot from that, if the female character was wearing a skirt? Sure right now, as Sarkeesian says, the outfits are the same. But what if they wanted to offer a more feminine option?

And that’s where we start running into issues. I don’t find the way the male avatar sits in Destiny to suggest confidence, as Sarkeesian asserts. And I find the female avatar’s sitting posture — and getting into it — to be far more awkward than anything approaching sexy. So I disagree that it’s the case that the male avatar gets to sit confidently and the female avatar gets to sit in any way that would demonstrate “sexiness”, which is Sarkeesian’s big push on this, as usual. What I will say is that the pose is, in line with Sarkeesian’s description, feminine. But then we have to ask: should female characters and their body language be feminine?

One of the issues with women entering into male dominated fields and adopting traditionally masculine behaviour is that it faces resistance from women who, while they want to be confident and capable and all of that good stuff, still want to remain feminine while doing it. So, contra Sarkeesian, they don’t want to act and look just like men, because they don’t want to sacrifice their femininity to get that. Thus, things from feminism to commercials have tried to push the idea that women can, in fact, be as strong and capable and confident as men are while still retaining their femininity. And body language is, in fact, an important part of that, as even Sarkeesian admits that it can have a big impact on how a character is perceived.

Now, the ideal way to handle this is to, well, give choices. Instead of just sitting or having a default walk, let the players decide if they want their female character to sit femininely or masculinely, and the same for male characters. The problem with this is that motion capture for simple, repetitive motions is expensive, and so you only want to do this if you really need to. And you can’t just do the motion capture with a man and then reuse it for female avatars, because that will often look really, really artificial and stupid. And, other than people like Sarkeesian, most people won’t complain too much if their female avatar’s body language is merely feminine. So there’s really no reason to not just make male avatars have masculine body language, and female avatars have feminine body language. It’s likely what most of the players who create those avatars want anyway.

But what about sexualized body language?

By contrast, the way that women move in games isn’t just used to suggest their confidence or their skill or some other facet of their personality. It’s very often used, in conjunction with other aspects of their design, to make them exude sexuality for the entertainment of the presumed straight male player.

Catwoman from the Arkham series has a deeply exaggerated hip sway when she walks. In combination with her clothing and the game’s camera angles, all of this is meant to drive the player’s focus to her highly sexualized butt. In Resident Evil: Revelations, Jill Valentine somehow manages to wiggle her whole body while she runs. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Evie Frye is a character who avoids falling into many of the sexualizing traps that some playable female characters do. But she still walks with an exaggerated hip sway.

Catwoman is a bad example here, because it is a main point of the character that she plays on her sexuality, being a trope of the femme fatale/cat burglar. I’m not familiar enough with the others to say, although simply talking about a bit of hip sway might fall more into “feminine” than into “sexualized”, especially since as women wear high heels and high heels cause hip sway — as Sarkeesian says later — this might be just trying to make women walk, well, the way they often walk.

An example of actual sexualized male gaze and the impact on body language can be seen in Mass Effect 2, with Miranda Lawson, as has been pointed out by many people. I seem to recall reading somewhere that they did that to try to play on the same sort of “femme fatale” trope mentioned above, but it fails badly. And it fails badly because unlike other examples of male gaze, it isn’t the character or, in fact, any character that’s doing it, but instead the game doing it. We don’t shift into a first-person type of view — as seen in some of Sarkeesian’s other examples — or have a comment that reflects that this is the or a character doing this, and so is the game trying to present this to the player, as opposed to trying to present this to the character. And while it’s obviously the case that Miranda would try to use her looks to gain an advantage if she could, in many of the scenes, again, it’s not the character that gets to see it, but the player. So if they wanted to go for that trope, they missed by a mile through terrible execution.

But this raises the question of what counts as male gaze? Sarkeesian, as usual, is so broad as to be utterly unhelpful:

The male gaze manifests when the camera takes on the perspective of a stereotypical heterosexual man. An indisputable example of this is when the camera lingers, caresses, or pans across a woman’s body– although it’s not always that obvious. In games, it can be as simple as the in-game camera resting so that a character’s butt or breasts or both are centerline, it can be cutscenes that rest on a woman’s butt, it can be clothing that they are wearing or the way they talk, or it can be as basic as the way a female character moves around the game world.

So, essentially, anything Sarkeesian doesn’t like, in other words.

As a theoretical and overarching concept, male gaze can’t apply when the character is a stereotypical heterosexual male who, well, would be looking there. Male gaze, to be problematic, has to apply in cases where in terms of story and character where that wouldn’t be the case. Thus, it has to be the case, as pointed out the Mass Effect 2 example, where the game is doing this, not the player (ie it’s not under their control) and not the character. Also, in order to be problematic, it has to be the case that, as Sarkeesian puts it:

The male gaze reinforces the notion that the man looks, and the woman is looked at. Or as art critic John Berger explains it in the 1972 book Ways of Seeing, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”

So, instances where a particular man does this won’t count, especially if there are women who are not simply looked at in that way. Mass Effect 2 might well fit this for a number of reasons; the camera angles are often odd and show off the attributes of the female characters. But you’d need far more than the examples given in the first part of the video to get to anything like male gaze in those games, at least. So I need more arguments and evidence here, which is a common trend with Sarkeesian’s videos.

And, again, Sarkeesian’s blinkered perspective impacts her comments on sexualizing men:

When male characters are depicted as shirtless or wearing little clothing–like the character sometimes dubbed “Hot Ryu” from Street Fighter V– their lack of clothing demonstrates their power and strength, rather than depicting them as erotic playthings or reducing them to sexualized body parts.

Except … those are masculine traits that women find sexually attractive, and they are physically attracted to appropriate and reasonably musculature. So it’s not really any different, then, than presenting a woman as feminine with feminine traits and then highlighting her sexually appealing physical attributes. Sure, it’s different if the woman is, in fact, reduced to only those parts, but that is pretty rare outside of — and even inside of — pornographic games. Miranda and Catwoman are given personalities along with their attributes and walk, as are pretty much all of the other examples Sarkeesian lists. So, at the end of the say, she hasn’t made a case that they’re that much different. Ultimately, for the most part the main characters in games are designed so that people who would be attracted to them are attracted to them, and that those who aren’t want to be them, or both. That applies to both men and women.

Tropes vs Women: Strategic Butt Coverings

February 5, 2016

Anita Sarkeesian has put up her latest Tropes vs Women video, “Strategic Butt 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 off. From her Kickstarter post on the subject:

We plan on completing Tropes vs Women in Video Games within the year but it’s going to look a little bit different. Instead of incredibly long videos that focus on one trope and deconstruct hundreds of examples, we are going to break it down into smaller bite-size pieces. We’re going to publish shorter, more focused episodes, by taking the theories and concepts from the remaining tropes and presenting them in 5-10 minute long videos around a very focused topic.

Huh. The main issue I had with most of the videos so far was that there was too much focus on trying to find and sometimes force examples as if posting a huge amount of examples would say something interesting, instead of taking a small number of examples, making reasonable claims based on that, and focusing more on the analysis and making it deeper and better argued. It turns out that generating all of those examples was taking up too much of Sarkeesian’s life, and so now she wants to focus on smaller videos that hopefully she’ll be able to get out faster so that she finally finishes the series. There are two important things about that related to my post here:

1) I’m going to end up saying far more about this specific topic than Sarkeesian does, and this may well carry forward into the future.

2) Given this, it would seem that videos will have to be focused and not have the time to drift into irrelevant topics that would be mostly aside jokes.

So, let’s look at this video, “Strategic Butt Coverings”, which has as one of its main points … the idea that game designers are going to great lengths to cover up the butts of male protagonists, a point so important to Sarkeesian that it’s pretty much what inspires the title of the video.

Sigh.

Anyway, onto the content:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen, a camera orientation which, along with the sexualized clothing the designers chose to outfit her in, places a tremendous amount of emphasis on that part of her body.

In dozens of third-person games with playable female characters, the character’s butt is brought to the forefront and that’s where the player’s focus is directed.

Let’s contrast the way that women’s butts are emphasized with the sometimes absurd lengths taken to cover up or hide men’s butts. If some of this footage looks jerky, that’s because in some games, trying to get a glimpse of male characters’ butts can feel a bit like wrestling with the camera.

Common ways men’s butts are hidden are by preventing the player from seeing below the character’s waistline, or employing a more over-the-shoulder camera angle, which has the added benefit of keeping the character’s butt safely out of the frame. The most amusing solution is to simply include a cape, tunic, long coat or very conveniently positioned piece of tattered fabric which actively prevents the player from getting a clear or sustained look at the protagonist’s butt.

The problem is that this idea that the male protagonist’s butt is habitually covered up in first-person games is, well, generally false. In all sorts of games, especially the games I play — RPGs and MMOs — and especially in the games where you can create your own character and choose their gender — which is the majority of the games I actually play, unless I’m playing JRPGs — in the third person view you get to see the entire character (see TOR, KotOR, Sith Lord, Suikoden III, Shadow Hearts (which is generally only a male character), Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc). This has led to a very common joke — so common that even I’ve heard it — which I’ll illustrate with Shamus Young’s take on it from his series on LOTRO:

So… character creation time. I’m going to play as a female, because, hey – if I’m going to be staring at an ass for hundreds of hours, it might as well be…

…shaped like a dumpling? Hey baby you got any fries to go with that bowl of yogurt?

Typically, if you play a third-person game, you are going to be staring at a butt for the entire game. Male gamers have joked that this is one main reason to make the main character female, because at least then you’ll be staring at a woman’s butt instead of a man’s butt. And in the Mass Effect case … it didn’t seem to work based on Sarkeesian’s own comments on the game.

And, as it turns out, one of her main examples — Batman in the Arkham games — is plain wrong:

For the purposes of this video I tried to get a glimpse of Batman’s rear end, but it’s as if his cape is a high-tech piece of Wayne Industries equipment designed to cover up his butt at all costs. I like to jokingly refer to this aspect of a male character’s costume as the strategic butt covering.

Except that you can get capeless costumes for old Bats, and it turns out that Nightwing is in the game and can be played for a period of time, and he doesn’t have a cape. In both cases, you’d get to see their butts. So if they were going to extreme lengths to hide them, they didn’t do a very good job of it.

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do.

And, in fact, most of the third person games don’t do it at all. So why did you name your video after this supposed phenomenon that doesn’t really exist?

The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

Yeah, we know that sometimes or even often games draw attention to the sexual characteristics of women in odd ways. Shamus Young highlights the issue with Miranda in Mass Effect 2, and this was a well-known trope among gamers longer before his latest series, again, so well know that I’d heard about it. I believe that Chuck Sonnenberg over at SF Debris brought it up in his series on The Old Republic, commenting on the exaggerated sway of the hips of the female characters, which made me wonder why I hadn’t noticed it (reason: that’s the one MMO where I only have one female character, which I haven’t played since I joined the first time). Mostly, however, that’s in cutscenes, or in general costuming. And the latter, at least, is something that Sarkeesian has already talked about. So beyond the almost non-existent trope of strategically covering up the butts of men — so limited that it’s not even worth calling a trope, really — there’s nothing new here. Surely if Sarkeesian is going to have more focused videos here, she’s going to have to focus on things that are really there and are really important, no?

Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters, so that players are encouraged not to ogle and objectify these women, but to identify and empathize with them as people. This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

Why can’t we do both?

In the same post that I found out about the extra costumes for Batman in the Arkham series, a commenter mentioned JRPGs and their issues with sexualizing characters. Which is true; the character in JRPGs are often dressed up in very sexual and often fetishy costumes, with an emphasis on their … attributes (usually not the butt, oddly enough). Yet, JRPGs that do that also often push us to identify and empathize with them as well, particularly the “dating sim” type of games, where thinking of them as people is rather the point of having to choose which one, if any, you end up with at the end of the game. Let’s take Conception II as an example. It is a very juvenile game, where your female companions dress in very sexy outfits for your dungeon-crawling, tend to be very well-endowed — except for Serina in her normal form, which is a character point for her — and they combine this with rampant Gainaxing (I noticed this with Miss Chloe in the dungeon after one of her special moves). Given that the Classmating mechanism is a thinly veiled allusion to sex — so thinly veiled that, well, there might as well not be a veil at all — this is a game that should embody the sort of objectification that Sarkeesian talks about.

Except … all of the female companions are interesting characters with distinct personalities, so much so that you can’t help but like some and dislike others. My favourites were Chloe Genus, Narika Shina, and Fuuko Amicis. Chloe is smart, strong, capable, caring, and responsible, and was my favourite. Narika is caring, shy and a little unsure of her own abilities, but is just so incredibly nice that it all works. Fuuko is nice as well, but lacks confidence in a way that annoyed me more, but she’s also more outgoing than Narika. As for the others, Torii is utterly flaky but in a way that others might find cute, Ellie is cute and fun and funny but still a bit too flaky for my tastes, Feene tries to mix, it seems to me, eccentricity and cool elegance and it doesn’t work for me, while Serina has a massive chip on her shoulder that just irritates me. But all of them could be interesting and could be interesting to get to know depending on what you personally like. While they all may be somewhat stereotypical, they are also people that you are supposed to get to know and care about, and literally bond with (bond points are the mechanism by which you do good things like produce Star Children and pull off special abilities). You do that by hanging out with them, finding out what is going on in their life, and what they like and don’t like. In short, you treat them like people.

In Persona 3, given the right outfit, you might get a good look at Mitsuru’s butt when she gets a critical. And yet her personality, in game and in her S-link, is developed enough to almost make her my favourite female character ever. Sexy to men and a person aren’t mutually exclusive … and often have to be combined.

Given that, Sarkeesian is focusing too much on shallow appearance in determining if a female character is objectified. What we have to do is look at appearance and, more importantly, how the character is portrayed, and in particular how they are portrayed — ie in what depth and detail — when compared to all the other characters in the game. A game that characterizes no one doesn’t objectify a female character if they fail to characterize her, and a game that characterizes everyone except the main love interest objectifies her even if they put her in baggy pants and don’t show her butt. We need to look deeper, not shallower, if we are going to make games better, keeping what people like about them and adding things that ought to be there.

Tropes vs Women: Women as Reward DLC

December 4, 2015

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.

Tropes vs Women: Women as Reward

November 27, 2015

Sarkeesian moves on to talking about Women as Reward, which she defines thusly:

We’ve coined the Women as Reward trope to describe a long-running pattern found in interactive media. It occurs when women (or more often women’s bodies) are employed as rewards for player actions in video games. The trope frames female bodies as collectible, as tractable or as consumable, and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players.

But if we delve into her examples, what we’ll find is that what she really means is “Women as Incentive”, or rather “Sex as Incentive”. These fall into two main categories. The first is where the game uses sex or the promise of sex — either actual in-game sex or sexual images and the like — as an incentive for the player to perform certain actions in the game. The second is where the game uses game mechanical incentives to encourage the player to engage in sexual actions in the game itself. What’s important to note here is that neither of these cases are cases where the player does something of their own volition and they happen to get, say, a sexual image at the end of it, which is them actually getting a reward even though they in no way did that action to get that reward. Sarkeesian, it seems to me, in order to make the link to her “entitlement” comments and for most of her examples to work has to argue that the game, at least, intends that to be the incentive for doing something, and not just some little bauble that the player looks at and says “Cool”, and moves on. It has to be important enough to the player that they strive for it, which makes it more than a mere reward. We often confuse the two because we use what we call rewards to “condition” people to do the actions that we want them to — we especially see this when dealing with children or animals, but this also occurs in business — but generally those are incentives for behaviour change, not merely rewards.

It’s also important to note from this, then, that Sarkeesian’s argument isn’t going to work if it can be boiled down to “It’d be okay to reward that behaviour, even with sexual content, but the reward is so sexualized that it ought not be in a game at all”. Sarkeesian claims to not be opposed to sex in games, and since rewarding someone involves giving them something they like, and we can presume that even Sarkeesian likes sex, then giving them that as a reward is not in and of itself a problem. If Sarkeesian’s only argument is that the depiction of sex is itself harmful and so, say, women ought not be depicted that way, then it doesn’t fall into the “Sex as Incentive” trope, or even “Women as Reward” trope, because for it to fit it must be the case that the problem with it is crucially that it is offered as incentive or as reward, and not its mere presence. So if she wants to make that argument, she needs to define the trope for it and discuss that specifically, and not let the idea of that trope colour our perceptions of this trope. So here I’ll focus on instances of “Sex as Incentive” as outlined above.

The result of this incentive structure is that access to women’s bodies, women’s affection or women’s sexuality is reduced to a simple equation that guarantees delivery as long as the correct set of inputs are entered into the system.

In this way the Women as Reward trope helps foster a sense of entitlement where players are encouraged to view women as something they’ve earned the right to by virtue of their gaming actions, skills or accomplishments.

So, then, the heart of the “Sex as Incentive” trope is that it reduces women to objects for the player to simply use. Of course, simply using sex as an incentive doesn’t in and of itself do that; it must be the case that the NPCs are already seen as objects, and then when the player engages in sex with them — or even views the images of them — that’s just continuing the objectification. The problem is that in a lot of games, the “correct set of inputs” is, essentially, talking to them, finding out what they like, giving them what they like, and solving problems for them. Thus, the correct set of inputs is to create a connection and a relationship with them, which likely isn’t what Sarkeesian is criticizing and, to her credit, doesn’t seem to be what most of her examples are criticizing, except potentially by implication. So it’s important to note that her definition cannot include these cases. This distinction is going to be important later when Sarkeesian talks about trophies and “entitlements”.

We run into a major problem when Sarkeesian talks about “Easter Eggs”, because these are examples that fit squarely into the “reward” category, and where the issue is the reward itself, not that it is being used as a reward:

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 included a secret unlockable character named Daisy, who bore the likeness of porn star Jenna Jameson. Daisy’s sexualized appearance and skateboard tricks are designed as a reward for those players who unlocked her. One way to do that is by entering this code… ( o ) ( o )

Probably one of the most famous Women as Reward easter eggs brings us back to Samus Aran. The original Metroid used a password system to save progress. By inputting the secret code “Justin Bailey” into this system, gamers would unlock a powered-up playable version of Samus wearing only her leotard-style bathing suit. Incidentally this is the same outfit we covered earlier as an end-game reward, only here she has the powers of the Varia Suit and its associated color pallete swap, which changes her hair color to green. Players can then play the entire game as Samus without her space armor. So she ends up exploring a hostile alien world and fighting off deadly monsters in her underwear.

I find the code for Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 to be juvenile, but note that in both cases the problem is with the presentation itself, not with the fact that that is the reward. It should be clear by now and from the initial introduction to her video — alluded to in the quote — that Sarkeesian doesn’t want the player to have the ability to dress Samus in that way, or to have a sexualized character in the game. She focuses on this again later:

Many unlockable costumes are cool, wacky or bizarre. But when applied to female characters we see a distinct pattern of revealing, hypersexualized outfits.

Fetishized bunny, cat, maid or nurse costumes are commonly used by developers as a way to pander to an assumed straight male player base.

It’s important to remember that sexualization is not necessarily just about the amount of skin showing, but is instead connected to the question of whether or not a costume is eroticized for the express purpose of titillation.

These types of unlockable outfits can be especially pernicious since they often end up undermining women who are otherwise appropriately dressed for active or professional roles. The Resident Evil franchise has been particularly guilty of this over the years. Almost every major release in the series has included the Women as Reward trope.

The problem is not that these outfits are unlockable. If you could choose them from the beginning, it wouldn’t make Sarkeesian any happier, and I dare say it would make her far less happy. So these don’t apply even to “Women as Reward’, let alone to “Sex as Incentive”, unless she wants to argue that people will try to finish the game just to gain the ability to dress the character in those outfits. No, the issue is that she finds them inappropriate, not that they are inappropriate rewards.

Let me take a brief aside to talk about this. I see nothing wrong with giving players the choice to put characters in utterly inappropriate outfits for the role they’re in. Games are primarily about entertainment, and if a player wants to acknowledge that by doing utterly ridiculous things, more power to them; they’re absolutely aware of the disconnect there and are rolling with it. I also see absolutely nothing wrong with giving players the choice to put characters into outfits that they happen to find appealing, and that they think make the character look good. I also have no problem with that “looking good” part being sexual in nature, in short, dressing up a character in ways that make them look “hot”, in the mind of the player. So the only objection here can be about it being “sexualized”, whatever that means. But that, again, is another debate. What is relevant here, though, is that dressing a competent female character in an outfit even designed to make her look “hot” doesn’t suddenly take away her competence, or her strength, or her personality. It doesn’t in any way reduce her to a sexual object, but instead enhances her character as “strong, capable, competent and hot too”. So since it merely adds to the qualities of a character that the player already likes. In fact, typically the biggest calls for “sexying up” a character comes for characters that the players themselves like in other ways. In short, male players tend to really want to see female characters naked that they actually really like as characters.

Admittedly, typically most men will take naked pictures most of the time, as evidenced by the popularity of pornography. But if we’re going to get into talking about incentives, the more appealing a character is in general, the more likely a male player will be incentivized by seeing them in a sexual position. And the driving force for that is often what they think of the character as a character, and not just as an object.

Alternative costumes for men are rarely objectifying. They’re instead presented as “tough guy” power fantasies for other straight men to identify with. And when men are stripped down to their beachwear it’s most often meant as a lighthearted joke.

So, here’s a quick question: why do men find those outfits “appealing” in the first place? Could it be because those are the sort of men that are considered to be “successful”, which in our culture very much means “appeals to women”? Sarkeesian here is ignoring that women have traditionally found different things appealing than men have, and that the “tough guy power fantasies” reflect the traits that women find appealing. Whether or not that is also a reflection of patriarchy is an argument for another day, but Sarkeesian assumes that they can’t be objectifying because they reflect a power fantasy for men, ignoring that a big part of that is their appeal to women. Sure, it’s absolutely true that in most of these cases the outfits aren’t put there to appeal to women — because games still do aim to appeal to men more often, which I concede is an issue — but if they were, I suspect that those same, “non-objectifying” outfits would be the ones added if women were asked “What sorts of outfits would you like to outfit men in if you wanted to make them hot?”. So things are no where near as simple as Sarkeesian wants to make them out to be.

For the record, I’m totally in favour of asking that question for women and putting those sorts of outfits in the game, as long as no one is forced to use them … just as I’m in favour of the existing outfits for women that Sarkeesian criticizes as long as, again, no one is forced to use them.

Sarkeesian moves on to talking about the use of XP points for sexual encounters:

When women are used as sexualized experience point dispensers, the sexual scenarios are themselves a reward designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players. But there’s a dual reward here: absorbing these expressions of female sexuality carries with it the ability for male characters to grow stronger, faster and more capable, reducing the women to points in a mathematical equation that directly links the flippant consumption of female sexuality to an increase in male power.

She actually links to both cases here, where the first seems to be aimed at “You are encouraged to do it because you get sex out of it” while the second is aimed at “The game gives you stuff for engaging in sex”. The problem is that the game giving XP for this doesn’t link all that well to the first point, because typically XP is really important, and the game wouldn’t have to give you XP to do something that you were going to do anyway.

Her GTA example only highlights a problem with her analysis:

In Grand Theft Auto 5, players are given additional encouragement to solicit prostitutes, in the form of an increase to their character’s stamina rating, which enables those characters to sprint, swim, or ride a bike faster for longer periods of time.

If that’s an action that a character wants to do — because they enjoy the sex parts so much — then this becomes merely — presumably — one way to raise those stats, and a way that they find more entertaining. But then it’s one way out of all of the others to raise those same stats, making it a mechanism, not an incentive (the incentive is still to raise those stats; you’re just doing it in the way that bores you the least). Thus, either players are doing what they wanted to do anyway and raising stats that way, or else they are doing it to simply get the increase in stats and this is the most efficient way to do so, at which point that it involves sex is not only irrelevant, but mostly ignored. It’s the equivalent of, say, being able to raise a specific stat in an Elder Scrolls game by running everywhere. If I want to run everywhere — and I often do, because I hate horses — that stat will go up … but that the stat goes up is in no way an incentive for me to run everywhere. And if I run everywhere just to increase that stat, then that while you can argue that the game incentivizes my running everywhere, there’s no link between the increases and the action; it won’t make me want to run everywhere in games, or even keep running everywhere once I max out that stat. So we can see that these kind of incentives either reward the player for doing things they already want to do, or else turn the reward into a gameplay element where the details of the interaction are generally ignored.

So the only case that seems problematic here would be the case where the mechanism is boring, but players are encouraged to do it anyway to see the sex scene or image or whatever. But if they’re willing to be that bored to see sex, it’s not likely that the game giving that to them is going to change much. And note that underneath all of this lies the fact that many games do not have these sorts of mechanisms, or any explicit sex scenes at all, so it’s not like gamers aren’t already exposed to even relationships with female characters that don’t end in sex (even some of Sarkeesian’s examples have to substitute “a kiss” for that).

And speaking of relationships:

Note that, while the consumption of women makes male characters more powerful it has nothing to do with mutual relationship building. The “relationship,” such as it is, ends with sex, or rescuing the woman. At that point, she has served her purpose. Players have reaped the benefits and her value has been depleted. Like an empty energy drink container, she is simply cast aside after being consumed.

I have to presume that she’s talking about the cases where you can merely hire a prostitute or something, not the sex scenes that follow from explicit relationship building, like in the Personas, or most Bioware games, because there the relationship doesn’t end with the sex, and the relationship is built up massively over time. Which, again, since she talks about being able to show what she considers proper sexual relationships, it would have been really nice for her to have used one of the Bioware examples as relationships done right, and about being less about sex and more about a real relationship. As it is, as I said above, here she almost seems to be condemning them by implication as well. I’m going to be charitable and assume that she doesn’t include those relationships in this description (although in The Old Republic you get XP for pursuing sexual relationships. You also get it for pursuing friendship relationships as well. It’s about the relationship, not the sex).

When done well, collectibles inspire exploration and replayability. However, when they’re designed to function as an extension of the Women as Reward trope, players are encouraged to view women’s bodies as souvenirs of their adventures.

In the 2010 remake of Splatterhouse players are encouraged to collect ripped-up pieces of photographs of the protagonist’s girlfriend which are strewn around each level. Once the player pieces them together, the completed images consist mostly of private, personal sexual photos.

But, again, is this just giving a player something they like and then can look at later, or is it actually the incentive to collect these things? Again, if a player doesn’t care about looking at them, then they won’t collect them. If they really want the pictures, then they’ll go to potentially tremendous effort to get them. And if the collectibles provide something in game, then most players won’t be thinking “Hey, naked pic!” but instead “Okay, got that, so only X more to go!”. It’s no different in that case from my trying to get all of the Iron Man armour in X-Men Legends 2 so I could unlock Deadpool (I think). That it was Iron Man’s armour meant nothing to me.

So here, again, Sarkeesian has to be opposing having those sorts of images in the game at all, because she presumably wouldn’t have a problem with unlocking landscapes or bonus scenes or bonus characters (in fact, she out-and-out says that). So it’s that you can unlock things that are, in her mind, sexualized that’s the problem here. Keep that in mind as I’ll go into what her overall problem with this is later (as she holds it to the end as well).

Next, we turn to trophies, and achievements:

If collectibles in the player’s inventory work as a private trophy collection, then achievements serve as a public trophy case, on display for all to see. Achievements, or trophies, are meta-goal award systems built into most popular gaming platforms. Unlike collectibles, achievements are earned through in-game actions but awarded outside of the game environment itself and have no effect on gameplay. Some achievements are rewarded for skill or completion of tasks while others are arbitrary challenges set up by developers.

These systems encourage “replayability” and provide players with incentives to spend more time inside the game space experimenting with its environments and characters. By default, your achievements are visible to anyone who views your profile on a gaming platform and thus they allow players to show off their gaming skill or dedication to their friends. In other words, achievements are designed to function as status symbols for gamers.

Um, actually … no, not really. Or, at least, that’s not how most gamers, it seems to me, treat achievements. There are two reasons for this. First, the only real bragging rights you get are for achieving all of the achievements, not usually for completing specific ones (certain incredibly hard ones might get some props). Second, there are often in-game rewards for completing a specific achievement or all of them (a different difficulty level, new scenes, new options, etc). So while they are indeed shared, a specific achievement isn’t likely to generate much status for anyone. Sarkeesian describes it thusly:

Just so we’re clear on what’s happening here, players are receiving a literal trophy for “achieving sex” with a woman. When games such as these award players with achievements or trophies for sexual conquests they are directly reinforcing negative ways of thinking about the dynamics between men and women in our society. By presenting sex as an end goal of men’s interactions or relationships with women, these games frame sexual encounters as challenges to be overcome.

Let me emphasize that the problem here is not necessarily that sex is included in these games. By presenting sex as a goal and then presenting players with an award for accomplishing that goal, these achievements function as a form of trophyism. Simply put, trophyism is the tendency for men to view women as objects to be collected and displayed as status symbols of their sexual prowess or virility. These “trophy women” then serve as a way for men to assert their social status among and relative to other men.

The thing is … you pretty much get trophies for doing anything in the game. The trophies for Dungeon Travelers 2 include: leveling up to an intermediate class, eating at the ice cream shop, and a gold reward for leveling to an advanced class … which you’ll almost certainly have to do to get anywhere in the game. And these are likely going to be harder to achieve than most of the “get sex” options that Sarkeesian talks about. “Trophyism” in the real world only works when the thing you’ve achieved is hard to get. In the real world, the assumption is that the more attractive the woman, the harder she’d be to “get”, and so the better the man had to be to “get” her. This is not true of the sexual encounters in games that you get trophies for. The cheap, casual encounters are trivially easy to achieve in games; they’re literally the equivalent of hiring a prostitute, which confers no status on a man who had to do that to get sex. The ones that would be at all impressive would be the ones that require you to negotiate a long, drawn-out process of building a relationship with the person, and again what would be impressive is not that you got to the sex scene but instead that you spent that much time going through that character’s personal story to get to that point. The harder that is, the better.

She also talks about the 2004 Sid Meier’s Pirates! game:

The “fame points” system in the 2004 version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! provides us with a stark illustration of trophyism. In the game, romancing and then rescuing any of the game’s many governors’ daughters not only rewards your pirate with the option to marry her, but also wins him extra fame points. The daughters are largely interchangeable; they don’t even have names, and their value as a reward is tied directly to their appearance. Courting and marrying a “plain” daughter earns fewer fame points than marrying an “attractive” one, and marrying a “beautiful” daughter earns the most points of all. Fame points then directly contribute to the social status your character achieves at the end of the game. Depending on the amount of points accrued, you could end up as anything from a lowly pauper to a powerful governor. Other ways to earn fame points include acquiring wealth and defeating rivals. Like all your swashbuckling escapades, acquiring a woman becomes just another feather in your proverbial cap, functioning to elevate your prestige and renown in society. And since, in the game’s Xbox Live Arcade release, there are achievements for getting married, and for courting governors’ daughters from all four nations at once, these accomplishments also increase your gaming status.

The problem is this: the only difference in reward for attractiveness is precisely which one you marry. The spread is this: 1 for plain, 2 for attractive, and 3 for beautiful. There are a total of 10 points available based on what the wiki itself calls “Love”. So if you go for a plain daughter, you limit yourself to 8 out of 10 points maximum. The total number of points available in the game is 126. So you’d limit yourself to 124 points if you did everything else. If you get 124 points, you get … Governor. In fact, the range on that is 103 – 126, so you can still mess up a lot and still get the max retirement occupation even if you go for a plain daughter. And if you do nothing else and so only end up with 8 points, you get Bartender. Add the two extra points for a beautiful daughter and you get … Bartender. Huh. So much for her being beautiful really mattering.

And I think that finding someone to love — again, they call it that — is more than just a feather in your cap. After all, among those “feathers” is “Avenging your family earns you 10 points” and “You earn 32 points by finding all four cities and your entire family”. In fact, all of the fame achievements are things that are critically important to someone living the life of a pirate: achieving a certain amount of wealth is important to a pirate, since that’s their main measure of success; as a privateer, ranking with the nations is also important; defeating famous pirates is also a key factor; finding hidden treasure is what pirates do; and of course the three already mention. Knowing the series, this seems to be intentional; the fame achievements are likely designed to represent what an ideal pirate/privateer ought to be striving for. So rather than being an excellent example of what Sarkeesian is on about here, it is in fact a terrible one; the woman is not a feather in the pirate’s cap, but a key component of what a pirate/privateer would want to achieve before retiring. It’s thus important on a character level, not a gaming or “show off my status to others” level. I’d prefer it if the game had given them personalities to make it more interesting, but it’s not how Sarkeesian presents it.

So, finally, what is her problem with “Sex as Incentive”? Well, it comes down to male entitlement:

By extension, “male entitlement” is the conviction that men are owed something by virtue of their gender. It’s the belief structure that tells men they deserve to have their whims catered to, both culturally and interpersonally. One of the most harmful aspects of male entitlement is the false belief that men have a right to survey and use women’s bodies. This mentality carries with it a corresponding set of expectations about what women should provide for men. It’s a worldview that primarily defines women’s social role as vessels of sexuality, and men’s roles as consumers or patrons of that sexuality.

But then in the context of games she talks about it this way:

Players make the correct inputs into the game; a woman’s affection or her body is the corresponding output. Players go through the process of saving the princess, and the game’s algorithm dutifully rewards them with what they think they are rightfully owed for doing so: whether it be a kiss, a girlfriend, or sexual attention.

So, male entitlement is the idea that, because they’re men, they deserve something. In this case, it’s seen as access to women’s bodies for sex. And yet, the underlying mechanism is not “I’m a man, but give me sex” but instead “I’m a man and I’ve done all of the things that our society says I need to do to prove my worth and value to you, up to and including risking my life to save yours, and so I think I’ve earned the promised reward”. Sarkeesian’s misunderstanding of the damsel in distress trope rears its ugly head here again, because she misses that what the male character is doing in those cases is demonstrating their value to the woman as a hero and as a man. The man spends the entire game proving to the woman that he’s worthy of her. Assuming that he’s successful, it surely shouldn’t seem like such a stretch that doing that might, you know, prove that he’s worthy of her love, or even simply demonstrate to her his good qualities that she can fall in love with right?

Thus, the gaming mechanisms that present the “Sex as Incentive” reward as being the result of long, tedious and often boring “correct inputs” actually oppose male entitlement, as they present the situation as being male being table stakes, but that a massive amount of effort has to be done to achieve the end goal, an effort that is done to her specifications. If any entitlement is on display here, it is female entitlement: the idea that being female is enough to get a man to go through hell to win her love, while she doesn’t have to demonstrate anything other than being female, and being attractive.

There is one aspect that might actually fit into a typical view of entitlement that she talks about:

For instance in Asura’s Wrath, when the player stares at a maiden’s breasts, she’ll try to cover herself up. But if the player keeps staring they will unlock an achievement called “View of the Valley”.

Similarly, in Lollipop Chainsaw the player can unlock the “I swear! I did it by mistake!” achievement for using the game-camera to look up Juliette’s skirt for an extended period of time despite her coy efforts to block players from doing so.

These achievements are directly rewarding players for in-game behavior that amounts to sexual harassment. Players are actively being encouraged to think of women’s bodies as something they are entitled to interact with.

So, let’s analyze the role of the achievements here. Again, either the player gets this for doing something they’d do anyway, or else they are doing it to get the achievement. If the former, then they’re doing it anyway and that they get an achievement for it is irrelevant. If the latter, then they are only doing it for the achievement and it’s no different than them clicking on a door five times, and so they don’t even really acknowledge that this is sexual harassment … because they aren’t even really paying attention to what’s going on. Sure, there’s a middle ground between the two, but for the most part you’ll side one way or the other.

Sarkeesian’s objection here, then, can’t be that you get an achievement for doing it. It has to be that you can do it. And I can see an argument for that, mostly because it does involve you having to be directly trying even as the character is trying to ensure that you can’t. But this has nothing to do with “Sex as Incentive”, “Women as Reward”, or male entitlement as it is defined in relation to those tropes.

Let me finish by talking a bit about how she thinks rage at frustrated male entitlement plays itself out in games:

In the gaming community, we see this entitlement-fueled outrage bubble to the surface when some gamers encounter indications that games aren’t made exclusively with their fantasies in mind. Angry public temper tantrums from straight male players have occurred when role-playing games have forced them to interact with gay male characters, or presented them with lesbian characters who were not available as romance options to male avatars.

Angry backlash from straight male players also materializes when Western releases of Japanese games place women in slightly less revealing outfits, or increase the age of young sexualized female characters to 18.

In the same vein, when presented with critical analyses of the poor representations of women in many popular games, this intense male entitlement manifests in aggression, abuse and threats.

There are no examples of this in the actual transcript, but let me start from one main principle: The Internet sucks. Many Internet commenters have ended up in flamewars for simply expressing criticism of a game in a way that wouldn’t in any way trigger any kind of male entitlement. For example, Shamus Young ended up in a bit of one for a post that criticized Windows by parodying criticisms of Linux, as if he was criticizing Linux for not doing the obviously stupid and annoying things that Windows did. Suffice it to say, if you’re on the Internet, and you criticize something people love — or are even seen to be criticizing something people love — you will get lots of nasty reactions and rage.

So a lot of the time, the reaction is not so much “male entitlement”, but instead anger that something that they love is going to be changed to appeal to an audience that has never bothered to support it before and has no real reason to support it now if the changes are made. When D&D 4.0 came out, I say lots of posts criticizing how it seemed to be aimed at “video gamers” and removed elements that real roleplayers wanted to see. No male entitlement there. The reaction gets even worse when the response is seen to be a reaction to complaints from that group that is at least seen as not being particularly interested in the genre in the first place. If you look at most of her examples, that seems to be the case. Again, she gives no specific examples, but it is easy to imagine that players would react badly to either having a female character that they would prefer to be their romance option be designated as “female only” simply to attempt to be more inclusive, or have a male character blatantly hit on their male character when most other cases the player has to initiate the interaction (I believe there’s a case of the latter in one of the Dragon Age games, and I know some people complained about one of the characters in Mass Effect 3 being female only because she was the character they were most interested in). In the case of the ports, again this is a reaction to having to change the game from how it was originally done to serve the interests of people who almost certainly aren’t going to play the game, and don’t care about it … and who could easily skip the game and/or the scenes if it bothered them that much.

I’m going to skip the part where she’s trying to use herself as an example without saying it, because I don’t want to get into the discussions of that specifically — suffice it to say that it’s more complicated than she seems to understand — but the specific examples of changes in games don’t follow from male entitlement, but from people being upset at people trying to change the things they love for a vague or nebulous goal that is never “Make the games better”. I wish that people didn’t react as stupidly on the Net when things like this happen, but unfortunately, they do, and ruin things for everyone. That doesn’t mean that Sarkeesian can reduce it all to “feminist theory du jour” without understanding the potentially real issues that people have with those changes.

Tropes vs Women: Woman as Background Decoration (Part 2)

November 20, 2015

Sarkeesian continues her look at Women as Background Decoration in Part 2, where she starts by talking about certain ad campaigns that link sex and death/violence, featuring women:

The marketing blitz surrounding the release of the 2006 game Hitman: Blood Money featured several advertisements depicting the murdered bodies of sexualized women with captions like “Beautifully executed”. Even in death these lingerie-clad women are posed provocatively in a way designed to sexually arouse straight male viewers.

She also comments on a similar usage in ads for “L.A. Noire”, and points out that male characters are generally not portrayed that way. For the latter, it seems to me that that follows from something that I have considered problematic in the past: the idea that the main audience for the game will be male. Or does it? Are female players more likely to find that sort of depiction more appealing than they would seeing a male character similarly sexualized? No matter what else we might say about these things, sex and violence has some appeal to some people. I don’t particularly understand it myself — if I find a mix of sex and violence appealing, it’s the sex part that’s doing the heavy lifting for me — but there do seem to be a significant percentage of people who find that mixture appealing. There’s been a long history of horror playing on this mix, and it can be argued that the success of vampires owes a lot to this mix … and that this is one of the reasons why women themselves find vampires appealing. Could it be the case that women find thinking of themselves in the victim role more appealing than of thinking of men in that role? Well, given patriarchy, men who are considered victims are typically unappealing to women, and feminism hasn’t really changed that attitude all that much, even as it somewhat works to move women away from perpetual victim status. So certainly even women wouldn’t want to see those sorts of depictions of men.

That being said, even given its appeal, I don’t think the use of the mix in these cases works. I think we ought to be more forgiving of L.A. Noire, because it seems to me that the noire and pulp fiction genre that it was trying to evoke relied heavily on those sorts of depictions, and so trying to maintain that sort of atmosphere in its ads only made sense. I can’t see any reason for the Hitman series to do that, because despite some of Sarkeesian’s suggestions I don’t think that game is trying to that sort of atmosphere or mix as a major theme of the work, meaning that its usage in the ads — and even at times in the game — would be gratuitous and sensationalizing, and so something that we’d like to limit the use of, for various reasons. So I don’t really support the use of that mix in the advertising for Hitman, but I’m not an expert on the game and so if it has any real purpose or link other than simply playing off of a rather lame pun, I’m open to hearing about it.

Moving on, Sarkeesian goes on to list a number of cases where sexualized female characters are killed in front of the player, although at one point them merely flirting with the player is enough to be problematic in Sarkeesian’s eyes. The issue is that she fails to distinguish between cases where they happen to be sexualized and cases where the sexualization is deliberately designed to be a major point of the depiction, which is the issue with the “Hitman: Absolution” example from Part 1. While I don’t have the full context for most of these games — since I don’t play them and right now am too lazy to bother looking them all up — looking at her depictions I’d agree with Prototype and disagree with the ones that happen to be set in a brothel. Now, some might — and have — argued that using the brothel setting ought to immediately invoke the “intend to sexualize” interpretation, but I disagree, and again the Hitman example is, to my mind, a good example of this, as setting a scene in a strip club was probably overdue for that series. If the game or the series heavily relies on these sorts of settings, then that’s another matter, but if instead it merely uses them on occasion, then I think the argument doesn’t work.

Ultimately, I’m not comfortable with deliberate attempts to mix sex and violence and to sexualize violence, but I don’t think that doing so makes a game bad or necessarily has a great social impact. It just means it’s probably a game that I’m not that interested in playing, and as long as there are games out there that don’t rely on that mix that heavily, then I’m fine with ignoring them and playing the games that don’t really do that. Sarkeesian does not seem to be as forgiving I am.

From here, though, we move away from the mix of sex and violence to more traditional simple violence. Sarkeesian says this about the victims:

The women who fulfill this trope in gaming universes are sometimes designed to occupy minor narrative roles but more often than not they’re just hollow shells, empty representations with little to no personality or individuality to speak of.

Which, again, is how all NPCs in a game are treated. They all serve their purpose in the overall narrative, and their personalities are developed only so far as necessary to fulfill that role. So, then, what role does Sarkeesian think these NPCs fill?

Developers regularly utilize the brutalization of women’s bodies, and especially the bodies of female prostitutes, as an indicator of just how harsh, cruel and unforgiving their game worlds are.

It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.

After all, if the random thugs or villains are so heartless and vile they attack helpless women, then the player can feel completely justified and even take pleasure in murdering them in ever more gruesome ways.

All of this is designed to convey that the protagonist is a ruthless, unfeeling, morally corrupt character who is capable of anything. Again, we see female bodies sacrificed as a way to justify the ever more gruesome and extreme violence the player must commit throughout the game.

Essentially, the usage is to portray that the world, well, sucks. When these female NPCs are killed, we’re supposed to see this as an example of just how violent and depraved the world, villain or protagonist really is. Therefore, we’re supposed to care about the violence done against women, and think it terrible and totally unjustified, and we’re supposed to see that not because it’s done against someone who really doesn’t deserve it, but because it’s done against a woman. This holds even if, as Sarkeesian notes, the woman has no personality to speak of, and so we have no reason to care about her as a person, and no more reason than we have for any of the male characters that we can kill. So, then we have to ask why women are placed in this role and men typically aren’t? And the reason is that the deaths of men aren’t considered to be an issue. Men — even under patriarchy — are considered disposable, that their lives are there to be sacrificed for the needs of society and, most often, specifically for that of women. The hero in the Damsel in Distress is expected to risk his life for the damsel often just because she is a damsel in distress. It is rare that a female character is expected to sacrifice her life even for the man she loves, let alone a man who is a stranger. So the reason why female characters are used here is because if you put a male character in the same roles, no one would bat an eye … but when it’s a woman, then it says something that they’re killing women.

Sarkeesian notes the issue with these depictions of helpless female characters:

Plot devices that capitalize on female trauma for shock value function in much the same way as the hitting a child, or kicking the dog, tropes do.

It’s casual cruelty implemented as an easy way to deliver a quick emotional punch to the player by presenting attacks on characters specifically designed to appear pitifully vulnerable.

But simply presenting depictions of women being abused, despondent or suicidal does nothing to make them less sexually objectified and does nothing to challenge patterns of perpetual victimhood.

So, the idea is that this supports the idea that women are simply helpless victims who need the protection of a man. Which is a fair comment. However, this can be fixed by doing what Sarkeesian constantly says will not solve the problem: depict women in a variety of lights, from helpless victim to strongly competent hero … or villain, even. It’s a lot harder to fix the attitude and depiction of men as being disposable.

Sarkeesian then tries to link the use of violence against women and domestic violence as a strongly negative trait to domestic violence as a whole, in an attempt to show that even though these things are depicted as being very negative and are condemned in the game that this is still causing harm:

So when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the “bad guys” it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.

The truth is that the vast majority of cases are committed by friends, colleagues, relatives, and intimate partners. The gendered violence epidemic is a deep-seated cultural problem present in the homes, communities and workplaces of many millions of women all over the world. It is not something that mostly happens in dark alleys at the hands of cartoon villains twisting nefarious-looking mustaches.

I should also note that the problem cannot be solved by simply finding the bad evil men and killing them all – as these game narratives invariably imply again and again.

But … how is this different from the depictions of games of any other crime? You aren’t going to solve, say, gang violence, by going out and shooting all the gang members, as games often imply. Taking out a gang or bunch of criminals isn’t going to stop crime. And all sorts of violence and evil actions can be taken by people who seem normal. Games, in and of themselves, are not meant to provide that sort of realistic take on the world. They aren’t supposed to teach lessons and be public service announcements. They’re supposed to be fun to play, and part of the fun is giving people a sense of power and an ability to change the world. Or, alternatively, to boil the narrative down to a simple and clear one so that players can ignore the complexities of the world for a while. Games, primarily, are escapist. People don’t typically play games because they’re exactly like their own life, but instead because they aren’t. So when Sarkeesian says this:

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

The response is that most games aren’t, in fact, intended to be critiques of society in general or these situations specifically, and so challenging them for not doing so isn’t reasonable. What we need to note here is that the games rely on people seeing domestic and sexualized violence as bad things. If they didn’t, then the tropes would fall flat. Sure, people may have misconceptions about what that’s like in real life, but since games aren’t trying to teach people that it’s hard to fault them for not doing that. As long as people can tell the difference between imagination and reality, the depictions ought not do any harm, and so if people think that real life is like that it isn’t because games depict things that way, but instead because people don’t know what real life is like, and think that the games are reflecting reality instead of simplifying it.

Now, there is definitely room for games that do explore and critique these situations. And Sarkeesian is free to promote games like that being made. What I think it unreasonable to do is to expect that all games will do these sorts of critiques, and her comments here seem to suggest that that’s how she’s thinking of games.

I think it only fair here that I address her comments on realism, since it relates here:

This dominant narrative surrounding the inevitability of female objectification and victimhood is so powerful that it not only defines our concepts of reality but it even sets the parameters for how we think about entirely fictional worlds, even those taking place in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”.

What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.

Well, it’s not, as we can see from games like the AD&D games that swept all of that under the rug, at least mostly. But as games get darker and grittier and present less happy and more crapsack worlds, all sorts of negative things have to bubble up to the surface. It is unreasonable to think that you have a world where people don’t have basic human rights, but that somehow it got feminism. So in any nasty world, women are going to be exploited, because if people are willing to kill people at the drop of a hat it’s not reasonable to think that they wouldn’t, say, rape or beat women. To do that would be to sweep the violence that women experience under the rug, insisting that, somehow, even these really nasty people wouldn’t hit a girl … even though in real life even less nasty people will do far worse on a regular basis. If a game is set in a historical setting where women were not equal to men, presenting them as such merely hides the actual sexism that took place in that setting. If a game is set in modern times ignoring the things that Sarkeesian herself talks about is hiding the fact that it happens and is bad. Sarkeesian seems to not want to see this at all, but this suggests that Sarkeesian really does see games as escapist entertainment, and wants to find games that let her escape from the things that she really hates. Given that, her frustration at many AAA games leaving in the things she hates is understandable, but the answer then is to push for the option of games that don’t have those things — and not insisting that all games leave those out — and playing games that don’t contain those elements, or where they can be optional or minimized. This interpretation also hurts her attempts to criticize the social impact of these games, because as escapist entertainment people ought to be able to realize that this is not how the world works … and Sarkeesian hasn’t actually proven that games really do have those impacts.

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

November 13, 2015

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.