Soooo…this went long. Sorry!
Viewers of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on women-in-games generally fall into two categories. The first is the ever present troglodyte internet trolls that plague so much of the community. At their best, they object, often incoherently, to Sarkeesian’s videos based on a feeling of socially progressive intrusion into what was previously a safe space. Gamers have often been a defense group, likely resulting from starting in a culture that didn’t take games seriously, and that has unfortunately turned into a sense of automatic offense whenever video games are challenged. At their worst, this group engages in mindless attacks and threats that only prove Sarkeesian’s point that things need to change. The second group are the more socially conscious critics who generally agree with Sarkeesian’s videos, but shy away from criticizing them, possibly due to a fear of being included in the first group. This is a shame because the videos aren’t perfect and a stronger discussion surrounding them would both increase their exposure and help the gaming community move towards a more intelligent position on its depiction of women. In that spirit, I’m going to discuss my concerns with the most recent video titled “Women as Background Decoration”. Note: You should see the video before reading this article.
The strongest of the troll arguments is often that Sarkeesian cherry picks her clips from the most damning options or ones that misrepresent the game. While this argument is often overstated, the naysayers do have a point. “Women as Background Decoration” shows clips from gaming’s most violent franchises yet never explains why a particular game matters. Some choices, like Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row, are obviously relevant, but I’m at a loss as to why Shellshock: Vietnam or The Darkness 2 were included. Without an explanation as to why a particular game made the cut, it’s hard to judge the value of its inclusion. Furthermore, Sarkeesian never provides the context for her choices. How many copies did they sell? Who bought them? How do they match up against other games in the genre or generally? The existence of objectionable video games does not mean that they represent a noteworthy problem. Sarkeesian needs to do a better job explaining why the games she presents as evidence matter, not just that sexual objectification is wrong.
In addition to not justifying the clip selections, “Women as Background Decoration” consistently uses clips and arguments that are unrepresentative of the game in question. In one particular section, Sarkeesian points out that a prostitute in Red Dead Redemption propositions the protagonist despite being hogtied and thrown on a horse. The NPC has clearly reverted to its original programming and is not reacting to the event in question yet Sarkeesian uses this as evidence of abuse against women programmed into the game. It’s obviously a bug, not an example of authorial intent. She also uses prostitutes in Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea (which condemns the philosophy behind the prostitution), Fable hookers (the later games played the mechanic for laughs, not abuse), and the one instance in Mass Effect 2 where a fully clothed woman dances suggestively. By combining this with the treatment of women in Saint’s Row or Metro: Last Light, Sarkeesian attempts to create the feeling of a much broader climate than she actually proves. GTA’s prostitutes are nowhere close to the level of objectification as Mass Effects “exotic” dancers, yet she lumps them all together. Sarkeesian would be better off selecting consistently extreme examples or, at a bare minimum, noting the vast gulf between her samples.
The mere existence of women as sex objects in game isn’t a problem. Prostitutes do exist in real life and often work in situations where they are demeaned by men. Furthermore, a game about crime and the underworld ought to include these kinds of situations as they are reflective of the reality of the setting. It’s hard to argue that a mafia game should not include prostitution as that is a major industry in which mafia engage in. In this kind of game, strippers, prostitutes, and exotic dancers can add authenticity and a sense of place that is required to depict them. Unless we’re prepared to ban the idea of showing a port town (Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was another cherry picked example), we have to accept that objectified women were and are real. Furthermore, we must accept that women depicted won’t move much beyond sex objects in certain situations, if only because that environment rarely treats the women as such.
That does not mean that all depictions of sexualized women are acceptable all the time. If a developer is going to use a brothel as a backdrop, then it is incumbent upon them to show the reality of brothels. They need to move beyond busty women who just love having sex all day and show the downsides like abuse and drug use. Particularly in criminal settings, sexualized women ought not be glamourized outside of the showroom setting, but rather shown with the level of desperation that often accompanies such situations. All this is to say that treating women as sex objects isn’t the problem, it’s the rest of the story that goes untold that’s the issue.
Women are NPCs too
The biggest flaw in Sarkeesian’s argument is how completely she focuses on sexualized women NPCs to the detriment of the whole universe of NPCs that exist. Sarkeesian uses Martha Nussbaum’s theory of objectification to show how women are objectified, yet fails to acknowledge that the same could be said of all NPCs anywhere. Going down the list (Quotes are from Nussbuam):
- Instrumentality – “The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.” NPCs exist for the enjoyment of the player. This can be negative, such as the abuse Sarkeesian mentions, but it can also be innocuous or positive such as a question to help someone. Even in the later situation, the player is often doing the quest for the reward, not the NPC.
- Denial of Autonomy – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.” Literally true, in this case. Also, players rarely care about an individual NPC’s needs and often see them as a means to an end. Think shopkeeper.
- Inertness – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.” Again, it is very rare that the player actually cares about what an NPC wants. Most players think of NPCs as automata without any desires of their own..
- Fungibility – “The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.” Most NPCs fulfill a function held by many other NPCs. Sexualized women NPCs are not special in this regard.
- Violability – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.” Just about every enemy in every RPG ever. Also, in open world games, every NPC, not just the sexualized ones, are available for abuse.
- Ownership – “The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.” In the case of monster fighting games, this is quite literal, but you need not go that far. Any game that allows you to buy and use the services of an NPC, such as the thieves in Assassin’s Creed, would qualify.
- Denial of Subjectivity – “The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.” It is very rare for a game to infuse one of its many hundreds of NPCs with personality. Even rarer that it does this well.
This failure to distinguish between sexualized women NPCs and NPCs in general continues throughout the video. In the most egregious example, Sarkeesian states that GTA and Saint’s Row incentivize the player to abuse women by having them drop money when they die, but completely fails to note that all NPCs do the same thing. There are other examples, but they all speak to same problem in Sarkeesian’s argument. Replace sexualized women NPCs with NPCs and you have an argument against violence in video games writ large. Almost every lurid, brutal clip of a protagonist violating a women could have been, frame for frame, reenacted with any NPC passing by. I do think there’s a compelling argument for singling out women NPCs and sex workers in particular, but Sarkeesian never makes it.
“Women as Background Decoration” is still a great addition to the Feminist Frequency series. It makes great points about how some of gaming’s most cherished franchises approach sexualized female NPCs. I hope the future entries will stop working so hard to make an extreme case for the mistreatment of women and will instead use the ample material that already exists.