Part one of “Women as Background Decoration”, one of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos, had some serious problems, but an important message. For this video, and its predecessors, the worst I can say of them is that they have value for asking questions that developers and critics have often ignore or poorly address. The most recent entry, part two of the above mentioned video, is much stronger. It shares many of the flaws of its predecessors, but targets issues so incredibly widespread that Sarkeesian’s data shy approach doesn’t harm it. As such, there’s a lot to learn from this recent entry into the series.
Women as Atmosphere
With clips from Hitman: Blood Money, Bioshock 2, and other major games, Sarkeesian shows how violence against women is often used to set the tone. Vignettes about brutalized or vulnerable women NPCs are used to add edginess to a dark and gritty world. These women often lack a back story and seem to solely exist to be harmed to convince the player of how nasty this setting is. The same can be said of their corpses. If these women die, they often do so in sexualized ways such as wearing revealing clothing or being positioned provocatively. The inclusion of women, whether it is to establish atmosphere or titillate, uses sexual violence as a prop rather than addressing the very real issues that women face. Of course, the same could be said of violence in general. Gang violence, poverty, drug addiction, and other social ills are all trucked out as one note props for most video games. Sarkeesian’s laser like focus on women prevents her from addressing these issues, but it would be nice for her to acknowledge that this is not a problem that women face alone. All the same, her argument is strong and game makers need to be aware of how they’re using these very real problems in their games.
That’s Not What Evil Looks Like
Violence against women isn’t only used to set up atmosphere, but also character development. Attacks on women are often used to establish just how evil a character or organization is. Want to show that Badguy McDeathFace is evil? Have him hit a women! Or a dog. In this case, the role is interchangeable. When women fill the role of victim again and again, it establishes a narrative of perpetual victimhood where the (often male) player is the rescuer. It’s a power fantasy with abused women as props and who rarely as actual agents of their own defense. It continues the idea that women are weak and in need of protection. More insidiously, it also establishes abusers of women as easily identified monsters when the reality is far from the truth. Most abusers don’t walk around with identifying signs (I beat women!) and are often seen as kind or generous in other parts of their lives. Games that lump violence against women in with burning villages and bending mint condition Magic cards (YOU MONSTER) allow us to believe that abusers are easily identifiable abominations rather than included among our friends and neighbors.
Ignoring the Problem Won’t Make It Go Away
So far, I’ve largely agreed with Sarkeesian, but we differ on how to approach the issue. Sarkeesian argues that any game that is unwilling to address issues of sexual violence head on ought not to include it. Even games that attempt to show the realities of such things should not do so unless they are prepared to tackle the problems head on. She even takes to task Dishonored’s inner monologues of abused prostitutes and Watch Dog’s assigning a back story to a sex slave gallery. These acts are subversive in a way that Sarkeesian does not acknowledge. While they do perpetuate the narrative of victimhood, they also lay bare the brutal reality underneath the sugar coated world that gaming presents. Too many games have included those exact same scenes without a hint of criticism. By replicating the brothel scene, but showing how abused those women really are, the above mentioned games force gamers to look critically at a scene that they previously accepted as fun. It’s harder to be titillated by a scantily clad woman when you know she’s been trafficked and sold.
Abuse against women is part of our current reality. Telling developers to shelve it does nothing to spread awareness of the issue. Any game that seeks to provide additional depth and detail to a pervasive problem should be encouraged to do so. Some will certainly feed aspects of the problem, but any gains of an intelligent, if incidental, treatment will certainly be more beneficial than pretending like the problem doesn’t exist. Games where the inclusion of sexual violence makes sense in the context (which is far fewer than those that include it) need not base major parts of their vision on it as long as the time they do spend is quality.
My agreement should not be taken as a sign that the most recent video is without flaws. Though she avoided some of the more obscure titles mentioned in part one, Sarkeesian still has not come up with a comprehensive reason why certain games are chosen. She also remains prone to cherry picking cutscenes which makes it harder to believe her when I don’t know the game well. Sarkeesian would do well to shy away from the most salacious videos in favor of the most representative ones. Finally, she has a tendency to pretend that women are alone in their plight, when developer’s insensitivity extends beyond that. Still, the problems she’s addressing are so universal that it’s hard to deny that they are a key part of gaming culture. Developers ought to pay attention to how the approach violence against women and be certain that their inclusion of such themes don’t trivialize a very real problem.