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feminist frequency: tropes vs. women in video games

If you’re not overly familiar with the gaming world, then it is quite possible you may not know Anita Sarkeesian. She is feminist blogger who is behind the Feminist Frequency series. She was also the target of massive internet backlash in 2012. Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter project looking to fund a series of videos that would examine the common tropes associated with women in video games. This crime was apparently terrible enough that the online community began a misogynistic crusade against her (one that is still largely ongoing).

Sarkeesian was harassed online through her social media; her YouTube page was reported as ‘terrorism, hate speech and spam’. Her Wikipedia page was hacked; attempts were made to hack her email and social media accounts. Photos of her were digitally manipulated to include hate speech and pornographic imagery. Perhaps the most disgusting thing (which is saying something) was a video game titled ‘Beat up Anita Sarkeesian’ where you could punch an image of Sarkeesian in the face until it was bruised and bloodied.

All of this was perpetrated by people trying to prove that gaming culture didn’t hate women.

At the end of her Kickstarter time limit, $150 000 had been donated. Quite a bit more than the $6 000 she was initially attempting to raise. So far in the Trope vs. Women in Videogames series Sarkeesian has examined ‘The Damsel in Distress’ and ‘The Ms Man’ tropes. I thoroughly recommend checking them out. They are long (around 20-30 minutes) but worth it.

Her latest video is the first episode exploring the use of ‘Women As Background Decoration’, which to quote her presentation looks at ‘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.’

Within the video Sarkeesian examines the use of women non-playable characters (NPC’s) in “blockbuster” video games and the ways they are sexually objectified. While sexual objectification of women is present in all types of media, Sarkeesian points that video games are unique in that they are an interactive medium moving the player from ‘spectator to participant’ by giving them control of the camera.

Women characters are dehumanised; turned into ‘vending machines dispensing sex’. Sex with women NPC’s is often used for gaining health or stamina regeneration. Sometimes it is simply placed in the game for the titillation of straight male viewers. The latter half of the video explores how some games allow players to knock out, tie up and carry around women NPC’s. “Grittier” games allow for assault, mutilation or murder of said NPC’s.

Many gamers would argue that they don’t choose to engage with the medium in this way (and I am sure there are plenty who don’t) but as Sarkeesian says the mere fact that these mechanics are included in the game is problematic; after all a toaster is ‘designed for the express purpose of toasting bread’; whether you choose to use it for that or not doesn’t matter, because that’s still what it’s for. Sexualised female bodies are designed and placed in these games for the purpose of the player to use them and discard them with often a bonus option for the player to brutalise them.

Sarkeesian makes several points about the effect of negative portrayal of women in media; women often self-internalise these images leading to a wide variety of social issues. As for men, well they are more likely to view women as less intelligent, less competent and are less concerned for women’s wellbeing after viewing hyper-sexualised images of women, which can lead to higher rape myth acceptance.

It feels like video games are often coming under fire by mainstream media. Gamers defend ourselves by pointing out that games are a valuable medium; that they are even an art form. And yet a common argument from the detractors of Sarkeesian and her often valid critiques (other than childish name calling) is to say ‘aren’t there bigger issues?’ or ‘it’s just a game’.

Firstly, oppression is a not a contest. Hyper-sexualisation of women’s bodies is something that affects us in our society. It is our right to discuss the things that affect us. And secondly we can’t have it both ways. Either video games are meaningful and artistic forms of expression, which opens them up to critique and academic studies; or they’re a pointless waste of our time.

Just because we take a step back and look at the problematic areas of a game doesn’t mean that it has become worthless. As Anita Sarkeesian says ‘it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable’.

4 thoughts on “feminist frequency: tropes vs. women in video games

  1. I was very disturbed at the gratuitousness of some of the interactions Sarkeesian showcased in the latest video. I played plenty of the games featured, but I don’t play games that way, and there were multiple instances of things that I didn’t even know could be done.

    I also loathe the fact that so many “gritty” games feel the need to feature strip-club levels. I would never choose to visit a strip club in real life, so why should I be forced to visit one against my will in my escapist fantasy?

    • Nobody is forcing you to play these “gritty” games. YOU choose your escapist fantasy. Nobody is forcing you to play GTA, Wath_Dogs or whatever else. There is no shortage of games where you don’t have to go to strip clubs. True, these games are usually the top selers, and you or I may not like it, but the situation will only change when people start buying other games instead of these ones.

    • That’s a very good point. My actual life is “gritty” in any number of ways – murders blocks away from me (at least a few a year), a drive-by shooting just down the block in the last year, a few crack houses in the area – and I’ve never been to a strip club, and I’ve been propositioned by maybe 3 prostitutes in the course of a decade. I guess when run & gun is your norm, violence alone just can’t make an environment seem gritty by comparison, becasue even suburbia is getting blown to high hell if you’re showing up there in a game. Still, it’s a poor excuse for decades of bad game and environment design.

  2. We must play different games.

    I’m sure all those examples exist. But beyond GTA I struggle to think of a AAA title that has aspects like that.

    But there is one trick missed. Personally I had a surprisingly affecting moment in a hentai choose your own adventure as a teenager. A lot of them back in those days were extremely amoral. Anyway near the start of this one was the option to rape a girl in a car. Not what I selected the first or even the 10th time. But I’m a completionist. They played it real not for arousal. The female npc withdraws and ends up commiting suicide (your character finds her and attempts to save her but fails). God damn. I cried all night in a ‘what have I done’ was distraught for a week and even now feel guilty over a decade later.

    My point. Interactive fiction can be a powerful tool for good. As long as it is done realistically. And forces the player to face consequences.

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