TLF: Digital Decorating: Women as Background Decoration (TvWVG)

18 Jun

My response to the latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – “Women as Background Decoration, Part 1” – is up on TLF.

The short version is that I think Sarkeesian is getting better – or at least more comprehensive and thoughtful – with her series as it continues. While it still has some issues – which I address – the later videos have become more engaged and less angry lists of “bad things,” which I applaud. There’s still some points she makes with which I take issue, but overall I think she’s learning from the process and becoming a better critic for it.

2 Replies to “TLF: Digital Decorating: Women as Background Decoration (TvWVG)

  1. Hi,

    I wanted to let you know that I found your writeup to be spot on. You handling of the subject and breakdown of the critique were exelent. I’m a developer/long time gamer and have had friends ask why didn’t like this video. I found this one in particular sensationalist and her rhetoric insulting.

    “In many open world or sandbox style games, developers construct their virtual world in such a way as to enable players to directly abuse non playable sex objects.”

    She uses the two terms “violability” and “disposability” to pertain exclusively to female sexualized characters without acknowledging that they pertain to all NPCs in general. And using these actions against those characters is directly outside of design and narrative, leaving it to the most demented and insignificant of players to take that course of action.

    Any perceived incentive to this unwarranted behavior is due to the design of NPCs as a whole and has absolutely nothing to do with any specific subsection of character types.

    Sarkeesian also states: “Once a person is reduced to the status of objecthood, violence against that object is intrinsically permitted.” This is a completely false, baseless description of video game parameters with regards to NPCs.

    The idea of the expendability of the sexualized female character is again a misguided perception of how NPCs operate within video games. Whether police officer, stripper, cab driver or pedestrian, all have the same behavioral programming in place.

    In terms of exploring permitted actions within a play space, this is not something that pertains to the game as a whole. The exploratory process takes place within the first minutes of the game to discover the control system. It is not something that players continue to do throughout the course of the game because it would break the immersiveness of the experience and take you out of the character and narrative. Over the course of the game, your behavior as the player mimics who you feel the character is. This is most clearly seen in the latest GTA where all the playable characters have the same controls, but as you switch between characters, you actively change the way you play depending on the character’s personality to remain immersed in their narratives. So to suddenly break out of character and brutalize female NPCs, you completely remove yourself from the narrative and play out your own separate, demented narrative which was not designed to occur. It’s as if you’re blaming Mattel for children mutilating Barbie dolls. You have complete freedom to interact with the world as you please, but if you break out of the narrative, you can no longer hold the developers responsible for your actions. The psychopathic behavior displayed in the clips running throughout Sarkeesian’s video all fall outside of the narrative that was designed for the character and are never mandatory or encouraged. Her claim that “the player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon” is a complete misrepresentation of gamers and the way the vast majority of people interact with this medium.

    Another incendiary and appallingly false assertion that Sarkeesian makes is: “Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.” This is a direct attack on the integrity of gamers and developers as a whole and is an insult to the intelligence of anyone. “Sexual arousal connected to the act of controlling and punishing representations of female sexuality” is what she’s accusing gamers of acting out and developers of begging the players to do in an open environment. This is one of the most insulting things that you could claim to any self respecting adult. Games make no distinction between actions taken against pedestrians and sexualized characters who are NPCs because of the technical limitations that are intrinsic to their programming.

    Finally, I have to respond to her analogy – “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.” A game world is filled with characters and set dressing to immerse the player in the narrative. Objects and characters placed within the universe are not explicitly meant for the player to interact with in uncharacteristic ways. To assert that the player is meant to react to every surface, object and character within an interactive game with violence is ludicrous. And tying the sexuality of an NPC to the unwarranted violence has no bearing in reality.

    These assertions strike at the integrity of the entire gaming culture. This is why I feel her handling of the subject matter is muddying the dialogue. She creates so much distraction from what should otherwise be a constructive discussion by wielding unsubstantiated and inflammatory statements. Thank you for your critique.

    • I apologize this took several days to greenlight – it went into the SPAM bucket instead of the “Pending” queue.

      I think your point about the purpose of NPCs in general is a good one, and it’s important for critics to remember that games are not only visual narratives – that said, I think her point about objects being violable is correct, but the valence is not. NPCs as objects are violable – but that’s why they’re often NPCs. For instance, if a zombie NPC in Left4Dead weren’t violable, you would have no gameplay. Rendering that NPC as a violable object is the entire point of the shooter mechanic, and it would be silly to criticize any shooter for having violable NPCs.

      I think that what she’s getting at is the idea that female NPCs are often (not always) treated in a way that is more dismissive than male NPCs who aren’t designed as fodder. The misc. prostitute, etc., who is available for other NPCs to violate is more objectified and more violable because the player isn’t (usually) the one violating them, and not (again, usually) doing so for the purposes of gameplay. In games where the player IS meant to derive pleasure from these acts, this is enormously problematic. But again her phrasing is polarizing – I would argue, instead, that the player is meant to derive pleasure from RETALIATING or STOPPING those actions. That’s not to say that there isn’t still something problematic about always coming back to the same rescue-the-damsel narrative, but it’s very different than the image her phrasing creates.

      I think what it comes down to for me is that while the set dressing is there to create a particular story or feel, many of those stories are themselves already problematic and sexist before they ever hit games. I’d rather see (some, not necessarily all) games choosing narratives that didn’t involve those elements, or at least didn’t involve them to the same degree. For instance, while BioShock does contain a brothel and a scene with a prostitute (Jasmine), that scene is not overly exploitative, but is ultimately important to the game’s depiction of Andrew Ryan. Having a miscellaneous prostitute be continually beaten in Red Dead Redemption strikes me as much less necessary and more problematic because it could have been non-sexualized without harming the intent of the scene’s inclusion (a barfight or a thief, for instance) to the player.

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