Digital Decorating: Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration: Part 1”

by Kristin Bezio

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new readers. If you want to comment or share this, do so knowing Kristen is a feminist AND a game critic AND a game player AND an academic, so this is a critical analysis, because The Learned Fangirl’s tagline is “a critical look at pop culture and technology”!

Having moved beyond damsels in distress, Anita Sarkeesian’s new sequence of videos in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series focuses on the theme of “Women as Background Decoration.”

The video begins with Computer Space (1971), the first commercial computer game ever made. Sarkeesian points to its original ad as an early example of the use of sexy women to sell games – the proto-booth-babe, if you will. And given how very transparent her dress actually is, that’s really the point here. There is no suggestion that she’s there to play the game at all.

And this is just the first of a list Sarkeesian shows us that track through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in which “women predominantly exist as passive objects of heterosexual male desire.” She also notes that this is an attempt to sell a particular “gamer lifestyle” that is both sexy and defined as intrinsically heterosexual and male.

What she doesn’t say (although she does imply it) is that this ad campaign (and the ensuing trend) may in fact be singlehandedly responsible for starting the trajectory on which we find ourselves today, fighting for equal representation and the de-objectification of women as fetish and fantasy objects.

Her point here is good – valid, thoughtful, and supported by a lot of social science research into the motivations and power of visual advertising. But it’s about advertising, not games, and I’m therefore not completely certain why she includes it in a series that’s ostensibly about games. Don’t get me wrong, I think the industry needs to very carefully examine the way it advertises its games both in terms of demographic bias and content, but that seems like a different (although connected) creature with relation to the content of the games themselves.

In all honesty, I’d love to see a book or series that talks only about gaming advertising, but that’s not really what Sarkeesian set out to do in her proposed series. It also points to the not-infrequent disparity between what a publisher and ad agency suggest about the games and the actual games themselves – and to conflate the ads with the games has the problematic potential to do a significant disservice to the games.

Yes, most of the video is actually about games – not ads – but to equate the two at all immediately derails the conversation, and certainly opens up Sarkeesian to more attacks from people who will do anything they can to undermine her criticism.

The trope itself – “Women as Background Decoration” – is defined as follows:
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.

In large part, this appears in the gratuitous cinematics that emphasize female boobs, butts, and legs, and are predominantly (but not always) NPCs (non-player characters). They are often completely unnecessary, and provide absolutely no narrative or ludic purpose. Sarkeesian terms them non-playable sex objects (NPSOs), a fair enough term for the slew of harlots, dancers, and prostitutes that seem to populate many videogame worlds, whether contemporary, fantastic, or futuristic in tone.

These women are sex objects in the games – they do nothing else, serve very little other purpose other than as sex objects. Yet even while I recognize the problem here, I also feel as though Sarkeesian isn’t acknowledging that some (certainly not all, and probably not even many) use these images as cultural criticism, showing women as sexual subjects in order to criticize the common practice thereof. For instance, the prostitution that appears in Irrational’s BioShock (2007) is vilified rather than tolerated. The presence of sleaze in many games is designed to emphasize the criminality of such behavior, as in games like the Fallout series, the Saint’s Row series, or Dishonored (2012).

So – as has been my primary concern throughout the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series – although the identification of the trope itself is certainly worthwhile, and there are many, many, many cases in which these NPSOs serve no purpose beyond titillation, there are many cases in which there is an additional purpose to their presence. There are also games – usually those that are already critical – which include men in an NPSO capacity (although not nearly as many and usually not in the same numbers).

The extension of NPSOs from set dressing to playable components of the games – as in GTA, among many others – in which players can deliberately watch sexual dances (something of which even Mass Effect is guilty, despite its otherwise progressive egalitarianism), pay for sex (especially at brothels), fondle female characters, and seduce NPSOs (rather than romanced NPCs, as in some RPG titles). This is an instance in which I cannot criticize Sarkeesian’s point – since as far as I can tell, in 95% of instances, these actions are completely unnecessary and bear not even a tangential relationship to the purpose of the game.

This becomes worse when the NPSOs are not only potential sexual toys, but toys to be beaten or broken. Sarkeesian’s section on Violability, in particular, highlights the rampant violence against NPSOs that is often encouraged in some games. She does gloss over those games – like Dishonored – in which violence can be perpetrated against any NPC, not just the NPSOs (and Dishonored in fact enables players to not kill anyone, including the women).

The biggest issue I have, however, comes when Sarkeesian suggests that violence against women is “encouraged” – which I don’t buy. When the game does encourage violence against NPSOs, she’s right, but simply because a player is able to do something, does not in fact mean that the game is actively encouraging it. To come back to Dishonored, the fact that the player has the choice of whether to kill or not kill anyone in the game (NPCs and NPSOs), including the primary targets, does not in fact mean that players are encouraged to kill them. In Dishonored, players are encouraged to play in more than one way (and play the game more than once). Instead, players are meant to experience both lethal and non-lethal playthroughs with the intent, I would argue, of demonstrating the overall moral high ground of not killing people (NPSOs, who are innocent of wrongdoing in the game, included).

Miguel Sicart’s The Ethics of Computer Games makes a point regarding this which suggests that the eliminating of choices in fact makes a game less ethical; no choice requires no active engagement with moral conundrums and can therefore produce no moral growth. In essence, refusing to allow players the ability to choose not to assault NPCs (NPSO or not) functionally eliminates thought about the morality of doing so. In order to force a player to consider the morality of violence or disposability, the player needs to be able to make the choice to assault or not assault and NPC, with the consequences – even if just “feeling bad” – enable moral consideration.

So while I think that Sarkeesian should recognize the need for choice, her last point – that media has significant and, in this case, negative impacts on us – emphasizes the need for careful consideration about the ways in which we include these choices and depictions. NPSOs are harmful to both men and women, to our understanding of acceptable behaviors, and to our expectations of one another. They foster the misperception that men should be dominant and that women should be passive and concerned first and foremost with men’s pleasure. They create a false image of inequality that perpetuates and is perpetuated by other forms of media and rape culture.

Yes, I agree that the NPSO is a dangerous and often exploitative feature of many games. Even though I’m a huge Mass Effect fan, I hate the Asari stripper clubs that are ubiquitous to the series. I also understand that BioWare has done a lot to complicate the sexualized image associated therewith, but they still bother me. The attitude in GTA bothers me a lot more. But as much as I would like to see games without NPSOs, I also recognize that the images and attitudes they represent are a part of our culture, and that we can include them in critical rather than lazy, misogynistic ways. Instead of focusing exclusively on the negative, I’d like to see some examples in which games use NPSOs constructively, ways in which we can overcome exploitation and inequality in games, rather than the typical laundry-list of “this is bad.”

All that said, though, I think that Sarkeesian’s series is maturing, whether because she’s been spending more time on the project and playing games, or because she’s responding to the thoughtful criticism of her series that’s out there. This episode suggests that there are exceptions – that games that are otherwise positive can include NPSOs, that there are male NPSOs as well as female ones – and is careful to explain the negative implications of objectification in both theoretical and social terms.

It makes me hopeful that Sarkeesian’s series will continue to get smarter and more nuanced as she goes along.

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Comments (19)

[…] My response to the latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – “Women as Background D… […]

I just hope that developers finally understand that they don’t have to be “edgy” and include pointless prostitutes just for the sake of it. Lazy writing is always bad, and I guess it is extra bad when a lazy writer tries to spice up a bad script with some unwarranted sexual violence. It’s not that I mind the occasional in-game harlot, I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at a game where the main objective was organized genocide. IF the writing was good enough to justify it.

Just like their brethren in shitty TV, it seems that game writers take the easy way out most of the time. “Rapist” is shorthand for “bad guy”, and “relative of dead female” equals “carte blanche to use violence”. Everytime I see this in a game or TV show, I grind my teeth. I mean, there ARE other things that motivate people, right? Watch_Dogs, I’m looking at you here.

It’s a sad state of affairs when we have to hope that Sarkeesian eventually gets better at doing the one thing she does. And that it’s considered laudable when she actually plays the games she critiques.
Instead of hoping she eventually gets better, I hope that you get her audience and funding.

Well, really I hope that other (and better) people start picking up on this. There are some good games-writers out there who do gender – Patricia Hernandez and Leigh Alexander come to mind first, although there are also others – but they’re predominantly industry critics rather than academics or people speaking to the general populace. I’m more of an academic, so I think I’m less inclined to get a sizable audience. That, and I can do without some of the “audience” Sarkeesian reaches – I’m not really into death, rape, and bodily harm threats.

The good thing about Sarkeesian getting better is that she does have an audience – and if some of her criticisms start to resonate with them in a constructive way, then that bodes well for the industry as a whole.

[…] And also Digital Decorating: Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration: Part 1” […]

Sarkeesian’s clutching at straws is particularly irritating. God knows there are many games out there that can be legitimately criticized for sexist writing. But Dishonored? The footage from the game she uses says more about her than about the game. There is absolutely no in-game reason to hide under a table and use the mask optics to zoom in on the prostitute posteriors. YOU did that, Anita. Because you wanted to. Even when I played the game as a murderous asshole, I went out of my way to not kill any prostitutes or servant girls.

It is precisely BECAUSE you are an academic (and a gamer) that your writing should be more widespread. It’s not like your writing is incomprehensible to a non-academic, or filled with impenetrable post-modernist lingo. I’m not here fanboying over you because I’m a feminist (I’m not). I’m here because I’m a gamer who want better games and you make so much sense. Your writing converted me, and I’m a middle-aged bearded dirtbag of a man. You made me look at games through a different lens. If you can turn me, imagine what you could do with the pliable minds of young gamers. Although I do understand your aversion to threats.

One thing that i believe is missing for young male gamers is a role model. There are great ambassadors for every other form of entertainment. Even pro wrestlers make PSAs about racism and homophobia, and seem to strive to be good role models when they are not in character. I’ve been trying to think of an existing gaming role model, but only youtube game reviewers come to mind. Pewdiepie is probably not who we need.

I mean some kind of “celebrity” or authority figure who can tell impressionable boys what is acceptable behaviour. Sarkeesian will never be able to do that, she is like the Mom who turns off your game and throws away your porn mags for no apparent reason. I think gamers need a Dad who can (metaphorically) teach them how to shave and tie a windsor. At the moment (to continue my tortured analogy), boys are being told about the birds and the bees by that kid from across the street who claims he once totally kissed a girl on the boob. Nothing good can come of that.

Gaming is like Lord Of The Flies, it’s what happens when you leave a bunch of boys alone without supervision.

“There is absolutely no in-game reason to hide under a table and use the mask optics to zoom in on the prostitute posteriors. YOU did that, Anita”

Actually, odds are, she just found someone who did a Let’s Play on youtube and used their footage…

But I agree. How easily she pretends that games actually incentivize players to kill prostitutes is particularly appalling…

Some games do incentivize killing prostitutes. Many (Dishonored obviously being one of them) do not, but some – like GTA and the infamous “Dastardly” achievement in Red Dead Redemption – do. Others, like Saint’s Row, do so in service of satire, which is a different level of complexity than I think Sarkeesian is aiming to take on in her series (whether she should or not is another matter).

She did give one example of games encouraging you to kill NPSO characters: the several games where you can sleep with hookers for an in game boost and then kill them to get your money back. There’s a clear game advantage to violently harming those characters.

She gave a couple. But she didn’t talk about the fact that in some games just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you should. But yes, there are several games that do encourage it, and that’s awful for a variety of reasons.

Thanks for your thoughtful criticisms of this theory. TLF is the only site on the web discussing the “Tropes Vs. Women” series with comments that aren’t full of men’s rights activists.

I’m a man, and her series always gets my back up in ways that are both good and bad. She’s pointed out some uncomfortable truths, like how often women are the victims in games, or to the extent men are the default, or how prevalent sexualized NPCs are. She has also made assumptions and generalizations that I thought were unfair, has ignored examples that contradict her point, and also tends to ignore the larger cultural context of these tropes. Many of these tropes are things that occur time and time again in film, television, and literature, so it’s not surprising that they also show up in games. That doesn’t make it alright, but it makes it less about how sexist video games are and about how video games are using the same sexist tropes that other media have been using for decades/centuries.For example, the Asian prostitute trope draws from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket,” which is where the infamous “Me love you long time” quote comes from. Not that it makes their prevalence in games any less distasteful, but I think it has as much to do with Full Metal Jacket as anything to do with sex tourism. And prostitutes and strip clubs are frequently used in TV and movies as signifiers of seedy areas (they also happen to be signifiers of seedy areas in real life).

Her discussion about sexy NPCs in GTA V bothered me a little. For one thing, GTA V is almost not even worth talking about because it is such a morally reprehensible game – the whole point of the franchise is to childishly push as many buttons and offend as many people as possible. It’s also one of the most popular games in the world, so it does deserve discussion, but it almost feels like feeding a troll. For another thing, while, yes, you can kill prostitutes for money, the game also has you killing a ton of innocent people, male and female. You kill jurors. You assassinate CEOs, You brutally torture someone who has done nothing for no reason. All with little or no consequences. I understand how killing a prostitute or stripper you just had sex with to get your money back is different than killing a juror, but the potential to harm sex workers is just one of many troubling aspects of the game, and it bothered me that none of the other troubling behavior you engage in in the game was mentioned. It also bothered me that she assumed that you were supposed to engage in this behavior in open world games – there are many things you CAN do in these types of games that you aren’t generally encouraged to do. I’ve played all the GTA games, and skyrim and fallout 3 and a host of other open world games, and I’ve never gone out of my way to kill innocent people. There are often rewards for NOT killing innocent people, in as much as there can be rewards for acting dastardly. It’s standard practice in any open world game to turn off autosave before acting like a real sociopath so that the negative repercussions of going on a murderous rampage don’t follow you for the rest of the game.

I’d love to see the discussion about how we bring our gaming experience into our everyday lives opened up beyond just a feminist critique. Gamers are adamant that what we do in games has no bearing on our real lives, but how can spending our evenings playing games where violence is almost always the only solution not have some repercussions on how we view the world? Spoken as someone who is both a pacifist and borderlands 2 fan.

Thanks for your non-trollish comment. I always appreciate them.

I think that we do bring games into our everyday lives, and a lot of what I talk about in games relates to broader issues than just feminism – but when one is addressing Anita Sarkeesian, one generally is limited to a more feminist scope of conversation. I’m not sure games are really adamant that what we do has no bearing on our real lives as much as I think they insist that violence (explicitly violence) in games has no bearing on our outside-games behavior – both because I tend to believe that’s true (I don’t think violent games make us violent), and because they’re trying to avoid the screeching of conservatives and parent-groups that insist that little Timmy must be aggressive because of GTA and not because he’s bullied at school and ignored at home (not that there aren’t other causes of violent behavior).

I think most games – and most developers – are deliberately trying to say things about real life, some of them feminist (like the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot) and many not (BioShock Infinite, for all the issues it has, is definitely trying to say something about American Exceptionalism). It just happens that a lot of the things being said – and yelled about – in games criticism right now are gender-related, and gender representation (and the botching or lack thereof) is a huge issue in the games industry.

If you have other things you’d like to see us talk about – other games, other ideas about games that show up here – please let me know. Karl (see comments above) has requested Spec Ops: The Line as an upcoming review, and it’s on my laptop as I type, waiting to be played. (And I’m excited about it – after all, the trailer hooked me with a promise of allusions to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which warms the cockles of my literature-professor heart.) I can’t obviously talk about everything, but I’m certainly open to other ideas and points of discussion.

in reading over my comment, I realize there is some “but what about MEN??” in there. Anita (and TLF, and anyone else) has every right to examine games and game violence from a feminist perspective. It’s not up to her to look at violence in games from a larger perspective. My back got a little raised because she was criticizing violence against innocent (women in games that also featured a lot of violence against innocent i.e. non attacking, non antagonist) men, without commenting on that.

My point about GTA V is that it is basically the Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter of video games. It exists to make people angry and push buttons. It is also one of the most successful games of all times, which is disturbing given just how immoral, ethically challenged, and sexist it is. I stopped playing the first the first four installments of the series because I would get frustrated by a mission. I’ve stopped playing GTA V because I’m frustrated with the childish offensiveness of the whole project, and the way they try to hide all the crappy things in the games under the guise of satire. It’s like South Park in that way.

Spec Ops the line is a good one to think about – I enjoyed the discussions about Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite as well. It’s nice to read about games getting it right sometimes too.

Agreed! A friend and I are currently working on a piece that talks about gender – BOTH masculinity and femininity – in Red Dead Redemption and Tomb Raider. It is important to remember that women aren’t the only ones who are being harmed by poor depictions in any popular media, videogames included, but I think the emphasis in feminist criticism tends to be on women because of the disproportionate amount of violence and objectification aimed at them.

In that light, Sarkeesian can be a bit myopic; you’re right that in many of the games she mentions (Dishonored, especially), there is just as much if not more violence against male NPCs as there is against women. I think that, however, her discussion of NPSOs leads to the focus more on women, as men usually aren’t depicted as sex objects (whether victimized by violence or not). There are exceptions – Dragon Age has both male and female NPSOs in its brothels (yay?), for instance – but usually NPSOs are female.

What you describe is exactly why I don’t play GTA games. Perhaps that’s a problem, given that I write about games for (part of) my living, but I just can’t stomach it. Same with Saint’s Row games (and yes, I do understand that they’re satire, especially SR). I just can’t do it. I do think there is a lot of opportunity in that kind of gameplay for criticism, but I’m uncomfortable with it anyway. I think South Park is more like SR than GTA, though. The deliberate over-the-top-ness makes the satire more obvious. But I like the comparison to Limbaugh and Coulter…

whereibelongsf: I think there’s a difference between the standard whiny MRA “what about MEN”, and pointing out that Sarkeesian is intentionally dishonest and misleading. A feminist does not need to consider Our Important Male Opinions, but she also can’t just cherry pick data that supports her agenda. If a protagonist has to kill five men and five women, Sarkeesian will completely ignore the five dead men (which is OK) and then proclaim that this is a game about killing five women (which is not). The MRA will of course say “hey, we are oppressed too, five men were killed, let’s talk about violence against men instead”, which is equally wrong and stupid.

Tangentially related to the Coulter/Limbaugh comparison: I believe Rockstar Games pioneered the use of conservative rent-a-quote crazies as a marketing strategy. Back when GTA was a 2D top-down game, every release was quickly followed by an outraged screed by Jack Thompson. It’s like a symbiotic relationship, the conservative gets to grandstand about the immorality of the modern society and think-about-the-children, and Rockstar gets tons of free press.

Kristin:Oh, so you discovered the subtle hints at Conrad in SO:TL before even playing it? Damn, I was looking forward to seeing it in the review. Well, prepare to have your cockles spontaneously combust, as there might be more of that in the game.

I watched a trailer that mentioned _Heart of Darkness_, so I didn’t “discover” them, exactly. It’s on my computer now, so I swear I’ll get to it soon.

“Women as background decorations” is not a trope. That is just something she made up because can’t find legitimate tropes to gripe about (Ms. Man is not a trope either). She just makes obscure observations which she takes out of context to suit her narrow perspective. Damsel in Distress is the only trope she has so far engaged, and she did so quite poorly.

They may not be tropes in the sense that we recognize the phrases, but when something reappears that frequently, it IS a trope, whether it appears elsewhere or not. “Damsel in Distress” is a trope that’s been in use for a long time. “Ms. Men” I might buy as “not a trope,” but it is a frequent enough occurrence in sci fi/fantasy (videogames, film, and tv) that I’ll buy it as a modern trope. “Women as background decoration” is definitely common enough in multiple forms of pop culture media that even if no one else has identified it as a trope, it fits the definition of what a trope is, and she can therefore claim it as one.

A trope, for reference, is (among other things, depending on context) “a common or overused theme or device,” which means that she’s allowed to use thematic patterns as “tropes” without us picking on her semantics, since they are technically correct.

Hi ho, this was a good read, and some good comments as well, thanks everyone. I was wondering if Anita herself has ever responded to valid criticism of her ideas. I tried to google it, but the drama surrounding her tends to be thick and difficult to sift through.

I haven’t seen any explicit responses from Sarkeesian to intelligent criticism, but given that her video series seems to be improving, I assume that she’s listening to some of the rational things out there (even if only coming from people she knows and trusts). I wouldn’t blame her, given the morass of vitriol surrounding her, if she just didn’t read the internet, ever, so it may just be that she’s maturing as a critic as she goes, but either way, I’m happy to see them improving (for whatever reason).

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