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.