Women are Their Own Reward: New Tropes vs. Women in Video Games (“Women as Reward”)

In the seventh episode (fifth trope) of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, “Women as Reward,” Anita Sarkeesian is taking on the idea that a woman serves only—or primarily—as a reward for the (presumably male) player or player-character succeeding at a mission or at the whole game. Even before the episode begins, Princess Peach comes to mind, as do hundreds of princesses in fairy tales the world over.

It also reminds me of the fairy tale minigame in Contrast, in which the princess in question decides she’d rather go off and rescue herself, thank-you-very-much. (If you don’t know about Contrast, my review of it is here on TLF.) My point is that this is another one of those tropes that isn’t inherent to videogames alone; it’s a long-standing (and long-annoying, if you ask me) trope that has been a part of literary and cinematic narratives for centuries.

That doesn’t, by the way, make it any less sexist or annoying. The “male hero does thing in order to get the girl” (which is usually a nice way to say “get laid”) trope is old, tired, and objectifying, and thus a worthy target for criticism. So let’s see what Sarkeesian does with it.

Sarkeesian begins with Metroid. Oh, boy.

Metroid, for what it’s worth, has a female protagonist, which immediately makes most people assume that it gets a pass from a series like Sarkeeian’s which is targeting negative tropes about women in gaming. And, to be honest, I’m a little surprised. Samus Aran is, in my opinion, one of the best female characters in games, particularly given her early advent in 1986 (see my discussion of Samus as a feminist gaming icon here on TLF). But that is not to say that there aren’t problems with the way Samus appears in games, particularly in her (potential) final appearance in the 1987 game, and—especially—in The Other M.

The problem with Metroid’s conclusion is that the reveal of Samus’s female identity is designed as a reward, as Sarkeesian rightly points out when she explains that “the two best endings…reveal Samus in various states of undress.” The better a player is, the fewer articles of clothing Samus is wearing (armor, then a leotard, then a bikini), and the more her “sexuality” is featured explicitly as a reward. This shouldn’t detract from the fact that she is still a powerful female character, but these conclusions (because the pattern continues throughout the games) do continue to objectify Samus’s female body as a prize.**

[Aside: Recently, Brianna Wu and Ellen McGrody suggested that Samus Aran is actually a transwoman, an argument that I’m not sold on, although ultimately I have absolutely no investment in whether Samus is trans or not, since by the time she shows up in Metroid, she’s clearly a woman, whether or not she has a digital Y chromosome.]

Sarkeesian continues with a more standard interpretation of the trope: a series of clips in which scantily clad and buxom women drape themselves on male player-characters in racing games, fighting games, and single-player games. She continues with the “victory sex” or “rescue sex” reward scenes – scenes in which female NPCs agree to have sex with the player-character (becoming more graphic in more contemporary games) in return for having been saved (or for the player-character saving the world). In some games, players even receive achievements or trophies for having sex with these NPCs (Sarkeesian refers to this as “trophyism,” and links it to the concept of straight male entitlement), or for other, more ‘minor’ sexual conquests, such as staring at NPCs’ breasts or up their skirts.

Sarkeesian doesn’t take the time here to distinguish between a couple of generic video game conventions. While there certainly are games that make use of more casual “rescue sex” encounters between player-characters and NPCs, there are quite a few games (RPGs, primarily) which contain romance-missions in which players attempt to build relationships between player-characters and NPCs, often NPCCs (non-player companion characters, or characters who follow the player-character and interact frequently with the player-character in conversations and during combat and exploration).

In romance missions, the player is “rewarded” for their relationship with an NPCC (or NPC) through a romantic, often sexual, encounter, which could ostensibly cause this type of scene to fall into Sarkeesian’s schema of “victory sex.” However, the purpose of romance missions is not explicitly to foreground sex (although the degree to which the developers choose to titillate players by revealing—or not—the bodies of the player-character and NPCC in question varies by game and by pairing), but to foreground the relationship, as the mission often extends over the entirety of the game and typically contains only one (or a few) explicitly sexual encounters. Some games—notably, titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, as well as Skyrim—do not restrict the gender of the player-character or the NPCC in these missions, meaning that a male character might well be the “reward” in question (not all games restrict these relationships to heterosexual, either, for what it’s worth, a point which Sarkeesian touches on slightly when mentioning the outrage of straight male players at encountering gay romance options in BioWare titles).

I think it’s important here to acknowledge that there are ways in which sex (or romance) as reward is complicated by the inclusion of these types of non-essential missions, since the purpose of “romance” missions often focuses on the establishment of an emotional connection between the characters, rather than an exclusively sexual one. This is not to say that all instances of “victory sex” ought to be excused as “romances”; there are far more instances of objectifying “victory sex” than there are romantic sexual culminations.

This trope ties in with a later one—sexual conquest as a source of XP (experience points), which players then use to increase their abilities or health (as in God of War or Grand Theft Auto). Here, the sexual encounter provides a dual reward—both the encounter itself and the XP the player earns by participating in it, designed, Sarkeesian notes, to “validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players.” It not only reduces women to “experience point dispensers,” but reinforces the false suggestion that masculinity must rely upon a male’s ability to conquer female bodies, making this particular version of the trope problematic in terms of both male and female gender politics.

Putting this aside, Sarkeesian moves on to easter eggs and cheat codes which unlock explicit content, including alternate starting screens with topless women, NPCs with expanding breasts as a reward for tricks performed, and player-characters and NPCs in various states of undress during cutscenes and gameplay. She points out that these are not “glitches,” but intentional inclusions “on the part of the designers,” which, while accurate, does rather suggest that all designers are complicit in the inclusion of these instances, which seems less than accurate. In fact, it may be that some are the result of programmers’ or artists’ interference, rather than designers—or even earlier models which were discarded in favor of characters in more clothing but which were not removed from the game’s programming for fear of causing glitches (although I would venture that a fair number were intentionally included as a ‘joke’ or easter egg, but that doesn’t mean that all the developers were aware of or complicit in their existence). It’s also worth noting that some of these come from mods generated by players, rather than developers, then shared. I don’t say this to excuse their existence (which is rather objectifying and exploitative), simply as a point of clarification which might exonerate the otherwise-demonized figure of the designer.

As she moves on to things like unlockable costumes and collectables (the costumes are often scanty or sexually revealing, and collectables might include photographs, magazines, or other sexualized objects). It is clear that there’s a disparity between the kinds of costumes unlocked for male versus female characters. While male characters often get more “badass” armor or humorous costumes, female characters (even, Sarkeesian notes, those otherwise appropriately dressed) typically end up with “sexy NOUN” outfits (“sexy nurse,” “sexy schoolgirl,” “sexy pirate,” etc.) which are “completely inappropriate for the mission at hand.”

On a side note, I appreciated Sarkeesian’s scorn for Resident Evil: Revelations 2 (2015)’s “urban ninja costume,” or, in her words, “whatever the hell this is supposed to be,” while noting that the male protagonist is in a full commandant’s uniform. I also liked that Sarkeesian provided alternatives here—Alice: Madness Returns (2011) offers thankfully non-sexy costumes for its protagonist, although the game itself is otherwise rather poorly designed.

As Sarkeesian’s series has matured, she has become more aware of the problems introduced in the early episodes, and she has made a deliberate effort to make her later episodes more complex and nuanced, including positive examples alongside the negative ones and going out of her way to show a few more in-depth discussions instead of a long laundry-list of issues. This is probably the best episode in the series thus far (and is definitely better than either of the episodes in her Positive Female Characters spin-off series) just in terms of its attention to details, both positive and negative.

That said, I am skeptical that the series itself will be able to be called ‘successful,’ and this skepticism has very little to do with the relative quality of the series. Near the end of the video, Sarkeesian leaves behind videogames, and enters into a very serious discussion of straight male entitlement, sexual harassment, and rape culture, a conversation which I’m afraid will largely alienate those male gamers who might have otherwise been sympathetic to her points about games. Sadly, the discussion is one that needs to be had, although I’m uncertain whether Sarkeesian is the person to do it—not because she isn’t qualified, but because of the reputation she has acquired as a ‘feminazi’ or ‘man-hater.’

And I think that this is ultimately what I think is the biggest problem with Sarkeesian’s series: it isn’t going to reach the people who really need to see it, and if it does, they aren’t going to be open to the points she’s trying to make. The people who watch Sarkeesian’s videos do so because they either agree with her or they intentionally don’t want to agree with her; there are few people who watch the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series because they genuinely have an interest in learning about the problems of gender representation in games.

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[…] Last week, Anita Sarkeesian released her seventh episode in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series on “Women as Reward.” I reviewed it over on TLF. […]

[…] DLC) to its most recent episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, “Women as Reward” (see my review on TLF here). In the DLC sub-episode, Anita Sarkeesian talks about, naturally, […]

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