Anita Sarkeesian released a new video in her Tropes vs Women in Video Games series on August 31, this time taking on the “women as reward” trope. As always, she is so right on when it comes to connecting male entitlement to the representation of women as consumable objects.
I don’t play video games and am kind of appalled at the level of violence and misogyny I see every time I watch one of Sarkeesian’s videos. At the same time, it’s hardly surprising considering the kind of messages we see in porn culture.
In her two–part Women as Background Decoration series she explained how sexual objectification works to dehumanize women and how women as “passive objects of heterosexual male desire” became so prominent in gaming culture. The “camera” in video games will often play to the male gaze by zooming in on “non-playable female characters'” body parts, who are, in many cases, positioned only as peripheral things that exist “to be used and abused.” (She was, it should be noted, attacked online for using the term, “prostituted women,” when discussing games that fuse objectification with the exoticization of impoverished women, by having male characters travel through shanty towns populated by prostituted women in the global south.)
In the case of the “women as reward” trope, she says that when male characters are “rewarded” in games with sex or when players are rewarded with sexualized, stripped down female characters, the result is that “access to women’s bodies, women’s affection, and women’s sexuality is reduced to a simple equation that guarantees delivery as long as the correct set of inputs is entered into the system.” She points out that this “fosters a sense of entitlement where players are encouraged to view women as something they have the right to, by virtue of their gaming actions, skills, or accomplishments.”
In some games, for example, players are able to “unlock” costumes for their characters to wear which are usually just “cool, wacky, or bizarre” except when it comes to female characters, where there is a pattern of hypersexualized and porn-themed options.
“It’s important to remember,” Sarkeesian says, “that sexualization is not just about the amount of skin showing, but is instead connected to the question of whether or not a costume is eroticized for the express purpose of titillation.”
Female characters that are otherwise powerful — secret service agents, members of human rights organizations, etc. — can be put in sexy policewoman costumes, school girl costumes, and racialized costumes that exoticize women of colour that are reminiscent, Sarkeesian says, of “those patronizing sexy halloween costumes we see mass-produced every year.” It’s a way for male players to disempower otherwise powerful female characters.
In Grand Theft Auto V, probably the most notorious of misogynist, violent games, players are encouraged to, Sarkeesian says, buy sex from prostitutes by offering things like increases to their “stamina ratings” when they do. Other games do the same, offering various points and rewards when they solicit prostitutes.
Apparently game developers have no interest in subtlety, as Sarkeesian points out that kinds of scenarios directly link “the flippant consumption of female sexuality to an increase in male power.” The female character’s value is depleted through these interactions. “Like an empty energy drink container, she is simply cast aside after being consumed,” she says.
The pornography connection grows even more literal in games like Mafia II, which partnered with Playboy to offer real vintage centerfolds from 1950s issues as rewards for finding magazines hidden throughout the game.
Other games will offer pornography to players as “collectables,” saved and made accessible to players for future use. Players are encouraged to “acquire as many different ‘flavours’ of women as possible” for their collections.
So what these games are doing is reinforcing notions that women are things, prizes, and trophies that can and should be demeaned at any given moment in order to gift men with more power. The only reason, gamers learn, to interact with women, is for their own personal gratification and status. They quite literally teach men that they are entitled to women’s bodies, reinforcing a worldview that “defin[es] women’s social role as vessels of sexuality and men’s roles as consumers or patrons of that sexuality,” Sarkeesian says.
“Unlike access to clean water or healthcare, which should be considered human rights that all people deserve simply for being human, access to a woman’s affections, her body, or her sexuality is not a right owed to anyone except herself,” she says.
Sarkeesian goes on to explain that male entitlement is what is at the foundation of rape and sexual assault, so much a part of our culture that we often don’t even notice it. Male entitlement isn’t created by video games, she says, but is reinforced in various ways in our society — through movies, pornography, religion, pop music, etc. Nonetheless games teach these ideas “in unique ways not found in other forms of media.” The rewards system in particular, Sarkeesian says, reinforces cognitive patterns that teach male players that access to women’s bodies and affections is a right, so long as you “perform the correct inputs.”
“Social science indicates that one of the primary ways we learn about the world and our relationships to one another is through a process of observation and imitation,” Sarkeesian says. So when we see behaviours modeled for us and then those behaviours are rewarded, that has an impact on our real-life behaviour.
Male entitlement is so strong in gaming that Sarkeesian says straight male players have thrown “angry pubic temper tantrums” when forced to interact in role-playing games with gay male characters or lesbian characters who are not there for their gratification. The same outbursts happen “when Western releases of Japanese games place women in slightly less revealing outfits or increase the age of young sexualized female characters to 18.”
All of Sarkeesian’s videos are excellent learning tools and provide accessible commentary on the sexism we see in media, but this one is particularly radical and particularly genius. It shows that media is enormously impactful and cannot be treated simply as neutral entertainment so long as these messages are conveyed. Beyond that, she’s made a point that is often pushed aside by many well-known feminist commentators today: sex is not a human right, women’s bodies are not consumable objects, and these ideas are enormously dangerous and have real-life consequences for women everywhere.