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The Troublesome Portrayal of Women in Video Games

Video games are notorious for catering to teenage boys. Puzzlingly, it’s an increasingly outdated focus, persisting mostly in the creative direction and subsequent marketing of games, reflected in big budget titles moreso than in general-appeal casual games. The recent controversy over Assassin Creed’s exclusion of female avatars is just the latest of a long-running series of protagonists that are, by default, young men.

Anita Sarkeesian is undertaking an incredibly courageous project to explore and create conversation around this subject. She saw the caricature – or in media terms, trope – of women in video games, and wanted to produce a series that explored the portrayal of women in this medium. A successful kickstarter gave her the encouragement and financial support to produce her series, Tropes vs. Women.

The video game community is not exactly known for its maturity, and for her trouble Anita has received misogynistic backlash and numerous death threats. If the tech community has a handful of loud individuals who make the industry an uncomfortable and unpleasant place for women, the community around video games is much worse. As evident by misguided discussions on forums and message boards, putting something as nuanced and charged as gender relations in front of gamers typically results in flame wars and net negative progress.

To Anita’s latest educational video, her theme is “Women as Background Decoration.” The thesis is that there exists a large category of women in games whose presence and function are by design dehumanizing, that they are reduced to little more than scenery with brief cliche interactions. In some open world games, this trope is codified with the “running over a prostitute” meme; Grand Theft Auto and other games that revolve around organized crime have made a dark subject matter seemingly conventional. Other types of games will put in unnecessary scenarios involving brothels and strip clubs, forcing the player go through these levels and gawk at the spectacle.

My take on this issue is slightly different: video games often resort to putting in charged characters like prostitutes as shorthand for “edginess” and “adult”, but this technique is not unique to video games. Indeed, it’s valid criticism against most forms of popular media, and while that doesn’t excuse the video game industry for taking the easy path to presenting adult themes, it’s unfair to single out creative work in video games as an egregious offense when it’s commonplace in all forms of entertainment.

The other claim is that video games enable agency and violence against women, but that accusation is also a bit of a stretch. In reality, the vast majority of games treat their NPCs (non-playable characters) equally, in that the player can do all dumb things to all of them regardless of gender or race or occupation or class or most other distinguishing features. Women aren’t singled out as much as they’re included in this type of character class whose main purpose is to let players do to them what they will.

That said, I recognize the problematic juxtaposition, that equality here doesn’t exist in a vacuum and should be placed in the larger and very real context of violence against women in our society. Given the added context, indiscriminate inclusion creates opportunities which can be misunderstood and abused, and combined with the aforementioned immaturity of gamers as a whole, easily taken a few steps too far[1]. We can start by acknowledging that equality, in context, can itself be a troubling imposition.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Like how the running-over-a-prostitute meme came about in the first place.
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