Re: Women as Background Decoration: Part 2

Anita Sarkeesian released another installment of her long-running series Tropes Vs Women today. I highly recommend checking it out!

Whether you do watch or not, I want to highlight some of the more egregious examples she shows and expand upon some very salient points. The video stands alone just fine, but I argue these topics enough that I relish the opportunity to agree and respond to some really bad design examples.

Quotes were taken from the transcript of the subject video.

Assassin’s Creed 2 Example

Sarkeesian shows a mission from Assassin’s Creed 2 where a man, who has killed a prostitute and is on the run, kills endless unnamed women if you continually fail to execute him from a sufficient distance.(1)I have not played either Assassin’s Creed 2 or Watch Dogs, so I am relying on the fair portrayal of gameplay in Sarkeesian’s videos. If there are legitimate mischaracterizations that should be shared to facilitate better understanding of these games and their usage of sexist tropes, I want to know.

This results in a scenario where woman after woman is victimized until the player performs the correct action. It casually places many specifically female bodies as a necessary cost to progressing through the story. It trivializes violence against women by evoking it so quickly in succession that it becomes mundane.

What does it say that this is in the game? Game designers either did not consider the implications of repeated failure in their design, or they saw the endless slaying of women as benign. Either option reveals severe flaws in the development process.

It’s bad design from the start, but it’s especially bad design in that it’s perpetuating anti-women tropes of victimization and objectification, as well. The mechanics of repeating an objective until the player succeeds is extremely common in video games, so when violence against women is lazily reproduced through it, its flaws are horribly magnified.(2)Yes, I’m aware that the games often portray violence or sexual assault against women as bad. The problem is their ubiquitous inclusion in every fictional universe, the trivial and inconsiderate ways in which it is implemented, and the absence of non-objectified women in games to offer counterbalance. Which I get to later.

Watch Dogs Example

Some deeply troubling aspects of Watch Dogs were also explored concerning periodic random encounters that become man-on-woman assault:

Tellingly, if the player gets too close to the assault before it occurs, the abuser will be scared off and the player will fail the mission […] gaining no experience points and no boost to his “reputation” meter.

The only options available are to wait until the assault is in progress, then either take out the perpetrator during the assault, or take him down after the assault has happened. […]

No game mechanics are provided to call an EMT, administer first aid or check in on the victim.

Meaning that these female characters exist to be assaulted in order to give the player something to do, a reason to chase down the bad guy, exact vigilante justice on him and gain the allotted experience points. After which the women are casually discarded, forgotten by the game and its characters.

Two very telling game design choices reveal themselves in this segment.

First, approaching a crime moments before it has “officially” occurred results negatively for the player. In the specific instance of a potential assault, the player is discouraged from being a public, watchful dissuasion of crime. Instead he or she is encouraged to allow a crime to begin, and for someone to be hurt, before rushing in with just cause.

This is a common tactic in police work (or at least on shows that portray it): wait for the individual to incriminate him or herself before acting. But in these situations it is encouraging victimization for the player’s gain. The goal of allowing crime to happen is in part to stop the revealed criminal, yes, but that goal is inseparable from the benefits for the player if he or she succeeds in the mission.

This is essentially second issue: the player is not offered any way to help the victim of the crime. They are of secondary (or no) concern compared to the criminal. Helping the physically or emotionally abused was not a design concern for the progression of the protagonist.

The design of these random encounters, therefore, creates dismissible victims. In a game centered around a man, in a genre and industry focused on men, having a significant fraction of women in the game be these nameless victims speaks to the imbalance and sexism the video game community needs to address.(3)Yes, I’m sure the lack of ability to assist victims in random encounters exists beyond the type Sarkeesian showed. Yes, that points in some sense to a broader design flaw of the trivialization of crime and its victims overall. But the inclusion of assault on women as a possible crime event means developers must deal with the negative consequences of treating it identically to other crimes, when it is often extremely personal and traumatizing.

Portrayal and Design

Sarkeesian later comments on the larger, more pernicious problem with video games’ portrayal of sexual violence and the framing of the solution to violence against women:

The truth is that the vast majority of cases are committed by friends, colleagues, relatives, and intimate partners. The gendered violence epidemic is a deep-seated cultural problem present in the homes, communities and workplaces of many millions of women all over the world. It is not something that mostly happens in dark alleys at the hands of cartoon villains twisting nefarious-looking mustaches.

I should also note that the problem cannot be solved by simply finding the bad evil men and killing them all – as these game narratives invariably imply again and again.

These are excellent points. Both in the common inclusion of sexual violence in video games and in the proposed solution, designers and writers get the issue wrong very frequently. First, as Sarkeesian says, it is true that significantly more cases of rape are committed by a person known to the victim, and not on the street. The casual treatment of assault of women as any other crime is therefore misapplied in-game to frequently occur in public.

A larger issue is the core game design of Grand Theft Auto-like open-world games: the emphasis on being in the streets. Activity, criminal or otherwise, not commonly seen in public is forced there to be able to be interacted with or seen. Sexual violence against women is seen as necessary characterization of the environment to be portrayed in some fashion.

Sarkeesian’s second criticism is of the proposed in-game solutions to crimes like sexual assault. It is almost universally to stop, capture, or kill the assaulter. This, like before, is in part a product of the game’s genre: the first-person shooter. Few games afford the opportunity or gameplay to influence society or promote ideas of consent and nonviolence, after all. But the origins of the problem don’t excuse it. Developers do not have to be aiming for harm to cause it.(4)Again, just because developers portray something as good or bad doesn’t mean they are immune from criticism about the effects of that portrayal. The choice of inclusion, possibly player interaction, and the depth to which elements of a story or environment are explored are other crucial elements worth examining, independent of authorial intent, to determine if a subject was included respectfully and wisely.


One of the video’s final points criticizes the idea that by including sexual or gendered violence in games, and portraying them negatively, they are doing them justice.

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems. […]

The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

Video games that use attempted rape but treat it as any other crime are a part of the problem. Games that do not explore the differences in this kind of crime and its victimization fail to meaningfully include them and instead trivialize them. Stories that include gratuitous violence against women or rape, with no more underlying theme than “horrifying”, serve no greater purpose than to offer women a place in the background, no better than the skybox.(5)Yes, the same can be said for other subjects, as well. Drug use in general, for example, is not resolved one killed dealer at a time. Gameplay exploring the causes of addiction and a search for resolution can provide excellent commentary and signify nuanced, considerate treatment of a subject. I believe video games more commonly approach this subject (and others) than give women’s issues appropriate treatment. This disparity is only made more egregious by the paucity of playable or even influential women in the games examined in the video and this post.


Sarkeesian closes by asking what makes women’s objectification so essential to video game worlds:

What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.

I believe the real answer to why this proposition of “realism” appears has nothing to do with keeping games realistic and has instead everything to do with maintaining the status quo. This isn’t a purist, realist argument: this is a conservative argument to keep things the way they are.

Geeks, nerds, and gamers have only recently felt control over a hobby they love. They’ve seen it grow popular, even amongst those who used to ridicule video games. So there’s a defensiveness there, a hipsterish fear that the thing they’ve fought to enjoy, now that it’s respected, is going to change from under them, and from the outside.

I honestly get that fear. If you’re comfortable with something, and someone points out a flaw in it, it’s very common to reject, to shut down sensors. It’s hard to exercise compassion, to stretch your consideration beyond what you understand. But there are enough people who are tired of this persistent, hostile, yet lazy treatment of women in the video game industry, and if you read all of this, I hope you feel a little closer to understanding the causes of concern.

Video game culture will improve with more welcoming and diverse players and creators. Different and better stories will emerge; new types of games will form. The industry will not nosedive; it will soar. Players might find that playing a game outside their comfort zone may make them feel something different. Something more.

Notes   [ + ]

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