maandag 30 juni 2014

Critique on "Women As Background - Part 1"

The following critique contains my personal counter arguments for the newest addition to the ongoing Feminist Frequency series called "Tropes vs Women in videogames". Please watch the video alongside with this critique. I want to invite everyone in taking part in the discussion around this topic, but please remain respectful and don't play the ad hominem game.  

Here's the video in question: 

Video games and advertisement

At first, Sarkeesian adresses the sexualization of women in video game advertisements (while somehow pointing out that a certain arcade machine is "oddly shaped", because that must be relevant). As usual, she shows us several examples, in which we can see scantily clad women promoting arcade video games. A quick Google search delivered me the picture below, in which we see a very modestly clad girl playing the arcade game Joust. In my opinion, there's nothing sexualized about this portrayal, and the ad comes off as rather positive and engaging. 

Several images further in my search, I came across other pictures: 

Could you not say that the man here is portrayed as sexual and is being victimized? In contrary to the previous advertisement, I find that this particular image promotes violence, a winner-loser mentality instead of a working together mentality and so on. 

Seriously, not only females are being sexualized in these ads.

Two things bug me in Sarkeesian's monologue: the statement that advertisements like these became the "norm" (which is not easy to prove as well as not easy to dismiss - these pictures date from 40 and more years back, so one can't as easily look it up); and the statement that these kind of advertisements promote a certain lifestyle ("in which women predominantly exist as passive objects of heterosexual male desire"). In my opinion, advertisements like these can't be easy correlated into a general persons lifestyle - models aren't usually representative to the general population: the idealized way in which they are portrayed and their distinct beauty is far from realistic. 
Furthermore, Sarkeesian claims that these ads contributed to an "emergent culture in which women were thought of as ornamental and peripheral to a male gaming experience". I want proof for that claim. I don't see male gamers holding their trophy wife close to them these days while they're doing all-nighters in Dota or Assassin's Creed. I cannot refute the statement that sexy women are easy eye candy though - because they are and it's widely proven that this works - sex sells. But limiting her examples to only video games creates a distorted image because this exact kind of advertisement is well used in all sorts of media, the earliest known example stems from 1871 according to Wikipedia. Beautiful, sexy women were and still are the norm in promoting many things. This concept was used well before video games existed, yet Sarkeesian seems to suggest video games heavily contributed to this movement. 

Pixellated prostitution

Cue some definitions (the Non-Playable Sex Object will be later referred to as "NPSO"), several short clips, introduction of what an NPC is (a non-playable character in a game). Note that Sarkeesian admits that the importance of their roles can vary. Also please note that she starts with the lowest important NPC (pedestrian) and ends up with the one of the most important ones (sidekick), implying that it's better for NPC's to have a more important role.  

One of the first points she makes is that sexualized women as NPC's have become "almost obligatory in many so-called "mature" titles". This is a ridiculous statement, since the mature content videogame branch contains more than just games like GTA - many shooters and horror games are called "mature" games as well, while not having any nudity in them. A few moments later, Sarkeesian states that NPSO's have no individual personality or identity to speak of and serve as mere set dressings or props, but this is a statement that applies to most NPC's in general! The sexy women often have names and dialogues, so depending on how you look at it, they may have more depth than a standard NPC. Sarkeesian is purposely using the negative traits of most NPC's to further strengthen the negative stance she takes on NPSO's. That's called cherry picking, people. 

Cue another definition (Sexual Objectification), the subject shifts towards exotic women/women of color in video games. The protagonists of Far Cry 3 and Max Payne 3 get labelled as "straight white males" - I think she left out the Yakuza/GTA games on purpose, as well as that the target audience is largely white, straight males. I think both FC3 and MP3 actually do a good job on portraying the heartwrenching sex industry in certain countries. Also, take note that when sex workers have a different skin color, suddenly the game is racist.

Sarkeesian seems to really want to pinpoint it's bad for games to have women of color/asian women as sex workers. As a friend pointed out to me, the prostitution of women in games like Shellshock: Nam '67 is not a trope that was invented for these games: the cliché of prostitution, for example in Vietnam, goes a long way. It's actually a somewhat realistic image of sex workers around that time. Here's a link for the ones who want to catch up: (be careful though, Tv Tropes is addictive!) 

When making an argument, using the words "never" or "always" should be avoided, because one single counter argument can make your statement seem fallacious. In this case, Sarkeesian stating that these games are trying to sell us that males are always sexual subjects, is something I cannot take seriously. The same applies to the following quote. 

"Incidentally, this trope also exist in games that may allow players to pick a female avatar. But the presence of a woman inhabiting the role of protagonist, even if well developed, doesn't do anything to negate the fact that NPSO's are still specificially coded to pander to a presumed heterosexual male ego." 

Sarkeesian generalizes that, if you're playing a game in which you can choose the gender of your protagonist, it's impossible that a female protagonist might enjoy the sexualized presence of another female. 

Interactivity is bad

We're a quarter into this video, and Sarkeesian makes notion of something interesting: games are interactive. This would make them more influental to us than say, books or movies. It's an interesting argument and I've often brought it up in discussions. Under her video, Sarkeesian provided several links to articles, papers and books.
The article titled "The Sexual Objectification Spillover Effect" only mentions real life women. The article by Ben Kuchera is actually a blog and thus an opinionated piece. The article "Sexual Priming [...]" talks about short-term effects and while being a very interesting read, does not provide long-term research. Both the articles "Sexualized Avatars" and the one on the Proteus Effect can be very misleading. The actual experiment put women in a virtual reality with help of live motion capturing and a headmounted display. Then the researchers observed the behaviour of these women according to virtual avatars they were assigned to. This is not comparable with a normal game in which you play as an existing character who has interactions with virtual characters. I didn't read the rest of articles nor the books mentioned but if you have, dear reader, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them. Full list with links:

Sarkeesian further suggests games encourage people to objectify video game characters, but aren't all video game characters objects that are acted upon since they aren't real persons? 
Her next implication tells us that video game designers have a "suspicious tendency" (they must be plotting something) of making gamers walk through brothels and strip clubs, but I counter with:
  • strip clubs are a commonly used trope in many media 
  • it's not uncommon but it's not the standard for mature games to have a brothel. 
  • strip clubs and the like are part of society as we know it, including these in games adds to realism (though it's not necessary to include them in a game). GTA 4 and 5 take place in Liberty City and Los Santos, who are based on New York and Los Angeles, cities that hold over 100 strip clubs in real life.
Just a few seconds later, she implies again that games encourage us to objectify, but takes it a step further by saying they "encourage players to collaborate with developers in sexual objectification". Okay, hold your horses here. Firstly, gamers never even communicate with developers when they play a game and secondly, there is no conspiracy in video game industry working towards sexual objectification. Objectification isn't the goal of developers - their goal is to sell as much games as possible. As I said earlier, sex sells and it's a commonly used cliché. 

Cue Sarkeesian stating that she "identified" fundamental aspects of objectifying - the whole list she recites is actually available as such on Wikipedia. That's not research, that's copypaste. 

The courtesans in Assassin's Creed IV are used as another example of objectifications; Sarkeesian uses the word "acquire" and "ordered". It's actually a status you acquire in the game: the courtesans aren't your possessions, but help you obtain your mission objective by distracting guards. In regards to the dead female body in Hitman: Absolution, I'm going to be crude: a dead body is an object, not longer a person. It could have as well been a man instead of a women and it wouldn't have made a difference in my opinion. It can't be ignored it's an almost naked body, but you can also say that this is a critique to abduction and murder. The protagonist of the Hitman series, Agent 47 is an assassin-for-hire who doesn't really care for humans so his interactions with a dead body are subject for discussion. 

After Assassin's Creed, the Saints Row games are brought up. Anyone who has ever played Saints Row knows these games are downright parodies. I'm having difficulties relating to the absurd characters and situations from these games and seeing them in correlation to real life. Sarkeesian also seems heavily opposed to prostitution - in real life, several sex workers are fed up with her points of view (NSFW!): 

Sarkeesian repeats herself once again when stating prostitution has become commonplace in games these days, but I haven't seen many prostitutes in my play session of A Link Between Worlds. She also makes a false analogy stating prostitutes in video games are equal to vending machines in the same games because the effect after consumption is sometimes similar, being boosted stats or regained health. Sarkeesian states this is a textbook example of interchangeability, but a vending machine does not have dialogue nor animation options, which is a significant difference in my opinion. 

The interchangeability with the diverse NPSO's in certain games is brought up, but the games she shows as examples do have a different focus than building a decent relationship with a woman. Sarkeesian states a bit later that the programming doesn't even allow for deeper relationships (that's simply a choice of the developers and not necessarily something bad), but that's because you are playing a game in which your purpose is to be a criminal - a family life doesn't fit into such a game objective. I'd like to point out that GTA V has its fair share of relationship interaction by the way. The similar design choices for these NPSO's are something I agree on though: this is very lazy design. On the subject of the stripper game in GTA V: the characters you play as are doubtfully role models. Their actions aren't something to look up to and act upon in real life. I think most gamers are well aware of this. 

The last statement Sarkeesian makes is that interactive media are perfect for exploring sex and sexuality but that is not what is happening here... Exactly! There are games in which it is brought positively and/or in depth - the amazing Catherine game is a great example. Then you have Silent Hill 2, in which the protagonist fights his inner demons and sexual frustrations. Wait, I think Sarkeesian was trying to say there's no depth in intercourse with a prostitute. She also implies that sex should always require mutual intimate feelings between two people, but I think many people in real life beg to differ. People can have a mutually agreeing sexual relationship without having a need to deepen their relation any further. 

Sexy equals violence 

Sarkeesian jumps right into the next subject and shows us a short clip from Sleeping Dogs, in which a prostitute is strangled, beaten and then dragged into a trunk. I can show you literally hundreds of games in which you can kill hordes of male NPC's and no one will bat an eye for them. Violence is bad in all forms, but not specifically to one gender; men are looked upon as disposable in many, many games, which I find way more horrifying than the beating of women (which is still awful). Sarkeesian shows examples of women being beaten and killed in games, but these are all choices of the player, and can be applied to men as well. It's not mandatory nor gender exclusive and shouldn't be treated as such. Also, the sentence "the player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon" applies to every character of any gender in every game. Game characters aren't real persons, they are virtual objects to be acted upon by a human player who controls the game. By the way, did you know that sexualized violence in real life is declining? 

Sarkeesian uses the word "always" again. Then she repeats herself and sticks to gender-based arguments, implying that all the violence is used especially on women. "Punishment" of female sexuality is brought up; no. Just no. A player could do exact the same with a male body that's undressed, and if the player is a straight white male (the general target market), there wouldn't be any sexual pleasure derived from these actions, thus, it wouldn't be punishment. I'm well aware this is a series about women in video games, but I find that Sarkeesian tips the balance way too far in "favor" of the women. Males in video games are often treated much worse than females, which this series seems to oppose. 

Let's get to a conclusion here 

Sarkeesian makes a bold assumption, by saying it's irrelevant whether players decide not to act violently or objectifying upon NPSO's in games, because they are in the game anyway. That would be the same as saying that everyone who goes to the grocery stores smokes, because cigarettes are available there anyway. She tries to justify this with a toaster analogy that just doesn't make sense. If a woman in a game wears bikini on the beach, is she a sex object because she's dressed that way? No, she becomes a sex object in perspective to someone who treats her as such. Sarkeesian is making it hard on designers to create sexy women in games with her points of view, since with this analogy, every woman (or female NPC) in a game that shows a bit of cleavage is supposedly a sex object. This would make iconic women in games such as Nariko, Lara Croft or Kaileena sex objects. 

With another generalization and use of the word "only" Sarkeesian tries to strengthen her point. Next is the use of the word "never" - I recall meeting a woman in Fallout 3 that is an ex-prostitute (Silver) and does have quite the background story. All the other prostitutes in the game have several dialogue options in which you can find out more about them too. Stating that NPSO's "exist on the outskirts of humanity, placed beyond the reach of empathy by their creators" is a very extreme statement that once again assumes that somewhere, there's a big plan to dehumanize all women in video games. 
Sarkeesian continues generalizing by saying there's no such thing as sexified men in games, but I can provide a few examples to counter that. 

From left: Zangief - Street Fighter, Vincent - Catherine, (top) Ethan Mars - Heavy Rain, (bottom) Dante - Dmc: Devil May Cry

From left: Voldo - Soul Calibur, Zhang He - Dynasty Warriors, Testament - Guilty Gear

From left: Kuja - Final Fantasy 9, Vamp - Metal Gear Solid 2, The Great Gama - Shadow Hearts: Covenant, Ashley Riot - Vagrant Story

What I do agree with is that there are way more women sexualized and act in stereotypical ways than males in video games. This is lazy writing. It should be noted though, that making a game requires a lot more work than a book or a movie; everything in the game needs to be written, designed, coded, the dialogue and sound needs to be recorded and timed and so on. Games often take several years to make and while easy design shouldn't be excused, in some cases it should be understandable, for example with regard to budget. One of Sarkeesian's last remarks on this subject is that "men can be sexual, but also anything else in games" - so can women, but it indeed needs to be worked on. The point that more male sex workers in video games will not change anything is a good one too. 
But then Sarkeesian says, I quote: 

"[...] So whereas in traditional media, viewers might see representations of women being used and exploited, gaming offers players the unique opportunity to use or exploit female bodies themselves. This forces gamers to become complicit with developers in making sexual objectification a participatory activity."

Gamers and developers have no big sexual objectification conspiracy in mind and NPC's are already objects. People who buy these kind of games do well know what kind of gameplay they can expect - violence and sex. There's a demand for games like these - the proof is that they sell well. Plenty of games exist in which you play as a hero who saves people, the kingdom, the world or even the universe. Even though it might seem contradictory, people like diversity. The opportunity to play as a not-so-good character is a welcome and interesting change for a lot of gamers. 
The overuse of idealized sexualization in traditional media is a very delicate issue though. I'm the last to say this is not harmful, because indeed, it leads to the things Sarkeesian sums up. However, I'm not sure video games have the same effect as movies and advertisements featuring real people. At first, video game characters aren't mostly placed in the same environment as we because they are heroes or bad guys who often possess superpowers and/or abnormal strength. They are confronted with extreme conflict such as war, murder and injustice, and fight it with supernatural means. Next to this, there's an effect called "the uncanny valley" which makes it difficult for humans to emotionally engage and relate to artificial beings, including video game characters. Here's a link to both wikipedia and an article about it: 

Further on in the video on Women as Background Decoration, it's nowhere stated that videogames are included in the performed research. The effects on men are mentioned as well, but Sarkeesian does not tell us whether the images the men were exposed to contained digital women as well. The introduction of the third-person effect is somewhat sudden, and while I'm not dismissing games can have an effect on us, I'd rather not that games have the mentioned long-term misogynistic influence on us until specific research has been performed on this subject.  


Some of the brought up points are in my opinion interesting, like how stereotypical sexualized women are overused in video games as well as in other media. Another good point is that interactive media are great for exploring all kinds of subjects and sexuality is among them - but there should be a very distinct separation between the actual intent of the plot and the sexuality of characters. Having a sexy character in a game should not imply that they are supposed to be a sex object or should have intercourse with other characters, but if they do, it's not necessarily misogynistic or regressive. It's perfectly possible to be sexy and to have depth as well. Madison Page from Heavy Rain, Bayonetta, Triss from The Witcher 2, Meryl from Metal Gear Solid, Tifa Lockheart from Final Fantasy 7 and Jill Valentine are all examples of how a woman can be displayed both as attractive and still be a well-rounded character (pun intended).
That said, sexuality shouldn't be necessary in itself. A character - and this should be obvious - can be created as interesting while not displaying their body as a forte at the same time. Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3, Bonnie McFarlane from Red Dead Redemption, Samus Aran from the Metroid series, Jodie from Beyond: Two Souls and Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark are solid examples. Gamers love all the characters I mentioned and they would love more of them. I'm looking at you, gaming industry, give us more of these characters please. 

What I didn't like in this video: I think that Sarkeesian is too eager to jump to conclusions or is biased to the subject and is not giving us a neutral analysis. She primarily focuses on problems without giving solutions or presenting positive examples (hence the bias) and suspects gaming developers of conspiring to objectify women. Several of the sources she provides are open for speculation too. This is a recurring behaviour in her videos. Last but not least, her heavy censoring, blocking of comments and unwillingness to openly face constructive criticism complicate her relationships with netizens. Her Facebook Feminist Frequency page only has comments that are unanimously positive, comments that offer constructive criticism or are negative are removed very quickly.  

I really would like to see a Feminist Frequency video in which positive examples are shown. We are constantly fed negativism, criticism and assumptions towards the gaming industry, and games are branded as misogynistic because sexualized women are part of their gameplay. I think many, many gamers, most of them male, feel angry towards Sarkeesian because of this stance - it's not fun having your fun hobby criticized. The fact is... Most of us, females too, aren't sometimes aware of how offensive some of the things portrayed to us are. Here's a quote from a great article:

"And when you have an entrenched attitude that you may not fully recognise and you are confronted by arguments that go to the core of that attitude, it's easy to get upset, because it feels like a personal attack. Your natural response is to try to change the subject, attack the speaker or frame the argument differently, rather than engaging with the thing you can't comprehend at the heart of the original point." 

The recent uproar on Ubisoft's choice not to include women in their newest Assassin's Creed game shows us an important change: people are starting to stand up for the importance of having half of the world population being presented in a game. This would not have happened 10 years ago and I'm glad for the change! Here are links to Twitter comments on this issue and to an article, albeit being a bit aggressive, shows us why women could have been part of the game in a logical matter: 

I want to keep up the positive stance here, near the end of this article. We have come a long way since last century in the equality of genders and the media are slowly changing along with that. While female characters are not as omnipresent as male characters in gaming, people are becoming vocal and developers are listening to them. We're not there yet, but there's promise.  

I'm looking forward to discussing this subject with you, dear readers. Please remain respectful and try to remember when commenting: there's more than one side to most issues. Looking forward to your responses! 

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