Weekend Reader: Sex As A Commodity, Women As Achievements

Mass Effect is a sophisticated, acclaimed video game. It took uninformed flak for its sex scene, which gamers defended as a mature portrayal of the act. But it's really no better than the depiction of sex in any other game.

That's because it perpetuates a transactional model of sex, argues Alex Raymond at GameCritics.com. When you think about it, pursuing sex with an NPC in that game is fundamentally no different from C.J. bedding women in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Sex is presented as a reward, a result only, something won only by making correct choices attenuated to a woman's shallow preferences, and it's certainly not shown to be part of the process of a relationship.

The "Ladies Man" achievement in the upcoming Alpha Protocol spy action game—have sex with every woman in the game—really set Raymond's teeth on edge. This essay focuses not on sex objects, but on sex as an object—a goal only, a commodity, and the damage done by video games reinforcing such concepts.

Women Aren't Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex [GameCritics.com, Aug. 26, 2009]

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex-the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are "rewarded" with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result-the reward-of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, "Keep talking to me and eventually we'll have sex". The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC's thoughts and desires aren't relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behaviour in real life.

Where the simplistic relationship mechanics really get problematic is when someone makes a game where your protagonist is a James Bond-wannabe and there's an achievement for sleeping with every woman in the game. I am talking, of course, about Alpha Protocol. The quotes in the linked MTV Multiplayer article are infuriatingly sexist (as well as displaying insultingly limiting definitions of masculinity), but the relevant part is the bit about the "Ladies' Man" achievement.

It is seriously problematic to have a game where the male player/avatar can have sex with any and every woman in the game. On top of reinforcing the commodity model of sex, it is desperately heteronormative. For all the player's "choice" of with whom to engage, there's no possibility that the player might want to have a relationship with another man. It also shows that lesbians just don't exist in this world, if every single woman is open to a sexual encounter with a man. In addition, it perpetuates the narrative of the Nice Guy (described in Millar's essay, and elsewhere): that men are entitled to sex from women if they follow the rules and do the right things, or in the case of Alpha Protocol, "select your responses wisely."

- Alex Raymond

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.


    What if Lara Croft had a sex scene, where she had to hook up with a guy to complete a mission?

      So you'd go from making sex a reward for succeeding in a challenge (for a male character) to making it a *requirement* for success (for a female one)? Now that says volumes.

    What does that have to do with ANYTHING?

      Me and the Squirrel are friends. :)

      [/Invader Zim Quote]

    I think the comments make better reading than the article itself. Sex IS often seen as a reward in our society (and has been since the dawn of time), so it's not really surprising to see it in our media portrayed as such.

    "The NPC’s thoughts and desires aren’t relevant"

    Sorry, we are talking about an AI character, aren't we? This is a limitation of the form - you're not interacting with a person, you're interacting with code.

    He makes a point, but hell, the same thing occurs in Bond films.

    "something won only by making correct choices attenuated to a woman’s shallow preferences"

    Hmm, never thought of it that way.

    I'm too lazy to try and pick this article apart.

    In short: 'ugh'.

    Humans are incredibly materialistic, we establish meaningful connections to gain and loss in absolutely every facet of our lives, especially sex and relationships. It's how our mind works and how it can be manipulated through all sorts of emotional states. The Gaming Industry is not the only market to try and quantify the 'realtionship metrics' for customer satisfaction.
    I agree we need a better way to represent relationships in games beyond the sex act as the 'end of the quest'. How about we also complain about how Games do not show the user any real life experiences at all? Relationships are at the bottom of the bucket of things that could mess with young gamers minds. I mean, RPGs use an XP system which is a classic commodity and collection model, aren't we trivialising life experiences from the very start? Some perspective is needed.

    In GTA4 sex is used as payment to achieve the reward. You have to entertain and then root the girlfriends to achieve rewards like unlocking a Pimp costume.

    So what does that say about RL? Fuck my wife and she'll make me a sammich???

    Alex Raymond needs to get laid. Or some perspective. Or both.

    And I'm seconding Matfei's "Ugh". I also don't have the time or energy to waste picking apart a seriously flawed perspective. Like the "racism" in RE4, look for what you want to see and you'll see it.

    Sex is one of the reasons games get banned in Australia, not when it's used as reward but when it leads to rewards itself. The problem is just about all computer games have mechanics that operate on an action=reward basis, therefore this barrier in classification is ridiculous, what is movies in which sex advances the plot were banned? The fact that the trivialization of sex (ie it's simply a reward for doing other things and the end goal) rather than having it as an action itself that has consequences, is encouraged by our classification system is even worse.

    I do by the way agree with this article, especially in it's criticism of the MTV article, the cut out a lot of female npc dialogue but kept all the sex? they didn't like the fact a man becuase he cried? Seriously this is why games aren't progressing in the realm of maturity.

    In Mass Effect, you CAN play as a woman. Where are all the complaints about "exploitation of Kaidan Alenko"?

    Also, in Mass Effect, you CAN engage in a (aesthetically, if not metaphysically) lesbian relationship when you are playing as a woman. Where are the complaints about this being "one woman commodifying another"?

    If a relationship depicted in a game had "sex as the means to an end" (i.e. like GTA San Andreas), then that game would be criticized for making the sex exploitative. On the other hand, when a game has "sex as the end of the relationship" (like Mass Effect) then it gets treated as if women are just 'sexual vending machines.'

    So as such, the game cannot avoid criticism if it depicts a male player character engaging in sex with a female player character. Some radical misandrist posing as a 'feminist' will claim they are being demeaned.

    First, we have to stop pretending that a relationship based on exchange ("the transaction model") is a bad thing. Human being act teleologically, they employ means in the pursuit of ends. We naturally seek values from other human beings and thus will exchange value for value. These values may not be material; they may be nonmaterial in nature (pleasure from another person's company, for instance).

    The Kantian moral belief that one must not "use another human being as a means to an end" coupled with the Marxist resentment towards commerce, are the ideas responsible for distaste towards "the transaction model" of relationships. As for the Kantian moral principle, Kant said MASTURBATION was evil because it was using oneself as a means to an end. Additionally, Kant put off proposing to the woman he loved because he didn't want to "use her as a means to an end" (as such, another man got her first). Do we really think Kant's principles are reasonable principles for relationships?

    Additionally, Marxism is premised on an economic-constructionist belief about human nature, as well as an epistemologically realist conception of economic value. Both of these ideas are completely false.

    Ask yourself: would you get into a relationship that could not conceivably benefit yourself? Would you get into a relationship from which you derived no pleasure from the other person's company? Because a demand that one must enter relationships 'non-transactionally' essentially demands just that.

      @ StudiodeKadent; you win this thread, good person.

      Whenever this kind of article crops up I think back to Kant and his clever, if flawed, principles for living a moral life.

      Good point re: 007. I don't think he has ever formed what could deemed a 'moral, decent' relationship with a woman in the course of one the Bond films.

      I'd argue that the amount effort you have to go to have sex with one of the "1's and 0's" NPCs in Mass Effect is far higher than the effort 007 puts in!

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