When you’re playing a game as infectiously compelling as Grand Theft Auto V, it can be difficult to take a step back and reflect on all the wanton acts of destruction in which you’ve participated.
This can be weird in its own right considering how much of a time sink open world games can be. But when it comes to a game like Grand Theft Auto that helped popularised soliciting and brutalising prostitutes for fun, players’ and developers’ continued reliance on sexualised gameplay tropes can have disturbing implications both on-screen and off.
In the latest episode of her YouTube video series “Tropes vs Women”, critic Anita Sarkeesian examines how female characters are often consigned to the background of popular video games. As with all of Sarkeesian’s work in the Feminist Frequency series, this is required watching for any gamers with a strong interest in the big-budget games she digs into here like Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, and the Saints Row series.
This isn’t just a matter of women being relegated to supporting roles in popular big-budget games, however. More often than not, these female subjects that fill out the background of the world in a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Red Dead Redemption aren’t subjects at all. Rather, they’re built as virtual playthings to serve the every need of the male protagonist and punished violently and brutally if they ever fail to do so.
And while these are technically optional behaviours players don’t have to indulge in, Sarkeesian argues that it’s not a simple matter of allowing players who are offended by the material “opt out” of it, in a manner of speaking.
“The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon,” Sarkeesian says at one point in the video, “because they were designed, constructed, and placed in the environment for that singular purpose.”
Furthermore, repeated exposure to this kind of media can have real-world effects on players. Citing recent academic research, Sarkeesian says that “long term exposure to hypersexualised images, people of all genders tend to be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women, and more readily accepting of rape myths.”
Watch this and more installments in Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women series at the Feminist Frequency website.