Violence against women is an ugly reality that’s all too common, no matter what walk of life people come from. Yet, video games tend to portray it in only a few cliched ways, to create a sense of environment and tone and cheaply get a reaction out of players. That’s a problem.
The latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video from scholar/critic Anita Sarkeesian looks at what she calls the women-as-decoration trope in latter-day titles. Sarkeesian breaks down how the trope gets used both in the games themselves and in marketing campaigns meant to sell them. Part of what Sarkeesian finds problematic about the trope is that, in game narratives, these background women’s inclusion in the story don’t contribute anything meaningful to the story but are rather designed to elicit shock or titillation. The games often don’t offer players or main characters any investment in these encounters other than simply playing out a quest line.
Seeing scenes from GTA V, Assassin’s Creed II , Far Cry 3, The Witcher, Red Dead Redemption and other games stacked one after the other does highlight how prevalent this device is in AAA video games writing. Chances are if there’s a woman in a game’s side mission — especially if it’s a female sex worker — something terrible is going to happen to her, just to drive home just how screwed-up a particular character or gameworld is.
“It’s casual cruelty, implemented as an easy way to deliver an emotional punch to the player,” Sarkeesian says. Aside from invoking terrible attitudes about women, it’s also a cheap writing trick. “A lazy shorthand for evil.” That shorthand isn’t just problematic in the games either. The strong similarity of these video game sequences — where gendered violence is framed as an outlying occurrence performed by unequivocally bad men — erases how commonplace the terrible reality is. In real life, women come under assault from all sorts of men.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, and games can be all the more thoughtful and provoking without relying on lazy appeals to ideas of terror and drama. Games that have considered these very real issues in more genuine ways have been all the better for it. Sarkesesian goes on to cite Papo & Yo as a good example of a critical look of child abuse, in part because the story is told from the very real perspective of the main character who is the abused person. The game’s lead character is also the one who changes his own circumstances.
Sarkeesian’s call for more thoughtful portrayals of women’s roles in the plots of video games are honest, salient ones. Yet, even when compared to reactions to her prior releases, some people’s responses to the video convey a lack of appreciation for discourse, with some resorting to harassment and threats. Sarkeesian says she’s had to contact the police.
This video received particular signal-boosting from several high-profile directors and game designers, like Joss Whedon and author William Gibson.
But not even well-liked game developer Tim Schafer left unscathed after recommending Sarkeesian’s video. He was also met with similar vitriol:
The point Sarkeesian ultimately makes — that these games don’t have to reproduce sexual violence and objectification just to try and be realistic and gritty — is a powerful one. Scenes like the ones shown in the video belittle the real-world struggles faced by victims of gendered violence. They echo these real-world issues without the real-world feelings that should be attached to them, creating a troubling dissonance. Video games, like any creative medium, has flaws and areas where its contributors can do better. Discussing those is ultimately in everyone’s interest. Sarkeesian’s critique is a call for games to do better, to imagine better universes and experiences than what exists in the real world.