The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women In Video Games

The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games

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.

The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games
The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games

This video received particular signal-boosting from several high-profile directors and game designers, like Joss Whedon and author William Gibson.

The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games
The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games

But not even well-liked game developer Tim Schafer left unscathed after recommending Sarkeesian's video. He was also met with similar vitriol:

The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games
The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games
The Problem With 'The Casual Cruelty' Against Women in Video Games

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.


    I feel like every time I see such a stupid display of 'alpha male, roar' mentality I automatically need to apologize to all women on behalf of said 'roar' males. I'm so sorry, this is just disgusting.

    Rape is real. Sexual violence against women is real. Domestic violence is real. Video games are usually just a reflection of the real world, so why wouldn't they include these things? They aren't included to make the game world seem "edgy", as Anita asserts. They're included to make it seem like the one we live in.

    To me it is more emotionally disingenuous to not include these atrocities. And while I agree that's it high time more game developers attempt to tackle the problem of sexual violence head on, treating it like "just another part of the world" seems like a pretty accurate portrayal of reality to most of us.

      I believe her point is that by including them without commentating on them- just having them there for the sake of it- essentially condones the activity, even if you don't participate. It's like if you hear your neighbour next door beating his wife, it doesn't mean you're a wife-beater, but you're not trying to make the world a better place by trying to end it either. The game usually doesn't "benefit" from its presence, and it just re-enforces into the minds of the players that these things are "facts of life" rather than "something we can eliminate from the world".

      Firstly, since when are games about replicating real life perfectly?

      Secondly, people who have been raped, or have had domestic violence performed against them, will play that game. That's guaranteed. If you put it in there, it needs to be handled delicately, because its a delicate fucking matter. And the point is that games barely handle anything delicately.

    Her observations aren't wrong but her content knowledge on the craft of visual storytelling and storytelling in general is wildly misguided at times. This is a story were context matters; if it didn't then Trainspotting is telling you how amazing heroin is and the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is the same as endorsement.

    However, most of these depictions that I feel she's misguided in are still from the male's perspective which is closer to where the problem lies. I think games writers are generally pretty aware of gender roles but are somewhat inhibited by the core audience and their expectations. I think the success of both Tomb Raider, The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are some pretty strong steps forward in the representation of gender in games.

    Don't include women in a game? Sexist.
    Include women in a game but not the main character? Sexist.
    Make a female character attractive? Sexist.
    Make a female character unattractive? Sexist.
    Make the character a female AND something bad happens to her? Sexist.

    But it's ok for Joel to go through hell, Drake to be beaten down, Marcus to lose all he loved etc because they're guys? So much bullshit...

    FEMINISM is SUBJECTIVE and BIASED itself, EQUALITY is UNIQUE to no party.

    I thought this community was progressive and educated. The majority of these comments make me a very sad panda. :(

    I get what she is saying. I were a lass, I would feel put-off and alienated by some video game content. Guys you cant argue that, and this is a discussion that we have to have.

    Thing is games that allow male gamers to live out the power-male fantasy sell the best.
    Developers and Publishers know that.
    Guys want opportunities to save the ladies, and will decide anyone is a bastard whom hurts a pretty lady. We are simple creatures really. I guess what I'm getting at is not every game is aimed at everyone. And wouldn't they be bland if they were!

    I enjoyed the video, Opened my eyes beyond my own ignorance, so thank you.

    Things like the violence against women in games like Red Dead are kind of historically accurate.
    When it is things that do/have occured in real life, I don't see why it's so bad to have it in a game. Should we not include violence against women in games and pretend it doesn't take place in real life?

    Maybe world war II games should no longer feature Nazi's killing Jews.....

    I think some of the points she talks about are a little off, but on the whole she has something valuable to say. A lot of the techniques used are really cheap and cliche, and the least bit compelling.

    It's always something that's confused me, I've never understood why there's more well fleshed out, good male characters than female.

    Also on a random note, she's only done these 2 videos, right? Wasn't it a 160,000 dollar kickstarter?

      This is the sixth video that she's made on the topic. It's just the second in this part of the series.

    Thunderf00t pretty much destroyed any credibility Anita had for me -

    In games like the Witcher, Bioshock, etc, they exist for more than "edgy" writing and world building. They are a critique, a form of character development, providing depths, etc. There are solid reasons.

    The thing is, in games such as Metro, which she pointed out, where a woman is almost raped, she decides not to mention a scene in the game, a few minutes later, where a man is almost raped. I guess it's okay for a man to almost get raped, but if it's a woman, it's offensive and disgusting.

    At the end of the day, as a gamer, I'll still play it, and roll my eyes at a stupid scene that uses woman to be "edgy", but I won't campaign against it just because she says that it's morally offensive. Again, she forgets to mention the overwhelming other scenes in which both sides are targeted (Watch Dogs) and rips 'em out of context.

    It's the difference between ham-fisted and clever writing.

    I have to say though, that all those hate messages are slowly starting to unfortunately, prove her right.

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