In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On Women as Background Decoration, Part 1

Anita Sarkeesian's latest video focuses on non-playable characters. (Edited: Anita Sarkeesian)

Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video focuses on non-playable characters. (Edited: Anita Sarkeesian)

In the fifth entry in her Tropes versus Women in Video Games series, Anita Sarkeesian focuses on ‘Women as Background Decoration’.

Ms Sarkeesian rightly highlights game advertisements have often utilised women in an ornamental fashion. This episode is focused on non-playable characters (NPCs) in computer games. Ms Sarkeesian seeks to examine ‘Non-Playable Sex Objects’, which are “specifically designed as a decorative virtual ‘sex class’ who exist to service straight male desire”. Ms Sarkeesian swiftly identifies why strip clubs and brothels are prevalent within more mature titles: “adding an extra layer of ‘seedy’ flavouring”.

Ms Sarkeesian says these characters are being objectified, in line with philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s use of the term, indicating their “instrumentality, commodification, interchangeability, violability and disposability”. The problem with Ms Sarkeesian’s analysis is that these qualities may be applied to nearly all minor NPCs in all games. For these characters, Ms Sarkeesian states:

Meaningful relationships or interactions are not even possible. Their programming simply does not allow for it.

(Video: Feminist Frequency)

Minor NPCs have a severely limited stock of dialogue, with looped actions. It is not possible to develop a meaningful relationship with the shop owners in Dragon Quest or the guards in Elder Scrolls. These characters are necessarily tools in the player’s journey, whether allowing them to heal, purchase items or perform other functions. Minor NPCs are merely instrumental to the playable character’s experience. When currency is exchanged, these characters are similarly commoditised.

The interchangeability of minor NPCs is due to restricted resources. Games will often feature hundreds of minor NPCs, so developers will reuse avatars and algorithms to save time and constrain costs in the game’s development stage. The identical nature of the nurses in the Pokémon series became a running joke in the anime.

Disappearing Bodies

With regards to violability and disposability, Ms Sarkeesian recognises that “typically, all the non-essential characters in sandbox-style games are killable”. There is a distinction between the objects of Ms Sarkeesian’s focus and other NPCs: “it’s the sexualised women whose instrumentality and brutalisation is gendered and eroticised in ways that men never are.” However, the video also states:

Their status as disposable objects is reinforced by the fact that in most games discarded bodies wills imply vanish into thin air a short time after being killed.

The commonality of vanishing bodies in computer games has very little to do with disposability, and much more to do with memory space. Defeated NPCs disappearing was even a plot point in the 2008 first-person shooter Haze.

Despite saying the murder of sexualised female NPCs is the “intended purpose” in which gamers are “encouraged to participate” and “intrinsically permitted”, Ms Sarkeesian cites multiple game series where civilian fatalities are expressed discouraged, such as Assassin’s Creed and Hitman.

Nearing the video’s end, Ms Sarkeesian stridently claims:

Research has consistently found that exposure to these types of images negatively impacts perceptions and beliefs about real-world women and reinforces harmful myths about sexual violence.

Shelly Grabe, L. Monique Ward and Janet Shilby Hyde’s 2008 meta-analysis for the Psychological Bulletin noted that two previous meta-analyses came to widely different conclusions, with one “suggesting that there is little influence of media exposure on women’s body image”, and that both studies suffered from publication bias. Whilst Ms Sarkeesian seeks to link pixelated violence to real violence, Christopher J. Ferguson and John Kilburn found, in 2010, that there was “little evidence for a relationship between violent video games and aggression or violence”.

Media Effects

Lastly, Ms Sarkeesian launches a targeted salvo against dissenters of the media effects theory:

Compounding the problem is the widespread belief that, despite all the evidence, exposure to media has no real-world impact. While it may be comforting to think we all have a personal force-field protecting us from outside influences, this is simply not the case. Scholars sometimes refer to this type of denial as the “third person effect”, which is the tendency for people to believe that they are personally immune to media’s effect even if others may be influenced or manipulated…

In short, the more you think you cannot be affected, the more likely you are to be affected.

Opponents of the media effects theory do not argue that the media has “no real-world impact”. It is not a personal claim of individual immunity. The argument is that the media does not have a clear, common and direct effect on its viewership. We are a diverse populace: some media will affect some people negatively some of the time, whilst the same media will affect other people in a positive manner. Other influences, such as upbringing and peers, should not be downplayed. Moreover, if no-one has a “personal force-field”, is Ms Sarkeesian putting herself in danger by playing so many sexist computer games?

Whilst I look forward to the next video in the series, this video has many weak points.

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This entry was posted on July 27, 2014 by in Other Interests and tagged , .
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