The Brutalization of Women in Video Games, and its Apologists

Note: Comments are disabled on this post because life is too short for what I’ll have to sift through, and I don’t like comments sections anyway.

I so appreciate the work of Anita Sarkeesian, the media critic whose Feminist Frequency series of videos examining the portrayal of women in popular culture are always enlightening, eye-opening, and more often than not, troubling in what they say about how far we are have to go as a society. I hadn’t seen a new video in a while, but I had caught wind online that there was one recent episode that was creating quite the dust-up, so I tuned in.

“Women as Background Decoration (Part 1)” is deeply upsetting. It is upsetting because of what it tells me that I did not quite grasp before. I knew, of course, that hyper-macho violence was glorified in too many video games and that women are usually cast as mere prizes at best; purely sexual objects to be gawked at and won. But since I don’t play modern console games, particularly the subset of “gritty” or “mature” titles like Grand Theft Auto or Hitman, I had no idea how backward and ugly a place the world of gaming had become, especially in regards to the portrayal and utilization of women.

Sarkeesian’s video, briefly, is a careful, and remarkably cool and studious examination of the use of women non-player characters (NPCs) in games. Suffice it to say, there is a plethora of examples of women characters primarily appearing as prostitutes, slaves, and barely-sentient sex toys, all without personality beyond their desire or willingness to pleasure male characters, being beaten, stabbed, shot, thrown like projectiles, and even run over by a steam train. And that abuse, more often than not in these examples, is rewarded, with additional money, power-ups, or “achievements unlocked.” One example from a Grand Theft Auto title: Lure the prostitute, purchase the prostitute’s services with your money, gain a health bonus for the sexual act, and then shoot and kill the prostitute to win your money back.

I have not yet watched Part 2, because I don’t know if I have the stomach.

What I want to do here is tackle a few of the points that came up when I first expressed online my horror at what I had learned. The response was perhaps more troubling to me than what I saw from the games: the angry defense of this kind of content, and mostly-irrelevant sideswipe attacks on Sarkeesian to somehow invalidate her observations. For expressing my disgust at the content of these games and my appreciation for Sarkeesian’s work, I’ve been fairly relentlessly (and often obscenely) trolled on Twitter and attacked in other online outlets.

Issue: Sarkeesian’s Veracity

First is the assertion that Sarkeesian misrepresented the games, claims that she was being dishonest about what actually occurred in one or two titles, or that she didn’t give the full context of what could be done in a given game, and that this cast a pall over the entire project and its conclusions. A complaint was made that in a certain game where Sarkeesian shows player brutality against an NPC woman, it was not also noted that any object or person in the game could be treated the same way. In another, I was told that in the Hitman sequence, Sarkeesian had somehow “doctored” the scenario to allow for the brutal behavior of the player, and that it wasn’t a normal part of the game experience.

This seems an extremely flimsy thing to take issue with. Sarkeesian herself addresses this concern generally, saying that the mere ability to treat women (or anyone) in a violent manner, intentionally programmed by the developers (this isn’t in the game by accident, folks), is an implicit invitation to do those things, and that in the game world it’s acceptable behavior. Why defend the intentionally-added ability to brutalize women at all? Why not just call for the exclusion of such a capability? Why excuse it?

But let’s now for argument’s sake grant the more general complaint of inaccuracy, willful or not, by Sarkeesian. You’ll get no disagreement from me that the documentation of this kind of stuff should be as accurate as possible, with no lillies gilded. So if Sarkeesian did get some things wrong in her video, I hope she’ll correct them. But how many errors are too many so that the overall point of her video is no longer valid? If her video is, say, 90% accurate, don’t we still have a big problem? What if she’s really off-base, and is only getting half, 50%, of her claims correct. That still means that in the other 50% of the games she talks about, players of mainstream interactive games are being rewarded for some sick, awful, horrid, medieval shit.

Still a problem, wouldn’t you say?

So fine, take Sarkeesian to task for anything she got wrong, but I cannot state this strongly enough: It doesn’t change the fact of the problem at hand. Sarkeesian the Personality becomes a distraction to the real issue. But isn’t that always the way.

Issue: There is No Evidence That Video Games Have Any Effect on Behavior

First, that’s not the point. Even if it was true that there is zero connection between viewing or participating in virtual violent or abusive behavior and the actual real-life committing of that behavior, we as a culture should demand better of ourselves. We should reject it because it glorifies and rewards the worst of what our species is capable of. (This is not the same as banning it, by the way, which I oppose.) The fact that we don’t mimic it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to celebrate it.

But more to the point, there is plenty of evidence.

Here’s Barbara J. Wilson writing in journal of The Future of Children, a project of Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, on the affect of electronic media on children, emphasis mine:

[Rowell Huesmann] argues that a child who is exposed to a great deal of violence, either in real life or through the media, will acquire scripts that promote aggression as a way of solving problems. Once learned, these scripts can be retrieved from memory at any time, especially when the situation at hand resembles features of the script. The more often an aggressive script is retrieved, the more it is reinforced and becomes applicable to a wider set of circumstances. Thus, children who are repeatedly exposed to media violence develop a stable set of aggressive scripts that are easily prompted and serve as a guide in responding to social situations. [ . . . ]

In support of social cognitive theory, numerous experiments show that children will imitate violent behaviors they see on television, particularly if the violence is rewarded.

Wilson notes that television’s effect “is larger than any other single factor that accounts for violent behavior in youth.” And that’s just TV, a passive medium. TV is not participatory like games are, where this behavior is explicitly rewarded, it’s often the whole point. More on that later.

Defenders of misogynistic game content will counter that these games are not aimed at children, and legal only for adults to purchase. Because of course kids never get their hands on these, and therefore we can all wash our hands of responsibility, right? Whew! Solved.

If you want a more cross-generational take, here’s forensic psychiatrists Vasilis K. Pozios, Praveen R. Kambam and H. Eric Bender writing in the New York Timesalmost exactly one year ago:

There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung cancer. [ . . . ]

The weight of the studies supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children.

In fact the surgeon general, the National Institute of Mental Health and multiple professional organizations — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association — all consider media violence exposure a risk factor for actual violence.

My fellow skepto-atheists hang our hats on scientific consensus on hot-button issues like climate change. Funny how this same consensus does not seem to count when the ability to brutalize women in video games is critically examined by a real-life woman.

Issue: Men are Treated as Badly as Women in Games

Several folks told me that the issue of women’s treatment in these games was moot because men get treated much more violently overall, as of course the vast majority of the violence in games is done to male characters, player and non-player alike. But again, Sarkeesian addresses this (it can’t be that her critics haven’t actually watched her video, can it???). She notes, correctly, men have the chance to be anything and everything in game worlds: yes they are the targets of brutalization themselves, but not exclusively. They also get to be heroes, conquerors, geniuses, villains, all-powerful warriors, etcetera, etcetera. Women are mostly relegated to background, prizes, sex objects, and targets for abuse. There are a very, very few exceptions to this, but clearly making an equivalence over the portrayal of male and female characters is ridiculous.

Issue: Games Portray Life as it Really Is

One fellow defended in particular a sequence from the game Red Dead Redemption in which a wild-west gunslinger binds a prostitute, throws her on his horse, takes her to the train tracks, leaves her there, watches her get squashed by a passing locomotive, and unlocks a game achievement as a result. He’s rewarded. The defense of this was that we shouldn’t judge games for portraying life as it was really lived during different historical periods, when there were different norms, social structures, and ways of life.

Holy shit, I thought.

First, I’m pretty sure that tossing women in front of speeding trains was not something that was done in the normal course of everyday life at any time in human civilization, but hey, I’m not a historian of the 19th century American West, so maybe there’s something I’ve missed.

But more importantly, games like Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed and even Call of Dutyare not history courses. They are not academic presentations of Life as it Once Was for educational purposes. I’m pretty sure that if you complete one of these games, you can’t then transfer your achievements-unlocked as college credits. They are mass market, popular entertainment – interactive entertainment – aimed at young men and boys. I shouldn’t have to spell out the difference.

Issue: Critically Acclaimed Popular Entertainment Features This Same Content

I will definitely grant that many of our most beloved and well-regarded movies, books, and TV series portray women as badly as these games do. The apologist then says that if you take issue with the games, you have to take the same issue with The Sopranos and Game of Thrones and whatnot.

Well, for one thing, I do take a very similar issue with them. I can’t watch Game of Thrones because I think the show’s portrayal of women in abysmally bad. I’m not interested in whether the show is trying to portray some version of European history (and as far as I can tell, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, again, not a history course) or that it’s making a “comment.” I think the creators of popular entertainment, particularly in the form of a wholly made-up fantasy world, can make the affirmative choice to do better by  women. Game developers no less.

And just as I’m uneasy about the glorification of violence in games, I was uneasy about the glorification of violence in The Sopranos, which I stomached, barely, for the show’s other redeeming qualities.

But the real difference here is that TV shows and movies are passive entertainment. The viewer simply watches. In games, the viewer is a player, and the player is taking part in these activities. We watch women treated horrendously as a matter of course in The Sopranos, but we don’t cause it to happen. We don’t play the role of Tony Soprano and then by our own will beat the shit out of a women who’s bruised his ego. In a game, we can, and they do.

Issue: Sarkeesian Has an Agenda and Just Wants Attention

Who cares? I want attention too, and so does everyone else who publishes content online or anywhere else. Apologists for the games’ content have an agenda, and want attention paid to them. The people who expend enormous amounts of energy and time attacking her personally have an agenda. Spare me.

The Point

I got more blowback about my support of Sarkeesian than I have for almost anything I’ve ever said online. It’s upset me, caused me incredible stress, and made me question the moral moorings of some of the people I know. (I even took a day off from Twitter to cool off! Which is hard!) Considering that I, a straight white male, got some crap about my reaction, I am in a perpetual state of shuddering-to-think of what Sarkeesian herself must put up with, or what any other woman puts up with when they challenge the idea that they shouldn’t be portrayed so awfully, that violent misogyny should not be celebrated and rewarded.

Tonight, I learn that Anita Sarkeesian has gotten such a barrage of horrifying threats against her own life and that of her parents, that she’s fled her home.

Because she critically examines an ugly side of video games.

I equate my humanism with compassion. I think that humanism is really a way of trying to build a life-stance and worldview in which one aims to feel something for others’ plights, to have empathy for those different from oneself, and to behave accordingly. In the attacks, trolling, and defenses of the indefensible I received from an online community of self-professed humanists, I saw no compassion. Only an atavistic desire to shake compassion off, to deny any responsibility to it, and to maintain an ugly status quo that is comfortable for them.

Often it was done in the name of “skepticism” or “evidence.” I saw no evidence of compassion or humanism in these responses.

In modern civilization there is simply no excuse for manufacturing entertainment that holds up the brutalization of women as virtuous and worthy of reward. None. It’s not necessary even if the aim is to create the most suspensful, pulse-quickening adventure game. The only reason to do it is to titillate a certain demographic, and make them feel more powerful than the automata women placed in the games.

And I think it’s not worth it.

Special thanks to my friend Kristyne von Eerie for her help with this post.