Critique of Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration” Video

Every few months, Anita Sarkeesian, feminist media critic behind the popular website and YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, releases a new video about women in video games. Her videos draw sharp criticism from gamers, but over time, people are slowly starting to recognize the value of her critiques. She even recently won the 2014 Game Developers Choice Ambassador Award for her work in drawing attention to the plight of female characters in video games.

For all the research she puts into her videos, inevitably the videos arrive short of perfection. All arguments are open to critique (including this critique). And I want to state at the outset that a male writer (myself and others) critiquing a woman espousing feminist views is not in and of itself evidence of the oppressive patriarchy trying to silence and condemn women or feminist ideals. Feminists don’t have a monopoly on the discussions surrounding gender and sexuality in our culture; other perspectives need to be encouraged.

In her latest video, Sarkeesian examines the “Women as Background Decoration” trope in video games, which she defines as:

The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players. Sometimes they’re created to be glorified furniture but they are frequently programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused.

Before going any further, here’s the video in question. Please watch to understand the specifics of this critique. Unfortunately, the video is quite long (31 minutes, and it’s only Part 1!), so buckle in.

Areas of agreement

Of Sarkeesian’s five videos on women in video games, I probably agree with Sarkeesian most in this video. Women have been used as background decoration in video games for a very long time, and the problem has only gotten worse in the last 6-7 years with the development of near-lifelike 3D female characters. Sarkeesian focuses on NPCs, Non-Playable Characters, in this video, which she reterms Non-Playable Sex Objects. I mostly agree with her when she says:

Non-Playable Sex Objects can usually be found on the sidelines of role playing or open world style games, populating the many virtual strip clubs, red light districts or brothel locations that have become almost obligatory in many so-called “mature” titles.

I don’t play a lot of mature video games, and I’m not a fan of sexualized characters in general. They feel cheap, crude, and immature. She goes on to show that in many modern mature titles, characters are forced to walk through strip clubs, brothels, and women’s dressing rooms in order to advance the plot. Now, I don’t think these sorts of places or characters such as prostitutes should be eliminated from video games entirely: there might be many justifiable story reasons to include such seedy establishments. I don’t want to deny storytellers any tool that could potentially tell a compelling story.

But she’s right that in most cases, these sexualized NPCs and strip clubs don’t really add much to the game.

How not to critique cultural studies

Before I outline my areas of disagreement with Sarkeesian, I think this conversation (which is already happening on a variety of video game websites, as Sarkeesian doesn’t allow comments on her videos due to continued harassment directed toward her, which I understand) could be advanced if we outlined some rules for debate. Whenever Sarkeesian posts a video, people invariably nitpick all of her specific examples. They will highlight one specific point she made and explain it away in the larger context of that game’s world and logic.

A second strategy is to present counter-examples, perhaps a video game that has a justifiable use of prostitutes or something. But people miss the point about what cultural studies is supposed to be. Cultural studies, which Sarkeesian is a student of, is a research methodology in which some aspect of our culture is examined. It takes a forest-level viewpoint, and in the process, misses some trees. So yes, we could nitpick some of the specific games she uses to highlight her points. And we could probably come up with 10 examples that contradict her points. But do a few counter-cases outweigh the evidence she has gathered? I think in this case, the answer is no.

Instead, I want to focus on broader problems with her argument.

Sarkeesian’s zeal to provide overwhelming evidence goes too far

This has always been her biggest problem. Sarkeesian wants to provide overwhelming evidence of some trend in video games, and in the process, she ignores not just individual counter-examples, but entire bodies of evidence. Then, with the evidence she has left, she reads so far into it that I start to question: do gamers even take these issues as seriously as she is presenting them when they are playing these games? Isn’t she being just a little hyper critical?

For example, she spends much of this video examining open-world or “sandbox style” video games like Grand Theft Auto and Sleeping Dogs. She points out numerous examples of Non-Playable Sex Objects, which the player can beat, stab, kill, kidnap, and stuff into the trunk of their cars. And she says that the player is encouraged to commit acts of violence against women, that designers put these systems in place and want the gamer to test the boundaries of the game’s rules.

Maybe so. But anybody who’s played an open-world video game knows that acts of violence aren’t just committed against sexualized women: you can perform acts of violence against most anybody in these games! Sarkeesian anticipates the argument that I just used, and responds:

Typically all the non-essential characters in sandbox style games are killable, but it’s the sexualized women whose instrumentality and brutalization is gendered and eroticized in ways that men never are. The visual language attached to male NPCs is very different since they are rarely designed to be sexually inviting or arousing, and they are not coded to interact with the player in ways meant to reaffirm a heterosexual fantasy about being a stud.

Correct, male characters often aren’t sexualized. But they are still killable. What is the greater sin: killing a sexualized woman, or killing a man? In Sarkeesian’s worldview, the first. But in my worldview, and in the worldview of many gamers, the killing of any innocent NPC is bad. A life is a life, and all life is precious. Sarkeesian states:

But even if sexualized male NPCs were more prevalent, equal opportunity sexual objectification is still not the solution to this problem, especially considering the existing power differential between men and women in our society. Women are constantly represented as primarily for sex. Men may be sexual too, but they can also be anything else, they are not defined by or reduced to their sexuality and their sexuality is not thought of as something existing chiefly for the pleasure of others. Which means the fundamentally dominant position of men in our culture is not in any way challenged or diminished by the rare male depiction as sex worker.

I agree with her that our society has a more oppressive “script” when it comes to violence against women compared to violence against men. This is a problem for women, yes, but also a problem for men. Why aren’t more men outraged by violence against men? Why aren’t more women outraged by violence against men?

NPCs are always used for the player’s benefit

Sarkeesian spends considerable time examining how women NPCs are objectified in video games. She has example after example of women NPCs being used for sex and providing stat boosts, being killable so that they can be robbed, or fulfilling some cheap mission objective. She says:

In the realm of interactive media I use the term “instrumentality” to refer to the practice of using virtual women as tools or props for the player’s own purposes.

But NPCs by their very nature are designed for the player’s use. Some NPCs sell objects to the player. Some NPCs give objects or keys to the player. Some provide information. Some provide money. Some offer the player quests to complete. Virtually every adventure game (e.g., the Legend of Zelda), role-playing game (e.g., Final Fantasy), action game (e.g., Resident Evil 4), and open-world game (e.g., Grand Theft Auto) has NPCs who serve to assist the character in some way. Herein lies another instance of Sarkeesian going beyond what her data says while simultaneously ignoring vast swaths of counter-points.

She then criticizes the interchangeability of sexualized NPCs:

Since these women serve an identical or nearly identical “resource” function within the game space, they are created to be interchangeable with any other female NPC of the same type. A fact reinforced when developers simply copy and paste the same character models into various locations throughout the environment.

Yes, it is true that women NPCs, like prostitutes, are interchangeable, and on some level, I can understand how this is dehumanizing to women. On the other hand, this is a very common practice in video games for the treatment of all NPCs! This primarily has to do with technological constraints. Up until very recently, video game technology was not sophisticated enough to have completely unique NPCs throughout the entire game. Even if the technology is there, asking developers to create unique NPCs (and for open-world games, this would be asking for thousands of unique character models, character animations, catchphrases, and so forth) would require far too great of an investment in resources on the developer’s part.

For instance, consider nearly every RPG, from Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior on the NES in the 1980s through today. Most RPGs feature a variety of towns that the player visits on their quest to save the world. And every town includes shops that sell weapons, armor, magic, potions, and other useful items. Those shops are usually run by NPCs. If the developer is really ambitious, the NPCs will look different each time. But essentially, are they not interchangeable? They exist to provide the player some benefit, and character models can be swapped at will and it doesn’t affect how the game is played. Are shopkeepers in RPGs objectified? I suppose on some level. But there are a lot of technical reasons for this, as I’ve explained.

Most video games do not accurately mirror reality, both in representations of characters’ bodies and in treating characters like real people. There are a variety of game play reasons why video games don’t mirror reality. For instance, who would play an adventure game if it honestly took 3 hours to walk between towns? Or who would play any game if the character had to sleep for 8 hours each 24 hour period? So cuts are made to reality to facilitate the game play. It has to occur, though how it occurs varies from game to game.

A final example. She points out that when sexualized female NPCs are killed, their bodies disappear after a few seconds:

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

Again, this phenomenon of disappearing bodies isn’t unique to sexualized NPCs. This is probably her weakest point in the entire video. In almost all video games, defeated characters disappear. There is largely a technical reason for this: when a video game renders different objects, like characters, cars, etc., it takes memory. If that object is no longer being used (i.e., the character is dead) then the game simply makes that object disappear so that it doesn’t clog up the memory. In fact, games in the 1980s through the 1990s were very limited in the number of unique objects they could display on a screen. So having objects disappear allows the game to continue functioning.

Areas yet to be addressed by Sarkeesian

In my previous critique of Sarkeesian, I ended the post by identifying four areas of gender and culture that Sarkeesian has not addressed sufficiently, to her detriment. I’ll conclude in a similar fashion.

  1. What about violence against men?I mentioned this last time, but this critique now has more nuance. As I’ve elaborated in this post, violence against women is bad, but violence against men is equally bad. In the vast majority of video games (and practically all of the video games Sarkeesian used for her analysis) the protagonist is a male. Do video games not perpetuate the stereotype that men must resort to violence and death to solve their problems? Isn’t this a problem? Not only are the playable characters male, but the vast majority of enemies that these male protagonists kill are male. Yes, you can kill prostitutes in games like GTA. But most of the policemen, gang members, and other enemies you kill will be male. Video games are primarily a spectacle of male-on-male violence. While many victims of violence in real-life are women, and that is bad, are not the majority of perpetrators of violence male? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, men are 3.6 times more likely to commit homicide than women.
  2. Are the critics affected by the games they research? This is an honest question I have for all cultural studies researchers, not just Sarkeesian. If violent and sexualized media is so detrimental to viewers, why are not the researchers affected by what they study? Like I said, I’ve played almost none of the games Sarkeesian examines in this video. Yet she’s played them and studied them for months now. If seeing images of sexualized images is so damaging, then critics like Sarkeesian should probably be the most affected by them. These images probably do affect her on some level, and she probably does have a strong support system to help her cope with the images she sees (at least I hope so). It’s clear that she is bothered by these subjects, so it is commendable that she is proceeding with her message in spite of the dangers these games might be doing to her mind. But even so, it is also clear that she has not internalized the poisonous aspects of these games. She doesn’t commit violence against women; she doesn’t degrade women in her talk or her beliefs. She doesn’t tell off-color jokes about rape. She has a very high respect for women as individuals. So if she can find a way to “see through the lies” and she can find a way not to internalize the destructive messages of these games, why does she assume that gamers cannot? Why does she assume that the majority cannot? Gamers are a lot more intelligent and thinking about the games they play than critics give them credit for. Which leads to my last point:
  3. Do we know if these games are actually affecting gamers? That’s the big question. Even if we accept all of her critiques, how do we know that gamers are actually playing these games and internalizing regressive patriarchal attitudes toward women? At the end of her video, Sarkeesian resorts to a logical fallacy I refer to as “phantom studies.” She says, “Studies have found, for example, that after having viewed sexually objectified female bodies, men in particular tend to view women as less intelligent, less competent and disturbingly express less concern for their physical well being or safety.” Phrases like “Studies have found” or “research shows” are tip-offs that somebody is resorting to phantom studies. Which studies? Who were the participants? When was the study conducted? By who? Who evaluated the study’s findings? We don’t know! Her phantom studies provide an air of authority, yet are essentially meaningless. I can say this as somebody with a PhD in mass communication, who has examined the same studies that Sarkeesian has examined, that social science research is highly contextual and contains many caveats. We don’t have time to examine why, but there are a variety of methodological shortcomings of social science research, primarily, researchers don’t have the time, money, or resources to see if the media really does have a long-term effect on the people who view it. A study that provides evidence for a phenomenon in a lab is very different than a study conducted outside the lab. In fairness to Sarkeesian, she does include links on her website to additional resources, many of them studies (or summaries of studies) about the destructive effects of playing video games. However, I still believe the research still has many shortcomings regarding these issues.

Thoughts? Where am I going wrong with my analysis, and where do you agree with Sarkeesian? Leave your respectful comments below so we can continue this discussion!

Game on,
~Dennis

2 thoughts on “Critique of Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration” Video

  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog and you bring up many good points. I’ve read the articles she included as well, but the ones that I had access to (read: that I did not have to pay for) either talked about real life interactions or were very misleading on the subject… I’ve written a critique on her video as well and it’s nice to see some similar points in someone else’s blog 🙂

  2. I have to say, this is a refreshing critique of her work. Civil, and bringing up good points. Too many of the rebuttals go into, as you say, the nitpicking of small points. Which make it clear that the author has a clear bias and point that they’re trying to foist. The Phantom Studies question is a point I particularly like.

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