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Women as Background Decoration (Part 1)
Clip: Binary Domain “Sorry all booked up. Too bad too ‘cause I would’ve given a stud like you a free sample”
This episode includes game footage of hyper-sexualized female characters as well as extremely graphic depictions of violence against women.As such this particular video comes with a strong content warning and is not recommended for children.
As always, please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.
In November 1971, the year before Atari’s Pong became a sensation, an oddly shaped fiberglass video cabinet appeared in pinball arcades in the United States. That game was called Computer Space and holds the distinction of being the very first commercially sold video game ever made. The coin-operated machine allowed players to fly a crude pixelated rocket ship while shooting down pixelated flying saucers. Promotional materials for the game, however, featured a woman standing passively next to the enclosure wearing a see-through nighty with her underwear visible underneath.
This advertising strategy of using women and representations of women as decorative elements to try and sell games to boys and men soon became the norm for the burgeoning industry. In ad after ad throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s we see women placed on display alongside arcade games, conflating the two and presenting them both as toys to be played with.
In these promotional materials, advertisers are not just selling a product,they are also selling gaming as a lifestyle in which women predominantly exist as passive objects of heterosexual male desire.
These ads contributed to an emergent culture in which women were thought of as ornamental and peripheral to a male gaming experience. And since women were largely already seen as incidental eye candy, it’s not surprising that when female characters started being introduced to more game-worlds,their roles tended to follow similar patterns.
The practice of using hyper-sexualized women as ornamental objects has been especially brazen in the racing game genre.
Notice how the camera moves, how it focuses on and zooms in on specific body parts to highlight the aspects of women meant to be the most important.
Clip: Forza Horizon (2012) “I knew you couldn’t resist yo.”
I define the Women as Background Decoration trope in video games 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.
Clip: God of War: Ghost of Sparta “Won’t you join us?”
In gaming lingo, the secondary characters populating the virtual environments are referred to as NPCs, short for “non-player characters” or “non-playable characters”. These are figures not directly controlled by the player and whose behaviors and dialog are governed by automated scripts within the game’s code. NPCs can occupy a wide variety of supportive, neutral or non-combatant roles, all with varying degrees of importance or levels of engagement with the protagonist. They can be pedestrians, shopkeepers, quest givers, party members or sidekicks.
However, for the purposes of this trope we’re only concerned with one very particular type of non-essential female NPC. Those specifically designed as a decorative virtual “sex class” who exist to service straight male desire. I classify this subset of characters as Non-Playable Sex Objects.
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.
Such characters are programmed with crude looping sexualized behaviors or dialogue as a way of adding an extra layer of “seedy” flavoring to game universes.
Clip: Dishonored “Hey sweetheart, you wanna play with me? You’re a lot cuter than my regulars.”
Clip: Fallout: New Vegas “You like it, huh?”
Unlike other NPCs that exist for purposes outside of their sexuality, Non-Playable Sex Objects have little to no individual personality or identity to speak of,
Clip: Fable II “I’ll make you wail like a banshee, baby.”
and almost never get to be anything other than set dressing or props in someone else’s narrative.
Clip: Watch Dogs “Sold.”
This is the essence of what sexual objectification means. And since that concept is at the heart of the Women as Background Decoration trope, let’s take a moment to define it.
As the term implies, sexual objectification is the practice of treating or representing a human being as a thing or mere instrument to be used for another’s sexual purposes. Sexually objectified women are valued primarily for their bodies, or body parts, which are presented as existing for the pleasure and gratification of others.
In some games sexual objectification is fused with the exotification of impoverished women of color. In Far Cry 3 and Max Payne 3, for example, straight white protagonists explore shantytowns located in the global south populated by prostituted women.
Clip: Far Cry 3 “I’m lonely, want to play? You like what you see I can tell.”
The sexually subservient “Asian Prostitute” trope also permeates urban environments in games like Binary Domain and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Clip: Deus Ex: Human Revolution “You come to Hengsha for a good time? Here I am.”
Clip: Binary Domain “Oh, hello honey. Looking for good time? I can give you good deal.” “Too bad you have friends along. I’m not into group thing. Come alone next time, I might even give you a freebie to make up for it.”
Clip: Shellshock Nam ‘67 “Love you long time soldier.” “Suivez-moi GI, give you good time.”
These women speak in broken English and their minimal dialog is designed to invoke shades of ‘sex tourism’ style exploitation.
Scenarios like these are part of a long racist tradition of representing women of color as mysterious and hypersexual creatures who exist as an “exotic spice” to be consumed by the white or western man.
Clip: Fable Anniversary “If you are looking for something a little more exotic, you will find what you seek with me.”
By the way, games set in the United States are not exempt from this kind of racist exotification.
Clip: GTA 4 “Sick of people saying no? Not here baby.”
Clip: Godfather 2 “Ooh baby, maybe tonight I’ll give you a little taste on the house.”
These scenarios place men in the driver’s seat, so to speak, and sell us the notion that men are always sexual subjects while women are largely sexual objects.
Incidentally this trope also exists in games that may allow players to pick a female avatar. But the presence of a woman inhabiting the role of protagonist, even if well developed, doesn’t do anything to negate the fact that non-playable sex objects are still specifically coded to pander to a presumed heterosexual male ego.
Sexual objectification is, of course, ubiquitous in mass media of all forms…
Clip: Hitman: Blood Money “Good baby, real good! Now show me those luscious pink lips.”
…but since video games are an interactive medium, players are allowed to move beyond the traditional role of voyeur or spectator. Because of its essential interactive nature, gaming occupies a unique and potentially more detrimental position vis-a-vis the portrayal and treatment of female characters.
A viewer of non-interactive media is restricted to gazing at what the media makers want them to see. Similar to what we might see in video game cutscenes, the audience is only afforded one fixed perspective. But since we’re talking about interactive gameplay within a three-dimensional environment, we need to consider the fact that players are encouraged to participate directly in the objectification of women through control of the player character, and by extension control of the game camera. In other words, games move the viewer from the position of spectator to that of participant in the media experience.
On a very basic level, we can think of non-interactive media as engaging audiences in forms of “passive looking”, while video games provide players the chance to partake in forms of “active looking” or “active observing”.
The opening moments in The Darkness 2, for instance, teaches players how to operate the game’s control scheme by instructing you to actively objectify women in the environment.
Clip: The Darkness 2 “Hey Jackie, check out the rack on the brunette to your right. No, no your other right.”
Level designers also have a suspicious tendency to build stages in which players are required to walk through brothels, strip-clubs or women’s dressing rooms…
Clip: The Darkness 2 “I can make all your dreams come true.”
…in order to advance the story.
Clip: Metro Last Light “If you wanna look, go left. For touching, go downstairs. Just don’t hurt the girls.”
In the case of The Saboteur, the protagonist’s “home base” is located inside a burlesque club, which, conveniently enough, you can only enter via the women’s changing area.
Clip: The Saboteur “They ain’t a hidey-hole, this is heaven.
These active viewing mechanics encourage players to collaborate with developers in sexual objectification by enabling gamers to scope out and spy on non-playable sex objects.
Since we are discussing the intersections of objectification and interaction, we also need to consider some more direct aspects of objectification that are not as applicable in traditional mass media.
Building off of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work on “objectification theory”, I’ve identified a number of fundamental aspects of objectification including instrumentality, commodification, interchangeability, violability and disposability, all of which are commonly embedded into the gameplay mechanics and programmed behaviors of NPCs in modern immersive titles.
Since instrumentality is a core component of objectification, let’s begin there. 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.
Clip: Assassin’s Creed 4 “I’m terribly well informed about coun-try matters.”
Courtesans in the Assassins Creed series, for instance, are available to be “rented” and used to help you “blend in” to the environment. Once acquired, they can be ordered to flirt with guards to distract them…
Clip: Assasin’s Creed 4 “Alright go.”
…allowing the protagonist to slip by undetected.
Clip: Assasin’s Creed 4 “Come on, I’m a real snake charmer”
Hitman: Absolution features a mission in which the player can create a diversion by picking up and dumping the dead body of an exotic dancer near police officers.
Clip: Hitman: Absolution “Oh! What the fuck? Ah shit… that wasn’t there a minute ago.”
The first three games in the Saints Row series feature a recurring activity called “snatch”.
Clip: Saints Row “Now if you could bring me back some of those fine bitches who are turning tricks for other pimps, I could start seeing some real money. But I ain’t asking for something for nothing, I mean you help me out I’ll cut you in on what the bitches make.”
These missions require the player to steal prostituted women, referred to as “hoes” in the game from pimps…
Clip: Saints Row “Get away from my hoes you little bitch”
…and then deliver them to a brothel or another pimp in return for a cut of their “business”.
In these scenarios instrumentality is heavily linked to the commodification of women. Since objects can be bought and sold, it follows that once women have been turned into objects, their bodies and sexuality can also be bought and sold.
Clip: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea DLC “Sexual intimacy is no different than any other commodity, friend. You sell soybeans I sell companionship.” “That’s disgusting” “That’s the bible talking pal, that’s your mother talking. What does Ryan say? Petty morality, you can keep it.”
The 1996 game Duke Nukem 3D allowed players to interact with female NPCs by paying them to flash their boobs.
Clip: Duke Nukem 3D “Shake it baby”
That was almost 20 years ago; today games where the player can buy a lap dance or prostituted women are commonplace.
Clip: Metro: Last Light “What kind of dance would you like, sweetie? Tell me, don’t be shy. I’m quite imaginative…”
Clip: Fallout: New Vegas “Hey there, sugar. I’m Dazzle. What can I do for your….or to you? You’re so handsome I might just give you a discount.”
Clip: The Witcher 2 “Care for a little fornication?”
Clip: Fable: The Lost Chapters, Fable Anniversary “Don’t worry, you’ll see I’m worth every one of those 100 gold pieces.”
Clip: Dragon Age: Origins “Here they are. Aren’t they beautiful? Remember, thirty silver up front. Go ahead and choose, then.”
Clip: Fallout 3 “Well… for you? A room and some company will run you 120 caps. Up front.”
Clip: Sleeping Dogs “I got something extra special. Why don’t you buy me a present and I show it to you.” “Sure, why not?” “Is it hot in here? I can feel my temperature rising already!”
In both Sleeping Dogs and the Grand Theft Auto franchise, buying and using prostituted women for sex rewards the player with powerups, stat boosts and/or health regeneration.
Clip: Sleeping Dogs “I may just have to find a new job. You know what they say about ‘coming with the customers’.”
Which means that these women fulfill basically the same function as the beverages the player can purchase from vending machines and convenience stores in these games.
This is a textbook example of another component of objectification referred to as fungibility or interchangeability. Nussbaum explains this as occurring when “The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable with other objects of the same type, and/or with objects of other types.”
Since these women serve an identical or nearly identical “resource” function within the game space…
Clip: Grand Theft Auto V “Get in, baby!”
…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.
A line can be drawn from the crude sensationalized misogyny of Duke Nukem…
Clip: Duke Nukem 3D “You wanna dance?”
…directly to the most recent installment in the blockbuster game series Grand Theft Auto, in which players are rewarded for touching women after purchasing a private dance. This touching mechanic is essentially a mini-game which involves the player groping a stripper to fill their “like meter” without being caught by the bouncer. If that wasn’t bad enough…
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