Video games can be better: Violence against women isn't for decoration

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More people are playing games than ever before. And it’s not just a numbers thing, it’s a demographics one: There are now more than twice as many adult women playing video games as there are teenage boys.

But mainstream video games from big franchises like the Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, and the Bioshock series exhibit a number of systemic and disturbing attitudes towards the treatment of female characters in-game. As scholar and critic Anita Sarkeesian points out in the latest video in her ‘Women Vs. Tropes in Video Games’ series, mainstream games have an ugly habit of objectifying women in the backgrounds of their worlds.

(Warning: The video contains footage that is NSFW, with graphic sexual and violent excerpts from video games. )

The most troublesome aspect of this trend, as Sarkeesian illustrates in painstaking detail, is game developers’ habit of using events and scenes where women are brutalized as a narrative shorthand for establishing how dire or depraved a game’s setting or villain may be. It’s lazy storytelling that’s made worse by the fact that many of these games feature women exclusively in this manner: as insignificant objects to be acted upon. Non-playable female characters in games like this dispense sex like vending machines and are scripted to either proposition the player character or to suffer brutal acts from either the player or the programmed opponents. There is no thought given to a woman’s personhood in these portrayals.

As video games mature as a medium, they need to be held to the kind of scrutiny we hold other art forms to. Pop culture does not exist in a vacuum; it reflects the values and social mores of a wider culture. The games industry has a sexism problem—and lest we gang up on video games, it’s important to understand that it’s symptomatic of a much wider issue.

Contrary to some arguments, this form of criticism isn’t aimed at making games “politically correct.” It doesn’t seek to eliminate games that cater to male demographics, nor does it vilify or attack anyone. Criticism like Sarkeesian’s aims to examine how the medium fails to treat women with the same respect afforded to men. It seeks to remind us of the harsh realities about violence against women in the real world. It addresses the need to not just depict such violence as set dressing, but engage with it in a way that brings to light its very real consequences.

Sarkeesian’s work is vital, because it’s easy to overlook tropes like this if you only play a few of these games a year. Many people shake their heads and get on with it. But seeing all the ugliness lined up in a row shows how pervasive it is in mainstream, big-budget video games, and suggests that the industry as a whole doesn’t care about women enough to make them something other than a sexy backdrop or a brutalized (and yet, often, still sexualized) victim.

No one’s telling you to stop playing games presented here. But like plot holes or continuity errors, scholars and critics like Sarkeesian merely point out problems using textual evidence in the hopes that video games as a whole will become better as time goes on.

You can see other videos in Sarkeesian’s ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ series on her YouTube channel, Feminist Frequency.


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