Nov. 1st, 2009

I recently read this article on how video games perpetuate the "commodity model" of sex[*]. The article talks about how many games seem to treat women like vending machines: give the right input, and the reward is sex. This is sex as a commodity in its purest form. Now, really, most games are pretty simplistic in this precise way: Do X, and you are rewarded. When X = kill monsters, or solve logic puzzles, or roll up flowers, and the reward is "winning" or "experience", it doesn't really bother me because these are actions which aren't really very loaded in the real world. When X = "Buy her jewelry" and the "reward" is "sex", that bothers me because it starts implying some pretty loaded things about sexual dynamics, simply because the dominant paradigm in the real world is of sex as a commodity, and of women as confusing, mysterious creatures who semi-arbitrarily dispense this commodity based on whether the man is "worthy" [**]. (Not to mention, the implication that men are always seeking sex and thus sex is a "reward".)

I found the article very interesting, of course, being that I'm a gamer. If I think back to the games that I've played, though, none of them show the trend that the author is talking about. (I may be misremembering.) Some games I have played (not comprehensive at all): Scribblenauts, God of War 1 & 2, Braid, Beyond Good and Evil, World of Warcraft, Diablo 2, Torchlight, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy 7 & 9, Warcraft, Neverwinter Nights.... Final Fantasy 7 has this sequence where if you choose the conversational responses correctly, you will go on a date with one of the other characters. One possibility is even Barret, another man (though the actual sequence is more played as a buddies thing than the other sequences). Many of these games don't put in sex (or women) at all.

I entirely believe that the games cited by the article (and many other games) have these problematic depictions of women, but I simply haven't played them. I got about 1 mission into Grand Theft Auto before my lack of motor coordination failed me. In general I'm not really a fan of first person shooters, and perhaps that's the sub-genre where women-as-vending-machines tend to show up. Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol are the two games cited by name in the article, and neither of them are games I'm likely to pick up.

Of course, just because the games I have played don't treat women as vending machines for sex doesn't mean that they're free from misogyny. Far from it. God of War may be the most misogynistic game I've ever played, hands down, but the one sexual interlude (in God of War II) involved you pushing the right buttons *during* sex (with a prostitute, I believe) to gain experience. So no, I can't really say that that's treating women as vending machines for *obtaining* sex, but maybe that's letting the game off on a technicality. And many of the RPGs suffer from the "fan service" problem, where the womens' armor are unbelievably scanty while the men wear more believable outfits. Because of this, enjoying video games for me often comes at the cost of working to ignore things that are severely problematic. Sometimes I just roll with a male avatar, so I can simply be a character and not just walking sexual energy. Other times it's easier to just ignore the sexism and focus on other aspects of the game.

When I play games which don't have this issue it's quite a relief. Beyond Good and Evil is one that stands out in my mind. The main character is a woman, but she is written to be a person first - a character who happens to be a woman as well as a journalist, fighter, etc. etc. Portal is another game which I could enjoy freely. It's a first-person perspective game, but the avatar is female (and you can see that if you set up the portals right). The enemy has a female voice (though computers don't really have genders, do they?). It's always refreshing when I can honestly be a female avatar without wincing.

So, have you played any games in which women are written as vending machines for sex? Do you find this a common trend in gaming? And secondly, are there other good games out there which does do a decent job in their portrayal of women?

[*] The "commodity model" of sex, which is the dominant paradigm in American culture today, views sex as a commodity which women have, and men are constantly trying to get. I first encountered this description in an essay by Thomas Millar in the book Yes means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. He writes:

Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it's a transaction. This puts women in the position of seller, but also guardian or gatekeeper … Women are guardians of the tickets, men apply for access to them. This model pervades casual conversation about sex: Women "give it up." men "get some."

[**] I think Figleaf talks about the "worthiness trap" and the "no-sex class" very nicely and clearly, so go there if you are curious to read more.
We all know that racism and sexism and that ilk can be practiced both overtly or subtly. Generally, I think in our culture the discourse is focused on the overt practice: firing someone for being a woman, for example, or arresting someone for being black. But there's also the subtle pressure of racism and sexism that many of us encounter every day. These are the comments that people dismiss by saying "I was only joking", or when they say things like "...for a girl". There's no firm, overt barrier to your choices, but instead there is a social pressure being brought to bear on you.

Against this sort of sexism and racism, the privilege of intelligence has protected me, and allowed me to remain fairly oblivious. Some time ago, if you had asked me whether I had experienced racism in my life, I would have shrugged and said "No". But now thinking back on my childhood I remembered that in elementary school there were several kids who would often run after me on the playground, pulling the corners of their eyes up with their hands and shouting "Look at me, I'm Chinese!" I remembered that in fourth grade our cafeteria cashiers would, for an entire year, confuse me with the only other Chinese (Taiwanese?) girl in my school, despite the fact that she had long hair and glasses while I had short hair and no glasses. They joked about it with us, saying "I can never tell you two apart!"

But back then, and even until recently, I just chalked it up to the fact that other people were stupid. It was easy for me to do that: since second grade I had been tracked into Gifted and Talented programs, achieving scores at the top of my grade. Despite the fact that I was taunted for my race, I never thought the harassment was racially motivated, and could easily brush it off by claiming the superiority of my intelligence - something that was backed up by the authority of the school system and my teachers. I read a book recently (which my mother lent to me) called Yell-oh Girls, a collection of essays by Asian-American girls about their experiences relating to race and sex. Quite a few of these essays speak of how they wished they looked white; how they wanted to be blond and fair like princesses were portrayed. My mother asked me whether I had ever felt that way. The answer is no, because I placed my own self-worth in my mind and intelligence, where I was wildly successful, rather than popularity or looks, where I was fairly unsuccessful. The difference between those girls and me is that I chose to abandon that field of battle for another one where I could win; not all girls had that advantage or could decide to take it. There are super-intelligent women who were not allowed to ignore the stings of racism, and there are average-intelligence women who are able to call on other things to allow themselves to ignore the biases and insults. The point isn't that intelligence *always* protects you against racism - the point is that I *could* use that as an escape hatch, and that I *did*.

A year ago I would have told you that I haven't experienced sexism either, but that's equally wrong. In high school a friend of mine was convinced I was only admitted to a prestigious university because I was female (affirmative action, you see). My freshman year of college, a misogynistic and racist group of students published and widely circulated a mailing which claimed that the minorities at the college were not as intelligent or deserving of their admittance as the white males enrolled. Not only that, but many men who I was friends with told me that they felt the mailing had a point, while many of the women I knew were devastated by the accusation and felt even less like they belonged there. The mailing was insidious and effective, largely because it capitalized on an environment which already conspired to make women and minorities feel unwelcome. How did I avoid a similar crisis of self-doubt? In precisely the same way I did in elementary school: I continued to be very successful in my academics, and could rely on that certainty to buttress my conviction that those misogynists were "stupid". It was more difficult than it had been in elementary school to dismiss them and their supporters, but I still could. I tried to convince female friends of mine to brush off the accusations, but my words could only go so far when there was already so many factors working together to convince them that they didn't belong.

I was and am extremely lucky. Every step of the way from when I first entered mainstream (and non-so-mainstream) culture, I have been told by every teacher and adult and other student that I am extremely smart and talented. Very few people are afforded this privilege. I knew I was good enough to succeed, whether or not I was a female minority; my consistent stream of A's proved that over and over again in writing. That was a shield against the sexism and racism I encountered, and that was a shield which allowed me the privilege of ignoring their existence for much of my life.

Ignorance doesn't mean these isms disappear, however. From the moment I picked up "Feminist Mystique", and from the point three-ish years ago where I started voraciously reading feminist blogs and blogs on racism, I have been encountering successive "lightbulb moments" where I suddenly can put a name to themes that have run through all of my life, where I can explain the why and the how and realize what I do to compensate. I cannot overestimate how much of a sea change this has been - where before I was muddling about in the dark, feeling the tide pull me in various directions, now I can see where the motion is coming from, and explain why I feel the way I do. This is why feminist theory, gender theory, and race theory are important: because while the personal may not always be the political, the political reverberates its way down to every detail in my life, and my world, and I cannot understand the whole of myself until I understand where those echoes are coming from.



November 2009

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