Monday, 31 August 2015

Women as Rewards in Video Games

I'm fairly new to this whole #GamerGate thing, admittedly. One of the things I've come across is the Twitter account @femfreq (Feminist Frequency), which is run by journalist Anita Sarkeesian, and is generally dedicated to exposing and critiquing what Sarkeesian perceives as sexism in video games.

Her most recent video on examines what she calls the 'Women as Reward' trope in video games, where female characters are objectified in the game, either as rewards for completing certain tasks, or as a mechanism for furthering progress in the game.

Of course, this is fairly commonplace, and the reason why is not particularly difficult to figure out: 56% of gamers are men, and 59% of frequent gamers are men. So the majority of gamers are men. Now, given the approximate 10% of the population that identify as homosexual, it is pretty fair to say that the majority of video game players are straight men, and, quelle surprise, straight men generally quite like looking at pictures of women in various states of undress. So sex is a selling point in video games. Not hugely surprising, given that it is a selling point in just about everything else from movies to soap.

In her new video, Sarkeesian gives a 20-minute expose of a number of different examples where women are sexualised and objectified in video games. Again, I'm not disputing that this happens. My question is, why does it matter?

The presumption is, of course, that behaviours incentivised in a video game will have a direct correlation on gamers' behaviour in real life. This is, in itself, a trope - which was first raised as a concern with violence in video games. Numerous studies have demonstrated that playing violent games doesn't necessarily cause violence.

Violent reactions are, like sexual interactions, linked to dopamine activity in the human brain, plugging into its reward system. In other words, humans are generally attracted to depictions of sex and violence, which trigger a very similar response. So if violence in video games doesn't correlate with an increase in violent behaviour, then why would sexualisation of women in video games lead to an increase in the sexualisation of women in the real world?

The answer is, of course, it probably won't. So it appears that Sarkeesian is just indulging in an unjustified moral panic. Most people who play video games (both men and women) are capable of differentiating between what is acceptable in an artificially-created ruleset and what is acceptable in the real world. That's why people get a thrill from bankrupting their family when playing Monopoly, but won't tend to run off with their credit cards in real life.

Objectifying women in a video game isn't necessarily going to convince men that it's acceptable to do that in real life, nor is it going to convince women that it is acceptable for men to behave in that way. Sarkeesian seems to be assuming that video game players are little more than impressionable monkeys, rather than moral agents, capable of distinguishing right from wrong in a real-world scenario.

Of course, the video focuses exclusively on the sexual objectification of women in video games, but has absolutely nothing to say about the sexual objectification of men. Virtually all of the male characters in video games are portrayed as well-built, rugged, muscled, alpha-male types, often depicted bare-chested or at least with tight shirts revealing the contour of abdominal and pectoral muscles in exquisite and unrealistic detail. So how is it that only the objectification of women in video games is a problem, when the objectification of men is just as prevalent? If one form of sexual objectification is unacceptable, then surely all forms must be?

Sarkeesian continues with the hypothesis that this sexual objectification of women is a form of male entitlement - a feminist theory that men feel entitled to enjoy women's bodies, either by physically using them or viewing them. Sarkeesian goes on to explain the various different ways in which male entitlement is manifest in Western society, including the rape epidemic.

Except that there isn't a rape epidemic. Reported incidents of rape in the Western world are broadly holding steady at approximately 0.02%-0.03% of the population. That's about 0.04%-0.06% of the female population. A recent ONS study put the rate for all sexual offences at 1.4% for women. It is true that women do experience more sexual harassment than men, but it is still a relatively uncommon occurrence.

Another example of male entitlement Sarkeesian cites is where a man buys a woman a few drinks and expects sex in return. This fatuous example demonstrates an astonishing ignorance of the basic tenets of human sexuality - or indeed, sexuality in general. In virtually all species, sexual intent is almost always initiated by the male. This is widely documented across a host of different species, and humanity is no different. It is perfectly natural for a man to try to initiate sexual contact with a woman - he has evolved to do precisely that, since that Y chromosome first found its way into our genetic code.

When a man 'buys a woman a few drinks', he doesn't automatically expect sex - but he usually desires it. It is a demonstration, a show - it is the human equivalent of a peacock displaying his feathers. He is taking a risk - an economic and social risk that his advances will not be rejected. Some men, because they are taller, better-looking, more muscular, better dressed, or even just demonstrably wealthier, have a lower risk of rejection. Others have a higher risk of rejection, and may not be as emotionally equipped to deal with it. If a man buys a woman a few drinks and then later she shrugs his arm off her shoulder, it's quite likely that he'll be a bit annoyed - not out of a misplaced sense of entitlement, but because he took a risk and lost out. All humans are naturally risk-averse - we feel losses more than we feel gains. That's not male entitlement, that's human nature.

Further examples of male entitlement include catcalling and wolf-whistling. This is pretty boorish behaviour, but again, relatively uncommon - Sarkeesian implies that it is widespread. The vast majority of men are actually respectful of women - of course, they'll have a good look if a pretty girl is walking down the street, but again, that's natural. Sexual contact is, as previously discussed, almost always initiated by the male, so a glance across a crowded street is often the first step. If she looks back, you might stand a chance.

And finally, Sarkeesian also throws in groping and harassment as examples of male entitlement, to demonstrate its pervasiveness throughout our society. But, as previously discussed, the total of all sexual offences against women is about 1.4% - in other words, fuck all. So if all the symptoms of male entitlement aren't anywhere near as prevalent as Sarkeesian suggests, it's fair to conclude that male entitlement, in the ways she describes it, isn't actually as much of a social problem as she makes out. The rest of the male behaviours she describes are basically attempts to solicit female attention - to initiate and progress towards sexual contact, because that's what men have to do, not just because they are genetically programmed that way, but because women hardly ever initiate.

So, in summary:

  • Much of the negative, abusive and criminal behaviour which Sarkeesian implies is 'epidemic' is actually quite rare, affecting less than 1 in 50 women each year. This directly contradicts the feminist theory of 'male entitlement';
  • The other male behaviour which Sarkeesian mentions, e.g. buying women drinks, is not out of a sense of entitlement to women's bodies, but rather a calculated risk in an attempt to initiate sexual contact, because a) women hardly ever initiate, and b) men have evolved to do just that;
  • Whilst some behaviours can be learned and reinforced through reward systems, there is a body of evidence that suggests that such rewards do not transcend rulesets, i.e. that behaviours learned in one situation are not automatically applied to another;
  • Behaviours and attitudes which are therefore rewarded in video games are not therefore automatically going to translate into real life behaviours. Despite the increasing availability of violent and pornographic media, violent and sexual crimes have not increased;
  • By focusing exclusively on the sexualisation of women in video games and ignoring demonstrable sexualisation of men, Sarkeesian is demonstrating astounding hypocrisy, claiming sexism whilst ignoring the treatment of men, which is, in itself, sexist;
  • The sexualisation of women in video games therefore seems to be of little social consequence, which does not translate into the real world, doesn't feed a problem which is significantly overstated, and the only criticism of it appears to be one of taste, which is highly subjective.

In other words, if you don't like it, don't buy it, but take your moral hectoring about what you find offensive somewhere else.