Tropes Vs. Women in Games and the Boons of Abandoning Authorial Intent
Anita Sarkeesian is doing incredible and important work with her "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" series. Other than her work, there is an incredible lack of publicized game criticism beyond comparatively simple product reviews. There is also, in response, an incredible lack of conversation held on the same level of criticism. I hope this short article helps to contribute to that conversation.
The most recent "Tropes vs. Women" video "Women As Background Decoration" (published on June 16th) is an in-depth observation of the common video game trope which places sexualized female NPCs in a decorative role within game worlds. There is no shortage of evidence of this trope and Sarkeesian posits that this oversaturation of objectified female bodies is a negative force in popular video game media. I could not agree more. The extent of this trope is most noticeable when the typical female NPC is compared to typical non-sexualized male counterparts.
What is Authorial Intent?
The one point that throws me off, however, is that Sarkeesian brings up the intent of the game developers - I was following along and happy to back her points, but I honestly can't get behind using authorial intent in criticism. There are specific scripted events that do encourage violence and objectification of women in games, but there is no way to account for player-directed violence and objectification.
Authorial intent is a hotly debated subject in media criticism - I place myself on the side of the fence which claims that authorial intent is dead. Once you give a dog a ball, you can't control where it runs.
In the essay "The Author is Dead," French literary critic Roland Barthes argues that it is useless to assume that you know the mind of an author based on that author's text. Once a book is published, its relationship with its author has ended.
"'To give a text an Author' and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it is to impose a limit on that text."
- Barthes, "The Author is Dead"
Imposing intent limits the possibilities that may arise from certain piece of media content. If you consider a cardboard box to only function for holding a refrigerator as intended by the manufacturer, then you ignore that the box could be a fort, or play ship, or anything else that a 4-year-old could come up with.
This is a simplified explaination of authorial intent, but this where my mind gravitates as I consider the later points of Sarkeesian's video. Assuming intent of developers is a limitiation of itself. There is merit in her investigation of this trope, but certain considerations must be taken as to not make blanket assumptions about the minds of the developers.
Authorial Intent In Video Games
Especially in video games, authorial intent drops off significantly as gamers are given a space to play and push whatever limits of the game they possibly can. It is akin to giving a child a sandbox and a shovel. The difference being: Yes, there are certain events that do reward specific acts of brutality, and devs can be held accountable for overusing the sexualized female as decoration. There is no doubt about this point, I 100% agree.
However, a developer can't be responsible for a heteromale player killing a sexualized heterofemale character at random (scripted or 'game-necessary' events set aside). Sarkeesian's example of Deus Ex sticks out, where the player instructs Jensen to stab a random sex worker NPC - this is an unnecessary and gruesome kill on a sexualized female NPC, and this random action is in no way a suggested or 'intended' by the game.
Abandoning Authorial Intent Opens Criticism of Player Engagement in Trope
Not every game that engages in women-as-object tropes is necessarily also on trial for brutality against sexualized females. If there are violent and unnecessary player actions that DO engage this form of brutality, then the issue of cause/effect is reversed. This then becomes an issue of 'why is this gamer choosing to attack women in this game?' Which I believe is a question concerning faults on a wider context of cultural violence towards women.
This consideration dictates a very interesting shift in the dynamic of how tropes work in video games. There are tropes of development (developers tend to use sexualized women as NPC object decoration) and tropes of player engagement (some players tend to brutalize sexualized NPCs).
To me this is an intriguing and complicated development in the concept of tropes in gaming. What are the tropes of video games and what are the tropes of video gamers? In this interactive media format, the interaction and engagement of the player holds an enormous weight. What tropes can we see in player activity when we consider the player in tandem with the tropes of game content?
Just as gamers have an interactive role in the games they play, they also have an interactive role in creating tropes in video games.