Tropes Vs. Women in Games and the Boons of Abandoning Authorial Intent

If we absolve ourselves of authorial intent, then we can evolve how we consider trope in interactive media.

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.


Published Jun. 17th 2014
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Oh, just one other point:

    I'd like to add that the sheer level of ugliness we're seeing in all forms of entertainment today is unnecessary and decidedly dangerous, especially where young people are concerned. Ugliness, be it sexist or otherwise, is ugliness, and our fascination with it is beyond worrisome.
  • Capt. Eliza Creststeel
    Interesting point about Deus Ex and GTA. What I find interesting is that such sexualized NPCs are made parts of games to begin with. GTA originally did this somewhat tongue in cheek by allowing pretty much any NPC to be open game. Combine that with prostitute NPCs that will give the player character a quickie for money and you pretty much set up the wham-bam-thank you ma'am- BLAM! scenario.

    But, do so many games always have to have these decoration NPCs? Yes, you can go to any major city and see girls on the streets working. But, does not adding that element after the gritty realism for someone wanting to steal police cars and try to wing walk on a G6? In other words, had their not been a killable NPC sex worker in Deus Ex - a player would not have been tempted to kill her.

    Honestly, if GTA wants to make their little ho-whacking more realistic have killer pimps that come after you for killing their girls. If they catch you, they kick your ass, steal your money and leave you in a dumpster. How fun.

    I understand the author intent logic as far as it goes.

    But, games are different in that the developer builds the world, places the items and sets the rules. So, by having few restrictions, breakable environments and killable NPCs - players will test the boundaries. If you don't like that - move the boundaries. Remove elements. Change the rules. That can be done. Putting up their hands and saying 'boys will be boys' is a bit of a cop out.
  • GameSkinny Staff
    I don't think it's saying 'boys will be boys' - that IS a total cop out. I think that we should think a little more about why the hell is it that someone would actively choose to unnecessarily brutalize a sexualized female in a game at all. The fact that the option exists doesn't bother me as much as the fact that someone would do that and not realize how bad that is, even in a digital realm. That's a conversation that we shouldn't have to have in the first place.
  • Capt. Eliza Creststeel
    - That is my point though. You allow things, players will do them. Especially, if they are rewarded. Prostitutes in GTA were targets because the player got something out of it by killing them. If there was no reward or a lower reward for successive kills or added danger for such actions, they wouldn't be taken as often. Sadly, part of it is a sick little kid sense of humor that goes along with it. People run over pedestrians in that game too.

    I watched my sons play Minecraft and sometimes got frustrated because when they weren't building or exploring, they occasionally would just blow up a village. The villagers are harmless. But, they would find creative methods of destruction then giggle about it afterward.

    If I saw them doing so I would say something, but the older one said - 'We're just playing the way we want." And I had to realize that they're aren't horrible kids. They don't abuse animals or each other etc. It's a game and the game allows them to do so. However, if all they ever did - day after day was killing villagers I would definitely be concerned.

    Machinima posted a Top 10 Video Game Strip Club video this week. It's actually very depressing. The idea that players take their character to see virtual strippers in so many game. Even Star Wars has exotic dancers. Really? Wow. That's not gritty realism to me. It's pandering to middle schoolers.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Sadly, "pandering" is what gaming, and all forms of popular entertainment, is best at. :(
  • Dave_1042
    Sarkeesian is doing a wonderful service for the game industry. Exposing the ridiculous nature of women in games. Granted the vast majority of it is lazy writing by likely amateur designers, but it's tired, and old. Do we need a brothel in every game with a sassy sex pot, or asian accent? It doesn't even reflect real life anymore.

    It's done because old games did it, and new games are imitating what old games did in order to feel legitimate. It's lazy, and it does nothing for those games.

    All Sarkeesian is doing is pointing out how ridiculously common it is, forcing us to ask the question... Why are we still doing this?

    Granted some of her examples are kind of crap. She has a point that GTA basically rewards players for having sex with and then killing prostitutes, but that is not the case at all in Deus Ex, but it gets lumped in there with GTA as though they were equivalent. Deus Ex even uses the prostitution trope in a more realistic fashion, also throwing in the undercover female police officer trope as well, which Sarkeesian either missed or is saving for the next episode.

    Anyways, all game designers and writers in the industry can benefit from watching this series. If only to make them question themselves before tossing in yet another brothel with a broken english speaking asian prostitute. -_-
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    I appreciate the push toward conversation and debate. We need it now more than ever, especially as gaming continues to strive toward mainstream legitimacy.

    I maintain, however, that in my honest opinion based on clear inaccuracies in her presentations, Sarkeesian is just as - if not more - interested in drawing attention to herself than to the problem at hand.

    What's more interesting to me is the interactive aspect. Men have been playing as jacked-up, over-sexualized (yes, definitely), and impossibly strong heroes since the dawn of gaming. We've been assuming those roles; we haven't merely stumbled across them in our virtual travels. We've manned those guns, we've done those actions in the fictional sense.

    Some say that because of this, it makes men adopt - if only subconsciously - such traits. In my experience with gamers, the boys who grew up with such protagonists are actually MORE respectful of women than other people I know. Furthermore, why is nobody talking about a man's self-respect? Is not a man allowed to be just as offended? How many hundreds of times have we played as a ridiculously stereotypical male in our games?

    In truth, I think gaming has made far greater strides with women in games as opposed to men. Most men are still pretty similar to what we had back in the day, although they're certainly more authentic and sympathetic today. Women did indeed begin as nothing more than damsels in distress and sex objects but that is most certainly not the case today. We're seeing very strong female roles just about everywhere we look.

    It's important to see the industry as a whole, and that includes its history. Sarkeesian doesn't strike me as particularly knowledgeable about games; that's the first problem. The second is that whenever someone omits the other side of the argument, I almost always sense a bid for attention. Not that there's anything wrong with what she's attempting, but I'd be more inclined to applaud it if she just did some homework.
  • GameSkinny Staff
    I would agree that Sarkeesian does have a tendency to neglect counter arguments and disqualifying arguments, but I don't disagree that these are clearly observable tropes in gaming. These are still problematic tropes that exist. Yes, there is progress being made - and that is awesome. Actually a writer at Polygon recently wrote about going to E3 and spending the entire day exclusively playing female characters. If anything, we should be shining a more positive light on the good and progressive work that so many developers are doing. Those people don't get enough credit.

    At the moment, these tropes are still...tropes. Cliches. They are easy to fall back on conventions that many developers tend to still employ. Just like the jacked-up white male power fantasy that you mentioned - that's another BS trope that is overused and needs to die. This is a series about trope. I don't think Sarkeesian is trying to make blanket statements about the whole industry, but maybe she needs to work on her presentation in order to make that fact a little more clear.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Didn't see that piece at Polygon. It's a great example of how far the industry has come in a relatively short span of time. Look how long it took baseball to allow an African-American player into the league (over 50 years), and how long before we started to see any sort of diversity in film.

    In regards to Sarkeesian, if it had been an op-ed, I probably wouldn't have any complaint at all. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought. That, however, is more like a report and as such, it has too many serious flaws to really make a solid impact. That's really my only problem, but it is a significant issue, because what she's doing feels (and sounds) too much like self-promotion to me.

    As for the tropes...I guess I've always wondered why these are suddenly considered to be the bane of human existence. I mean, it goes back to my point about the grossly exaggerated male stereotype that we all grew up with. We played with nothing but for years and years. Has that really affected the minds of avid male gamers? Are they really less respectful toward women, or more likely to adopt that Type-A machismo persona, because of that? I'm not sure about that. All the aging gamers I know are probably more respectful of women than anyone else I've met, ironically enough.

    It's a little insulting, actually. It's like saying we don't KNOW these are cliches. It's like saying we have no idea that raping a woman on the street is wrong, or that not all women "look like that," as many females like to remind us. Well...duh. What bothers me so much about the more defensive women out there (and I'm not saying Sarkeesian is one of them, as I don't know her), is that it is sort of insulting. It assumes we're all just neanderthals whose behavior is not only affected, but perhaps even dictated, by the virtual fantasies in which we indulge.

    I agree that it's part of a young person's education, in that younger individuals are like sponges. I firmly believe in the ESRB for that reason. It's more important now because back in the day, our stereotypes weren't so realistic before our eyes. So yeah, keep bad stuff away from our children. Definitely.
  • Amanda Wallace
    Former Staff Editor
    I think authorial intent is a double edged thing as well. You can't really state what the author was saying (unless they directly say it) but the author also loses control of their work once they've submitted it to the world.
  • GameSkinny Staff
    Exactly. We might be able to consult interviews and historical context, but really all we can work from is the source text itself.

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