December 9, 2008
Subtle sexism: analyzing The Witcher
This post is about the PC game The Witcher, which someone I know has just started playing. But this post is less about the game and more about cultural representations and assumptions about gender and sexuality. He and I had a conversation around it today, which got me thinking a lot about female sexuality, male entitlement, and homophobia in our culture. So please bear through my discussion of the game to get the “big picture” analysis.
In browsing around the internets and reading people’s discussions around gender and sexuality in the game, I very often read these reasons for why the game isn’t “that bad” vis-a-vis women and (women’s) sexuality: the sex scenes are well done (they are in fact pretty tasteful) and the women aren’t represented as all dumb bimbos (as if commodifying women’s sexuality is only sexist if the women are represented as idiots.) My friend mentioned that in reading reviews, many women said the sex in the game wasn’t “that bad.” But in the game, it’s not really the sex that’s the problem.
At first, I thought that gender and sexuality in the game wasn’t so bad, but the more I was told the more troubled I became. Originally, I thought the sex in the game was just optional, with no reward attached, and the sex scenes aren’t gratuitous or very objectifying. Point one for the game?
Well, that’s not exactly it. You do get something for your various sexual encounters: sex trading cards. After a sexual encounter, you obtain pin-up trading cards to represent that sexual conquest–players, collect them all! (mass-printed cards, authentically medieval, right?) The idea of “collecting” women you have sex with (proof of your masculinity?) is really troubling to me. And by having sex with all the women available, you have a complete collection of woman-objects. Having sex with all the women you are able to, thus, becomes a goal for the character, even if the “reward” for doing so is negligible (bragging rights?). As one gamer suggested, “Women are COLLECTIBLE.” Commodification at its finest.
Not only do you acquire cards representing each woman you bed in the game, but the sex is at times a reward for your in-game accomplishments. One example I was given is that in a quest to save several prostitutes, after you have rescued them sex is your “reward” from them. I wonder, is their sex a reward because they are prostitutes, and therefore their sex is seen to be “worth” something, because it is seen to have a dollar value? Or is it just that women become sexually available to men with good behavior? Or that sex is the most important reward a woman can give? Any of these options are problematic.
In fact, gamers refer to this part of the game as a mini-game; collecting the sex cards is a game within the game. It is an optional feature, and it doesn’t hurt your character if you don’t do it, but for gamers, for whom it is important to play all aspects of the game, many will want to do it, regardless of what they think of it, or maybe without really thinking about it.
But what is the function of its inclusion of the option of sex into the storyline if not for the purpose of pursuing the mini-game? It is easy to say, You lose nothing by not doing it so just don’t do it; it is just as easy, however, to say If absolutely nothing would be lost on the game without it, why have it at all? The “optional” defense seems to me to be a farce. If nothing else, it excludes anti-sexists and non-juveniles from participating in all aspects of the game.
The women who offer you sex are limited to the young, shapely, and beautiful, natch; at the same time, you are also limited to having sex with women. This makes me pause–for a feature that is considered “optional,” thereby theoretically inconsequential, how come sex with men is not an option? I can hear the objections from the homophobes now. But for those men out there in game chat board world who say it shouldn’t be big deal for a woman to play a male character, and to have to have sex with various women to complete the full game, then what would be the “big deal” for the het men playing that character to have sex with men to complete the card set? Take this forum response from a guy: “Besides do you imagine cards for that sex minigame with guys? Ughh…I dont even want to think about it … ” Homophobic much? Male-centered much?
And another thing: in the game, you as the male protagonist can choose whether or not to have sex with the women, but they cannot choose not to have sex with you–you will never hear a “no.” They may not suggest sex unless you do/say/buy/pay “the right thing”, but you won’t hear a rejection. So women’s sexuality becomes a matter of figuring out the right tactics, the right series of responses or actions to get her to open her legs up to whomever gets the combination right. It reminds me of that horrible Vagina Hero game. It would be cool if the women in the game randomly said no to the encounter, or did not respond in a predictable way (there’s a site that tells you exactly what you have to do for them to sleep with you). That would be far more interesting, a lot more realistic, and would not treat women like mechanisms. And this problem is not just in this game but in any games with sex. It’s further a problem that in the gaming industry, protagonists continue to be male and sexual conquests continue to be female; it is a reiteration of porn logic. In this logic, men get to choose their sex object from a virtual infiniti of sexually desirable, always available women who don’t get to choose back.
I don’t care about the sex itself. I would care less about the sex if it wasn’t turned into a game, the pursuit of a collection of cards featuring nude women you’ve slept with (conquered?). I would also care less if the women didn’t seem to throw themselves at the protagonist, fulfilling a playboy-type fantasy of continually available women. I would care less if you could have sex with women of a variety of body types, especially body types that are more historically accurate (i.e. plump). I would care less if sex didn’t come as the result of doing something good that deserves a reward or giving the potential conquest a gift; what horrible stereotypes about how to “get” sex with women! I would further care less if this optional sex was open to male or female partners. Even still, I would care less if if the choice to have sex went both ways.
Interestingly, these are the things that female gamers dislike about the game. I haven’t seen anyone complain about the sex at all. Like my friend said, most women say the sex is totally tasteful–a nice change from such a sexist industry. But tasteful sex doesn’t mean an absence of sexism.
The comments from this Withcher thread are particularly telling (each is a different person’s comment):
The inclusion of a mini game that lets you collect cards after sleeping with women has turned me off this game completely. I can’t think of anything more immature then that in all honesty.
I would tend to agree; it would be nice if adult oriented adventures could avoid teenage male fantasies.
I’m not advocating the removal of such scenes from games, although I am pleased that they’re optional. I just don’t understand why people claim that it makes something more gritty and realistic – it doesn’t, it makes it more like stereotypical male wish fulfilment fantasy, one step removed from chainmail bikins[...]For me, that sense of grittiness and realism is eroded by a mini-game that encourages sleeping with as many women as possible and getting to look at vaguely naughty playing cards as a result.
It’s not the sex, it’s not the totally appropriate use of the position of women in medieval times, it’s the trading cards guys.
Yet the reasonable critiques of these women gamers get mocked and criticized as putting feminism where it doesn’t belong (say what?), since games are for males and if women want to play them, they have to deal with it. Interesting, since even this Gamespot review critiques the sex mini-game in an unsaid feminist fashion:
Interactions between the sexes are also risqué in a corny way that would rev up only Beavis and Butthead. It’s ridiculous enough that the side quests in every act let Geralt get horizontal with virtually every woman he meets, but it’s just pathetic that each conquest is rewarded with a playing card that depicts the lovely lass in a come-hither pose [...] At any rate, the sex is ludicrous and out of place, and is apparently there only to give game geeks hope that a fellow guy with lanky, unwashed hair and corpse-pale skin can score with hot babes
One gamer expressed her frustration this way:
But when the protagonist sleeps with the sorceress (whom he clearly has a history with), the player is presented with a pin-up card as if she were some sort of trophy. Furthermore, the player is offered clumsy and juvenile “come on” dialog for each of the women he meets subsequently[...]
[...]…and with each conquest, the player is treated to a diffuse sex scene and a pin-up card of the women he has sex with.
Admittedly, the player is given the option to not sleep with these women, but the constant presence of sexually predatory dialog from the character I was controlling was a bit much to deal with. There was no option to forge strong non-sexual relationships with these women. There was no option to be supportive of them in a platonic fashion. Only sex or disregard for our hero. What sort of message about women is that?
And I’m not saying that everyone who plays it and collects the cards is doing so intentionally thinking about collecting trophies of sexual conquest, or to target women in the game to conquer (the way some gamers I’ve read on chat boards do). I know my friend is doing it just to play the entire game. I don’t understand this drive, since I’m not myself a gamer, but I have read others comment that that is important in completing a game:
I’m a big fan of collecting minigames; if you give me a magical McGuffin to go, after I’m going to track down every last one. Remember the packs of cigarettes in Chronicles of Riddick? I was all over those.
But just because not everyone plays it with that intent, doesn’t mean that that’s not the perspective on women’s sexuality that the game is taking. Not everyone playing the game may be sexist in doing it, but the game itself is still sexist and reflects a sexist ideology that pervades society.
I’m writing all this less to draw attention to the game (although I am getting some game frustration off my chest) and more to draw attention that even in the absence of capital-O Obvious Objectification, there remain ways that in our everyday representations of women’s sexuality in entertainment and even in speech, sexist attitudes continue to be normalized.
I understand the value of saying that the game isn’t so bad; indeed, in an industry replete with sexism, this game as a whole isn’t “that bad.” But to gloss over it because it’s not “as bad” as other games are, or that it’s “only” as sexist as the whole of society is, is in some way to act as if the themes of sexuality in the game aren’t all that problematic. The features themselves might be avoidable, however, the attitudes behind those game features, as I’ve explained above, are nowhere near unproblematic. The game is a product of a sexist society. It’s sexism does not exceed societal sexism; it merely reflects and reproduces it– unproblematically. This isn’t just a function of its medieval setting, either. And the worst defense of sexism and racism in games is the historical defense–“that’s the way it was.” This may be important for movies, but I don’t see 100% historical authenticity as necessary for games. Isn’t gaming for entertainment and fantasy? Wouldn’t it be cool to play games from historical periods without reproducing historical injustices? It’s not like all people from earlier historical periods were sexist or racist, anyway, just as post-civil rights and feminist movements, we sure aren’t all anti-sexist and anti-racist!
Further, I think that sometimes the most troublesome sexism in society comes not from the obvious displays, but the subtle ones. It’s easy to recognize Obvious Objectification in games or films that as a society we have come to recognize but feel powerless to demand anything different, with sex (read: the female sex) “selling” and the all-pervasive media and what-not. On the one hand, I am pleased that the game resist the easy porn-like objectification of women in terms of the sexual acts, and certainly this game is less sexist than most; but on the other hand, presenting sex with women in terms of conquest, collection, trophyism, as something that should be earned or bought, as something that is consistently offered and never turned down, as something that is sickeningly always heterosexual–all things that tend to escape our Obvious (hetero)sexism radar–is something still to be troubled by.
And we reduce feminist critique to opposing mere bodily objectification if we do not address other ways that female sexuality is owned and owed.