But It’s Worse in Games Because They are Interactive

FeministFrequency recently released a new Episode of their Series “Tropes vs Women”. This time, they discuss Women as Background Decoration, especially the prevalence of female Sex Workers in Videogames. As always, the critical perspective is welcome and the accumulation of examples is seriously disturbing.

However, I noticed that throughout the episode, the show makes a common argument which continues to struck me as questionable.

Sexual objectification is, of course, ubiquitous in mass media of all forms but since video games are an interactive medium, players are allowed to move beyond the traditional role of voyeur or spectator. Because of its essential interactive nature, gaming occupies a unique and potentially more detrimental position vis-a-vis the portrayal and treatment of female characters.

Variations of the above argument are also common in the criticism of violence or racism in videogames. The idea being that detrimental aspects of media are especially harmful in videogames because of their interactive nature. Here is why I find this argument debatable.

Great Resposibility Without Great Power

To begin with, the argument is used almost exclusively to argue AGAINST videogames – to justify harsher restrictions, a more scrutinous treatment. If the argument was true, the opposite should also be true. Games ought to teach more effectively. Games ought to makes us more virtuous by portraying morally positive themes. Games ought to convey stories in an even more griping way. Games ought to make art even artier.

However, this argument never seems to be made. Even in the Games for Change movement, the understanding is that games need to be specifically designed for tease out the positive effects. Meanwhile the negative influence seem to be always there whether intended or not.

When listing the positive ways in which games influence people, even the most avid games proponents seem to come up with tamely pragmatic ideas like “improved hand-eye coordination” – as if our society was suffering under an epidemic of bad hand-eye-coordination.

It would be ridiculous to claim that interactivity made games the overall superior medium. So why do we seem to accept the flip side so easily – that interactivity makes games overall the more dangerous medium?

My Medium Could Kick Your Medium’s Butt

In fact, we can distill a universal form of the argument and apply it to any other medium.

“Negative aspects in [medium X] are especially harmful because of [what makes medium X distinct]”

  • Literature – Literature is the most harmful of all media because literature engages the imagination of the reader. Problematic content is not merely perceived but actively re-constructed in the mind of the reader. There is no way for the reader to distance themselves mentally from the material. Problematic ideas are confabulated with the reader’s personal memories and experiences and have therefore an easier time to take hold. By analogy, horror authors know well that the most terrifying monsters are the ones that we merely imagine ourselves.

  • Cinema – Cinema is the most harmful of all media because of its overwhelming, immersive visual nature. Through editing, pacing, camera perspectives, sound and special effects, cinema creates a reality that surpasses the real – a hyper reality. Every moment is orchestrated and fine-tuned to be more intense and vivid than reality can ever be. Visual communication is also a non-verbal communication – one that happens subconsciously. The openly desired result is a surrender of critical thinking called “suspension of disbelief”. As the old proverb goes, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. And a movie is a 1000 pictures in rapid succession.

  • Theater – Theater is the most harmful of all media because unlike cinema, it actually happens. The events on stage are not the result of special effects and clever editing, they physically happen between real human beings. This difference is what Walther Benjamin calls “Aura”. The inherently Auratic nature of Theater makes it the most authentic of all media. Its negative effects are the most intermediate because there is no screen to separate the audience from the portrayed events.

  • Music – Music is the most harmful of all media because of its engrossing and seductive nature. Nietzsche singled out music as the art of Dionysus, the god of madness and ecstasy. The loss of control and disregard for ethics is inherent to what music is. Music works on humans in insidious ways they often have no control over. Pop music is capable of making us remember and repeat the most trite lyrics over and over again, without being able to stop. Music is also capable of crossing cultural boundaries. Its potentially harmful and subliminal messages can be universally received and internalized by all humans.

… and so on. Of course, all of the above statements are true. That’s because the initial argument is actually as a kind of tautology. Of course each medium has their own, uniquely effective means of communicating ideas. If the ideas are problematic, they will be communicated in a way inherent to that medium. It is no excuse to single out a specific medium. You could just as well single out any other medium. It is also not practical to measure and compare the effectiveness of different media. They work in inherently different ways. Apples to oranges.

I think games are often singled out here because of different reasons. Maybe because they are just the newest kid on the block? Maybe because they are so popular with younger audiences? Maybe because games don’t offer enough positive counter-examples? Whatever the reason is, the “because they are interactive” argument seems more like an a-posteriori rationalization. It should be contested and never is.

Is this Necessary?

Going back to the original Feminist Frequency video – what also strikes me is that the argument is actually not necessary to the line of reasoning there. Yes, the series looks at the problematic portrayal of women in videogames. It is not necessary to reason why it does so. It is the premise of the series.

A frequent argument against the Feminist Frequency series is that sexist tropes exist in other media. The obvious answer is that just because other media use those tropes, it doesn’t mean it is ok to use them in games. But conversely, if sexism is clearly harmful in other media, it shouldn’t be necessary to emphasize that it is harmful in games.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

14 responses to “But It’s Worse in Games Because They are Interactive”

  1. dfa

    There are, indeed, counter examples to the trope proposed by the video. In my Mass Effect review, I wrote “It’s interesting to note how well Bioware performs at the so-called Bechdel, or female presence, test. Not only can the main character be a female, the developer seems to depict a conservative and a liberal female character clashing against each other on both episodes so far.”
    Further adding, for the Mass Effect 2 review, “My experience resulted in that doing the right thing (in ME2) made me feel good. Yes; I have in fact learned a moral lesson from a videogame, something which film is seldom effective at anymore. Mass Effect 2 feels more like Battlestar Galactica in that regard, a series known for tackling hefty themes.”

  2. Jeroen Houttuin

    Overall another good post, I just have an issue with the last section.

    You seem to claim that it should be justified why Feminist Frequency is only looking in this series at problematic portrayal of women in videogames rather than also other media. I wonder if she should.
    It she did it would give the series more context, but except from that I don’t see much reason for it. Can someone not choose to focus on a certain thing just because? Does is always need to have a substantiated reason?

    If I would have to say what her reason is for her current focus on women’s portrayal in videogames, I would say that it is because it is just the next medium in her quest to examine women’s portrayal in pop culture. She does seem to have videos about women’s portrayal in other media and her reason is stated on her about page.

    “Feminist Frequency is a video webseries that explores the representations of women in pop culture narratives. The video series was created by Anita Sarkeesian in 2009 and largely serves as an educational resource to encourage critical media literacy and provide resources for media makers to improve their works of fiction.”

    1. Krystian Majewski

      >You seem to claim that it should be justified why Feminist Frequency is only looking
      > in this series at problematic portrayal of women in videogames rather than also
      > other media. I wonder if she should.

      Oh no. That’s not what I claim. In fact, it’s the very opposite. I claim that focusing just on videogames does not require further justification.

      “It is not necessary to reason why it does so.”

      However, claiming that sexism is especially harmful in videogames seems to be an attempt to answer that kind of question. I think that kind of statement is dubious and superfluous to the discussion.

      1. Jeroen Houttuin

        Than it seems we don’t disagree really. I agree that her statement about sexism being specially harmful in videogames compared to other media should be backed up with some evidence for it to have any value.

        If I have to speculate about I could see a potential argument that rewarding misogynistic behavior in game could promote misogynistic behavior outside of the game, but this only work if transfer takes place. Transfer is a not yet good understood process about taking some knowledge from one context and placing it in another context.

        To make a game which promote transfer it often has to be made with this process in mind. There are many commercial games which do promote transfer. Antichamber for example trains the player in lateral thinking, Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher trains the player in critical thinking and FreQuncy on a high difficulty setting trains the player to quickly makes decision.

        Currently it seems Feminist Frequency seems to be lacking evidence in how misogynistic behavior in games get transferred out of them.

        For more information about transfer you could read my thesis
        http://jeroenhouttuin.com/?p=179

        An argument which could hold more ground would be the argument about the diversity in portrayal of women in games, but this argument would not specifically target games. It would rather be an all encompassing argument for all representation of women in pop culture.

  3. “But It’s Worse in Games Because They are Interactive” – Games designer Krystian Majewski examines the oft-cited claim that videogames can be especially harmful due to their interactive nature. via /r/Games | Why are we here?
  4. The Professor

    I feel as if I should leave this comment here as this article is going to be incorporated into my Critical Thinking class and I have posted this response elsewhere.

    “Negative aspects in [medium X] are especially harmful because of [what makes medium X distinct]”

    At this point, he straw mans that argument. The actual argument is something like the following:

    If people frequently encounter associations to a concept, then those associations become part of the concept. If concepts are utilized, then the people using it is more likely to internalize the concept. Video games, by virtue of trying to present a “real” world must include some associations to concepts; further those concepts are utilized due to the interaction with the concept. So, video games help internalize concepts that are bundled with associations. Video games frequently present negative associations with the concept of woman, and people are required to interact with this particular concept. Thus, gamers are internalizing a negative concept of woman.

    The strongest point that Mr. Majewski makes is that under “Great Responsibility Without Great Power”, but even this is a Red Herring against the core argument. How I laid out the argument definitely says that video games would be a good tool to learn positive ideas, but pointing out that people don’t include that argument is irrelevant to the issue at hand.

    The whole middle section is based on a straw man, so it’s again irrelevant to the argument at hand.

    The “Is this Necessary?” part raises and interesting question, why focus on this argument? I would answer, because it raises that strongest point for how video games could be detrimental. His discussion as to why point it out in this medium versus other media does add to the discussion, but it assumes that (a) video games don’t have a special status and (b) that people who understand importance on a category level understand importance on a category member level. Unfortunately, (b) is just false, and (a) is both the crux of the feminist argument and hasn’t been specifically addressed by Mr. Majewski. It also has a feel of making the argument that other groups do the same thing, so why are we being picked on. Which is a terrible argument.

    As such, the whole article is an example of fallacious argumentation; although, well intended argumentation. I assume that Mr. Majewski takes the Feminist Frequency points seriously and believes that something ought to be done about the concerns. This is evidenced in the article. But, at the same time, he feels like it is his duty to protect the discipline from negative attention, which is what the article tries to do. So, what I take from the article is a “we have a problem, but don’t pick on us” response. Which, insofar as the Feminist Frequency is picking on video games the response is warranted. The author’s attempts to fend off the criticism however, is without merit.

  5. Indie Dev: This Week in Video Game Criticism: Revolutionary Assassins and Phil Fish on wurk@

    [...] Game Design Reviews, Krystian Majewski also responds to the video. While not rejecting Sarkeesian’s criticisms of sexism, he takes exception to her assertion [...]

  6. Worth Reading: 06/27/2014 | Nerdwood

    [...] Krystian Majewski explores the line “it’s worse in games because they are interactive.” [...]

  7. Merus

    I feel like the arguments for what benefits the differences between mediums bring are often made, it’s just that they’re usually not made within games criticism. There’s been a rise in recent years of articles in serious magazines – The Economist and the like – that examine the strengths of the medium and the industry, in an effort to explain what the appeal is and why it’s making so much money. It’s not particularly novel, or useful, to point out that games are far more effective at (random examples) horror, or vignettes, than most other media are.

    Another factor is that comparisons to other media by games critics are only useful when discussing how drawing from other media doesn’t work. It’s easy enough to compare the movie Avatar to a videogame and note how Avatar’s selling points are far more effectively realised by a good game, but how does this bring us to a deeper understanding of whatever game we choose to discuss? We learn more about Avatar than we do about the game.

  8. Worth Reading: 06/27/2014 | My Blog

    [...] Krystian Majewski explores a line “it’s worse in games since they are interactive.” [...]

  9. Mister T

    The Female Frequency videocasts always seem like a missed opportunity to me. Usually they start out from a perfectly valid point of view and then slowly spiral into some fanatical mess, which results in one single conclusion: If you want to create content which cannot misunderstood as sexist – just don’t create at all.

    While I embraced the idea of someone exploring that topic, it just happens to come from some position of a moral high ground, completely unaware of the culture of game mechanics which developed over the years, and with the single purpose of finding the hair in the soup, that it is impossible for me to keep watching a single episode to the end. She does not like when male and female characters are treated equally, she dislikes it when they are treated differently. And maybe she is even right – which only means that the attempt to avoid being sexist is just futile.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      I’m going to have to disagree with you here. I find her videos to be thoroughly researched. Just the sheer amount of examples goes well beyond the call of duty. I find it baffling that you, like so many of her detractors, are mentally capable to dismiss the examples as “cherry-picking” or “finding the hair in the soup”. The conclusion you cite, “just don’t create at all”, seems to be a projection on your side.

      I understand this can be a frustrating topic. Most developers don’t develop games with the intent to be sexist. Most gamers don’t play games with the intent to enjoy sexism. So when somebody points out the sexism in the content we enjoy and create, it may seem like a misunderstanding or unjust scrutiny. But sadly, merely not wanting to be sexist is not enough and denial doesn’t really further that cause. That’s why it’s a good idea to pay close attention instead to avoid being misunderstood in the future. I always point out the reaction of Derek Yu when his game Spelunky was mentioned in one of the series: “Hurting people for no reason is dumb” – https://storify.com/metasynthie/reasonable-responses-to-the-unreasonable-derek-yu

  10. Mister T

    Well, as I said – I usually start in full agreement to her points. Videogaming still tries to hide an obscurity which is clearly lost and the attempt of just being some kind of entertainment without meaning just isn’t working anymore. Sexism, xenophobia, racism and homophobia obviously exist much more than in the older media which already became aware of their responsibility as mass culture. And I compeletely agree that she finds a lot of valid examples – it is not like one has to look too long to stumble across them.

    But then she just keeps digging. And while that is still valid and the points she raises are usual not far fetched, her feminist background just becomes so much more important than the background of the games. Whether a game makes something better or is more progressive is usually ignored – what matters is: is it perfect from a feminist standpoint of professional feminist reasoning?

    She shows how one can stuff a woman into a crate in Hitman – she ignores that the game mechanics reward avoiding that scenario (instead she even talks about the developers “inviting” it) and that one can do that with male characters as well. All this undercut with the right scenes to make an impression on people who did not play the game – a wrong impression and on purpose.

    And in the end – what what would the correct decision be for a gamedesigner to avoid that such scenes? Stopping the game when hitting a female character and basically destroying the open world design – or at least disable interaction with all female characters? Avoiding female characters entirely? Or well – as I said and which you considered projection – not creating the game at all, since at this point there is simply the choice which kind of sexism the designer prefers.

    I can see that reviews are not necessarily meant to be constructive, but on video casts like errant signal the own nitpicking is usually presented with a certain level of irony or the notion that the raised point is while not being perfect not necessarily a big flaw. But here they are presented with the superseriousness of someone who is convinced to have moral superiority. The humour is reduced to the typical lame attempt of sarcasm of the self-righteous. The negativity is a big turn-off.

    Most likely that is the case because it is a videocast which is meant for feminists and not video gamers and it is my own mistake that I am interested for the first five minutes. But there I think lies the missed opportunity – would this series be more constructive, it might have some effect. Instead it ends up being entertainment for a filterbubble of people who think her way.

  11. Krystian Majewski

    > Whether a game makes something better or is more progressive is
    > usually ignored

    The Feminist Frequency videos aren’t there to make overall judgments on individuals games in terms of “All things considered, this game is good/bad”. They merely point out frequent tropes. As stated at the beginning of each one of her videos, it is entirely possible for each one of those games to be great in spite of utilizing sexist tropes.

    > She shows how one can stuff a woman into a crate in Hitman – she ignores
    > that the game mechanics reward avoiding that scenario and that one can
    > do that with male characters as well.

    Due to the very different social status of different genders, an unproblematic treatment of one character may be highly problematic when applied to a different character. It is for the same reason why there is no “White History Month”. Equal treatment is not always justice. Games are already highly sensitive to some variants of those pitfalls. For example, it is not possible to murder children in most games. Somehow this doesn’t seem to hurt the sandbox nature of those games.

    This was already explained in the videos. Furthermore, the video pointed out various ways in which female NPCs tend to differ from male ones. Perhaps a closer viewing of the series would be expedient after all.

    If you ask @campster from Errant Signal about his opinion of Feminist Frequency you will find that he values her videos as much as I do. They do produce very different types of videos. This should not be an issue. I appreciate Feminist Frequency’s more matter-of-fact tone as I tend to use those videos in classes where comedy can be highly distracting.

    As for you finding the videos made for feminists and not gamers – I think it disappointing that you see the two as mutually exclusive.

    This discussion is has swerved way off-topic. I haven’t written the above text to rationalize disappointment with the series. Please don’t turn this comment section into yet another fundamental Pro/Anti FemFreq debate. If you doubt the utility of the series, you should be able to appreciate the futility of such a debate all the more.

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The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.

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