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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.
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.