The video game industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of entertainment media. As the medium’s popularity increases, video games become more diverse, both in audience and in content. Game plots are no longer restricted to shooting enemy soldiers or running from ghosts. They can include the kind of writing that we tend to expect from books or movies. This includes love and romance. Although games address this in different ways, roleplaying games (RPGs) often allow the player’s avatar (the character controlled by the player) to engage in romances within the game, with various non-player characters. This aspect of roleplaying can enrich the game and create a more immersive experience, as well as simply being an enjoyable part of the RPG as a whole. However, RPG romances have created a great deal of controversy among producers and audiences, based around portrayals of sexuality, inclusion of same-sex romances in some games, and of course, sexist portrayals of women and bias against female players.
An anthropologist using feminist theory would probably focus on the gendered aspects of romance in video games. We could look at the way that romances are constructed in games. For example, in The Witcher, the player (controlling a male avatar) can have sexual encounters with many women in the game, and collect a card for each woman that he sleeps with. In Grand Theft Auto, players (again, controlling a male avatar) are rewarded with in-game bonuses and money for having sex with female prostitutes and then murdering them. Even fairly progressive RPGs like Mass Effect (in which you can choose your avatar’s gender) have some sexist aspects to the romances–such as a side-plot in which you can convince your female secretary to do a striptease for you. These are good examples of the male power fantasies that pervade many video games (yes, most video games are power fantasies, but this is different). They encourage the player to think about men and women in certain ways. Men are active–they are the usual protagonists–dominant and sometimes violent. Women are there for the sake of the man, often more objects than characters. It lends to the dehumanization of women when they are only there to serve the player sexually or to have violence performed on them.
Although there are other games that present romance in a much more equal or sensitive way, these sexist tropes are present in so many games that they cannot simply be brushed aside. And more equal romances present their own issues. Some people–particularly straight male players–become a bit sour when other demographics are catered to. Romances for straight women and gay players have caused controversy with straight men who see themselves as the target audience and believe that something they are entitled to is being taken from them. It ruins the male (macho) power fantasy when anybody besides them has power.
The idea of the power fantasy plays well into my next theory–practice theory. When we engage in video game romance, what is really happening? As I said earlier, almost all video games are power fantasies, and that is not necessarily a bad thing in entertainment. In the case of RPGs, they allow us to take part in the story in a way that non-interactive media (most books, movies, etc.) do not. It only becomes harmful when the power fantasy plays a part in oppression through the dehumanization of women or other marginalized groups. Who doesn’t want to be the hero of a story? Video games allow us to experience this. And romance is another part of that experience. Game mechanics let us play out sex and romance as we never could in real life–with do-overs, checkpoints, and guaranteed success. Of course this is not the same as real-life romance, but it is a way to make the game more immersive for many players.
Romance and love in video games can be en engaging and rewarding part of the player’s experience. It can also be yet another expression of sexism or other forms of discrimination in the entertainment industry, and occasionally lead to entitlement among the audience. Regardless, it is a part of video games that is likely here to stay, and will hopefully become better over time.