Video Games, Romance, and Entitlement

by Micah

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.

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28 Responses to Video Games, Romance, and Entitlement

  1. Andrew Sullivan says:

    Great comments on the sexism found in modern gaming. Now that same-sex relationships are now becoming more common in video games it may be good to use feminist and practice theory to analyze these types of relationships as well

  2. Olivia Smith says:

    Interesting note on how women players are often included in video games only to be viewed as sex objects for men. Also, I think this is very interesting to look at, specifically since many young teens play these games. I believe it could influence the way kids treat other sexes outside of the video games.

  3. Anna Wood says:

    VERY interesting essay. I had no idea about this realm of our society. The practice theory aspect of this analysis makes a lot of sense. Of course people would want to experience the ideals of sex and romance, it is the same reason our interests support the pornography and romantic film industries. However, I am shocked by the types of relationships that are promoted in some of these games. I suppose they illustrate the extremes of our society’s “ideals.” In particular, Grand Theft Auto struck me as horrifically applicable to the idea of manliness. While I’m sure most men do not strive to be able to have sex with women and murder them afterward, it does seem to fit into the current construction of a “man” being completely and utterly dominant over women.
    All in all, I think this essay uncovered an entirely new insight into our culture. Great job!

  4. Alexis says:

    Great essay. This isn’t something that someone would normally think about too hard, it’s just one of those things that people do without thought. I’m a female and I’ve played Grand Theft Auto many times and done just what you explained above. A friend of mine had never played before and was baffled at what I was doing. In a way, you desensitize yourself to it.
    The only thing is that there are many games where the woman is the main avatar, and she’s pretty boss. But thinking about, a man isn’t dehumanized, he is usually her equal, her “teacher”, or her help.

  5. I had no idea that these sort of things existed in video games. I am not a gamer myself, but know plenty of people that are and the fact that the gamer can participate these things is a bit disturbing to me. Often times in our culture women are objectified and portrayed to be the lesser gender. In my opinion these games create a sphere where it is acceptable to do things that one would never do in real life, but at the same time you have to ask yourself at what cost? Unfortunately, I think what people do in the gaming world can impact their behavior in the outside world. I think you did well incorporating the theories, but I simply do not understand why people feel the need to participate in romance or love in a video game. I think it will be interesting to see what the future holds for video games and I hope that you are right when you think the situation will improve. Out society is only as good as our media portrays.

  6. Annie Birkeland says:

    I think its really frustrating that women being treated as objects in movies/media/songs/games is normalized and on the rise. I can understand how it would be a male fantasy and that many video games are widely popular for capitalizing on this. I think you bring up an interesting point about practice theory and how there is a disconnect between how gamers act on the game and how they act in real life. However from your article I can see a correlation between treating women negatively in the games and in real life. There was a a huge outcry from the male audience with the possibility that video game fantasies could be catered to a more diverse audience. Women are not allowed any voice or power in games and that is reflected in reality by men feeling entitled to their fantasies and unwilling to let women have a say in real life on video game portrayal of women.

  7. This is a very interesting article because it made me think of the possibility of engaging in romance or sexual activity in a video game in a different light. From your position I was able to see some of the benefits of fulfilling sexual desires within a game where you can emerge as a “hero”. On the other hand, the violence that is allowed in some of these games (I was particularly horrified at Grand Theft Autos awarding of points for having sex with a prostitute and then killing them after) is something that is very harmful to our society. There have been studies that suggest that video games often influence players outside of the game and that terrifies me when I think of what the consequences might be for women. If they are able to eliminate the violence that is associated with women in these games I think it could be a very beneficial addition to video games, but that change has to be in place for it to be true.

  8. Mary Dobberstein says:

    Intriguing essay! I’ve thought about how women are portrayed in video games before but never this deeply. It got me wondering how these gamers would react if the sexist acts and portrayal of women was taken out of the video games. Would they be angry? Would they quit playing all together? Or would they not even mind? It’s interesting how video games can shape people’s personalities and beliefs.

  9. Maddie Ohaus says:

    This is a really interesting topic for an essay, it’s definitely not something you think about in the everyday. I think in general stereotypes males are the ones playing the games not women so when they are created they are really only cater to the males. A comedian named Amy Schumer actually did a skit in where she asks to play her boyfriends video game and upon choosing to be a female avatar her character is limited to choices, raped by a male character and killed off very quickly. It really shows how female characters in video games are devalued and seen as objects.

  10. Kayla McClelland says:

    While I was not surprised to read that gendered stereotypes exist in the gaming realm, this essay did expose a severity to the issue that I had not given much mention to before. We are constantly receiving dehumanizing and sexual portrayals of women in the entertainment, publishing, and media industries but with gaming individuals are actually participating. This exaggerates the desensitization we already experience by allowing people to actively perpetuate these horrible stereotypes in a fictional world exempt from any reality of consequences. I thought the author did well analyzing gaming romance with the theory of feminism, but felt like the use of practice theory to explore power was wanting. Gaming is all about power, what might a post structuralist anthropologist say about such power-love relationships?

  11. Carly Morrison says:

    Your focus on gaming and sexism is super intriguing. I have no experience in this realm, so you really enlightened me on some of the issues and features of that experience.

    Actually, right before I read your post I just read an article about a girl who is a gamer and has received many rape threats from other players. Instead of contacting the boys who made the threats she decided to contact their moms and ask that they talk to them. These boys were between 10 and 15 years old! This was her way of addressing some of the negative interactions in the gaming world.

    We have all heard stories about cyber bullying, but these threats of sexual assault made me think of cyber bullying in a whole new light. I wonder if y this might be is a common experience for women gamers and I wonder where boys of such young ages get the idea that this kind of interaction is in any way okay…But then I think of how you mentioned grand theft auto and the murdering of prostitutes. If the portrayal of women is that of sexual objectification and then violent disposability why would the interactions between gamers be any different?

    I would definitely like to look at practices in other games and hear the experiences of other people in the gaming world to better understand some of these occurrences.

    • Ben Sardinsky says:

      That’s a really excellent way to analyze the disturbing number of rape threats directed towards prominent female gamers! I think another reason that this unfortunate trend occurs is because of the way the video game market is so heavily gendered. When male gamers feel the encroachment of a prominent woman into ‘their’ space their perception is likely the trigger for this verbal violence.

    • Carly,

      I think you are spot in at seeing the intersection between online bullying and sexist gaming. I always hear about protecting children from online pedophiles, yet no one ever tells me what I should if I receive online sexual violence. I think without the community aspect of gaming (online strangers) people are less likely to hold back “taboo” or “jarring” sexists comments of intent. I would also like to understand why our american culture has decided to allow this type of dehumanizing entertainment by saying online 17 and up can play. Making me think back to practice theory, because in every-day life, plenty of younger siblings look up older ones for guidance. Meaning while we say these video games are for an older population, the younger population has access to these games and visceral sexual entertainment.

  12. Camille says:

    I think there is a lot to be said regarding sexism in the video game world. I have had little experience playing with video games, but have had a little exposure to these games as I have an older brother. I think it is really interesting how we correlate sexism (especially women’s gender role) in these games. From what I’ve seen, I think it is somewhat true that women are at times devalued or sexualized in negatives ways in the games, especially given the fact that our younger generations are being exposed to a lot of video games now. How will this negatively impact our future generations and/or effect our current generation? Does this have any connection with the problems are more brutally facing towards sexual violence in reality? These are all interesting points to look into, great topic!!

  13. J. Colegrove says:

    I believe as time passes, gendered inequalities will fade in the gaming world. My sister (who is grown and married, mind you) and her friends undoubtedly play more games than I, and follow videogame news more attentively. Furthermore, I, personally, always choose to play as characters of different gender than I when given the option. Besides just wanting to vicariously live a life very different than I, I also enjoy the reactions people give after getting slapped around a little by a female character.
    I think it should be noted that in games like Mass Effect, not only male characters are allowed the option to pursue sexual relations with other characters. When I played (as a women), one member of my team regularly said my sexual advances were too much and very inappropriate for our situation. Coping with rejection, I was able to use my power as commander of my ship to seduce a non-human male and educate him on human intercourse before having my way with him.
    Very interesting article!

  14. Charlie Travis says:

    Awesome essay topic. I think this aspect of video game fantasies is overlooked and most people don’t think critically about how integrating sexual dehumanization into video game plots.. Also, it is interesting how straight men are okay with sexuality in there video games until there is covering of same sex relations, etc. Practice theory works well here in showing what is “actually” happening, the prioritization of who is catered too sexually in these video games , and the dehumanization of women throughout the sexual encounters in the video game

  15. Lexi Eagle says:

    I think this is a really interesting topic because sexism in video games gets ignored pretty frequently, perhaps because male players (and straight male players, as you mention) are the main consumers of video games. I wish the essay would have addressed the affects of video game romance fantasies on players’ actions outside of video games. Of course, I am not suggesting that sexist fantasies in video games necessarily influence players to act in sexist ways, but I’m interested to know whether the unrealistic nature of video game sexual encounters (“do-overs, checkpoints, and guaranteed success”) influences the expectations of players in real life.

  16. Sydney Britsch says:

    I know that for most video games the target audience is a stereotypical straight male and most of the time it seems like any woman presented in the game is over sexualized to appeal to this audience. I think that this is a problem in the entertainment world as a whole. However, the video game industry does seem to be expanding and stepping away from this norm. One big shift I’ve noticed is games are allowing the player to create their avatar and choose its gender. One thing I am glad you brought up is the other marginalized players besides females. I had never even thought about the need for a game that includes a same-sex romance and storyline. I hope that video games will continue to progress in a more inclusive and open-minded direction.

  17. Jacqueline Joyal says:

    This is very prevalent to the GamerGate scandal that has been going on recently. You could even take this to post-structuralism what with the power aspect. Males are given most or all of the power and there is an extreme gap in power between men and women. As with your example of Grand Theft Auto, men are allowed to practice this power over women in an environment that doesn’t physically hurt them, but adds to the stigma of women as objects to be used. I suppose I mixed some feminist anth in there as well, but post-structuralism is a mix of all theories.

  18. Laura Graham says:

    You did a excellent job of presenting this! Very interesting to read. I don’t really play video games but I did always think the armor they put female characters in was ridiculous. You highlighted a lot of aspects I didn’t even know about.I heard recently Australia banned Grand Theft Auto because it was so sexist.

  19. Amy Knutson says:

    Wow, very eye-opening. This makes me wonder how playing games that let you control a character in these situations can affect a person’s (especially a developing kid’s) brain as opposed to just watching TV or films where sexism is present. I could imagine the dangers that could present themselves if a person’s brain rewarded them with chemicals like serotonin every time they performed a degrading act in a virtual world. How would that person’s experience in the real world change? Can be a bit frightening to think about in my opinion.

  20. Frank Minor says:

    Those are two very interesting theories to apply to the subject of sexual content in video games. On one hand, as you said, they do objectify women in many games, and from the examples you gave, it seems that the more controversial games tend to be the culprits. The other point you made, as practice theory I thought was a little more interesting because it encompasses more games in general, and can often add more depth to the story lines to get people more hooked on the games.

  21. This is a great topic and your analysis is excellent. With feminist theory, it is clear that romance and sex is portrayed in usually sexist ways that are derogatory toward women in role-playing video games. It is even true that when women are the protagonist, as in Tomb Raider, they are still portrayed in a womanizing way: huge breasts with a lot of cleavage showing, usually a very very small shirt, always thin, what have you. I think an interesting video game to discuss, especially with practice theory and the idea of playing with power and control, would be Bioshock. Placing yourself in the role of Daddy for the little girls, choosing either storyline to save them all or to eliminate them, puts yourself in a power role that isn’t attached at all to sex or romance. That’s just an idea for further discussion on the subject. Great writing, friend!

  22. maddysimonds says:

    I really enjoyed this topic because I am not all that familiar with the video game world aside from watching my brother play GTA. I agree that it is disappointing to see the way women are portrayed in three extreme examples you provided. I am not surprised at all that this has struck up various issues among women and Feminist Theory is a great way to look at it. However, I was particularly shocked by the male response of just having a similar option but portraying men as they do women. The opportunity to have sexual encounters with men for men or women offended straight men, and I personally thought it was a great way to get them to see a woman’s perspective. The fact that men did not like the idea of power taken from them, and giving it to someone else really stuck with them. This is helpful because when it comes down to it the dehumanization of women in these games is stripping them of all their power and showing them as objects. Plus this was really interesting to read!

  23. Josie Anderson says:

    I have never thought about feminism in video games. Ever. I think it’s really interesting how you brought that up. Or the romantic aspects of video games. It shows how the beliefs of our culture, such as the inferiority of women, are represented in every aspect of our culture…even video games! I think it’s interesting how video game companies have capitalized on male power fantasy, or perhaps they are not even keeping that in mind…It’d be interesting to relate economic ideas to this topic.

  24. Howard says:

    As someone who was a heavy gamer as a kid but eventually grew out of it, I find this essay extremely interesting. It’s so obvious looking back at these portrayals of how women are displayed in these games. When I read the essay title, the first thing I thought of were the hookers in Grand Theft Auto. The Practice Theory again is fascinating to think about in this context. Looking back, I think it’s so bizarre that myself as a kid and even kids today are exposed to such graphic content which has such deeper anthropological meaning.

  25. Syrah Burke says:

    This topic is very interesting, and your analysis makes me want to know more. Using the feminist theory, it is clear that the way that romance and sex is portrayed within the gaming world and the entertainment industry that revolves around video games is in fact extremely derogatory towards women. From my little experience with RPG, I have seen woman being portrayed as being tall with a very small waist, huge breasts with cleavage, and tiny clothing. I think this is a topic that should be discussed more within the entertainment industry and I thought it was very smart to bring up that RPG is all about power plays. This makes me wonder what a functionalist would say the basic human need that RPG gaming fulfills within our society that makes the change from a traditional, male, heterosexual protagonist so controversial.

  26. Alex Burden says:

    Fantastic and eye-opening essay. As someone who plays/works with games a good bit- I almost went to college for a degree in game design- it’s both jarring and enlightening to see the nature of the medium from an anthropological perspective. What I find particularly worrying is that the gaming industry is becoming ever-more lucrative and popular; some studies have already found it to reap twice as much profit as the film industry in recent years, and it’s only gaining steam. Whatever values games choose to embrace will become increasingly widespread and visible to the public as time goes on, which is extremely worrying if games are endorsing misogyny and power-fantasy to large audiences, particularly young audiences (and making this a major anthropological issue of our time- if only more essays like this existed in major media outlets!). I hope that as the gaming medium becomes a more established and widespread form of entertainment it’ll be forced to adopt more acceptable values, yet your article is a strong reminder that there’s a very long way to go.

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