Women as Background Decoration (Part 1)

June 16, 2014

In this episode we explore the Women as Background Decoration trope which is the subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players. Sometimes they’re created to be glorified furniture but they are frequently programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused.

Sexual objectification is the practice of treating or representing a human being as a thing or mere instrument to be used for another’s sexual purposes. Sexually objectified women are valued primarily for their bodies, or body parts, which are presented as existing for the pleasure and gratification of others.

Press Image for Media Use: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anitasarkeesian/14431537812/

LINKS & RESOURCES

ABOUT THE SERIES
The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects. This video series is created by Anita Sarkeesian and the project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on Kickstarter.com

GAMES REFERENCED IN THIS EPISODE

Out Run (1986)
Chequered Flag (1988)
Snatcher (1988)
Super Off Road (1989)
GP Rider (1990)
Rise of the Dragon (1990)
Quest for Glory II (1990)
Sunset Riders (1991)
Eliminator Boat Duel (1991)
Lucky & Wild (1992)
Cruis’n USA (1994)
Rave Racer (1995)
Need for Speed: Underground (2003)
Ridge Racer 2 (2006)
Need for Speed: ProStreet (2007)
MX vs ATV Alive (2011)
Forza Horizon (2012)
Mortal Kombat (2011)
God of War: Ghost of Sparta (2010)
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
The Witcher 2 (2011)
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)
Yakuza 4 (2011)
Hitman: Absolution (2012)
Mafia II: Joe’s Adventure (2010)
The Darkness II (2012)
Dishonored (2012)
Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Metro: Last Light (2013)
Just Cause 2 (2010)
Sleeping Dogs (2012)
Fable II (2008)
Watch Dogs (2014)
Max Payne 3 (2012)
Far Cry 3 (2012)
Binary Domain (2012)
Shellshock: Nam ’67 (2004)
Fable: The Lost Chapters (2005)/Fable Anniversary (2014)
Grand Theft Auto 4 (2008)
The Godfather II (2009)
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Hitman: Blood Money (2006)
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
The Saboteur (2009)
Assassin’s Creed IV (2013)
Saints Row (2006)
Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea (2013)
Duke Nukem 3D (1996)
Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
Fallout 3 (2008)
Saints Row: The Third (2011)
Killer is Dead (2013)

Transcript

Clip: Binary Domain
“Sorry all booked up. Too bad too ‘cause I would’ve given a stud like you a free sample”

This episode includes game footage of hyper-sexualized female characters as well as extremely graphic depictions of violence against women.As such this particular video comes with a strong content warning and is not recommended for children.

As always, please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.

In November 1971, the year before Atari’s Pong became a sensation, an oddly shaped fiberglass video cabinet appeared in pinball arcades in the United States. That game was called Computer Space and holds the distinction of being the very first commercially sold video game ever made. The coin-operated machine allowed players to fly a crude pixelated rocket ship while shooting down pixelated flying saucers. Promotional materials for the game, however, featured a woman standing passively next to the enclosure wearing a see-through nighty with her underwear visible underneath.

This advertising strategy of using women and representations of women as decorative elements to try and sell games to boys and men soon became the norm for the burgeoning industry. In ad after ad throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s we see women placed on display alongside arcade games, conflating the two and presenting them both as toys to be played with.

In these promotional materials, advertisers are not just selling a product,they are also selling gaming as a lifestyle in which women predominantly exist as passive objects of heterosexual male desire.

These ads contributed to an emergent culture in which women were thought of as ornamental and peripheral to a male gaming experience. And since women were largely already seen as incidental eye candy, it’s not surprising that when female characters started being introduced to more game-worlds,their roles tended to follow similar patterns.

The practice of using hyper-sexualized women as ornamental objects has been especially brazen in the racing game genre.

Notice how the camera moves, how it focuses on and zooms in on specific body parts to highlight the aspects of women meant to be the most important.

Clip: Forza Horizon (2012)
“I knew you couldn’t resist yo.”

I define the Women as Background Decoration trope in video games as: The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.

Sometimes they’re created to be glorified furniture but they are frequently programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused.

Clip: God of War: Ghost of Sparta
“Won’t you join us?”

In gaming lingo, the secondary characters populating the virtual environments are referred to as NPCs, short for “non-player characters” or “non-playable characters”. These are figures not directly controlled by the player and whose behaviors and dialog are governed by automated scripts within the game’s code. NPCs can occupy a wide variety of supportive, neutral or non-combatant roles, all with varying degrees of importance or levels of engagement with the protagonist. They can be pedestrians, shopkeepers, quest givers, party members or sidekicks.

However, for the purposes of this trope we’re only concerned with one very particular type of non-essential female NPC. Those specifically designed as a decorative virtual “sex class” who exist to service straight male desire. I classify this subset of characters as Non-Playable Sex Objects.

Non-Playable Sex Objects can usually be found on the sidelines of role playing or open world style games,populating the many virtual strip clubs, red light districts or brothel locations that have become almost obligatory in many so-called “mature” titles.

Such characters are programmed with crude looping sexualized behaviors or dialogue as a way of adding an extra layer of “seedy” flavoring to game universes.

Clip: Dishonored
“Hey sweetheart, you wanna play with me? You’re a lot cuter than my regulars.”

Clip: Fallout: New Vegas
“You like it, huh?”

Unlike other NPCs that exist for purposes outside of their sexuality, Non-Playable Sex Objects have little to no individual personality or identity to speak of,

Clip: Fable II
“I’ll make you wail like a banshee, baby.”

and almost never get to be anything other than set dressing or props in someone else’s narrative.

Clip: Watch Dogs
“Sold.”

This is the essence of what sexual objectification means. And since that concept is at the heart of the Women as Background Decoration trope, let’s take a moment to define it.

As the term implies, sexual objectification is the practice of treating or representing a human being as a thing or mere instrument to be used for another’s sexual purposes. Sexually objectified women are valued primarily for their bodies, or body parts, which are presented as existing for the pleasure and gratification of others.

In some games sexual objectification is fused with the exotification of impoverished women of color. In Far Cry 3 and Max Payne 3, for example, straight white protagonists explore shantytowns located in the global south populated by prostituted women.

Clip: Far Cry 3
“I’m lonely, want to play? You like what you see I can tell.”

The sexually subservient “Asian Prostitute” trope also permeates urban environments in games like Binary Domain and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Clip: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
“You come to Hengsha for a good time? Here I am.”

Clip: Binary Domain
“Oh, hello honey. Looking for good time? I can give you good deal.”
“Too bad you have friends along. I’m not into group thing. Come alone next time, I might even give you a freebie to make up for it.”

Clip: Shellshock Nam ‘67
“Love you long time soldier.”
“Suivez-moi GI, give you good time.”

These women speak in broken English and their minimal dialog is designed to invoke shades of ‘sex tourism’ style exploitation.

Scenarios like these are part of a long racist tradition of representing women of color as mysterious and hypersexual creatures who exist as an “exotic spice” to be consumed by the white or western man.

Clip: Fable Anniversary
“If you are looking for something a little more exotic, you will find what you seek with me.”

By the way, games set in the United States are not exempt from this kind of racist exotification.

Clip: GTA 4
“Sick of people saying no? Not here baby.”

Clip: Godfather 2
“Ooh baby, maybe tonight I’ll give you a little taste on the house.”

These scenarios place men in the driver’s seat, so to speak, and sell us the notion that men are always sexual subjects while women are largely sexual objects.

Incidentally this trope also exists in games that may allow players to pick a female avatar. But the presence of a woman inhabiting the role of protagonist, even if well developed, doesn’t do anything to negate the fact that non-playable sex objects are still specifically coded to pander to a presumed heterosexual male ego.

Sexual objectification is, of course, ubiquitous in mass media of all forms…

Clip: Hitman: Blood Money
“Good baby, real good! Now show me those luscious pink lips.”

…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.

A viewer of non-interactive media is restricted to gazing at what the media makers want them to see. Similar to what we might see in video game cutscenes, the audience is only afforded one fixed perspective. But since we’re talking about interactive gameplay within a three-dimensional environment, we need to consider the fact that players are encouraged to participate directly in the objectification of women through control of the player character, and by extension control of the game camera. In other words, games move the viewer from the position of spectator to that of participant in the media experience.

On a very basic level, we can think of non-interactive media as engaging audiences in forms of “passive looking”, while video games provide players the chance to partake in forms of “active looking” or “active observing”.

The opening moments in The Darkness 2, for instance, teaches players how to operate the game’s control scheme by instructing you to actively objectify women in the environment.

Clip: The Darkness 2
“Hey Jackie, check out the rack on the brunette to your right. No, no your other right.”

Level designers also have a suspicious tendency to build stages in which players are required to walk through brothels, strip-clubs or women’s dressing rooms…

Clip: The Darkness 2
“I can make all your dreams come true.”

…in order to advance the story.

Clip: Metro Last Light
“If you wanna look, go left. For touching, go downstairs. Just don’t hurt the girls.”

In the case of The Saboteur, the protagonist’s “home base” is located inside a burlesque club, which, conveniently enough, you can only enter via the women’s changing area.

Clip: The Saboteur
“They ain’t a hidey-hole, this is heaven.

These active viewing mechanics encourage players to collaborate with developers in sexual objectification by enabling gamers to scope out and spy on non-playable sex objects.

Since we are discussing the intersections of objectification and interaction, we also need to consider some more direct aspects of objectification that are not as applicable in traditional mass media.

Building off of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work on “objectification theory”, I’ve identified a number of fundamental aspects of objectification including instrumentality, commodification, interchangeability, violability and disposability, all of which are commonly embedded into the gameplay mechanics and programmed behaviors of NPCs in modern immersive titles.

Since instrumentality is a core component of objectification, let’s begin there. In the realm of interactive media I use the term “instrumentality” to refer to the practice of using virtual women as tools or props for the player’s own purposes.

Clip: Assassin’s Creed 4
“I’m terribly well informed about coun-try matters.”

Courtesans in the Assassins Creed series, for instance, are available to be “rented” and used to help you “blend in” to the environment. Once acquired, they can be ordered to flirt with guards to distract them…

Clip: Assasin’s Creed 4
“Alright go.”

…allowing the protagonist to slip by undetected.

Clip: Assasin’s Creed 4
“Come on, I’m a real snake charmer”

Hitman: Absolution features a mission in which the player can create a diversion by picking up and dumping the dead body of an exotic dancer near police officers.

Clip: Hitman: Absolution
“Oh! What the fuck? Ah shit… that wasn’t there a minute ago.”

The first three games in the Saints Row series feature a recurring activity called “snatch”.

Clip: Saints Row
“Now if you could bring me back some of those fine bitches who are turning tricks for other pimps, I could start seeing some real money. But I ain’t asking for something for nothing, I mean you help me out I’ll cut you in on what the bitches make.”

These missions require the player to steal prostituted women, referred to as “hoes” in the game from pimps…

Clip: Saints Row
“Get away from my hoes you little bitch”

…and then deliver them to a brothel or another pimp in return for a cut of their “business”.

In these scenarios instrumentality is heavily linked to the commodification of women. Since objects can be bought and sold, it follows that once women have been turned into objects, their bodies and sexuality can also be bought and sold.

Clip: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea DLC
“Sexual intimacy is no different than any other commodity, friend. You sell soybeans I sell companionship.”
“That’s disgusting”
“That’s the bible talking pal, that’s your mother talking. What does Ryan say? Petty morality, you can keep it.”

The 1996 game Duke Nukem 3D allowed players to interact with female NPCs by paying them to flash their boobs.

Clip: Duke Nukem 3D
“Shake it baby”

That was almost 20 years ago; today games where the player can buy a lap dance or prostituted women are commonplace.

Clip: Metro: Last Light
“What kind of dance would you like, sweetie? Tell me, don’t be shy. I’m quite imaginative…”

Clip: Fallout: New Vegas
“Hey there, sugar. I’m Dazzle. What can I do for your….or to you? You’re so handsome I might just give you a discount.”

Clip: The Witcher 2
“Care for a little fornication?”

Clip: Fable: The Lost Chapters, Fable Anniversary
“Don’t worry, you’ll see I’m worth every one of those 100 gold pieces.”

Clip: Dragon Age: Origins
“Here they are. Aren’t they beautiful? Remember, thirty silver up front. Go ahead and choose, then.”

Clip: Fallout 3
“Well… for you? A room and some company will run you 120 caps. Up front.”

Clip: Sleeping Dogs
“I got something extra special. Why don’t you buy me a present and I show it to you.”
“Sure, why not?”
“Is it hot in here? I can feel my temperature rising already!”

In both Sleeping Dogs and the Grand Theft Auto franchise, buying and using prostituted women for sex rewards the player with powerups, stat boosts and/or health regeneration.

Clip: Sleeping Dogs
“I may just have to find a new job. You know what they say about ‘coming with the customers’.”

Which means that these women fulfill basically the same function as the beverages the player can purchase from vending machines and convenience stores in these games.

This is a textbook example of another component of objectification referred to as fungibility or interchangeability. Nussbaum explains this as occurring when “The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable with other objects of the same type, and/or with objects of other types.”

Since these women serve an identical or nearly identical “resource” function within the game space…

Clip: Grand Theft Auto V
“Get in, baby!”

…they are created to be interchangeable with any other female NPC of the same type. A fact reinforced when developers simply copy and paste the same character models into various locations throughout the environment.

A line can be drawn from the crude sensationalized misogyny of Duke Nukem…

Clip: Duke Nukem 3D
“You wanna dance?”

…directly to the most recent installment in the blockbuster game series Grand Theft Auto, in which players are rewarded for touching women after purchasing a private dance. This touching mechanic is essentially a mini-game which involves the player groping a stripper to fill their “like meter” without being caught by the bouncer. If that wasn’t bad enough…

Clip: Grand Theft Auto V
“Hi sexy!”

…the player is then rewarded with sex as the dancers will go home with your character for successfully fondling them.

Clip: Grand Theft Auto V
“Follow me, honey!”

These games systematize sexuality in ways that dehumanize women, essentially turning them into vending machines dispensing sex, along with other goods and services. Their worth as characters is measured entirely in terms of what they can give to the player.

Since these women are just objects, there’s no need or reason for players to have any emotional engagement with them. Meaningful relationships or interactions are not even possible. Their programming simply does not allow for it.

When men are depicted using female NPCs as tools or commodities, their actions are portrayed as part of what makes them powerful, which is by extension part of what makes the player then feel powerful. So these interactive algorithms transmit cultural messages of near constant affirmation of male heterosexual dominance, while simultaneously reinforcing the widespread regressive belief that women’s primary role is to satisfy the desires of men (either literally or voyeuristically).

Clip: The Godfather II
“Que guapo! What’s your name, senor?”
“Oh yeah, you might be too much for some other guys, but not me. If I can handle two chicks at once, I can certainly handle you…”
“Whoo- is it getting hot in here, or is it just you?”

This is especially sad because interactive media has the potential to be a perfect medium to genuinely explore sex and sexuality. But that’s not what’s happening here. These interactions set up a transactional relationship in which women are reduced to a base sexual function. It frames female sexuality as something that belongs to others, rather than as something women enjoy for themselves. I’d argue that none of this is really about sex at all, certainly nothing resembling authentic consensual intimacy; publishers and developers are instead selling a particular fantasy about male power centered on the control of women.

Of course, we can’t really talk about sexual objectification without also addressing the issue of violence against women, since the two are intimately connected. Once a person is reduced to the status of objecthood, violence against that object becomes intrinsically permitted.

In many open world or sandbox style games, developers construct their virtual worlds in such a way as to enable players to directly abuse non-playable sex objects.

This ability to violate the bodily integrity of eroticized women for fun highlights two other insidious aspects of objectification, those being violability and disposability.

Violability occurs when, as Nussbaum points out, “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.”

Players are often permitted to knock out, pick up, carry and throw around inert female bodies. And depending on the game series, the programmed options for interaction can include assault, mutilation, murder…

Clip: Dishonored
“Please help me!”

…and everything in-between.

Clip: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
“I’m not sure you can afford what I’ll do to you”

Some games explicitly incentivise and reward this kind of behavior by having murdered women drop bundles of cash for the player to collect and add to their own stash.

Clip: Grand Theft Auto IV
“Is this what you had in mind? You don’t wanna make me finish you off!”

The dehumanization caused by objectification inevitably leads us to the concept of disposability, which is defined as “something designed for or capable of being thrown away after being used or used up”.

Clip: Red Dead Redemption
“Hello, miss.”
“Hey minster, is there anything of yours that you’d like to stick into somethin’ of mine?”

The protagonist in the critically acclaimed Red Dead Redemption doesn’t agree to buying sex, instead the game allows players to lasso, hogtie and carry away prostituted women…

Clip: Red Dead Redemption
“Usually I charge extra for this, honey! There’s an easier way you can have me, I ain’t expensive!”

…who continue to suggestively proposition the player even while being held captive.

Clip: Red Dead Redemption
“Hey minster, is there anything of yours that you’d like to stick into somethin’ of mine?”

The game also rewards players with a special achievement trophy called “Dastardly” which is unlocked by placing a hogtied woman on the railroad tracks and then watching as she is splattered by an oncoming train.

When assaulted by the player, non-playable sex objects might scream…

Clip: Dishonored
“I need help!”

cower…

Clip: Sleeping Dogs
“Oh no!”

run away or occasionally offer some form of perfunctory resistance.

Clip: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
“[Screams]”
“You can’t run!”

But regardless of the canned, automated reaction, they are all designed to be expendable, to be used up and then tossed out.

Clip: The Godfather II
“Oh god!”
“Look out!”

Their status as disposable objects is reinforced by the fact that in most games discarded bodies will simply vanish into thin air a short time after being killed.

I should note that this kind of misogynistic behavior isn’t always mandatory; often it’s player-directed, but it is always implicitly encouraged.

In order to understand how this works, let’s take a moment to examine how video game systems operate as playgrounds for player engagement. Games ask us to play with them. Now that may seem obvious, but bear with me. Game developers set up a series of rules and then within those rules we are invited to test the mechanics to see what we can do, and what we can’t do. We are encouraged to experiment with how the system will react or respond to our inputs and discover which of our actions are permitted and which are not. The play comes from figuring out the boundaries and possibilities within the gamespace.

So in many of the titles we’ve been discussing, the game makers have set up a series of possible scenarios involving vulnerable, eroticized female characters. Players are then invited to explore and exploit those situations during their play-through.

The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon,because they were designed, constructed and placed in the environment for that singular purpose. Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.

It’s a rush streaming from a carefully concocted mix of sexual arousal connected to the act of controlling and punishing representations of female sexuality.

In-game consequences for these violations are trivial at best and rarely lead to any sort of “fail state” or “game over”. Sometimes areas may go on high-alert for a few minutes during which players have to lay low or hide before the game and its characters “forget” that you just murdered a sexualized woman in cold blood.

Clip: Red Dead Redemption
“We gotta get outta here”

These temporary game states are implemented so that acts of violence against NPCs committed by players do not inconvenience or interfere too much with the core gaming experience. High alert serves as a faux-punishment that doesn’t “ruin the fun”, and is in fact actually designed and intended to provide an added rush to the game experience as players try to avoid or mow down law enforcement AI.

Clip: Grand Theft Auto V
“Hey gorgeous, jump in!”

Returning to the Grand Theft Auto franchise, you can buy a prostituted woman, use her for sex, gain the health and stat boost, then murder her to get your money back.

Clip: Grand Theft Auto V
“Hey! You want me? Kill me!’

If caught by the police, the screen will fade to black, and 5 seconds later your character will be standing outside the police station, minus a few dollars or items, but free to go about your business as if nothing happened. Other popular sandbox games employ similar character revival methods.

In this way these systems work to facilitate male violence against women by turning it into a form of play, something constructed to be amusing and entertaining.

Now inevitably whenever these game mechanics are criticized, some gamers try to dismiss and distance themselves from the issue by insisting that they don’t personally partake in the provided options for exploiting virtual women. But whether or not an individual player chooses to use an object for its intended purpose is irrelevant, because that object was still designed and placed in the game environment to fulfill its function.

A toaster is still a toaster regardless of whether or not you choose to make toast with it. It’s still designed for the express purpose of toasting bread. And it still communicates that fact even while sitting unused on your kitchen counter.

Likewise a sex object is still a sex object regardless of whether or not you personally choose to use and abuse her. And that fact, in and of itself, still communicates extremely regressive ideas about women.

Indeed nothing about the design, behaviors or mechanics associated with female characters that serve as background decoration encourages or engenders any sort of human empathy. In fact, quite the opposite, the rudimentary algorithms governing interactions lead the player to interface with these characters in ways that can only be dehumanizing and exploitative. As sexual automata, they don’t have any individuality, they don’t have their own stories, players are never supposed to identify with them or care about them, outside of what they can offer either sexually or materially. They exist on the outskirts of humanity, placed beyond the reach of empathy by their creators.

Typically all the non-essential characters in sandbox style games are killable, but it’s the sexualized women whose instrumentality and brutalization is gendered and eroticized in ways that men never are. The visual language attached to male NPCs is very different since they are rarely designed to be sexually inviting or arousing, and they are not coded to interact with the player in ways meant to reaffirm a heterosexual fantasy about being a stud.

Clip: Sleeping Dogs
“Need a massage? We are one of the few properly licensed clinics in town.”
“Sounds good.”
“Is it your back? Or your shoulders? How about your legs?”

There do exist a handful of games which include a few male gigolos, though they are extremely rare…

Clip: Dragon Age: Origins
“Here they are. Aren’t they beautiful? Remember, thirty silver up front.”

Clip: Fallout: New Vegas
“Santiago is here to please, my prarie flower. Just a few caps and I’m yours.”

…and more often than not, the design and characterization is played for laughs.

Clip: Fable II
“I’m even nicer without these all clothes on.”

Clip: Fallout: New Vegas
“I wouldn’t mind takin’ a bite of you.”

But even if sexualized male NPCs were more prevalent, equal opportunity sexual objectification is still not the solution to this problem, especially considering the existing power differential between men and women in our society. Women are constantly represented as primarily for sex. Men may be sexual too, but they can also be anything else, they are not defined by or reduced to their sexuality and their sexuality is not thought of as something existing chiefly for the pleasure of others. Which means the fundamentally dominant position of men in our culture is not in any way challenged or diminished by the rare male depiction as sex worker.

All the forms of interactive engagement we’re discussing in this episode – the active looking, the instrumentality, the commodification, the violability and the disposability –are embedded in the DNA of some of the most popular video game franchises.

So whereas in traditional media, viewers might see representations of women being used or exploited, gaming offers players the unique opportunity to use or exploit female bodies themselves. This forces gamers to become complicit with developers in making sexual objectification a participatory activity.

So why does any of this matter? What’s the real harm in sexually objectifying women? Well, the negative impacts of sexual objectification have been studied extensively over the years and the effects on people of all genders are quite clear and very serious. Research has consistently found that exposure to these types of images negatively impacts perceptions and beliefs about real world women and reinforces harmful myths about sexual violence.

We know that women tend to internalize these types of images and self-objectify. When women begin to think of themselves as objects, and treat themselves accordingly, it results in all kinds of social issues, everything from eating disorders to clinical depression, from body shame to habitual body monitoring. We also see distinct decreases in self-worth, life satisfaction and cognitive functioning.

But the negative effects on men are just as alarming, albeit in slightly different ways. Studies have found, for example, that after having viewed sexually objectified female bodies, men in particular tend to view women as less intelligent, less competent and disturbingly express less concern for their physical well being or safety. Furthermore this perception is not limited only to sexualized women; in what’s called the “Spill Over Effect”, these sexist attitudes carry over to perceptions of all women, as a group, regardless of their attire, activities or professions.

Researchers have also found that after long-term exposure to hyper-sexualized images, people of all genders tend to be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women and more readily accept rape myths, including the belief that sexually assaulted women were asking for it, deserved it or are the ones to blame for being victimized.

In other words, viewing media that frames women as objects or sexual playthings, profoundly impacts how real life women are perceived and treated in the world around us. And that is all without even taking into account how video games allow for the more participatory form of objectification that we’ve been discussing in this episode.

Compounding the problem is the widespread belief that, despite all the evidence, exposure to media has no real world impact. While it may be comforting to think we all have a personal force field protecting us from outside influences, this is simply not the case. Scholars sometimes refer to this type of denial as the “third person effect”, which is the tendency for people to believe that they are personally immune to media’s effects even if others may be influenced or manipulated. Paradoxically and somewhat ironically, those who most strongly believe that media is just harmless entertainment are also the ones most likely to uncritically internalize harmful media messages.

In short, the more you think you cannot be affected, the more likely you are to be affected.

Please join me for our next video in which we will continue our discussion of the Women as Background Decoration trope by examining the growing trend of exploiting sexual violence as a plot device in game narratives.

Clip: Hotel Mario
“Oh, here’s the problem- too many toasters! You know what they say, all toasters toast toast.”

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