Women Aren't Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex

Or: Why I Am Dreading Alpha Protocol.

This post requires a bit of background. I highly recommend reading Thomas Macaulay Millar’s essay “Toward a Performance Model of Sex”, from the recently published anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. You can read the essay on Google book search. This post intends to look at video game relationships in the context of the two models Millar describes, so please read it if you have the time.

In short, Millar describes how society sees sex as a commodity, and argues that the commodity model–which enables rape, allows the concept of the “slut” to exist, and frames consent as “the absence of no”, rather than “the presence of yes”–should be replaced by what he calls the performance model, where sex is seen as a collaborative effort between two equal participants, like two musicians playing a song together. In this excerpt he describes the commodity model:

We live in a culture where sex is not so much an act as a thing: a substance that can be given, bought, sold, or stolen, that has a value and a supply-and-demand curve. In this “commodity model,” sex is like a ticket; women have it and men try to get it. Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction. This puts women in the position of seller, but also guardian or gatekeeper … Women are guardians of the tickets, men apply for access to them. This model pervades casual conversation about sex: Women “give it up.” men “get some.”

The commodity model is shared by both the libertines and the prudes of our patriarchy. To the libertine, guys want to maximize their take of tickets. The prudes want women to keep the tickets to buy something really “important”: the spouse, provider, protector.

(There is a LOT more to the piece, and it’s fascinating and clear, so definitely read it.) To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, “Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?” And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.

Ha. Ha. Get it? Because all women are prostitutes.

There are so many things wrong with the “joke”: it ignores the fact that the girlfriend likely enjoys sex, too, and that the guy also gets companionship, stability, love and attention out of the relationship, in addition to sex. It ignores the fact that theirs is a sexual and social partnership, not some kind of transaction or business arrangement. But the relevant part here is that the “joke” just doesn’t work if the participants aren’t invested in the commodity model of sex described by Millar.

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence–you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex–the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result–the reward–of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, “‘Keep talking to me and eventually we’ll have sex'”. The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC’s thoughts and desires aren’t relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.

Where the simplistic relationship mechanics really get problematic is when someone makes a game where your protagonist is a James Bond-wannabe and there’s an achievement for sleeping with every woman in the game. I am talking, of course, about Alpha Protocol. The quotes in the linked MTV Multiplayer article are infuriatingly sexist (as well as displaying insultingly limiting definitions of masculinity), but the relevant part is the bit about the “Ladies’ Man” achievement.

It is seriously problematic to have a game where the male player/avatar can have sex with any and every woman in the game. On top of reinforcing the commodity model of sex, it is desperately heteronormative. For all the player’s “choice” of with whom to engage, there’s no possibility that the player might want to have a relationship with another man. It also shows that lesbians just don’t exist in this world, if every single woman is open to a sexual encounter with a man. In addition, it perpetuates the narrative of the Nice Guy (described in Millar’s essay, and elsewhere): that men are entitled to sex from women if they follow the rules and do the right things, or in the case of Alpha Protocol, “select your responses wisely.” It is not only dangerous but just plain unrealistic to portray a world in which every single woman is a potential sex partner: in the real world, there are lesbians, and there are straight or bisexual women who won’t sleep with you no matter what you do, because they are human beings with their own preferences and desires and interests. (If I remember correctly, a counterexample may be The Sims, where often certain personalities just won’t get along well enough to develop a relationship no matter how hard you try.)

So what can video games do to portray better relationships? For one, they can stop being so goddamn heteronormative and allow options for queer relationships. And secondly, designers can start thinking of sex as a collaborative performance between two equal partners, and romantic interests as actual human beings with lives and thoughts and preferences outside of where they intersect with the player, rather than as conquests. And everyone would do well to read Millar’s essay!

22 thoughts on “Women Aren't Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex

  1. (If I remember correctly, a counterexample may be The Sims, where often certain personalities just won’t get along well enough to develop a relationship no matter how hard you try.)

    It is not so! All of my sims were friends. Mostly because I made them do a lot of positive interactions with each other to offset the negative ones they would do if left to their own devices. E-mailing a person would also increase the relationship regardless of personality (I gained many a friend that way!).

    And secondly, designers can start thinking of sex as a collaborative performance between two equal partners, and romantic interests as actual human beings with lives and thoughts and preferences outside of where they intersect with the player, rather than as conquests.

    Agreed!

    Actually the relationship dynamic is something I want to explore more. Like, one thing me and a friend were thinking about is if the romance games (especially the ones targeted at women) had a “self-esteem” meter. Like, if a guy was being a shit to you then you can tell him off for it (an option I have SO wanted in all the romance games I’ve played). So even though you might lose some of his respect/love for you, you’ll feel better about yourself.

    • They were all open to romantic relationships and/or woohooing though?

      That sounds like a good idea! Relationships are usually so simplified in games, it is very unsatisfying. Moar complexity please!

      • They were all open to romantic relationships and/or woohooing though?

        Yup. As far as I can tell, the ability to do romantic actions with a Sim is formulated by your relationship level only. Which means that as long as you do actions that increase that stat, you can have a romantic relationship with anyone. It’s also worth noting that sims are, by nature, bisexual although you can socially influence them to be hetero or homo based on who you do romantic relations with.

      • Ah. Thanks for the clarification, it’s been a very long time since I’ve played it!

  2. Fable II (and perhaps Fable original but I don’t know) I believe does a good job of portraying relationships while still using the “reward system” model. NPCs in that game are staright, gay or bisexual, limiting your characters choices. Each NPC will also have a personality and although you can cajole anyone that matches up with you sexually into marrying you, you will have a hell of a time trying to keep the relationship afloat and prevent them from divorcing you if they really don’t like you much, as a person. In addition, sex can be gained from prostitutes and is really only a few humourous lines of voice acting during a black screen. When you marry an NPC you are expected to visit them and have sex with them ALL THE TIME or they’ll divorce you and vanish from the game, taking your children with them. Sex becomes less of something you as the player enjoy getting from an NPC and more something you owe to the NPC simply to keep it in a relationship. It’s an interesting way to do a game, where most players would marry off their character because “that’s part of the game” but instead of being a goal that you can now hang on your wall, it actually makes things more complicated and if you want to keep it going, you have to split up your adventure and financial time with family time. It’s worth noting however, that female avatars in the game are limited to the same hairstyles as male ones – which are all rather masculine or androgynous. So I feel while still flawed, I think it’s a step in the right direction.

    • I’ve only played the original Fable, but it was definitely in the back of my mind as I was writing it… it has good points and bad points, so I wasn’t really sure how to approach it.

      That’s interesting that Fable II makes game mechanics out of the idea that marriage is just something you do because it’s expected of you and it’s a lot of hard work and it takes away from your happy fun time. It’s very cynical. I like that it makes things more complicated but shouldn’t it be rewarding, at least in an emotional way, even if it is hard work? Otherwise that is just too damn depressing! So yeah, a lot of mixed feelings about this one, but I agree it is at least a step above typical video game “romance.”

  3. I’ve written about the topic of relationships in games a few times, but have yet to approach the sex angle (outside of The Sims). Also, as Andrea stated, the Sims is still somewhat easy to ‘game.’ There’s also the fact that same-sex couples can’t marry like other Sims, they can get a civil partnership. It’s very indicative of the social norms of its time.

    One of the problems I see with the concept of relationships (including sexual) in games in general is also largely user-focused content based on what the perceived desire of gamers is. So far games are very much about acquisition and collection, in general. The actual experience of the game? Not always, but frequently it falls to the wayside in lieu of collecting weapons, achievements, and gaining every experience (rather than enjoying the experience at hand).

    • There’s also the fact that same-sex couples can’t marry like other Sims, they can get a civil partnership.

      I think the first mod I downloaded for The Sims 2 was the marriage patch. Fixed that problem right up! 🙂

      So far games are very much about acquisition and collection, in general.

      I think this is more a Western attitude, though. In my experience, I’ve found that Japanese players (and therefore Japanese games) are less focused on acquisition and more focused on story and non-acquisition based gameplay. I think that’s one reason why the XBox 360 is still very unpopular here*, but popular in the States. Just like WoW; Westerners know and love it, but every person I’ve mentioned it to here has been like, “Huh?”

      * My teachers are obsessed with it, though… apparently a group of them get together often to play Call of Duty, no joke. The teacher who told us this was disappointed that none of us owned XBoxes.

      • Which makes me wonder, how often do we have sexual relationships outside of games from the West? My own experiences are limited to Nintendo and jRPGs. While the latter may have romantic relationships, or perhaps some sex, it becomes part of the narrative, rather than anything I control.

        Instead of a building a relationship, I’m watching one unfold (and rarely pleased over it–they still feel vapid and poorly developed narratives).

  4. Another (and in my opinion worse) example would be The Witcher’s collectable/trading cards. It’s so ridiculous I thought it was satire at first. The player is literally rewarded with playing cards after Geralt sleeps with a female NPC. I only saw the first two and stopped playing, but supposedly there are something like 26?

  5. Just thought I’d point out that Bully: Scholarship Edition has an achievement that’s unlocked by kissing boys. 25 boys, if I remember correctly. And, of course, the protagonist is a boy also. So players are extrinsically motivated (achievement!) to experiment with homosexual encounters… not quite sure how this fits into the grand scheme of things, however, although it definitely jives with the commodity model (you need to give them flowers or candy before they’ll kiss you).

    Also:

    “For all the player’s “choice” of with whom to engage, there’s no possibility that the player might want to have a relationship with another man. It also shows that lesbians just don’t exist in this world, if every single woman is open to a sexual encounter with a man.”

    If you play a female Shepard in Mass Effect, not only are you applying the commodity model against a male (Kaiden) but you can try to ‘win’ a lady-alien as well.

    Just wanted to point out that while the commodity model is indeed pretty ubiquitous, it is occasionally deployed in a manner that isn’t straightforward heteronormative / hegemonic.

    • Yay, thanks for posting the link! And I quite enjoyed your comment =) I love hearing about people creating/having game experiences that are outside the norm!

  6. Well timed post, because this issue is pissing me the hell off in the otherwise enjoyable Rune Factory Frontier right now. It’s frustrating for me because the datable NPCs are very likable characters, which makes me WANT to date them, but the way the game approaches romance, aside from being problematic for all the reasons you mention, is just plain BORING! Grow flowers, give them to the girl to get her Love Points up, rinse, repeat. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

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