Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

Cross-posted at The Border House.

I’ve written a lot about Mass Effect previously, including a rather long criticism of some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) gender bias at play in the universe BioWare has created. For my last post, I’d like to take a look at the character of Wrex and how his situation as well as that of the Krogan species is used to teach players about privilege.

Conversations between Wrex and the other members of the crew are clearly meant to mirror conversations about race and racism on Earth, with Wrex delivering withering smack-downs of ignorant privilege. My first example, a conversation between Kaiden (in my game it was Ashley) and Wrex on an elevator, makes this connection obvious, referencing a racist attitude that even those with minimal knowledge of racism can usually recognize:

YouTube (starting around 1:37):

KAIDEN: I haven’t spent much time with Krogan before, Wrex, and I have to say, you’re not what I expected.

WREX: Right. Because you humans have a wide range of cultures and attitudes, but Krogan all think and act exactly alike.

KAIDEN: Well, I–I didn’t mean… forget I said anything.

WREX: Done.

This conversation is an obvious allegory for racism on Earth; most people recognize that treating or talking about an entire race as if they are all the same is racist (at least, I hope so…). However, the game goes deeper than that, exposing a more subtle act of privilege:

YouTube (relevant portion is at the beginning)

WREX: What can I do for you?

SHEPARD: What’s your story, Wrex?

WREX: There’s no story. Go ask the Quarian if you want stories.

SHEPARD: You Krogan live for centuries. Don’t tell me you haven’t had any interesting adventures.

WREX: Well, there was this one time the Turians almost wiped out our entire race. That was fun.

SHEPARD: I heard about that. You know, they almost did the same to us.

WREX: It’s not the same.

SHEPARD: It seems pretty much the same to me.

WREX: So your people were infected with a genetic mutation, an infection that makes only a few in a thousand children survive birth? And I suppose it’s destroying your entire species?

SHEPARD: You’re still here. It can’t be all that bad.

WREX: I don’t expect you to understand. But don’t compare humanity’s fate to the Krogan.

SHEPARD: I was just making conversation. I wasn’t trying to upset you.

WREX: Your ignorance doesn’t upset me, Shepard. …

Some privileged people make the mistake of trying to show non-privileged people that they relate to their struggles by comparing experiences that really aren’t comparable. For example, a white person saying they can understand racism because they experience discrimination for being a nerd, or whatever. This statement may not seem as racist to some white people, but it minimizes the systemic nature of racism and how deeply it affects people of color. (See also Derailing for Dummies’s “But That Happens to Me Too!“.)

Even better, Shepard follows it up by making the intent excuse–don’t get so offended, Wrex, he didn’t mean to upset you! Which is more crap, because intent doesn’t matter: what Shepard said was still offensive and wrong.

A lot of the racism allegories in Mass Effect are anvil-like in their obviousness, things that have been done over and over in fantasy and science fiction–but on occasion the game goes deeper and explores some of the more subtle aspects of systemic racism and privilege. Have you noticed any other examples of this in the game, or in other games? Do you think this is an effective way of subtly teaching players about the nature of privilege?

"You Saved the Galaxy Pretty Well… for a Girl"

I’m a regular reader of feminist political blog Shakesville. Its founder and main contributor, Melissa McEwan, is such a powerful writer that even short, seemingly frivolous posts are usually thought-provoking and meaningful; like this one. In it, she talks about how a particular song, originally written and performed by a man and somewhat sexist, becomes subversive and powerful when sung by a woman (in this case, James Brown’s “A Man’s World” sung by Christina Aguilera). A simple gender swap can change the entire meaning of a song. And since video games are always on my mind, this interesting observation got me thinking about Mass Effect.

In Mass Effect, the player has the option to play as either a female or a male version of the protagonist, Commander Shepard. Since the plot is exactly the same for both versions, most of the dialogue is exactly the same. And yet playing Mass Effect as a woman is so much more powerful, in certain ways.

In our world, particularly in the USA, we treat female leaders and other women in power with particular nastiness borne of systemic sexism. Shakesville’s series “Hillary Clinton Sexism Watch” has over 100 entries. Its sister series, the “Sarah Palin Sexism Watch”, has at least 26 entries, and she has only been in national politics for about a year. Former President Bush had so much respect for our European allies, he sexually harassed Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Women of color have it particularly hard, having to deal with sexism and racism and how they intersect, becoming an entirely new creature; the blog Michelle Obama Watch chronicles, among other things, racism and sexism against our First Lady. Sonia Sotomayor had to endure all kinds of ridiculously racist and sexist bullshit at her Supreme Court hearings. There is an extra burden on female leaders and women in power that simply does not exist for most men.

For this reason, seeing female Shepard being treated the same way a man would by her superiors, her peers, and her crew is so powerful. There is never a doubt in Captain Anderson’s mind about her abilities. Her crew is always respectful, never questioning whether she is fit to lead or disobeying her orders, even the men who were older and more experienced.

Shepard struggling with getting the Council to believe her struck a chord with me in a way it might not for a male player. Institutionalized sexism causes women to not be taken as seriously as their male peers. Women’s contributions are often downplayed or outright ignored. Many women have stories about having their statements or ideas dismissed only to see men praised for saying the exact same thing. Arguing with the Council, Shepard was put in a similar place because she is in a disadvantageous position, as a human and as a woman.

And that ending. How amazing is it to see a woman praised, without qualifiers, as a real hero? For being a great leader, period, not “for a girl”?

Granted, the situation with Mass Effect is quite different than that of subverting a sexist song; the plot of ME isn’t sexist, and playing as female Shepard doesn’t subvert much. But it does give us a glimpse of a universe where it’s possible to have a leader and a hero who is defined by her actions first, rather than her gender; and it came about just by treating the two characters equally. This glimpse affected me emotionally in a way that caught me completely off-guard. It was a pleasant surprise.

Quick hit: BioWare writer responds to my criticisms

On the Mass Effect boards, via the comments on GameCritics.com, BioWare writer Patrick Weekes had this to say about my post:

I think that the writer had some valid points. I can defend some stances and explain others as unfortunate but necessary, but ultimately, our focus on creating a wide galaxy in the first game meant that we prioritized new races over different genders, and that resulted in a big universe with a lot of interesting cultures and no female turians, salarians, or krogan. We are hoping to address that in future games, and we hope that the size and scope of our galaxy makes up for that lack, at least in part, until we do.

On the issue of our female characters being hypersexualized, I would agree that they were generally presented as attractive, but then, so were most of the men — we didn’t have a fat or flabby model available for either gender, so every man on the Citadel, from Udina to Conrad Verner, is walking around with abs of steel. As a mainstream video game, we are always going to err on the side of making our characters attractive, just as you’d expect to see in a big-budget movie.

That said, the asari were not just peacemakers. Two of the game’s big enemy bosses were asari (Shiala on Feros and Benezia on Noveria). The Destiny Ascension, flagship of the Citadel fleet, is an asari vessel, not a turian one. And it’s not just a few female bosses. We had, if the oft-repeated soundsets are any indication, female generic enemies as well — hostile female vanguards and female merc or pirate gang members, and I’d hold our female merc up against BioShock’s “Do you think I’m pretty?!” splicer woman any day as far as a nonsexualized generic female enemy.

Of the female followers, one was a biotic, yes, but another was a computer hacker with a shotgun and a tendency to lob tech grenades, and a third is the only pure soldier of all the followers.

So some of the article I agree with, albeit from an inside-the-company perspective where I know why some decisions were made, but other points stem from wanting the game to be something that it isn’t. Mass Effect is always going to be a mainstream mass-market game. We are unapologetically aiming for a wide audience — summer blockbuster, not art house movie. As a result, our men are usually going to be attractive or ugly-but-rugged, and our women are going to be attractive or distinguished. That’s what most people want.

I’m flattered he took the time to read my piece, and glad the team is working on some of these issues for Mass Effect 2. I totally agree with his points about the human NPCs in the game. But I can’t help being a bit hurt at the suggestion that having a vast and varied universe might make up for the fact that most of the alien races don’t have females at the moment. It immediately positions women as inferior, an afterthought, something that can be added if there is time or money or memory enough. A nice feature but not necessary. And regardless of whether it could have been helped or not, it’s upsetting.

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's Varied Inclusiveness

For the most part I seriously enjoyed Mass Effect despite the initial problems I wrote about in my last post. After the first couple of missions I had a handle on the gameplay and was at a point where I had the freedom to shoot things up or have deep conversations with my crew at my own whim. I completed most of the side quests and finished the game wanting more; I immediately began a renegade playthrough, though I did not have time to get very far.

Overall, Mass Effect took huge steps forward for inclusiveness in games. Its racial diversity is unlike any I have seen in a game: nearly all of the major and minor human NPCs are people of color, and none of them are stereotypes. In another impressive step, not only is there an important character–the Normandy’s pilot, Joker–who happens to be disabled, but a conversation with him reveals the many different layers of ableism he has experienced throughout his life. Unfortunately, the game stumbles when it comes to gender inclusiveness. While the game seems quite egalitarian on the surface, notably in the ability to choose whether to play as a male or female character, I have noticed some deep sexism in the world-building (galaxy-building?), some subtle and some not. I will be writing about how the game explicitly addresses sexism, racism, and other social issues in a future post; for now I want to examine how the fiction of the game has been influenced by sexism on the part of the developers.

I. The Alien Race of Women–I Mean, Asari

The Asari are the all-female race of blue aliens that are iconic to the game. The Asari member of Shepard’s crew is Dr. Liara T’Soni, a (relatively) young scientist and possible romantic interest for both male and female Shepard. Liara is a frustrating character because she is likable, but she was clearly designed to be as likable as possible–to a certain type of male gamer. Go on any gaming forum discussing her and there will be multiple posts talking about how hot she is because she is so “innocent.” This perception of her seems to stem from her nervousness when talking to Shepard and her implied virginity.

The positioning of innocence as an attractive trait in women has its roots in patriarchy, related to how patriarchy encourages the infantilization of women: women are portrayed as childlike and unable to make decisions for themselves, necessitating a male protector and provider who knows what’s good for her (thus maintaining patriarchy, despite how insulting and inaccurate this characterization is). The infantilization of women is seen in many aspects of our culture, and a quick Google search turns up examples in law, religion, advertising, and fashion. For this reason, I find the obsession with Liara’s innocence to be creepy, not to mention in contradiction with other aspects of her personality, namely her actual age–over 100–and her extensive experience as a scientist. (For the record, I also think rompers are awful.)

In addition, while some have praised BioWare for including the option of a lesbian relationship in the game, Liara is, frankly, a cop-out, a way to have hot girl-on-girl action for straight men without actually having any gays: both Liara and the codex explain at length how the Asari don’t really have a gender (by which I assume they mean “sex”, since sex and gender are two different things and the Asari are clearly gendered female) and they mate through psychic mind connections. While I don’t think the actual development of the relationship or even the sex scene is outrageously exploitative (though I would note that the sex scene with Liara is slightly longer, with more nudity than the others), when contrasting the romance options for male and female Shepard, I found the lack of a romance option between two men to be conspicuous. The absence of a gay male romance, which is due at least in part to the gaming community’s reputation as a notoriously homophobic space, implies that the female Shepard/Liara romance is mostly for straight male titillation rather than a concern for the inclusion of LGBTQI folks.

Obviously, my problems with how one Asari character is written shouldn’t condemn an entire species, but the Asari as a race are also problematic. In short, they are every female stereotype or cliche rolled up into one new species. According to the codex, the Asari have three stages of life: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Matriarch (otherwise known on Earth as the “crone”). These stages just so happen to correspond with what were, until fairly recently though arguably still today, the three acceptable roles for women in society. Making these archetypes an explicit aspect of an alien race that just happens to be all-female is at worst sexist and at best lazy and uncreative.

In addition, the Asari are sexualized to a much farther extent than any other species (partially as a result of point two, below). The first Asari the player meets in the game is called the “Consort,” and yes, she runs what amounts to a brothel: clients meet her for her “services,” which may or may not be sex. Walking through the Consort’s chambers, the player overhears nervous aliens telling the Consort’s aides that this is their “first time.” While the consort is not explicitly a prostitute, the situation is clearly meant to humorously resemble a brothel. The player can also watch Asari strippers dance at the club called Chora’s Den. Thirdly, Liara and the codex both describe how Asari can mate with any intelligent being through a sort of psychic mind-meld. Now, I am all for science fiction experimenting with different kinds of sexuality and sexual practices, but this is another case of pandering to straight men. It’s no coincidence that the all-female race is the one that can mate with anybody.*

Even Matriarch Benezia, one of the most powerful and wise beings in the galaxy, is sexualized. She had to have huge breasts and a revealing outfit because even though she is old and powerful, she still needs to be sexy, as the primary purpose of the Asari (just like women here on Earth) is to be attractive to straight men. Their second purpose is to serve men: as Liara drops her research to serve Shepard, as the Consort serves her clients, as the dancers serve the bar’s patrons, Benezia serves Saren and Sovereign. This turns her into a villain, but not even a willing one–she loses all agency because of Sovereign’s mind control, breaking it just enough to tell her daughter that she is not worth saving.

In another frustrating move, the Asari are known for their skills with Biotics, Mass Effect‘s science fiction version of magic. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but in the context of video games as a medium and RPGs in particular, there is a sexist trend of always putting women in the role of magic user, with few exceptions, ever since White Mage was the only female character in the original Final Fantasy. The codex also pays lip service to Asari Commandos, who are described as extremely deadly; the player encounters them in one battle in the entire game, during which they didn’t nearly live up to the hype.

As another detail that serves to emphasize how stereotypically feminine the Asari are supposed to be, the Asari member of the Council is representative of compassion and diplomacy. Where the Turian member represents military action and strength, and the Salarian represents intelligence and strategy, both men, the Asari member of the Council is the only woman and occupies the traditional role of women: peacemaker. Because she’s so good at understanding peoples’ feelings. Again, this isn’t bad in and of itself, but combined with all the other ways in which the Asari are stereotypically feminine, it belies the sexist assumptions about women in the mind of the people who created them, namely that the creators buy into gender essentialist arguments about how women are. (That article even cites the sexist and simply wrong idea behind the arrangement of the Council [emphasis original]: “A common corollary belief is that while men are physically and rationally superior, women are morally superior.”)

The Asari are the only alien species in the game with visible females, so they were made to be “hyper-female”, encompassing the stereotypical roles for human women. This is not only sexist and gender essentialist but a failure of imagination: why would an alien race conform to our (incorrect, arbitrary) human assumptions about what women are or should be? Good science fiction challenges our deepest-held assumptions, including those about gender, femininity and masculinity. With the Asari, Mass Effect only reinforces the idea that all women are a certain way, and that way should be as pleasing to straight men as possible.

II. Why Are There No Ugly Female Aliens?

In general, the portrayal of women in Mass Effect is better than many games. It meets the required minimum of having female characters that aren’t hypersexualized: they have relatively realistic proportions and their clothing is appropriately similar to the male characters’, for the most part. There remains, however, a notable discrepancy between men and women in the galaxy of the game: all the women are hot, but not all of the men are.

Look at the varied body types we see among male aliens in the game. In addition to the humans (most of whom, I will grant, are meant to be attractive–Kaiden certainly is), we see the lizard-like Turians, the hulking and reptilian Krogan, the large and cattle-like Elcor, the amphibian Salarians, the squat Volus, and the jellyfish-like Hanar.

All the female aliens present in the game, aside from a single female Quarian (who I will get to in a moment), are Asari**. The Asari, a species with all the issues I outlined above, that seem to be a space representation of femininity. This is Othering via world-building: male is the default for most races, but the ones that have females at all are so female they encompass female archetypes, run brothels, strip in bars, and have sex with anyone and anything.

Go ahead and do a word search for “female” on those Wikia articles linked above. It isn’t even mentioned on the Elcor or Volus pages; the only mention on the Hanar page is to say that there is “no discernible difference” between male and female Hanar, which is only problematic because of human sexism–see the side note about gender presentation below.

The only mention of “female” on the Krogan page is how all the Krogan females are on the Krogan homeworld trying to have as many babies as possible. Convenient! The only mention of “female” on the Salarian page is to note that the species is 90% male, and the females also all stay on the Salarian kitchen–I mean, home word, but it’s okay because they are all powerful politicians. Of course, this means they needn’t appear in the game. How convenient!

The only mention of “female” on the page about the Turians is in the “trivia” section, and it says: “No female turians are seen in the game. This is because there was insufficient development time and memory budget to support two different versions of the same species.”

This explains everything. The reason the stuff about Krogan and Salarian females seems like convenient excuses is because they are: when time and budget were tight, the non-hot females were the first to go. Other than humans, there was only room for one model for each species, and for the most part, the females were disposed of–except for Tali, the only Quarian in the entire game. Having only males did not stop the developers from having many Turian and Krogan NPCs, so why does the player never encounter even one other female Quarian? I mean, other than the convenient excuse that all the Quarians never venture outside of their own fleet (except when they do). Tali is saved from the chopping block because, unlike Turian or Krogan females, she is acceptably attractive: she has an hourglass figure, a sexy accent, and her mask allows fans to imagine that she has a face like their favorite actress.

The absence of something as insignificant as females may be explained, but that doesn’t mean it is excused. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Mass Effect‘s depiction of a galactic society where every single woman, both alien and human, just so happens to have a humanoid body a supermodel would be jealous of isn’t sexist, messed up, and wrong.

A side note on gender presentation

The thing that kills me about the “we didn’t have time to make any females!” excuse is that there is no real reason male and female Turians, for example, couldn’t look just alike above their clothes. Not all animals on Earth have sexual dimorphism; why should all aliens?

Technically some of those Turian or Krogan or Hanar NPCs in the game could be female, despite having deep voices and no breasts. There is no reason an alien society should have the same ideas about femininity or masculinity as we do (or have such ideas at all!). The catch is, only humans are playing Mass Effect; therefore, any creature lacking sufficient feminine markers are going to be assumed (in this unfortunate case, correctly) to be male. The developers could, however, have easily challenged players’ ideas about femininity by casually referring to the ugly, deep-voiced Elcor ambassador as “she”.

As I said above, good science fiction challenges our most basic assumptions. Unfortunately, Mass Effect is not good science fiction. In fact, it seems to embrace our own societal “common wisdom” about women and femininity all too wholeheartedly. I can only hope someone on the development team has read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or some Octavia Butler before writing Mass Effect 2.

* One thing I do find interesting about the Asari is the idea that “purebloods”–Asari who mate with other Asari–are lesser, as they don’t bring anything new to the species. It’s an interesting inversion of the “Mudblood” idea; the term is from Harry Potter, but it’s a common trope in fantasy: see the vast number of stories about half-elves angsting that they don’t belong to either the elf or human cultures.

** Some may object that the Rachni Queen is a female “ugly” alien; while this is true, they aren’t part of Citadel culture in any way; they aren’t meant to be seen as equal to humans or the other intelligent species. Not only that, but, as an insectoid species, the Rachni Queen’s only purpose is to breed lots of children–quite patriarchal. Also, one exception does not outweigh the six other species that are “ugly” and all male.

Thank you to Kateri, Simon Ferrari, and Ryan Gan for their help in the preparation of this post.

Mass Effect: First Impressions

When I first started playing Mass Effect last week, I hated it. This is one game that makes a terrible first impression and probably loses players because of it.

After creating my character and watching a brief opening, I found myself thrust onto an alien planet with my two squadmates, and, after a tutorial that was at once bare-bones and overwhelming, I was killed by some disgusting reanimated corpses. Try again!

On a second attempt I made it through the area and came upon a couple of NPCs to talk to; I rushed through the dialogue since I was eager to learn more about the combat and how to actually play the game. The next area was more difficult, and I ended up dying again.

Just as I felt I was getting a hang of the combat, the level was over and it was back to cutscenes and dialogue. When I regained control of Shepard, she was in the office of the human ambassador at the Citadel, the major city of the game. This began a three-hour-long segment of running around talking to people, listening to exposition, and gathering my crew, all while I was itching to get back into the action.

To say the least, it takes a while to get used to Mass Effect‘s pacing.

The game had other problems at the start, too. While I was thrilled to be able to play as a female character, I was worried there would be a Fallout 3 sort of situation where the dialogue for the female character wouldn’t make sense, or other characters would refer to me as “he.” This fear came about because of a scene at the beginning where Shepard is talking to her two human squadmates about humanity’s place at the Citadel, and includes “beautiful women” on her list of “things humanity has to offer aliens”. Really, now? I could see how a heterosexual man might say this, but why would a woman objectify herself, reduce herself to a commodity that could be used to appease aliens? (Not to mention it is a nonsensical comment–all aliens are heterosexual males or lesbians who are attracted to human women that meet our own arbitrary beauty standards? That’s a lot of assumptions!) I found it hard to believe any woman would say that, let alone the Commander Shepard I was playing, who threatened a man at a bar for calling her “princess.” Fortunately, this is the only instance of dissonance so far I have seen between my character as I play her and what she says.

The first major alien species you really get to know is the Asari; I have so many problems with this group that they will be getting their own post. For now I will just say they are a strange, dark mark on what is otherwise an impressively inclusive game.

In particular, the game excels at racial inclusiveness. You can choose the race of your character–and you aren’t limited to white/black/Latin@/Asian like in Fallout 3–and many important and minor NPCs are people of color: both of your human squadmates, Captain Anderson, and the human ambassador are people of color. You help out a reporter named Emily Wong. You meet a South Asian man mourning for his wife, who died in combat. Many NPCs also have accents, like the British doctor on your crew and the Dutch medic at the Citadel. Mass Effect makes it clear that in the far future, all humans will be welcome, not just white Americans.

This inclusiveness is part of what kept me playing the game through all the endless dialogue, and I’m very glad I did, because now I’m really enjoying it. Having settled into the proper pace, and finally coming to terms with the combat, the game has actually become quite fun. The story is intriguing, the characters three-dimensional, and the flirting hilariously awkward. I’m looking forward to playing through the rest of it and writing about it here.

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!