Sex as a Commodity, Women as Achievements

Mass Effect is a sophisticated, acclaimed video game. It took uninformed flak for its sex scene, which gamers defended as a mature portrayal of the act. But it's not that different from the depiction of sex in many other games.

Video games, on the whole, perpetuate a transactional model of sex, argues Alex Raymond at GameCritics.com. When you think about it, pursuing sex with an NPC in Mass Effect, however tastefully it was shown, is fundamentally no different from C.J. bedding women in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Sex is presented as a reward, a result only, something won only by making correct choices attenuated to a woman's shallow preferences, and it's certainly not shown to be part of the process of a relationship.

The "Ladies Man" achievement in the upcoming Alpha Protocol spy action game - have sex with every woman in the game - really set Raymond's teeth on edge. This essay focuses not on sex objects, but on sex as an object - a goal only, a commodity, and the damage done by video games reinforcing such concepts.

Update: The first two paragraphs, while based in my analysis, were edited so as not to misrepresent the author's opinion of Mass Effect.

Women Aren't Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex [GameCritics.com, Aug. 26, 2009]

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."

- Alex Raymond

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