These achievements are directly rewarding players for in-game behavior that amounts to sexual harassment. Players are actively being encouraged to think of women’s bodies as something they are entitled to interact with. That fact, in and of itself, is troubling but it’s just another example of the core problem with the Women as Reward trope. Game systems are designed to provide feedback mechanisms that either punish or reward players for the ways they interact with virtual environments. Because video games are constructed around these formal input/output systems, they can be an especially powerful tool for reinforcing cognitive patterns by modeling and rewarding player behavior. In a game, you’re not just watching someone else being rewarded with a woman. You, the player, are earning a woman as a reward yourself for the actions you yourself have performed.
Players make the correct inputs into the game; a woman’s affection or her body is the corresponding output. Players go through the process of saving the princess, and the game’s algorithm dutifully rewards them with what they think they are rightfully owed for doing so: whether it be a kiss, a girlfriend, or sexual attention. Social science indicates that one of the primary ways we learn about the world and our relationships to each other, is through a process of observation and imitation. Human beings also learn by seeing something modeled for us, especially when the modeled actions are accompanied by rewards or punishments. Video games are uniquely positioned to provide experiences that do all of these things, because in most games, the player occupies both the role of participant, and the role of spectator to their own actions. In this way the women as reward trope in video games becomes a mechanism through which male entitlement is taught and reinforced in our wider culture. Cognitively, it’s strikingly similar to the expectation that if a man buys a woman a few drinks, then he is owed sex. The money and time for the alcohol and conversation are the inputs, the sexual gratification is the output.
When men’s entitlement-based expectations are not fulfilled they sometimes lash out in resentment or aggression towards women. This is clearly illustrated in the catcalling scenarios I mentioned earlier: street harassers feel entitled to women’s time and women’s attention. If they don’t get the response they feel they are owed, they can become increasingly angry, following their targets, insulting them, groping them, or otherwise aggressively demanding to be acknowledged. In the gaming community, we see this entitlement-fueled outrage bubble to the surface when some gamers encounter indications that games aren’t made exclusively with their fantasies in mind. Angry public temper tantrums from straight male players have occurred when role-playing games have forced them to interact with gay male characters, or presented them with lesbian characters who were not available as romance options to male avatars. Angry backlash from straight male players also materializes when Western releases of Japanese games place women in slightly less revealing outfits, or increase the age of young sexualized female characters to 18. In the same vein, when presented with critical analyses of the poor representations of women in many popular games, this intense male entitlement manifests in aggression, abuse and threats. As we’ve demonstrated in this episode, the Women as Reward trope is set up to fulfill a very specific male entitlement-oriented fantasy.
In many cases game creators may not even realize their mechanics are working to cement this mentality, but when games use a woman’s affection, her body, or her sexuality as a carrot on a stick, they’re actively encouraging men to think of women as objects, prizes, and status symbols. And it’s not just men who are affected. This ideology of male entitlement seeps into the wider social consciousness of everyone, regardless of gender, a byproduct of which can negatively impact the ways women relate to one another and the ways we think about our relationships to our own bodies, and our own sexuality. The good news is that because male entitlement is a learned attitude.