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!
Read more on the While !Finished blog.