Alpha Protocol Screenshot

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.

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

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.



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Lemonate
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Lemonate

I think this article highlights some genuinely problematic trends in the portrayal of sexual relationships in games. I think a major issue that has to be considered here is that the ‘commodity model’ of female sexuality fits in really easily with typical game mechanics in the absence of a critical awareness of this model. Performing the correct actions and being rewarded for it (with level-ups, game progress, achievements etc.) is what pretty much all games consist of. So, if sex is going to be included, and if the main character is going to be a straight man (almost always), this… Read more »

Universal Logic
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Universal Logic

Alex, I disagree with your criticisms of this game and insinuations that it is sexist material. In defense of Chris Avellone and the way he designed this game… He did NOT incorporate the player giving “commodity tickets” to females for sexual purposes. Despite the manipulative aspect of feeding people what they want to hear, the exchange that takes place is through social interaction. The only real exception to this is when the player finds incriminating information in missions. He has the option to sell it on the black market, bribe the individuals involved, or give it to a female journalist.… Read more »

John Duke
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John Duke

look at the fable and mass effect series, you can play a female or male character and be gay,straight,or bi, at least in fable for the most part, you can now have same sex marriage and have kids

Dan Hemmens
Guest

As I think other people have pointed out (I confess to not having read all of the comments) part of the problem here seems to be that while women might not be vending machines, video games kind of are. Ultimately it’s not just sex that games treat as a reward for taking the “right” set of actions, it’s … well … everything. The mechanic you use to seduce women in /Alpha Protocol/ is the same as the one you use to romance Alistair in /Dragon Age/, which is the same as the one you use to encourage Kelgar to renounce… Read more »

ElfTheHunter
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ElfTheHunter

I enjoyed this article… but I think you are being a little unfair on the gaming industry. I don’t believe that any game (yes, even bioware games) have ever introduced a romance as a major part of gameplay. This is probably because (unfortunantly imo) the majority of gamers don’t play the game with those parts in mind. So I don’t think you can blame developers for using a simplified and easy to understand mechanic to deal with romances. And as to the real world consequences of doing so, you’d have to address violence and other imoral actions in games. Having… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

While that’s a well reasoned article, I’d like to point out that Alpha Protocol as a game is meant to flow in a James Bond / Jack Bauer / Jason Bourne style spy world. Which yes, is usually that slightly over the top male universe. There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek humour to the game.. and while there is a perk “Ladies Man” if you carry out a romance with the 4 “romancable” character within the game, there is also a perk which provides in-game benefits if you say “no” to them. One of the possible romances is set up to provide… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

A typical right wing response. Things are the way they are because that is the way they have always been BS. You have no idea how things were since time began. Sex has not always been a commodity, but from your (typically conservative) egocentric view of the world things are and always have been the way you see them. What an idiot. You say if you don’t like it, don’t buy it. If I don’t like it and my neighbor buys it, who protects my daughter from the effects – and there is a lot of research out there to… Read more »

thaX
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thaX

Part of your critique mentions the lack of homosexual motives within games. Please note that there are some legitimate concerns and reasons for the lack of those concerns. One is the simple fact that relationships of that sort may simply not be a part of that games societal structure. Games set in the times of swords and sorcery for instance, since death and destruction does not give most of those that live in the war torn area much leisure time that gives some the moments to think on such matters, and sex is more straightforward, short and done for simple… Read more »

byron
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byron

i just read the article “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” and was doing some research and found this article. awesome! i love it. thank you for writing. i am more into music than games, so the article has been challenging me on how to think differently as well as how to interact differently with partners and friends in regards to healthy communication about sexuality and consent conscious relationships. yeah.. its tough to grip at first, but its awesome to know that your partners are totally there with you and if not, a situation has hopefully been created so folks… Read more »

RandomRob
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RandomRob

I admire the article and points being discussed, here. I would point to the fact that videogames are entertainment and relationships are work. Relationships require honesty, upkeep, humility, compromise, grief, shame, pride, admitting faults…. and a million other qualities that would not fit comfortably at all in a medium buried in white teen male wish fulfillment.

If you’re going to talk about real relationships in videogames, what you’re really talking about is portraying real love, and that can be some dangerous stuff.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Violence in games is a comparable issue, and there’s already been plenty said on that front. In particular; people’s ability to discern between games and the real world, and games as an outlet. Perhaps tied to that is the fact that many games are targeted at an audience which is in fact not adult (or not mature). GTA, what is effectively a crime simulator, is the most popular game franchise ever. So to discuss mature themes is somewhat moot. Furthermore ‘games’ are, in purest terms, a challenge to overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. They are not simulations. Beyond its… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Eric “For example, in Mass Effect, in order to progress relationships to the point where sex occurs, you have to have in depth conversations with the your romantic partner, explore their entire life story, help them work through childhood trauma, make moral decisions they agree with, and save their life. The relationship you need to develop with this fictional character is arguably more complex than the one many real people develop before sleeping together the first time.” In your description, all of these actions are still considered means to an end. The end goal is not to help your romantic… Read more »

Lurking Beardo
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Lurking Beardo

“You, and Friedman and Valenti, argue the under the commodity model, the main purpose of the nice things men do for women are to “buy” sex. However, in this case you are making assumptions about the male’s actions [. . .] Now, many men ARE solely interested in the rituals of relationships as a method of “acquiring” sex, but to make the assumption that all men operate under that goal structure is unrealistic” That’s what the commodity model is: thinking of sex as a commodity men receive from women in return for romantic/friendly attention. Even when a man is partially… Read more »

Eric
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Eric

As an avid video game player and male, I feel I have to come to the defense of both my hobby and my gender. Although I definitely agree the the commodity model of sex is rampant in our society, it is by no means universal. Furthermore, to argue that video games featuring sexual content unequivocally reinforces the commodity model is reductionist. You, and Friedman and Valenti, argue the under the commodity model, the main purpose of the nice things men do for women are to “buy” sex. However, in this case you are making assumptions about the male’s actions. When… Read more »

Kit
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Kit

[quote=A Woman who buys video games. ]…just look at 95% of the female characters in games. They are all sexy and lots of them are dressed like they’re about to work the pole rather than kick some ass. [/quote] From what I saw of Bayonetta this weekend, the female character you play as manages to do both in one move. [quote=J.E. Sawyer ]The number of women with whom Michael Thorton can sleep can be counted on one hand. While it is certainly possibly that even among a group of women that small, one might not have any sexual/romantic interest in… Read more »

Nick Wiggill
Guest

For the record, my post above replying to Torpid Porpoise wasn’t meant to be anonymous.

Anonymous
Guest

@Torpid Porpoise, You’ve nailed it, right there. To my fellow males saying, “Who are you to criticise what we want in games?”, you’ve missed the whole point guys. But not just here — in real life also. This isn’t just about feminism, games or anything of the sort. Those are just concepts, constructs. This is about HUMANITY. This is about how you relate to other human beings — treating them as human beings — valuing them in as sensitive a way as you would value yourself — or else simply accepting the commodity model, which is that women are game… Read more »

Franklin
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Franklin

What happens is that this all leaves me, a homosexual female, with absolutely no content in video games that ultimately doesn’t offend me or doesn’t emotionally move me. I can’t relate to a heterosexual male protagonist who views women as commodities. His view of the world and how he interacts with it doesn’t relate to my fantasies or experiences at all. Point taken, but there are great games on recent systems that aren’t like this. Games like Burnout Paradise and Little Big Planet have no human characters at all, and I can’t imagine how they might offend you emotionally, unless… Read more »

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Whoops, didn’t see the comments section before I posted…you’ve already mentioned Fable 2.

Still a great post!

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

The FABLE games good about this–there’s still some sexist elements and trade-for-sex going on, but there are lots of bisexual or queer characters in the game. Also you can play as a male or a female. It’s an improvement, even if it is still the barter-for-sex concept in some ways.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Can I just say: you are amazing. That comment just rocked my world. [Edited by Moderator. Please do not insult other commenters.]

Georgie
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Georgie

Well done! This was really interesting and thought-provoking. I’d agree that the Sims is a fairly appropriate counterexample, mostly because each sim is so user-controlled. I can make sims that don’t like other people much, at all, sims that are gay, straight, or bi (sims are not really picky, just so long as the personalities align well) and sex is not the end result. In fact, married or dating sims “want” to talk to and otherwise interact with their significant others as well as “woo-hooing.” I was interested to find that the Sims 3 had a few gay sims already… Read more »

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

[quote=Older] So if this is a commodification model, it is a sick model on its own terms, and supported only by sick people. In a way, it is too bad that sex is not a “commodity”, when offered for a price by prostitutes. Because then they could call the police when they were raped (robbed) and they would be treated like people. Oh no, wait, that could only happen if everyone who reported rape was treated like a person. And we know that’s not true.[/quote] The book addresses this, by talking about a prostitute who called the police when she… Read more »

torpid porpoise
Guest

“…with some women all it takes is going through the motions (exchange of commodities, ie dinner, drinks) to get sex as an end game” *sigh* this is the problem, anonymous. this is the problem, and this article was addressing one of several probable causes for this problem. Men aren’t the only ones subject to social brainwashing. some women view themselves as sexual vending machines. some women view themselves as worthless because they have a high bmi. some men have crippling anxiety because they think their penis is tiny. obviously this is a result of their innate natures, and not because… Read more »

kb
Guest
kb

this question about how a video game ever gets to-how do you make a non-human, non-sentient bit of code able to be callaborative? the outcomes have to be predetermined in order to code the response. I don’t know how to get around the whole “they’re inanimate. video game sex will never be real sex” unlike most of the . . . stunning models of humanity. . . lower in the thread, I do think this is an issue worth addressing, and worth seeing if it transfers into the real world.

Phil
Guest
Phil

I think this is a little out there. Sure, video games don’t really represent a true-life version of male/female interactivity, but when you choose Alpha Protocol you should equate it to something similar – like a James Bond film. In the Bond films, every woman IS a potential Bond girl. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s the way the spy genre functions.

Danii
Guest
Danii

How DARE someone ask for a game situation which treats half the population like human beings? Shame on them.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Dear, dear Alex. If something can be traded for money, then that something most certainly is a commodity. Whether that notion gives you the vapors has no bearing on its factual nature.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

I feel the real problem is people who interpret these scenes as a reward to work towards rather than an element of the plot and a bold attempt to allow the character to connect with another. (In Mass Effect at least, although in the case of Alpha Protocol, you’d be right) ME approached it rather well, there’s a lot of complaints on the net about how PG-13 the scenes are, in spite of the fact that the point of the entire scene isn’t how much dicking you can pack into it at all. As for the issue addressed in the… Read more »

Bryce
Guest
Bryce

You’re walking a thin line here, Alex. To say that video games reinforce aggressive commodity-oriented dating behavior is to say that video games also train us to become efficient killers. Yet, in reality, most gamers learn very quickly they can’t hit the 5-ring with a match-grade pistol at 7 yards by just aligning the sights and that dating women is much, much more complex than James Bond fantasies. Secondly, you’re ignoring that video games are a consumer-driven market and single males have a lot of free time and video games are some of the most cost-effective entertainment you can find.… Read more »

A Woman who buys video games.
Guest
A Woman who buys video games.

“Um, that’s what this post is. A woman who buys games making her voice heard.” Yes! Too bad all the games I see anyone are boring-ass war games with super ugly dudes as the lead. Let’s be honest, for the main character to be interesting (to me) he’s either gotta be a hottie or a cool chick. I’ll point to the female-high popularity of FF RPGs and Resident Evils to prove that. And before you jump down my throat and call me a “feminazi” or whatever, just look at 95% of the female characters in games. They are all sexy… Read more »

Alex R
Guest

When more women and (openly-declared) gay men start buying video games and making their voices heard

Um, that’s what this post is. A woman who buys games making her voice heard.

Demosthenes XXI
Guest
Demosthenes XXI

[quote=Another Anonymous] Also, throwing out two examples of games that have options for female main character romance options and gay romance options is nice and all, but you do realize that women make up half the worlds’ population, right? So then there should be just as many games where people can play female characters who can romance whoever they want. Or if you want to go the good old “but less girls play games so they should cater to guys!” route, how about we get some statistics up in here and find out if it works out? Is the proportion… Read more »

Demosthenes XXI
Guest
Demosthenes XXI

Allow me to further elaborate on your point. Look at a video game of that nature like an interactive book. The character that is controlled by the player is the main character of the book and therefore by dint of that visualization, he is more important than any other character in the story except for the antagonist. That is the essential conceit of any story ever written; the main character is the most important individual in the story’s universe. It makes no sense to belittle that concept for the sake of social mores; imagined or realized, unless you expect to… Read more »

Christina Norman
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Christina Norman

I’m sorry but not surprised to see you’ve received a variety of ridiculous comments on this article from people swinging the anti-feminist bat. At least it’s a useful filter on comments worth reading. I’d like to challenge a few points. Games by their nature restrict the player’s options. That’s one reason why open world games that stretch that can be so exhilarating, they try to present you with huge amounts of options, but ultimately they are restrictive. Would it be nice of games optioned more varied options for relationships? Sure. But ultimately the simulation has to start and end somewhere.… Read more »

MCR
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MCR

look at it this way. The whole idea behind videogame sex symbols comes from what Hollywood, and the like, put into film. Not to mention TV series, reality shows, and other televised programming, all have women portrayed in a negative light. Almost all movies today are inclusive of at least one sex scene, most with graphic nudity, often not of a romantic nature. Before you blame videogames for portraying women in a negative manner, look to the cause of societal change and incorporation of such biggotry into our entertainment. If you take the WORST portrayal of a female from a… Read more »

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

lol @ “feminazi”
Where are you from? The 80s?

Spokker
Guest
Spokker

Modeling real life in video game form is an incredibly daunting endeavor. I feel the author’s grievances have more to do with technical limitations than any malicious intent on the part of game designers.

P.S. Legalize prostitution.

gotheek
Guest

How about framing your arguments (a) less abusively, and (b) by bringing up clear examples of how the article is flawed. Don’t attack the person. No-one was saying that paying for sex makes a man a serial anything. What the writer is saying is that by perpetuating a commerce-based sexual world in video-games, marketing, and indeed, anywhere you might happen to look, perpetuates the issues that exist in the western world: where there are a percentage of men who take advantage of women because they’re told by society that they can. Ultimately you might try putting the shoe on the… Read more »

Niet
Guest
Niet

The truth of the matter is that sex sells. Whether it be movies, commercials, of videogames, this is one unfortunate truth that wont go away. Not only do the majority of videogames have unrealistic relationship scenarios, but 99% of women in videogames are given unrealistic proportions and hardly wear anything. Of course, you shouldn’t lose hope. Two games that have a realistic girl and portrays a more realistic relationship are Knights of the Old Republic and the new Prince of Persia. While even these games can improve, they are sure signs that certain people in the industry are trying harder… Read more »

P.Turnbuckle
Guest
P.Turnbuckle

I think, although you comments are generally unhelpful, you have a point – Games are based on rewards, in the most part. But suggesting that all the blame lies with women is a strange burden to land yourself and your gender with. To seperate society into factions of gender is a self fulfilling prophesy – you are certainly perpetuating the myth all by yourself. Games have, for a long time, featured some fine examples of binary opposition. There is always the good and the bad, this becomes worse in more modern games because we have been attempting to turn complex… Read more »

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

video game developers and companies are not asking you to hide your gender and are not subjecting you to sexual harrassment. other players might be doing this, but that is generally because they are about 12 years old and anonymity makes a person act out in ways the wouldn’t if you could see their faces. it is not the job of the video game company to police the behavior of its customers.

sally
Guest
sally

excellent points! making video game relationships as complicated as real life would be cost prohibitive and frankly, boring and stupid. the entire game would have to revolve around that aspect, and these people should be trying to get it on in real life instead.

sally
Guest
sally

I hate male feminists. If you don’t have a pussy, don’t act like one. video games treat relationships like a REWARD SYSTEM because VIDEO GAMES ARE BASED ON REWARD SYSTEMS. video games are NOT REAL LIFE. there has been no proof that playing mario brothers makes you want to eat mushrooms and fuck around in sewers, and no REAL proof that shooters cause kids to shoot people. enough with this bullshit that video games corrupt our youth. video games do not make men think that they can fuck me if they push the right buttons. we women perpetuate that myth… Read more »

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Another option is to have relationships as a mandatory part of the storyline and the options be either “you’re in this relationship” or “game over”. This is done very frequently in the visual novel genre of games, where the interactions are almost entirely scripted beforehand and you–at best–get to pick which of a few heavily linear paths you want to go down (possibly with one romance each).

Arconcyl
Guest
Arconcyl

I fucking love you for this comment. THANK YOU.

Older
Guest
Older

I don’t see how the commodification model of sex ‘enables rape, allows the concept of the “slut” to exist, and frames consent as “the absence of no”, rather than “the presence of yes”.’ I’m not in favor of everyone adopting a “commodification model”, but I really don’t see how it leads to legitimizing rape. That would be like legitimizing theft, so long as what is stolen is the stock in trade of a merchant. Nor is a merchant, or anyone else who sells something, obliged to sell to whomever wishes to buy. Although I have unfortunately met people who believed… Read more »

Roy S. Finkle, Esq.
Guest

Our grand nation’s matronly saints, the women, can post on the inter-net from the comfort of their space-age kitchens! While preparing a tasty and nourishing casserole for her husband and strapping young boys, she can play casual games on Facebook, while gossiping with her lady friends. Take that, Russkies! Advances in science by our boys at DARPA allow the busiest of broads the world over to post on the inter-net while ironing, doing dishes, or being pregnant! Capital! (And boys, while she’s bent over a keyboard or a stove, you can still get a good look at her sweet, sweet,… Read more »

Titanis walleri
Guest
Titanis walleri

“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.” Okay… now how do are programmers actually supposed to DO that? Most of the reason the commodity system exists in video games is because it’s the simplest (and possibly the only) way to model a notoriously messy and complicated aspect of human behavior in virtual form* while still giving the player a choice in the matter. In fact, most… Read more »

Anonymous but not the other Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous but not the other Anonymous

I hate to burst your feminist bubble but with some women all it takes is going through the motions […] to get sex as an end game.

And that makes it a good idea?

That makes it something to encourage, let alone glorify?