Prostitutes, Villains, and Video Games: A Rant

Let's talk about video games, and the ladies in them. And by ladies, I mean prostitutes. Back in 2008 (Ye Olden Dayes, it seems), Rockstar Games took a lot of heat on account of Grand Theft Auto IV, particularly the fact that within the game, you could hire a prostitute, have sex with her, kill her, and retrieve your cash. To many people it felt -- oh, what's the right adjective -- heartless. To many other people, it was hilarious, and titillating.

At the time, I was mostly indifferent. There are so many other issues with the Grand Theft Auto universe (racist stereotypes, the Madonna/whore complex, gratuitous violence and destruction), that it felt like the only proper response was the same one you see when you look up the goofs for the disaster movie The Core on IMDb: "Since almost all of the 'science' in the movie is entirely erroneous, we are prepared to accept that the movie's universe *must* have entirely different rules - it's the only possible explanation. It's just for fun."

I shrugged and went on with my life. And recently, Rockstar Games put out a very impressive Western, Red Dead Redemption. The critics have been gushing. And one of the things you tend to see as you explore this world is a man abusing a prostitute (wearing a white corset and black stockings, because she's Ye Olde-Tyme Hookere) and threatening to kill her. You then have the option of killing the guy, in which case your honor rating goes up, which means nuns might later hand you amulets that prevent your enemies' bullets from doing too much damage. (There's that Madonna/whore thing again!) You also have the option of killing the girl, but you lose honor for doing so.

It felt as though this was a clever way for the gamemakers to atone for the offense their earlier game had caused. And then, I learned about this:

This is much, much worse, even if you watch the video on silent and miss all the little catcalls the two narrators throw at this totally fictional, voiceless, doomed woman ("That's some hot stuff going on there"). Even when you realize the narrators are much more upset at the death of their equally fictional, equally voiceless, equally doomed horse than they are at the death of the woman they dragged out here to kill.

The primary reason this is much, much worse than killing prostitutes in GTA is very simple: this is now an Xbox Achievement.

Gamerscore is a fascinating phenomenon. Achievement points are accumulated by playing games: finishing a story, a part of the story, getting a certain number of kills, or anything else the gamemakers thought to include. Getting an achievement does not actually earn the player anything except a digital badge and an ever-increasing score, visible to the other players on Xbox Live. It is about pride, and competition, and a mark of enthusiasm. And since the number of achievement points possible on a given game is public, there is a strong drive to get all the achievements possible within the scope of a particular game.

Watching a woman die in an explosion of blood and splatter is worth 5 points. This is the lowest Xbox achievement value it is possible to have, except for one brand-new, snide achievement in Split-Second that is worth 0 points. (Reminds me of this post on the ever-amazing Tiger Beatdown.)

In GTA, you can kill the prostitute, but you have no real incentive. The cash values are pretty small, and there are plenty of other ways to earn money. You have no incentive at all that extends outside the world of the game.

But with this achievement in Red Dead Redemption, the gamer's pride is at stake. Completionists are going to throw that woman LITERALLY UNDER THE TRAIN for five measly points just so they can say they've got every achievement in the game. This woman is now a sacrifice.

But she's fictional! you will say.

You do not get the achievement if you hogtie a man and throw him under the train. It is very specifically gendered.

But the achievement's called "Dastardly!" you will say. Obviously it's a reference to Snidely Whiplash! It's funny!

You know what would have been funny? If you tied the woman up, put her on the train tracks, and a heroic blond Mountie rode up and rescued her and carried her off into the sunset. But no, this is a dark game, a game about justice and violence and killing people who deserve killing -- so the woman has to die.

And this is an important and not-yet-perfectly-untangled knot in the history of narrative. When you read a book whose morality is questionable -- Lolita, for instance -- you might get so put-off by the story that you can't even finish the book. If you do finish the book, you still cannot be held accountable for what happened in the course of the plot.

With a sandbox game, like GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption or Fallout 3 or to some extent my beloved Fable 2, you are definitely responsible for some (though usually not all) of the main character's choices. The protagonist's morality reflects back on you in a way that movies or books can't, not even books of the Choose Your Own Adventure variety.  Now, with Fallout 3 and Fable 2, being evil comes with an in-game cost: in the latter, for instance, you can sacrifice 10 people in the Temple of Shadows and get a corresponding achievement, but there is also an achievement for NOT sacrificing at the Temple of Shadows and for saving the Temple of Light instead.

There is absolutely no in-game cost to the Dastardly achievement in Red Dead Redemption. If you pull out your shotgun and shoot a townsperson, the law pursues you for a little while; same if you steal a horse. But hogtie a woman and leave her to be squished by a train -- nobody bats an eye.