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Recently, there has been some moaning and groaning about The Witcher 3, with the usual suspects decrying it as a sexist piece of garbage that treats women like filth. The strangest criticism of all, however, comes from the ever-outraged Feminist Frequency, making the bold claim that the game is problematic because:
Now, it needs to be noted that I have not played enough of The Witcher 3 to reach any of the parts where you play as Ciri. Perhaps I am missing something entirely due to this, but it is a bit difficult to wrap my head around how trivial an issue this truly is, and luckily for me, Erik Kain has already given a deep explanation of why these claims are “dead wrong.” While I could take the easy road and try to ride his coattails to Dogpile City, I will instead make a bold claim of my own.
There is sexism in The Witcher 3, and that is not a bad thing. In fact, the sexism present in The Witcher 3 may contribute to less actual sexism in the real world.
Firstly, I should clarify. Sexism being present in Witcher 3 does not mean that the game itself is sexist. The setting is one where prejudice and hatred are as abundant as air. It is a grim and hopeless world, so it will obviously depict some unsavory individuals with opinions that we might find crude and repulsive. However, that is all this game is doing: depicting, not endorsing.
Second, how could fake sexism ever hope to combat real sexism? Shouldn’t those vile behaviors soak into our sponge-like brains and turn us all into women-hating machines?
Through the power of empathy it is much more likely for our brains to see these portrayals for the negative things they are and realize that sexism is a bad thing. But instead of cramming ideas together and hoping you believe what I have to say, I’m going to turn to the things that perpetual-outragers fear the most: research and evidence.
In 2012, a study was conducted that looked at the possibility of changing beliefs and behaviors through a psychological phenomenon known as experience taking. Experience taking is defined as “the imaginative process of spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character's thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one's own.” In more simple terms: it is the process of feeling so much empathy for a fictional character, that you begin to alter your beliefs and behaviors to match their own.
The results showed that individuals who were able to undergo heavy experience taking actually felt less prejudiced against the character in the story. That is to say, the participants who had higher levels of experience taking while reading about a character who did not share their sexuality or ethnicity showed less stereotype application and held more positive attitudes towards those sexualities and ethnicities.
The same should hold true, for example, about differing genders: a man undergoing experience taking with a female character.
Of course, this study is hardly definitive. It only looked at written narratives, and it was very clear that first person perspectives that hid the sexuality and ethnicity of the character until near the end of the story showed the highest level of experience taking. Most people had difficulty feeling high levels of empathy for characters when they were aware that the characters possessed these differences.
In video games, it is typically more difficult to hide these traits from the player. Additionally, there is no guarantee that something that works in text will work in a more visual medium. Is experience taking something that can occur in video games? My gut and ability to use anecdotal evidence say yes, but that is far from concrete. Back to the researchers!
In 2013, another study found that what occurs in role-playing games is actually capable of having an emotional and physical impact on the players themselves. The study suggests that games will numb players emotionally and degrade their ability to empathize, but a closer look implies that the avatars in the games used for the study are nonhuman automatons with robotic characteristics.
The results here? Players were able to connect to these robotic characters so deeply that they were actually less sensitive to physical pain in real the world. While the method they used to measure pain was rather mild — scientists and their morality and all that — the study shows that experience taking is so powerful that it can alter far more than our emotions, and that it can certainly occur in video game interactions.
These were nonhuman entities that showed little human qualities, and players were still able to undergo experience taking with them. This could possibly mean that having direct agency through a character may make it easier to feel this phenomenon, but I have been unable to find any research to directly support this idea.
If experience taking works with obvious nonhuman entities, connecting with a character that looks, acts, and is treated like a human should be child’s play in comparison. If people can empathize with a nonhuman, then it should not be much of a stretch for a man to undergo experience taking with a female character.
But even a short stretch is no guarantee, so we return to the tried and true method of further evidence. In 2014, Psychologist Keith Hillman published an article discussing why we empathize with fictional characters. The list is rather extensive, and includes a few tricks that narratives can use to make a character more likely to be the target of empathy.
One of the tricks mentioned is having a character treated as important by other characters. With the little time I’ve played in The Witcher 3, I can already tell that Ciri is someone important, considering how every character with significant screen time has shown some adoration or concern for her. The characters I am supposed to like are fond of Ciri, so I should be too. It is even more likely, as Ciri is first introduced as a child with Geralt acting as a father figure to her, and characters with childlike characteristics more frequently encourage empathy.
Another factor is Ciri’s attractiveness — which is broken down into physical, social, and task subsections. The first two are mostly unimportant, but task attractiveness is how well she is able to help with our goals as a player. Considering there are segments of the game where you play as Ciri, she must hold some task attractiveness since she is literally the method through which goals can be accomplished. She helps us get the job done and see more of the story, so the chances of having a fondness for her increases.
So let’s go back to my claim earlier. The sexism present in The Witcher 3 may contribute to less actual sexism in the real world.
Ciri is obviously a character with whom we are meant to empathize. We are supposed to care about her, and when you care, it is much easier to undergo experience taking. This allows us to see things from her perspective, and what we see are other characters treating Ciri poorly because she is a woman, despite us knowing that she is a very important person who is also considerably skilled. And because we empathize with Ciri during these interactions, we are more inclined to see the enemies who are resorting to these slurs as big dumb idiots, not as people who express opinions we should hold as our own. We know Ciri is not a bitch. We know Ciri is not a whore. Those are ignorant opinions held by ignorant people.
If I had to guess, I would say this is not some subtle message that the developers slipped in to combat sexism, but rather, it is a natural way for the human brain to see a well-crafted narrative and learn from it.
Yes, The Witcher 3 is not providing a safe space, and no, it is most likely not going to suddenly turn sexist people into enlightened crusaders of equality. But by framing the manner these insults are displayed — attacks on the player's avatar, which may translate into attacks on the player — they are subtly condemned. Empathy and experience taking put us on the side of Ciri, and the poor opinion and vulgar insults are immediately framed as bad things because of this. Through Ciri, we are shown that it is foolish to underestimate her because of her gender. We are shown that sexism is foolish.
And from what I’ve learned from The Witcher 3 thus far, the proper solution to dealing with foolishness is either gratuitous amounts of violence or a witty insult. Neither of which I’d want to be on the receiving end of.
The implications of all of this could extend much further, and some of this information may provide some weight to the argument for more diversity in games overall. Certainly, trying to draw any conclusions or state anything with real authority is going to require more actual research that studies the effects of experience taking and video games — research thus far has seemed to focus on an increase in negative behaviors due to video games, but none ever seem to produce real evidence that these claims hold any weight. Perhaps someone will try a different approach and present a study that analyzes possible positive emotional impacts from playing games.
But for today, I only wanted to address the lazy critique of The Witcher 3. Perhaps I’ll talk about experience taking again, some other time.