If you haven’t played Eden Games’s Test Drive Unlimited, here’s a brief run down. You begin the game by selecting a cool-looking driver (I went with the understated Guamanian) and taking a plane to an unnamed island. There, you drive expensive cars in an open world and compete in various street races/challenges to buy new cars, digs, and the approval of babes.
That’s right, Test Drive Unlimited separates itself from the pack by including polygonal hotties, and you must drive like a badass to earn their approval in their "Top Models" challenges. I know, gaming’s Citizen Kane has finally arrived.
But seriously, the Top Models challenges speak to something much greater at work in video games. Each trial begins with the player pulling up next to the model in need of a ride. She’s usually dressed really hip, carrying a shopping bag, and walking.
In one instance, I picked up a model and she said, “So glad you could stop. I’m in a really big hurry. Can you help?” I drove her eight miles in three minutes. The game provides no explanation for why she’d take rides from a stranger and why the hell she doesn’t own a car (all her money is spent on looking good?). What does become apparent is that oh so much is riding on whether you can drive your Alfa Romeo fast enough for these women.
To complete these challenges, the player weaves in and out of traffic, knicks other cars if necessary, outruns the cops, and stays on the pavement (the models get nervous when you go off road). If the player doesn’t reach the destination in time, the models just demand that they walk. Oh, and you better pull up in the right car because some models won’t even take a ride from you in your shitty Audi S5 Cabriolet.
We know this game doesn’t take place in reality. But let’s look at the more serious problems here. Many familiar sexist messages are on display (some of them ancient): women shouldn’t drive; women should always be hot; women expect you to be an uncomplicated, macho wheel man in a six-figure vehicle.
When you don’t measure up, the women withdraw their “approval” (which can be construed a number of ways). It’s morbidly appropriate that taxiing such superficial symbols of femininity reveals the game’s most superficial rewards: coupons to buy new clothes for your character. You don’t get faster cars or money to upgrade your garage. You get tickets redeemable for flash driving gloves, which the player seldom even sees.
But it gets worse. The Top Models races in Test Drive Unlimited are just one type of several missions that advance the game. The other competitions reward trophies and cash to buy more cars and nicer real estate. Since earning the approval of the models is about as important as winning any other mission, Test Drive commodifies their approval right along with the executive autos and luxury homes — except this does a disservice to the other races.
The clothing coupons earned from Top Models missions advance the game, but only on a basic, completion-oriented level. They don’t reward cash, which actually empowers the player. In other words, a pretty girl in the passenger seat isn’t even essential to the good life in Test Drive Unlimited. Like the clothes her coupons buy, she’s an accessory.
Spare me your jokes about how a gamer in his parents’ attic sees beautiful women in a similar light (as playthings to be accessed via streaming video before bed). Gaming isn’t the anti-social hobby it once was, though it still belongs to a less-than-fabulous species. Translation: We humbly have intimate relationships with other humans and even bump uglies on occasion, but the thorough sexism seen in Test Drive Unlimited is emblematic of the female portrayal in most video games.
And while this problem is apparent to English grads, politicos, and scholars of women’s studies, we have no guarantee that most/some/any gamers are privy to what they consume. And consume they do, when they spend the 50-plus hours it takes to finish Test Drive Unlimited and countless other video games. No one exposes themselves to such a cultural footprint, no matter how moral/immoral, without somehow being indoctrinated. This leaves gaming men to act like, well, other men who succumb to outdated gender constructs: being macho, angry, horny, and little else.
So what to do? The good news is that Test Drive Unlimited is a great title without the “Top Model” races. Eden Games could have easily left them out and still have a worthy play on their hands.
But some games — like Grand Theft Auto 4 – seem to make sexism an essential part of the experience. It’s not GTA4 if you can’t pay for a hooker, kill her, and take the money afterward, even if it’s never required to advance the game.
I urge developers to seriously look at their influences, which is often comprised of other video games and juvenile (but relevant) art mediums (comics, anime, campy sci-fi), and then ask themselves why their games come out the way they do. Princess Leia in the gold bikini may be iconic, but there’s no reason to keep returning to her every time developers devise a new, female character. Furthermore, game studios need to care more about their writing in general, because what they write speaks volumes about who they are and who they presume us to be.