Sex isn’t a bad thing. Let me repeat that: sex isn’t a bad thing. Sexual objectification, however, is unhealthy, as is the conflation of sex with violence, and the forcing of sexuality into a narrow, omnipresent scopophilic fetish.
Here’s what I’m ranting about: videogames (and comics) have a problem with sex. The problem is that they are generally afraid, unwilling or, arguably, unable to show sex acts, or develop romances, but have often catered to an audience with an interest in sexual content.
The result is psuedo-sex, in which everything about female characters is sexualized for the scopophilic pleasure of a presumed-to-be straight male audience. By way of example, I cite the fact that in Mass Effect 3, Bioware gave EDI, the ship’s AI, a robot body – with pronounced camel toe.
What’s wrong with this? It’s simple: this kind of hypersexualization doesn’t allow female characters to ever be anything other than sex objects. They can never own their own sexuality because, to pick on Bioware a little bit more, the only time they aren’t walking sex-shows is in Mass Effect’s rather tame no-nudity sex scenes.
Anyone who has read superhero comics in the past couple of decades knows that this is an omnipresent problem in that medium, extending, for example, to the Avengers movie poster.
Note in the image on the left, the further technique of the “crotch blackout” – the Hulk and Hawkeye’s groins are shaded in solid, without a hint of definition (and Thor’s fist is right there, because sublimated dick-wiggling is approved, as long as we don’t have to see another guy’s package). In Marvel and DC comics, when a female character’s front side is visible (as opposed to contorted to show her breasts and butt at the same time), for some reason, there’s never any crotch blackout.
Just in case you need a visual aid, most male spandex-wearing superheroes should look a bit more like this image of Sir Winston Churchill in a swimsuit.
Okay, it can be done more subtly than that, and frankly it’s a good thing that Winston was a politician, because he’d never have made the cover of Playgirl, but the broader point is that games and comics exist in a culture with “robot camel toe” on one side and “crotch blackout” on the other. Women are (nearly) always, (seemingly) unavoidably sex objects, and men (virtually) never are.
If we let sex be sex (meaning that we have to let sex be sexy), then we can let not-sex be not sex. I’m really tired of having every high-kick be an excuse for an upskirt shot, and every time a female character fires a gun be a thinly-veiled metaphor for (male) orgasm.
Thank you, Bayonetta – you can go now. Don’t let the front door hit you… nevermind. Sheesh.
I’ve gotten so used to this crap that I can barely muster outrage at Ubisoft’s E3 presentation, which opened by taking Just Dance 4 (a series largely targeted at women and family gamers) and turned it into a school uniform fantasy with a lot of female dancers gyrating in knee-high socks and little gym shorts.
It then transitioned into a Far Cry 3 trailer that opens with the game’s (male) protagonist getting a psuedo-sex pseudo-lapdance from a “tribal” chick who is effectively naked without “any nudity” (bodypaint and a ridiculous tiny slit-skirt/loincloth hybrid leave nothing to speak of to the imagination). A more detailed analysis and links can be found at “Not Your Mama’s Gamer”.
The thing about this that particularly gets to me is that it isn’t romantic (at all) and isn’t even about two people pleasing each other. It’s strictly a show nominally put on for the game’s protagonist (and actually for the game’s player).
Even so, it’s not as bad as the ways that games have casually sublimated violence for sex. Let me tell you a story… when I was in high school, a game called “Duke Nukem 3D” came out. As a horny teenager, I wasn’t bothered by the fact that the game has strippers in it, or that you could tip them and they’d flash you. Then something happened. I came across a naked woman in some sort of alien cocoon, chamber, or trap. I shot it, and the cocoon burst open. I was waiting for the naked woman to emerge and shower me in gratitude for saving her. Instead, when the cocoon burst, there was nothing left. I’d killed her. Deeply disturbed, I quit the game and tried again, but there were only two options. Leave the trapped women alone, or shoot them.
That’s really sick. And, while I don’t remember any other games that have casually (as if it *really didn’t matter*) asked me to chose between killing innocent women and leaving them to suffer, I have completely lost patience with the plethora of games that feature buxom barely-clothed “succubus” enemies that cry out orgasmically when killed (oh, and killing them is the only playable option).
That’s why I think we need more sex in games, so sex can be sex and everything else can be free of the weight of “being sex” as well.
Give female characters practical clothes to wear, such as rugged, durable pants for tomb raiding, armor that doesn’t leave their midriff exposed, and leave the bondage gear for the bedroom. Seriously, you can have bondage gear, when it’s appropriate. You wouldn’t wear your motorcycle leathers into the pool, so trade the stiletto heels for insulated boots when you’re walking into Mordor.
Among other things, then the player will know that when “Hot Lips” Hoolihan shows up for an off-duty dinner in a low-cut top, that it means she’s interested in the protagonist, rather than just “drawn that way.” And if she invites the Player Character up for coffee and goes to change into something more comfortable, seeing her in a negligee will actually be a bit of a thrill (for players who want to see Hoolihan in a negligee – and those who don’t will be spared seeing her fight space squid in a negligee).
Anyone out there actually remember Loretta Swit (y’know, the actress who played Hoolihan on M*A*S*H, y’know, M*A*S*H…)? She’s still alive and kicking, and a gamer, BTW. In 1986, she wrote “We are Ms. Pac-Man fanatics in our house.”
Anyway… I think more games should have sex in them, and that it should generally be more explicit. Let sex be sex, and let sex, particularly happy, mutually satisfying sex between consenting adults, be a good thing. Then maybe we can stop making every female character into a sex object, and cease conflating sex with violence
Remember, just like no one is actually getting “gibbed”, “capped” or dismembered by a chainsaw, there is no actual sex taking place in these games (or comics). Some other time, I’ll rant about the fact that extremely graphic violence and acts of genocide are acceptable in games (at least in the US), while simple biological realities – such as nipples – are completely verboten
P.S. Comics readers may feel that I’m ignoring the thriving market in sex comics. I’m not. Look at what indie comics (especially all those confessional autobiographies) do with sex. Some stories are titillating, others are entirely about being uncomfortable with sex, and some aren’t particularly about romance or sex but still have sex in them. And frankly, while some of the sex comics are in bad taste, they’re generally less offensive than the latest “women in refrigerators” or “insert penis here” moment in the “mainstream”.
P.P.S. A friend of mine who I talked to about this brought up the fact that she often finds moments that aren’t intended to be sexy, well, sexy, and that she wouldn’t want those moments edited out. I agree: we each have different turn-ons and different fetishes. It’s neither necessary nor possible to edit out those moments. What I’m calling for is not pre-fetishizing everything for a specific (and incredibly narrow) form of sexuality that assumes an immature and uninspired straight male audience (often to the exclusion even of a lesbian gaze, though Bioware does deserve some credit for the “FemShep” phenomenon). Removing the bias will simply make games more accessible to a broader range of players (and a broader ranger of turn-ons and fetishes) by not dictating in BOLD, ITALIC, ALL CAPS to us what we’re supposed to like.
P.P.P.S. There may be those who out there who feel I’m calling for censorship or being unrealistic about market demands. Those people are wrong. What I am calling for is a more inclusive and, incidentally, sexier, approach to games design. I think games like that have a good shot at commercial success in a (slowly, with much kicking-and-screaming) industry and market. If you are working on such a game, know someone who is, or just just know of an actually, emotionally mature game, drop me a line.