Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thoughts on Sexuality in Video Games

Last night my girlfriend linked me to an article discussing sexual relationships in video games that Alex Raymond posted on back in August. Apparently the link just recently popped up over on Feministing (On a tangentially related subject, if anyone has any suggestions for feminist oriented/leaning blogs that are better than Feministing, we're all ears). I know that Rayond's article is a bit stale but it’s an interesting issue that is definitely still relevant to the medium as a whole. I started to write a response and it snowballed on me until it suddenly became this post.

Raymond is correct in pointing out that video games reinforce the idea that sex and relationships are commodity exchanges. The God of War franchise is a perfect example of this: each game actually embeds sexual missions into their linear experiences, forcing the player to mash the indicated buttons in order to make the screen shake, hear recorded moans of female pleasure, and gain a form of in game currency based on their "performance."

The fact is that video games are traditionally a commodity-based medium insofar as the entire structure is based around objectives that involve achieving "things." There are sometimes large, intangible goals (saving the world/achieving the endgame screen) but these are simply commodities in the same way that the sex-sequence is as Raymond describes it. It's based around the pride of completing an objective, solving a problem, beating the system. The  game can be distilled down to the user working with the game mechanics until they find the solution to the posited problem and "beat" the game. Thus, the commodity model that Raymond says video games apply to sex stems from and is indicative of the traditional framework for single-player video games. That's going a bit beyond the scope of the article, but I want to make clear that it is a valid argument insofar as it identifies the most basic principles of game design.

The examples listed within the article are significantly problematic. Raymond takes issue with the fact that video games present a commodity based model of sex, and also that this model is strictly heternormative. Most of the examples they cite very much adhere to these claims, and as noted above there are more. The example of Mass Effect, however, is problematic because it is incomplete: the game does allow you to engage in homosexual relationships if playing as a female character. This doesn't necessarily make it a positive representation of sex in a video game, but it’s still a fact that Raymond shouldn’t have missed.

Furthermore, the article does not address that depictions of sex in video games have evolved by leaps and bounds in recent years. In the upcoming Dragon Age: Origins, players will allowed to engage in homosexual interactions, as described in a preview yesterday on BitMob. This isn't necessarily a 180 degree change to attitudes towards sex in the gaming industry, but it does fulfill Raymond's desire that games "stop being so goddamn heteronormative and allow options for queer relationships." Also, while Raymond article admittedly came out months ago, news of the diversity of sexual representation in Dragon Age: Origins surfaced in July.

The major problem with the article is that it only address single-player games. Raymond asks developers to "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." I would counter that this way of thinking is incompatible with the traditional model of single-player video games described above. They present a programmed, virtual environment where a single person interacts with NPCs that are specifically designed around the goal of providing a predetermined experience. Under those circumstances the idea of a collaborative experience between two independent entities does not follow logically. What Raymond is talking about requires one of two things: artificial intelligence, something we don’t have the technical ability for yet and which would dramatically change the electronic entertainment industry as we know it, not to mention society as a whole; or else multiplayer, numerous human beings interacting together through the medium of virtual entertainment, which is something we do have.

The fact that Raymond completely fails to address multiplayer gaming is a serious flaw in the argument. Second Life, for example, presents a virtual world where consenting adults can engage in sexual activities with one another. This is not a goal of the game, but rather an element of a virtual experience that seeks to provide a fully-immersive reality in which players live out their lives according to their desires and means. Admittedly the game is not without its problems, but essentially it seeks to provide an experience where every player both interacts with others and fulfills their own objectives as they see fit, which can include sex. Which is a lot like life. Which is pretty much what Raymond is arguing for in video games.

Raymond makes some intelligent and well-thought out arguments that speak to the greater conceptual issues of the gaming industry as a whole. The article would be served by a greater diversity and knowledge of examples, and more concession to where progress is being made. Furthermore the fact that the article completely fails to address multiplayer games without explicitly stating its focus hugely undermines the point that Raymond is trying to make. The representation of sex in games needs to improve if it is to be considered anything but archaic, patriarchal and heteronormative, and there is positive work being done in this regard.

On a final note, it is incredibly interesting to consider the ways in which developers are maturing sexual representations while at the same time adhering to the aforementioned goal-oriented structure. In some cases they are abandoning any attempt to present sex in all its complexity virtually, and instead using the medium to touch upon real issues relating to sexuality. For example, in Sega's upcoming Heavy Rain there is a sequence in which the female protagonist is forced to strip, revealing her naked body to the player. Readers curious to see how this is handled can see a video of the segment here. Pop Matters recently put out a great piece on sexuality in video games, and addressed how it is developing. They included Heavy Rain as an example of a game that might offer us “a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience.” Basically the game purports to force the player to identify with a female character who is forced to undergo an embarrassing sexual experience. The logic is that she is made the object of the male gaze, and by extension the player will experience this uncomfortable situation.

I don’t know that Heavy Rain is going to significantly alter gender issues or sexual representations in commercial entertainment products. It is taking an interesting approach to presenting sex in video games, however, which is more than Raymond gives the industry credit for. I would also point out that the fact that this kind of debate is one that the producers of video games, and not simply their consumers, are taking part in is fantastic. It shows real growth and maturity in the industry, and also makes a significant contribution to the “games as art” debate. But that’s another post for another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment