An Industry Of Refuge

Video games, pornography, and how we look at the instruments of fantasy.

By: Yannick LeJacq

Filed Under: Criticism Psychological


In a TEDxBloomington event, economist and game studies professor Edward Castronova strode on stage with the adorable combination of sensitivity and gravitas that  pervades this ideating conference series. After a pause, he told his listeners, “let’s get rid of this word ‘escape,’ and replace it with a different concept—refuge.”

He was speaking generally about the social values that video games and virtual realities offer. But the idea came to mind again recently when video games suddenly became marred in a quagmire of bombastic discussions about their inherent rape culture—beginning with the sloppy leather-fest of a trailer for Hitman: Absolution, ascending to a fever pitch around the bungling public relations idiocy of Tomb Raider, and falling somewhat unfairly in the lap of Suda 51’s Lollipop Chainsaw—a game with intensely campy leanings that arrived at a time when nobody wanted to think about the merits of irony.

Reviewing that game at Kill Screen, Richard Clark was baffled by how the gigglingly busty and anorexic Juliet was designed to “accept and revel in her reality.” Rather than approach real social problems or even the self-evident “excesses of video games” with a fine-toothed comb, he argues, the game brushes them off with “an apathetic smirk.” And Juliet herself brushes off the violently sexist insults that are hurled at her, shrugs at the patriarchal cultural liturgy that’s turned her into a babbling and incoherent mess.

And what is it that pushes this patriarchal force forward, relentlessly and thoughtlessly? “Blockbuster films and video games, not to mention porn.”

When it comes to demonizing things in popular culture, pornography is first against the wall. Its sheer terribleness is apparently the only thing that Sandra Fluke and Rick Santorum can agree upon. Lena Dunham, the self-described voice of the disaffected and over privileged hipster generation, feels its expedited access is what’s making guys so awkwardly aggressive in bed. One of the few stances  republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has actually remained consistent on is his promise to vigilantly police our access to porn—a policy his Reagan-administration veteran aide Patrick Trueman promised to carry into his presidency despite (or perhaps because of) endosements from high-profile porn stars.

Sadly, video games tend to be next in line. According to two other TED-heads, they’re the dual-wielded forces destroying men as we know them.

Perhaps as a defense mechanism, game critics and designers alike relate video games to porn when trying to coax the industry into maturation. Heavy Rain creator David Cage famously told Gamasutra that “porn movies are structured exactly the same way” as the majority of video games—it gives you a bit of story, then action, then a bit of story, then action.” Often describing his work more as “interactive films” than “video games,” he concluded: “You can’t limit cinema to pornography and condemn all of the industry of cinema because there are porn movies.” Eric Zimmerman made a more procedural comparison to porn years later on his blog, but ultimately determined that while “the politics of representation are totally fucked up in mainstream video games,” games are not “an intrinsically visual form of culture.” Whether or not pornography is, he doesn’t say.

Both of these are signs of a sincere effort on  the part of brilliant to kick-start an industry they love deeply. Cage goes on to advocate for games where stories are actually “told through gameplay.” The dream is to build something more—something beyond the weak visual stimuli and physical manipulation that is apparently pornographic.

Like rap music—another medium bathed in misogyny and ultra-violence—there are a lot of tempting comparisons that leap to mind between porn and video games. Both are used “to blow off steam.” Both place an undue premium on perceived realism. Or, rather, a heightened version of realism viewers buy as explosively and orgasmically diegetic. They are both unfairly and inaccurately characterized as things that only men appreciate—most likely because of their presumed misogyny. And both, through mysteries we don’t quite understand, excite people into essentially mindless, repetitive motions.

Invoking pornography is unleashing a rhetorical bombshell. And it is hard to believe the comparison is made with the noblest of intentions. Like terms describing sexual violence itself, pornography only scratches at the surface of a culture and historical phenomenon the title is barely able to contain.

If at all.

Intellectual historian Carolyn Dean argues: “pornography is an infinitely plastic, dizzying term” that “does not encourage but freezes discussion, and this function is arguably its most significant accomplishment.” In his controversial book “Unlimited Intimacy,” Tim Dean takes this one step further, saying the term itself, when invoked metaphorically, “hinders our capacity to think analytically about sexual representations” at all.

So what is porn, actually? And what do people mean when they relate to it to video games? When Ryan Kuo calls Fez “pixel pornography,” he’s describing a sense of emotional and intellectual weariness similar to that faced when witnessing actual porn—a flurry of initial excitement winding irrevocably down to confusion and disappointment.   But as something—like games—that has a peculiar ability to indulge intense and often hidden fantasies, maybe the two can learn more from each other as the presumed endemic rape culture of video games continues to be torn apart.

Take a 2011 “Scientific American” article by Melinda Wenner Moyer, that reaffirmed some earlier suggestions that perhaps the supposed epidemic of free and instantly accessible porn made possible by the internet wasn’t actually destroying civilization:

Perhaps the most serious accusation against pornography is that it incites sexual aggression. But not only do rape statistics suggest otherwise, some experts believe the consumption of pornography may actually reduce the desire to rape by offering a safe, private outlet for deviant sexual desires.

“Rates of rapes and sexual assault in the U.S. are at their lowest levels since the 1960s,” says Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University. The same goes for other countries: as access to pornography grew in once restrictive Japan, China and Denmark in the past 40 years, rape statistics plummeted. Within the U.S., the states with the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and therefore the least access to Internet pornography—experienced a 53 percent increase in rape incidence, whereas the states with the most access experienced a 27 percent drop in the number of reported rapes, according to a paper published in 2006 by Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University.

It is important to note that these associations are just that—associations. They do not prove that pornography is the cause of the observed crime reductions. Nevertheless, the trends “just don’t fit with the theory that rape and sexual assault are in part influenced by pornography,” Ferguson explains. “At this point I think we can say the evidence just isn’t there, and it is time to retire this belief.”

Studies on pornography, like studies on gun control, are likely politicized to the extent that some of their findings become suspicious. But the point here is to question the immediate connection between logics and bodies. People are already beginning to question the preeminence of photorealism as the sole artistic virtue of gaming. So why does every aspect of a game have to be taken as just that—something frighteningly culturally resonant, something a touch too real?

I don’t deny that there are serious problems with porn any more than I am trying ignore those most repulsive elements of gaming culture. Rather, I simply want to suggest that forms traditionally vilified for their endemic misogyny and sexual violence may have real social value, values that can’t be judged by one consistent and universal moral standard—the same one we apply to real life. It seems downright silly to charge video games or porn with inculcating proper real-life sexual behavior, or to demonize their inability to do so, in a country that would rather tell its youth to stop holding hands than simply explain to them what a condom is.

The problem with Lollipop Chainsaw, Richard Clark explains, is that Juliet has been coerced by some force greater than herself to “accept and revel in her reality.” But while it may be a reality to her, it’s a fantasy for us. And there’s a real difference between the two, one that terms like “rapey” flatten into a violent epistemological collapse where there is no separation between our virtual selves and our real selves, our fantasies and our actual desires.

Less as a mirror of our own reality, think of video games as a refuge—the same place that Castronova describes “where you leave something bad, you have some safety and some solace, a chance to rest, relax, get new powers.” Let’s stop thinking only of the ways that media try and, so often, fail to measure up to our gritty and disappointing realities and try to imagine the real merits of fantasy.

“And then while you are there,” he concludes, “you can keep looking around for the place you can eventually call your home.”

[art credit]

Filed Under: Criticism Psychological

About the Author:
Yannick LeJacq is a reporter for the International Business Times. His work has also appeared in Kill Screen, Salon, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal.

12,044 Responses to “An Industry Of Refuge”

  1. Jason Johnson

    Excellent points all around! I especially liked the ones here and here:

    “So why does every aspect of a game have to be taken as just that—something frighteningly culturally resonant, something a touch too real?”

    “values that can’t be judged by one consistent and universal moral standard”

    I kind of feel put off by the wave of reactionary posturing that has been going on lately, even though I identify with most of the causes: I’m for gay marriage, I agree that games need broader representations of women, etc.. Part of what bugs me is how someone’s personal identity can be reduced to a meme… and in some cases even exploited for gains. See: Chic-fil-a day, the Frank Ocean album, page hits.

    Another problem I have is that most sides speak in absolutes, a point you expressed very well (or at least that’s something I took away). It’s not a cut-and-dry issue. Not all sexualized representations of women are bad. It’s the stereotype of the sexualized woman that is bad. But the same can be said about most all stereotypes, because they reduce something that is unique and authentic and interesting into a broad universal generalization.

    I feel like if some people had their way, what we’d get is just another banal stereotype: the socially-conscious strong female video game character. What I’d like to see are women (and men) in video games (and actual life) who can’t be easily defined in terms of sexuality or political issues or strength and vulnerability because they are complex and have conflicting views and sometimes act unpredictably, like real people.

  2. Marijn Lems

    Yannick, Jason – great to find you both outside of your natural habitat (or rather, the website where I usually get to read your thoughts)!

    I think Yannicks conflation of critics of the examples you mention (Hitman, TR, LC) and critics of pornography in general isn’t correct. Speaking for myself, I would never argue that all porn should be outlawed, or that it can’t have a positive function in society. But I am a very harsh critic of this kind of representation in videogames, or the infiltration of pop culture by pornographic elements in general. Should we give a free pass to sexist stereotypes in our mainstream entertainment just because porn might have a positive role in society? No, of course not. I don’t think that “every aspect of a game [has] to be taken as just that—something frighteningly culturally resonant, something a touch too real”, but I DO think that we should remain unwaveringly critical of lazy stereotypes that ANY sort of creator stoops to in their work (I’m just as critical of the Transformers movies as I am of Lollipop Chainsaw). The “refuge” defense smacks just a little too much of “it’s just a game”.

    I totally agree with Jason that we should remain vigilant not to just replace one cliché with another, though. I’m certainly not on board with the outrage leveled at the Tomb Raider reboot – I don’t see why a female character shouldn’t be allowed to be put in that position if it serves the story (though, yeah, the PR comments were beyond moronic), and I would welcome a new sense of vulnerability (and therefore, relatability) in our action heroes. I just don’t think that that’s what the creators of Lollipop Chainsaw were going for.

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