Pushing Buttons

Let's talk about sex (and video games).

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Industry Life Reflections


There’s a big running joke that video games are like mainstream pornography. Like action movies, or any pulp media, they provide stimulation but no complexity. Titillation but no depth of feeling. All the right camera angles highlighting fragments of things but never whole explorations of intimacy. The viscera of your enemy exploding before the glistening shaft of your overheated gun. The money shot. Et cetera.

But I don’t really want to talk about pornography, so much as fucking. And video games. And fucking, insofar as how we see video games. And I don’t mean to say “pornography,” understood as the artform of erotica, is a bad or shameful thing. I’m fan of it when it’s done well. Hell, I’m even making a Twine game of the stuff.

Now, don’t you dare giggle.

When we do talk about games with regard to sexuality, it’s often dismissively, derisively, mockingly. Intimacy is a thing that implies vulnerability, and talking about this requires a certain degree of maturity. But games as analogous to mainstream pornography—“repetitive, soulless, joyless,” according to Porpentine, creator of deeply sensual, cerebral games like howling dogs and CYBERQUEEN—are not perceived as giving us this dialogue. So we revert to treating the medium (that we so desperately want to legitimize) as vulgar juvenilia. Intimacy becomes a joke, because jokes are less threatening than earnest dialogues about intimacy—a thing western culture already tends to treat with mistrust and insecurity.

Think of games that depict sex or sexuality. Atari porn. Jiggle physics in Dead or Alive. Inside jokes in Dragon’s Quest and Legend of Zelda. Prostitution in Grand Theft Auto. Camera shots meant to appeal to the male gaze in games even where the potential for sex isn’t present. Even at best, we might think of troubled, but interesting attempts at representing intimate relationships in games like Catherine, Mass Effect or Dragon Age. I know I’ve missed a few.

While these games cover a wide swathe of approaches and philosophies what we think of when we think of sex in games generally translates to an aesthetic of objectification for the viewing pleasure of presumably straight, largely white, cisgender (i.e., possessing a gender identity corresponding to the one assigned at birth) men. And what is already conceptually problematic is generally worsened by gameplay which, if it comments at all on sex or intimacy as they’re depicted aesthetically, does so by making sex part of the power fantasy. Many play to a badly written script, like so many cheesy pornos. We fail to have a mainstream ongoing dialogue about intimacy within the games we play. And it should be no wonder that this is a mirror reflection of our failure to discuss sexual intimacy outside of games.

This failure in games “is indicative of a cultural sickness…discussing problems in art cannot be done without referring to culture,” Porpentine says.

Let’s imagine a torso. A bloodied, disembodied woman’s torso absolutely gushing with nubile patriotism, on which tits are the focal point. This torso—a collector’s edition resin statue regrettably released as part of the Dead Island: Riptide package—became the subject of scornful speculation among critics. Deep Silver later apologized for the misstep, but the statue is still worth consideration as an embodiment of this deeply failed dialogue we have with intimacy. Not only is this literal objectification, but if some of its few supporters are to be believed, it’s just a tacky joke in tune with the zombie genre. (If you can stomach it, read through some of the comment thread of this article to see what I mean—one actually calls the statue “hilarious.”)

This is a result of a culture that despises and fears erotic dialogue, and prefers to play into male power fantasies of sexual control—of the kind that make women into an object of sexual frustration. Women as sexual subjects are threatening, so to remove the threat, it’s easier to treat women like sexual objects. Humor is often a defence mechanism that people use to help themselves and others cope with difficult, traumatic or intimidating things. It can be a powerful tool for therapy or commentary, like the gallows humor of someone in despair. But other times, humor is used to bully, dehumanize and trivialize: this is how we can find a facsimile of mutilated woman’s torso funny. These culturally-entrenched power fantasies detach eroticism and intimacy from sexual depiction in games, and turn one group of subjects into stimulating objects to pacify and empower another. There is no dialogue here about sexuality or sensuality—it’s simply a one-way message. We get out of games what we put into them, and it is by this kind of pandering that games can become the worst kind of mainstream pornography. Press X to thrust.

It’s therefore rare to see discussion around games that treats our erotic relationship with them seriously, though perhaps decreasingly. To my mind, “Sex in Games: Rez+Vibrator,” which was published in 2002 on Game+Girl=Advanceby author Jane, is one of the most honest and compelling pieces of game criticism dealing with sensual eroticism in a video game. In the review, the author talks about her experience playing Rez with a “trance vibrator”—a device that seems to have been designed for no other reason than to physically stimulate the player. The author acknowledges Rez as an ostensibly “synaesthetic” game, then uses a (very) personal anecdote to connect this intended experience with the sexual one she and her partner Justin experienced while playing the game,

“After many of my langorous [sic] gasps and moans, we stopped playing, and tried to analyze the gameplay experience.”I don’t know exactly what the game designers intended with that trance vibrator thing – but it had to be this, right?”

‘It’s a total stoner game,’ said Justin.

‘But don’t you think this trance vibrator extension is so your girlfriend can get off while you’re playing the game? Or so a girl gamer can get off while she’s playing the game?’

‘It was a bit odd,’ said Justin, ‘my fingers were working the controls, but they were also kind of working you.’”

The review is raw, overtly sexual and intensely erotic. But it hints at something else: that there’s a sensual connection between the player and the system of the game. A game can elicit the erotic in a very real, very human sense without ever needing to rely on titillating camera shots. It suggests that there can be a physical and emotional dialogue that the player has with a game (and perhaps, other players) that can allow the player to get lost in a state of passion, ecstasy, intimacy—and therefore in a state of vulnerability.

“Pretty soon the levels and the images onscreen were just a faint blur to me. I knocked off my glasses and leaned back. I was in a daze. From far away, it seemed, I could hear Justin saying things like, “I made it to the next level!” and “This is cool!” but I was lost in my own little trance vibrating world,” reads the review.

In Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Uses of the Erotic,” which acknowledges the fundamental disconnection between pornography and eroticism, she writes,

“The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need – the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.”

In Lorde’s view, the kind of system that treats people like means to and end—rather than ends unto themselves—forces us to suppress intimate things, like insecurities or desires. Not only do we deny ourselves the ability to actually take joy in erotic dialogue, we also start denying that agency in others, and we lay the groundwork for a system that turns a blind eye to abuse and objectification. Instead, a system that engages with the erotic is one that respects the baring of human vulnerability and privileges consent built on trust.

It might be better, then, to consider game systems themselves—and what they tell us about intimacy and dialogue. Even games that have nothing to do with literal sex can tell us a lot about how the player is meant to deal with any kind of intercourse—be it physical, emotional or cerebral. Stephen Lavelle’s “Slave of God” bends colour and sound to relay sensations of intoxication, attraction, transcendence. It’s a very tactile, physical game that creates a distinct kind of empathy for the player-protagonist. It’s something that recreates a sensation that many of us can already relate to, and its mechanical and aesthetic design marry in order to invite us to a highly interpretive conversation about that particular experience. Live-action, performative games like Ninja or Johann Sebastian Joust can be thought of erotic in a tactile sense (they require the full use of the body and physical space), and orgiastic sense (they’re played by numerous people at a time, entailing a loss of inhibition in a group dynamic). They’re cerebral, physical and emotional—they force you to look kind of silly in front of people, to eschew social composure. That’s vulnerable. That’s intimate.

Anna Anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuckme, a far more sexually explicit hypertext game, asks the player to take on the role of a submissive to navigate a system based on the intimate exchange of a dom/sub relationship. In “Queer Explorers in an Intimate Frontier,” featured in Issue 8 of Ctrl+Alt+Defeat, Mattie Brice wrote,

“Encyclopedia drops the player in the middle of a relationship with plenty of sexual history and rules to get acquainted with. Here, there is little the player brings with them to the story, however a new relationship emerges. The main villain is reminiscent of the designer herself and you are constantly at war with her divisive tactics. How the player decides to find out the system’s pleasure spot is discovering something personal about Anna. Again, manipulating the relationship between the protagonist and villain would have undermined its meaning, because the player lacks the intimacy required to make it realistic. The main character goes through the physical adversity while the player gets the mental fuck; once the game is over, Anna has trained you to be a proper sub.”

Encyclopedia is a game that requires sensitivity, attention and active exchange between the player and the system to be able to achieve not only a positive, climactic ending, but to explore one’s relationship with physical transgression and power dynamics as elements of kink eroticism. On the other hand, take something like Nick Rudzicz’s “The American Dream: Are We Not Drawn Onward to New Era?” which abstracts sex as an action as much as possible. Far removed from the explicit vocabulary of something like Encyclopedia, “The American Dream,” made according to the one-button constraint of the Kokoromi Collective’s GAMMA IV event, strips sex of any pretence of sensuality or romance and turns it into a function of mechanics. The game is composed of a number of black-and-white, abstract minigames all representing some allegedly-necessary facet of modern life. These facets are represented as monosyllabic words (work, kids, shop, pray), plotted along what appears to be a clock, with a hand even moving clockwise as though the words were numbers. Sex is represented by the word “fuck” on the clock, right before “kids.”

Playing on my phone, I tap a split-screen where I’m encouraged to get both sides to “orgasm,” hitting little pellets to either earn points or bring a side closer to completion. It’s sort of like a vertical Pong that requires a repetitive tapping input. No torn clothing, no care for the needs or desires of one side or the either. No groping or moaning or staggered breathing. No adventure exploring a lover’s body and mind. The only minor tension is the one pulling me to do something productive before the game’s timer runs out. I don’t even really need to make them both come.

It’s sex that’s oddly sexless: mechanical, eerily clinical and strictly monogamous. By stripping sex of emotion, what does “The American Dream” invite us to consider about sex as a function of contemporary domestic life?

These are a handful of examples of games that investigate sex, sexuality, eroticism and the sensual. These are games that allow us to think about sensation, feeling, desire and relationships, sometimes in discomfiting ways. These are games that are in dialogue with us about sex and the erotic. And by tapping into fundamentally human intimacy, a fraught thing full of nuance and vulnerability, they appeal to us as adults to investigate these concepts and feelings in ourselves and in our culture.

We can take joy in the erotic; we can understand each other as sexual subjects; we can learn to engage in discussions about intimacy instead of trying to deny our insecurities by escaping into power fantasies. We can build a better dialogue about sex and sexuality both within and outside of games. We can do it without sniggering. I promise you, it’s hotter than porn.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Industry Life Reflections

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

5 Responses to “Pushing Buttons”

  1. shuu_iam

    Interesting article. This seems like somewhere that the Assasin’s Creed games have done fairly well–there’s a sex scene at the beginning of ACII: Brotherhood which has as much or more female gaze and autonomy as male: it starts with Ezio in the bath, and when his partner joins, she is very insistent about staying on top–but the Ezio games were pretty good as far as inclusion went all through (you can recruit female assasins, who dress identical to the male ones, etc.). But in games in general? … Yeah.

    A scene in Heavy Rain really bothered me for use of the male gaze: the main character, a woman, is pretending to be a stripper–I think to get alone with a guy? I was watching someone else playing and don’t remember all the details. But the guy’s being mildly threatening, and it turns into “press triangle to unzip your dress, press square to do a sexy dance”… and then “press circle to brain him with a lamp”. It frustrated me because female players were forced to go through the objectification and victimization while empathizing with the character–if the game makers were going to put in the objectification, couldn’t they at least have had an option for players who didn’t want to see it to grab the lamp from the start? Instead we’re forced to go through it, forced to feel less than, for no real reason at all.

    • Sean Phillips

      I thought that scene was much better than that. Yes, the woman was being objectified, but she was actively seeking out this objectification, and using it as a weapon against this man. She sought him out, and used her sexuality as a tool to get him under her power (the scene leads to him being tied up while she questions him if i remember correctly).

      There were quite a few just plain bad sexual situations for that character, and one could certainly argue disproportionately so, but at the very least, not one single situation was purely for the sake of a male sexual fantasy, every single one was in some way important to the story or character. In fact, I think some of them, the scenes that use fear of rape or assault, and even (or maybe especially) just plain objectification by other male characters, were done in a way that allows male players to experience those feelings that so many real life women and so few real life men have to feel, and maybe develop some empathy that wasn’t there before.

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