Opinion: Channel 4's Privates Controversy

In this opinion piece, UK writer Lewis Denby considers a feminist approach to Zombie Cow's new Channel 4-commissioned game, the controversial Privates, aimed at teaching safe sex to teenagers.
[In this new Gamasutra opinion piece, UK writer Lewis Denby considers a feminist approach to Zombie Cow's new Channel 4-commissioned game, the controversial Privates, aimed at teaching safe sex to teenagers.] I'm still not quite sure what I make of this article, posted on Hoyden About Town. It's a blog, according to its header image, about "life, laughs, science, progressive politics and foiling diabolical masterminds." What that roughly translates as is: a feminist blog which touches on several other topics, one that's nicely written and picks up on some decent issues. It's by no means a blog about games. But one author, going by the name of Lauredhel, noticed something untoward in a press release for Zombie Cow's new sex education game, Privates. From it, she deduced that "no matter how much we try to make excuses for them and work to find the positive aspects of this sort of game, the developers are dead set on regaling us with their hatred of women." I feel it's important to establish something rather firmly before I go any further. While I wasn't previously familiar with Hoyden About Town, I have browsed the archives, and it appears to be smart stuff. The comments thread on the article in question, while scattered with nastiness from both sides of the arguments for the first 50-or-so comments, eventually developed into an interesting discussion. The author herself has been largely absent throughout the aftermath, but other writers on the blog have been keen to engage in debate. And, most importantly, I absolutely agree with the core message that emerges from the discussion: that certain language, whether intentionally misogynistic or not, can subtly perpetuate sexist ideas that have become engrained within our society. So, Privates. It's an upcoming game from Zombie Cow, of Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please! fame. Both games are absolutely offensive and equally hilarious. Privates is the result of a commission from UK media outlet Channel 4, who have spoken at a number of conferences recently about their desire to reach teenage boys as part of their education remit. The game itself features an elite squad of condom-hatted commandos who invade the unmentionable areas of various STI-infected characters, attempting to stamp out those infections. In other words: it's a game promoting safe sex to teenagers who'd usually tune out during scientific and impersonal sex education lessons. That can only be a good thing, right? Disembodied Genitals Well, Hoyden About Town's Lauredhel disagrees. "Could a sex ed game based on STD shoot-em-up be useful?" she initially muses, before concluding that, if so, this isn't the right way to go about it. "This videogame sure is a good example of disembodied genitals," she notes -- "Genitals presented as 'hostile territory' at that, and with invading military forces not, apparently, bothering to gain any sort of consent." The crux of her argument is that, in its attempt to appeal to teenage boys, Privates has taken an egregious route of positioning sexual partners as nothing more than a set of genitals to conquer, and that the game displays women as filthy and disease-ridden in the process -- not, one would expect, the angle Zombie Cow were aiming for. But that's the first thing that nags me about the article: Lauredhel does indeed seem to think that's exactly what they were going for. "The authors make a stab at promoting this as a sex ed game," she says, pointing at the press release, which begins with a tabloid-aping "Britain. Land of Hope and Glory-holes. Where pregnant, waddling teenagers take up the full width of the pavement with their oversized triplet pushchairs, unaware that their rampant, perpetual humping has filled them to the brim with all manner of grotty infections." At its most callous, the article struck me as tremendously bad reporting. No attempt was made to contact the developer -- nor, it would seem, to position the game within its important context. To suggest Zombie Cow were "making a stab" at promoting Privates as a sex education game seems to somewhat understate the fact that it was comissioned for exactly that purpose. Readers arriving at the article from Rock, Paper, Shotgun's 'The Sunday Papers' links roundup were quick to pounce, also suggesting that the author missed the parody of the press release, which offers a sly wink at the British tabloid press' obsession with teen pregnancy rates in the country. Deja Vu And that's when something struck me. As the debate raged on, I thought back to something I wrote last year in this very column. Having read an article in The Telegraph, I penned a fuming rebuttal to what, at the time, I felt was an entirely horrible article about women's boyfriends being unceremoniously stolen by an addiction to Modern Warfare 2. Read it here, and try not to cringe as much as I did when you realise what's going on. Because, indeed, I was later informed by a friend of mine who writes for The Telegraph that Hannah Betts' piece was -- you guessed it -- intended as a parody of the videogame-fearing tabloid press. The same tabloid press that Zombie Cow lay into in their press release -- and I was quick enough off the mark with that one. Oops. And yet, while I'm all too aware that I might have made a bit of a blunder there, in a way I stand by what I wrote all those months ago. Joke or no joke, certain language does have the potential to perpetuate nasty ideas. "It's just a gag" doesn't cut it. I know this having studied language and gender at university; if you've thrown your life into feminist theory, press releases like Zombie Cow's are always going to stir up some rage inside you. And it's a shame. It's absolutely a shame, because as it turns out, neither Hannah Bets nor Zombie Cow intended any offense whatsoever with what they wrote. Instead, they both attempted to address a very specific audience, while subtly mocking those who do not share their ideals. And in both cases, someone got offended -- in the first case it was me; in the second, Lauredhel. I think Privates is a great idea. I think it's bang on target in terms of promoting safe sex to adolescent males -- and unless things have changed dramatically in the last seven years, goodness knows the UK's National Curriculum isn't doing so well in that respect. But now, I re-read the press release, and while a part of me still cracks a smile, another part cringes. I don't think Hoyden About Town's reporting was strong. I do think that both sides of the debate in the comments thread went alarmingly overboard, often refusing to listen to the opposing point of view. But I do think the author has a point. If you're making a sex education game, you're dealing with serious issues -- and unless you take that absolutely seriously, you're always at risk of dropping the ball. You have no idea how strong the urge was to make a gag about that last line. [Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. He's clean, last time he checked.]

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