[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, writer Tom Cross examines reaction to the sexuality of games like Mass Effect and The Ballad of Gay Tony, analyzing why there's so much fear and discomfort with it.
Video game designers, PR companies, and gamers are deeply worried about sex.
Now hear me out: the average “mainstream" game is both obsessed with a peculiarly fragmented (but extremely popular in mainstream culture) version of hypersexuality -- and deathly afraid of more realistic, meaningful sexual connection. There's a reason our games are filled with snarling, emotionless (aside from their totally straight love for their buddies) bros and women being crushed under the weight of their oversexed characterization.
People are very worried about sex. The worry may vary in its shape, orientation, and direction, but it is still something that makes a lot of people very nervous. They're very worried about thinking about sex. They're worried that thinking about sex, or consuming certain representations of sex will show them to be any of a number of deviant, unpopular, stigmatized representations of sexuality (or worse, to be party to those sexualities themselves).
Video games culture (at its most “hardcore”) is, after all, already a shunned, de-masculinized (in the public eye) subset of white guy culture. White men who are dorks or gamers have struggled to build up some new brand of masculinity (which will never be as good, white, and manly as proper mainstream masculinity, and white guy geeks know this) around their deplored hobby, and, as always, once they solidified that identity, they needed a new Other, a new group to define as being less than and harmful to the grand, old tradition of white male gaming. In the kingdom of the white gamer, anyone obviously not white and/or male, or anyone professing to enjoy sexuality not strictly in line with white heterosexuality is both a worry and a threat.
Confusion, Desperation, Dehumanization
There’s a reason why the gaming press’ (and gamers’) reactions to Nier’s possibly intersex character
are so shrilly uncertain and alarmed. They are worried that something that they think brings their own sexuality into question will be part of a game they play, and that they will subsequently have to accept that sexuality as something that exists and can be commonplace (the Other becoming in any small way the Normal is definitely high on any list of peoples’ fears).
At the same time, many heterosexual gamers are desperately trying, every day, to prove that they are really interested in sex, because they are totally not like those gay/bi/cis/not traditionally straight/not-white/etc. people (play XBL or Call of Duty
to find out how worried they are).
There are so many different kinds of sex and sexuality to avoid, it's a wonder people even play games with "sexy" stuff in them in the first place. It’s also surprising that companies work so hard to inject this “sexiness” into their games: they are dealing with a volatile, reactionary mainstream audience. Of course, “sex sells,” as long as it is designed for the straight white viewer, and when calibrated properly, can appeal to worried, pointedly, carefully heterosexual people.
Which is why designers normally don't do anything more than throw a few “sultry” big-breasted women into a game to appeal (so they hope) to the easiest to please of gamers. It's why they make sure their games are peculiarly non-sexual, despite all their to-ing and fro-ing about sexy women. Your average game (if it features any romantic or sexual tones or scenes, which are quite different from the vapid display of female flesh so common in games) will play out like this: a hero or heroes will do their thing. They'll do it (and mostly, they'll all be men), and be very good friends with each other. Maybe they're comrades, soldiers, best, old friends, or family.
But suddenly, a problem arises. What problem? They might be gay (after all, they are very good friends). Or maybe they might be too open about themselves with each other, making them unfit for proper masculinity. So a new element is needed. One that makes them both straight and the Right Kind of Man. We could call it a Beard, but in this article, we'll call this new element "Women."
Women, Beards, and Keeping Things "Sexy"
Women are tricky. You need them to prove your hero’s straightness, but you can't have them be too powerful, smart, or likeable, because then your audience might A) like the female character over the male characters, B) feel threatened by the smart/strong/interesting female character.
So you turn her into a cutout, a representation of a representation of a woman, so far removed from what actual, interesting living women are like, she might as well be a robot. Then you make sure that she is “very sexy.” You do this by hypersexualizing her, emphasizing various physical attributes and character tics, so that she is denigrated, turned into a walking, talking re-affirmation of the player's (and just as importantly, the male hero’s) masculinity and heterosexuality.
You make sure that she has no character, that she is weak and annoying, or pitiable, or constantly in need of help, and you make it clear that she is sexually available to the player (implied) and to one of the male characters (implied, but also shown, sometimes).
Video games are, of course, just aping their older relative, film. Take a look at films both old and new: from Transformers to Casablanca, movies have carefully built up a bank of screen women who exist to titillate and tempt the audience, even as they reinforce their own uselessness and expendability.
This is all very well for our hypothetical designer. Following this set of tactics, we get the Russian Sexy Lady (who is, in the end, proved to be pathetically chasing after a Man’s Love) from inFamous
, all of the female characters in Alpha Protocol
(as seen in previews, at least), all of the female NPCs in Risen (depressingly), and many other games. Of course, it isn't always this blunt. Sometimes it's subtle.
"Strong" Women and Disidentification
Sometimes we are given "strong women" (although that too is now a meaningless term, used by producers and PR types to say "oh yeah, we have a female hero"), who are quickly made available/inferior to the audience on a physical and visual level (think Lara Croft's various idling animations and advertising campaigns, especially the box art for the recent Underworld, which depicts her as a headless body). Other times, women are the subject of systematic, vicious in-game violence at every turn, so there can be no doubt about their place (GTA IV
springs to mind).
We don’t need studies to tell us the obvious: overwhelmingly, the characters available for player-identification in video games are men. If video games are more successful when they create characters that players can identify with and transpose their experiences to and from, then it is obvious that it’s safer to make male characters (and characters that facilitate male gaze and male identification) that represent what the hardcore, heterosexual mainstream wants (this is, of course, ignoring the fact that in actuality women and people of color buy many more games than PR people and video game companies want to believe).
Tomb Raider and the like (from Drakan
to Perfect Dark Zero
to Heavenly Sword
) are subversively designed to help male gamers to disidentify with the female heroine. Those of us who want to empathize with and identify with these women can, but that’s not what they’re designed to aid the player in doing (unless a smart, sure hand like Valve’s or Naughty Dog’s is at the wheel). Everything about the average, exploitatively designed video game heroine is angled towards her delegitimization and subjugation.
Of course, these tactics aren't just used on heterosexual women. Off the top of my head, I can think of the same kinds of denigrating, stereotyping tactics being used upon black people (any game with black people), gay people (to a lesser extent, because they're almost too scary to straight gamers to put in games), and various other marginalized groups.
Gay Tony, Acceptance, and The Price of "Inclusion"
When such groups are included in games, they have to be both lionized and defanged. After all, it’s all well and good to say that your game revolves around a gay character (and it sure looks good when you put it in your title, a la Ballad of Gay Tony
, even if that game focuses on Tony’s best friend and partner), but you, as a designer, can’t leave it at that. The game has to constantly deflect and delegitimize (in certain dramatic, narrative ways) that portion of the story.
Even an article like Gus Mastrapa’s “The Ballad of Gay Tony: Who is the Man,”
which argues for the game (and Rockstar’s) maturity and admirable stance on the portrayal of gays and minorities in games, must admit that Rockstar has created all of these characters with extreme reservations.
He lauds the game for its "better-than-most" history, when compared to other video games, including Rockstar’s stupid, offensive earlier games, one of which (GTA IV
, as opposed to its expansions) only included two prominent gay characters. One character existed only to be killed; his characterization in the game revolved solely around his homosexuality and the ways that his orientation allowed hero Nico Bellic to kill him. The other, Bernie Cran, spends most of his screen time acting out typical homophobic stereotypically "gay" methods of expression and socialization. He's characterized weak, effeminate, and useless.
He argues that Rockstar is trying to create less offensive, alarming minority caricatures, but he also cannot deny that they still work to keep such undesirables at arms length: "There's no hanky-panky happening, even though every jerk in Liberty City likes to infer as much. Luis is profoundly heterosexual. At first, tales of his prowess come secondhand. Dude has a reputation. But just in case the player (or anybody else in Liberty City) doubts Luis' manhood, we see the man pick up and hook up with a club-goer in Maisonette. Luis makes some Hot Coffee right there in the club; then, fairly suavely, gets back down to the business of security. But you gotta wonder: Is Luis (and, behind the scenes, Rockstar) putting on a show -- maybe overcompensating a little?”
It’s telling that Mastrapa uses the main character’s rejection of the word “nigger” as a derogatory slur as an argument for the game’s good intentions. It might be a sentiment that most people would not disagree with, but that’s why Rockstar can make it: it’s a safe “liberal” and “progressive” thing to say. Even the worst denizens of XBL might (but many don’t) hesitate to use such words in the presence of people who have experienced such racism first-hand.
To say this, is, of course, to ignore Rockstar’s continued, gleefully expressed misogyny and anti-Semitism, to pick the most obvious targets. If Rockstar is to be commended for this game (and forgiven for their previous sins), then the industry as a whole is in terrible shape. How many decades behind the rest of America are video games right now?
Sexuality, "Mature" Content, and Actual Maturity
Whenever a game goes against the grain and tries to create characters and situations that aren't horrible and offensive, it's amazing, if it’s done well. It's incredibly unexpected and welcome, even if, when compared to most games, it’s a cold comfort. What happens more often is that marginalized groups are presented at their most cliched and stereotyped; they are offered up as people the player can laugh at and ridicule freely, knowing that the designers, and the society that the designers and players live in, has their backs.
It's also why it isn't surprising that the Prince and Elika (I'm going to assume that disapproval on her front was a little quieter) are so alarming to people. They represent a kind of sexuality seldom seen in games. That this kind of portrayal is positively quaint when compared to those seen in other medias is telling of video games’ (and video gamers’ and designers’) inability to accept even the tamest of interesting, mature sexual situations. Again, let us not forget that this inability does not extend to "sexy" and "mature" content as can be found in such laudable titles as Warrior Within
and The Witcher
, games whose "mature" sexual explorations often fell flat on their faces.
There are mistakes in the story and writing that surround the Prince and Elika. There are bits that people miss, and conversations that get played at the wrong time. Yes, their relationship is not as smoothly, palatably designed as some. In fact, when you look at Among Thieves
, Nolan North’s other recent voice-acting effort, you see a game that gets away with high levels of sexual innuendo (and worse, genuine emotional connections between less-than-stereotypical adults!). How do they do it?
(This article is a companion to those articles that precede and follow it, but it is also in many ways a primer and an initial discussion of sex and sexualization in games. I would be remiss if I didn't link to every single blog and site that focuses on these issues (in much greater detail). Forgive me, then, as for now I will just link to The Border House, an excellent collective blog and resource for those interested in having more such discussions. If you follow that link, please be polite and courteous.)
[Next week, Tom will turn the same lens on
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and examine that game's successes and failures. Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and Popmatters, is the Associate Editor at Sleeper Hit, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]