Call For Comments: Sex, Gender and Video Games

From Mav: Way back on our third show, we talked about violence in video games. It was a fascinating show. Neither Wayne or I are experts, so that was the first time we called in both Katya and Abby to run the discussion. It was great. I learned a lot. Chief among the things I learned was how little I knew about a lot of what is going on in games today. In particular, while we were discussing the game Witcher 3, the conversation segued a bit from violence in video games into sex in video games (because sex is a big part of the plot of the entire Witcher series),  and that was even more fascinating to me. We said right then that we’d have to revisit it and come back for a sequel. This is that sequel!

Even though sex and sexuality is a big part of my research with comics and movies and TV and other pop culture, a lot of it escapes me with videos games. One of the reasons is that I’m just not as big a gamer as an adult as I was as a kid. I have a PS4, but I never really got super into long form role-playing games. Back when I started playing video games, characters barely had gender much less sexuality… I mean, sure Ms. Pacman had that super sexy bow in her hair, and one can only imagine that there was something kinky going on with Mario, Pauline and Donkey Kong. After that, the next sexiest game from that era I guess is… I dunno… Pong? I mean, probably. Pretty much like 90% of video games in the early 80s were basically Pong.

At least to me, the thing that maybe changed all of this during the 8-bit era was probably 1986’s Metroid. I remember how innovative and shocking it was AT THE TIME. The fact that you could traverse the entire game and get to the end all of a sudden to have your avatar strip off his armor (more and more depending on how well you did) and “HOLY SHIT! BOOBS! You’ve been playing a girl all along!!!” Brains melted. I actually find Metroid to be oddly innovative and transgressive for gender representation in gaming. Since the game makes no real reference to Samus’s gender throughout the bulk of the gameplay, it essentially makes the argument that playing a female character and a male character are effectively the same thing. Of course, this is undercut in that the reward for doing well in the game is being able to see her (yourself?) in her underwear.  So the male gaze must still be in effect. I mean, I guess. As an 8-bit character the only thing that really differentiated her from any male-sprite was that she was wearing a bra (or well, you know, two 8-bit pixelated pink circles) to represent boobs. I’m not convinced anyone who won the game with fewer points and only got to see her unmasked would have totally gotten that the long hair meant “girl.” It was 1986. She might as well have been Bret Michaels.

That said, the idea of rewarding video game play with sexiness isn’t exactly new. Three years before that, there was the game Dragon’s Lair. It was an amazing technological achievement for the time. Utilizing state-of-the-art (for 1983) Laserdisc technology, it had far better graphics than anything available in that day. Light years beyond. Honestly, the Don Bluth animation that makes up the game is arguably more visually stunning than 99% of games that have come out in the 35 years sense. Seriously, it’s gorgeous. The plot of the game is relatively simple. You are Dirk the Daring, a comedic and slightly incompetent knight, who is off to rescue Princess Daphne, a blonde damsel-in-distress wearing a thong leotard with a neckline that plunged below her navel under a sheer see through dress, that pretty much is Bluth’s way of saying to 9-year old boys in the 80s “Hey, are you in puberty yet? Well, it’s about to start!” And that’s the game. Rescue the princess and she will fuck you (you don’t see it, but seriously, that’s pretty much the only way to interpret the narrative and it’s more explicitly stated in some of the sequels). Seriously, the whole walk through is on youtube… it’s less than 12 minutes. You can just watch it.

A simple ,tried and true narrative. Twelve minutes! And it was also pretty much impossible to play. The game supposedly racked up like $32million in sales in the fist eight months. But I’m pretty sure this was mainly because it’s just impossible to figure out and like 32 kids each pumped a million dollars worth of quarters into the damn thing. As I said, this is an era where video games consisted of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Asteroids and like 349,782 derivations of Pong. Games where you pushed left to go left, right to go right, and maybe there was a jump or shoot button. MAYBE! Dragon’s Lair had no specific physics. It was all about memorizing which random direction to push the joystick in any given situation and then executing it with split second timing, just to avoid dying and make your way to the half naked princess who spends the whole game moaning like a late night Cinemax softcore porn actress. And then you mess up and die and put in another quarter. And another… and another. Seriously, I never really got into it… I couldn’t afford Dragon’s Lair.

And that probably had a lot to do with me basically giving up on the role-playing game genre of video games. I never really got into your Final Fantasies or your Assassins Creeds. This of course also meant that I missed out on the specifically sexualized games that came later, be they the crappy ones like Leisure Suit Larry and Night Trap or the eventual evolution into what I am at least told are quite interesting and playable games like the God of War series. I did play a little Grand Theft Auto. But mostly I was more into the open world driving and robbing stuff… and not so much the actual storyline. No hot coffee for me.

It also means that I lack the appreciable skills to really effectively play games like Witcher 3 which I bought and have been fooling around with in preparation for this podcast. I am quite intrigued by the game because of the amount of attention it is getting on the net. I expected to see just a bunch of “OMG, Yennefer is so fucking HAWT!” vs “Naw dude, Triss is fucking HAWT!” and (particularly after the conversation on the last episode) a fair amount of “Geralt is so fucking HAWT!”

And honestly there’s a lot of that, of course.

But there are also a bunch of people giving more thought to it. In particular I was fascinated by one video that detailed the narrative tension created by a major female character, Rosa, that you CAN’T have sex with. And the video makes some interesting points about creating tension through subverting narrative expectations with unresolved plot threads. Of course it sort of doesn’t really deal with the fact that, you know… maybe not all women want to have sex with all men… but you know… male gaze again. And there’s apparently a huge debate about this in the Witcher fandom with some players being greatly disturbed by the fact that they there’s is one particular virtual female character they can’t fuck. Similarly, there’s debate as to whether or not it is appropriate to want a sex scene between Geralt and Ciri, his adopted daughter, or whether we should at least get to see her have a sex scene of her own without him (neither happens). Even the people against it seem to be mostly squicked out by the idea that it’s incest (if only by adoption) and relatively accepting of the fact that he should fuck everyone else. I find these debates endlessly fascinating.

And I am super amused by the fact that the game apparently punishes you if you attempt to get both of the main two female love interests, Triss and Yennefer, into bed at the same time. Of course, in accordance with our Sex, Gender and Fanfic episode… and as per Rule 34, the internet has of course “fixed this” (Seriously, that is WAY NSFW. You’ve been warned). This is super important stuff that I really need to analyze.

Unfortunately, because I suck at video games,  I’m still trying to work out the basics of moving around and using my swords and stuff… without getting killed by a level one monster… so I haven’t gotten to any of the exciting sex stuff that I guess is supposed to by my payoff according to Katya, Abby and everyone else who tells me how awesome the game is. So once again, I am going to be yielding to their expertise, and I’m looking forward to what they (and anyone else with more knowledge than me, like this week’s new guest Link Copp-Millward) have to say on this topic.

From Link: Hi, new person here. Brief background, I’m an approaching mid-30s guy who has been playing games (and roleplaying games) since preschool. Oh, and despite what my nickname may imply, I’m actually not THAT into the Zelda franchise. It’s just that when you’re 11 and need to come up with a name for your Elf character for the online roleplay chatroom you don’t expect people to actually use that nickname for you when you meet them IRL years later and for it to spread from there.

So, like Mav, my first REAL experience with gender in games was Metroid… or I guess I should say Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64, where Samus was my preferred character and I later found out that he was in fact a she. She’s pretty much been my favorite heroine in games ever since (even though I’ve never finished Super Metroidor Metroid, I’m such a poser.) I really love the history around it for all the reasons Mav said, it was so unheard of at the time. She continued to break the norm of “princesses” or “priestesses” that permeated games through the ’90s and early Aughts.

She still suffered from her play style being stuck in a stereotyped gender role, but gaming is getting a little better about that. By which I mean, back in the early days “Women = Agile & Men = Strong”, which is something that was very noticeable in the Fighting genre with Street Fighter or Beat ’em Ups like Streets of Rage. We’re getting a bit more diverse with that nowadays with characters like Zarya from Overwatch, thankfully.

But, what I really wanted to touch on here is the magic of gaming/roleplaying (I promise we’re going to get to the Sex thing here, bear with me) and how you’re given the freedom not just to be an Elf, but a Female Elf or a Black Lesbian Space Marine or in my case during Dragon Age Inquisition… a Gay Dwarven Warrior.

I’m a big fan of Bioware’s efforts to tell story lines from various viewpoints. It makes their universes such a rewarding playground to play in. Even more so the Dragon Age franchise where you’re never playing the same character twice (unlike Mass Effect which carries you through as the same character throughout the main trilogy.) So, for me, I opted to play through the 3rd game in the franchise as a Male Gay Dwarf Warrior, a race and class I usually never play… hell, even a gender I usually don’t play when given an option. It was by far one of the most rewarding gameplay experiences (and romance options) I’ve had in a roleplaying game.

I know gaming for a lot of people is sort of a “self-insert” power fantasy (it’s why we have so many straight white guy protagonists) but occasionally games will let you be somebody else, somebody REALLY different from yourself (or maybe for some kids out there discovering things about themselves, who they REALLY are or for others FINALLY being able to see your skin color/gender represented as a main character.) I think that’s wild and awesome. I love the idea that some teenage kid out there still wrestling with their sexuality might have things ‘click’ for them THROUGH video games where they’re given the option to romance a gay character.

There’s really something for everyone out there nowadays, not just thanks to the roleplaying games, but the other side of that coin… DATING GAMES (Visual Novels.) Which is a genre I’ve ONLY just dipped my toe into because it’s well… it’s a bit of a minefield and it’s heavily influenced by Japanese culture, Anime, etc. so… well… you might end up on a watchlist if you’re not careful.

However, if you ARE careful, there’s a lot of really interesting ‘naughty’ games out there (a lot of them western made) like Dream Daddy, Ladykiller in a Bind, and if you’re into birds (no, not the British slang term for woman) Hatoful Boyfriend. There’s even entire deconstructions of the dating game genre with the meta-horror “Doki Doki Literature Club”. It’s certainly a genre that’s bringing sex (and romance) to the forefront of gaming and slowly becoming a little less ‘taboo’ as time goes on.

I have plenty more to say, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming show and hearing everyone’s stories/experiences. Games have definitely come a LONG way since trying to get into bed with Seth the Bard or Violet the Barmaid in Legend of the Red Dragon (kudos to you, 1 person out there who remembers BBS and understood this reference.)

From Katya: I have sort of the opposite problem as Mav on this topic, I play and study video games but I don’t think as much about gender and sexuality in them. Upon reflection I think it results from a lifetime of trying to ignore it as much as possible.

I started playing video games as a kid in the mid-90s and the vast majority of female representation I encountered— when I saw it at all— fell within the save-the-damsel or the sexy-scantly-clad-fighter (whose boobs defy physics in not falling out of their suit while their summersaulting to plant a foot in some dude’s face.) I was never a lover of princesses in need of rescue and so these— or at least the female characters in them— I largely ignored. I had a complicated relationship with the sexy-fighter archetype. On the one hand, THERE WERE GIRLS BEATING UP BOYS. As a young girl with an older brother and living in a neighborhood with mostly boys—and no other girls that played video games– this spoke to me on a deep level. Even my little 7 year old brain wasn’t into the way they were dressed, mainly because I wanted armor and badassery and less pink and ribbons, but these girls weren’t passive victims so I latched onto those characters when I found them.

I never played Metroid, which was before my time, but I distinctly remember being introduced to her as Samus Aran in Super Smash Bros. The game was an essential mode of sibling smack-downs between my brother and I. Once I was complaining that there were no cool girls to play as— when my brother told me Samus is a girl. My 9 year old mind was blown. In SSB, Samus is always depicted in her Power Suit and games had trained me to equate massive armor only with male characters. The idea that one of the characters I thought of as the most badass— and the one we often fought over— was a girl made my little nerd heart so happy. My reaction probably would have been different if I’d met the character in Metroid for many of the reasons Mav and Link have already covered because her appearance in SSB lacks a lot of the sexualization that occurs in most of her appearances, most likely because the game was intended for kids. Nonetheless, finding a character that wasn’t a side character and was badass in her own right was huge for me and not something I encountered very much.

As an adult, I’ve become most fond of playing games where I get to design my own character, almost regardless of genre. Bethesda and BioWare games usually see multiple play throughs from me simply because I get to make characters that I can see myself in— and a woman gets to be the hero. My experience with these is a little different than Link’s, role playing is less about exploring alternative identities for me than actually getting to create a version of myself in the game. I’ll play as other species, races, sexual-orientations etc. but I almost never play a male avatar (the one exception is in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Dorian is always my in-game bestie regardless of sexuality but of course had to pursue that romance plot at least once.)

It’s not that I don’t appreciate role playing as a fun part of gaming but if you’re female— or anyone who isn’t a straight, white man really—role playing isn’t a genre it’s almost every game you play. Again, back to my childhood; my brother and I played most of the same games but the experience of identity was vastly different. My brother was trying on versions of his adult self, I was trying on versions of my brother’s adulthood rather than my own. While for many gamers, role playing games are a space to be someone else, for me they’re one of the few opportunities I put myself in the game the way white, male gamers get to all the time. The difference in experience is put pretty simply by looking at the line-up of characters my brother and I made when we played co-op in Destiny regularly. My brother plays as male and female avatars pretty equally. Mine? All female. All different looking and different races but all. Women. Always.

I do want to throw a small wrench into some of what me and my fellow contributors have brought up here and will do more so of in the pod. The over sexualization of female characters is an important issue, but so too is the over-masculinization of women. Metroid/Samus Aran is actually a perfect illustration as to why; you don’t necessarily know (as I didn’t) that Samus is female because her armor reads as very masculine. Though I think Mav’s reading of that as a statement of equality is a good one, it also suggests that in order for women to have strength they have to look and behave like men. Roleplaying as male, even on the part of the character, becomes the source of agency and a survival technique. This reinforces the message of gaming as female to begin with: to play the game, you have to fit into some mold of masculinity yourself. I’d rather see my ladies in armor and owning their womanhood— not passing as men just to get into the club.

From Mav: See, I’m learning stuff already. I’m really looking forward to this episode. But we also want to know what you think. What other issues of sex, sexuality or gender as it relates to video games and video game characters should we discuss. Let us know your thoughts in the comments and then join us for our discussion on the next episode of the VoxPopcast.

9 Replies to “Call For Comments: Sex, Gender and Video Games”

  1. On a mostly unrelated note, Leisure Suit Larry had one of the most amusing age checks ever. It asked you questions that only someone 18+ should know. So, I ended up running up the stairs and asking my mom questions like who was Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. I assume she thought I was playing digital Jeopardy or something. An adult today almost certainly couldn’t get through the age check without using an internet search.

    1. that’s actually a pretty interesting way to do security. Obviously it wouldn’t work today… because google. But I wonder if it was reasonable even back then. I imagine that in the mid 80s, since most households that had computers were definitely one computer households, it was likely fairly common for that one computer to be seated next to the family’s Encyclopedia collection….

  2. Okay, I texted back and forth with Mav on this and he demanded that I post my thoughts here, which is fine. But I’m lazy so I’m going to copy and paste here:

    [Mav’s] references to other players’ debates about Geralt with Yen vs Geralt with Triss, should we be creeped out by the idea of Geralt with Ciri (in my humble opinion– YES. EW. SACRILEGE.), brings to light a sort of… conflict between players’ desires and the game’s narrative. Sex IS a big part of TW3. But unlike in games like GTA or the games [Mav] referenced that are specifically designed to provide uninhibited sexual escapades, TW3 treats sex itself as relationship-building or destroying, it has social consequences. If Geralt romantically pursues Triss early in the game and then decides to sleep with Yennefer later in the game, then neither woman (both of whom have a long history together) will want to actually stay in a relationship with Geralt.

    In a DLC, Geralt has the opportunity to sleep with a woman with whom he had a casual fling before(in the book series). She and he still very much view this as a casual, though romantic encounter. But there are no lasting consequences if he chooses not to sleep with her. They part as friends either way.

    So anyway, [Mav brings] up good points. sex is treated differently by CDProjekt Red. It is not a gameplay mechanic. It is not just something that players can run around and do with loads of women with impunity. CDPR acknowledges sex as integral to and part of Geralt’s relationships with other characters (per the book series’ approach), as a storytelling device. If players abuse it, Geralt faces realistic repurcussions. Which leads to players debating all of this– you probably wouldn’t find this sort of intensive character discussion with overly “sexy” games.

    So I guess CDPR/TW3 shows sex as story, games like GTA show sex as gameplay and player gratification, and BioWare is right in the middle with Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

    In ME/DA, you get to create your character and then play through storylines where everything you do has consequences, some on the level of the Butterfly Effect. And you can choose for your character to sleep with and start a romance with one character, and the game shows all sorts of content to gratify the player pursuing that, AND the player can then have their character go and have sex with someone else…but…that will basically put the current relationship in jeopardy.

    — That’s the end of my chat with Mav, if anyone has thoughts on this I’m happy to keep pitching in!

    1. Apparently in P5, if you put in the effort to start a relationship with all romance-able ladies, they ALL break up with the protagonist on Valentine’s Day. Which I just love.

  3. But to put my comment in a nutshell, you definitely can’t characterize sex in video games in just one way. They may serve a singular purpose to give gamers instant gratification (like driving around picking up prostitutes in GTA), or they may allow players to explore a romantic storyscape and build their own story (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), or they are a means to more deeply understand a world and the characters in it (The Witcher franchise).

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