News & Commentary, Screen, Video Games

Video games: The war on sex has to stop

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A puritanical approach to sex themes is stymying our games industry writes Matt Sainsbury.  
One of the major games released this year on the Nintendo Wii U is the very adult, very dark, and very frightening Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.
Considered to be one of the most intelligent, transgressive, and narratively rich horror franchises in the long history of the horror genre, Fatal Frame also has a reputation for fully embracing the close relationship between horror and eroticism. From Dracula right through to the slasher horror, sex has been a recurrent theme in our spooky tales, and there’s no real mystery why; historically and culturally there has been a resistance, even fear, to the emotive power of the sexual experience, which has led to religions demonising it and politicians trying to enact controls over it, as they do drugs on the streets.
Fatal Frame embraces that relationship between sex and fear by providing players with some incredibly sexy costumes to dress characters up with. They’re optional, but for the (adult) audience that is playing this (adult) game there is certainly something to be said about the juxtaposition of the revealing, vulnerable costumes and the decrepit, haunted environments that the protagonists find themselves in.
Or at least, that’s the case in the game’s homeland of Japan, where it was released late last year. For the English release, Nintendo decided to censor such costumes out of the experience completely. Whether it’s a concern over the inevitable critical reaction to such things (more on that in a second), or a fear for children seeing things they shouldn’t (despite it being an adults-only game), Nintendo, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to remove the sexier costumes of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.
What is so striking about this is that none of the other content was touched; there was no effort to tone down the graphic violence, nor the themes of sheer terror within the game. That content was deemed appropriate for the same audience that were apparently incapable of handling some Victoria’s Secret-style lingerie. And while what I have described above would be easy to dismiss if it were just one example of self-censorship from a relatively obscure game, the frequency this occurs in this industry strains any credibility that games have when the rest of us try to deal with them as works of art.
The games industry is one where a title like Mortal Kombat can be praised for violence so explicit that players see x-ray footage of organs being ripped and spines being broken in half. The critics loved that game for pushing boundaries and delivering an unabashed adult experience.
And I agree that it is a title worthy of merit for those reasons, the praise rings hollow when, just a month before the release of the latest Mortal Kombat, the latest iteration of another fighting game franchise, Dead or Alive, landed in stores, and it was roundly criticised for alleged exploitation in dressing hyper real-proportioned women in very small bikinis. It’s an industry that turns a bullet to the skull of a character in the popular Call of Duty series into a skill-based achievement to be celebrated, but then tries to shame fans more niche titles such as the Hatsune Miku series for being “voyeuristic” or “creepy,” simply for playing the game in the first place.
It’s an industry that, with great volume and rigour, demands that we accept the scientific proof that violence can never, ever, impact on a player’s psyche, but then implies that anyone that likes a game with a girl in a bikini must be hentai, creepy and perverted. The way that those in the games industry, from developer to critic and on to consumer, have built this blindingly overt double standard that castigates sex content, but lauds other examples of adult entertainment (violence, drug use, horror themes) seems to validate the reason that games like Fatal Frame have lingerie in them in the first place; people really do fear sex, and what they fear they tend to vocally and unreflectively oppose.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of similar controversies occurring in other artistic mediums as they “grew up”; one only needs to go back and view the treatment of the Marquis De Sade and his novels, early Hollywood cinema and its ridiculous rules around decency, or the censorship of Elvis’ pelvic thrusts when he first started to land on TV, to see that the other artistic mediums have all gone through a similar demonisation of anything that is so much as perceived to be “sexy”.
But we’re at the point where the Marquis De Sade is studied as literature, where Taylor Swift can be praised (in some quarters, anyway) for the empowered use of leather costumes in her music videos, and where nudity as a plot device is well accepted among filmmakers.
But not games. No, not yet. That could be a sign of an immature art form still finding its feet and only just coming to terms with the idea that adults do play games. Or it could be something worse; it could be a sign that games are so commercially-driven that there is the perception among creators that the slightest potential to offend needs to purged, to the detriment of the game’s creative context.
Either way, there is still very little evidence that game developers, aside from those on the very extreme fringes of the industry, have the same freedom as other creative fields to explore genuinely mature themes around sexuality through their work.
None of this is to say that there aren’t games deserving of robust criticism over the way that they handle female characters or sexuality. There is plenty of exploitation that does occur in games; just as violence and other adult themes are exploited to enhance sales. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water may well be one example that deserves criticism, though without playing it, it’s unreasonable to make that judgement.
We have robust discussions about the exploitation of violent themes in games because we accept that that content can —  or even should — exist, and that’s the point; we should be discussing and criticising these things. Being provoked and having the heated discussions and debate is a critical part of the artistic process. None of which can happen if the material is not available.
Until it is, and as long as there are these proverbial book burnings in the games industry as critics and corporations alike play gatekeeper to ensure that only “moral” content is allowed to exist, the creative development of the industry will be stifled. Michael Foucault would be rolling in his grave over what is happening in game development.

8 responses to “Video games: The war on sex has to stop

  1. The worst pornography is the desensitising violence that the entire gaming industry wallows in.
    Why is it that nobody ever draws a parallel between the ‘gaming’ industry and mass killings by obviously ‘disturbed’ solitary individuals?.
    Sadly the answer seems to be that ‘it’s profitable’.

    1. Because countless studies have disproven that hypothesis decades ago, you are ignoring reality and just trying to scapegoat a medium that you don’t understand by saying this.

  2. Heartliy agree. The nanny state is never far away.
    The fact is though we have far more graphic depictions of violence in all media than in sexuality. This simple fact is an ugly perversion of humanity.
    It means that sexuality is not properly and intelligently explored in the media arts and a direct result of this is a less informed society on the subject. Games have a huge capacity to contribute whether it is classed as entertainment or not.
    I suspect a self selected elite full of arrogance and self-importance, afraid of sexuality, has far too much influence…they have taken over the role of the paedophile priests of religion.

  3. You’re never going to see it. It’s simply too easy to accuse a developer or mysoginy, treating women like objects, and there are far too many interest groups happy to stand together on that.
    But then it’s worth noting that games don’t explore even milder, emotive PG rated versions of human experience that well – certainly there are niche games which are exemplary but I couldn’t point to any that were able to inspire a cultural shift in perspective.

  4. Way to completely misrepresent a complex argument. For one thing, discussing the sexism rampant in gaming is hardly the same as (a) hating sex or (b) banning games. It’s notable, for instance, that this article never speaks about _men_ dressing up in sexy clothes. And a great deal of the feminist argument is indeed about how women are to an enormous degree the default objects of violence in games, or are only present as objects of violence to generate agency for male characters. (See eg: women in refrigerators). The article also co,pletely ignores nuanced arguments about the potency of sex and sexuality in games, made by these same allegedly puritanical women. Try Katherine Cross on Bayonetta, here.

  5. Why does sexy = Victoria’s Secret lingerie? This article seems to be assuming a lot about what readers and gamers find sexy. Judging by the graphic provided with this story sexy also = tiny waists and large breasts…and only women in skimpy outfits. Yawn, you’ve lost me….

  6. This is ridiculous: when game developers start depicting women as something other that sexual playthings, then we can have an adult conversation. The graphic provided says it all.

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