I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality

Sisters of Janus: Therese and Jeanette Voerman from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both blonde haired, pallid women, one wearing a dark grey business suit and black rimmed glasses, the other wearing a stylized schoolgirl's outfit, bra and thong visible, and a blood red choker. She also wears deep makeup.

When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.

One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realize it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.

A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.

Rated M for Misconception

Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:

Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.

It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.

So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.

VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?

All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”

For there are tits. So many tits in this game. Let us revisit Mr. Gillen’s review for an interesting look at that… dimension of the story:

Take the most obviously eyebrow-raising character, Jeanette (The goth-schoolgirl whose top strains with obvious implants). While on the box you may take her as mere wrist-fodder for the strained-testicle-possessing members of the audience, she’s not treated as such. When she speaks, she’s a babble of egocentric nonsense – predictable, as she’s a Malkavian. However, it’s carefully judged egocentric nonsense. She’s essentially a goth LiveJournal with legs, and, in her extreme way, credible. Even the fact she has a ludicrous cleavage ties in tightly to the plot. Rather than many games where every woman thrusts D-cups and upwards in your direction, Vampire chooses. In Santa Monica at least, no-one has a cleavage like Jeanette. Why is she like that? To Troika’s eternal credit, it provides a reason. And if you ever wander into something that plays to what’s cheerfully described as “fan-service”, it’s because you’ve gone out hunting after it yourself.

When I read over this paragraph I felt an indescribable weirdness. I understood what he was getting at and for what it is worth, I agree to a limited extent, but the manner in which he chose to express himself is quite interesting to say the very least.

Before I analyze this further, I’d like to draw your attention to the words of a retrospective panel at Computer and Video Games about this particular title.

The panel’s views:

Steve: “It’s got that one with the big tits who looks like Britney Spears in it!”

Dan: “And the twist with her, which I won’t say out loud, is just ingenious.”

So. Reality. It apparently has big tits.

I find it fascinating that Gillen proclaims himself an expert on spotting implants. He reminds me a bit of the cis men who proudly bleat about their ability to “spot the tranny.” What is interesting to note is that the model of breasts used for Jeanette is in fact quite common throughout the game, to the point where it’s clear that (implants or no) they are simply Troika’s vision of “breasts” en toto. Jeanette is indeed a character, and one that I actually like, along with her unmentioned sister Therese. While embodying certain cliches, the pair of them do present some interesting characterization that transcends them with the power of each woman’s personal history.

Now, note how I could discuss that without speculating about the nature of Jeanette’s bosom? But why does all of this talk of cup sizes and so on become relevant? Well, it’s because of another fact. Gillen says no one in Santa Monica (an area of the game that is relatively self-contained for most of its opening acts) has “a cleavage” like Jeanette’s. Unless he got out a mental measuring stick, I’d have to dispute this.

You see, this game includes sex workers, lots of them.

And this is where pocketwatches begin bending over trees, melting.

One of the sex working women in VtM:B, a light skinned and red haired woman with her arms akimbo wearing a coppery thong and a tight top that barely covers her breasts, surrounded by the game's user interface.

Truest Blood

All over Santa Monica you find scantily clad women mincing about, fitting the perfect stereotype of the ‘streetwalker.’ For 40 dollars, your character can pay them to wander off into some alleyway with them and suck their blood to replenish their essence. Realistic, no? Quite mature. You wouldn’t find that in the Sims. But that’s not all. You see, in VtM:B, whose blood you suckle upon matters. The game makes very explicit that the blood of sex workers and the homeless (yes, they’re there to add ‘maturity’ as well) is inferior. If you play as a vampire of the noble and upper class Ventrue clan, you will actually vomit if you drink the blood of either.

It would act as a commentary on classism if this was shown to be entirely in the heads of Ventrue and other elitist vampires. But it isn’t; it’s instituted as a game mechanic. Even the wild haired anarchist vampire Smiling Jack waxes gleefully about how good the blood of a PhD tastes. This reification, aside from feeling very strange, has the entirely expected knock off effect of imputing an intrinsic inferiority to the homeless and to sex workers.

Each group is interspersed among the other random NPCs mindlessly milling about the darkened cityscape as a little bit of ‘flavour.’ And that’s what the sex workers and homeless are in this game. Flavour. It wouldn’t be mature without them, of course, and so they stand on the game-scape like poorly painted theatre props. But sex workers say naughty things, so this is a mature and honest world.

The invisibility of sex workers in this game is of a rather interesting sort. They, like most truths about women in society, hide in plain sight. They are there in Bloodlines, but they are truly not there. Masquerading as the truth about the ‘dark’ side of society are these nameless, samey, cliched street sex workers who are cast as being objectively inferior human beings.

Ten Guineas

Like most games of this sort, there is a modding community. Indeed, Bloodlines was infamously shipped in poor condition and has been restored to playable vigor by a dedicated community that created their own repair patches. Along with that extensive labour of love came other mods, one of which caught my eye as I was browsing.

Take a look at this. In particular, take a look at some of the comments from Bloodlines players.

Rofl well lets face it if they where gorgeous they would be in the porn industry not Pros. XD

.

I like how you made them graphically better, but still kept the ugly look.

Prostitutes should always be women who are on the verge of being attractive, but have tons of minor flaws. :P

So, what do we have here? What I find intriguing is the way the ‘truth’ is manipulated in games like this. Who are sex workers in a ‘truthful and honest’ game? Is this the sex that Mr. Gillen spoke of that could be described as such? One wonders where these young men in the comments section of ModDB got their ideas about how sex workers ‘should’ look.

Thus at last we stumble onto the real meaning of ‘reality’ here. It is hyperreality. Reality that, in the words of sociologists Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, has always already been reproduced. Put another way it is ‘reality’ that makes no reference to the real world yet purports to do so. While the postmodernists who gave birth to the term would howl at the idea that there is a real world, I contend that for sex workers there most certainly is, and that Bloodlines does not present it. In its place is a different truth written by white, cis, and middle class men based on what they think they know about the gritty realities of sex work and then present it as a courageously told and daring realism.

What is even more interesting is how these male gamers wish to modify that hyperreality further to better fit their stereotype of what a sex worker ‘should’ look like and be. To what are they making reference, precisely? Real women? It does not seem so. Rather, it is the streetwalker from countless movies and television shows, the woman heels up in a dumpster on CSI, or the modern damsel in distress that Richard Gere saves with his expense account. The Bloodlines vision of sex workers is a copy of all the above.

To use another ten guinea word from the often insufferable canon of postmodernism, this is a simulacrum of sex workers. Simulacra are copies with no true original, something that- I would contend- float beyond lived reality while able to pass themselves off as representations of that reality.

To return to Edles and Appelrouth:

As we have seen… hyperreality [refers] to this state when the distinction between “reality” and the model or simulation is completely dissolved. In the condition of hyperreality, simulations stand in for– they are more “real” than– reality; the map of the territory is taken for the territory itself.

And I might add, when the map is deemed insufficiently “accurate” a gamer will make a mod to “remedy” that fact.

The Pearl in my Eye

Dragon Age: Origins is another game released to cavalcades trumpeting fanfare about the grit and realism of their title and another game that presents a hyperreal vision of that reality that cannot be excused by its fantasy setting anymore than Bloodlines could be forgiven due to its supernatural themes.

The City Elf origin’s treatment of rape, for instance, is a lengthy and bloodsplattered caricature of patriarchy that strains mightily to immerse you in the sanguinity of its mature bonafides and yet fails to tell a story that coheres with any kind of reality. Real life rapists are rarely cackling mustache twirlers like Lord Vaughan, the ringleader of his posse of overtly misogynist gang rapist guards. We are presented with a vision of the rapist as a thoroughgoing, unlikable human being walking around with a neon sign saying “Uncouth Misogynist!” over his head.

That’s the hyperreality of sexism in society that too many men still think they see.

The reality is that rapists have included “nice men”, “likeable men”, men who “believe in equality” and so on; that people who claim to adhere to even feminist ideals are still very often sexist in ways overt and covert. The Origin here ‘deals’ with rape in a manner none to dissimilar from how Bloodlines ‘deals’ with sex workers. A distinct vision of reality as a bloody escape from the quotidian is passed off as mature and real.

Finally we come to what is nearest and dearest to me about these critiques: the Pearl. When your character visits this brothel she has the option of asking the madam for a bit of time with one of the sex workers there. Aha, this must be mature realism. I toyed around with the options and settled on asking to be “surprised.” I was then presented with an array of sex workers to “choose from” which included several ‘“Female” Companions.’

A Dragon Age Mage standing next to someone tellingly labelled a ' "Female" Companion' who is relatively scantily dressed/

Could this possibly end well?

I chose one- the auction block or meat market atmosphere of all this ‘simulation’ was not lost on me- and slept with her to see what would happen. In a short cinematic before each session you’re treated to the sex worker lounging on the bed in their underwear making a quip before the scene fades to black. For the trans sex workers, the ones whose gender was called into disrepute by the quotation marks put around ‘female’ in their floating text nameplates, there was often a lot of making light of what is actually a very serious trauma for many trans women: revealing that we are trans in a situation where power is thick in air around us. As she lounges there she is shown talking in a deep and clearly male voice set, the sight of a bulge in her panties, and some quip about how the player ‘shouldn’t act surprised.’ It’s a reiteration of the old ‘deception’ trope about how trans women deceive cis men into bed with them, revealing their genitals as sort of a “gotcha” surprise.

In that moment I realized this was what Bioware thought of me.

Much work has already been done on the nature of ‘lenses’ as held and espied through by the powerful. That is what hyperreality is, fundamentally, a lens through which the lived reality of the less-powerful is warped and distorted. What makes this pernicious is that the distortion is then presented as the real. The ‘easter egg’ style gags with the trans sex workers at the Pearl were clearly meant as ‘mature’ jokes for a ‘mature’ audience that could handle this ‘reality.’ One wonders if Mr. Gillen would also have said we could “do nothing but applaud” this “honest” recounting.

In all of these settings we see a common, bright line of a thread. Rape survivors, trans people, sex workers, the homeless, are not agents. They do not speak with much of a voice except the ventriloquy of the powerful. As I saw that trans woman in Dragon Age sprawled out on the bed in her underwear I saw exactly what cis men want to see when they look at me and my sisters. The forbidden pleasure, the easy fuck, the fantasy. The joke.

And this is “reality.” This is grit, and this is maturity.

Yet where are we?

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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62 Responses to I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality

  1. KA101 says:

    I could go into all sorts of detail discussions about Bloodlines, but I don’t think they’d add anything. Solid post, Quinnae.

  2. Gregory Weir says:

    This is no sort of excuse, but it may inform one’s view of Bloodlines to note that it is set in White Wolf’s World of Darkness setting. The World of Darkness is designed to be like our world but a few steps worse. People are more hopeless, the government is more cruel and less caring, there are more people abandoned by society, and so on. It doesn’t explain the “big tits,” but the Masquerade setting is supposed to portray a corrupt world. It makes the characters’ struggles to maintain goodness and humanity more dramatic. This, of course, doesn’t excuse Troika’s exploitative character models.

    • Pai says:

      Or the fact that if you choose a female vampire, everyone in the game still interacts with you as if you were the (default) male character. That was a bit of a downer to me (ironically, I just started playing this game this week, so it was funny seeing it referenced here).

    • Themiscyra says:

      I like Bloodlines, but it is problematic at best (and suffers from the same problem as the Mass Effect series so far in that a female character can become sexually involved with Jeanette, but a male character can’t become involved with a man…then again, I don’t think female characters have opportunities to become sexually involved with men, beyond the heterocentric opening sequence). I was also disappointed in how certain elements of Vampire: The Masquerade itself were simplified for the game, though I understand the need to reduce some of them to basic mechanics.

      But the Ventrue stand out as a particularly glaring example: in the pen and paper game, Ventrue feeding habits have nothing to do with social class or ‘superiority’ or ‘inferiority’ – each Ventrue vampire restricts themselves to a specific type of victim. It could be the wealthy and powerful, to be sure, but it could just as easily be homeless men, or prostitutes, or Mormon missionaries, or left-handed pitchers. In changing this to be, specifically, about social status, Troika generated some extremely unfortunate implications that only make the game more problematic.

      Structurally, Bloodlines is an excellent game. It is extremely evocative of the Vampire setting and a lot of fun. But it is also deeply exploitative and downright offensive in parts, and it’s difficult to defend any of that. The modding community has, sadly, not worked to correct some of the game’s more egregious missteps, and has in fact often done its best to make the game more exploitative. I honestly hope the Vampire MMO (if and when it does finally emerge) will be much more enlightened and, dare I say, realistic in its depiction of the World of Darkness.

      • Quinnae says:

        Welcome, Themiscyra and thank you for commenting. :)

        It sounds like you and I may view Bloodlines similarly; I have very mixed feelings about the game myself. I was curious about what you found problematic and why? I was -toying- with the idea of writing a longer article about Bloodlines, myself.

        • Themiscyra says:

          Well, I outlined a bit of it. I find the romantic opportunities limiting, ill-defined, and focused very much on the desires of heterosexual men. The game completely assumes heterosexuality from the word go, though female characters are not presented with any real male romantic interests. (There is a guy in Santa Monica who’s clearly a stranded high-class sort and can be seduced or persuaded to give you some blood – whether you’re male or female – but that’s not much of a romantic option.) Pretty much all the powerful women in the game are sexualized, scantily clad, and hugely endowed, and one of the unofficial patches even restores a quest which allows you to hunt down cheesecake posters of these women to hang in your apartment. And pretty much all the female PCs are in some kind of fetish wear – the Malkavians most especially.

          And speaking of the Malkavians…I’ll admit, there are some funny sequences that come out of playing one. Some interesting revelations about the storyline running beneath the game, as well. But the Malkavian PC is very much what we in the Vampire fan community call a Fishmalk, referring to a ‘zany’ playstyle that makes a Malkavian character the plucky comic relief and trivializes the serious mental illnesses common to the clan. The Malkavian play experience in a lot of ways trivializes and even fetishizes mental illness, and when you start to think about it, the whole thing becomes profoundly unsettling.

          There are, of course, the blood mechanics we both mentioned: blood from prostitutes and homeless men won’t refill your character’s blood meter as quickly, and Ventrue characters can’t handle it at all.

          Oh, and there’s your ghoul, Heather. You can choose not to recruit her, of course, or to leave her more or less alone once she turns up. But if you let her into your life, she’s slavishly devoted to you. At a word, she’ll dress as a fetishized Goth or jiggle around your apartment in her underwear. She’ll take her addiction to your blood as love for you, and give you money or blood or whatever you ask for, no matter how you treat her. She’ll kidnap a man to feed your thirst. And in the end, unless you’ve installed an unofficial patch that lets you change her fate, she’ll die just because she knew you. Oh, yes, it’s a tragic commentary on the ghoul condition, perfectly in fitting with the source material. But it’s also disturbing on other levels.

          There are very few characters of color (admittedly, yes, vampires tend toward the pale side, but the game is still rather white for L.A.) and most of them are minor and at least brush against stereotype.

          That’s off the top of my head – I’m hoping to get some time to play Bloodlines again before I go to the big White Wolf con in New Orleans this month, but I haven’t played in a while. I’d have to take a closer look at the game as released (I usually play with mods of one kind or another, notably the one that restores the use of character backgrounds for expanded PC design) and as modded before I could offer a deeper perspective.

          • Quinnae says:

            Thanks for the expansion of your thoughts!

            Heather Poe, yes… *shivers* That was actually where the game went off the rails for me, honestly, to the point where I almost couldn’t bring myself to keep playing it (I eventually did but I had a castor oil-like bad taste in my mouth). When I was first told about her by a friend I was like “Oh yes! Kinky queer romance with cool ghoul sidekick! Art student by day, ghouly fighter of supernatural injustice by night!” Then I remembered I was playing WoD and we don’t get nice things in WoD (I’m being a bit flippant, I know :P). But really, even if my kickass ideal wasn’t met, it could’ve still been an interesting and complicated exploration of the nature of that kind of relationship.

            As it stood… it went so far off into this Gorean deep end of outright slavery and self-degradation that I couldn’t stand it. Yes, she’s a Ghoul and becomes addicted to your blood but she seems to have no will of her own, practically. Contrast this to Mercurio who, though he’s in service to LaCroix, lives on his own, does his own work and has at least a veneer of independence about him. Being a Ghoul means never being fully independent, yes, but Mercurio still has a personality. What bothered me so much about Heather was that she became almost this brain-zapped sex fantasy that was slavishly in love and devoted to the PC. It was like a really reductive teenage fantasy of “the perfect girlfriend.” Supine, compliant, easily pushed around, a blow up dress up doll that you can have standing around your house like part of the furniture…

            I do think that as a character Nines Rodriguez came off pretty well as a Latino man who is potentially quite sympathetic and is certainly possessed of a rich character. But what I really noticed was the absence of *women* of colour; Rosa being a lone and interesting, off-to-the-side exception.

            As to the Malkavians… I have mixed feelings about them which tie into my mixed feelings about Therese and Jeanette. I do think on the one hand there is that point where they tip over into being ableist comic relief, yes, but on the other hand also present a challenging image of neuroatypicality as ‘different’ rather than ‘diseased.’ The lead writer for Bloodlines (I think he may have been the only writer…) gave an interview where he specifically talked about trying to avoid “playing crazy for laughs” which I thought bespoke to an interesting awareness of the problem. Whether or not he succeeded seems open to debate.

            Thanks so much for discussing this!

            • Themiscyra says:

              With the Malkavians, to some extent, a lot of it comes down to player agency, and I do respect that. You can go in for the wacky stuff (arguing with stop signs, using Dementation to convince the young woman who recognizes you in Hollywood that you’re actually her long-lost pet turtle rather than her old friend, etc.) or completely ignore it. On the other hand…when you’re playing a Malkavian, even your ‘normal’ dialogue is stilted and ridiculous. You simply don’t interact with the world as the other characters do.

              And I suppose that’s what the designer was going for. I respect the idea of presenting neuroatypicality as different rather than diseased, of course. I am all for that. But I’m not sure I would call the Malkavian PC an unqualified success. As with the Ventrue, I think they suffer to some degree from oversimplification.

              That said, I find the portrayal of Grout – the Malkavian primogen – to be very interesting indeed. To some extent he falls into the stereotype of the mentally ill person as menace to society; then again, he is moving inexorably into amoral predator territory, which is the great tragedy of the vampiric condition at large. The recordings you find throughout his mansion present a fascinating perspective on the world of the Masquerade, his own delusions and neuroses perfectly fit his history, and though the player never gets to meet him in person, I think he’s one of the most fully realized characters in the game. Rosa is also quite interesting (and, while implied or outright stated to be one of the thin-blooded Caitiff, I think there’s a strong implication that her sire was also Malkavian), though we really don’t get nearly enough time with her; she has little to do beyond offering the player a few cryptic predictions. Unless there’s a longer exchange that I’ve forgotten.

            • Overmind says:

              @Themiscyra

              “And pretty much all the female PCs are in some kind of fetish wear – the Malkavians most especially.”

              I agree about Malkavians, but all other female PCs wear rather normal clothes or, in the case of Nosferatu, clothes that are similar to those of male PC. Well, female Torreador and Ventrue outfits are a tad too revealing, but are certainly not like fetish clothes.

              @Themiscyra & Quinnae

              I think that the whole sub-plot with Heather is meant to show that keeping her as a ghoul is an evil choice. Throughout the game you have a few opportunities when you have a choice to either make her leave or to continue enslaving her by feeding her your blood. The former choice is worded in such a way that makes it pretty clear that you are exploiting Heather by keeping her and that it will end up very badly for her.

              In fact, this is a classic rpg choice between doing an evil and a good thing, although you aren’t explicitly told this as in the majority of rpgs.
              What is even better is that the evil choice here brings clear rewards (a twisted pleasure of having an attractive female slave and various forms of help she offers you, including the best armour in the game if you keep her to the very end) while the good choice yields nothing. In most rpgs doing a good things nets you a reward that is as valuable as the one you get when you act as a villain. That this isn’t the case here makes the morally good choice all the more meaningful.

          • Quinnae says:

            Well, our conversation got deep enough that I can’t reply directly to your latest post, so I’ll reply up here!

            That said, I find the portrayal of Grout – the Malkavian primogen – to be very interesting indeed. To some extent he falls into the stereotype of the mentally ill person as menace to society; then again, he is moving inexorably into amoral predator territory, which is the great tragedy of the vampiric condition at large.

            Oh I rather adored Grout myself. I think he was definitely one of the most intriguing and frightening characters in the game and as a commentary on psychological discourse I thought he was actually very pointed.

            To listen to even his earliest tapes he emerges as an unequivocally loathsome individual who is nevertheless clearly a charismatic intellectual who values his craft; this is a man who hates Freud, yet from the opposite end of history. Grout despises Freud for being too *radical* and for shifting the focus onto consciousness, thought, and meaning rather than the physiological science Grout clearly loved. He is an admirer of phrenology, for instance, and doubtless all the prejudice that such pseudoscience created.

            Beyond this, his bone chilling description of asylums indicated his love for the hierarchical institutions of oppression that were created to both house and produce the “mentally ill” individual. He was a psychiatric oppressor par excellence, the inveterate scientist ever convinced of his professional rectitude and rationality and for whom the ends justified the means due to his adherence to ‘objective’ principles. He is a consummate rationalist.

            In short, he is the very enemy that has for so long bedevilled neuroatypical people (and, I might add, anyone who’s ever been presumed to be neuroatypical: LGBTQ people, for instance).

            …At this rate if I ever write the article I’m planning I could just copypaste this conversation. ::laughs::

            But yes, I think that Grout represents an interesting commentary on the nature of mental illness. His entire ethic is premised on contempt for his “patients”, on pretending to rationality as he aggressively pursues what is, in fact, a thoroughly subjective science, and he is the embodiment of oppression. Yet of course, through it all, one also pities him- the one time I felt sorry for him was when he described his wife’s illness and the loneliness he felt (in characteristically florid prose). It was an interesting reminder to the player that even monsters are human, a lesson I think too few games dwell on (see my other comments about Dragon Age’s Lord Vaughan. :P) Then again, what he ultimately -did- to his wife was quite haunting and left little doubt about his descent into that special kind of evil that is born of a warped ethic.

            It is certainly true that there is more than one way to read him- as the stereotypical “crazy person” who is a threat *or* as the embodiment of ableist oppression. Perhaps he is both.

            As to Rosa, I personally like the cryptic predictions. While it is certainly true that they’re likely cryptic because they’d be blatant spoilers otherwise, I like to think of them also as being emblematic of the complex nature of truth and perspective, and how a Malkavian may come to truth by another road. But yes, her role such as it was, was far too small.

            • Themiscyra says:

              I’ll just add that I’d absolutely love to see an article solely devoted to Bloodlines, because I think the game is begging for deep analysis from queer and feminist perspectives. You can certainly expect to see me in the comments section. :)

      • Themiscyra says:

        Just a quick note – I’d forgotten that Bloodlines actually had mechanics in place that made the blood of sex workers and homeless men less refreshing to vampires of ALL clans. I certainly don’t remember a thing about that from the pen & paper RPG, and I find it disturbing that it was included in the video game.

  3. The City Elf origin story is based around the concept of droit de cuissage or the “right of cuissage”, a practice associated with the exercise of privilege in medieval Europe, a period which is a clear influence on various facets of the Dragon Age mythology. The representation of such a situation in Dragon Age is credible within the context of the game where the exercise of Human privilege, and Human Male especially, is rife.

    I think there is a risk of equating a representation that is authentic to the context of the game with one that is purporting to be realistic. The former makes no pretentions to representing reality either as it “is” or as somebody views it to be. Rather it seeks to represents an event or character that is credible and authentic to the context in which it occurs, be that the super natural world of Vampires and Werewolves or the fantasy world of Dragons and Darkspawn.

    I’m interested in why the author feels the games mentioned make claims to being realistic? Often such terms are made after the fact either by marketing material which has a dubious level of honesty at the best of times, or by reviewers and critics often hamstrung by the need to apply pre-existing language to a still developing entertainment form. The presumption that these games purport to be “realistic” seems to risk running afoul of the intentional fallacy.

    I cannot fault the presentational issue cited within the article, though I wonder about the validity and benefit of attempting to draw some overarching connection between them as it makes assumptions about intent that are difficult to support.

    That the audience may well read these representations as “realistic” regardless of intent does mean that the point being made holds weight, in which case I have to wonder who, if anybody, is at fault for that reading and the attitude likely to develop form it?

    • Quinnae says:

      Every time I see the words “intentional fallacy” arise in response to media criticism I find it is embedded in something that rather misses the point.

      What the intent of DA’s developers have in mocking trans people is less relevant than the culture of transphobia that sort of thing contributes to, however modestly. It is hard to puzzle out an intent there that is not either malicious or somehow recklessly ignorant and indifferent. I would imagine that it’s likely the latter: they neither know nor care to know. But that isn’t terribly germane to what’s happening either.

      You should bear in mind that I feel each game has its strong points in my view. But this was a critical piece about something very specific. I’ve done writing elsewhere in articles and comments about what DA:O does *right*.

      A point that I could’ve made better is the *manner* in which realism is ‘purported’ by games like this (and by books, movies, etc). It tends to be a confused affair. On the one hand the devs, marketers, fans, and pundits will speak of realism; when faced with certain kinds of criticism (i.e. what I said in this article) we are then told it’s just a game and anyway it’s not supposed to be *that* real. Thus it’s actually purported be real or not real as is convenient.

      For instance, other types of critique will lead to one saying what you just said. “It’s like the Middle Ages!” I actually took on this idea in a brief but pointed article not too long ago, suggesting that settings like this become oddly selective of certain bits of flavour from Medieval Europe (rape is an all time favourite) and less selective of others that are inconvenient or less “fun.”

      Sady Doyle’s withering criticism of Game of Thrones is quite appropriate reading: http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/08/26/enter-ye-myne-mystic-world-of-gayng-raype-what-the-r-stands-for-in-george-r-r-martin/

      I’m curious, is there a florid French phrase for transphobia, perchance? I don’t mean to be snide and flippant but it’s that these countercriticisms always seem to be quite selective about issues like intent.

      Let’s return to that.

      What was the most likely intention Bioware had with the Pearl scene? To be funny, of course. They wanted to add in some humour as part of an Easter Egg of sorts. That they chose trans sex workers as one of the primary vehicles with which to do this is *telling* and that’s my point. It’s not about them sitting around consciously thinking “how can we step on trans women today?” It’s about the reasons that they are subconsciously lead to make that association between ‘trans women’ and ‘gag’. (Multiple values of ‘gag’ apply).

      Similarly with Troika. They did not sit around thinking “How can we fuck over sex workers today?” Not at all. Their intent was to create a good game that had ‘adult’ themes. That they chose this particular caricature and voiceless stereotype of sex workers to do so is *telling*.

      As to your last paragraph, as always there is the unspoken assumption that this is about blame. I should not have to say it, but this is not about the developers being bad people or being preternaturally wicked. This is not about seeking punishment or some other form of retribution.

      This is about the role media has in shaping consciousness. These two games are drops in the oceans of the issues they keyed into (trans people in society, and sex worker oppression). But they were worth discussing in the context I set out because their reality is so often *praised*- along with their maturity.

      Secondly, even if there is no expressed intent at representing reality per se, media still shapes one’s views on reality because of the inherent resemblance to it. We see human beings who have race, gender, and sexuality interacting, regardless of the setting. So in VtM:B, we see sex workers and we see yet another representation of what sex work looks like- they had to get the symbols from somewhere, yes? They had to define sex work somehow as they chose to include it. It has to look like *something*- so what it looks like is the all-too-familiar simulacrum of sex work, further perpetuating its broader claim to represent sex work despite the fact that it actually doesn’t.

      This happens regardless of intent. The wider question is one of *responsibility*- do you do the cheap and lazy thing and use a problematic trope? Or do you try to be more inventive and creative, perhaps by actually looking at the lives sex workers live and building a truly real narrative from that?

      When one uses such problematic tropes, does one not *encourage* responses like the ones I cited? Licence them? Tacitly approve of them? My argument is yes, one does all of the above. Again, this is irrespective of intent. But I see that as a question of responsibility rather than a question of blame and everything that implies. You cannot be responsible for how people misinterpret your work, but at the same time there is a point where you do have a measure of responsibility when being potentially incendiary. Glen Beck may claim he does not advocate violence, and that may be his truest intention; but ranting about a post apocalyptic socialist hellscape has clearly moved people in the worst ways.

      I’m sure the folks at Troika were very nice people who are nominally opposed to the oppression of sex workers. *My* point is that this isn’t an inoculation against whorephobia.

      By the way, in closing? Here’s what “intentional fallacy” actually means:

      Intentional fallacy, in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a “fallacy”, a critic suggests that the author’s intention is not important. The term is an important principle of New Criticism and was first used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946 rev. 1954): “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”

      So, in actuality, it seems you are the one indulging in that fallacy since you seem to suggest that it’s important that the devs’ intentions are different from what I allegedly ascribed to them. I tend not to deal too much with intent, more with “what this actually ends up meaning in the context of everything else happening in society.”

      Finally, the droit de seigneur- which is what you seem to be referring to- is a myth. There is no historical evidence that it’s a thing.

      Which is interesting because then DA:O’s City Elf Origin becomes a copy… of something with no true original. Isn’t that interesting?

      • (violent rape imagery trigger warnings)

        I don’t think the city elf scene really even has much to do with the myth of droit de seigneur. I mean, sure, someone in the dev team might have heard that myth and that gave them the idea for this plotline, but it’s not played out like “this is a normal power that rulers have over the members of their domain”, it’s played as “this is EEEEEEVIL and you can’t stop it”.

        They drag the elves off (kicking and screaming in some cases IIRC) and then casually murder one of them for crying too loudly.

        To the best of my knowledge this isn’t how the majority of rape happens. This is how a lot of people like to *think* of rapists – completely evil people lurking in the bushes who will jump up and grab the Virtuous Heroine and carry off as she cries “Help! Oh Help!” and if there’s no Hero around to save the day, her Virtue will be Stained.

        (One thing I remember being annoyed about in this sequence in the game was being locked in a room with a bunch of other hysterical elves and not allowed to do anything about it but wait for the rescuing menfolk to arrive. LOCKED in a room. I was a thief, I could pick locks!)

        Yes, humans in that setting had huge amounts of power over elves. There are all sorts of ways that power imbalance could have been exploited that would have felt more believable. If, for example, you started out playing an elven servant and were pressured to meet the master’s desires in order to keep your job and feed your family, or to protect another servant, or a child that they’d gotten hold of when no one was looking… Something other than being dragged away in the full sight of the entire community.

        Sure, it was all meant to show that Vaughn’s evil even by the standards of this grimdark world, but it paints far too easy a picture of what ‘bad’ looks like.

        • Quinnae says:

          Very well said; I think you captured a point I was trying to make very well, that there was this caricatured vision of what rape looked like that fed into the idea of the Very Bad Snidley Whiplash-esque Man as Rapist which is a comfort myth to most cis men.

        • Korva says:

          Agreed. I think rape could be used in a “mature” and “realistic” context — though I’d prefer it not to be used to all, or at least rarely, since it’s so overused and triggering for many. While not triggering for me personally, it sickens me and usually kills my enjoyment of the movie/book/game. Yay, yet another Obligatory Female Victim. Haven’t seen one in a long time … like all of 5 seconds.

          But, again: if you want “mature”, don’t be content to sit on shallow media stereotypes but really look at reality and challenge the player to think. Show, for example, how easily one can support rapists by trading hateful “jokes” and making them feel they’re safe among “buddies” who won’t rat them out because hey, they’re just doing what “everyone” does and anyway the “bitches” deserve it, heh-heh — especially as a male character. That way, the “Obligatory Virile Hero saves Obligatory Female Victim from Obligatory Mustache-Twirling Badguy” crap turns into something that at least has a chance of making the player think, “Shit, did I HELP these guys? Did they just treat me like one of them? Could it have been ME doing that? What about the funny guys at the bar last Saturday, this sounds just like them.”

          Or maybe I’m too optimistic there?

          • Chaos_Alfa says:

            [quote]But, again: if you want “mature”, don’t be content to sit on shallow media stereotypes but really look at reality and challenge the player to think. Show, for example, how easily one can support rapists by trading hateful “jokes” and making them feel they’re safe among “buddies” who won’t rat them out because hey, they’re just doing what “everyone” does and anyway the “bitches” deserve it, heh-heh — especially as a male character. That way, the “Obligatory Virile Hero saves Obligatory Female Victim from Obligatory Mustache-Twirling Badguy” crap turns into something that at least has a chance of making the player think, “Shit, did I HELP these guys? Did they just treat me like one of them? Could it have been ME doing that? What about the funny guys at the bar last Saturday, this sounds just like them.”[/quote]

            That is an interesting situation to explore. How does the player act in a society where those things are considered normal. and how does peer pressure influence his actions.

            Why hasn’t any game done this yet? Maybe I should try to explore it in my next game.

    • mim says:

      So, we’re just to ignore that realism comes up over and over in the dicussion of these games? Do you really think that they would put as much focus on it if there wasn’t supposed to be some sort of bilief in it? This is the same reasoning that makes blatantly misogynist media get away because “It’s fiction”, and somehow everyone who takes part of it is supposed to do it with a critical eye and a deep knowledge in how the story is produced, no matter how casual their relationship with the story, how small their interest, and most importantly in this case, no matter how little they have to compare with.

      How extraordinary unrealistic an expectation to put on anyone.

  4. Chaltab says:

    I think it goes without saying that video games take place in a sort of hyper-reality. All fiction does, since even real elements are interpreted through the eyes of fallible human beings. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. It would be depressing as hell to play a game, for instance, where the villains’ waves of mooks had names and backstories and loved ones.

    The problem exists when the untruths are being told about something most people don’t know about. Like everyone knows you don’t get continues if you die in the real world, I think that most people know a rapist can be anyone, even ‘nice guys’, so while the utter lack of agency of the victim is definitely a mark against the writing of Dragon Age, I don’t think the transparent misogyny of those characters is necessarily a harmful lie. Just as the Darkspawn are essentially a killable metaphor for Evil and the Chantry’s legends about their origins myths to explain why humans suffer—–

    —-the rapists in the City Elf origin are manifestations of anxiety about sexism and sexual violence. Again, it’s portrayed problematically, but it doesn’t come from misogyny on the part of the writer. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but as a cis male, blunt portrayals of misogyny have never worked to reinforce my belief in my own innocence of sexism, but instead prompted me to search myself and find if I hold the prejudices that I find hideous in others.

    On the other hand, the treatment of the trans character in the Dragon Age brothel is definitely a harmful lie, because it reinforces the stereotypes that the transgendered actively seek to ‘surprise’ straight men.

    As for the issue of sex workers and vagrants having blood that literally makes vampires sick in Bloodlines, I’m torn, because it’s easy for me to reason that, even with the literal illness engendered by ‘inferior’ blood on ‘high class’ vampires, it’s a commentary on classism. After all, vampires are representatives of evil; their vomiting could be caused by metaphysics (they’re magically afflicted by their own prejudices) or it could simply be a psycho-somatic response. If it were the blood itself, wouldn’t it make all vampires sick, not just the high class ones?

    On the other hand… I’m not sure if the average gamer would think it through that hard, and without a flashing neon sign saying SOCIAL COMMENTARY it might just end up reinforcing the class prejudices the player already brings to the table.

    (Also, why is analyzing the social implications of games so much easier for me than analyzing the literary techniques of novels? Why can’t I major in this?)

    • As for the blood making people sick thing, this is a factor of the particular RPG setting. Vampires of that clan have specific ‘preferences’ of blood that they have to feed from and anything else makes them ill. It is NOT always “high-class” blood, every Ventrue is different. Some would ONLY be able to drink from the homeless. The explanation, iirc, is that the metaphysics of this particular strain of vampiric blood interact with the former-human’s mind to create and enforce this boundary. It’s not exactly psycho-somatic (they can’t overcome it even on pain of starvation) but it comes from their own minds, and their personality prior to being vamped is likely to affect it.

      Since they’re also the clan that likes to act posh and gain power, the clan likes to *claim* that this weakness in them is a sign of their sophisticated tastes.

      Sounds like the video game may have simplified that aspect slightly.

    • Quinnae says:

      It’s not just the ‘sex worker blood makes Ventrue sick’ issue. It’s that the game’s flavour text, in the form of the background descriptions you can select at the beginning of the game and some conversations you have early on, makes it clear that this blood is on some level objectively of lower quality because they are inferior beings. So even for the majority of vampire clans which *can* feed on homeless people and sex workers, they get less ‘mileage’ out of it, as it were. Each ‘tick’ of feeding restores less blood in your meter.

      I think that the Ventrue as a whole are not meant to be viewed sympathetically and that there may be some comment on a sort of ‘old money’ snobbishness about the clan, but the game does set out the objective-in-the-context-of-the-world idea that the blood of certain people is lesser.

      You could make the argument that since homeless people are living on the margins, going hungry and getting ill frequently, they wouldn’t be in the best of health and so could restore less ‘essence’ but that isn’t even really how the blood quality issue is framed.

      Now onto the City Elf concern…

      I am not out to say that the writers of Dragon Age: Origins are misogynists; that isn’t really the point. I’m sure they like to think they aren’t, and have good intentions. I think that a major part of the problem is that it is hard to find more complex portrayals of sexism out there, and while you did very well and found yourself inspired to look inside yourself despite the cackhandedness of such depictions, I would contend many people don’t. Rather, they seem more inclined to think “That’s what real sexism looks like; that’s not me, therefore I’m not sexist.”

      Even divested of the political context of sexism and all the rest, it’s just lazy writing. Vaughan was not much of a villain, scarcely memorable and very cardboard cut out. He might as well have stomped around saying “Raaaaaaar! I am Bad Person! Babies are for eating! Omnom!” Really. And it’s not surprising, as I have said often in the past, that poor writing bleeds straight into problematic tropes. i.e. All sexists and rapists are flagrantly obvious raving monsters.

      You’re right that the Darkspawn are a klillable metaphor for evil, and the Chantry’s origin myth for them is very well done. I just don’t see the connection to the City Elf origin. Are you saying that they’re supposed to stand in for patriarchy just as the Darkspawn represent evil more generally? I don’t disagree, my contention is just that the representation of patriarchy is very poor and very cliched, and is more emblematic of a certain dominant vision of sexism that favours those who are sexist in subtler ways (i.e. the majority).

      Thank you for your thought provoking comment, however. :)

      • Chaltab says:

        Fair enough. I must confess I’m only arguing based on the information I’ve seen in blog posts such as yours since I’ve never actually played Bloodlines, or the City Elf origin.

  5. Korva says:

    I hope sleepiness won’t make me too incoherent here, but I just had to give you two thumbs up for this before turning in for the night. This tendency to equate tits and gore with maturity and realism has pissed me off severely on more than one occasion as well. Hell, I was all ready to cite DA:O (which I do like anyway) as one example but then read on and see you beat me to it. ;) Despite or maybe I should say because of the omnipresent blood splatter and the sex/rape content, I wouldn’t call it mature at all, I’d call it pubescent because it panders to the “stereotypical gamer” and gives “him” exactly what “he” is supposed to want.

    Maturity in my book would require consequences for one’s actions (there’s MAYBE a handful of meaningful choices with any consequences in the whole of DA:O, which is sad enough without considering that actions having consequences was touted as a selling point of the game pre-release), deeper issues to think about, and kicking the “stereotypical gamer” in HIS comfort zone as well as us women. Where is a male protagonist ever credibly threatened with rape, or flung into a scene with high atmospheric terror aimed right at male insecurities and fears (like the Broodmother sequence hits home for women)? And no, “the villain stuffed his trophy wife in the refrigerator to give him a motivation” does NOT count.

    • Quinnae says:

      Your post was quite coherent. :)

      Thank you! I think it was actually one of your comments a long time ago that got me to think more critically about the City Elf origin in DA. At first I *wanted* to like it as empowering, but the more I turned it over in my head the more I began to scent the BS that inhered to that whole portrayal and I rethought my position.

      It’s very interesting that you describe how the Broodmother sequence hit home for women *specifically* because it definitely does; it creeped me out very deeply. I thought at first it was just the atmosphere of the whole thing- it was, after all, one of the scariest things I’d played until I got to Bloodlines- but you’re right, there is a gendered dimension to it that made me quite scared *as a woman* to be turned into this enormous breeding factory.

      Also a good point made about the default/assumed male audience. Thanks for commenting!

      • Korva says:

        Thanks. And I forgot to say: I’d heard of the transwoman prostitute issue before and rolled my eyes at it, but didn’t really realize how much of a kick in the guts it must be to real trans people, especially since portrayals like this appear to be “normal” — if the issue is touched on at all. That was enlightening in a sad way.

        I like a lot of what Bioware has done, and David Gaider’s smackdown of that “concerned straight male gamer” wanker made me want to give him standing ovations, so it’s not like I — or we — criticize these issues because we hate Bioware. It’s more the opposite: we care because they HAVE shown that they’re better than the majority and that they can do better as well, so we’d like them to go the whole way and not get stuck halfway.

    • Ari says:

      Where is a male protagonist ever credibly threatened with rape

      F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. It’s an enormous plot spoiler, but since you asked, it’s the only instance of male rape (of the protagonist, no less – and not threatened, but rather committed) that I can think of in any video game I’ve ever played. You even play through the sequence, as opposed to having it cut away, which is unsettling to say the least.

  6. Raja says:

    Vampire Bloodlines was one of those games I wanted to play but never got around to it, at any rate at least the universe was better than Twilight but thats not really hard to do. In a way from what I know of it its kinda like what the Blade universe is except you play on the vampire side instead of the hunter and get involved in their politics and shit which is kind of a cool idea in itself.

  7. Overmind says:

    So what exactly is wrong with the portrayal of sex workers in Bloodlines? Because so far I’m getting the impression that the mere fact that prostitutes and the homeless are present in the game is a problem in your opinion.

    Nothing in Bloodlines suggests that some people’s blood is less nutritous because they are objectively inferior as human beings. They are objectively inferior only as cattle (for reasons you’ve already mentioned – poor people are usually less healthy and do not eat very well), which is what all humans are to vampires (the word “kine” used by vampires to refer to humans is very telling).

    Also, remind me, where do we have rape in the game?

    Following your recommendation I’ve read Doyle’s criticism of The Game of Thrones. It is really bad and simply dishonest. The whole criticism consists mainly of oversimplifications, half-truths and the skewing of facts and events in the book just to prove the author’s point.

    • L.R. Weizel says:

      This is the problem I have with some of the articles on this site too… I come off as oversensitive compared to a lot of people I know, yet a lot of things here are a step up again – while I may react to things, some people here consciously go looking for it. I don’t mean in the sense of looking for trouble, but probing around. Unfortunately when probing it is difficult to gauge context and intent because you’re purposely narrowing your focus.

      I thought that this article in particular touched on a good point though.

    • Quinnae says:

      If you think that my objection was to the mere presence of sex workers and homeless people in Bloodlines then you did not actually read the article.

      I said that in these games:

      Rape survivors, trans people, sex workers, the homeless, are not agents. They do not speak with much of a voice except the ventriloquy of the powerful.

      Prior to that in the article I also said:

      The invisibility of sex workers in this game is of a rather interesting sort. They, like most truths about women in society, hide in plain sight. They are there in Bloodlines, but they are truly not there. Masquerading as the truth about the ‘dark’ side of society are these nameless, samey, cliched street sex workers who are cast as being objectively inferior human beings.

      What I think most people took away from the article was that I was objecting to what I called the cardboard cutout portrayal of sex workers as little props against the landscape that added “grit.” Rather than a portrayal of sex workers that took into account their realities and gave depth to the women thus portrayed and perhaps challenged the idea that they were inferior, or the stereotypes they live with.

      As I said:

      Each group is interspersed among the other random NPCs mindlessly milling about the darkened cityscape as a little bit of ‘flavour.’ And that’s what the sex workers and homeless are in this game. Flavour. It wouldn’t be mature without them, of course, and so they stand on the game-scape like poorly painted theatre props. But sex workers say naughty things, so this is a mature and honest world.

      I think it’s very disingenuous to say that I’m objecting merely to them being there. I’d -love- for more games to have sex workers present, but rendered as fully drawn and complex characters who transcend and problematise stereotypes. That’d be pretty cool. Same with the homeless.

      As to where that inferiority became established, it *is* actually a mechanic in the game, the less-ness of sex workers is part of the text you read in several of the background descriptions available in character creation, and is reinforced by some dialogue.

      As to where we have rape in the game… Jeanette, Therese, and Venus all experienced various forms of it.

      • Overmind says:

        My point is that your complaints about sex workers and the homeless in game apply to pretty much every human in the game and certainly to every single unnamed human character. They are are as much flavour as other anonymous people on the streets.

        Prostitutes and homeless people are treated in the same way as guys in suits or club patrons – they all are props and/or food for the player. And the same happens in every other rpg city – nameless NPCs always serve as flavour, whether there are sex workers among them or not. Very few games managed to create a city in which nameless NPCs are really active, go on their daily rounds, etc.

        In Bloodlines there is also the added element that people don’t really matter. They are only cattle and vampires don’t really care about them. Only vampires and a couple of humans have real agency.

        “Rather than a portrayal of sex workers that took into account their realities and gave depth to the women thus portrayed and perhaps challenged the idea that they were inferior, or the stereotypes they live with.”

        “I’d -love- for more games to have sex workers present, but rendered as fully drawn and complex characters who transcend and problematise stereotypes. That’d be pretty cool. Same with the homeless.”

        That would be really interesting. But the lack of something good in a portrayal of some character doesn’t mean that this portrayal is automatically bad. Besides, as far as I remember, we also don’t have any complex portrayal of the above-mentioned club patrons or guys in suits.

        “As to where that inferiority became established, it *is* actually a mechanic in the game, the less-ness of sex workers is part of the text you read in several of the background descriptions available in character creation, and is reinforced by some dialogue.”

        Like I said, they are portrayed as less useful for a player, as an inferior food source. Just as a skinny cow is less useful than a fat one. In other words they are not worse from a human point of view, but from a vampire’s one.

        Imagine reading a book from a perspective of a serial killer who only targets women with beautiful long hair which he later uses to create a wig or something (or better yet
        imagine playing a game in which you control such a character). In the murderer’s mind women with short hair are inferior, but that doesn’t mean that short-haired women are supposed to be actually worse than other women, does it?

        Vampires are only a little better than this guy. The perspective the player adapts (and through which the value of humans is established) is of a character who is deeply immoral.

        • Quinnae says:

          Besides, as far as I remember, we also don’t have any complex portrayal of the above-mentioned club patrons or guys in suits.

          I have to say, I’m rather surprised that you’re making such a specious argument. I would think that if you had such a vested interest in defending Bloodlines against all comers you’d try just a bit harder than this.

          Are you honestly telling me that ‘club patrons’ and ‘guys in suits’ (really now?) are discriminated against and marginalised in the same ways that sex workers are?

          No. Using sex workers as grit flavour, whether here or in GTA, is not the same as using a random man in a suit in the same way. I should not have to belabour the reasons why. As Kieron Gillen himself pointed out in this thread, touching on a different issue:

          Just because there’s a worrying number of RPGs where the majority of women you meet are sex-workers doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have noted Bloodlines for doing it, despite me thinking they did other stuff particularly well.

          It’s in the same ballpark as the problem you have in the Star Wars movies where a huge chunk of the women you see are cantina dancers and the like.

          Rendering sex workers voiceless background props is not the same thing as having a man in a suit as a background prop- he has a voice and is routinely portrayed well elsewhere. Even in Bloodlines: LaCroix himself? Baron Isaac?

          Imagine reading a book from a perspective of a serial killer who only targets women with beautiful long hair which he later uses to create a wig or something (or better yet imagine playing a game in which you control such a character). In the murderer’s mind women with short hair are inferior, but that doesn’t mean that short-haired women are supposed to be actually worse than other women, does it?

          “Better” is not exactly the word I’d have used… Were such a game to come out I’d definitely be at the first barricade criticising it. If this is your idea of a modest proposal by comparison you’re rather mistaken.

          In your quest to prove to me that a very problematic representation can be shorn of all moral content and implication, you’ve also yet to explain the following:

          * Why are sex workers automatically unhealthy and weaker?
          * How does a PhD’s blood taste better and replenish more? (I’m pretty scrawny myself, I doubt I’m particularly tasty. Maybe in the same sense a chicken wing is? I dunno)
          * Do people in the upper classes never get sick, have terminal illnesses, or are just all around weaker-than-average?

          Lastly, the issues raised by Themiscyra by way of comparing Bloodlines to the rest of the VtM PnP canon were also quite interesting.

          • Overmind says:

            “I would think that if you had such a vested interest in defending Bloodlines against all comers you’d try just a bit harder than this.”

            The number of people on this blog who try to read my mind is really starting to worry me.

            “Are you honestly telling me that ‘club patrons’ and ‘guys in suits’ (really now?) are discriminated against and marginalised in the same ways that sex workers are?”

            If you are asking me whether they are discriminated against in the game, then the answer is no, they aren’t. If you are asking about their situation in reality, well, that’s a topic for a different discussion.

            I’ll say it again: the lack of a complex portrayal of a character (or a group of people) doesn’t necessarily mean that those characters are portrayed in a bad way or discriminatory way.

            “LaCroix himself? Baron Isaac?”

            Those two are vampires. My point was that humans are used as props.

            ““Better” is not exactly the word I’d have used… Were such a game to come out I’d definitely be at the first barricade criticising it. If this is your idea of a modest proposal by comparison you’re rather mistaken.If this is your idea of a modest proposal by comparison you’re rather mistaken.”

            By “better” I meant that the comparison is more precise if you imagine a game about such a character, not that such a game would offer better entertainment or something.

            “Why are sex workers automatically unhealthy and weaker?”

            Higher risk of catching an STD.

            “How does a PhD’s blood taste better and replenish more?”

            I remember only Jack saying that a PhD’s blood is “good stuff”. This seems to be his personal taste.

            “Do people in the upper classes never get sick, have terminal illnesses, or are just all around weaker-than-average?

            Of course not, but they usually have access to better healthcare and eat better.

            • KA101 says:

              OK, this is getting old.

              Spoiler warning, Bloodlines.

              To my knowledge, there are three competent, non-specifically-sexualized female named NPCs in Bloodlines. Therese, Damsel, & Pisha. Each has particular problems: Therese is a multiple-personality caricature and specifically criticized by other (male) NPCs for being businesslike rather than sexualized; Damsel angers easily (PC dialogue options routinely include telling her to calm down and/or making fun of her being easy to provoke), and Pisha eats people.

              [Ming Xiao is debatable. She doesn’t make a point of sexualizing her everyday presentation, but her dialogue post-Hallowbrook, regarding being able to perceive her form and the blood rushing hot to the PC’s skin, might be interpreted as some sort of flirtation.]

              By comparison, the only possibly-sexualized man I can think of would be Jack, and that assumes one likes the hairy-biker look. Skelter could qualify for the sexy-muscle-man look, I suppose, but that feels like even more of a stretch. Neither man actively flirts or otherwise calls attention to himself as a sexual being.

              There are no sexualized male background characters. There is no “danger” of being able to watch a man dancing, let alone getting a sidequest to go kill one.

              Conversely, though not every woman background character is sexualized, lots of them are, and every sex worker is female.

              Every “blood doll” in Bloodlines is female. It’s worth noting that the term originally referred to people a given P&P Ventrue kept around to easily fulfill that Ventrue’s feeding requirements, rather than women who are available as additional blood sources to any vampire who takes points in Seduction. Example from the previous game, Redemption: the Modern Nights multiplayer chronicle included with the game has a Ventrue prince who keeps several male exotic dancers around because her feeding “preference”/need is, in fact, male exotic dancers.

              Finally, there is no Hank Poe bleeding out in the Santa Monica clinic. One’s blood-addict slave will always be female, no matter one’s preferences or character gender.

              Thus, it’s fair to say that women are portrayed as significantly more sexualized than men, and that the rather irritating USian cultural norm of women as the sex-class is in full force throughout Bloodlines.

              I don’t agree that STD risk should make blood less nourishing. Seems like a better fit to have a 1 in X chance, per blood source (what, women you pick up in clubs, random thugs, SoL goons, police, or even SWAT officers can’t have a disease?), of getting diseased and having to either vomit or burn some blood to un-disease the rest of your pool, as in Redemption. There, blood was blood, no matter where it came from. (You could also feed on other vampires, and via Discipline, from non-humanoid hostiles such as gargoyles, spider eggs, cobras, the final boss, etc.)

              Finally, I don’t think we needed that precise a comparison, just as there’s no need for a serial-killer computer game.

              Thanks for your time and consideration.

            • Overmind says:

              I didn’t really get the impression that Theresa and Jeanette were shown as a caricature. On the contrary, in my opinion they were portrayed in a serious way. Although that doesn’t change the fact that they have a serious problem hindering their effectiveness that a player has to solve for them. On the other hand, I don’t really remember anyone criticising Therese. Well, Mercurcio says that he respects Therese more than he likes her and it looked like he is in fact afraid her, but I think that it is good when a de facto baron inspires such feelings.

              I agree about Damsel. I also remember being quite frustrated during my first playthrough that she didn’t have a more active role.

              Pisha is despised by a majority of kindred for her feeding habits, but her “problem” is just that: she likes her dishes served differently, nothing more, nothing less. It’s only a matter of aesthetics really. There is nothing inherently wrong with eating kine instead of drinking their blood, especially since she doesn’t leave any traces and neither does she submit to the beast.

              All in all I agree though – there should be more non-sexualised female and sexualised male characters in the game.

              I also agree completely about blood dolls. There should be both male and female ones at the clubs, and I can’t think of any sensible reason why this was not done this way.

              About Poe – I think that the best solution would be having the chance two get two ghouls, one male and one female, at different points in the game.
              The player would have to decide which one they want to keep or whether they want to try to keep both (which should be much harder to pull off than having only one ghoul).

              “I don’t agree that STD risk should make blood less nourishing.”

              I’ve been replaying Bloodlines recently and I’ve noticed that the fact that you can replenish less from certain people is not necessarily due to their having less nutritious blood, but may also be caused by the fact that they die more quickly due to blood loss when you feed on them. This is especially apparent in Downtown before solving quests concerning
              the plague – infected homeless die almost instantly when you feed on them.

            • Overmind says:

              “neither does she submit to the beast.”

              I meant to write “neither does she succumb to the beast”.

  8. Oof. I suppose if you’re not wincing when seeing something you wrote seven years ago quoted, something’s gone horribly wrong.

    To put the Bloodlines quotes in context – which, of course, I understand you are within your reasonable rights to reject – this is a PC-mainstream games review where If I remember correctly, I was trying to do two things:
    1) Get past PC gamers’ prudishness. Perhaps contrary to expectations, the sort of readers who follow the PC press lean heavily towards completely aversion to anything that alludes to sex at all. If any character has a cleavage, it will be mocked for existing.
    2) The review was actually only a lukewarm one, with the sort of score that would get a PR on the phone speaking to the editors. I was building it up as a capital G great game, because I was going to pull the rug from it in the last third of the review.

    For the former, I was softballing the problems with the games’ depictions by trying to show that there was a degree of thought behind it – it wasn’t solely sexist fanservice. For the latter, I was softballing the games’ faults so the reverse would be more effective rhetorically.

    I wouldn’t do either now. I’d have loaded more critique in the first part for both parts, because current-me would be all too aware that those paragraphs could be entirely justifiably quoted in an article like this.

    (That said, at the time, I *did* think it was more a game about misogyny than a misogynist game, so the balance of the argument would have still leaned positively)

    So sorry about that. The sex-workers were absolutely one of the things I would/should have stressed and I was an idiot not to. Just because there’s a worrying number of RPGs where the majority of women you meet are sex-workers doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have noted Bloodlines for doing it, despite me thinking they did other stuff particularly well.

    That said – I think you’re being unfair to my younger self in a crucial way which a few other comment-threaders have mentioned. I didn’t make any argument about realism. I made an argument about truthfulness. Truth in art has nothing to do with realism. And I don’t believe making an argument that a dark game seemed convincingly well observed means that all the truth to find in the world or fiction is dark. I wished there were more optimistic games half as well observed. Unless the person is an idiot – and I’ll admit there’s people who have made this argument – “Mature” and “adult” aren’t synonyms for “realistic”. To be cruel for a second, the only people who make arguments that grimmer themes are necessarily more mature are people who normally aren’t.

    (To choose my specific example – we’ve all seen some shitty S&M references in fiction which take you entirely out of the story if you’ve even got the slightest cultural acquaintance with it in the real world. Bloodlines did it, and didn’t feel like a clunker, and that impressed me.)

    I have no idea if I’d agree with my younger-self on the games’ merits if I replayed it now, of course. It could be bobbins and I could have be drunk, but that’s what I believed then.

    KG

    • Quinnae says:

      Thank you so much for coming here and adding so much to the discussion. :) Before I reply there are a few things I wanted to say. A) You’re my favourite Eurogamer reviewer, I normally love your reviews and your writing style, particularly when you review MMOs. B) Thank you for replying so thoughtfully and appreciating where I was coming from. Your reply here is a reminder of why I like you.

      Onto the substance of your comment. You very clearly explained your thought process behind the writing of that article and that’s very helpful to my understanding of where *you* were coming from. I would only add that I was aware you gave VtM:B a score that was not astronomically high– but the commentary I plucked out could stand in isolation irrespective of the final score.

      I also agree that Jeanette was not solely fanservice; I have complicated opinions about her and her sister that I will likely write about in full on this site at some point.

      But here’s where I think a very rich discussion indeed can be had:

      That said – I think you’re being unfair to my younger self in a crucial way which a few other comment-threaders have mentioned. I didn’t make any argument about realism. I made an argument about truthfulness. Truth in art has nothing to do with realism. And I don’t believe making an argument that a dark game seemed convincingly well observed means that all the truth to find in the world or fiction is dark. I wished there were more optimistic games half as well observed. Unless the person is an idiot – and I’ll admit there’s people who have made this argument – “Mature” and “adult” aren’t synonyms for “realistic”. To be cruel for a second, the only people who make arguments that grimmer themes are necessarily more mature are people who normally aren’t.

      This is a discussion you and I could have for hours. :P

      I should begin here by saying that every single article I write has at least one thing in it that I feel I could’ve handled a lot better, and considering the commentary of you and others and my reflections on the matter it seems I did not deal with the question of ‘realism’ as well as I could’ve. Which is unfortunate considering how central it is. I got at what I meant a little better in my discussion with Justin when I said:

      A point that I could’ve made better is the *manner* in which realism is ‘purported’ by games like this (and by books, movies, etc). It tends to be a confused affair. On the one hand the devs, marketers, fans, and pundits will speak of realism; when faced with certain kinds of criticism (i.e. what I said in this article) we are then told it’s just a game and anyway it’s not supposed to be *that* real. Thus it’s actually purported be real or not real as is convenient.

      For instance, other types of critique will lead to one saying what you just said. “It’s like the Middle Ages!” I actually took on this idea in a brief but pointed article not too long ago, suggesting that settings like this become oddly selective of certain bits of flavour from Medieval Europe (rape is an all time favourite) and less selective of others that are inconvenient or less “fun.”

      What I mean is that the issues I describe are not exactly discussed as a question of realistic versus unrealistic in those exact, strict, binary terms. As you pointed out, rightly or wrongly there is a lot of free flowing between the concepts of ‘mature/adult’ and ‘reality.’ Beyond this there is also a very *selective* adherence to reality (or hyperreality, to return to the main theme of my article), and a lot of *implication* about reality. To give an example of what I mean, take one of my favourite programmes: Law & Order. This is a show whose pretences to reality are at best decidedly mixed, but which achieves such verisimilitude by virtue of the writing and the issues it raises that it dissolves *into* something that is realistic enough to be taken as a species of reality. (“Ripped from the headlines!” is a tagline that feeds into that amorphous sense of realism.)

      This is not entirely a bad thing as Law & Order: SVU has, to its credit, done very good things with raising awareness about certain issues surrounding rape– like America’s rape kit testing scandal– but the point is that this ‘half-in, half-out’ depiction of reality is quite common. It’s why media crit has such importance and force.

      I’m writing this quickly and briefly, so it is not as academic as I’d like it to be.

      But to crystallise what I’m getting at with regards to video games, the mod to change the skin of sex workers in Bloodlines, followed by the stomach-turning commentary there… as I asked, where do these young lads get the idea that sex workers ‘should’ look like x, y, and z, and why is it important (or at least desirable) that the game reflects that?

      You draw an interesting distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ and I’d love to explore that more. For me it begs the question: whose truth? Perhaps my whole problem in this article was that I harped on the word ‘reality’ so much, but if we shift the terms of discussion from ‘reality’ to ‘truth’ does much of what I said really change? I’m not so sure.

      Let us say that the world of a video game is truly self-contained and is well observed, as you put it so well. Does it still not make reference to the real world in some way? And a critical question to answer: do those references have power? My argument is yes to both.

      Is there something deeply wrong when so many of the games marketed as ‘adult’ and ‘mature’ (concepts that, while not coterminous with ‘reality’ often stand for *accepting* and *dealing with* reality) have these deeply troublesome themes in them? Realistically, as you and I well know, Bloodlines was hardly the worst offender and it has some very good points that I will likely raise in a future article. But a lot of other ‘Mature’ games tend to feel suspiciously less so (see Korva’s comment for a brief breakdown of that perspective).

      Anyway, thank you so much for commenting and for the food for thought. I know I wouldn’t be entirely thrilled with something I wrote seven years ago either, and perhaps I should’ve made the age of that review clearer. :) Take care.

      • L.R. Weizel says:

        I think Hourou Musuko is a bit like that when it comes to trans issues. It’s not all that realistic in of itself(in how many trans characters there are, and how little the parents seem to care), but the “real” core issues are still there somehow.

  9. Laurentius says:

    It’s interesting article no doubt but it deals with a lot of complicated issues at once so all I could do was to read it but I couldn’t through fully “digest it”. One observation though to the first part (one I think really get around in my head so far): So called M games and mature themes in video games I have the strong feeling aren’t coming for most times from some dedicated thinking but rather as simple: “What does not appear in “teen and kids” games?: rape – check, sex workers – check, lot of blood and guts ¬check, serial killers –check”.

  10. Maverynthia says:

    I just recently got the Monster Hunter Illustrations artbook and was reading through the commentary. Most of the people working on the game were going for REALISM and DIVERSITY! However even in the artbook itself, all the women hunters are dressed a bit different and more scanty. Their armor usually includes flesh holes and skirts VS the men. If this was reality, there would be no need to add flaws to your armor. Also their version of diversity in women is tiny old women, fat shopkeepers and the young guild worker/street NPC. All of 3. The men however get middle aged merchant, burly arms dealer, bald and fat wise old elder, etc. :/
    They even have an armor that is specifically designed to look like a schoolgirl outfit? Fighting monsters.. in a school girl outfit? That’s not real at all.
    Not only that they put the guild workers on the level of non-human as the felyne companions/cooks and the piggie! (Because they are CUTE!)
    Not to mention there is specifically one armor mentioned in the artbook as being “FOR MEN ONLY” and male is always the default for players. >_< SIGH

    • Marco says:

      I was really tempted to getting to artbook, but I realize I’d never seen anyone’s opinion of it. That’s really curious and odd (erm, the lack of opinion and the artbook itself!). But honestly, when I go through fanart of MH, I notice a lot of female characters in very feminized (can I use this word?) armor, and I don’t think that it’s *always* just because every different artist just wants to throw girls into skirts (or make them more scantily clad than their male counterparts). That’s pretty disappointing.

  11. L.R. Weizel says:

    Totally agree with this, got into a semi-argument with a friend over this once or twice as he loves “mature” games. I think in a sense it’s alright to “like” that kind of thing in the same way a lot of movies do the gritty thing, but not all of them pretend like it’s real. If you like it with a certain degree of irony.

    I particularly liked the comment about handling the “Reality” of introducing sexually “strange” people like “Female” companions but they have no clue what that reality is. I think though the reasons for this slightly warped view of “Reality” are being perhaps rather rashly put down to being “Minority centric”, or what have you. I don’t think it’s consciously that, I think it’s just what happens if you are a “mainstream” individual who doesn’t have enough contact with those outside of it – and unfortunately games have become very mainstream – you will tend to think you know more about life in general(especially given the general age of “Mature” gamers is late teens or 20s) but won’t have the experience to verify any of it.

    A friend of mine always jokes about the concept of “realism”, saying he wants to see a game where you shoot someone and they lie on the ground screaming in pain for 10 minutes before falling unconscious/dead. Which is a pretty horrible joke, but he has a point. I think realism in games in general is an issue, and sometimes they deliver entirely the wrong kind of realism. It’s not just limited to feminist, LGBT or racial issues.

    • Korva says:

      True. The -isms and -phobias are just particularly blatant and offensive, but when you think about it, a lot of things we take for granted in games/entertainment would go right out the window, for good or ill.

      My impression is that quite a few people who want “mature” entertainment do so because it’s more exciting than a whitewashed faerieland — but they draw the line at their own comfort zone. They still want to be the superhero among the grubby despondent peasants. They still want to be snarky and disrespectful and not obey any authority or tradition. Dragon Age for example is certainly gory and nasty in some ways, but still spends a whole bloody lot of time wanking the player’s ego and letting them get away with pretty much everything. That is something that bugs me a lot and one reason for why I get pretty cynical when I hear “mature” and “dark”.

      I don’t WANT a highly realistic game, because frankly, worrying about menstruation, digestion, parasites, the possibility of catching diseases from a drink of water etc. etc. would not be fun in any way even if you ignore all the gender/race/sexuality issues. I just want people to stop using “realism” and “maturity” as a defense for some issues while completely ignoring these concepts when it would actually inconvenience them (as opposed to only inconveniencing ).

      • Korva says:

        Oops, goofed up the last sentence. That was supposed to read:

        (as opposed to only inconveniencing [insert minority group they feel superior to]).

      • L.R. Weizel says:

        There’s a pretty good article I read about that street sweeper simulation.

        http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/07/08/street-cleanin-man-street-cleaning-simulator/

        Of course, what people really want is “A high level of suggestion of realism while still remaining game-like”, but that isn’t necessarily or generally the most fun solution either.

        Part of the problem with realism in games is that it tends to be “Incomplete”. The issue with minorities is in some ways part of this – they’re showing trans, they’re showing sex workers, but they’re not sketching in the details.

        Similarly, a good example is the Wii – a lot of problems are raised here. In reality, once you “bond” with the controller enough and with versatile enough controls, a more traditional controller could be more versatile since it acts like a remote control for whatever you want to do on screen, rather than being limited to what movements work with a Wiimote.

        With the Wiimote – how do you map a sword to the movements? Do you go with the disappointing Red Steel and just have a few slashes it triggers? Or do you try to go for full on movement? How does the complete control work? Do you have it treat inaccurate slashes as more damaging? Will that look obviously jarring and break immersion? How does this affect the skill ceiling? Do you want people who have real swordplay skills to be better with the game? How will that make non skilled players feel?

        With a controller, everyone starts at the same level. Of course that’s not *expressly* true, some people will find controllers much more comfortable and have better hand eye coordination, but it’s easier to compensate for those within a limited realm.

        When you think about the difficulties a lot of developers face, it’s not surprising that realism is so difficult to them. But they could at least get it right where it counts – it’s not that difficult to represent a realistic trans person.

  12. L.R. Weizel says:

    Though one argument for games that are apparently discriminative being more “mature” isn’t that the content isn’t mature, but that a mature person is less likely to be influenced by it. If you get an adult playing Duke 3D, they’ll understand mostly as a parody of cheesy 80s action flicks with a ironic douchebag as the lead.(I hear DNF may have dropped the “Ironic” part) If a kid or young teen sees that, they may take it more at face value.

    But that’s not what’s consciously happening in this case, and it could easily become the next “It’s in the Medieval” excuse.

  13. While I agree with some points in the article, I think you’re working with several definitions of realism or truth. There’s often a question in literature or any genre of what truth means. Photo-realism is different than communicating the feel of a place or a character’s feelings through setting.

    I agree that mature and adult are often erroneously used for real, but I think you’re making the same mistake when you talk about Gillen’s review. He seems to be talking about real themes, not the photo-realism of the game or even that it is a believable experience. I can understand that a game dealing with a topic in an honest, emotional way could be called real.

    There are some real problems with the game, but I think the tone and structure of this particular argument doesn’t address them as well as they should be.

    • Quinnae says:

      Hi there, thank you for your comment.

      I do agree in retrospect that I did not explain this as well as I could’ve, and you can see in a few of the comments I’ve made on other peoples’ thoughts here that I have tried to finesse my argument a ways. My photograph metaphor at the head of the article was probably the biggest rhetorical mistake I made because it is a good deal more complex than that, I agree.

      What I will say is that to talk about honesty and truth (Gillen in his reply here drew an interesting distinction between reality and truth that is, I feel, worth probing in some detail and I will consider it for future work) we are still discussing things that key into a sense of hyperreality. Whose truth? Honest in relation to what?

      That’s what I was driving at. I do agree I could’ve done so in a clearer way, however.

      Thanks for your critique. :)

  14. laclongquan says:

    You forgot one central aspect of the World of Darkness setting:

    Humans are not at the top of food chains there. Indeed, humans are preys, a mobile larder for vampires and god know what else. Even human governments are manipulated by vampire politics.

    It explain much of the darkness you can sense in that game. Sure, the spiritual darkness is also nothing to sneeze about: ghosts’ existance, nothing is truly safe, etc and etc. But the plain fact is that humans are not strong there, in every aspect that count.

  15. Nekomimi26 says:

    And, as usual, the appalingly ignorant gathering place for hateful ciscentered rape culture enablers, the RPGCodex, provides their transphobic/cryptopatriarchal take on the matter: http://rpgcodex.net/phpBB/viewtopic.php?t=63884

  16. Nathan says:

    So the mention of Sady Doyle’s critique (I don’t agree with some of the specifics, but the point is definitely made) got me thinking re the transgendered sex workers in Dragon Age: what would life in ‘gritty’ medieval times have been like for the transgendered? Probably not fun (if anybody knows of concrete historical documents on the subject, do share!), but the fiction seems to be implicitly ambivalent about sexual orientation, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a huge stigma.
    My point is that the transgendered sex workers we see are sex workers, however exploited, and the implied ‘surprise’ element is part of the presentation – catering to customers.
    We’re never shown non-sex-worker trans folks, and while I’m not sure most developers would ever include a transgender character in a role not related to that one characteristic*, I’d be interested to see how that treatment went in a fantastic setting.

    *Though there’s sort of a case to be made for Shale, a dwarf woman who at one point chose the body of a 7-foot-tall masculine-looking and -sounding stone golem. Does that fall on the spectrum?

    • Denis Farr says:

      Well, I think that’s part of the issue in itself. Trans women in particular are considered visible in society unless they are sexualized or victimized. Outside of those instances, they do not exist. Media that perpetuates that, as Quinnae has argued in threads above, only serve as one more drop in that well, but it is important to note when this occurs.

      Considering the Dragon Age writing team was creating a new world, with some of its own gender and sex politics that differ from our own (not wholesale, but to some degree), taking the most common route here seems as if not much thought was provided at all. It does become both a stereotyped media representation, as well as played for laughs.

      Shale is a difficult case, as I don’t believe we are ever led to specifically believe Shale is a man in the game’s text. There is reference to it, but the assumption of default male falls on us, and Shale even makes fun of it. Shale never feels gendered male, from her own discussion of it. I don’t think (in so far as I have read the fiction) she even considers gender relevant in any meaningful way. What does gender have to do with being a mechanical/magical construct who was created to fight Darkspawn? I suppose I would question why she is masculine-looking in this case.

      • Nathan says:

        It’s been a while, but if my memory works the PC/some of the party members are(can be) surprised to find out she’s a woman. That parallels the ‘surprise’ from the transgender sex workers, but you’re right, I don’t think she actually indicates one way or another before the revelation, or finds it meaningful at all. Could you call that identifying as asexual?
        The point, like you mentioned, is that we the audience may assume certain things about her, and it’s clear the developers know that. It’s adjacent to the central issue of trans representation, but it seems to push some similar buttons.

  17. Excellent article, Quinnae. These kinds of representations of us are our microaggressions: we find them not only in many video games, but also in television, film, sequential art forms like comics and graphic novels, pretty much everywhere. I’d love, someday, to have a show that I like run more than three seasons without making an anti-trans joke. I’d love it, but I don’t expect it in my lifetime. :/

  18. Samia says:

    This is the most enjoyable post I’ve read on BH so far. Wonderful writing and so much food for thought. I’ve been mulling over the popularity of some of these HBO/Showtime programs everyone seems to appreciate for their Mature!Adult!Realism!!!!

    You hit the nail on the head here– too many of us mistake gore, rape and nudity for grit/honesty. It’s immature and irks me to no end. Tits != plot depth, people!

    Thanks so much for writing this, Quinnae.

  19. Sunflower says:

    I love this article, Quinnae. You put things so well. I couldn’t get past the City Elf beginning in DA because of the way they handled the rape and basically stuck you in a cut scene where you had to wait around for help. It was total railroading. I knew there was something really messed up about it but I couldn’t really put it into words. Part of it was that I’m not interested in playing someone else’s idea of a rapist-killing hero, or helpless victim.

    As for all the truth and reality debating, all I know is that there’s no Magical One Truth. People who have privilege also tend to have more chances to avoid actual feedback and therefore I think they’re the most removed from reality themselves. The more feedback you are open to, and the more you listen and take in, the more you understand how really huge the tapestry of reality is. It sounds to me like this supposedly gritty and realistic game is just a shallow interpretation of a feedback-less point of view and I’ll be sure to skip it.

  20. Corbiu Geisha says:

    VtM Bloodlines is quite the guilty pleasure for me. Despite all its problems, it’s still likely to come on top if I’m pressed to make a list of favourite games. Although, the implication that sex workers and homeless are inferior beings is not something which I was acutely aware of until this article. Explaining the mechanical inferiority of their blood with poor living conditions is, at least for me, valid for reasons already discussed above. But since it’s been some time since I’ve played it, I must have forgotten some of the damning flavour text in the game.

    Perhaps not related to the topic, but the oriental (I have no idea if this term is offensive in the West, so I apologise if it is) sterotypes are also something which bothered me. Especially Yuki the demon hunter with her fetishised outfit, her dialogue, and the noticeably anime stylisation of her face. And while I am a fan of Ming Xiao, her character model while less sexualised than her concept art, the deliberate “asian-ifiication” is noticeable.

    Back to “gritty”, “mature”, “grim” and “dark”, I am beginning to gain a habit of reflexively feeling disgust every time I see these terms to describe a game (and sometimes also comics). It is beginning to seem that they are just buzzwords for “lots of tits, fucking, and bloody gory, even sexy, violence” for “manly manly men”. I think they are allowed to get away with describing their work as “mature” because what that word means in rating context is “for mature audiences who would not be influenced negatively by the content”, but even so, it is disappointing to see that it is an excuse for straight cis male adolescents and adolescent-minded power fantasies.

  21. Hazmat Sam says:

    You’re tlaking about hyperreality without reference to Baudrillard? Well, maybe if you’d done the research then you’d know that a hyperreality is defined explicitly by ontologically preceding reality.Which is to say: a conflict between hyperreality and reality ends in the hyperreal’s favour. Hyperreal is to real as real is to dream.

    What you’re complaining about is representative reality. Indeed, you seem to deny that anything can me more existant than reality, so that’s all you can complain about.

    I won’t begrudge you this position, but don’t (mis)use words that are antithetical to your paradigm. You’re like a capitalist talking about “proletariat”: embarrassing for everyone involved.

    • Elena says:

      Baudrillard might have coined the term but he did’t own it, nor is he the only person who ever used it, and it’s quite possible to have a discussion about hyperreality without restating Postmodernism 101 first.

      The games mentioned above are fantasy, not representative reality. I’d say hyperreality is exactly the term to use when people mistakenly describe elements of an exaggerated, stylised game as “real”, “gritty” or “true”.

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