Tag Archives: sex

Bunk Bed #2: Redshirt

Welcome to the Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
A photo of a bunk bed.

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Redshirt (The Tiniest Shark, PC and Mac, $19.95 USD) is a sci-fi social media simulator that transports the player to a Star Trek-inspired future while lampooning the Facebook of the present. By navigating social media website Spacebook (get it?), the player builds relationships, acquires skills, and climbs the career ladder. Redshirt will be available on November 13th, 2013 on Steam, GoG, and through direct download.

Top Bunk: Samantha

It’s my dream to be queer in outer space. Why? Queerness and outer space are the two coolest things ever, so they should be mind-blowing in combination, right? My partner and I would live on a homey little space station orbiting Jupiter, far away from all the straight people. We’d be so beautifully isolated and, in the stillness of space, I would perfect the art of the Barbarella-esque, zero-gravity striptease.

When I booted up Mitu Khandaker’s Redshirt, I was ready to live out my dreams of sultry space sex. I made a green-skinned Asrion character named Samantha, indicated an erotic interest in women on my profile and began my simulated space sojourn. But alas, the endlessness of space couldn’t shield me from the vagaries of love. Redshirt was not the queer getaway of my dreams but it did produce an unforgettable tale of love and heartbreak. Continue reading

An Impolite Conversation: The relationship between sex and politics in three games

I recently played a game called Agarest: Generations of War for review (Filipowich, Mark. “Review: Agarest: Generations of War.” PopMatters. Oct 28 2013.). It sucked. Many games are built from the ground up on a problematic premise; baggage is built into them. Many of the problems with Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, weren’t a surprise. But Agarest didn’t have to suck. It carefully crafted its own suckiness from a really good premise.

The game begins with the player-character, Leo—a real swell guy working for a real evil empire—attacking an impoverished country of ethnic minorities. When he sees what he’s been doing first hand, Leo refuses to participate any longer. Then a fellow officer kills him because that’s what happens to traitors. Leo is left to bleed to death in a field when an angel promises to revive him in exchange for his and his descendants’ aid against heaven’s enemies.

The Angel from Agarest, a woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

The angel from Agarest, an anime woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

From there, Leo must win the war, seduce a sexy she-human and plant a clone in her baby-sac so that his sacred duty can be passed onto the next generation. This process is repeated for all five generations of slightly differently haired Leos. All the player-characters are men, all possible relationships are heterosexual and monogamous and all the women are eerily infantile and/or battered on top of the usual erotic pandering character designs. Just as bad, all potential romance options claw over one another for the player’s love after the player has invested enough relationship points (Moss, Kim. “Y’know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” Nightmare Mode. Dec 3 2012.). Women are just baby-making apparatuses, and to acquire one the player really only needs to ask politely at regular prompts. It’s not very difficult to spot the sexism here, but Agarest props itself up to be so much more by placing the personal and the sexual right at the center of the political.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads "What?" which was more or less the author's own reaction.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads “What?” which was more or less the author’s own reaction.

See, to maintain the order of the world, Leo mustn’t just smite the dragon-king, he has to be the kind of person that others would want to be in a sexual relationship with. The player-character doesn’t just need to seek out sex to satisfy the story, he needs to be a good boyfriend and eventual husband. Furthermore, the story demands that the player find someone willing to stick with them for the entire child-rearing process. It’s not enough to beat the bad guy, the hero must raise a good child with a good person to prevent evil from overtaking the world. If the player-character isn’t a decent, trustworthy, long-term lover and parent, the world will end. At the very least the player must be responsible enough to ensure his child will have a good upbringing; the kind of upbringing that will prepare a child emotionally and ethically for protecting the world in adulthood.

Each generation could follow a child of a different gender and a different sexuality, the game could weigh the challenge of finding a partner against that of deserving a partner. It just doesn’t. Again, the real objective of each of the five player-characters is not just defeating the bad guy, but also falling in love, coping with unrequited love, actually being a romantic partner to an individual. In Agarest, the political is directly linked to sexual relationships: loving others and being worthy of love sustains the world. The player-character’s inability to love, according to the lore provided by the game, would destroy society; being untrustworthy as lover, let alone as a parent, ends the world. That’s powerful. However, Agarest’s “dating simulator” amounts picking out the best cut of meat as the next generation pops into the player’s control.

Aragest doesn’t present sex—it could, and it’d be infinitely better if it did—it presents a specific kind of pornography; where women look and behave according to an insecure, adolescent fantasy. But it does nonetheless stumble into the complex intersection of love, family, sex, relationships, power and politics, even if it never seems to appreciate its own subject matter. I bring up Agarest as a failed instance of what another game, Hate Plus, does so well.

Hate Plus expands on Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and follows the first social collapse of the Mugunghwa, a lost generation space ship. Hate Plus chronicles the transformation of a flawed but functional society into one that is self-destructively conservative. But what makes the Mugunghwa’s tragedy so compelling is how it’s told through the many doomed love stories of its people.

New *Mute from Hate plus, with her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer's uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

New *Mute from Hate Plus against a gold background. She holds her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer’s uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

Though the plot is most immediately concerned with the fall of one government and the rise of another (and, ultimately, the fall of that government into extinction), the story is told by people developing crushes, exploring their own or another’s sexuality, committing adultery and betraying one another’s trust. It’s easy to understand how the Mugunghwa could destroy itself from a distance, but by seeing the effect of a new law, a changing fashion trend, a different standard of education through the eyes of the people living through them makes empathising with the Mugunghwa’s people natural.

For instance, a tax break for new mothers is instrumental in changing the Mugunghwa’s cultural view of women; it takes them out of the workplace and puts them in an increasingly domestic role, it makes them more desperate for work and it lowers their expectation of wage and prestige. Taking a detached and academic approach, one could see how a piece of legislation like that could undermine women’s rights, but Hate Plus emphasises the personal impact of these kinds of laws. More importantly, though, it emphasises how the changing zeitgeist dictates how characters are expected to satisfy their sexual needs.

Hate Plus is powerful because it shows how intimate something so sterile as tax reform can be. Kim So Yi, a brilliant engineer, is gradually marginalized by her government, her workplace and even by her well-meaning and otherwise decent husband. Her career is ruined the more her culture encroaches on her sexuality. Heterosexuality and motherhood become privileged and her career is significantly impacted by the sex she’s expected to have, enjoy and make public. The aforementioned tax break is passed by half a dozen rich people just trying to reach their lunch break, but it cages one of the ship’s greatest minds. Her culture silences her in the face of a sexually aggressive co-worker and it forces her to quit her work for children everybody but she wants to have. Depending on who gives or receives a blow job is immensely political and can mean the difference between a high five and prison sentence, Hate Plus shows how that distinction is arbitrated.

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae's is white with red trim and *Mute's is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she "will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!"

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae’s is white with red trim and *Mute’s is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she “will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!”

The beauty of Hate Plus is in how connected everything is. The game’s primary concern is how people relate and the player understand the relationships between the cast through their sex and their politics. The way people are allowed to love depends entirely on the Mugunghwa’s power structure, and sex is used to dictate the change of that structure. It’s important to note that the immortal space badass, Old *Mute, is not overthrown and killed because she is outmatched in arms—she isn’t—she is beaten by the slow erosion of her culture’s sex politics and her surrender is made absolute when she exploits her lieutenant’s love and trust.

Hate Plus is not ero—as the catchy credits song explains—but it ties the erotic to the political. It’s a story about conspiracy, intrigue and revolution told through sex stories, love poems and romantic confessions. It works because sociology and history are studies of sexual, lovesick people from a perspective too distant to see those details. Hate Plus shows how the personal and erotic, taken together, build and move a political engine. In that context, it’s interesting to look at another independent game invested in sex, Consensual Torture Simulator.

Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator is a game about two lovers consensually finding joy in one another’s bodies. It’s straightforward about the act and the objective: the player is in a sadomasochistic relationship with their girlfriend and the player’s goal is to strike their partner until they cry. Both the invisible player-character and the nameless girlfriend find joy in the interaction. There’s no twist that one of the lovers is a ghost or anything like that, it’s just two people who love each other being physically intimate with one another.

That’s where Consensual Torture Simulator, for me, becomes more interesting politically. Both the participating characters, even the title itself, are so honest. Moreover, though the player is performing the torture, not receiving it, the game monitors the player’s physical condition. Swinging a whip is tiring, and if the player doesn’t recognize their own limits they’re as likely to break as their partner. Topping is as demanding as bottoming for many of the same reasons. Performing the act successfully requires equal commitment, trust and exertion from the participants.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman's hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game's title along the right.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman’s hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game’s title along the right.

Patricia Hernandez interviewed Kopas for Kotaku about the game (“A Game Where You Torture Someone Because They Want You To.” Oct 29 2013.) and in the piece she cites some of the developer’s previous writing on violence from her personal blog (“keywords debrief: violence.” Oct 11 2012.). Kopas writes that the greatest problem with how games portray violence is in how “they conceal…structural violences.” It’s significant that Hernandez recalls that piece in a conversation about Consensual Torture Simulator because the structure of that game and the sexual act therein so honest and egalitarian. The player’s satisfaction depends on their partner’s satisfaction. If the player-character gets tired, their partner needs to have patience with them; if the partner’s threshold is reached, she trusts the player to recognize that; if either needs the stimulation to escalate than it must be on the terms of the other. Structurally speaking, neither partner holds power over the other.

Consensual Torture Simulator doesn’t present sex as a capitalist exchange between a purchaser and a provider, nor does it present violence as a colonial attack from an invader upon an underarmed, weaker “threat.” Violence—if it can be called that—is based on a structure of two, equal parties seeking the same, mutually beneficial end. Both player and partner commit to the act as best they’re able. If one needs a rest, the other recognizes it. It’s appropriate that Consensual Torture Simulator comes as a reaction to Grand Theft Auto V because it—like most triple A games—romanticizes violence as a pleasurable act to perform on an unwilling, nameless creature. The structure of triple A games, GTA V just being the most recent representative to take the floor, encourages a lopsided power structure. Consensual Torture Simulator is structurally based on two people that trust one another committed to pleasuring one another in different but equal ways.

Sex and politics may not be fair subject for polite conversation but they’re connected. Politics dictate the terms of how people may interact with their own bodies and most of the people that make up society really like getting off. The two are connected. It’s interesting to see how games—like politics, systems of rules that dictate behaviour—attempt to examine the connection of politics. Sex in games can present their players with a microcosm of power, whether through the failed but promising allusion in Agarest, the mutually dependant organism shown in Hate Plus or the reaction to a current understanding of violence in Consensual Torture Simulator. Sex is a reflection of how power influences people, and games are in a strong position to comment on how one impacts the other.

Agarest: Generations of War is available on Steam for $19.99, it’s also available under the name Record of Agarest War for the same price on the Playstation Network or for $29.99 on Xbox Live Arcade. Hate Plus is available on Steam for $9.99 and Consnsual Torture Simulator can be purchased for a minimum of $2.00 on either Gumroad or itch.io.

Bunk Bed #1: Everlove

Welcome to the first ever Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Everlove: Rose (Silicon Sisters Interactive, iOS, $3.99 USD) is a romance game by women-run Canadian games studio Silicon Sisters. The studio is committed to improving the representation of women in games, and recently ran a game jam for projects with female protagonists. This medieval fantasy adventure combines branching dialogue with hidden object and jigsaw puzzles. Everlove also allows the player to romance four different men (albeit one at a time). Beyond the flirtation, another story unfolds, a story about magic, control and resistance to power.

Top Bunk: Zoya

I have never been a woman in love, but I spent many years of my life roleplaying as one. Even before I used the word “transgender,” I knew I could never be a woman on the inside, but I felt that I had to learn to act as one. Nobody would ever love me otherwise, I thought.

I remember the first time we kissed. I remember it as the first time in years that I actually had enough friends to have a proper birthday party. It was working. I was finally lovable. When I broke up with him years later, I learned that he didn’t kiss me because I was lovable. He kissed me because I was vulnerable. I was easy to manipulate. I wasn’t going to say no.

I was nervous about playing romance game Everlove. Other romance games that I have encountered have taken me back to that dark place in my life when, in trying to be a good girl, I lost control of my own boundaries. Romance games are so often about trying to please other people.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

The protagonist, Rose, is undergoing past life regression therapy, which feels functionally similar to time travel. She wakes up in the body of a past life version of herself in medieval Europe. Immediately, one of the dialogue options you can choose for her is “I’m not sure about this… being in someone else’s body and taking control of it.”

This concern for consent is carried through fairly consistently. When Rose gets the opportunity for a tryst with the man you have chosen to pursue, you can decide to refuse his advances. The same applies when he proposes marriage. It seems obvious now that choosing to pursue a man isn’t the same as wanting to sleep with him, but I was brought up to think that it is wrong to disappoint a man after you’ve “led him on.” Everlove imagines Rose’s motivations more complexly than that.

Rose’s dreams are haunted by a frightening creature called The Beast. It is hinted that The Beast may really be about social control, but Rose has decided to try and work out what in herself is causing these terrible dreams.

Rose is discovering who she is through her relationships with men from her past life. Acting in a way that is true to how you want to play the character is always rewarded with personality points. In addition to Rose’s own self-discovery, the men she is pursuing are attracted to some traits more than others, each one having different preferences. Although Rose has to reach a minimum level of compatibility with at least one man in order to complete the game, beyond that she doesn’t have to change herself to please any of them. Every romance can end in failure and still be the right outcome for Rose as an individual.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

Everlove is at its strongest when romancing swarthy woodsman Garrett. I loved the witty banter between him and Rose. When she stood up for herself, he admired her all the more. I trusted him with her, because he seemed secure in himself. The weaker personalities in the game reminded me too much of the fragile ego of that boyfriend who so needed me to be a perfect girl so that he could feel like the perfect man. Because I trusted Garrett, I trusted Rose, and because I trusted Rose, I trusted myself a little bit more. Roleplaying as her gave me some space to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

In the end, Rose has to find a way to release the hold The Beast has on her, or else she is destined to become The Beast too. Escaping its influence won’t be easy, but I hope that she and I can get there together.

Bottom Bunk: Samantha

The experience of having a man hit on me would be funny if it didn’t make me feel so uncomfortable. As a queer woman and a transgender sex radical, I am so far outside of a straight man’s erotic economy that a successful bedding isn’t even a remote possibility. It’s like watching an octopus try to have sex with a hummingbird: I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish but it’s not going to happen.

Getting hit on is an incessant reminder that so many men instantly perceive women as objects to be valued, owned and exchanged. It’s like they’re all wearing little RoboCop visors and, as soon as they register a woman’s face, their programming kicks in. Prime directive number one? “Sleep with her.”

For me, Everlove is a horror game about the discomfort of being a queer woman in a heteronormative world. The men of Everlove are relentless in their advances; no matter how often I rebuff them, they always come back for more. In the absence of an “I’m so gay and even if I weren’t you wouldn’t stand a chance!” dialogue option, I have to settle for the next most hostile response: “You try anything and you’ll be so ridiculously sorry!”

But Everlove translates my resistance into romance. When I utter the above warning to a befurred mountain man named Garrett, for example, a little heart pops up to let me know that my self-defensive threats have piqued his interest. He likes my “will,” it seems. He finds it endearing. The game encourages me to play up the “traits” that appeal to my desired mate. I shudder to think of Everlove in the hands of young girls, the game implicitly instructing them that saying “no” is just another way of saying “yes.”

There is one character in Everlove, however, that manages to pique my interest: my best friend Fendrel. She’s strong and stubborn with a brooding energy behind her eyes. But there is a sweetness in her loyalty that tempers her otherwise hard-nosed demeanor. And, like me, Fendrel seems to inhabit a space outside of the world of men and royals. We share a similar social station, a common lot in life.

Corey and Samantha.

Corey and Samantha.

Fendrel reminds me a lot of my own partner, actually. Corey and I are a study in contrasts. My California girl skips like a stone across her deep pool of New York cool. Her dark, wavy hair makes my fluffy blondeness pop. But we are also held together by a fundamental sameness. We are both women, both queer, both soft in the right places. My eroticism is located in this interplay between sameness and difference, not in the heterosexual mystification of difference itself.

One late night in Bloomington, Indiana, Corey and I stopped for a slice at Rockits on the way home. As we sprinkled some crushed red pepper on our greasy pizza, a man came up to us and told us that we should each be out with individual, male partners. We’re depriving the world of women by spending our night with each other instead, he explained. He would make a great Everlove character.

Suffice it to say that I tried my hardest to be with Fendrel. I repudiated all four of my male suitors and said the sweetest possible things to Fendrel. Corey thought I was cute. Fendrel would too, right? But an early turn in the plot took Fendrel away for a time, leaving me stranded with four overeager medieval men.

My experience with Everlove—mercifully—came to an early end. My therapist-cum-aunt informed me that I was “not very compatible with any of the men of Heart’s Home”—quelle surprise!—and that I would have to “revisit previous conversations to generate additional compatibility points” with at least one of my suitors. Some games have a gear check; Everlove has a heterosexuality check.

I exited my conversation with my therapist and looked again at the overworld map. Sure enough, there were four paths with men’s names by them but no path for Fendrel. I closed the game and I haven’t opened it since. Four roads diverged in a yellow wood and I turned around and drove away in my U-Haul.

The heterosexual gate.

The heterosexual gate.

Cherchez La Femme

The following is a guest post by Danielle Perry:

Writer and photographer with a desk job. You can find her on Flickr, where she posts pictures daily, and on Twitter, where she posts about books, games, living in DC, and everything in between.

There’s something weirdly comforting to me about slipping back into the Wasteland. I didn’t think I’d like Fallout 3, but I sank nearly 100 hours into it. I was hesitant about Fallout: New Vegas, since I loved Fallout 3 mostly for taking the place I live (DC) and turning it post-apocalyptic, but I am already near 100 hours and have much more to do. So it seems safe to say that the Wasteland, whether Capital or Mojave, appeals to me.

When I played Fallout 3, I took the Black Widow perk – which opens up conversation options that allow the player to flirt with male NPCs – early on. There were only a few opportunities to use it and I loved every single one. But in New Vegas, there’s a different yet similar perk – Cherchez La Femme. It works pretty much the same way Black Widow does, except the Courier can now flirt with other women. I took Black Widow first, because it was familiar, but I fell in love with Cherchez La Femme. It helps that Obsidian does a better job with these speech options than Bethesda did in Fallout 3. There are more of them, for starters. Where there were only three or four Black Widow options in the previous game, there are multitudes in New Vegas.

The way these options have shaped my relationships and affections in the Mojave Wasteland has been interesting to watch develop. Every time I had a chance to sleep with another woman, I took it. Meanwhile, Black Widow has mostly been used to seduce and then murder Benny, the character who shot me in the head in the game’s opening. (This seemed appropriate, given the name of the perk.) The fact that New Vegas includes sex at all seems kind of revolutionary, especially because no one makes a big deal over it. It’s just another thing you can do in the Wasteland.

Continue reading

Cortez

Same Sex Romance and Mass Effect 3

Though rare, same sex romance options are not new to video games. We have seen them Jade Empire, The Sims, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and the Dragon Age series. But lately, BioWare has had some shining moments in this area. When they announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to add same sex romances post release The Family Research Council got members to send thousands of letters to EA to denounce the move. EA did not back down, and instead stood by the decision to include the romance options http://kotaku.com/5899246/homophobes-slam-ea-with-thousands-of-letters-over-same+sex-romance. When a forum poster complained about the inclusion of bisexual NPCs in Dragon Age 2 David Gaider explained that “The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.”  http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8 Several recent BioWare games had same sex romance options, but Mass Effect 3 is especially important as a big budget game that has characters who are exclusively gay or lesbian.

 

 Some logistics first … Let’s look at the numbers!

(Author’s note: My Shepard romanced Liara and stayed faithful to her throughout the series. Information on which other characters can be romanced was taken from the Mass Effect wiki and some YouTube clips were referenced while writing the post.)

Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3

Before delving into Mass Effect 3, it is important to look at the series as a whole. Let’s look at what character romances result in the Paramour achievement/trophy in each game. I call those the primary romances or relationships. The original Mass Effect had had 2 primary romance options for both the male and female Shepard. As a man you could romance Ashley Williams and Liara T’Soni while as a woman you could romance Kaidan Alenko or Liara T’Soni. While Liara is often considered by fans as a same sex romance for a female Shepard, the game specifies that asari are a mono gendered species. They do not talk about a male/female gender binary; they are simply asari. So we walk away from the original Mass Effect without an official same sex romance.

 

Mass Effect 2 had many more romance options than the original game. As a man, Shepard could romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, or Jack. As a woman, Shepard could romance Jacob Taylor, Garrus Vakarian, and Thane Krios. None of these are same sex options.

 

Mass Effect 3 has the largest number of romance options in the series. As a man, Shepard can romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, Jack, Ashley Williams, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, Kaiden Alenko, or Steve Cortez. As a woman, Shepard can romance Garrus Valkarian, Kaidan Alenko, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, and Samantha Traynor.

Game Shepard Primary opposite sex relationships Primary same sex relationships Asari relationships
Mass Effect Female 1 0 1
Mass Effect Male 1 0 1
Mass Effect 2 Female 3 0 0
Mass Effect 2 Male 3 0 0
Mass Effect 3 Female 2 1 1
Mass Effect 3 Male 5 2 1

 

             

Secondary romances

However, there were also relationships that were not tracked by the Paramour achievement. In Mass Effect 2 either Shepard could show interest in Samara, Morinth, and Kelly Chambers. This last option of Kelly Chambers is the only one in Mass Effect 2 that could definitely counts as a same sex relationship option. In Mass Effect 3 either Shepard could have a sexual relationship with Diana Allers which which add another same sex relationship option for a female Shepard.

 

All those numbers mean something  

When looking at the numbers, there is a clear trend for greater diversity in sexual relationships within the Mass Effect series. But there is something else in those numbers: a male Shepard has more options than a female Shepard. Part of this is due to the exclusion of Thane and Jacob as romance options in Mass Effect 3. Yet, even if those two were included in the group, a female Commander Shepard would still have fewer potential romance options than a male. The quantity of options appears to favor a male Shepard.

 

This favoritism falls apart when discussing same sex relationships. If we look at Liara as a same sex option for female characters, then a lesbian Shepard has had a romance option since the beginning of the series. Even ignoring Liara, a lesbian Shepard could start a relationship with Kelly Chambers in the second game and then have that carry over to Mass Effect 3. BUT, a gay Shepard had to wait 3 games in order to have a possible relationship. If you choose to role play Shepard as a gay male, romance is left out until the end of the series. See http://kotaku.com/5909937/with-the-galaxy-in-flames-my-video-game-hero-finally-came-out-of-the-closet Denis Farr’s article about this issue.

 

What could have been done differently?

 

Liara from Mass Effect 3

The relationship with Liara T’Soni deserves discussion. Does she “count” as a same sex romance for a female commander Shepard or not? If she is considered female, then there is a potential for a long term same sex relationship between her and Shepard stretching from the first game through to the last. But by describing her as part of a monogendered species the series denies players one positive lesbian romance portrayal. While a relationship with a genderless species could be interesting the asari are not androgynous, they are heavily coded as feminine. Because of their appearance, the relationship looks like a same sex romance with a female Shepard but should it be read as such or should we look at it as something different? I am not sure. Even after 3 games I do not know if my Shepard’s relationship with Liara can be considered a lesbian romance.

 

Kelly Chambers in Mass Effect 2 is also potentially problematic. Her relationship with Shepard is not considered a canon romance in that game. It is a flirtation, a quick hint of a potential relationship. When she joins Shepard in her cabin at the end of the game she is wearing a tight fitting outfit and does a sexy dance. The point of the scene is to provide sexual arousal for Shepard but does not allow for a further relationship within that one game. There is nothing wrong with that, but as the only portrayal of a same sex relationship in Mass Effect 2 it conforms with a male gaze, “two women are hot” portrait of lesbian relationships that is all too common in media. We need more diversity in the portrayal of lesbians. This relationship can become deeper in Mass Effect 3 but only if Shepard goes though this more superficial experience in the second game.

 

What makes ME3 special?

The final game in the series does several important things in terms of relationship options. The game portrays them as something that can be persistent and evolving over time. It is possible to have started a relationship with Liara in the first game, stayed faithful to her in the second game, and continue the relationship in the final episode. This is something unique and not available to a player that just wants to begin a relationship with Liara in the final game. The way the trilogy was set up allowed for the possibility a dynamic relationship. The NPCs were treated as having potential beyond just sex. These were characters whose stories mattered, with their own journey and growing relationships with Shepard.

 

However, one of the new characters in Mass Effect 3 is incredibly important. Steve Cortez is a pilot in the game. When discussing his past, you learn that he lost his husband in a Reaper invasion. This fact is handled wonderfully. We have a man, discussing the loss of his husband, and there is no pause in the discussion. Shepard does not stop to say, “Whoa, hold on, are you saying you are gay?” or ask any other question all too often heard by people in same sex relationships. Cortez mentions his husband and we are meant to mourn the loss with him. It is no different than if he mentioned the loss of his wife. This one simple thing is incredibly important. Imagine a world where all players of Mass Effect 3 accepted gay individuals as easily as Shepard does in the scene. Cortez being attracted to someone of the same sex is not an issue; it is a not an oddity, it just exists as one option within the universe. Cortez is shown as an exclusively gay man, and yet his sexuality is never shown as a problem. His sexuality is not used to impose tragedy in his life. This is not the tale of a difficult coming out story or an attack on a gay man. He is allowed to be a gay man and not have that one trait define his character arc. It is not something we see very often in media. This portrayal was done beautifully.

Authorial intent

Were the writers cognizant of these depictions and their implications? In an interview, Patrick Weekes and Dusty Everman show that members of the BioWare staff were aware of how they displayed these relationships. As Patrick Weekes said about writing a gay character:

Liara’s relationship in Lair of the Shadow Broker can be with players of either gender, so I was familiar with writing dialog that needed to work for a same-sex romance. Nevertheless, I’m a straight white male – pretty much the living embodiment of the Patriarchy – and I really wanted to avoid writing something that people saw and went, “That’s a straight guy writing lesbians for other straight guys to look at.”

 I also really wanted the romance with Traynor to be positive. One of my gay friends has this kind of sad hobby in which she watches every lesbian movie she can find, trying to find ones that actually end up with the women not either dying or breaking up. I think the most positive one she’s found is “D.E.B.S.” I wanted to avoid any kind of tragic heartbreak, to make this a fundamentally life-affirming relationship… at least, as much as possible within Mass Effect 3′s grim war story.

 

Samantha Traynor from Mass Effect 3

Similar to Cortez, for the exclusively lesbian character of Samantha Traynor her sexuality is a part of her but not her sole defining feature. Patrick Weekes again:

 I worked hard to create a character who addressed her lesbian identity in a positive and intelligent way. My first draft of Traynor’s pitch was all about how her character arc would be about identifying and overcoming the challenges of being gay… and my friends and managers called me on it. I’d been so focused on writing something positive that I hadn’t made a real-enough character. So in the next draft (closer to how she shipped), the focus was on her as a mostly lighthearted fish out of water, a very smart lab tech trying to adjust to life on the front lines, with her identity as a lesbian present but not shouted from the rooftops.

 

From Dusty Everman:

 I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, “I like blondes.” It will just be an accepted part of who we are. So I tried to write a meaningful human relationship that just happens to be between two men.

 This interview shows that the team at BioWare was conscious of the implications of their character designs and story arcs. They were aware of some of the pitfalls often found when creating gay characters and they at least attempted to avoid them. The full interview can be found  http://blog.bioware.com/2012/05/07/same-sex-relationships-in-mass-effect-3/

 

What do we want to see next

BioWare did several laudable things in Mass Effect 3. So what do we want to see in future games? From both BioWare and other companies I ask for one thing: DIVERSITY! We need more games to show the complexity of human experiences. Let’s have some asexual characters. Let’s have NPCs that are straight but are NOT interested in the main character despite a match in gender and orientation. Let’s have more gay characters. Once we have more diversity, we can tell more stories. The Princess doesn’t always need saving by the Prince and the Prince may not want to marry a Princess anyways. Let’s step out of the box a bit more and get creative. Who would want to play a game with a lesbian necromancer as the main character? I would! And I doubt that I am the only person. Games are meant to be fun to play, so let’s play with the stories and create some new experiences.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

Mayday: Or, How I Learned To Love Grace Jones

The N64 box for GoldenEye 007, with Pierce Brosnan front and center, pointing a gun at the viewer.

The N64 box for GoldenEye 007, with Pierce Brosnan front and center, pointing a gun at the viewer.

It took me a while to recognize how I would approach Corvus Elrod’s theme for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table. It’s been fairly rare that a game has not managed to pull me out of some fantasy or imaginative trick with its various inconsistencies. Particularly since games don’t often make use of themes and topics I would find particularly intriguing. So, what game has  given me the ability to “talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse”? The 1997 release of GoldenEye 007.

I should specify a bit and also state that I never played the campaign missions of the game. Instead, every weekend was spent with my father, brother, and our neighbor Michelle, as we played a mixture of KMFDM, Marilyn Manson, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails while playing the split-screen portion of the GoldenEye 007′s multiplayer. In the character roster itself, I learned quite a bit about myself.

First, I never selected any of what I considered to be the blander options. When I was banned from using Oddjob, I naturally selected the avatar that caught my eye next: Mayday. She was not in the base game itself, being restricted to the multiplayer game as a bonus character. Mayday was an acknowledgment of Grace Jones’s depictions of the character in A View to Kill, and was one of three depictions of non-white characters (Oddjob and Baron Samedi being the other two).

Her difference in visual appearance seemed a disadvantage in ways, as I did stand out among the rest of the roster. As someone who was quite shy and quiet in middle school (self-esteem issues surrounding my gender identity and sexuality were such a drag), it helped jump start the process of my own ability and willingness to stand apart from the crowd, realizing both the strengths and weaknesses of that position (as someone who was choosing to step into such a role). Because the game itself did not treat the topic of Mayday’s race or sex, at first it only helped me understand this from a position of appearing different from the crowd.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

I had set myself up in the game as someone was was instantly visually identifiable as not necessarily belonging, and stood out against the backgrounds we played (in my own mind, at the very least). However, this was the push I needed to start expressing myself in my own life. This would lead to my strengthening my confidence in ways of understanding what I risked by doing so. As someone who was white (albeit with a slightly non-American accent in a xenophobic environment), I had the benefit of passing and blending into a crowd quite easily from sight alone—something Mayday did not do. My own mannerisms often gave me away, and therefore, rather than allowing my expression of gender to out me, I slowly decided to don a mask that would more immediately give myself away, and to squirrel away my insecurities.

Taking confidence from the strength I sensed in Mayday, a projection I pushed on to the avatar from my own knowledge of Grace Jones’s performance in Conan the Destroyer (I had not seen A View to Kill), I started emulating her attitude, as well as putting on makeup, wearing women’s clothing, and generally having more willingness to be confrontational. The only thing my avatar in those multiplayer sessions was capable of was aggression. While I did not express it to my gaming compatriots, I started seeing myself fighting for my own right of expression, and against tokenism. My fight was not for kills, but to win against what I perceived were the odds.

Particularly because, at the same time, I had a friend who was expelled for what I saw as reasons purely relating to her race (she is black). At this time, playing Mayday became playing in the shoes of my best friend, with whom I lost contact after she was expelled (that is,  until the introduction of social networks such as Facebook) . Here is when I started imagining Mayday’s struggles as those against an institution that would judge me unfairly. Because the fight was against people in the same room as myself, controllers in hand, I imagined them as the antagonists who would only see her skin color and make assumptions about such.

Unlike the media frenzy about the level of aggression caused from games, I was not likely to pick up a gun and attempt to solve my problems with the same tools as my avatar. Instead, I took that aggression, and decided I would make myself visually distinct, in terms of what was expected from me. Later this would also translate into pushing against the status quo, and being confrontational in general. Because I had no connection to the source text, and I was in a multiplayer environment where I projected my own issues and knowledge on to Mayday, I did see her as a pillar of strength and resistance against similar struggles to my friend’s and my own. It taught me that I could seek to blend in my entire life, or take a stand, put on my makeup, and use a measure of snarling or charm depending on the perceived antagonist.

This was an entrant in the Blogs of the Round Table of January 2012, whose theme is:

Games, like most media, have the ability to let us explore what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves. While this experience may only encompass a character’s external circumstances–exploring alien worlds, serving with a military elite, casting spells and swinging broadswords–it’s most powerful when it allow us to identify with a character who is fundamentally different than ourselves–a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion. This official re-launch of the Blogs of the Round Table asks you to talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse. Conversely, discuss why games haven’t provided this experience for you and why.

Other entries are available here.


Female Character in Skyrim

Sex Negativity & Skyrim

The following is a guest post from Bobby Arthur:

Bobby Arthur is a freelance writer and marketing communications professional living in Toronto. He can be reached at bobby@thejuiceagency.ca and his XBLA Gamertag is WhiskerRub.

Odds are there is someone in your life who is spending their evenings slaying Dragons and amassing treasure in the most played game of 2011, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is an open world role playing game (RPG) created by Bethesda Softworks and is set in a fictional, mostly medieval, swords and sorcery land called, Tamriel. It is a game where I expected to be killing and looting, but never expected to be slut-shaming.

In the game players are able to create an avatar for themselves, choosing a race, a gender, a name, many physical characteristics and a style of play. Will you be a warrior, a thief, a wizard or some hybrid? The nuance in the game comes from having the player face moral dilemmas along the way. Through these myriad choices the player’s avatar takes on its spiritual form. Will you be a righteous defender of justice? Will you be a mercenary for hire? Will you be a healer or will you practice blood magic? Will you steal all of the gold or just most of the gold? During my playthrough I have robbed just about everyone blind and I have murdered in cold blood. By my current statistics, the game tells me that I have killed 1081 people and about 1300 other various zombies, animals, robots and demons (most of whom I have stabbed in the back). I have stolen 2498 items, including 1659 straight from my victim’s pockets. So why did I take such umbrage at being asked to slut-shame a woman in her own home?

In a town called Riften we can rummage around a place called Haelga’s Bunkhouse. Haelga runs a dormitory for the blue-collar workers of Riften along with her Niece, Svana. Speaking with Svana will open up a miscellaneous quest that knocked me out of the fantasy world of Tamriel. It brought me back into a world where at least one in four western women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and where women’s clothing choices are brought forth as justification by authority figures for random sexual attacks; where girls in schools everywhere are ostracized for their choice to become sexual beings or even just the rumor that they have. I don’t like this world. This world makes women ashamed of their bodies and afraid to express themselves sexually and freely. I hated that my fantasy gaming was colliding with such ugly reality.

Svana was orphaned and her Aunt Haelga took her in. Svana is an adult and cleans to pay her room and board. Seems like a fair deal to me, but Svana has other ideas about that.

“Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.

Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman?”

And what is it that makes Haelga so “Wretched”?

“It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.”

Yes, rub her nose in it. Like you might a dog that has ruined your rug. This is an unattached woman having consensual and spiritual sex in her own home. For reference, Dibella is the in-game deity of love, and sex to her followers is a religious observance. So, what are my dialogue choices for responding to this diatribe?

“There must be a way.”

One choice. In a game full of choices, I can either go along with this or walk away. At no point am I given the option to talk her out of this – to say “hey, maybe you’re being a little hard on the woman that took you in after your parents were murdered.” Or, “it’s none of your business what she does in her bedroom.” Or, “do you think she’d be open to a fourth lover this month?” No, the only option is an enthusiastic “Ya, let’s teach that whore a lesson.” And from a gameplay standpoint, such a response is not in character with the hero I’ve created, but no alternative choice was given.

Svana continues.

“Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.”

At this stage I can tell Svana, “Sure. I’ll help you” or “Maybe another time.” Such a polarity of choices. So, off I am sent to retrieve these baubles of shame from the three men. On my way though, I can enjoy some of the contextual flavor that the game designers provided for this quest. I can visit Haelga’s bedroom where a pot of honey and potions of stamina rest on shelves. Her nightstand includes two erotic novels. Her bed has working shackles and underneath we find an animal tusk and leather strips i.e. a dildo and whip. The message here presumably is that Haelga enjoys a kinky sexual lifestyle and is therefore even more worthy of degradation than your average sexually active woman. Under the other side of the bed are some gold coins. A suggestion that Haelga is compensated for her abilities? Additionally we can read a love letter addressed to Haelga from one of her paramours.

“Sweet Haelga,

Last night was the most wonderful night of my life. The things you showed me…the things we did… I could never have dreamt that it was possible. Who even knew that someone could manipulate their body in that manner while wearing Daedric Armor boots? You are a true master of the Dibellan arts, my love… a credit to your religion. Perhaps we’ll meet again soon but next time allow me to bring the trout.

Your secret lover.”

Poor joke aside, everybody seems happy. Time to destroy that, I guess. Makes sense. The three men offer little resistance. One gives me some righteous indignation, one feigns ignorance and one pleads for discretion. You see, he’s married. I wonder, why am I not rubbing HIS face in it? With little effort on my part these three gentlemen sell Haelga out and give me the Marks. After confronting Haelga with the evidence of her rampant sluttiness we are given this response.

“What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!”

Still protecting her ungrateful niece after all this time. Svana however, is positively tickled at her aunt’s shaming.

“Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it.”

Well, that’s one less brazen hussy terrorizing the penises of poor Tamriel. Such a noble endeavor. I think my problem with this quest was the lack of any kind of moral spectrum. She was either a wanton whore and therefore in need of punishment or I could just choose to not do the quest. There was never a time when I could side with Haelga. Haelga’s lifestyle was never to be considered positive. Some people may say, why make such a big deal about this? It’s just a throwaway quest in a massive game where you are able to commit atrocities against your fellow man and woman. This is true, but it’s small things like this that are so pervasive and surprisingly influential.

We all know that killing is wrong. We all know that theft is wrong. We all know that raising the dead is wrong (and unlikely). There are way too many of us however that do not know that slut-shaming is wrong and continue to use it as emotional blackmail or worse, an excuse for violence. By denying the player the option to be sex-positive it perpetuates the problem. Bethesda really missed an opportunity to not necessarily take a stand, but to let the player at least make that choice. Because choice is what RPGs are supposed to be about.

 

This post originally appeared on http://notyourmothersplayground.com


APPENDIX: ​FULL DIALOGUE

Svana:​ Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.

Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman? So now I’m stuck living here while those pigs she calls customers grope me and say the most awful things.

You:​​ Why do you hate Haelga so much?

Svana: ​It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.

You:​​ There must be a way.

Svana: ​Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.

You:​​ Sure. I’ll help you. OR Maybe another time.

Svana:​ Oh, this is going to be great! You need to get the Marks of Dibella from Bolli, Hofgrir and Indalyn. Not sure how you’re going to do that, but try your best. Then just confront Haelga with them and the rest works itself out. Try and get those Marks without violence please. I don’t want to be responsible for their deaths…or yours.

AFTER RETURNING WITH THE MARKS

Haelga:​ Can I help you?
You: ​​I believe these are yours.

Haelga:​ What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!

AFTER CONFRONTING HAELGA

You:​ I gave the Marks to Haelga

Svana:​ Oh I know. Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it. Here, I want you to have this. It was my Father’s but I’m certain you’ll put it to good use.

Let’s Talk About Sex!

The following is a guest post from Kate Cox:

Kate Cox had ideas about games, thought, “someone should write about this,” then realized in 2010, “I’m someone.”  She’s a straight white cis woman who’s been an avid gamer since 1986 and who currently lives around Washington, DC.  She writes about games, gaming, and gamer culture at your-critic.com.

I had an unexpected amount of video game time to fill, this past weekend.  After an hour of Bastion and an hour of Chrono Cross I cast about for something new, feeling at odds.  What I really wanted to play was Mass Effect 3, and that’s physically impossible for another six months.  I tried other games as a distraction but none of them actually satisfied my craving, no more than a bag full of carrot sticks actually satisfies a craving for a bag of chips.

Everyone on Twitter gave helpful, thoughtful suggestions for what I should try, and in the end I ignored every last one of them and got sucked into a marathon six-hour session of Fable III.

The female lead character of Fable III, a white, brown-haired, bosom-heavy princess.  She is wearing a blue blouse and black trousers, brandishing a sword.  Her older mentor (white, male, grey-haired, bearded) looks on.

This is my pretty pretty princess, kicking your ass. She had a piratey hat but NPCs made fun.

 

Fable III isn’t exactly challenging, as far as game play, story, or game design go.  And yet, it has challenged me in a most unexpected way.  I knew, offhandedly, before I started playing that this was considered a “mature RPG.”  And yet I was surprised (pleasantly so, but still taken aback for a moment) to find that among the character attributes for nearly every adult NPC in the game, there is a sexual preference qualifier.

The game was telling me, bluntly, in no euphemistic or uncertain terms, which of the characters I was interacting with were straight or gay — and, by extension, letting me know up front which men and women were considered to be in the dating pool for my character.

Knowing all of this, and knowing how the Fable franchise prides itself on a choices-and-consequences approach, I was still surprised further to discover that the bed in a player’s house can be interacted with — and on interacting, the options are “sleep” and “sex.”  Sleep has essentially an alarm clock option, and sex can be chosen in the protected or unprotected varieties.

I am in my thirties and have been playing video games since the middle of the 1980s, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen the existence of sex, as an event unto itself, so explicitly and practically addressed in my pixels.

To be sure, I have played my fair number of games that contain romantic interludes, or the plain ol’ bumpin’ of uglies.  Divine Divinity contains an unmarked quest for finding the main city’s brothel, and rewards a large amount of XP for employing services therein.  (The brothel in question has both male and female staff, and the player character can pick either, without comment and with equal experience awarded.)  Then of course there are the just-barely-offscreen quicktime event shenanigans in God of War (I, II, and III), in which Kratos turns his ragey gusto toward anyone with boobs for a time.

Fallout: New Vegas does not tread the BioWare-style path of party member romances, but sex workers (both voluntary and involuntary) feature fairly prominently in quests and on the Strip, and there are indeed some questionable fade-to-black moments the player character can select if so inclined.  And then of course, there are the BioWare games, with their array of party member romance options, based on conversation and consummated in a carefully choreographed fade to black.

 

A screenshot from Mass Effect 2 of a female Commander Shepard and Garrus talking, closely and intimately, against a blue-lit backdrop.  Garrus's dialogue is subtitled and reads, "I want something to go right. Just once. Just..."

I ship this so hard, but I'm actually grateful for the fade to black.

 

Indeed, the fade to black is what I’m used to seeing in games (with “suggestive offscreen noise” its crass and less-often seen cousin).  We all know how this goes: provided you’ve said the right things throughout Mass Effect 2, someone comes up to Shepard’s quarters during the last quiet moment on the Normandy, they exchange a few more words, there’s some suggestive motion, press “F” to continue, and it’s the next morning.  (Relatively speaking, since they’re in space…)  The romance option with Liara in the first game was much more explicit, but even so, probably less tawdry than many R-rated movies I’ve seen.

It’s actually just as well that ME2 fades to black; if, later, you choose to call your special someone back up to Shepard’s quarters, the “couch” and “bed” animations might actually be the most awkward, least natural, most static, least romantic, and least sexy interactions on Earth.  Even as PG rated cuddle sessions, they fail.

 

A screenshot from Mass Effect 2 of Garrus and a white female Commander Shepard lying in a romantic embrace on a bed.  He is flat on his back and she is on her side, awkwardly holding him.  Both are fully dressed.

It's not just a body-shape thing; male Shep with Tali is equally wretched but you can image search that one yourself. (Warning: don't image search that one.)

Still, the real surprise for me with sex in Fable III is not that it exists; sex is implied in plenty of games.  The surprise is that its existence is announced independently.  By adding “sex” to the bed options, and indicating NPC sexual orientation (and flirtatiousness levels) in info boxes, the game is putting out there the idea that sex is a thing your PC might do for any combination of fun, profit, and love, depending on any number of whims, emotions, and circumstances.

 

Almost like the real world, there.  How novel!

Now, I know I’m late to the discussion, and I haven’t played Fable or Fable II.  (I was interested in Fable II but there’s no PC port and likely never to be.)  I knew going in that a wide array of player choices existed in the game, but “vague understanding they exist” and “actually having a choice in front of you to make” are two different things.

For what it’s worth, my Princess hasn’t shacked up with anyone yet, mainly because she hasn’t met a soul worth her time.  Most of the NPCs she’s encountered and interacted with are neither attractive nor interesting, so “friend” is more than enough work there.  (Also I can’t actually find the way back to my house, which was free DLC content and doesn’t appear on the world map that I can find.  I may need to buy an apartment in town.)  I certainly have no moral objection to my character having (safe, consenting) sex.

Once again, though, I’ve been surprised by the baggage that I the player bring into this world with me.  Although its wardrobe cues are drawn from the 16th – 19th centuries, Fable III takes place in a version of the 1820s that never existed, where most fantasy RPGs take place in a version of the 13th or 14th centuries that never existed.  Its “Albion” is yet another false Britain, and so I find myself instinctively guarding against the roles reserved for women in the Georgian and Victorian eras.  In that environment, I feel that marriage is not actually an option for my female character.  In order to remain a successful, independent, respected agent, my gut says she needs to stay single.

These are totally assumptions I the player bring to the world, and really I only notice and question them because I take the time to write here.  I mean, as mentioned, I have no problem pairing off my Shepard.  Yes, I felt that not only did she have the burden of representing humanity to the galaxy, but also of representing women.  But when forced to examine it, I find that in a sci-fi, future-based environment, I feel that a woman can be partnered and yet also successful and respected.  Plus, the Commander was a renowned, accomplished hero in her own right before a partnership option entered her life.  She has a strong identity and can keep being herself, and the world in which she lives will support that.

Intellectually, I’m keenly aware that this Albion is not actually England in the dawn of the Industrial Age.  I know that it’s a game in which I can make any choice the mechanics allow, and still reach one metric of success as a player.  I’ll be able to complete the story regardless of the side-choices my Princess makes.  But in my gut, I still feel the pressure of a few centuries’ worth of feminist issues.

Realistically, I don’t actually think the mechanics of the game will enforce any kind of social penalties for marriage.  Based on what I’ve seen so far, the biggest impact on the overall story arc I can imagine is NPC gossip and chatter around me in towns.  But this unnamed Princess is right now forging her place in the world.  She’s trying, very hard, to become a leader and to earn the loyalty of an entire kingdom through hard work and hard fighting.  She’s aiming to place herself at the very head of a nation-wide rebellion to oust her lousy brother, who’s a terrible king.  That’s no small task!

And yet while I feel that a permanent partner (even with divorce easily available in-game) would hold this nameless lady back, I’m not at all averse to her having some sexual interludes for fun, if the right NPCs show up.  Somehow I don’t feel that the Princess openly having gentlemen or lady visitors will set off any actual consequences with her people (though they may gossip); we’ll consider this the “never existed” half of the culture.

Sex in games (and everywhere else) has a way of falling into a certain trap, though.  Alex Raymond wrote a really interesting piece a while back on how video games perpetuate the commodity model of sex:

To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, “Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?” And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.

 

Ha. Ha. Get it? Because all women are prostitutes.  …

 

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence–you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

 

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex–the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result–the reward–of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, “‘Keep talking to me and eventually we’ll have sex’”. The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC’s thoughts and desires aren’t relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.

Fable III is most certainly and emphatically guilty of what Alex describes; the mechanic of all relationships in the game is purely an item-exchange, level-up sort of thing.  And yet it actually feels more like a free choice than in most other games I’ve seen.  Although mysteriously my assumptions about marriage in-game are framed by a historical understanding of the 19th century, my assumptions about sex remain grounded firmly in the 21st: any number of adults can do whatever they all willingly and openly consent to, and should do so as safely as possible.

In pretty much every other game I’ve ever played, sex for a player character exists in one of two contexts: (1) within a romance arc (not necessarily leading to marriage), or (2) as a literal commodity, traded for money or information.  The avatars I’ve controlled have encountered a number of sex workers in their times and likewise my player characters have on occasion used seduction as a tool to advance.  But sex as a choice, with a willing partner, just because we’re both there and it seems like fun?  Not so much.

This, then, is the paradox I find.  While sex in Fable III is to every pixel a tradeable, level-able commodity, it’s also a free and open choice, presented without judgement.  If there is a “doing it right” to be found, I’m certain this game isn’t it — but it’s also, in a strange way, closer.

With the recent release of Catherine, “how does game design approach actual sex and actual relationships?” is a question flying around criticism circles at the speed of the Internet.  In almost all cases, I think that answer is still, “badly,” with a chaser of “inadequately.”  Ultimately, all of our games still rely on sets of numerical mechanics and rules.  They’re a series of unbreakable “if, then” statements and our heroes (and villains) can’t decide to take a left turn to the established rules of reality the way a flesh-and-blood human can.

In this one small way, though, in this one tiny instance, my Princess can break the rules.  Maybe the next time I see “sex” as an in-game choice, it will be in a game where the NPCs are actually designed to be characters, rather than a half-dozen fixed sound bites and gestures.  Society’s head might explode.

*If you hear Salt-N-Pepa singing in your head, congratulations: you, too, are an old.  Now dance!

[Originally posted at Your Critic is in Another Castle]

A white woman in a red bikini top slices the throat of a bare-chested male competitor. Her face is angled upward as blood spurts from his neck onto her face and chest.

“Did she just money-shot herself with his neck-blood?”

(Alternate title: The conflation of violence and sex in video games, how it manifests in the ‘femme fatale’ character trope, and how this conflation works to serve patriarchal fantasies of women and violence: a male perspective.)

A white woman in a red bikini top slices the throat of a bare-chested male competitor. Her face is angled upward as blood spurts from his neck onto her face and chest.

 

 

Women in video games don’t get a fair shake. That’s blatantly apparent.  Since the early 1980s, the most common identity trope for female characters has been the love interest/damsel in distress – the embodiment of feminine fragility that the male protagonist (and assumed male player) must save. Since the original NES appeared on shelves in 1985, there have been countless princesses, wives, girlfriends, queens, damsels and sidekicks saved from the clutches of the Bad Guy. But beginning in the 90s, catalyzed by the chain link bikinied warrior women of the fantasy genre and Lara Croft’s bustline, there was born a “new” trope for women in gaming: the femme fatale. Skilled, deadly and somehow able to murder in the latest Victoria’s Secret fashions, the femme fatale is a faux empowered woman whose narrative agency rarely evolves beyond killing things in as little clothing as possible. From Street Fighter’s Cammy (1992), who scissor kicks in a thong leotard to Heavenly Sword’s Nariko (2007) who decimates battlefields in what I can only generously describe as lingerie, the femme fatale does two things and does them well: look sexy and murder faces. It’s become a nearly ubiquitous trope in the past 10 years: see Nariko (Heavenly Sword), Shura (Soul Calibur), Skarlet (Mortal Kombat), Catwoman (Batman), Rhayne (Bloodrayne), Trish (Devil May Cry) the list goes on and on.*

An image of two women. On the left is Princess Peach, a blonde white woman in a pink dress and white gloves, smiling at the viewer. On the right is Lara Croft, a brunette woman in revealing shorts and a tank top, with two guns pointed at the viewer.

 

But dangerous women are nothing new. The femme fatale is a long-standing character trope seen in both television and movies and has been around since the serial radio dramas of the 1940s. What’s remarkable about the femme fatale trope is how it manifests in the video game medium.  The production of videogames is arguably even more male-dominated than film or television – men develop the software, own the production companies, the publishing studios, write the stories, develop the characters, dictate the game’s marketing, and so and so forth. As such, femme fatales are women created by men for other men** to play with. While these women are given a myriad of occupations (ninjas, assassins, amazons, secret agents, etc.) they still serve one purpose: make violence sexy. The sexy – massacre mashup has reached new heights of abysmal depravity with the ‘fatality’ moves of Mortal Kombat fatale Skarlet in the latest iteration of the franchise:

 

In the video, Skarlet’s finishing moves show her slicing open her opponent’s body, then gleefully gesticulating as it splashes across her face, hair, and exposed chest.  It’s a moneyshot. A ‘finishing move,’ if you will, of a hardcore porno. One that has been met with delight across the internet. But why? Why are dudes creating women who exist only to fuck and murder? Why are these women so celebrated, so ubiquitous? And does that tell us anything about male fantasies or the male psyche? Dr. Michael Kimmel is an American sociologist specializing in masculinity, and spokesperson for NOMAS (The National Organization For Men Against Sexism). In “The Gender of Violence” Kimmel writes:

“Masculinity is still often equated with the capacity for violence. From the locker room to the chat room, men of all ages learn violence is a socially sanctioned form of expression. Male socialization is a socialization to the legitimacy of violence – from infantile circumcision to being hit by parents and siblings to routine fights with other boys to the socially approved forms of violence in the military, sports and prisons….men learn that violence is an accepted form of communication  between men and between women and men. “

In a patriarchal culture, agency is always accorded to men. As such, gamers are assumed to be men and video games reflect male values and male expressions. Because, as Kimmel states, violence is the only form of expression for men,*** men use violence as the means of enacting their own gender.  The conflation of sex/violence in videogames is an example of this.  Naked women with (distressingly literal) bloodlusts are reflections of the constraints of a patriarchal culture wherein men are given narrow and unfulfilling socially acceptable ways of expressing their gender identities; she is the embodiment of male fantasies concerning the two most prominent socially constructed barometers for masculinity: sex and violence. The femme fatale is not an empowered ass-kicker, she’s an arm of patriarchal thinking. Femme fatale characters exist only to kill and fuck because killing and fucking are intrinsically tied to masculine fantasies of power in both the real and virtual (as if there were any cultural distinction) worlds.  And in a patriarchal society where masculine = good, strong and feminine = bad, weak these “women” (made by dudes for dudes) exist as tokens of counterfeit empowerment because they enact male fantasies of power.  This is why the femme fatale, despite having no narrative agency, is sold as a “strong” character.

Specifically concerning Skarlet’s fatality – called “make it rain****,” it’s a recreation of a sex act in porn. Feminist authors have long highlighted porn (m/f porn, specifically) as a place where violence against women is eroticized and Mortal Kombat here has recreated this same dangerous eroticization. Bulletstorm, a PS3 shooter released in 2011, did much the same; looking at its move list shows the same conflation – abilities have names like “facial,” “gang bang,” and  “deep penetration.” Bulletstorm takes a violent act and frames it as sex. Mortal Kombat takes a sex act and recreates it as violent. It becomes apparent how developers purposely erase the distinction between sex and violence to appeal to a male audience.

The consequence of making violence sexy in an ocular medium such as gaming is that the expressions of violent sexuality become more and more graphic, disturbing and explicit. Lara Croft firing guns in a tanktop was considered risqué in her day, now we have a nearly naked women gyrating in the fresh blood of an eviscerated opponent. Given how the objectification of women is derisively addressed in our culture, the femme fatale trope and its enforcement of patriarchal thinking, is extremely problematic. Especially for male gamers, who spend hours devouring content where women (even “strong” ones) are debased.

But it’s important to note that this is not always the case. Female characters in gaming can be sexy and also kick ass.  Characters like Chloe from Drake’s Uncharted, Miranda from Mass Effect 2 and Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII are both combat-ready and attractive. But they also have backstories, relationships, perspectives, feelings, and a sense of agency in their own dress (i.e., what they wear makes at least SOME sense for the worlds they inhabit). Things that actually constitute a human being.  As opposed to a murderous sex toy.

An image of Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII. She is an athletic young white woman wearing a form-fitting army coat, mini-skirt and combat boots. She is shown in battle.

 

I like it when women kick ass. Most dudes do. But to actually kick ass, better yet, to kick patriarchy’s ass, developers must endeavor to create female characters that are accorded values beyond aesthetics and a purpose beyond killing and being a dude’s love interest. By doing so, we can create female characters with legitimate sexual empowerment, intrigue, and agency.

* I purposely left Bayonetta out of this list because, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the game, I never thought the creators intended for the audience to think of her as sexy or legitimately enacting her own sexuality. I interpreted the entire game as camp and parody of the action genre. Just my opinion, though.

**Although women comprise a sizable portion of all gamers – roughly 42% – the femme fatale trope is most apparent in the Action and Fighting genres of gaming, which are (arguably) more targeted to a specific male audience

***Homophobia plays a major part here; men who aren’t aggressive or are sensitive are called sissy, homo, fag, etc. etc.

 

NSFW: Team Fortress 2 team sponsored by Fleshlight?

This article is labeled as NSFW because it contains frank description of sexual behavior. If you don’t follow the links, it’s probably OK depending on your work.


Sometimes something comes up in feminist and queer dialogue that totally throws me for a loop. I’m sex-positive and queer, so why does the news Team Fortess 2 team “rEJ”  have become team “fleshlight.co.uk make me feel so uncomfortable? To quote the press release:

The Division 2 team known as Red Eyed Jedis have announced today that the team have picked up a sponsorship deal with Fleshlight.co.uk. The team will now be known as simply “fleshlight.co.uk” from here on out. The sponsorship deal includes coverage for a server, with the possibility of future LAN support, should the team perform well under the new banner.

George “Poop” Duthie, one of the seven team members on the newly renamed fleshlight.co.uk team says:

It is about time that rEJ was supported by a well respected sponsor. The prestigious organisation known as fleshlight.co.uk, famously known for providing pleasure to many male clients, is now taking rEJ under its wing. With mutual reasons for combining our interests, we feel that a rare and innovative bond has been created. I only hope we can give them as much pleasure, as they do us.

Fleshlights are a male sex toy, basically an artificial orifice. Frankly, I find the things themselves pretty freaky, probably because they have a whole range molded on actual porn stars’ genitalia. On an aesthetic level I find this pretty creepy – it’s definitely in the uncanny valley region. The marketing itself doesn’t help either, I can’t be the only sex-positive person to find  this kind of marketing… just… skin crawlingly awful:

Goth Girl Next Door, Alt Porn Star, or just plain Gorgeous. Call her what you want, the mind-blowing Stoya is the newest Fleshlight Girl. With her light green eyes, silky dark hair, and milky white complexion, Stoya’s a tall, lean, all-natural girl that radiates sex from every orifice. That’s why Fleshlight and Digital Playground are proud to offer Stoya every way you want her.

This marketing to me heavily implies that Stoya (she’s about as famous as you get in the adult industry) is simply the combination of her orifices. What if I want a drink  and a movie with her first and a cuddle afterwards? I guess then I’d have to buy the Real Doll version (yes, that was sarcasm), but I digress.

Aside from the creepiness of the objects themselves, on a basic level I still find this combination of computer game team and such a blatantly male object uncomfortable. And I don’t even know why. Would it be weird to have a team sponsored by Viagra, say? I think much less so. Would a company that made vibrators sponsor, say, a knitting circle (I can’t think of anything else suitably stereotypically female), and would that be weird? I would find it kinda cool to be honest.

Maybe it’s that I’m ultra-sensitive to how androcentric gaming circles are, especially around the FPS scene. Perhaps the reason I feel so uncomfortable about it is because it seems to flaunt and celebrate the fact it’s an almost entirely male environment. Unlike dildos (which are unisex), Fleshlights aren’t much use to people without penises. As someone familiar with the sexism of the competitive games scene, perhaps I’m also worried that people will take Fleshlight’s marketing and message a little too seriously and start to see women as a collection of orifices to be used. It’s pretty well documented the effect porn is having on men’s sexuality. This kind of marketing where you’re encouraged to have simulacra of your favourite porn star’s bits (taking the linked porn discussions to a literal next level) is potentially a very worrying message to send out. Dildos cast from real penises (click ‘Real’) seem very differently described to me, for instance – they are described much more as tools (forgive the pun) rather than simulations. However, I think there’s a lot of things intrinsically right about masturbation, sex toys and aids and the discussion of sex and sexuality.

As an aside, much like other games, Team Fortress 2 itself has a large amount of amazingly macho marketing and no women characters in game (Pyro may be, Valve haven’t revealed yet). I don’t know if this is relevant. Aside from this, and the fact Fleshlights themselves creep me out (would I get one if it was aesthetically pleasing and didn’t look like a person? maybe?), I genuinely don’t know what I think of this. What do Border House readers think? Does anyone have any other examples of incredibly gendered objects being used in such a way?