Digital Dreamworlds: Video Games, Vaginaphobia, Sexuality & FantasyS

Are video games suffering from vaginaphobia? A new piece in the Escapist thinks so, but understanding the gaming landscape requires some discussion of discomfort with healthy representations of sexuality, and why so many embrace these manufactured worlds.

In a somewhat scattered article, Michael Thomsen attempts to explain some of the gender gaps in gaming by discussing how gaming culture caters to stereotypical male interests. In order to do this, he reveals anecdotes about creating a teen persona of "the honey magnet" to brag about his skills in seduction - though the reality did not match up to the image he attempted to project. He then discusses how many aspects of gaming appear to have a healthy fear of the feminine - which manifests in everything from awkward character interactions to the demonization of female anatomy.

In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (a game which spelled out the word "SAVIOR" in bright red letters on its back cover), the characters Meryl and Johnny decide to marry without ever having so much as kissed. During the actual ceremony, Johnny hesitates to kiss the woman with the trepidation of a first date. [...]

More recently, EA released b-roll footage of the Lust level in Dante's Inferno, featuring a female enemy that has a retractable spike emerge from the vaginal folds of her crotch. A boss later in the stage is a topless giant who shoots a stream of demonic wasps from her nipples. The footage has, as of this writing, not been posted anywhere save a subscription locked video roundtable on IGN.com. Gore and graphic disfigurement are regularly celebrated in videogames, the only unique element of the Dante's Inferno footage is the close association with female genitals. Why should a tentacle popping out of a woman's crotch be less acceptable than a tentacle popping out of a man's neck in Resident Evil 5?

"Our secular culture produces all kinds of fear, including fear of the female anatomy," Janet Jakobsen, Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, told me. "If you watch any horror movies, like if you watch the Aliens series, the chances are whatever is horrible has to do with vaginas, pregnancy, childbirth, wet stuff. It's just all there."

Thomsen continues to explain how sexual representation in games is fairly one-sided:

When sex does appear in games, it is almost always connected to phallocentric displays of male prowess. In God of War 2, Kratos beds two women in a show of pure virility. In the sarcastic world of Grand Theft Auto IV, sex is not an act of mutual exchange of affection between two people, it's a waiting game. Nico takes women on dates, listens to their conceited monologues, and then chooses to "push his luck." If you'd rather not participate in the formalities of dating, you can skip the bother of connecting with another person and pay a hooker to grind in Nico's lap. Sex in videogames is either the product of being good, getting lucky, or an exchange of money.

A recent feature from UGO on the "Best Video Game Sex Scenes" underscores Thomsen's point and adds a different dynamic: how many sex scenes are generally girl-on-girl, or don't really imply sex at all. Outside of the examples Thomsen mentions and the Hot Coffee hidden minigame, sex generally isn't a part of the gaming landscape - even though hypersexualized avatars and characters are. As a result of this, there are allusions to sexual violence and assault in a few games, but it is rare to actually see that type of violence depicted on screen. The photo illustrating this post is actually from a tipster, who snapped a picture of a modified GTA advertisement while at a New York subway stop. While the pic above claims that Grand Theft Auto is a rape simulator, most of the interactions in the gameplay are not of a sexual variety. Nico's pushing, CJ's pimping, paying for prostitutes, and going to strip clubs are part of the game landscape, along with fast food joints, auto body shops, and the gym. For those who've never played, this trailer for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a pretty good representation of what you spend your time in game doing:

Fleeing, fighting, shooting, careening around on motorcycles looms large - anything involving women (in general) is just background. So while the more graphic possibilities of the game receive the most media airtime, it's actually a very small part of the experience. However, Grand Theft Auto is one of the few popular, top-selling games that does deal explicitly with themes of sex and violence, and so it is interesting to analyze. Thomsen, near the end of his piece, reveals his own version of fantasy fulfillment:

I remember the first time I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. After the opening cut scene, I stepped into the polygonal metropolis and saw a woman in a bikini across the street. I approached her, as if by instinct, and then proceeded to beat her to death. I was simultaneously delighted and horrified that I could do such a thing in a videogame. Somewhere inside, I felt that old adolescent insecurity stirring inside me, the seed from which my delusional "honey magnet" persona had sprung. "It's still there," I thought.

Then I moved on to the real business of killing immigrant gangbangers and stealing their cocaine.

Now, on one level, I can understand the appeal. Grand Theft Auto is fun because of the freedom it provides. You can be (relatively) straight-laced, a reluctant criminal just trying to get by. Or you can become a pillaging monster, embroiled in police chases while murdering your way across the city. Or you can drive around and listen to the radio. If you want to advance the plot, there are missions to complete, but there are hours and hours of extras. So the freedom to do absolutely anything (including beat someone down with your bare hands) is stimulating.

But on the other hand, I've notice that a lot of my gamer friends (many of whom are female) don't seem to take the perverse pleasure in murdering female characters that some of the male players do. It's an option, certainly, and I'd be hard pressed to find any one of us who didn't roll someone over with a car because it was just faster, or shot a bystander in the head because you just felt like it. But we don't spend time in the strip clubs and we don't spend time making videos like this (warning, may be a bit triggering):

When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas came out, players created and uploaded dozens of videos that featured them doing nothing but mowing down prostitutes. (Though, for perspective, they uploaded hundreds of videos for car and motorcycle tricks.) However, many players don't partake in these activities at all. So why the disparity in play styles? In the Escapist article, Thomsen quotes Samhita Mukhopadhyay of Feministing,who provides the explanation that people are acting out of fantasy:

Samhita Mukhopadhyay of the blog Feministing, spoke out against the misogynistic imbalance in Grand Theft Auto IV based on a now retracted montage posted on IGN showing Nico killing different women after having sex with them. "If you could kill male prostitutes in the game, then it would be different, but you can only kill female prostitutes," she told me. "It's clearly a fantasy. This is not the real world, and you have the right to fantasize about what you want to fantasize about. I'm more interested in what informs that fantasy. It's not coming out of nowhere."

And there we are. Generally, my fantasies don't involve causing harm to other women, so it isn't something I do in game. But Samhita asks a provocative question - what informs these fantasies? Is it men reacting in extreme ways to their vaginaphobia, as Thomsen suggests? Or is there something more?

As a player, one of the most consistent game-world fantasies decrees that women are to be presented as objects, acquisitions, or eye candy. Feminist gamers often discuss the lack of female protagonists as characters - but the flip side of that is women are always positioned as existing for the male gaze. I described the women of GTA as background because sadly, that's exactly what they are - sexualized wallpaper, normally employed to serve a very limited purpose (occasionally related to the plot) and then relegated back to the shadows of the game. There are also very few depictions of healthy sexuality in games - if the main character interacts with a love interest at all, these depictions are either overwhelmingly chaste or entirely dominated by the male protagonists' desires and interests. (The girl on girl interactions in game are generally designed to titillate male viewers, so I will not discuss them here.)

To introduce female characters outside of the dynamic established Madonna/Whore complex would force a more nuanced view of women and their roles and positions as part of the game, which is something that would disrupt these carefully constructed fantasies. So, in sum, it isn't just a fear of women that is pervasive in gaming culture, but the fear of an autonomous woman that influences what we see in our games.

Vaginaphobia [The Escapist]
Best Video Game Sex Scenes [Ugo]
Hot Coffee Minigame Controversy [Wikipedia]