50 Shades of Play - Sexuality in Gaming

Posted by Danny West 17 April 2015
Editor’s Note: Calum – Danny West is a writer and editor at the Magic the Gathering website Star City Games, and is formerly one half of the widely liked Commander Vs video series. In his spare time, he is also a speedrunner of games such as Bioshock Infinite, Donkey Kong Country and Silent Hill 2. I’m glad to call him a good friend of almost a year, after I helped him with some technical problems on his stream, and when he wanted to share some opinions about this hobby we all enjoy, I was more than happy to give him a platform.
You can find Danny on Twitter, and you can join me in watching his speedrunning efforts and high brow chat on Twitch.


One of the interesting things I’m trying to do with the gaming controversy that shall not be named is to let it motivate me to think about related ideas that skirt the edge of the storm without actually getting caught up in it. We’re far past the point of productivity in actual discussions due now to echo chamber home team mentality and grand sweeping labels to each side of the mess, so instead I’ll retire to the quiet study of my cabin and do my best to ignore the guns being fired just outside. Leave it up to me to keep things nice and sophisticated.

There then. Let’s talk about humping.

Video games are largely about power and control, two concepts that, for a good number of people, are also intertwined with sexuality. This is an interesting idea since it raises the question of how inherently sexual video games actually are regardless of how much sexuality each individual player or observer projects onto them.

Imagine for a second the way most narratives are traditionally constructed: with a cold introduction, some exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. Even if you’re describing a children’s book about how a family found their pet puppy, the very progression of these proven story elements is a mirror of (especially male) sexuality. The reason this narrative structure is so appealing to the human brain, even on a subconscious level, is because it is constructed in a manner that already reflects something our brain is evolutionarily designed to enjoy and be attracted to. Female sexuality can be more variant, of course, often being circular in nature as opposed to the escalating line graph I described. A good example of this story pattern is in Pulp Fiction, a somewhat counter-intuitively male character-centred plot of un-chronological ultra violence and minutia. It’s sort of like Seinfeld except with brains on the wall.

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But back to video games. I think one of the strangest things about female characters in games, for me anyway, is that characters with power and control are more attractive if they aren’t bikini skimping about. Sure, when sex is utilitarian, it’s more useful to have Catherine from Catherine running about the bedroom wearing only two pieces of duct tape and a wine cork, but when thinking about interesting and complicated (i.e. strictly better) attraction to a person or an idea or a character, I tend to favour the “mundane” mystery of a character because that feels more real. Katherine from Catherine, despite sporting a suspiciously long sweater and some precarious hair proportions, fits this more robust form of e-lust. The fact that her actual personality is a hornet’s nest of undesirable hyper-controlling bickery is irrelevant to this point.

In other words, human mystery is simply more attractive than a lack thereof. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk once wrote that there’s nothing more boring than nudity. Going back to the story parallels in other mediums, how much fun is a film to watch if you know the ending? How much more exciting is it to watch the closing seconds of a football or basketball game than to just read what the score was a few hours later? This is the more pleasurable side of the fear of the unknown phenomenon, wherein humans find it infinitely more intriguing to wonder about something than to be presented with it in plain boring sight.

In other words, I’d rather take the scenic route through a two-month courtship of Alyx Vance than come home to find Juliet Starling with strategically-positioned pompoms.

It isn’t that I don’t enjoy Lollipop Chainsaw. Quite the contrary. It’s just that regardless of what Juliet’s clothes are, the zombie massacres and goofy banter are all I enjoy about her.

Not that I think anyone should be told how to handle their sexuality, but I do think it is a little too presumed, even when we’re just thinking (or not thinking as the case may be) about ourselves. For instance, what is particularly sexy about the Dead or Alive series? The girls in those games aren’t so much characters as mannequins with jiggle physics. They aren’t multi-dimensional, they aren’t motivated, and hell, they aren’t even submissive if that’s your jolly. They would literally be sexier if you put business suits on them simply because it adds some form of intrigue.

Where do they work? What time must they get up in the morning? Is interoffice dating discouraged?

I’d rather take the scenic route through a two-month courtship of Alyx Vance than come home to find Juliet Starling with strategically-positioned pompoms.

As a quick aside: it’s very interesting to me that as games become a more accepted expressive medium, that there is still a stigma attached to being attracted to fictional characters. As if it’s creepy to be attracted to Samus Aran but not to any number of characters portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Games by Bioware and Atlus continue to put an increased emphasis on character-to-character interaction as a functional game mechanic, so we may as well stop pretending that being attached to unreal characters in a perfectly legitimate story-based medium somehow subscribes you to Inflatable Woman dot com’s monthly newsletter. As long as it isn’t having a negative effect on your real-life relationships (like everything else associated with hobbies or habits), then power to you.

So then, what is it about capability that makes a female character sexy? Perhaps it is a combination of things. In gaming, it makes sense to be more attracted to characters you have empathy for, and playing slash becoming a protagonist will certainly do that assuming the game isn’t complete shit. It also stands to reason in the evolutionary sense to be more attracted to potential mates that possess better survival skills. There is certainly power in that. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved Michonne’s character on The Walking Dead even though the attraction is nearly completely non-sexual and there are equal male characters all around her that I like less. Females are more interesting to me implicitly, I suppose.

To turn the concept around, what makes a male video game character hypothetically attractive? Does this door swing both ways?

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I can only speculate that power and ability go only so far, as Kratos, for all his superhuman physicality and authority over a given situation, is still a total and utter dickbag. Leon Kennedy gets more desirable the further graphics advance, but unfortunately, everything that comes out of his mouth is so inanely written that he may as well just be drooling with determination. Choosing Corvo from Dishonored feels like I’m dodging the role play; he’s obviously an extremely powerful, capable, and compassionate person, but since he’s never really visible, it’s very easy for me to just imagine “not a dude” here. Nines from Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines seems like the kind of fellow I wouldn’t kick out of bed. Let’s go with him. Incidentally, I’m told Ness’s father from Earthbound is great at phone sex.

I guess the biggest thing I struggle with in all of this filthy, sweaty theory is, if female characters that are deep and developed are so much sexier than brainless jugs on a volleyball court, why is there such a strong need to make female characters macguffins and plot devices instead of allies and accomplices? I wouldn’t give a couch-found dime for a Dead or Alive game, but I’d stay up all night chatting with Bonnie MacFarlane in the hopes she’d let me see her in a bra for three or four seconds.

I’d even take it a step further and say that a male (or lesbian) player being attracted to a female character in a game is almost dependent on that character being, well, an actual character. Tifa from Final Fantasy VII is historically an all-time great at inducing nerd arousal, even while the majority of gamers clamour for a misguided graphical update to the game all these years later. The more “realistic” cut-scenes in FF7 account for less than a half hour of the game’s forty-hour+ time. Surely the brief clips of Tifa’s shirt struggles weren’t enough to give her such creepy and uncomfortable longevity. The only explanation is that character matters.

Perhaps this is just an issue of obsolete marketing. Sex sells and will continue to, but it always makes me laugh when a movie trailer flashes a sex scene during a fast-paced preview montage. You do know that this generation has more on-demand access to pornography than any other group of people in human history, right? Why the hell would I pay $10 to see your shitty action movie just for a fleeting thong shot after forty-five minutes of Michael Bay budget-blowing?

Sexuality without context, without a framework, without investment, or at the very least, some form of human understanding of its greater or personal purpose borderlines on useless. This is the reason Ride to Hell: Retribution is a joke and Mass Effect is a masterpiece. Okay, there are a lot of reasons for that, but still.

Maybe the answer isn’t dry husk marketing at all. Maybe it’s just that a large section of the male gaming audience has just seen a lot less real life nudity than the rest of us have. Or more likely yet, they’ve simply had less meaningful conversations with women.