September 12th, 2005

This October, for the second year running, Playboy will be featuring not just naked, surgically-altered women, but naked, computer-generated ones. That’s right, full nudes of female video game characters, apparently coming to a newstand near you via magazine trading cards. (Collect them all, boys and girls!)

So let’s talk about this for a second. On the surface it seems pretty simple: give men what they want. They see sexy women in the games they love, why not play that sexiness out all the way and offer them full-frontals? It sells Playboys to a gaming audience that normally downloads its porn for free, and, in turn, it boosts game sales. What could be better?

Uh, okay, starting with the most obvious: how can you, a game company, claim to offer strong, independent models of femininity (think Bloodrayne) when, in fact, your characters are the type to take it all of for a centerfold and a few bucks? It’s alienating to women, it exacerbates standing issues, it represents everything that’s off about gender roles in gaming. Blah, blah, blah…

Beyond all that, it’s just damn weird. CGI women are supposed to be attractive because they so closely resemble real women. But here we have women who are unmistakably appealing simply because they aren’t real. Boobs (especially for such an internet-literate community) are available in abundance. No one is lacking for boobs. You would die before you had time to look at every nude picture on the internet. Yet naked game characters are something different. Talk about one-sided, objectifying sexuality – these women don’t even exist! Sure, you might say it’s a fanboy thing: see more of your favorite in-game women than you’ve ever seen before! Still, we’re walking a fine line between between fanboy-hood and abstraction of sexual attraction, between game appreciate and permanent masturbation.

Why then, if there are real (ish) naked women on every page, give a damn about rendered tits and ass? Maybe our entire cultural image of woman has become so plastic, so candy-coated, and so false there just isn’t a difference anymore.

Tags: Blog

14 Responses to “I Play for the Articles”

  1. Rossum's Child Says:

    “Maybe our entire cultural image of woman has become so plastic, so candy-coated, and so false there just isn't a difference anymore.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head there. Speaking as a male gamer with strong opinions about how female game characters are portrayed (The games we play with women, November 2004), I think that many game franchises are too willing to sacrifice the integrity of their female character’s in order to boost the game’s sex appeal.

    Which is of course, dissapointing, but fundementally typical of the American mentality that sex sells.

    As a depressing aside that helps shore up your point: I should note that because I wrote that article, I now get hits almost daily by people searching for “alyx vance nude”. It’s a sad sad world.

  2. Bonnie Says:

    That’s so funny; I totally know the feeling: I put up a post some time last month about Sony’s Quest for Antonia which, however accidentally, included the names of a few of the contestants along with the word “nude”. Like you said – hits every day. Well, at least maybe those creeps will learn something in the meantime :-).

    It’s really great to hear, from reading the post you linked to, that what attracts you to in-game women is their strength and variety of character. Of course, the fundamentally sad thing about men who only care about tits and ass in their games is that, most likely, that’s what’s important to them in real life too.

  3. Ryan Says:

    I have to wonder what is really at stake here? This sort of thing has been around forever in the form of erotic cartoons. It actually predates photographed pornography by centuries, probably millennia.

    Both "Bonnie" in the original article, and "Rossum's Child" seem to indicate that the problem is one of representation. The original article reads:

    “…talk about one-sided, *objectifying sexuality*… we're walking a fine line between between fanboy-hood and *abstraction* of sexual attraction… “(Emphasis added)

    Certainly that is a possibility, perhaps the problem is that in endorsing a CGI centerfold we have moved one more step away from the "real thing," but if this is really the case wouldn't it hold true that photographed pornography is an improvement over the cartooned pornography that predated it, or even over erotic fiction, because it more precisely and accurately represents the female form?

    Ultimately the argument of representation becomes a paradox which says that one kind of pornography is less degrading than another, and that in the end their is some sort of uber-porno that most closely approximates the actual human form and is therefore the "best" or least degrading pornography.

    The original article states that we are in danger of abstracting sexual attraction. The venerable OED defines abstraction as, "the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events." If you take a sample of two people, they will almost certainly have at least slightly divergent ideas on what makes a one person or another sexually attractive. Expand that same sample to ten or fifty and the answers will become even more divergent. Sexual attraction is therefore already a highly abstract concept.

    Therefore, vilifying abstraction is the wrong avenue down which to pursue this topic, because abstraction and sexual attraction are inherently linked to one another. Based on that belief, I do not think that these CGI pinups are any more "degrading" than the usual material that Playboy provides.

    All this is not to say that they are right or wrong, but simply to say that you cannot logically label one type of pornography as better than another.

    In light of this I would say that a more interesting examination of these pictorials might push past sexuality and look more closely at gender. What does it mean that pictures of women or homosexual men are so often viewed as degrading, while heterosexual male pornstars are often celebrated as cultural icons? Why does it benefit our society to maintain these taboos– because it is certainly benefitting some one or they would have been dropped a long time ago.

  4. Bonnie Says:

    Thanks, Ryan… definitely some interesting stuff here. Okay, let me do this one thing at a time:

    First off, I think you’re getting a little muddled in good/bad, better/worse, and later the lack thereof. You say that, in theory, “photographed pornography is an improvement over the cartooned pornography that predated it, or even over erotic fiction, because it more precisely and accurately represents the female.” But, like you admit later, sexuality isn’t a qualitative thing. “Cartoon” pornography (take, for example, the case of Japanese hentai) doesn’t merely exclude or pre-date live-action porn, it serves a different social role. I think the same can be said for these CGI centerfolds. Not that I claim to fully understand what that different role is, but I don’t think it’s anywhere as simple as representing the female. It has to do with perceptions of the sexual other, in this case one who is literally objectified in that she, as a living breathing subject, does not exist.

    This relates back to the idea of abstraction of sexuality. You’re right in looking back to the concept of ideas vs. events (God bless the OED!), but we look at it in different lights. That sexuality involved ideas doesn’t by necessity make it abstract – as long as there’s a physical event attached to it, whether in reality or in thought. But when you introduce un-real women, the physicality of the event begins to disappear. Or, if it does not, disillusion takes its place.

    As for degrading women, I don’t think I said that of pornography – though lots of feminists definitely think it. I, for one, am a big fan of porn as a mode of female expression, both in its creation and consumption. But, again, it’s never simple. Pornography is only self-realizing if it’s embarked upon with a thoughtful, open mind. Women who are forced into porn by financial sitations, by men, by their own backgrounds – these women are degraded. And when, conversely, men watch porn without regard to the personhood of the women he’s watching, this too is degrading. If put in the same situation, men too could easily be degraded, but no one is willing to deal with it. We consider women weak, so we think about they’re feelings more. Men, on the other hand, refuse to honestly look at themselves.

    Anyways, on an unrelated note, I thought it was funny that you called me “Bonnie”. I really am Bonnie; no need for quotation marks. Hi!

  5. Ryan Says:

    Hi Bonnie, happy to remove the quotations!

    I just wanted to clear up one thing first, and that is where it says “female form” in my fourth paragraph it should really read “human form,” but as is so often the way in life, I guess I got caught up in the context and so it came out as “female form.”

    That said, I agree with you when you say that pornography deals largely with the objectification of the sexual other. I think that the concept of “otherness” is an important one to bring up in this discussion and that it starts to address some of the issues I alluded to at the end of my response.

    I think that you are really starting to get into some interesting areas when you say, “It has to do with perceptions of the sexual other, in this case one who is literally objectified in that she… does not exist.”

    I think that denial of identity for the “sexual other” is definitely the topic at the heart of this debate, and maybe at the heart of this site, but I do not think (and I don’t think that you do either) that it is pornography that is responsible for creating this situation. Instead, pornography is just one more lens through which we can view it.

    That said, I still maintain my previous view that no one piece of pornography can be any better or worse than another. I will concede that in some cases the objectification taking place is more easily spotted, but that this is only an affect of social conditioning.

    We call a classical painting of a Venus art, but at the same time isn’t it idealizing and objectifying a certain set of values about what a body should look like? What is so different about constructing the naked form this way and constructing it from polygons? Aren’t both of these depictions “artificial.”

    Perhaps it is because the Venus exhibits what we consider a more socially acceptable, although not socially desirable, body type. Her figure is far more realistic than, say, that of Lara Croft. However, this perception is largely due to a shift in social and sexual views that has occurred over the centuries. The Venus was essentially the Lara Croft of her day, and the top heavy, tiny-waisted Ms. Croft would have been seen as undesirable because of her low chances for surviving child birth.

    In the Renaissance the Venus paintings would have been lust inspiring artifices of temptation, while a rendering, no matter how "realistic" of a Lara Croft-type would have been viewed as some sort of bizarre art piece of a sickly woman.

    Once again, my point is that anything, and I will expand this beyond pornography here to include paintings, sculpture (see Michaelangelo's David for an instance of male anxiety), literature, or any other form of art equally objectifies its subject. The medium that is chosen and the method of portrayal is largely irrelevant and I hope that I have started to illustrate this by showing how they can be interpreted differently by different cultures.

    Once again, I am not passing moral judgment here. I we can all agree that pornography as well as any art can be enjoyable both in "creation and consumption" as Bonnie elegantly puts it. I simply want to point out that the degree by which a piece objectifies its subject is completely arbitrary from one person to the next, and therefore not a valid tool to strike at the problem.

    As Bonnie already suggested, it is examining the "sexual other" that will really start to unearth answers. In that we agree. I just do not see this particular case, weighing one type of pornography against another, as being a very effective one for for furthering that understanding.

    (Let me conclude by saying, this is a great website, a timely website, and that it is so refreshing to see intelligent conversation on the Internet. Bravo!)

  6. Bonnie Says:

    ‘I think that denial of identity for the "sexual other" is definitely the topic at the heart of this debate, and maybe at the heart of this site, but I do not think (and I don't think that you do either) that it is pornography that is responsible for creating this situation. Instead, pornography is just one more lens through which we can view it.’

    Totally right. Really, I think we’re debated over two different things here. You’re contesting the claim that CGI women can be said to be more objectified that real women – and you’re bringing into question (rightfully so) the meaning of objectification as we so often use it to mean inappropriate/unfair representation of women. You say the whole concept of beauty in art vs. pornography is too subjective to pull anything useful from, and I totally agree.

    The point I’m making (and my apologies if it’s not coming off clearly!) is not that naked CGI women are more objectified in a moral, judgemental sense, but in a very literal way: they are, innately, objects. It’s not my call to say what’s good and bad; my argument is just that it’s revealing that the men of the gaming community would choose to drool over naked characters who don’t exist rather than real women who do. What it reveals exactly, I can’t say. Perhaps, as I mentioned earlier, it implies that in-game females have become more real to gamers than actual women. Or maybe it speaks to the nature of our modern sexuality, in that we prefer a wholly subject-less object for our sexual energy (one that does not demand from us explanations or returned affection) – and this is just a more clearly delineated example of that phenomenon.

    In short, Ryan, we agree. Really. Let’s be friends ;-). And thanks for the kind words about the site!

  7. Ryan Says:

    Well, since we seem to be ending up at the same conclusion, albeit by different routes, I think some kind of truce can be called ;-).

    Thanks for the debate!

  8. Rossum's Child Says:

    Ryan: Awesome points. Some good words and great coherency. It is refreshing to see somebody present an argument for something that is a pleasure to read, even if I don’t always agree.

    Bonnie: thanks for the additional insight and clarification on the original article. That was helpful, of course. And I’m glad I’m not the only one that gets google and yahoo hits for subjects that sound creepifying (to borrow term from firefly) as a result of writing about video games.

    I think there might be a bigger issue at stake here than just what constitutes good or bad pornography or objectification, and that is a question about gaming and the storyteller’s art.

    As much as we may all respect certain kinds of pornography as art, I think we all recognize that in general we don’t want all storytelling and pornography to be linked.

    After all, many respected actresses don’t do nude scenes, and it generally is considered taboo for actresses to appear ‘in character’ in a nude magazine. Movies, while they may integrate visual sexuality into the films themselves, rarely encourage the actresses to appear nude in order to attract people to their movies. I believe that is wise, because the kind of attention that pornography would bring would drag the focus off the story.

    Gaming is still a fairly small industry, when it comes to the number of stories we tell every year. This isn’t like hollywood where maybe 150 titles are turned out to every major theatre per year. We have perhaps a dozen well known titles that dominate each season. Do we really want the stigma of pornography associated with characters of 50% of our best-recognized seasonal output? Will that not damage the integrity of the stories we are trying to tell?

    As an example, imagine Valve letting their Alyx Vance character from Half Life 2 be used for a nude spread. The very out-of-character use of that property would skew the story that they are attempting to tell within the Half Life universe.

    I think the playboy spread will be detrimental to the storytelling ability of the industry as a whole, because it brings the focus off the characters and onto raw visuals.

  9. Bonnie Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. The whole ordeal really emphasizes what’s important to the industry: money, money, and money. They see an opportunity to cash in on peoples’ attraction to female characters, and for that they sacrifice the artistic integrity (storytelling, as you say) of their games. It’s a shame, for sure, that consumers and game producers can’t hold off on their need for instant gratification long enough to allow games the chance to be viewed, like movies, as both pop culture and as art.

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