The Gleam of Electric Sex

What Video Games Might (or Might Not) Teach Us About Sex

by G. Christopher Williams

14 October 2009

We may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the sexual experiences of someone else.
 
Only one thing could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
—Ralphie, A Christmas Story (1983), MGM/UA Entertainment

Much like the “major award” won by Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story, contemporary video games with “the snap of a few sparks, and a quick whiff of ozone” tend to offer rather ideal, if incomplete images of lurid matter to their audience.  Indeed, sexuality tends to get treated in one of two distinct ways these days. 

The first treatment appeals to Ralphie’s voyeuristic curiosity at the sight of the simulation of an adult female leg in its electrified form, the infamous leg lamp itself.  Getting to view some T&A in a Leisure Suit Larry game as a result of solving some puzzles or beating some mini-game or getting to ogle Dead or Alive babes clad in the scanty suits that took a lot of effort and deductive skill to convince those women to put on are both ways of treating electric (or stimulatory) versions of sex as if such images are indeed “a major award”.  After all, they serve as a visual reward for the player’s efforts in the game.

The second common treatment of sex is to reduce it to manual operations, seemingly a more suitable and participatory effort than other media can usually provide in their expressions of the pornographic. Film, television, and books can merely offer the same fleeting voyeurism of the aforementioned games, but video games offer the opportunity to participate in the representation of sex by potentially simulating its process and not merely by representing images similar to it as a Playboy magazine might. 

While Ralphie’s groping of the leg lamp in A Christmas Story has a certain passionate pubescent charm to it, efforts of the manual variety in recent video games maintain the cold, plastic feel of a mannequin leg and teach probably less about effective groping than Ralphie’s initial efforts at such business.  The sex mini-game in God of War reduces sex to the stabbing motions of button mashing (while obscuring the activity as the camera modestly turns its gaze away from the ménage à trois that Kratos is participating in).  Similarly modest is the Saint’s Row “ho-ing” mini-game that allows only the view of a bathroom door behind which some lurid behavior is apparently occurring between the player’s avatar and a john.  The only participation in this activity is represented by some odd manipulations of the right and left sticks of the controller that vaguely resembles the mechanics of a rhythm game.

Such efforts reduce sexual representation to some kind of weirdly mechanical process. Participating in simulated sexual acts in these games seem to maybe offer less insight into what sex is about than traditional passive, voyeuristic pornography does.

That is why I was fascinated by a recent interview with David Cage of Quantic Dream, the developer of the forthcoming Heavy Rain.  In the interview published in the October 2009 issue of Game Informer, the interviewer comments on a sequence in the E3 demo of the game, in which one of the game’s protagonists, Madison, is forced to strip at gun point by a mob boss.  The interviewer reports that playing this sequence “made me feel uncomfortable”.  Cage responds by saying:

Fantastic.  You know what?  That is exactly what we wanted.  Exactly.  It was really funny to read the reactions to this scene because people were kind of confused.  They really feel uncomfortable because it’s a really strange situation . . . You control a girl and you’re forced to strip in front of a guy, and the guy is really disgusting . . . Yes, it’s a strong moment for the character.  But if we managed to make you feel uncomfortable it is because at some point we made you believe you were Madison.

If I am interpreting Cage’s thinking correctly, he seems to be suggesting that Heavy Rain is moving beyond the voyeuristic simulations of sexuality offered by countless other forms of more passive media and also beyond simply making a participatory simulation of sexuality into a mere simulation of the “‘ol in-out, in-out”.  Instead, what seems to be offered here is a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience. 

In this particular instance, the psychology is particularly fascinating as it is likely a rather novel experience for the largest demographic of video game players, males.  If feminist theory concerning the tendency for women to become the object of the male gaze holds any credence, the experience of being made object to that gaze may be an entirely new experience for many players.  Indeed, it may also be an uncomfortable one as traditional gender roles and perspectives may be tested and reversed as a result of being made to “believe you were Madison” because players will participate in this humiliating act rather than merely view it.

Certainly, Cage and Quantic Dream’s efforts are not entirely new.  Many video game players have toyed with gender bending experiments such as playing avatars that represent themselves as the opposite of their own gender.  I have played female avatars in online games and have noted differences in the ways that I am treated when playing as a female character as opposed to a male character.  Largely, my own experience had led me to observe that I seemed to receive a lot more gifts from other players when playing as a female (which may suggest something about cultural norms and expectations concerning male-female relationships). 

However, this limited sort of experience was not placed in the context of a story or a character whose entire personality is coded as female (my avatar was always driven by my own personality as I am not one to play “in character” in games, not attempting then to specifically act like the character that I am playing in the context of the gaming world).  Adding layers of storytelling and the more objective, dramatic qualities of scripted and directed behaviors into this mix may produce more focused statements on sexuality than we have seen in gaming thus far and may push this participatory art in directions that the passive arts are limited in exploring.  Because we may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the experiences of someone else.  Games have the potential to create empathy with characters rather than the sympathy that film or books might evoke in watching someone else suffer or experience pleasure. 

Such illumination might shed some interesting light on sexual issues by provoking emotional responses from players invested in “being” their characters rather than practicing the merely mechanical aspects of sex as if it were a mere game or puzzle to be solved.  I am hoping that more developers are willing to produce a more interesting and insightful vision of real sex through the simulation of the electric, rather than offering us the same leering peeks at it through the window that we have had before.

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