Piñata Porn and Other Strange Visual Stimulation in Video Games

[10 June 2009]

By G. Christopher Williams

PopMatters Multimedia Editor

In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, the titular young artist, Stephen Daedalus, lectures his friend Lynch at length about the nature of the beautiful in art. He argues that when art is apprehended properly that its audience is arrested by a static emotion. By contrast, he refers to “kinetic emotions”, which he deems to be emotions that excite in their viewers desire or loathing. He claims that art that generates such visceral responses are either “pornographical or didactic” in nature.

Lynch responds to this clinical discussion of proper and improper art with a practical example of his own confusion about how what is considered high art (statuary in a museum) might evoke a very kinetic excitement in its audience: “You say that art must not excite desire… I told you that one day I wrote my name in pencil on the backside of the Venus of Praxiteles in the Museum. Was that not desire?”

While Lynch’s interest in posing this problem may be to complicate Stephen’s neat way of dividing “high” art from other “less serious” forms of art, Lynch’s response to Stephen’s explanation also provokes interesting questions about what draws an audience to art to begin with or what motivates the audience to want to interact with a piece of art. Assumedly, art (be it improper or not) with a pornographic quality (containing those things that, according to Stephen, excite desire and loathing in an audience) is constructed with the very notion that the sort of desirable or loathsome imagery that makes up a piece of art are the very things that the audience wants to consume.

In that sense the emphasis that video games place on generating salacious and repellent imagery is extremely explicable especially given the inherently kinetic nature of this interactive art form. If art is intended to “move” us, video games are most assuredly an art based on more than emotional kinetics. Images are meant to make us act on our emotions.

It is interesting then that the emphasis of many games is on presenting the player with an object that is desirable or loathsome and then sets that player on a path to capture or possess it. Visual “bait” is the lure of many games, and like the assumptions of Lynch, it would seem that many game designers assume that a lot of players want to write at least their virtual names on the backsides of a Venus or two.

Visual stimulation and its possession is the central theme of the Dead or Alive beach series for example. The player is charged with taking on the role of one of several fit young women over the course of an island vacation. During the vacation, the character competes in sports like volleyball and jet ski racing and is rewarded with money for her efforts. Money can be spent in the sports shop on the island, which in addition to some volleyballs and a few accessories, dominantly sells—you guessed it—slinky swimsuits.

Since the player is occupying the flesh of a curvaceous woman and taking part in these activities with and against an outrageously physically well-developed group of female competitors, obviously the interest of the game is less about the sports that one is competing in and the money accrued by doing so than it is in a couple of other things. The real reward is visual in nature; it is in outfitting all of the DOA girls in the skimpiest suits possible. A complex relationship and gifting simulation is embedded in this “sports” game that promotes the primary motivator for gameplay, the visual gratification of possessing all or as many of the suits as possible and outfitting the various shapes and sizes of women available in the game in those suits.

The notion of collection in gaming is a classic one. Players of the original Super Mario Bros. realize the importance of collecting coins throughout the worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom for instance. For every hundred coins one collects, Mario gains another life. Modern games thrive on this old school obsession that players have with collecting and often recognize the need for providing a reward to the player for collecting some odd little trinket or other. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, tagging 100 buildings in Los Santos boosts the player’s respect stat, collecting 100 oysters in San Fierro gains the player more sex appeal, and collecting 100 horseshoes causes an increase in a player’s luck at gambling.

While many games have offered gameplay rewards for completing collections, this kind of practical reward strikes me as different in nature to the aesthetic rewards of DOA. The swimsuits and their possession are not merely a side quest in the game; they are the game. They have no practical value, altering not how the game is played (Lisa and Tina don’t get better at volleyball by wearing a thong) but how the game is viewed. The reward is purely in found in exciting desire, and the design uses that potential excitement as motivation for play. This sounds suspiciously like Daedalus’ description of a “pornographical” art form.

Witness also a game like The Witcher, which takes such collection of female flesh to a very literal kind of realization. While The Witcher is dominantly a traditional kind of action RPG in which the player takes on the role of a monster hunter who fights to gain experience to build skills and other stats, a good number of side quests are devoted to romancing fair maidens (well, most of them probably are not categorically speaking maidens, but you get the point). While some of these romances advance the plot of the game and some of this plot advancement might ultimately lead to additional gameplay benefits, many have a single impractical reward, a card bearing the likeness of the woman that you have managed to bed. The card becomes an emblem of a conquest and the medium that the image is captured in is an appropriate one to game players familiar with the notion of collectible cards and collectible card games. Unlike the full value of a card in a collectible card game, though, the object of collecting them is largely aesthetic and only narrowly related to gameplay. The card and acquiring her/it is the reason to play these side quests, and again, they have no practical value in the game itself as an object. The captured image is the goal (you know, you gotta catch ‘em all).

These two examples, though, may seem relatively obvious in exemplifying a pornographic aesthetic to motivate players given that both largely emphasize the desirability of a visual representation of achievement as a motivator for achieving goals in a game. Truth be told, other forms of visual stimulation are very frequently a driving factor in motivating players to achieve goals in games that are less erotic in nature. The flashy nature of fmvs in games attest to this notion. Anyone that has played 40-50 hours of a Final Fantasy game is likely to attest to the fact that the promise of a really beautifully rendered cut scene coming up is often what drives the player to persist in such games. While hardcore RPG aficionados were playing Final Fantasy II and III on Super Nintendo, it wasn’t until the more visually arresting images of Final Fantasy VII arrived that Final Fantasy became a hit stateside. Viewing something “cool” may be as equally desirable as viewing something carnal and equally visceral.

Interestingly, then, such provocation of desire through visual stimulation is often less overtly something resembling traditional porn than the earlier examples provided. Indeed, video game “porn” can even verge on the downright cute. One of the primary lures of the Viva Piñata gardening simulations is the visual reward offered to the player when he or she successfully mates two animals. Ironically, the visual (and auditory) pleasure of witnessing the “romance dance” of a species of Piñata is at once seemingly not at all pornographic (they are cute animals dancing in funny ways to great music with no biological realities intruding) but then again obviously so (they are mating for pity’s sake).

It might be argued that Viva Piñata‘s romance dances (or at least the act of animal husbandry) do serve some purpose besides exciting their players with their visual charms. Certainly, breeding animals in the game serves a function within what is fundamentally an ecological and economic simulation. However, given the much more open ended quality of those games as sandbox simulations, it is arguable that the player is given much more to motivate him—or herself as they play through the game. Having created a successful garden is nice but getting the opportunity to watch the fox-like Preztail piñatas perform a highly exaggerated foxtrot is, perhaps, the most aesthetically pleasing part of the game.

Refreshingly, too, unlike the earlier mentioned games, the visual rewards of Viva Piñata are broader in appeal than the seemingly masculinely-oriented visual stimulation provided by the collectible “objects” of DOA and The Witcher.

As noted above, though, Daedalus argues that improper arts like the pornographic can excite both desire and loathing. Watching women frolic in bikinis and piñatas get it on may help explain the visual stimulation that is excited by desire in games, but it fails to consider those images that might equally motivate play through the excitation of loathing. Next week, I will take a look at some examples of what would seem to be an oxymoron, visual pleasures derived not from the desirable but from the loathsome.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/94753-pinata-porn-and-other-strange-visual-stimulation-in-video-games-part-/