The Oldest Game - Creating A Newsgame about Sex Work in Canada

More Sound Games

by Sandra Gabriele

In his analysis of the video game Papa Sangre, Hugill (2012) usefully sums up the interactivity that takes place in an audio-based game:

“[audio-based games] emphasise the experiential aspects of the music by blurring the distinction between composer, performer and audience. The gamer, in effect, becomes all three, shaping and interacting with the sonic content through a series of decisions that create a highly engaging auditory experience”  (p. 3).

I found this useful in thinking through the relationship between game and gamer in audio-based games. Interactivity will inevitably change the soundscape of our game. Can we exploit an interactive soundscape to convey a specific aspect of sex work?

Another thing to consider is that effective sound games count on the active imagination of the players to fill in what is missing visually.  It’s important to consider the preconceptions many players may already have about sex workers, and how these may be activated during gameplay. It would be interesting if our game could comment on the potential stereotypes floating around in our players’ heads.

Video Games by Women for Women

“Women are the fastest-growing group of video and computer game consumers” (Fullerton, Fron, Pearce & Morie, 2008, p. 139).  A recent report released by Entertainment Software Associate (ESA) found that women comprise 45% of video game players (Rosenberg, 2013).

However, while women represent almost half of video game consumers, they are sorely under-represented among video game producers. Only “10% of all game industry workers in the US are women, and most are not involved in the design process” (Flanagan, 2005, p.1). This statistic is similar in Canada. There are many factors that contribute to the systemic exclusion of women from video game design, including “extreme working conditions and poor quality of life, the misconception that girls don’t play games,” and sexist business practices (Fullerton et al, 2008).

Overall, this contributes to a lack of diversity in video game design. It is critical aspect of why video games predominantly target male players, with the majority of games focusing on a male protagonist (Dickey, 2006). Furthermore, depictions of female characters in video games are often problematic. Women are represented as victims in need of rescuing, objects of desire, or targets for abuse.

In the 1990s, the video game industry began to respond to the growing female market with the production of games targeting women (Kafai, Heeter, Denner & Sun, 2008). However, many have criticized the resulting games.  Some, dubbed “pink games”, often perpetuated traditional values of femininity, such “Barbie Fashion Designer”. “Purple games” (named after Purple Moon Software, a company headed by Brenda Laurel that pioneered this genre) followed, with games that supposedly “increased focus on real-life issues of interests to girls and women” (Kafai et al, p. 5), such as such as the Nancy Drew video game series. Both “pink” and “purple” games have been criticized for promoting stereotypes about girls. However, Cassell and Jenkins (1998) caution that these types of games should not be dismissed as trivial, and that participating in girl culture can be an important form of resistance against patriarchy (Dickey, 2006). Nonetheless, video games made for women represent a minority of the video game industry.

A study conducted in 2005 found that female players prefer games designed by all-women teams (Fullerton et al, 2008). Similarly, Fullerton et al point to the correlation between The Sims 40-50% female player base to half the design team being female. While clearly not all games for women need to portray female characters, nor do women only enjoy games targeted at women, the game industry clearly lacks a female perspective that would offer all video game players more options. Furthermore, as “purple” and “pink” games show, some games specifically targeted at women can still be problematic.

“Attempting to create something for ‘girls’ as a category obviously navigates a dangerous border zone between personal, specific, lived experience, and generalization” (Flanagan, 2005, p.2).  Flanagan advocates for designing with a diverse population of players in mind. She has created several progressive games for girls. “The Adventure Josie True” represents “adventurous, smart, and scientific women of color [,which] is very important to enhancing all players exposure to what constitutes a hero” (Flanagan, as cited by Fullerton et al, p.146). Her game “RAPUNSEL” teaches tween girls how to program by developing dance steps for their game characters.

Silicon Sisters, Canada’s first female owned video game company, created “School 26”, exploring the social dilemmas girls face in high school.  “School 26 is inspired by academic research that identifies social engineering as a prominent element in the lives of teenaged girls.” (Silicon Sisters Interactive, 2011, n.p.).

“Half the Sky Movement: The Game” explores the difficult realities women face around the world, and allows the player to fight for their empowerment. Also by Half the Sky, “9 Minutes” is a mobile game that “plays out the adventure of pregnancy” (Treat, 2013, n.p.). 

Sex in Video Games

While video games are often stigmatized as being overtly sexual, scholars and game critics have pointed to the fact that most mainstream video games actually steer clear of depicting the act of sex. Floyd (2008) highlights that while sexual acts were present in video games since their inception, in the 1980s this came to an end. Nintendo forbade sexual content in games made for their first home console, and most mainstream game developers followed suit. While there has been a steady rise in hypersexualized characters in games, as well as a limited but healthy adult game market, most mainstream games today are free of overtly sexual content.

Ironically, video games today are often slammed for depicting sex, but not violence. Many retailers won’t stock video games rated “Adult Only” (AO) (Gallagher, 2012), a rating almost exclusively reserved for games with sexual content. Floyd argues that any amount of violence is rarely given that same rating. Furthermore, as video games continue to be defined as a children’s pastime in society’s consciousness, many games that have depicted sex have faced media, legislative, and consequently economic backlash.

Therefore, mainstream game designers avoid depicting sex, and instead rely on titillation and innuendo. “Sex continues to exert a powerful influence on video games as an absence or limit” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 400).   While sex is often implied (in romantic storylines, where players’ actions are rewarded with sex, etc…), the act itself is never shown (Kryzwinska, 2012; Cox 2009). Instead, video games’ use of suggestion “capitalize[s] on sexual knowledge it presumes its audience already to possess rather than risk addressing or representing it directly” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 403).

However, Krzywinska (2012) argues that games don’t only explore sex through sexual imagery. Other forms of representation, game mechanics, and even gameplay itself can conjure up sexual themes. For example, characters’ power or agility can evoke themes of desire and sexuality. Furthermore, Kryzwinska discusses the “erotics of play”. While sexual imagery may be nowhere to be found in certain games, these games can still “please, tease and excite the player” (p. 154). Similarly, Gallagher highlights the work of Suits (1978), who “compares games to sex on the basis that both play and sex may be understood as activities in which ‘trying and achieving may be sought as ends in themselves’ ” (p. 405).

Krzywinska and Gallagher do discuss video games that do use sexual imagery. Krzywinska distinguishes between these games and virtual sex simulators. “Sex sims are generally designed to be consumed as porn, while the situation with games that incorporate sex within the sphere of game mechanics is more complex” (Krzywinska, 2012, p. 151). She uses the example of Playboy: The Mansion, a game where a player embodies Hugh Hefner, who must use a variety of techniques to pull together his magazine. The player also has the option of having sex with the mansion’s guests. “Sex here is couched as a normal activity partaken of by consenting adults who do not necessarily have deep ties” (Krzywinsk, 2012, p. 153). Interestingly, these guests are more easily seduced after Hefner builds relationships with them. However, sex is still represented as something to be coaxed out of female non-player characters by the male Hugh Hefner through saavy gameplay.

Fable II is more progressive example of a video game that deals with sex, offered by Gallagher. While the sex act itself is not portrayed, events leading up to it and following it are. Players can please a potential partner with gifts and trips before hand, and then decide on whether to use contraceptives and later deal with the consequences of that decision. “The game understands that sex is most gamically compelling when it requires strategy and entails consequences, and renders it a matter of planning and problem solving rather than one of acting out our fantasies on quiescent digital bodies” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 409).  The game also offers players a choice of engaging with a range of sexual preferences and identities.

Despite this example, critics agree that mainstream games currently do not adequately represent the complexity of sex. Gallagher argues that games’ current approach, “allusion, paraphrase, and innuendo, [are] techniques better suited to the restatement of reductive, clichéd, and simplistic attitudes rather than the nuanced treatment of complex issues” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 404).  Mainstream games also lack representations of sexual diversity. Polansky (2013) rightly criticizes video games’ “aesthetic of objectification for the viewing pleasure of presumably straight, largely white….men” (n.p.). Similarly, Alex Raymond (2009) argues that when sex appears or is implied in video games, it is often framed as a commodity to be won from female non-player characters by male players. He advocates for games to move towards a representation of sex as collaborative.

However, Polansky points out that more interesting work about sex is being done in independent games. She points to Anna Anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuckme, a video game about the dominant/submissive relationship. “Encyclopedia is a game that requires sensitivity, attention and active exchange between the player and the system to be able to achieve not only a positive, climactic ending, but to explore one’s relationship with physical transgression and power dynamics as elements of kink eroticism” (Polansky, 2013, n.p.)

Overall, these authors agree that video games as a medium can explore complex issues in a revealing way, and this potential should be used to explore sex. Many call for games to explore intimacy, relationships, and a diversity of sexual preferences. And Gallagher and Kryzwinska highlight that sexual imagery may not be the only, nor the best way to explore sexuality in games.

Should and how could we represent, evoke or suppress sex in our game? We want to frame sex work as an issue of labor rights, and focus on the legalities that endanger sex workers, and not on the sex acts that most commonly evoke sexual moralism in the public. However, what does it mean for a representation of sex workers to overlook the exchange between a sex worker and their client? Is there perhaps a way to highlight the relationship and intimacy that can be built between a sex worker and client that might work in favor of the message we are trying to convey? Or is the lesson to be learned from the public’s scorn against sexual games is that incorporating sex confuses the real issues at play?