Shame, Sexuality and Video Games: A personal account

Recently, I have been both looking forward to and dreading Vanillaware’s upcoming Dragon’s Crown. Vanillaware have developed one of my favourite Wii games, Muramasa: The Demon Blade. So when I found out they were developing a game for the PS3, I began to salivate. Those familiar with Vanillaware’s games know that they are absolutely gorgeous. The thought of seeing amazing 2D artwork in HD and having a fun game underneath thrilled me to no end.

Then I saw the game…

It definitely is a gorgeous game, with beautiful environments and creature design, and amazingly smooth animation. I did, however, find myself deeply uncomfortable when I saw the player character art. The character design pays homage to the artwork that adorns low fantasy novels; muscular men and barely dressed women representing the pinacle of “masculine” and “feminine” virtue (from a certain perspective). Impossibly sculpted bodies one would expect of some deity and not a mortal. These physiques were representative of an ideal. It was not an ideal I really subscribed to, but it was nevertheless an ideal of some sort.

If you have a look at the character art for Dragon’s Crown, however, it appears the pulp covers of low fantasy were but a starting point. The end result being grotesquely exaggerated caricatures of an idealised human body that is at times disturbing and at others strangely fascinating. It is something that has already attracted commentary from both detractors and supporters and it is not my aim to parrot opinions in this piece.

What I want to do is work through having a game that I want to play because the gameplay looks genuinely fun to me, and a game that makes me feel uncomfortable due to its representation of the human form.

Through various events and thought experiments, a realisation has been dawning on me: I have an aversion to things related to sex and sexuality and I am confused and ashamed of the fact I am a sexual creature.

I have been confused about my sexuality for the past couple of years. Prior to this confusion, I had untreated depression and anxiety and so my libido was effectively suppressed. Life was easy and I could ignore any issues that may have cropped up.

However, after getting treatment, I must say I am feeling a lot happier more frequently, and for the most part, my anxiety is manageable. This has also come with an increase in my libido and a confusion about being attracted to people both romantically and sexually. I guess you could say I am dealing with teenage sexual identity issues in my mid 20s.

Having not really dealt with my libido much before this time, it feels alien and unnatural for me to feel any sort of sexual attraction to anyone, and the mere recognition that certain things can be viewed through the lens of sexuality makes me uncomfortable. I just haven’t had the time to work through these issues and I find myself on the back foot. I have been too embarrassed to raise these issues and concerns with my parents and my mental health professional, and I think I am beginning to view sex related topics as something to be embarrassed by and ashamed of.

I find I play as a female character in most games that allow me to customise my character or play as a pre-made female character. I have been jokingly asked if I do this so I can stare at the character’s ass while I play (something that seems both silly and counterproductive to me). I am also pretty sure that it’d be pretty hard to do so in a first person game =P

Anyway, ogling is not why I play female characters, in case that wasn’t clear.

I’ve finished Mass Effect 2 only once though I have attempted two playthroughs of it. The first run through, I played as Male Shepard and I did not feel at all connected to my character. However, playing through as Female Shepard allowed me to invest much more into the game. I felt more attached to my Shepard, and I wanted to see her story through to the end. Any moment where my Shepard was taunted or insulted, I felt personally insulted and any moment of triumph was similarly personal. I got none of this with the Male Shepard.

I’ve been wondering why I feel uncomfortable being around men in real life and why I dislike being reminded of my male-ness. I’ve cringed in the past at being called a man by a friend, yet my pronouns are still He/Him/His. It feels like I am cheating a little, but I’ve concluded that I’d rather be seen (by myself at least) as a genderless, or at the very least, not male entity. In video games, the easiest way to be non-male is to be female. I feel much more comfortable playing as a female character because I am not reminded all the time that I am male. In virtual spaces, a female avatar is what I feel most comfortable representing myself as, even though I don’t feel like I am female myself.

The gaming landscape is a strange place that handles sexual identity and gender identity in a number of ways, whether intentionally or not. The “everyone is bi” of Mass Effect, the homoerotic undertones of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, the male default of Minecraft’s Steve or the power fantasy that is Duke Nukem.

As a person confused, intimidated and ashamed by my own sexual identity, gender identity and by sexuality in media, it can make things more complex when choosing what to engage with. Coming back to Dragon’s Crown, if I were to ever pick up the game, I would play as the Elf. She is the least stylised of the female characters, a fact that has been co-opted by users of the internet to ridicule those who took offense at the portrail of women in the game (something that many feel strongly about given the prevalence of sexism in the industry. Use google if you need reading material). “She exposes her ears! Strumpet!” ring the cries o those who mock the offended. Insinuations of homosexuality sprout forth from the character designer. “You do not like exaggerated women? Then you must like these exaggerated men I drew in response to your (admittedly, not completely defensible) article! Ha!”

And everyone who wanted to have a discussion about the role of sex, sexuality and gender in games is reminded that for the most part, they won’t be able to find one.

And I am reminded that not only will I have to deal with personal anxieties and shame related to the subject when picking up a game such as Dragon’s Crown, but I will also be drowned in an ocean of writhing, wailing bodies unable to back down from their stance if I ever attempt to seek clarity or opinion online.

PS:

I thought I should put this here. It is a description of myself through the way I behave in an attempt to strip labels away. I seem to have only succeeded by the very end of it:

if we go by what we do, I am a cat-like self hating Indian man that is a biromantic heterosexual and kind of feels more comfortable not thinking of himself as male and if possible, representing himself as female in virtual spaces, because there doesn’t really seem to be a sex/gender-less avatar in most virtual spaces

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University course Game 2

This is the level I built for my second game for Uni.

Moving along now.

The white things are triggers. Walking into them causes a target to spawn.

It’s meant to be a shooting range. ><

The triggers will not be visible in the final game.

This game was created in a group, so I cannot and do not take all credit for the work put into this!

I am a Criticiser, not a Critic, and I matter.

Come with me on a little journey. It was a lazy night spent procrastinating in front of the computer. My anxiety was getting the better of me, and instead of working on my assignments, I took to twitter to bury myself in a sea of Jurassic Park rerelease buzz. You see, Jurassic Park has a special place in my heart. It has a special place in the hearts of many people who were 5 years old in 1993. It’s just the way things work

It was during this browsing that I came across an article on Film.com, superficially about Jurassic Park. I read it and realised I was tricked into something much more interesting than an article discussing the flaws in Jurassic Park, that clever writer…

And it was this article that got me thinking about why I do not consider myself a critic, even when my friends have told me otherwise. No, I am not a critic. I do not have nearly enough of a knowledge to actually critique works of cinema, discuss the social, political and cultural significance of the pieces, or talk in depth about any problems they have on a thematic level. At times I wish I did, but I do not have the capability or the will to absorb a library’s worth of information.

What I can do is criticise cinema. I can point out more technical flaws. I can discuss things that dragged me out of the experience. I can talk about things that reminded me that I was still a man sitting in the dark of a theatre, surrounded by other people watching a dance of light and sound for 90 minutes and up.

This is everything wrong with modern film critique, I agree. It is not everything wrong with modern film criticism. The ability to differentiate between the two, I believe would serve to only benefit consumers and those interested in the world of cinema.

A film is not its themes and its cultural identity in a vacuum. It is a product of technique, or lack thereof. Having a discussion of the more thematic side of cinema can only serve to enrich our culture and promote intelligent analysis and discourse about art and its importance.

Having a discussion about the flaws of a film can serve on a more consumerist level. Perhaps I am taking a leaf from games reviewing, where a discussion of the mechanics and technical accomplishments of the game seem to take precedence over discussion of the narrative, both textual and interactive that the game affords. It is a very consumer-centric approach, treating the game as a product, and not as a work of art. It informs potential customers, the layperson, whether a product is worth their money or not. It is a service that is not without its merit.

Let’s look at two cases.

Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park is a film with some (at times severe) flaws. The assault of the T-Rex on the cars at night comes to mind. You will find numerous explanations for the sudden appearance of the cliff on fansites across the web. Their dedication to resolving this issue makes me look like a person with a passing interest in the film. It is also a film in which I can overlook these flaws, because it is otherwise so well crafted, provides such a sense of wonder and terror with such a deft hand, that I find myself swept up in the experience. I have seen this film at least 40 times since its release, and I am actually craving another watching right now.

Could it have been the masterful score? The amazing sound design? The visual effects that still stand up today? The wonderful performances by its actors? The witty dialogue? The wonderful handling of both the light hearted moments and those meant to terrify? I think it’s a perfect storm of all these elements that make Jurassic Park a film that holds up after 20 years.

Prometheus, on the other hand, was a film with ambition. It was a film that tried to seem intelligent. It was a film with incredible flaws to match its incredible cinematography. It was a glorious mess of a film. It was wonderful to look at, yet did not offer anything in particular that stood out visually. It had interesting art direction, but many of the curiosities it offered were discarded quickly in favour of the next pretty/grotesque thing to look at. It had a sweeping score, that felt out of place with the rest of the film. It attempted to ask questions and prompt a discourse of some incredible and deep concepts with the audience, but ended up only hinting at the existence of these concepts. It was also a film with some uneven performances, quite horrible dialogue, and a not so wonderful sense of time.

These are all flaws, yes, and they stood out more to me in prometheus than the massive flaws in Jurassic Park did.

Yes, Prometheus had some interesting talking points, more so than Jurassic Park, but I really could not afford to engage with them because the film dropped most of them as quickly as they were raised. The score, the dialogue and the narrative of the film kept dragging me out of the moment, reminding me that I was a man in a cinema, watching a show of light and sound desperately trying to be more than the sum of its parts, and failing.

Its thematic weight was artifice as flimsy as the world it took place in. It did not allow me an opportunity to ponder its more interesting aspects because its flaws kept coming hard and fast. They were loud, louder than what the film was trying to achieve.

In fact, I enjoyed Mr Scott’s interviews about the film’s themes much more than the film itself. They were stimulating and provocative, and made me sad that the film did not live up to this.

I believe my take on the film, as a film, a product to be consumed as a whole, is valid. I believe that discussions of how the film’s flaws overshadowed the film’s positives is valid. I believe my opinion that the film could have been much more if it weren’t for its shortcomings, and that the film may disappoint people because of this, is important.

And I believe it is just as valuable as an after the fact dissection of the film in the context of its promotional material, the thoughts of its director, and its relevance to greater themes of spirituality, religion, and science in society at large.

Because a film is more than a statement, it is also a product.

I made a game

I have successfully completed the first of my 4 games I need to create for the course I am currently doing as part of my degree.

It is not a very good game. It is playable, and it has a screen that tells you what the objective is. It has sounds I created by myself (three of them!).

Well, so what about a basic navigate the maze and pick up blocks game with 3 whole sounds that I created by myself? I guess it’s kind of a big step for me, going from someone who was utterly intimidated by all things computers to finally stepping up and completing a group assignment by myself (I completed it by myself because I am an external student and the other students had already formed groups).

It’s given me a grasp of the basics of game construction in Unity3D and has given me the confidence to be able to check the documentation and forums when I am in need – something I never had when dabbling in LOVE2D.
It kind of makes me feel that if I (by far the worst person in my year 9 and 10 computing class) can make a functional game, anyone who puts their mind to it can. And with a little experimentation, great things can come from the game making journey. I am looking forward to the other 3 games I have to make, and hopefully, now I will spend less time on trying to create character controller scripts and more time on making the rest of the game.