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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Children of Men, or a powerful commodity?

So like Children of Men is one of my favourite movies of foreverrrr!!!!!

I was so very happy when it came out. It was a brilliantly bleak soft science fiction film, not without an odd sense of optimism that explored something I think is a very interesting topic.

So let’s set the scene. It is 20 minutes into the future and women have all become infertile. The world collapses and the last bastion of civilisation is an increasingly xenophobic and totalitarian UK. The UK has shut its boarders to foreigners and refugees are rounded up into camps and may/may not be executed. Also there have been no babies born for 18 years.

18 YEARS.

Also the film starts off with everyone being depressed because the world’s youngest person (who really came off as kind of a prick) is stabbed to death.

So far so interesting, no?

The *really* interesting part comes when our main character is introduced to a woman who, beyond all odds, turned out to be pregnant. This is a huge shock to him. Bigger than Ben Hur, and that was pretty dang big to begin with. What complicates issues is that said woman is a refugee.

Being the world’s first pregnant woman in 18 years and being a refugee in a totalitarian, xenophobic country makes things complicated for the poor woman. People start moving to utilise her and her body for their own political, social, or monetary gains. Our hapless main character is tasked with escorting her to a safe haven that may or may not exist.

The real meat of the film comes in the form of these sociopolitical tussles between an extremist group that wants to use the woman and her baby as a symbol of hope to help topple the government, and the looming threat that if the government finds her, they will make her deliver the baby, kill her and claim the baby is born of a local woman.

The idea that a woman can be reduced to nothing more than a biological function in the eyes of various political factions is a scary one indeed. The situation is one opposite of abortion, where the woman just wants to give birth to her child in peace, but there is an underlying unifying issue here. The issue the film is getting at is the lack of decision making power the woman has regarding to the functioning of her own body.

With abortion, the woman’s choice in the matter is often overlooked because the issue of murder comes in. The issue becomes a political, social, and religious matter first, and a matter of an individual’s choice in how their body functions second. It becomes a matter of whether taking a life is ever permissible or morally justifiable. Once this question is resolved, the issue of the woman’s choice of what to do with her body can then be addressed. The woman’s choice is already shifted back in favour of the consideration of the nature of death. It is a political issue because governments are afraid of offending potential voting demographics with unpopular decisions. It is a social issue because if taking a life is murder in all cases (i.e. immoral and unjustifiable) then the woman is a monster. It becomes a religious issue because life is sacred and it goes beyond a mere moral wrong. It becomes an affront to God to go against his design.

With the movie, the woman’s choice in the matter is overlooked because of the important political and social implications of a woman who is a foreigner being pregnant. It becomes a political issue because ascribing the level of importance a pregnant woman would have to a foreigner would fly in the face of the government’s stance on foreigners. It becomes a social issue because people fighting for social change want to use the woman and her body and her status as a refugee as a catalyst for said social change. It becomes a monetary issue because some people want to sell her and her baby to the highest bidder. Never is the woman’s opinion considered. In all cases these people want to use her body for their own ends and they view her as an entity that performs a specific biological function first and a fellow human being never.

Really, rights are nebulous things and I do not think there are any ‘natural’ rights or laws that make humans particularly special or human life particularly worth protecting. By this I mean there is no objective worth to human life. There will always be subjective worth. I know I was personally struck hard when a friend of mine committed suicide, so I know that life can mean a lot to people. I am just afraid of the ‘value’ of life being perverted and used by groups to push their agendas upon others.

So a good, thought provoking, depressing and hopeful soft science fiction film. Well done all involved.