Sometimes Porn Games Do Feminism Better Than Blockbusters

Sometimes Porn Games Do Feminism Better Than BlockbustersEXPAND
Biocock Intimate

I recently wrote a take-down of Triple A video game titles that insisted on including female characters who were nude or nearly nude for really ridiculous narrative reasons. Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain isn’t writhing around undressed in the rain because Konami wanted us all to have spank material, oh no. It’s just because she breathes through her skin. Right…

Inevitably, whenever I comment on the portrayals of women in interactive media, I get beset by a horde of dudes accusing me of just not liking sex or asking me why I hate boobs. The fact that a large segment of the male population can literally not tell the difference between a ham-fisted pander to their boners and an honest expression of female sexuality is in many ways the problem under discussion, but let’s consensually explore this a little further.

I don’t have a problem with sex in general or sex in video games in particular. I have a problem with sexism, and that’s why I’d like to discuss my favorite porn games and why they sometimes have stronger feminist themes than blockbusters. Porn games go all the way back to the ‘80s, but they really came into their own as Flash games on the Internet. Unfortunately the number of games that are basically rape simulators is still disturbingly high, but in games where consensual sex is the premise, porn games are often able to circumvent gaming’s problem with violent content.

There’s a really good Errant Signal video on why video games tend to use violence as their interactive mechanism, but I can sum it up. The vast majority of video games are about how we navigate in a created space. Most games and especially every shooter are in a sense fancy versions of chess. Players navigate a space according to rules to initiate a win state, and inevitably obstacle elimination is the simplest mechanic to program, whether it’s Mario stomping goombas or Master Chief gunning down the Covenant.

Violence becomes the only tool to interact with the space, and when it combines with trope-y, objectified portrayals of women in games, it reinforces sexist attitudes about rape culture, intimate partner violence, the abuse of sex workers and sexualized female bodies as possessions to be acted upon.

Even games that theoretically could do sex scenes well don't. God of War flavors its combat with quick-time button inputs to achieve brutal kills or add cinematic moments to boss fights. And God of War is famous for having sex mini-games using those same quick-time button inputs. Except that they aren't really sex mini-games. The camera pans away and all we hear are the sounds of sex, about as erotic as scrambled cable porn. I find it odd that a game that will gleefully show a player, Kratos, ripping a cyclops's eyeball out is too shy to actually show Kratos in an R-rated softcore love scene with Aphrodite even though both actions require the exact same mechanics.  

Porn games can avoid this because most porn games are not about navigating a space. They are generally more geared to an interactive narrative, whether it’s a dating simulator or a guided sex scene between characters. Sexuality is rarely a disposable commodity dropped into a game for some “mature” content between bouts of murder, but is instead the actual purpose. It’s not an accessory to the narrative because it is the narrative, and it doesn’t use a violence mechanic in a sexual situation because the mechanics were designed for the sexual situation. 

Sometimes Porn Games Do Feminism Better Than Blockbusters
Horny Afternoon 3

This lets porn games do really interesting things with women. As Maddy Myers once pointed out, the porn parody of Bioshock Infinite, Biocock Intimate, (yes, puns. It’s still porn), actually paints Elizabeth as a decisive character in a way the original game does not. In Bioshock she’s a ball being bounced back and forth between father figures, never really becoming her own woman. In Biocock Elizabeth expresses a confidence and an exhibitionistic pleasure while wondering if she and her partner might get caught. Bioshock’s creator, Ken Levine, openly asked the Internet to stop making porn of Elizabeth, likening it to coming across pornographic images of a person’s child. Biocock allows Elizabeth to grow up and own her body in opposition to her creator’s desire to assert a paternal dominance over her sexuality.

On top of that, the game is sexually empowering to Elizabeth mechanically. She guides the action. She narrates and dictates the scene. The player’s point of view comes from an unknown man or transwoman — "bio cock" is a slang term for the penis of a transwoman who hasn't had sex-reassignment surgery — lying prone with Elizabeth on top. You don’t even properly control Elizabeth. You can only make the scene go forward or backwards. What she does to the player is entirely her own choice, which is a refreshing break from using sex workers as health items and stat boosts in Triple A games. Especially since the final payoff is Elizabeth having an orgasm so intense it opens a portal to another world.

My personal favorite series of porn games is the Horny Afternoon franchise. These follow a young woman named Wendy as she defies her family’s wish for her to be a proper young lady and instead screws her way through a small cast of characters. From a strictly storytelling standpoint, the game is great, a video game version of the Golden Age of Porn where erotica aspired to be mainstream art. I once interviewed a porn writer from that time. She told me writing porn is all about incorporating sex itself as the star of the film and using scenes the way other films use car chases or fight sequences. In this regard, Horny Afternoon games have solid, if not terribly original, stories.

Heck, they even tend to pass the Bechdel test, with Wendy and other female characters talking about their lives and desires as intrinsic to themselves and not based on the actions or thoughts of a man. Like Elizabeth, Wendy is the initiator of most of the action and by far the player’s primary means of interacting with the game. Your fail states usually involve getting caught in the middle of Wendy’s slow builds toward her sexual satisfaction (though there is a funny one in the fourth game where an attempt at unlubricated anal sex ends up causing a house fire). The other characters are determined to restrict, punish and most of all shame Wendy’s sexual urges, which she deftly maneuvers around until she gets everything she wants. Even a spanking scene makes it clear Wendy is driving the car as she responds to the accusation she has been naughty with a slow bend to expose her ass.

My point is that interactive media can deal with sexual matters and content in ways that don’t reduce female characters to nothing more than props for male character development, when they aren’t being used just as decoration or power-ups, that is. Blockbuster games have women but are rarely about women. Mainstream titles like Portal 2 that deal with feminist themes are few and far between, and more often than not it’s the indie scene that produces games like Gone Home. Sure, you can point to Lara Croft, Ellie from The Last of Us or Jodie Holmes from Beyond: Two Souls, but all three of them exhibit at some point the old trope that women are empowered by suffering at the hands of a man. Wendy and Elizabeth are empowered by their desires and no one else's. 

Sometimes Porn Games Do Feminism Better Than Blockbusters
Sex Revelations

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I sometimes get the feeling that modern games desperately want to talk about sex the way modern films get to, but because of mechanical limitations and an awkwardness that is, for want of a better term, virginal, they simply don’t have the guts to take the plunge. Take Resident Evil, for example. Anita Sarkeesian used Resident Evil: Revelations 2 as a prime example of the Women as Reward trope owing to Claire Redfield and Moira Burton getting a set of ridiculous “sexy” costumes as unlockable content, which is just the latest in the franchise’s long history of parading its otherwise capable female characters around in fetishwear.

Now look at Sex Revelation, the new game from Alice Cry that incorporates Claire and Moira into an actual porn. Their purpose is to escape a prison full of zombies that will rape them if they are caught. In the course of the game, Claire is wounded and discards her shirt so Moira can look at the injury, and Moira loses her panties to a zombie in an attack. It’s interesting to note that the sexual content is usually the fail state, cutting to an explicit sex shot with a zombie and the words, “You Are Fucked.” The entire purpose of the game is for this to not happen, and the last stage of the first episode has Claire mowing down approaching rape-zombies with a flamethrower.

Cry’s tremendous skill with character models aside, Sex Revelations is badly spelled, in places it’s almost impossible to play and one of its core elements is freakin' rape. What it is, though, is honest. It sincerely wants to show you Claire’s breasts and Moira’s ass and put them in situations where it’s fight or be fucked without any pretentious nonsense. It doesn’t have them be badass zombie fighters one minute and eye-candy sexpots the next, but both at once. The game it’s pornographying? Not so much. Resident Evil tries to pretend that playing Claire in combat gear and playing her in “sexy” cowgirl is the same game, and it feels so juvenile.

Gaming has come far in how it treats women. Recent releases, like the new Assassin’s Creed, show a marked and directed improvement in things like how to dress female protagonists, avoiding the use of gendered threats and slurs from enemies, and diversifying the type of women you see on the screen in a healthy way. This is fantastic, and well done to all the developers taking heed of the feminist conversation over the past several years.

However, sex and sexuality are part of the human condition and should definitely be part of the art of the video game. When mainstream games make sex a core component of what they are doing, you end up with Catherine, and gaming is definitely richer for having had Catherine. It has to be as honest about it as Catherine or Biocock or Horny Afternoon, though. Continuously trying to graft awkward, badly executed sexual content into a game that isn’t really about that or mechanically prepared to handle it as well as point-and-click porn Flash games is more akin to a guy who doesn’t take the hint when a girl removes his hand from between her legs while they are making out. Feminists don’t want to take sex out of everything. We want that sex to be enthusiastically consensual, mutually beneficial and open to more viewpoints than just what makes the average straight dude hard. So-called mature content should be intellectually more mature than a high school freshman’s understanding of physical intimacy. 

Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-through churches, The Rook Circle, is out now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter


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