Sex, sexuality, and gender in gaming are hot button issues: even people who like to complain about the topics coming up can't resist weighing in. Gender history is one area I'm usually working on in some capacity or another, in addition to topics that are heavier on blood, guts, and political intrigue, so I always read discussions on sexuality and gender in one of my other pet subjects with interest. Beyond that, there is an expectation that - being one of those girl gamer types - I will write about gender issues, at least occasionally.
The recent kerfluffle over Leigh Alexander's article on mature versus juvenile sexuality in games reinforced some observations I've been making for the past few years, and highlighted a few more problems I have with the way the discussion tends to turn. Sometimes, I think it just highlights how immature the gaming community can be that we can't discuss the issue of cleavage without resorting to name-calling. Still, sex and visual culture has been on my mind recently thanks to my current research - and if being submersed in films and film culture will do anything, it will dredge up plenty of examples of good depictions of sex, bad depictions of sex, and everything in between. And to be honest, I think the gaming industry by and large has a lot to learn from the older medium of film: from the good, the bad, and the ugly.
While games aren't film, there are a lot of parallels in the ways stories are told and the fact that both are visual mediums. Certainly, there's plenty of bad sex and sexuality on screens across the world, but there's plenty of rich and wonderful depictions, too. Some people say we shouldn't look towards film, but until the medium leaps beyond our current way of telling stories via consoles and handhelds, I think we should be looking to the more established, more mature medium for inspiration (at least some of the time). It couldn't possibly hurt for the most part. It's delightful to ruminate on the emotive power of future video games with fancy technology that's way, way ahead of what the industry can currently produce - but despite the arguments against looking to film for tips on narrative design, games on the whole can barely manage to string together a creative, original, well-developed and well-written narrative.
One of Alexander's points in her Aberrant Gamer column was that it's often the subtle relationships that take on the most power - hand holding in ICO, watching the relationship of two adults through the eyes of a teenager in Final Fantasy XII. It's not the sex/sexual overtones/sexuality for the sake of titillation that so often seems to crop up in games, either with the physical acts or having pixilated tits on display. I'm of the humble opinion that it's easier to whip up a scantily clad character to insert some 'sex appeal' into a game (or movie) than it is to create that same sex appeal through, say, character development. How many films and games have thrown in the more overt sex/sex appeal as an afterthought - "Damn, we forgot the sexy bits, and people like sexy bits - let's throw in some mostly naked people." It feels like an afterthought, and that's a shame, because adding sexuality to the mix can heighten the emotional impact a story has on the viewer. A beloved-but-not-great film in my collection is The Peony Pavilion (not to be confused with the original) - after a subtle handling of the complicated friendship between two women, the not terribly convincing love scene between one of the female leads and her first man crush is not only unerotic, it's jarring, out of place, and only serves to yank the viewer out of what is otherwise a beautiful and rather dreamy film.
On the other side of the coin, one of the most erotic scenes I've ever seen (and I've watched a lot of film) is from Red Sorghum. Early in the film, Gong Li's little wedding procession is waylaid by a bandit, who pulls back the red curtain of her litter, reaches out, and squeezes her red slippered foot. She looks up at him and smiles. It's an erotic, if subtle, moment, far more so than watching various video game vixens or vapid starlets slither about on screen in few or no clothes. It's way more erotic than watching a 'sex scene' that seems tacked on as an afterthought. We're talking about squeezing a foot - even if you aren't terribly aware of the sexual power of the slippered foot in imperial China, it's hard not to see the sexuality that rolls off the screen. More than that, Gong Li's character shifts from a shy girl to being aware of the power of her own sexuality. All this with a foot squeeze and a look, the tilt of a chin, a smile. Video games are capable of this level of subtlety and nuance, but it's a capability that has, thus far, been more or less unexplored.
In short, boobs are the easy way out. Overt sexuality is an easy way out - instant titillation with the ensuing hordes of ogling fan boys and girls is a hell of a lot easier than trying to sell sexuality of a subtler stripe. Sex - and overt sex appeal - has its place, but the fact remains that it's more difficult to craft complex characters, the ones that ooze sex appeal without cartoonish proportions, than it is to put a pixilated body on display. They're less dangerous, too, people on display, easier to put in their place as a sexpot or vapid curvy creature - it's the Gong Lis of the world who are dangerous, the ones who are well aware of the power of what they aren't showing, the ones who can lure and tempt the unwitting man into god only knows what. The ones who know they have more going for them than overexposed cleavage are temptation to the extreme. The lovely courtesans of imperial China (the 'talented women,' not the streetwalkers) were renowned for their beauty, their myriad talents (usually in poetry, painting, or calligraphy), their charming company, their manners. Even wives developed friendships with these multi-talented vixens. There's no doubt that sexuality and beauty played a huge role in vaulting the talented girls to the top of the courtesan heap, but they are deeper than just their stunning figures; pretty figures and faces are a dime a dozen. The most talented had a throngs of adoring admirers (Ming dynasty fan boys and girls?) for several reasons, no matter how sharp their tongue. History, novels and films are all full of these complex, subtle women, vividly sexual beings without being shallow or cheap, but video games seem to lack in this regard.
Let's live dangerously here: any reason the good girl can't vamp ar ound screen every now and again? Does the vamp have to be a man-eater all the time? Characters tend to be shuffled into one category or another, and there is a bit of a madonna/whore complex going on when it comes to women. Characterization of men, I must hasten to add, isn't much better, and just another example that what we really need is better writing, better narrative, better characterisation. If the sad, consumptive opera singer of the aforementioned Peony Pavilion can be by turns depressed housewife, tender-hearted friend, and vixenish seductress - if complex characters can emerge out of what amounts to a very average production - why in the world can't equally complex characters emerge from powerhouse development teams at great studios with more frequency than we currently see?
One of my favorite modern films, Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, features Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai playacting a suspected affair between their cheating spouses. Maggie Cheung, while wearing an astonishing number of tight fitting qipao throughout the film, isn't cultivating sexuality via skin. She's not vamping and pouting her way through the plot; we never see a sex scene, or anything even approaching torrid, happen between the jilted, playacting spouses. And yet - the two are wonderful to watch on screen together. It's passion of a less unbridled sort, developed with looks and posture and body language, but it smolders throughout the movie - and it's sexy as hell to watch them on screen together. Tony Leung once said in an interview that despite playing opposite each other in a number of films, he and Cheung deliberately see each other infrequently to preserve mystery in their relationship. It's partly that mystery that's devastatingly sexy, and the reason I'll suffer through having to watch Zhang Ziyi attempt to act just to see Cheung and Leung work their on-screen magic.
I don't think we're ready for the Wong Kar-wai of video games - I'm certainly not ready for Wong Kar-wai on my console or handheld - but if he and other directors can manage to convey sexuality and well-developed relationships, to say nothing of creating desirable on-screen sirens, in two hours and without resorting to cheap titillation, surely whoever's in charge of the story board for a game that may well have much, much more time to develop and explore characters than your average big screen picture could do the same. Let's have the good girl show some skin and the bad girl cover up a little for a change, or at least admit that's an option. We, and the characters, deserve more richness and diversity in the characterization mix. When the good girl goes 'sexy,' you wind up with Yuna of Final Fantasy X-2. While I think there are some arguments to be made for the 'liberation of Yuna' and ensuing clothing loss and radical change of personality, couldn't they have sexed up the clothing and character without turning her into a giggling idiot for three quarters of the game? No wonder Paine looked like she was nursing a bad headache most of the time.
This really isn't about sex, nudity, breasts, or anything else; it's all in the handling. There's a 2001 documentary (of sorts) that follows the lives of a lesbian couple in Beijing. They're perfectly normal people and a loving couple, they just like to spend lots of time doing their daily in-house activities in the buff. We see them cooking dinner, cleaning, hanging out, showering, hopping in bed - and yet, despite their nudity and their engagement in activities that could easily become fodder for softcore porn, it doesn't feel cheap, it doesn't feel like a copout. Of course, there are plenty of 'artistic,' 'independent,' or 'underground' films that are just as guilty of using gratuitous sex or nudity to say nothing more than 'Hey! Our headliners look good naked! Watch our film!'. And on the flip side, plenty of big budget pictures have tackled sex and naked people with aplomb. This is all about the direction, the cutting, the crafting of the film. This stuff doesn't just happen - it takes talent and the desire to create something more.
With all the emphasis on realism in graphics, you'd hope that people would be equally concerned with realism in characterisation (I suppose that particular divide is a conversation saved for another day). Still, considering what can be conveyed visually these days, it should be even easier to create narratives and characters that are compelling in a way that the written word sometimes isn't. And no temperamental prima donna actresses to worry about!
We have the talent in spades - now it's time for the desire to create rich characters and engaging narratives to follow. Jiggling breasts et al. are, at this point, a copout - an easy way to create sex appeal. From better writing, better characterization, more thoughtful creation will flow better depictions of sexuality and sex. And I daresay some of those maligned, subtler, more 'mature' aspects will add a certain element of sexiness that is, for the most part, currently lacking in games. I wouldn't want gaming to resemble an art house theatre and nothing but, but we're in no danger of that - I'm just looking for more options, just like I have when I flip through my DVD collections. I'm patiently waiting for the gaming vixen who knocks us dead in her first appearance, and not with her unrealistic proportions. She'll appear someday ... I hope.
Some games are meant to be nothing more than entertainment, just as many movies are. Even the great 'social dramas' of the silver screen were sold to the masses on sex appeal and escape. But I'm at a loss to see how more diversity and better crafting would hurt any of us in the long run. Jiggling pixels are never going to go away - but it's time to add more (a lot more) than that.
Notes on film screens, in order: The Actress/Centre Stage [阮玲玉](1992); The Pillow Book (1996); In the Mood for Love [花樣年華](2000); Peony Pavilion [遊園驚夢](2001); Red Sorghum [紅高梁](1987); Peony Pavilion; In the Mood for Love; still from The Goddess [神女](1934) from The Actress.