The upcoming Heavy Rain features a sequence in which its female protagonist is forced to strip for a disgusting mob boss. It's sex but it's not sexy, and it moves the needle for games teaching us to differentiate the two.
Writing for PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams picked up on an interview with Quantic Dream, the developer of Heavy Rain, in which the writer confessed he felt uncomfortable being forced to perform the striptease. "Fantastic," Quantic Dream's David Cage tells Game Informer. "You know what? That is exactly what we wanted. ... Yes, it's a strong moment for the character. But if we managed to make you feel uncomfortable it is because at some point we made you believe you were Madison."
This is a departure from other gameplay-based depictions of sex, Williams argues, where the object was either to reveal skin or engage in a mini-game that "reduces sex to the stabbing motions of button mashing." He says the breakthrough lies not necessarily in a mature depiction of sex, but in delivering a new perspective on how it is understood, even if it means forcing someone in an opposite gender role to see its more degrading side.
The Gleam of Electric Sex: What Video Games Might (or Might Not) Teach Us About Sex [PopMatters, Oct. 14.]
If I am interpreting Cage's thinking correctly, he seems to be suggesting that Heavy Rain is moving beyond the voyeuristic simulations of sexuality offered by countless other forms of more passive media and also beyond simply making a participatory simulation of sexuality into a mere simulation of the "‘ol in-out, in-out". Instead, what seems to be offered here is a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience.
In this particular instance, the psychology is particularly fascinating as it is likely a rather novel experience for the largest demographic of video game players, males. If feminist theory concerning the tendency for women to become the object of the male gaze holds any credence, the experience of being made object to that gaze may be an entirely new experience for many players. Indeed, it may also be an uncomfortable one as traditional gender roles and perspectives may be tested and reversed as a result of being made to "believe you were Madison" because players will participate in this humiliating act rather than merely view it.
Certainly, Cage and Quantic Dream's efforts are not entirely new. Many video game players have toyed with gender bending experiments such as playing avatars that represent themselves as the opposite of their own gender. I have played female avatars in online games and have noted differences in the ways that I am treated when playing as a female character as opposed to a male character. Largely, my own experience had led me to observe that I seemed to receive a lot more gifts from other players when playing as a female (which may suggest something about cultural norms and expectations concerning male-female relationships).
However, this limited sort of experience was not placed in the context of a story or a character whose entire personality is coded as female (my avatar was always driven by my own personality as I am not one to play "in character" in games, not attempting then to specifically act like the character that I am playing in the context of the gaming world). Adding layers of storytelling and the more objective, dramatic qualities of scripted and directed behaviours into this mix may produce more focused statements on sexuality than we have seen in gaming thus far and may push this participatory art in directions that the passive arts are limited in exploring. Because we may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the experiences of someone else. Games have the potential to create empathy with characters rather than the sympathy that film or books might evoke in watching someone else suffer or experience pleasure.
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