ConStellation’s “Working Conditions Special” – a resource for scenario building

Stella is an invaluable resource to sex workers in Montreal.  This organization provides a variety of services to sex workers, and is also very involved in public education campaigns and advocacy.  Stella publishes ConStellation twice a year, a magazine created by and made for sex workers. Recently, we were recommended their “Working Condition Special” of ConStellation, published in 2009.

This edition shares a wealth of information about the legal, health and financial issues pertinent to sex work.  One of this issue’s most important features is that it shares the stories and advice of sex workers working in a variety of areas, including escort services, massages parlors, exotic dancing, the webcam industry, etc… These real-life stories give great insight into the daily concerns of sex workers.

I will outline just a few of the issues brought up in this edition of ConStellation that we might consider exploring further in our game:

Sex in Video Games

While video games are often stigmatized as being overtly sexual, scholars and game critics have pointed to the fact that most mainstream video games actually steer clear of depicting the act of sex. Floyd (2008) highlights that while sexual acts were present in video games since their inception, in the 1980s this came to an end. Nintendo forbade sexual content in games made for their first home console, and most mainstream game developers followed suit. While there has been a steady rise in hypersexualized characters in games, as well as a limited but healthy adult game market, most mainstream games today are free of overtly sexual content.

Ironically, video games today are often slammed for depicting sex, but not violence. Many retailers won’t stock video games rated “Adult Only” (AO) (Gallagher, 2012), a rating almost exclusively reserved for games with sexual content. Floyd argues that any amount of violence is rarely given that same rating. Furthermore, as video games continue to be defined as a children’s pastime in society’s consciousness, many games that have depicted sex have faced media, legislative, and consequently economic backlash.

Therefore, mainstream game designers avoid depicting sex, and instead rely on titillation and innuendo. “Sex continues to exert a powerful influence on video games as an absence or limit” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 400).   While sex is often implied (in romantic storylines, where players’ actions are rewarded with sex, etc…), the act itself is never shown (Kryzwinska, 2012; Cox 2009). Instead, video games’ use of suggestion “capitalize[s] on sexual knowledge it presumes its audience already to possess rather than risk addressing or representing it directly” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 403).

However, Krzywinska (2012) argues that games don’t only explore sex through sexual imagery. Other forms of representation, game mechanics, and even gameplay itself can conjure up sexual themes. For example, characters’ power or agility can evoke themes of desire and sexuality. Furthermore, Kryzwinska discusses the “erotics of play”. While sexual imagery may be nowhere to be found in certain games, these games can still “please, tease and excite the player” (p. 154). Similarly, Gallagher highlights the work of Suits (1978), who “compares games to sex on the basis that both play and sex may be understood as activities in which ‘trying and achieving may be sought as ends in themselves’ ” (p. 405).

Krzywinska and Gallagher do discuss video games that do use sexual imagery. Krzywinska distinguishes between these games and virtual sex simulators. “Sex sims are generally designed to be consumed as porn, while the situation with games that incorporate sex within the sphere of game mechanics is more complex” (Krzywinska, 2012, p. 151). She uses the example of Playboy: The Mansion, a game where a player embodies Hugh Hefner, who must use a variety of techniques to pull together his magazine. The player also has the option of having sex with the mansion’s guests. “Sex here is couched as a normal activity partaken of by consenting adults who do not necessarily have deep ties” (Krzywinsk, 2012, p. 153). Interestingly, these guests are more easily seduced after Hefner builds relationships with them. However, sex is still represented as something to be coaxed out of female non-player characters by the male Hugh Hefner through saavy gameplay.

Fable II is more progressive example of a video game that deals with sex, offered by Gallagher. While the sex act itself is not portrayed, events leading up to it and following it are. Players can please a potential partner with gifts and trips before hand, and then decide on whether to use contraceptives and later deal with the consequences of that decision. “The game understands that sex is most gamically compelling when it requires strategy and entails consequences, and renders it a matter of planning and problem solving rather than one of acting out our fantasies on quiescent digital bodies” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 409).  The game also offers players a choice of engaging with a range of sexual preferences and identities.

Despite this example, critics agree that mainstream games currently do not adequately represent the complexity of sex. Gallagher argues that games’ current approach, “allusion, paraphrase, and innuendo, [are] techniques better suited to the restatement of reductive, clichéd, and simplistic attitudes rather than the nuanced treatment of complex issues” (Gallagher, 2012, p. 404).  Mainstream games also lack representations of sexual diversity. Polansky (2013) rightly criticizes video games’ “aesthetic of objectification for the viewing pleasure of presumably straight, largely white….men” (n.p.). Similarly, Alex Raymond (2009) argues that when sex appears or is implied in video games, it is often framed as a commodity to be won from female non-player characters by male players. He advocates for games to move towards a representation of sex as collaborative.

However, Polansky points out that more interesting work about sex is being done in independent games. She points to Anna Anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuckme, a video game about the dominant/submissive relationship. “Encyclopedia is a game that requires sensitivity, attention and active exchange between the player and the system to be able to achieve not only a positive, climactic ending, but to explore one’s relationship with physical transgression and power dynamics as elements of kink eroticism” (Polansky, 2013, n.p.)

Overall, these authors agree that video games as a medium can explore complex issues in a revealing way, and this potential should be used to explore sex. Many call for games to explore intimacy, relationships, and a diversity of sexual preferences. And Gallagher and Kryzwinska highlight that sexual imagery may not be the only, nor the best way to explore sexuality in games.

Should and how could we represent, evoke or suppress sex in our game? We want to frame sex work as an issue of labor rights, and focus on the legalities that endanger sex workers, and not on the sex acts that most commonly evoke sexual moralism in the public. However, what does it mean for a representation of sex workers to overlook the exchange between a sex worker and their client? Is there perhaps a way to highlight the relationship and intimacy that can be built between a sex worker and client that might work in favor of the message we are trying to convey? Or is the lesson to be learned from the public’s scorn against sexual games is that incorporating sex confuses the real issues at play?

Prostitution in computer games

Prostitutes are often depicted in video games as minor, non-player characters. These representations are usually negative, associating prostitutes with social ills and perpetuating stereotypes of sex workers as deviant, subservient to male desire, and victims of violence and drugs. Player interactions with sex workers can sometimes lead to a “health boost” or some other form of reward within the game. Prostitutes are therefore represented as objects to be exploited for the player’s personal gain. Often, prostitutes are simply present in virtual worlds to contribute to a seedy atmosphere, meant to convey that a particular environment is crime-ridden. Few video games offer insight into the perspective of sex workers

Prostitutes are repeatedly depicted as victims of violence and drugs. Some games depict them as victims of horrendous murders (Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the RipperHo-Tel), others portray them as drug addicts (Liberal Crime Squad). Sometimes, players are given the option of intervening or allowing for the prostitute to be killed (as in the case of Red Dead RedemptionHeavy Rain). In other games, most famously in Grand Theft Auto, the player is actually given the option of beating up a prostitute for gain within the game.

When prostitutes are characters in the story, as in the case of Gun Showdown or Heavy Rain, the narrative situates them as looking for ways to escape the world of prostitution. Sex work is not depicted as a choice but the product of difficult life circumstances. In both of these games, the prostitutes are attacked and players decide whether to intervene or not. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there is a somewhat positive representation of a prostitute in the character of Mei Suen. She runs a brothel, takes care of her employees, and is clever and strong enough not to succumb to the wills of the criminals that eventually take over her business. However, she can be knocked out or killed by the player.

Ho-Tel, “A Game of Ho’s & Whores”, puts the player in the position of a pimp who must build a sex industry empire. This game explicitly depicts sex workers as objects to be controlled and exploited. Although to have a successful business the player must keep their employees happy, this can done through buying sex workers cocain or allowing them to “suck on your dick”. All other options the player has, such as buying employees “whore clothes” or paying for their plastic surgery, have to do with making sex workers more attractive and therefore more profitable.

Because prostitutes are non-player characters, they are awarded no agency within game play. Prostitutes are never portrayed as empowered subjects but as victims to their profession. Furthermore, interactions between a sex worker and a player are not portrayed as negotiated business transactions. Prostitutes simply succumb to the sexual “desires” of the player at the click of a console.

RESOURCE: Giant Bomb