The duo at Abnormal Mapping, Jackson Tyler and Matthew Marko, recently posted a podcast with guest, Lana Polansky (“Lana From the Block.” Jan 30 2015.). It’s a good long conversation and I encourage you to listen to the whole thing. About an hour into the cast, they turn briefly to the ways games (specifically what they call “retail games”) fail to represent humanness in their abstractions of bodies. To summarize, game bodies are hyper-real and romanticized: violence is sanitized, sex is static and bodily realities are washed out to maintain the power fantasy. This, of course, dovetails neatly with the dehumanized attitudes these games have toward people otherwise: non-playable characters serve the player’s needs, the woman is to be rescued, the barrel-chested white man must save the world, etc. I wrote about this myself, once (“The Gamer’s Dressing Room.” Game Church. Jan 14 2014.), based on a very good article by Kaitlin Tremblay (“Abandonment Issues and Abject Subjectivities in Borderlands 2, Bioshock 2, and Baldur’s Gate, Too.” Medium Difficulty. Jun 1 2013.). Tremblay discusses how three games treat characters as social representations of the abject−necessary but unpleasant realities of the human body−while I respond with the hope that games deal with that more.
Maybe it’s inevitable that fiction dehumanizes characters since characters are not human beings, they’re facsimiles of human beings with a function in a story. In representing them as humans, much must be strategically cut out. Still, the absence of certain human realities speaks to something and I think that Marko, Tyler and Polansky are right to remark on the way games fail human bodies and human interaction.
Although games, as fiction, are supposed to deal in human relationships, they only promise certain connections without delivering on them. In “The Culture Industry,” Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argue that mass-produced culture pacifies the labouring class by keeping them in a state of constant, thoughtless stimulation. The culture industry keeps labourers distracted by promoting escapism into entertainment modelled on industrial labour to legitimize existing political structures. Entertainment is just another shift on the clock for Horkheimer and Adorno: after clocking out on Friday, the good labourer sits down to catch up on focus-test approved TV, film and popular music that, structurally, treat them like line workers back on the factory floor. To think of it contemporaneously, at work one sits all day in a cubicle staring at a screen and in the off hours unwinds by sitting in a dark room staring at a screen. This habituates us to our jobs and prevents us from imagining any form of resistance. Labour in the culture industry is constant; as the labourer produces material goods, the culture industry produces consumers. The cycle keeps the powerful powerful and the labourers, if not content, then docile. The audience is titillated−too much to think about why−and they are drawn into a textual foreplay that forbids them from achieving climax:
The supreme law is that they [the audience/labourer] shall not satisfy their desires at any price; they must laugh and be content with laughter. In every product of the culture industry, the permanent denial imposed by civilization is once again unmistakably demonstrated and inflicted on its victims. To offer and to deprive them of something is one and the same. This is what happens in erotic films. Precisely because it must never take place, everything centers upon copulation. (50)
That passage reminds me of this exchange between Tyler and Polansky about halfway through the podcast on Abnormal Mapping:
Jackson Tyler: “Videogames, especially the big power fantasies, will go in as much as possible to make this big testosterone, masculine power fantasy but you’ll never once see a penis.”
Lana Polansky: “Yeah. You’ll see lots of boobs. Lots and lots and lots of boobs.”
JT: “Mhmm. But you’ll never actually see the thing that everything is implicating.”
LP: “For that matter, you won’t see a vagina for what it’s worth. It’s all very vanilla. It’s all very north of the equator.”
JT: “That comes down to the idea of all this sexual power fantasy in this dehumanized way: as soon as you engage with the realities of [sex], it falls down in a heartbeat.”
LP: “For me a lot of the problems with sexuality in games doesn’t even come down to a lack of visuals; it’s not even about not seeing the sex parts. I figure a lot of that is to not be rated X. A lot of it is that there’s no frank depiction of actual sexual desire or intimacy. Sex is itself is an acquisition of power and it’s always from the same perspective. Always, always. That’s a lot of the problem with sex is that it lacks a human touch.” (1:03:42-1:05:09)
Games idealize a kind of sex that leads up to but never achieves contact. We might see a pair of breasts or the lead up to a kiss but climactic catharsis is withheld. I should remind the reader that the group are talking specifically about “retail games,” which to me means double- and triple-A games which, while as vague as “indie” or “published” art, remain useful terms at least in a broad way. I should also clarify that the casters aren’t trying to argue that incomplete titillation indoctrinates the player as a labourer. But I still think their point resonates with Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s: mass-produced videogames strive to sexually stimulate without completing, that is, humanizing, the interaction.
I remember when HD TV sets were first available for commercial distribution I heard on the radio that porn directors were upset that high-definition revealed the veins, wrinkles, blemishes, etc of their acting staff. Completely by accident, the cinematic machinery betrayed the humanity of sex performers, bringing the performance closer to what sex actually looks like. Pornography, by definition, is filming two people having sex, but I wouldn’t call that sex human because it doesn’t treat the subjects as acting agents negotiating the experience as equals. Porn is sexual stimulation in the absence of other people; porn films don’t have to be entirely dehumanized (and I’m sure that not all of them are), but the expectations of the genre speak to something. Likewise, sex performances in videogames aims to excite players with the possibility of contact without ever demonstrating the bodily reality of sexually relating to another person. My point isn’t that games should feature more pornographic sex, only that they, like porn, have dehumanized the expectations of sex and reduced it to a technical function. Dehumanizing bodies might make them less gross, but it detaches them from human experience.
Horkheimer and Adorno discuss dehumanized art as a kind of brainwashing, and while Marko, Tyler and Polansky aren’t nearly so cynical, I think the threads connect.
Further reading: Ryerson, Liz. “why should i love them?” Ellaguro. Feb 13 2013.
Brice, Mattie. “Dispatch from Arse Elektronika – Some Things Games Can Learn from Sex & Tech.” Alternate Ending. Oct 6 2014.
Barton, Matt. “A Neo-Marxist Perspective on CRPGs?” Matt Chat. Feb 19 2014.