Bodies (and Sex) That Matter: Keywords Follow-Up

by Edmond Chang, Merritt Kopas, and Jennifer  LeMesurier

Many thanks to everyone that attended and contributed to the second Keywords session of Winter Quarter on “bodies/sex” and games.

The framing questions for the session reveal the varied, overlapping, and sometimes incommensurate ways that talking about “bodies” and “sex” are never simple, additive, or easy.  But, the messiness of the conversation is indicative of the ways that many games fail to address and articulate this complexity.  We opened the session thinking about the differences between the terms “body” and “sex,” thinking about the representations of bodies on the screen, and thinking about what it means to play a video game as an embodied experience.




We started with the ostensibly simple game QWOP, where you “play” a 100-meter runner at the Olympic Games (it is interesting to note the avatar’s racialized, athletic body).  QWOP revealed the difficulties of even portraying “natural” or “real” movement, programming the mechanics of movement, and the necessity to abstract and automate the ways bodies move.  Games like QWOP highlight the difference between purposeful and non-purposeful abstraction of bodily movement and action and the high degree of accepted abstraction in most games  We meditated on the logics of embodiment in a medium that all too often stresses disembodiment—how avatars move onscreen, how they are (dis)connected to and from the player (via a cord, vibrating controller, or motion-tracking technology), and the representation of and metrics for things like encumbrance, fatigue, wounds, disease, disability, even death.  Often games which are considered simulations and advertise their “realism” and detail abstract the body the most.  For example, in the ostensibly open world game Skyrim, your character does not need to eat or sleep–the body is an inexhaustible vessel with total freedom of movement.  It is this freedom of moment that Samantha Allen, a trans* contributor to the Border House blog, critiques, saying, “I’ll confess that I seem to enjoy the rampant freedom of open world games just as much as anybody.  But, for cisgender gamers, the supreme motility of open world games often functions as an exaggeration of a freedom of movement that they may already enjoy in the physical spaces of non-game worlds.”

One of the most important entry points for our discussion was gender—how do we map gender onto bodies in video games.  What do we do with (in)congruence between gendered avatars and our “real life” gender performances and embodiments?  What do we do with games that offer ambiguous, androgynous, or even nonhuman bodies?  Do we still gender game avatars, narratives, and actions even when there is no obvious gender involved (e.g. geometric sprites)?  We also discussed the potential queerness of playing a character or avatar not your sex assigned at birth or not your gender identification.  We attempted to trouble and complicate the instrumental and usual observation that most female avatars are played by normative men to gain social advantage (e.g. studies have shown that female “toons” are more often trusted and given help regardless of the user’s gender) or some scopic advantage.

There was discussion about how first person versus third person (or even no person) changes the displayed body—such as seeing the avatar’s hands, a whole avatar, permitted camera angles, shifts of perspective from different characters, and so on.  It was ntoed that first-person games work to elide or hide the body, assuming identification or player-protagonist incorporation, with the ostensible goal of allowing player self-insertion into the gamespace but with the result of reproducing assumptions about which kinds of bodies (get to) participate in certain kinds of action.  This led to questioning the divide between the displayed body and the “controlling” body—the player’s body—both in RPGs and also in less narrative driven games.  How might games show or enact a player’s conception of their own body and their bodily capabilities in relation, contrast, and opposition to the bodies proffered on the screen.  The range of types of displayed bodies led to considering whether or not the visualization of bodies in games should be the main focus in body-related discussions or if the conversation should shift to a less “ocular-centric” frame of understanding, one that prioritizes what the playing body understands through other senses  Does the “fantasy of disembodiment” common to gaming (and other digital productions) overprivilege a disengagement with the body, with our bodies, with other peoples’ bodies?

From there we moved to the term “sex” and to thinking about ways that certain bodies, certain bodily actions and behaviors, and certain embodiments and identities are stereotyped, ignored, or even policed by games.  Genders, desires, abilities, and practices that deviate too far from the norms of the game, the game world and design, the game industry, and the gaming culture at large are usually limited at the very least and racist, sexist, and phobic at the worst.  We looked at indie and queer representations of bodies, sexuality, and sex, such as Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia or Stephen Lavelle’s Striptease.  We considered ways to queer readings and playings of everyday and mainstream games beyond simply looking for token homosexual plotlines and romances.  It was interesting to note that dealing with the body in formats and genres that are less obviously immersive and “realistic” than simulation games can evoke more of an embodied response due to the deliberate nature of the abstraction involved.

Finally, we ended the session with a discussion of sex in games—the act of sex, the refusal of sex, video games as pornography, and video games as erotic.  In general, much like the reductive discussions of violence in video games, sex in/and video games often elicit the same hackneyed sanitizations and knee-jerk condemnations.   There is a shying away from incorporating sexuality into game mechanics.  Ironically enough, sex is often a moment of disengagement from the body within a game.  There is the Hayes Code response of fade to black or there is the move to innuendo.  When sex is included in actual play, it is often reduced to the same kinds of logic that dominates the rest of the game: building up a gauge, scoring points, playing a rhythm mini-game.  Worst yet, sex gets collapsed into violence and patriarchal, masculinist spectacle.  How might we think about how to incorporate sex in playful, positive, thoughtful ways?  How might we develop and deploy what Lana Polansky, writer of “Pushing Buttons: Let’s Talk about Sex (and Video Games),” hopes for, that there can be a “sensual connection between the player and the system of the game.  A game can elicit the erotic in a very real, very human sense without ever needing to rely on titillating camera shots. It suggests that there can be a physical and emotional dialogue that the player has with a game (and perhaps, other players) that can allow the player to get lost in a state of passion, ecstasy, intimacy…”

All in all, the session’s discussion was—dare we say—revealing and stimulating.  Thank you once again for everyone’s continued interest and attendance.  Our next session will not be till the beginning of Spring Quarter with “Close/Distant” on Thursday, April 4.

Moreover, the Keywords group is hosting THATCamp Epic Play, May 24-25, 2013, an unconference and year-end colloquium.  Building on previous years’ colloquia, this year’s THATCamp, broadly themed by the keyword “EPIC,” is the capstone event to a year-long series of workshop sessions on violence, history, fantasy, bodies/sex, and close/distant.  THATCamp Epic Play hopes to foster the growing engagement with what it means to study or make or play games.  For more information and registration:

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