In my Sonic Unleashed retrospective review, I droned on for a bit about how over the last few years, I grew up and started to see things differently — started to see how my previous views on some things were either too simplistic or, in this case, far too holier-than-thou… which is ironic, as I’m an atheist.
One-and-a-half of those reading this may remember an old rant video, which I made back when I was into that sort of thing on YouTube, a rant that raged about over-the-top sex appeal in videogames. I find myself in the awkward position of declaring yet another retraction, for the second article in a row… I am, honestly, no longer even slightly bugged by this aspect of videogames. No, seriously. I really couldn’t care less. I bet you clicked on this article expecting some scholarly dissertation on how game companies are whoring themselves out by exploiting the lowest common denominator with their hyper-emphasis on cleavage, fetish gear, and Team Ninja jiggle physics.
Surprise! This article swings for the other team.
“But Solaris, O great sage and eminent orange soda junkie,” I hear you cry, “what in the holy name of cowpatties does this have to do with SEGA?”
Bayonetta, wise guy. Now sit down and shut up.
I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, though—I haven’t just given up and joined the droolers who only bought SoulCalibur IV because of how spectacularly Ivy’s top vomits on the laws of physics. Believe it or not, I actually do have a valid intellectual reason for this change of heart: at some point, I asked myself why this kind of thing is somehow bad, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. At least, not an answer that I couldn’t think of a good defense against.
There are, as a rule of thumb, three kinds of people who lash out at sex appeal in games. There are the prudes, who tend to exist outside of the gaming community more often than within it (example: Fox News… ‘nuff said). There are those—whether male or female themselves—who focus less on the sex appeal itself than what they perceive as a negative impact on women in our society… in other words, those channeling feminist ideals into their views on gaming. Then there are people like, well… me: people who at some point and for some reason decided that “standards” were more important than the logic behind the standards.
I don’t mean to boil things down to such basic ideas, though. Most people, I find, have some more complex mixture of ideas behind their views, and this is no exception. I was mostly Exhibit C, but I was also a bit of Exhibit B and, for a time when I was even younger and less world-wise than I am now (which is hard to imagine, actually), I was quite a bit of Exhibit A.
Oh, but now I need to bust out the ol’ fire extinguisher, because I get the feeling my little three-kinds-of-people speech just now offended all three of those types of people. In truth, the only people I intend to insult are the prudes. And that’s just me being spiteful because I can. I don’t mean to suggest that feminism or standards are, in and of themselves, bad things—I simply feel that in this case (both with regards to gaming and other forms of media), they are being mis-applied.
“But Solaris, O great sage and eminent Coca-Cola smoker,” you sigh, shaking your head in disappointment. “Do you really intend to suggest that the oversexifying of female characters does not have a negative impact on women in our society?”
Well, uh… yeah, actually. But this is going to take some explaining. You see, readers, I know the usual arguments well enough: overemphasizing this view of “sexy” puts too much pressure on women to conform to a certain standard, overemphasizing the idea of women as sex objects has a negative impact on how much respect men have for them as people, et cetera and so on and all that jazz. My problem is that none of these issues are actually about the sex appeal itself: they’re about the people who view it. It is perfectly possible for free-thinking men and women to play, watch, and enjoy these same “oversexified” media without any of the feared social problems occurring, and do you know why? Because all of these things are completely dependent on the maturity, intelligence, and worldviews of the person experiencing the media.
So, what, do we ban Rocky Road ice cream because a sizable chunk of our population never learned the definition of the word “moderation?” No. And I see no more reason to demonize sex appeal because a significant portion of our society is, for some reason or another, not mature enough for that “M” rating (or even the “T” one). Both maladies are curable via the same remedy: fix the brain behind the eyes, dammit. Instead of working to censor or demonize media that can potentially aggravate an existing problem with society, why not focus on mitigating the problem itself? I mean, I know it’s harder to have those oh-so-embarrassing heart-to-hearts with your kid when they hit puberty, but this is the root of a lot of societal issues. In this case as well as others, people are placing the blame on media rather than the people responsible for taking the ideas media presents and putting it into a mature and intelligent context.
An example of a mature and intelligent context? “The female form is a lovely thing. It is pleasing to look at. I enjoy looking at pleasing things. Is this particular portrayal unrealistic? YES, IT’S UNREALISTIC.” And that is all it takes to place sex appeal in a context that keeps one’s perception of the real world and society intact. And it’s almost identical to the line of reasoning that any vaguely intelligent person follows to determine that the wand-waving prestidigitation of the Harry Potter series is a case of fictional fun time and, ahem, not something you should be trying at home. It’s a very basic fact-and-fiction mentality that anyone should be capable of. Even if the subject matter isn’t as fanciful, making such logic a societal norm can’t be that hard!
“Alrighty, Solaris, O awesome sage and eminent Orange Sodaholics Anonymous flunkie,” you say. “You’ve said your bit about that, but what was that about my standards being bull?”
…To which I say, that’s not what I said. Standards are a good thing, because quality is a good thing. The only reason anyone ever makes a quality product is because people want a quality product, and that’s standards in seedshell. Giving up standards means giving up quality. But in this case, I have one simple problem with the way people view sex appeal in terms of standards: people tend to operate under the assumption that sex appeal is, in and of itself, an aspect of lesser quality. In fact, sex appeal is a victim of circumstance — it is entirely possible for a genuinely great game, such as Bayonetta, to verily explode with oversexification, while games that are complete and utter crap (Exhibit B in this case would be X-Blades, tho’ you’re free to insert any poorly-designed oogle-fest you like) are just as amorous. Sex appeal isn’t an aspect of lesser quality; it just happens to be easy to exploit regardless of quality.
It’s not unlike a licensed game based on a really good movie. Maybe the game is good. If so, more power to Electronic Arts; they managed not to suck this time! Maybe the game is bad, though. Is this the fault of Harry Potter? No. Is the blame then on licensed games in general? No. It’s because EA decided they were going to fail at life that day. Blaming Harry Potter for the failure of a licensed game that happens to include him would be silly. Following that logic, blaming overexcited jiggle physics and oversized mammaries for the bad game design that accompanies them is a classic case of missing the point. Don’t hate the sex appeal for how exploitable it is — hate the games that exploit it. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
There’s another side of the “standards” issue that boils my bladder, though, and mostly it boils it because I once thought this way myself. This side involves the idea that people who indulge in sex appeal or prioritize it in any way are lacking in standards. This is so snobbish that I can’t help but shake my head in dismay even thinking about it. “Standards” are about quality, not about the subject matter that entertains a person. Someone who enjoys television more than reading doesn’t necessarily lack taste. Someone who would rather listen to rock music than classical music doesn’t lack taste. Someone who would rather play a videogame than watch a movie doesn’t lack taste. Why, then, is someone who includes sex appeal in their list of gaming preferences automatically doing so in poor taste? It’s not a matter of “taste” or “standards” — it’s a matter of seeing something that isn’t for you and looking at it as “beneath” you.
There is a related point that should be addressed, here: much of this is aggravated by the perception that the people who buy games (or movies, or whatever) for the eye candy are immature or vulgar. Actually, it’s reversed: immature and vulgar people tend to gravitate toward this sort of thing. Once again, sex appeal itself is a misunderstood victim of circumstance.
Even having said all this, there is one point I made back in the day that I still at least partly defend: the portrayal of women as characters. I no longer feel any annoyance at the way women look in my games, but the way they act is another matter entirely. This isn’t even about sex appeal, though; Devil May Cry 4’s Kyrie would still be a squeaky little damsel in distress even if she wasn’t positively overflowing into her own dress. The problem with oversexified characters that are written poorly isn’t that they’re oversexified, it’s that they’re written poorly. Can sex appeal be used in interesting ways? Of course it can! The exaggerated “we’re pushing the envelope and laughing our own pants off as we do it” nature of Bayonetta even qualifies as some proof of that, and that’s before we even touch on using it as a theme all its own, the way Atlus does in the recently-released Catherine.
The funny thing is, I get the sense that a lot of people who badmouth sex appeal in gaming are actually thinking along the same lines as this article, and just wording it poorly. I think the difference is important enough that we — as the gaming community, and as a society in general — need to acknowledge it clearly. And not just for the sake of not being snobs about the games we play, either. I think that placing more emphasis on this distinction may just have a positive impact on the way society thinks in general.
I mean, will someone please think of the children? And not assume they’re all brain-dead morons incapable of independent thought? I think that would be a decent starting point for fixing almost every problem our society has, actually…
The above article was originally posted to SEGA HD on August 9, 2011.