Sex and Violence: Welcome to Adulthood


“You aren’t men. You are stunted adolescents,” said Heather Chaplin during her public excoriation of the gaming industry at a GDC panel. It was the kind of rant meant to garner attention, with its mix of caustic language and references to both high (Fritz Lang) and low (The Clash) culture. It was also, at its heart, an exercise in self pity. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that videogames peddle heavily in male fantasy. If anything, I was glad to hear from her that the trend is showing no signs of abating. Because adolescent male fantasies are responsible for the majority of our great works of entertainment and art.

I think she may have been fooled by the quiet, monastic tones on NPR into believing there’s a group of men who have moved beyond a fascination with sex and violence. Unfortunately, she is ignoring that sex and violence are the very reasons I play videogames and the things I look for in most entertainment. I am not alone in this. Could videogames look at these issues more subtly, in more thematically complex ways and without the same parade of space marines and zombies? Absolutely, and it’s a goal I hope the industry continues to strive toward. But in saying videogames lack any of the things that separate men from boys – responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery – Chaplin reveals her romanticized notions about what actually separates men from boys. It’s true that as I’ve gotten older I’ve grown more intellectually curious, responsible and introspective, but she’s also conveniently ignoring the more prurient aspects of being an adult male.

For one thing, my tolerance for violence has gotten exponentially higher. As a child I would play games like MegaMan and vicariously live through his epic battles with robot bosses. At some point that evolved into a fascination with Street Fighter, and then finally I went and saw a boxing match in person and realized that was the best by far. I remember, even in junior high, feeling slightly ill as I watched two older students slug it out in the hallways, realizing that noses actually break and eyes get blackened. But I cheered for the next one. For most adult men, violence is magnetic. No less a writer than Cormac McCarthy has based a fair amount of his career on the dissection of it.

The other element that drives adult males is sex, and that definitely has nothing to do with responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery. When I was younger I could tell you roughly what I found attractive in girls, but for the most part they were still sort of an abstract concept. Not so, as you get older. The evidence is in the billion dollar adult entertainment industry whose revenues are definitely driven by credit card holders over the age of 18.

What these two examples illustrate is that roughly 30% of my time is actually devoted to responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery. The other 70% is basically consumed by various musings on sex and/or violence. And given how physically oriented both preoccupations are, why the hell wouldn’t I want my videogames to reflect some combination of the two?

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Most videogames I play are a physical experience for me. That’s why I love them: As I roadie run Marcus Fenix from point to point and deftly wield my machine gun, I can feel in my own body the sense of grace and weight the designers have so carefully imbued in my control over him. For me, the experience of playing a videogame is a violent one in the sense that it gets my adrenaline running. I think this is appeal of many videogames for men – they inspire that raw physical reaction that draws them to sex and violence.

Let’s not fool ourselves either, most art is heavily concerned with sex and violence. Sure, Michaelangelo Antonioni made some introspective and highly intellectual movies, but he also lingered on Monica Vitti’s gorgeous face like a stalker who just disabled his ankle bracelet. As a form of music The Blues had some great social commentary, but sexual longing was its dominant preoccupation. Even if we look at photographs, how many of those in our collective conscience are either violent or sex oriented? Think of Ali towering over Liston or Marissa Miller on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Chaplin is in search of a mythical man: an Adam before the apple. She makes it sound like only the developers and their rapt audiences of 14 year olds are enjoying videogames, as if the rest of us are just grinning and bearing it. I wish. Just like I wish a naked picture of a woman wouldn’t cause me to instinctively turn my head. The siren call of sex and violence is too strong for most men to avoid in videogames and for those who grew up with them it’s almost impossible to ignore. Sure, it’s a thematic wasteland, but I can still kill things and maybe see a hot girl, and that alone will hold my attention for a few hours. Armed with that knowledge, the cleverest developers will learn how to innovate within the limitations of sex and violence. Jean Luc Godard once said “All it takes for a movie is a gun and girl.” With that simple dictum Godard kick started the French New Wave film movement. By the same token, it might be said that all it takes for a videogame is an adolescent and his fantasy. I can only guess at the amazing places videogames can go from there.

Tom Endo thinks there’s plenty of violence in games, but he is still looking for the sex. May he never find it.

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