I’ve never been to a strip club. The right mixture of snobbery, overthinking, and neurosis has generally kept me away from the poles, strangers, and dance routines that (I’m guessing) occur within. Maybe I’ve just been a coward. I don’t know.

While I worked my way through all these digital skin joints, a handful of questions sprang to mind. The most prominent of them was pretty simple: Why am I here?

I am a videogame player, though, and as such I’ve had plenty of opportunities to virtually explore games’ takes on these sexual havens. The likes of Duke Nukem Forever, Grand Theft Auto 4, Mass Effect 2, Saints Row, and many others have opened the entry doors to those strobe-lighted arenas over the last few years.

DNF‘s journey to the club is a dick-led machismo fantasy (literally) in which our titular hero must quest through “Duke Nukem’s Titty City” in search of such items as a condom, a vibrator, and a bag of popcorn in the hopes of receiving a particularly arousing lapdance. GTA 4 features two clubs, Honkers and The Triangle Club, both of which allow protagonist Niko to get up close and personal with one aspect of Rockstar’s skewered vision of The American Dream. The Saints Row games have a variety of clubs, most of which feature dudes and gang members congregating around the live dancers and their breasts. Mass Effect 2 has blue-boobied sensual dancers in space. There are countless others. You get the idea.

While I worked my way through all these digital skin joints, a handful of questions sprang to mind. The most prominent of them was pretty simple: Why am I here? As is often the case with some of the things we do in videogames, it’s a seldom asked yet nonetheless important thing to think about.

Why am I taking this Eastern European immigrant to get double teamed in the back of some club in New Jersey when there are corrupt mobsters to stop? Why does Commander Shepard, the hero who’s on an apparently urgent mission to save the galaxy from oncoming annihilation, feel the need to take a break to catch some erotic asari dancing? And what the hell does popcorn have to do with satisfying a stripper?

Well, the obvious answer is that I do it just because they’re there, and just because I can. Going to a strip club in a game functions in much the same way shooting or running over a NPC does: It’s something people do in reality even though common societal pressures typically tell them not to. That’s probably not fair to those who just want to enjoy a good dance every now and then,, but the fact that all the dancers and poles are pixilated naturally makes them less real, and thus alleviates much of the stigma that would be found if you were to attend a virtual club’s real-world counterpart. This is pretty normal.

It’s not that strip clubs are inherently evil – they’re a legitimate business, they’re definitely nothing like shooting or running over someone, and lord knows plenty of adults of all kinds have a good time attending them. There’s nothing really wrong with all that.

But it’s not outrageous to say that they’re still the kinds of places we’re discouraged from going. There’s a reason professional sports teams add stipulations to certain players’ contracts that state that they must avoid them entirely. There’s a reason that we don’t exactly tell our kids about the awesome times they can look forward to at the “titty bar” when they get older. And there’s a reason those who cling to possibly foolish moral absolutes, like myself at times, gasp at the very thought of one. Justified or not, strip clubs are still something of a social taboo. They’re like a lesser form of pornography – a type of instant sexual gratification. You pay to see the boobs and bulges, you get the boobs and bulges, and you go home satisfied. It’s usually a good time, I’d imagine.

In a videogame, though, that whole social dynamic disappears. Games often give you control of their worlds, as we know, and as such there are no societal standards to look down on your ogling when everything’s digital and make believe. It’s like a guilty pleasure. You’re extra safe there.

When we take Niko to downtown Alderney and hit up Honkers for a backroom dance, we probably should ask ourselves who exactly we’re trying to “get off.”

And although there may be more pressing matters to attend to in a given game – like the Commander Shepard’s strip club pit stop example mentioned above – the fact that these taboos are now readily available for you to vicariously visit makes them all the more alluring. For someone like me who doesn’t frequent the real clubs, they become near inescapable. They may not be entirely accurate representations of actual strip joints, but they’re a special form of escapism in that they let you walk into a real place that can sometimes seem just out of reach. I find myself jumping at them whenever I get the chance.

And it definitely is me that is hitting up these clubs, not just Commander Shepard, or Niko, or Duke. Questions of agency aren’t anything new to games discussion, but in the case of strip clubs in gaming, the blurred lines between player and character become both particularly intriguing and slightly awkward.

So let’s dive deeper into why the videogame strip club often feels so enticing. If we can agree that one of the more prominent end goals of visiting a strip club is sexual arousal and visual stimulation – or “to celebrate the beauty of the human body,” if you want to be romantic – and if we can agree that a big part of the reason videogame strip clubs are so enticing is the fact that they let us, the players, go places we can’t always frolic through in reality, then the possible effects of our digital club attendance may be a bit stranger than initially thought. In other words, when we take Niko to downtown Alderney and hit up Honkers for a backroom dance, we probably should ask ourselves who exactly we’re trying to “get off.”

Sounds weird, right? “Of course it’s Niko we’re pleasing,” we may think, “it’s his world and his dance.” But since we’re the ones instructing our characters to hang around these clubs, and since we’re partially attending them in order to partake in an actual social taboo, maybe we’re the ones looking for stimulation in the end.

Who is a controllable videogame character if not someone onto whom we can project ourselves? The character needs someone to control it, and we need someone to act through. By inhibiting this virtual person, we often conflate the motives and needs of the character with those of ourselves, since we’ll always be linked through the simple act of playing. By taking this whole mess to the strip club, we satisfy some of those more intimate (read: sexual) needs of everyone involved. It’s all a murky line between who’s doing what for whom being created here. And it makes me feel dirty.

But I do it anyway, because sexual-ish needs are still needs. And while I may not be using virtual strip clubs as a true substitute for the real thing, they’ll always be an easier way to access the kind of attractions these places provide, digital or not. That doesn’t mean I’ll be furiously masturbating every time I hit square to accept a “special escort mission” – more power to whoever does, though – but it does mean that I, and anyone else who frequents the fake strip joints, should be real with ourselves.

If we’re going to hit up these clubs, even if we do so through role-playing, then we might as well acknowledge that we’re sometimes getting some visual satisfaction out of them, too. We’re at a point where games can be sexy, at least when they’re done the right way, so let’s embrace it when we see it.

Sure, they should be more diverse, and the frequency with which sex and violence are tied together through strip club shootouts can be troubling, but the virtual club is one example of a videogame’s reality translating relief, excitement, and yes, a little bit of satisfaction into actual reality. In that way, they’re liberating. You just have to let go first.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He genuinely thinks Striptease wasn’t all that bad of a film. Follow him on Twitter for free lapdances.

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