In 2010 stand up comedian Dara O’Briain said, “I love videogames… I enjoy saying that because half of the room are looking at me, going, ‘Ah Jesus, you’re 38.’…It’s less embarrassing if I say ‘I masturbate to hardcore pornography’.”
It wasn’t the first time videogames and pornography were lumped together. In 2008 GamesRadar reported that psychiatrist Dr Jerald Block said that people feel more shame about playing World of Warcraft than having a porn problem. Dr Philip G. Zimbardo, leader of the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, got a slot on CNN in 2011 to say that the ‘demise of guys’ will be video game and porn addiction. “Young men — who play video games and use porn the most — are being digitally rewired in a totally new way that demands constant stimulation. And those delicate, developing brains are being catered to by video games and porn-on-demand, with a click of the mouse, in endless variety,” he explained.
Why are two intrinsically different mediums like games and pornography so often compared to each other? I decided to ask James Deen [official website], performer in and maker of fine adult entertainment, what he thought about games, and if we have a responsibility to hold off on the ‘constant stimulation’. Disclosure: I have a vested interest in the answer being no, and so does he.
There are biases at play that inform my choice, of course. I am a fan of James Deen’s work: he is cute, unassuming, amiable, smart, a man who looks like he’d be shy if you bought him a drink in a bar, he’s hot and he seems like he knows what he’s doing with a woman’s body. He’s been working in adult entertainment, colloquially known as ‘porn’ since 2004. I am aware of my responsibilities as a feminist, and because of this I know he made a rape joke on Twitter in 2012 that I didn’t personally think was funny, though I am sure he doesn’t need me to, and as far as I know he didn’t apologise. But James Deen first really came to my attention in 2014 when he made an educational video with Stoya and other adult entertainment professionals for the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee: ‘Porn 101’ is about consent and boundaries.
James Deen doesn’t play many video games, I suspect because he is too busy having a lot of sex all day on camera for a decent amount of money. Compounding this obstacle is that I have called him early in the morning on a bad line. I open by asking him if he’s ever played a video game with sex in it.
“The closest thing to something like that I’ve ever got was Dead Or Alive Ultimate,” he says, “Where there’s one girl who runs at people’s face and like, straddles their heads, and then swings them around and then throws them on the floor. But it’s not really sex. …I don’t really find that much sexual about it, at all.”
I ask him if Dead Or Alive gets the boobs correct. “I don’t know if they got boobs correctly… They got cartoon boobs correctly? They’re a caricature of real life. I see no reason for or against this. I don’t see it as a direct copy of real life.”
Part of me wonders whether Dead or Alive’s titillation, for a heterosexual man in adult entertainment who can look at and have sex with a variety of pretty naked woman every single day, is silly and pointless, but I’m aware that even though for five years of my life I was in a stable, satisfying sexual relationship, I still watched Thelma and Louise for Brad Pitt’s corrugated chest.
And besides, what I quickly become aware of is Deen’s wariness of labels. He, like most people in video games, is extremely sensitive about categorisation, and I note early on that he uses ‘adult entertainment’ entirely in place of ‘porn’, which is probably a label he has as much reason to be suspicious of as I have ‘girl gamer’. Depending on who is using the label, it can have edges, and Deen has probably spent much of his life having people attempt to use it to have his work devalued.
Deen is also interestingly prickly about suggesting adult entertainment might have any educational remit. I say Robert Yang’s game Hurt Me Plenty makes a game of trust and consent, but perhaps he misconstrues that as being an educational game rather than something I think is entertainment.
“I think you can create entertaining educational tools, and I think that is fine,” he says, “but creating video games for the sole purpose of entertainment…” He is sure that there is a responsibility for things to be discussed in the right terms, but he concludes, “You wouldn’t learn to drive by watching the Fast and the Furious, and you can go see it with someone who would tell you why it’s not okay to drive like that.”
“Exclusively looking for entertainment for education I think is wrong,” he states flat out, and I agree.
I think we’re coming up against (if you will excuse me) similar things here with regard to games and adult entertainment: there’s not enough good sex education out there, and there’s too much shame and humiliation around approaching sex like it might be important, or even essential to the wellbeing of a majority of humans to discuss it openly. Adult entertainment is consumed often in secret, and there’s a lot of shame around the consumption of it that I don’t think is fair. But Deen’s firm stance prompts the thought: If we are putting sex as play into games that are meant to be entertainment, for example, that’s okay, but how can we know what attitudes to form around it unless we understand the realities of it outside of our entertainment?
“Healthy BDSM, consensual behaviour…” James Deen says, “I think the ability to condition people to behave like that through entertainment is a wonderful thing, so I do think it’s a wonderful idea… Unless it violates the essential narrative of what you are trying to create, you know. …But if that video game was about super rough sex or a forced sex fantasy, that wouldn’t apply: it would ruin the artistic merit of it. It’s the artist’s choice, it’s up to them.”
Unless it violates the essential narrative of what you are trying to create.
So: If the point of the narrative is the rape fantasy, that’s being upfront. From what I can interpret, it seems like Deen believes that’s being honest with your work, your art. But I’m troubled by the thought that if a work isn’t essentially about a rape fantasy, and you just throw one in as a lazy plot device, and it doesn’t actually serve narrative, a fantasy: then that’s what ends up ‘violating the essential narrative’: it breaks what you set out to create by being incongruous.
Grappling with taboos, I suspect, is something that Deen has become an expert on, among other things. “It’s entertainment, it’s not education,” he continues. “We need to understand that just because it is uncomfortable to talk about, doesn’t mean you can just not do it… or you can point people to a different direction to do it for you.” I think again Deen is talking about artistic choice: you can either address the topic you want to, or look to others who might be capable of addressing the topic well for you.
Because it seems that this is the subtext of our conversation, I ask him if he thinks that adult entertainment is unfairly asked to be an educational tool. “I absolutely think that,” he says, plainly. “I think that on a regular basis. Some people look to adult entertainment as sexual education when it is certainly not. It is sexual entertainment. People will give their children adult magazines. …I definitely see the adult industry being looked to for education. Adult entertainment: It’s entertainment made for adults.”
“Do you think that adult entertainment can be art?” I ask him.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he says. “The beauty of art is that no one gets to decide what art is. It’s a completely subjective medium. I can’t decide, you can’t decide. Anyone can’t decide. The artist themselves are the ones able to say whether it is art.”
It’s a completely subjective medium.
Perhaps I’d stay more on the beauty is in the eye of the beholder end of ‘the artist decides’, but I’d say maybe James Deen’s solved games journalism.
Would you make a James Deen video game? I ask. “I’d be cool, I’d be down with it,” he says.
Games And Pornography
I return to the Porn 101 video I embedded above. My personal stance on porn and the consumption of porn is complicated. It is rooted in ideas of safety, respect of personal boundaries, informed choice. Before our call, James’ representative informs me that James Deen does not identify as a feminist, though from reading his interviews he holds some of what what I would count as feminist beliefs. There could be many reasons for not identifying as a feminist, including that some women believe that the term should only belong to women, though men can hold feminist beliefs.
When you consume someone’s creative work you make informed personal choices about what you think might make you feel bad, and what might have been produced in an unethical manner when you partake of everything in the world. This also applies to video games. It applies to everything. You have to constantly revise your world view.
When I watch James Deen fucking a woman who is crying I make a choice to think that if it is okay with the performers it is okay with me, and Porn 101 was part of my realising that. But I make these little choices every day with everything I consume: is it okay with me that James Bond is sexist? Yes, I have made my peace with it, I still like the movies. Is it okay that HBO’s Game of Thrones put a pointless rape scene in? It was a bad narrative choice for me but I am lucky in that it didn’t hurt me or distress me.
But I don’t ever underestimate myself. I keep making the choices, and I respect, support and discuss these issues with others who choose not to consume something because it makes them feel bad. I don’t want to force people to live in a world where they have to constantly see things that make them feel bad in something that is meant to be entertainment, something that is supposed to be for pleasure, and I think part of my job as a critic is to acknowledge when something might make people feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I am aware of the audiences I exclude when I say I like something that embodies toxic attitudes. If you don’t want to watch porn where a woman is crying, I understand. I will try to explore the issue intelligently so that you can make an informed choice about whether to consume it or not. You should be able to make the choice from what I write.
If you feel comfortable when you are playing a video game with violent sexual themes or attitudes in it, and you are an adult, I am happy for you. I am happy for the great number of hours that adult me has spent consuming all the things in the world that thirteen-year-old me would be horrified at. I just want everyone to have a good time.
I feel like James Deen wants everyone to have a good time.
When it comes to having a good time, both pornography and video games are entertainment where their popularity depends upon the constant bodily stimulation of the ‘player’ – but part of the reason I think that people are so reluctant to call both ‘art’ is because these stimulations are still seen as base or unnecessary. Porn is supposed to turn you on, to focus your mind so that you can get off. Games are supposed to require input and response, often to on-screen conflicts or puzzles, they are about resolving conflict usually, or completing high-pressure tasks. The constant stimulation that you gain from both media can often have an addictive quality, but interestingly, this Illinois Institute For Addiction Recovery has a video game addiction section and no pornography addiction section (though there is a broad one for ‘internet addiction’. There’s even this quite humorous breakdown on their website of the ‘warning signs’ of ‘video game addiction’ where they have capitalised ‘game’ as if it is some sort of dystopic drug:
What are the warning signs of video game addiction?
– Preoccupation with the Game. (Thoughts about previous on-line activity or anticipation of the next on-line session.)
– Use of the Game in increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction.
– Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Game use.
– Feelings of restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down use of the Game.
– Gaming longer than originally intended.
– Jeopardized or risked loss of significant relationships, job, educational or career opportunities because of Game use.
– Lies to family members, friends, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Game.
– Use of the Game is a way to escape from problems or to relieve a dysphoric mood. (e.g. feelings of hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, depression.)
Use of the Game in increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction is the most interesting symptom: there have been times in my life in which I am sure that I used games as a distraction from my other failings, and I have had many friends who say the same of pornography. But the aforementioned Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan in the ‘Demise of Guys’ claim there are other similarities between porn and games, ‘novelty’:
“Video game and porn addictions are different. They are “arousal addictions,” where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content. Sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement. In traditional drug arousal, conversely, addicts want more of the same cocaine or heroin or favorite food.”
Aside from the fact they are ignoring that drug users sometimes seek greater highs than the last, I am not sure I see much wrong with seeking novelty? In other arenas this is praised or seen as healthy, for example: thrill seeking hobbies, travelling, trying new foods, switching jobs.
Richard Lemarchard, ex-Naughty Dog designer and now Professor at USC once gave a talk about the psychology of attention in video games, and he noticed that games rely very heavily on attention – Starcraft players call it the “Third Resource” – you can ‘steal’ attention from other players. If the sensory footprint of the new information is small or weak, we stop being vigilant towards what we are looking at or doing. He notices that when your vigilance fatigue kicks in, games are good at countering that with periods of low stress or pastoral scenes like in Skyrim. And this is what movie makers call ‘pacing’.
Pornography, or adult entertainment, has pacing too. You don’t just start the heck out with ass eating or five at once. (Well sometimes you do, but maybe you’re wasting your Third Resource.)
Lemarchand cites Warren Skaaren’s Top Gun (my favourite) ‘intensity graph’ of the movie:
The cycles of ‘intensity’ are very finely tuned to have the viewer pay maximum attention via low stimulation and high stimulation scenes. (I am odd in that the locker room scenes are actually high stim for me.)
So, can you become addicted to movies? If you can become addicted to ‘internet’ like the Illinois Institute For Addiction Recovery says, can’t we become addicted to everything that gives us instant novelty? Really, like Lemarchand seems to imply, all we are doing is using what we know about human psychology to keep attention. This can be done in real life, and in our entertainment. Too much excitement at a party? Go outside for a cigarette, or a walk. Too much sex? Fall asleep. It’s not the ‘Demise Of Guys’. I don’t think it’s gendered at all: people who are not guys are also perfectly susceptible to being distracted by high stimulation things.
However I admit I do find myself conflicted the more that games take influence from adult entertainment: recently my friend Patricia Hernandez investigated the people who make brutal video game porn, and though really the material these people are making is a very extreme fanfiction that makes me feel quite queasy and upset, what is interesting about their work is that they are using characters from video games and television without explicit ‘consent’. Hernandez’s final paragraph also implies (I think) game makers have some responsibility in the objectification of their characters – i.e. ‘Hey, if you’re going to imply this situation of peril is sexy, this is what is going to happen’. In any case, if this extreme stuff is going on in my back yard, I’m glad some investigative journalists are around to tell me about it.
As for what pornography could take from video games, there’s always this. “Jimmyjane, on the other hand, has the opportunity to “evolve more quickly than the penis or the vagina.”
Thank you for your time, Mr Deen. I will try not to drunk call you outside bars to chat about Dead Or Alive.
This is the last S.EXE! I am taking a break from writing about video games to do other things to video games. Thank you so much for all your intelligent discussion, pun runs, and pervy jokes throughout the series. Some of the issues I tackled were very difficult, some of them were about Skyrim dongs, and some of them were merely about Peter Molyneux hugging David Bowie without touching hips. But thank you for coming along with me. You can keep updated on my work here, if you’re interested. I’ve also asked RPS if we can issue an ebook of all the S.EXE columns, so we’ll keep you informed about that. Love to you, RPS. I will miss you.
The previous S.EXE columns are here.