The recent controversy surrounding Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 has been fully detailed in the press and has already made its rounds with the pundits. The constant cries regarding censorship and control are not only appropriate, but also topical regarding the whole situation as the push and pull between groups centers around the issue of what is appropriate all together. However, I feel that there is a missing component to this whole discussion that no one is really tackling: the value of DOAX in the gaming community.
DOAX is really an unusual relic. A game that is designed to be a thinly veiled volleyball title, when the main attraction in the end are seeing favorite female characters from the Dead or Alive series in thin bikinis and suggestive poses. It doesn’t try to hide what it is, cheap thrills, and proudly holds up that mantra along the lines of other sex-charged adult video games, such as Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed, HuniePop, and pornographic text-adventure games.
All of the titles above are arguably not the highest of quality or taste, but to deny sex as part of the gaming industry is a gross mistake. After all, movies have z-grade cinema, popularized by their ametuer production values that will never be mainstream. The music scene has independent bands of varying degrees which will never reach the heights of U2 popularity. For both of these artistic mediums, the quality of their work is questioned, but done so in a shared space of its peers. DOAX should be no exception, but what makes DOAX different from the other titles today is the refusal of the parent company, Koei-Tecmo, giving the game release outside of Asia.
This is not the only case of this happening. The recent hubbub over Xenoblade Chronicles X altering the bikini costumes on an underage player character and removing the bust-size slider from their character creation menu has been decreed as being egregious destruction of the game itself by some ardent fans. Even the possibility of Capcom changing camera angles in Street Fighter V has raised some eyebrows regarding the portrayal of some characters.
These type of reactions are increasing as many gamers seem to be confronted with companies being overly cautious regarding what can be perceived as sexual content. That is not to say the reactions are wrong, but rather it is arguable they are misguided in their anger.
I am reminded of a very old Extra Credits video done back in 2007 (and since then remade in 2012) before it was a whole series found on YouTube, which talked about sex and sexuality and how it needs to grow to give the entire medium legitimacy. The essential thesis is that gaming’s portrayal of sexuality in the mid 2000s was shallow at best and could be improved. To quote James Portnow from the video:
How can you have an art that denies sexuality? We lose everything from American Beauty to The Graduate, from Elvis to Nirvana, from Picasso to Degas. The key is to recognizing that exploring sexuality is a small but essential part of our development as an artform. Many of humanity’s most profound insights into our nature, and the nature of the world, have stemmed from an exploration of that strange mix of the most noble and the most primal: sexuality.
Since Extra Credits is, at best, an idealistic take on what video games and the gaming community can be, this quote is only really a springboard into something different when it comes to sexuality in video games; what sexuality actually means is not just physical pandering, but a showcase of relationships and intimacy. In that department, video games have made great strides in providing the alternative to sex as a physical object or selling point; sex is now part of the whole context of video games.
This is something we are probably well aware of. The romances featured in big budget role-playing games such as Mass Effect or The Witcher; the exploration of relationships between couples and people in interactive games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead; or even the subtle or more overt hints of sexuality found in Persona 4 or Bayonetta all showcase that movement towards a more credible artform. In 2007, Extra Credits was rallying against critics outside of the gaming sphere who would, and have, harshly judged sexual content in the medium. In 2015, that criticism is now cannibalizing on itself into a new direction.
Many have argued that the issue really stems from the vocal opposition of sexual content, dominated by a puritanical point of view in North America or another aspect of the social justice crusade regarding censorship. While censorship is definitely an issue at play here, it should not be the full focus, nor are all facets of sociology as puritanical when it comes to sex or sexuality. After all, feminism and sociology come in many forms. The sex-positive feminist movement, which has been around since the 1980s, argues quite rightly that the complete repressing of sexuality and gender is psychologically dangerous. Feminist Gayle Rubin put it succinctly back in 1984 regarding the major difference between radical feminism and sex-positive feminists in her article Thinking Sex:
There have been two strains of feminist thought on the subject. One tendency has criticized the restrictions on women’s sexual behavior and denounced the high costs imposed on women for being sexually active. This tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that would work for women as well as for men. The second tendency has considered sexual liberalization to be inherently a mere extension of male privilege. This tradition resonates with conservative, anti-sexual discourse.
Other criticisms outside of sex-positive feminism can also collaborate those views; Psychology has studied sex and sexuality for decades, starting with the works of Sigmund Freud and his theory of Psychosexual stages argued that the repression of sexuality would lead to neurotic behavior. Modern psychologists, such as Doctor and author Stephen Diamond, note that “human sexuality … serves both a psychological and spiritual purpose. Sex is a way of lessening our alienation, isolation, and aloneness by physically connecting with, penetrating or being penetrated by another person at the most primal level of existence. Sex substantiates, humanizes, and incarnates existence. It produces joy, love, comfort, affection, and sometimes, ecstasy.”
To this end, Dr. Diamond, much like the Extra Credits team, are both on the same page when it comes to sexuality; the desire, the need for sex in a medium such as video games is as natural as sex itself. From the intimacy shown in simple gestures such as hand holding or cuddling to the more carnal act of sex, there is a desire, even a need for such content, because it shows more maturity in media and its growth. It becomes less about pandering, more about feeling, which is a distinct difference in the end regarding the maturity of sexuality in video games.
The problem, however, is DOAX doesn’t give us that. Well, it’s not really a problem inasmuch as a reminder. The past decade has seen video games grow up, yet we still suffer the same image problems since the 1990s despite it. Contrary to what we believe, image does matter for our medium if we want the medium to grow and become something beyond our current state. Be it ultra-violence, sex, or some other controversy found in such mediums, video games are always caught in the cross-hairs of its critics. Times, however, are changing, and everyone in video games, from the developers to its fans, are changing with it.
Take, for example, the GDC 2013 talk Scapegoat’s No More: Improving the Public Image of Video Games. The entire panel discussed the issues regarding violent video games in the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, where a gunman killed 28 people, including twenty children.
Video game designer and Professor Ian Bogost discussed the perception that games don’t have anything to say because so many of the biggest games are particularly violent, so much so that it’s reasonable for people to think ill of the medium. “It’s hypocritical to fight for free speech and then have nothing to say. You can’t have it both ways,” he states, arguing that more games, both in the indie and AAA markets, need to experiment and eschew violence by having a more diverse repertoire of games to play.
That, however, is in of itself not inherently bad. Games such as Hatred and Postal serve the niche for unadulterated violence, but it is a small niche at best and one that will always generate controversy due to the nature of the games. The problem is the perception outside of gaming, from governments to outsiders to even friends and family who don’t play games, who see only Hatred and no other virtues, who see the pure violence presented and find no value in it because of that.
Even then, games such as Hatred have their place; it will never be a major, blockbuster seller. I would hazard a prediction that it never should, but that is honestly a moot point. When Hatred is shown as an example of “video game violence,” however, the counterpoint should be to show games such as Hotline Miami as the antithesis of what that violence can be in games; the expression of violence in games can be more than the surface, visceral depiction of violence, and that shows the medium’s growth in a way that is not only artistic, but now with deep meaning to go along with the gameplay attached to it.
Which brings us back to Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 and its value. We know it is a game more about sex appeal than sexuality, so it is already suffering from the cultural turmoil within the video game community. When comparing to the more artistic representations of sexuality found in titles like The Witcher, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect, to the growth of former sex-symbols in characters like Lara Croft, to the creation of new, positive sex symbols with substance like Bayonetta; Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 just pales in comparison and struggles to keep up with the changes in the market.
As I stated before, it is a relic; a product of gaming’s past visiting again after nearly ten years. The problem with DOAX is not the content itself; the problem, it seems, can be traced back to Bogost’s question: what value does it really have? Well, the possibility to achieve titillation through promiscuity is much like Hatred in how “pure” it really is. The game itself is thinly veiled by design because it serves a singular purpose; in this case, showcasing the sex appeal of known video game characters. Also, much like Hatred, DOAX serves a proper niche; this is a series where the last installment, if VG Chartz is to be believed, sold less than 500,000 copies worldwide for the Xbox 360. It is designed for those who want that kind of cheap thrill, and there is nothing really wrong with wanting that either from time to time.
There is also an argument to be made regarding the fact that DOAX simply is not worth the investment for an overseas release. Once again, business reasons do dictate what happens with commercial art, be it high or low-brow art is insignificant. It is less about a cultural barrier that Koei-Tecmo must penetrate, and more a cost-effective maneuver to keep the game’s production down. Even now, DOAX will be released at a higher price than a typical game, primarily due to the weakness of the Japanese yen (a conversion rate of $77.00 instead of the typical $59.99 for the Playstation 4 version alone), which is quite telling regarding how Koei-Tecmo is approaching the title to begin with.
Possible business reasons aside, the inherent value of DOAX is still generally low. For those who enjoy the niche that the game fills, DOAX has a lot of value to them of course, but outside of that, there is little else to go on. In truth, this is where the discussion should end; the game is simply not worth it for the majority, but the conversation continues because of the subsequent announcements regarding DOAX. The original statement and the recent statement made by Koei-Tecmo has once again brought up notions of censorship regarding games, an issue that is inescapable in 2015.
This in and of itself is a problem; it is generating a controversy that again portrays the entire community in a negative light outside of those in the know. Once again, the perception of what video game fans are is far from the reality, but it is still the dominant perception. This whole incident makes the developers seem cowardly in bowing to the demands of a vocal few, while another minority pushes back hard with sedition against both the companies and the people who rally against them, proudly touting their support for DOAX by making sure they buy a copy from PlayAsia to either enjoy the game for what it is, or, which is arguably more likely, to incite a political point.
Is it no different, then, from politicizing an issue to prove a point much like those who did so with Mortal Kombat? The value of DOAX as a game is negligible to the majority of us, but its value as a symbol now is strong; it is a game designed to serve a niche, not make a ton of money, but now it will serve as a cause to rally around against perceived injustice. The game should, rightfully so, be allowed to rub shoulders with other titles, and that notion has been taken away not because of puritanical perceptions and arguably the charges of social justice pandering, but because of the value that DOAX brings to the table on the whole for video game fans.
The point still stands that DOAX just pales in comparison to what other games can offer regarding sex and sexuality, and while it serves that pandering niche, it is not particularly as valuable as many seem to prop it up to be. Even as a political point, the eventual charge that says DOAX represents all that is wrong with the gaming industry will win us no favors, and those within the community will eventually struggle to tackle that question, or worse, in my opinion, blow it off altogether. However, the bigger issue at play for many is that DOAX should serve that niche in the first place.
If we can use games that utilize violence with complex meaning and emotion, sexuality is another method to portray the growth of our medium, but we shouldn’t discard what has little value to us at all either. Even Extra Credits, back in 2007, recognized this, with Daniel Floyd stating that “There is nothing wrong with a little titillation now and then. It sure beats sexual repression and the psychological damage that comes with that. But there is more to sex than cheap thrills.” While I still maintain that some cases of censorship are justified if the company at hand feels it so for business reasons, in this case, the bowing to pressure does Koei-Tecmo no favors. As the consumers involved in this cultural debate, however, we need to evaluate why a game like DOAX is not that valuable to us, but why it still should exist.
What games can we hold up against DOAX in regards to how sexuality is used in video games? I have named a few I personally believe are good examples, but they can’t be the only ones. Even then it also took some time to achieve that sense of credibility regarding sexuality, and the representation of these games is far from perfect and not without their own controversies, but they are proof that even the subject of sex is maturing in video games. There needs to be more titles, both independent and big budget like Bogost stated, that can explore such relationships and intimacy to grow the medium. Then the impact, the perceptions of games like Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, change not only between us, but even change the minds of outsiders, critics, and in this case, the developers considering to hold it back from those who find value in the title. That, among anything else, will show the true colors of our industry as a growing, respected medium with both high and low-brow entertainment for all.
I hope you enjoyed this editorial. What games would you argue have inherent value in regards to their sexuality? What value do you see in Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, or other games for that matter? Leave your comments below.