Video Game Commentary: Critiques, Clichés, and Condiments

I read a brief analysis of video games this morning where the incredibly astute author’s main claim was that “sex sells.” What a useless thing to say. It was this intent of the author, I think, to present a serious critique of games targeting a male demographic by using imagery and storylines that reduce women to objects for the male players’ enjoyment.  But the phrase “sex sells” doesn’t communicate that. When I read a critical analysis, I always hope for some thoughtful exploration of the topic and the artifact under scrutiny. This is especially true if I happen to care at all about the artifact and agree that the critical concerns of the author are valid ones, which I do when it comes to women’s representation in video games. It’s therefore a big disappointment when a subject ripe for discussion we as an educated polis should be engaging in presents a lame and thoughtless conclusion like “sex sells.”

The author’s overarching critique is certainly valid, though it’s hardly new. Plenty of feminists have been talking at length about sexism in the gaming industry with plenty of fedora bros telling them to shut up for like five years now. If you’re not familiar with that whole can of worms, I would ask, first off, if you’ve ever been on the internet before, and then encourage you to check out game developer Breanna Wu’s long running Twitter commentary, feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian’s videos, or (if you’re feeling particularly brave,) read some stuff listed under the hashtag gamergate. (Use caution: misogyny and rape threats aplenty.) No, my beef is not with the issue itself, it’s with the phrase “sex sells.” This led zeppelin of a conclusion is nothing more than a placeholder for actual meaningful commentary. As a phrase, it begs several questions, which are much more important to answer than parroting the cliché itself. Also, it’s the kind of thing Don Draper would say to an intern after too many highballs.

Here are some better questions: What does sex sell? To whom? Why is it effective marketing? How is sex defined? Are you referring to the actual act of copulation or a normalized heterosexual construction of femininity versus masculinity that attempts to create desire for a product or lifestyle by playing on the fears of an audience conditioned to believe their sex and gender are “natural” and they should want the hyper-sexualized, unrealistic Barbies that companies are showing them if they’re “normal” men? These meaty questions are where real critique takes place. The phrase “sex sells” is the kind of empty BS my freshman communication students say during ad analysis presentations when they’ve done the prep work the night before it’s due.

When I read analyses, I want to have my ideas challenged (well, you know, to a certain degree.) I mean, there’s intelligent discourse and then there’s Rush Limbaugh mocking Michelle Obama for saying ketchup should not count as a vegetable. Seriously, Rush? If the harshest thing ring-wing pundits can think of to say about the First Lady involves her concerns about condiments then I think she’s doing okay. Anyway, it’s just disappointing when legitimate cultural issues get reduced to catch-phrases and clichés that don’t get us anywhere. Thoughtful critical discourse should not fit on a bumper sticker.

In summation, ketchup doesn’t even count as food, this blog is making me want to play the classic arcade game Burger Time, and if your important socio-cultural commentary is short enough to fit into a 140-character Tweet, your critique might need some extra hamburger patties on your analysis bun.