I've been live streaming games a lot lately. It's been a great way to feel connected to other folks in this hobby of ours during a rocky time. It's fun and, in some ways, important.
One recent stream allowed me to confront a topic I've been wrestling with for almost as long as I've been playing games: the treatment of characters as objects of desire.
We were streaming Sleeping Dogs (the newly released Definitive Edition), and the topic of protagonist Wei Shen's attractiveness came up. To be clear — we aren't far into the game, and I can't speak to the rest of Sleeping Dogs as it represents its hero and supporting characters. But immediately, we all noticed that Wei Shen was, well, a good looking fellow.
For about an hour, myself, my streaming partner-in-crime and our chatroom of about 100 folks discussed such subjects as: Wei Shen's physique and the corresponding best fashion choices for him in-game, the representation of Asian men in video games and Kevin Wong's excellent piece on the topic, and the way in which attractiveness is gendered in media, especially in games.
He isn't giving the male equivalent of upskirt photos while he fights.
Much of that latter topic revolved around the ways in which attractive men in games aren't marginalized by their sex appeal, the way many conventionally attractive women game characters are. A good looking man in a game is less likely to be "fridged" — that is, killed, kidnapped or otherwise incapacitated for the sake of giving his partner or family member motivation.
He is unlikely to be treated as a sexual object with no agency or mind of his own, as many sexy woman game characters are. Wei Shen, like other attractive male protagonists, can be a good looking guy who kicks ass, gets the job done, and never appears to be weak. He isn't given the male equivalent of upskirt photos while he fights. The camera doesn't move in such a way that his primary sexual characteristics are the focus of the shot.
The conversation continued on twitter, with a number of friends — men and women, straight and queer folks alike — talked about the subject of attractive male protagonists in video games. We chatted casually about good looking guys with no weirdness, and that was refreshing. Shen was allowed to exist and be attractive without the camera's attention becoming lewd.
This is a conversation I can't imagine having publicly ten years ago. Maybe not even five years ago. I would've felt afraid of making (straight) male friends and colleagues uncomfortable. But now, in a space that's opened up considerably in the last couple of years, it was a completely comfortable, and, from my point of view, freeing and fun. The conversation happened naturally, as I played the game with others watching.
For once, I felt completely safe talking about a character that was an object of desire, without feeling like I was being gross, sketchy, or feeding into a negative stereotype.
Why? Because we were talking about a character that wasn't explicitly sexualized or fetishized. Wei Shen is the star of the show — he's capable, strong, and his attractiveness is just another aspect of the character. He has function outside of his attractive characteristics. The artists behind the game didn't put a bulge in his crotch in lieu of a personality.
Put another way, he has agency and personality, he's never reduced to being "eye candy." He's a deep undercover cop with a fighter's body and, lo and behold, people that are attracted to men will probably find him sexy. And folks who are not attracted to guys can easily see why he's appealing. His best aspects may be sexually attractive to some, and aspirational to others. If men don't want to sleep with him, they may enjoy the idea of being him.
I personally believe that empowered characters of any gender expression can be healthy objects of desire
As a bi woman working in media, I'm constantly navigating a minefield when it comes to representations of attractive men and women. Even admitting that I find both men and women attractive feels dangerous in a society that is so obsessed with rigid gender and sexual norms.
Talking about Wei Shen shirtless felt safe in a way that talking about, say, Bayonetta or the Sorceress from Dragon's Crown never will for me. There are plenty of women game characters that I know I'm "supposed" to find attractive, but the specter of the male gaze — the idea that the character is directly pandering to straight male desires — or the characters' overt sexualization usually skeeves me out. It's the gaming equivalent of stopping the action to hear a narrator explain that you're supposed to be aroused. When you're not aroused, the constant reminder that you should be is uncomfortable at best, and at worst actively gross.
Desire is complex. We're all culturally conditioned, partially by media images, to find certain representations attractive. Video games are as guilty as any other popular media format of perpetuating stereotypes about conventional beauty and attractiveness. But occasionally, they're also just as capable of breaking out of them.
I'm not unique in finding Shen attractive, it's an aspect of the game that is often remarked upon. The important part is that the game doesn't know I find him attractive. It offers him as a character without serving the player his sexuality as if it was finger food. More games need to learn from this.