You begin to think about the things that are often taken for granted in games when you find yourself looking through a hole in the wall of a brothel and watching someone get beaten up for sexual pleasure and your first thought is: Haven’t I been here before?
Designers and writers love to make you visit a brothel or a strip club in the course of your adventure through their games, and the above situation happened in the recently released Thief reboot.
How common has this become? You visit either a strip club or a brothel in Max Payne 3, Mafia 2, Silent Hill 2, the Grand Theft Auto series, The Wolf Among Us, the latest Thief, Duke Nukem Forever, The Darkness 2, the Saints Row series, Red Dead Redemption, the Hitman series, Heavy Rain, Bioshock 2, Dishonored, Retro City Rampage, Metro: Last Light, Deus Ex and that's just off the top of my head.
Looking up prostitution on a site like Giant Bomb gets you a much more extensive list, including Bioshock Infinite, Yesterday, Binary Domain, The Witcher 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Risen, Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Fable, Gotich 2, Neverwinter Nights ... the list goes on. Some form of depiction of strip clubs, brothels, or sex workers in general pervade gaming.
In fact, it's hard to tell where on ends and the other begins. Many strip clubs in games also operate as brothels, and many brothels feature women naked from the waist up. The point is that someone is paying for sex, and you get to see some nudity.
It’s time to give this particular cliché a rest.
Real victimization is more than cheap drama
The use of these locations as shorthand for "seedy, gritty location where criminals meet" cuts across the genre lines, and the use of sex workers as little more than background imagery is already disturbing.
These locations can often tie into ongoing violence against the female characters in the game, as people you meet in these strip clubs or brothels have a tendency to either be beaten as a way to prove that a male character is uncaring and brutal, or they turn up as corpses.
This is a shallow way of exploring a very real societal problem. Violence against sex workers is underreported and often unpunished due to the nature of the work and an unwillingness to go to law enforcement. This is made worse when law enforcement is itself part of the abuse. Lawyers have argued that the murder of sex workers is a lesser crime than the murder of "certain classes of individuals."
These are issues that aren't often discussed, but games tend to be uninterested in telling the human aspect of this story. These characters exist only to die or be beaten in order to flesh out male villains. It’s a version of the Kicking the Dog trope, except in this case the "dog" is a human woman.
"These representations are usually negative, associating prostitutes with social ills and perpetuating stereotypes of sex workers as deviant, subservient to male desire, and victims of violence and drugs," a blog post on The Oldest Game, the official site of a newsgame about the sex trade in Ontario and Quebec, stated. "Player interactions with sex workers can sometimes lead to a ‘health boost’ or some other form of reward within the game. Prostitutes are therefore represented as objects to be exploited for the player’s personal gain."
Lawyers have argued that the murder of sex workers is a lesser crime
The one-dimensional look at the real world exploitation and victimization of sex workers is gross enough, but video game culture often celebrates its use of strip clubs as enjoyably taboo locations.
A press event for Duke Nukem Forever took place inside a real-world strip club, and another party for the game True Crime (later rebranded as Sleeping Dogs under a new publisher) took place in a recreation of the one of the game’s adult establishments, complete with dancing, nearly naked women and hosts talking up the almost exclusively male industry professionals and press who received invitations.
Many games even invite the player to participate by purchasing either a physical sex act or lap dance. These scenes may or may not be interactive, but the point is usually to allow the player to sit back, relax, and enjoy the dancing of a nude or nearly nude woman. These moments don’t move the story ahead in any way, or make a larger point of the environment, as they tend to be pure spectacle. Here is a naked woman who won’t speak, can’t say no, and has to do what you want. Enjoy.
The value placed on these locations, and the nudity offered to the player, is often uncomfortable. The Saboteur required players who purchased the game second hand to pay $5 extra in order to see the nudity. The strip club in that game, it should be noted, operates as your home base.
It’s time to move on
Each of these games can likely make a case for why the strip club or brothel appeared in their game individually. The Wolf Among Us is a hard boiled story of a grizzled detective, and those stories usually include seedy criminal enterprise and women who need to be saved, at least temporarily, from their surroundings. The way a character "uses" a prostitute in that game, complete with magic and ending in murder, is treated as a moment of horror. The brothel in Thief fits the theme of a city in decline, and the decadence of the moneyed upper crust.
In fact, the "madam" of the brothel in Thief stands up to the game's central villain when one of her women is abused. Other games also at least try to inject an interesting character, or some form of context to the sex trade.
Rarely are the women involved in these scenes seen as three-dimensional characters, however. They exist to show their bodies, excite the players, get beaten to prove that other characters or bad, or just to die so the story can move forward. These women are used as set pieces, objects to keep the narrative flowing. That’s an offensive way to treat a population that is already at such a high risk of violence from their employers, customers and law enforcement.
They exist to excite the players, get beaten to prove that other characters or bad, or to die so the story can move forward.
No matter how much one can justify the use of these locations in each particular game, the point remains that they’ve become so common as to be boring and expected. There is no sense that the player is in a place that is frequented by a criminal underclass, these levels have become just another thing that’s expected in narrative games.
Repetition has removed any sense of taboo or commentary. Games use the idea of sex workers with as little thought as the characters they seem to be trying to condemn, and this reliance on a tired cliché has successfully removed any impact this once had on the player.
These levels don't need to be stripped from gaming entirely, but we need to begin to see how tired and lazy they've become when used as shorthand for "gritty underworld location." It's also important to look at the real world cost of normalizing violence against sex workers, or at least responsibly address the fact that designers and writers are using real world suffering as a cheap way to develop their characters. It's time to find other options.