Crispy Gamer

Print Screen: "Porn & Pong": Testing the Limits of Titillation

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Porn and Pong
Porn and Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture

The surest way to get hits on a gaming Web site is to write something about sex. If you do a "Ladies of Gaming" spread, then you will attract both the mouth-breathers who like to imagine Lara Croft in a silk teddy and the car wreck gawkers who will read the feature just to complain about what it represents. Do something more serious and reflective about sexual imagery and content in gaming, and you'll draw from the same two audiences.

In fact, it's such a reliable topic that anybody who wants to write about sex and games quickly runs into the problem that there isn't much left to say, especially since Brenda Brathwaite's 2006 book, "Sex in Video Games," is the canonical work for anybody interested in a serious examination of how sexual desire can be communicated in the industry. It's not that there is only room for one book on the topic. But Brathwaite has set the bar so high so recently that Damon Brown's "Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture" struggles to find anything really intriguing to say.

Lara
The industry's first pinup girl.

Brown's hole card is his desire to put the sexual evolution of gaming in a larger cultural context, making references to the porn industry's shift to video as the home game industry starts to take off, or to the growing popularity of "lad mags" like Maxim when Tomb Raider first becomes a hit. But "Porn and Pong" is less than half the length of Brathwaite's opus, and its dual track means that there is little room left for anything other than a "greatest hits" survey of sex and gaming, shedding little light and generating less heat.

If you are new to the topic and haven't the patience for Brathwaite's book, "Porn &Pong" should suffice. And the title is sure to draw attention. But, aside from the usual wisdom of Al Lowe (creator of Leisure Suit Larry) and a nice history of Lara Croft, much of the book is taken up by culture war play-by-play. The efforts to ban Custer's Revenge, the Japanese adult game industry, "Hot Coffee" revisited, Bully ? so much of this territory has been plowed that it's a shame Brown doesn't bring a lot of original reporting. Connecting Mystique's Custer's Revenge to the growing popularity of adult entertainment at home is a nice insight, but, sadly, it is the only cross-cultural connection that really sticks.

Doa
Gaming's "sexiest" moment wasn't even supposed to be there.

Brown's subtitle promises much more than he is able to deliver. Can anyone really make the case that Leisure Suit Larry or a hot tub ad with Roberta Williams changed our culture? Even within the subset of gaming culture, the Playboy Mansion game and BMX XXX are considered industry detritus, leftovers that tried -- and failed -- to market themselves as sexy alternatives to more mainstream titles. A societal reaction to sex games in Grand Theft Auto is not evidence of culture being changed by Grand Theft Auto. And, even if GTA is an agent of change -- a plausible case -- it is only part of the larger stew of a coarsened culture or societal commentary or whatever you think the series represents at this stage in its history.

And that is precisely the problem with "Porn & Pong." For a book that attempts to situate gaming in a story of changing social mores, Brown structures his book as a series of episodes, divorcing games from each other and often from their wider influence. Lara Croft might have been the first gaming pinup girl, but she wasn't the last. None of her gaming descendants are referenced when this would be clear evidence that a single sexy heroine can push designers down the wrong road, emphasizing a heroine's physical appeal more than the innovative exploration and action that made Tomb Raider such a success.

The book's foreword by Jon Gibson makes the point that the problem with most "sexy" games is that they are all orgasm and no foreplay -- there is no buildup to the sexualization, just bouncing volleyball players and strippers on bikes. "Porn & Pong" itself has that pathology, hitting highlight after highlight but only really making sense when the voices of the designers come through. With all the emphasis on the overt expressions of "sexiness," the alternate voice of intimacy and anticipation never comes through. Can you discuss the sexualization of female heroines without talking about the downplayed "hotness" of Cate Archer of No One Lives Forever? Why does a "Nerdcore" pinup calendar fit in at all, even as a footnote, when the often-sexualized marketing of girl gamers such as Ubisoft's Frag Dolls does not?

Brown clearly intends "Porn & Pong" to be an introduction to the topic, but as a primer it may reinforce the idea that perversion is rife in the industry, that game designers are -- for the most part -- stuck in an adolescent understanding of relationships and sex. And that isn't entirely off the mark, given what we have seen and know. But when points are raised and then dropped, or when each chapter seems entirely compartmentalized from the others, the reader gets the impression that, first, sex in games is episodic, and second, intentionally outlandish. There is a cognitive dissonance in suggesting that "sexy" games are few and far between, yet fly in the face of cultural caretakers. The final chapter concludes with a series of short paragraphs that seem to go nowhere, except to underline that, yes, sex is in different places.

Leisure Suit Larry
Leisure Suit Larry had more jokes than it did sex.

Brown is, to his credit, a fine writer. He knows when to step in and when to step out of the story he is telling. Even when he loses the thread of the book, he knows when to interpret and intervene in the narrative and when to let his subjects speak for themselves. The Leisure Suit Larry chapter, for example, is bolstered by the always articulate Al Lowe, someone who might resist the characterization of his game as "sexy." Lowe underlines Larry's parodic purpose, how it was intended to mock a libertine lifestyle that was 10 years out of date when Larry Laffer first made his appearance.

Is there room on gaming bookshelves for such a basic discussion of sex, games and culture? There would be, if the Internet hadn't been covering sex in this manner for so long. The target audience for this book -- gamers -- will find little here that is new. The cultural context provided often reads like "Meanwhile, back in the real world," with only tenuous connections or attempts to put the whole thing together. If he'd been given another hundred pages, "Porn & Pong" would have been a much stronger contribution to the already bulging inventory of writing on the topic. As it stands, it's a bit of a letdown.