I got some thoughts, about some games journalism. And about dicks.
This is your content warning: I’ma talk about dicks. I’ma try not to show dicks, but there might be some NSFW stuff in this post anyway. Hence my sticking the rest of this post about dicks behind the cut tag.
Okay so. Let me start with Please Like Me.
Please Like Me is an Australian television show which you can watch in the States on Hulu, and I actually like it quite a lot, even if the occasional episode goes off the rails in a bad way (especially with fat shame-y jokes), and even though occasionally watching the show makes my heart hurt.
The show is mildly autobiographical based on the life of its creator, Josh Thomas. Josh the character (and pretty sure Josh the actor) is queer, and on the show, Josh fucks. He fucks boyfriends, he fucks one-night stands. He fucks. The show is not shy about it, either; we see Josh’s bare ass, we see folks wearing not a stitch and in flagrante. We don’t see the dick going in mostly because I expect that’s out of the range of even Australian TV’s more permissive standards.
I frequently joke on Twitter that your average episode of Please Like Me shows more honest dude/dude fucking in it than the whole of American television going back to 1950 and the sad part is, I’m probably not wrong. Male/male desire is amazingly absent from U.S. media content, even in our post-Will and Grace age of supposed gay dude acceptance. Even programs that have, purportedly, been “by and about us” — shows like Queer as Folk and Looking — have been amazingly shy about actually treating dudes who have sex with dudes as if they were dudes who have sex. With dudes.
“What the hell does this have to do with games journalism?” I’m glad you asked.
Today Waypoint published a story by Kate Grey called “Hey Video Games, What’s The Problem With Dicks?” In it, Grey argues that games need more dicks. Specifically:
So, yes. More dicks. Dicks in every shape, size, color and girth. Dicks with bends in them. Dicks with huge veins. You know how diversity is normalized by saturation? The same applies to genitals, my friends. I’m not talking full penetration of games—I don’t really fancy having todgers all up in Tetris—but more people making games with male nudity will hopefully make it more culturally acceptable.
Now, on the face of it, this is a sentiment I can approve of. There is a double standard when it comes to genitals and nudity in games. It often shows what feels like a puerile, childishly teen boy focus on women and specifically their breasts. Judging solely by this inequity, it definitely feels like there’s a fear-driven double standard, where hyper-sexualized/feminized bodies are perfectly fine but even the merest hint of a cock makes people freak out. And by “people” I mostly mean “in a largely straight dude-run industry, putting the dick in (visually) invokes uncomfortable feelings about and/or fears of queerness and queer sexuality.”
My issue with this article is a little deeper, though, and it mostly has to do with Gray’s relentless focus on comedy, both in regards to the dick content she’s talking about, and in the tone of the piece itself.
One of the games discussed is Rust, which is famous for adding dick size to its list of account-locked, unchangeable, randomly-assigned avatar qualities. I didn’t really talk about that news when it was new, other than to say: “I think people’s responses to this are more telling than the change itself.” I stand by that statement.
In referring to this element of the game, Gray says:
Penis-havers in their hundreds thronged to forums, attempting to mask their real-life penile disappointment by yelling about their virtual-life penile disappointment (we can only assume). But who cares if your polygonal pork sword won’t impress the ladies? You’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, son. Concentrate on surviving.
The joke here being, “lol ur dick is small irl so ur mad abt ur small dick in rust” which: classy. Real classy.
She goes on to talk about Conan Exiles, an upcoming game that… well, gives you a literal dick size slider. The author of the linked PC Gamer piece, Chris Livingston, had a field day posting ridiculous gifs of the slider (and resulting cock) in action:
warning, NSFW because of Conan Exile's cock & balls gif ok pic.twitter.com/H41VsIHy4j— Chris Livingston (@screencuisine) January 30, 2017
If you read the replies to Livingston’s tweets, people are losing their shit over how funny this is. Gray, for her part, agrees: ” The wang physics, and the ways you can exploit them for humor, are a thing of beauty. There has been a swathe of incredible beef-gifs since Conan Exiles was released, celebrating the weird, creepy, and floppy.” And I’m not even gonna pretend that the complete ridiculousness of dick physics in this Conan Exiles footage isn’t a freakin’ trip. Watching it flop around unrealistically thanks to its absurdly inflated size is funny! I’m not even here to tell you that it’s not funny.
But as the piece goes on, Gray focuses more and more on how this need for more dicks in games is very specifically a need for more “funny” dicks in games:
But all these examples have one thing in common: they’re funny. Search for Conan Exiles on Twitter and you’ll be bombarded with gifs of helicopter nobs; play Genital Jousting with friends and see how many times you and your friends can yell “PUT YOUR DICK INSIDE OF MY BUTT” and other variants of the same sentiment in one night.
It’s really important that dicks can be silly, cute, and fun in games, because it challenges the atmosphere of toxic masculinity that pervades the industry and the community. Wangs in real life are so often a symbol of power and dominance, so when they’re depicted as these comical little wiggle-boys, it takes away some of their authority.
This is where I started to really pull away from this piece, and this is where I think it starts to go down a road I don’t like. And unfortunately, it’s a road we’re very used to traveling: a road where desire between two folks with dicks is solely treated as a joke.
You’re probably thinking: “Todd, breasts and vaginas and femme bodies have been hypersexualized as a joke for a very long time.” But my answer to that would be: you’re absolutely right, and that’s kind of my point. In a lot of media content but particularly games, the breast in specific has been — as Gray herself says — limited to ” two types of [breasts] in games. There are stiff, unmoving boobs, and there are boobs that yearn to want to escape their fleshy confines forever.” She’s not wrong. It does seem like breasts on bodies in games are either minimized out of the way, or inflated to ridiculous hyper porn sizes.
But I want to point out that both of these situations — tity as huge, face-concussing balloons and dicks as floppy, silly foolishness — serve the same social and rhetorical end: propping up cis straight male desire and identity as the norm. If anything, the way that we cartoonishly portray breasts in games should be all the more reason not to do the same thing with dicks.
I feel strange that Gray cites Robert Yang’s work as the (seemingly only) extant situation where dicks are being used and deployed in games, because I definitely think this doesn’t appreciate the approach Robert’s work takes. I wrote about Cobra Club, Robert’s dick pic simulator, back when it first came out. In retrospect I think I was a little hard on it, but I really like Cobra Club for what it is.
That game is hilarious, in its own way. Conan Exiles is not the game with the best dick slider technology by far; Cobra Club‘s is considerably better and allows for some truly nonsensical configurations of dick. But here is the important thing: It’s not made as a joke. It’s made with the potential for comedy, but the potential for weird dicks isn’t the joke. Rather, if and when Cobra Club is funny about dicks, it’s funny because of something the player does or tries. You can “play” that game totally straight (well, like, as in “not fooling around” anyway) if you want.
Robert’s other work is similar. Succulent, another game of his, is very clearly about a dude giving oral sex to… either a popsicle or a corn dog, I don’t think I’ve ever figured that out:
This is a very sexual game. And it’s also fucking hilarious. If you can play Succulent without cracking a smile then you just failed the Voight-Kampff Test. But I want to emphasize that I don’t necessarily think Robert made the game to be “funny.” If anything, I think it is provocatively and decidedly political in the sexual intensity of it. That dude is blowing a popsicle (or a corn dog). Dudes in the background are rubbing their bulges (with implied but not visible dicks) in tighty whities behind him while he does it. And yes, at the end of the game you are consumed by the abyssal maw of a blowjob gone cosmically wrong, but before that!
I think this is why I loved Ladykiller in a Bind so much, too. The sex in that game — lesbian sex, for the record — is often as goofy and awkward as it is erotic or tender. Women’s bodies in that game can be funny; if you’ve never teased the Stalker about her tits in her scenes, then you are missing out. But their capacity for humor is part and parcel of the sincerity and earnestness of their role in actual desire. Like Robert’s work, these are bodies presented with the capacity for humor but with that capacity firmly entrenched in a respect for the sexuality those bodies represent.
Genital Jousting, one of the games Gray suggests is our way to fight toxic masculinity with comedy, does not do this, and that is — to be blunt — part of why I was deeply soured on it. Genital Jousting does do some things I genuinely like. I think the idea of using dildos for controllers is actually pretty awesome, if only because there is a social and political norm of needless formality that it engages (and maybe critiques). And believe it or not, I like the idea of a game where sexual content (whether it’s realistically erotic or comically nonsensical) is colorful and silly.
But if you asked me, “as a text, does Genital Jousting respect the sexuality that its jokes are based on?” my answer would be: no, it super doesn’t.
The game’s premise is that you play a wiggly, Noby Noby Boy-esque dick and balls that also have an anus (because why not) and your goal is to wiggle around trying to penetrate others without being penetrated yourself. And if you give it to a bunch of dudes to play their reactions are predictably… well, you’ll see:
Which… much like other games I’ve talked about in this post, this is funny! I’m not gonna pretend that on some level, this concept isn’t funny, though I could probably do without the game’s weirdly tone-ignorant use of “consent” at the player join screen:
This uh… I don’t think that’s how consent works, friends. Anyhow.
It’s really hard for me to look at this and go, “This game has respect for the sexuality that its humor is based on.” Anal sex and queer male sexuality are, for better or worse, linked rhetorically. But the way we talk about queer male sexuality — particularly in gaming culture, but overall really — isn’t great. “Getting fucked in the ass” is routinely deployed as a rhetorical stand-in for “made unpleasantly subject to someone else,” for example.
So you can imagine that when the press image (that video from earlier is linked on the devs’ website) of Genital Jousting is a bunch of rowdy dudes shouting “DON’T FUCK ME IN THE ASS, BRO! HA HA HA!” I might take a dim view of it.
And the problem is, if we add more dicks to games, but they’re always this kind of dick — the “funny” dick, the floppy, silly, “haha i fucked u bro” dick — then we are actively harming the ability to tell stories involving dicks that aren’t that. Just in the same way that having nothing but comically massive waterdrop-noise anime tity without any alternatives beyond that harms our ability to tell complicated stories about bodies with boobs.
I won’t argue with the idea that, for some people, being able to say “haha dicks are silly” is a personal act of resistance to hegemonic, toxic masculinity. But I think that’s a very simplistic way of looking at the issue, rather than a systemic one. If the situation is that we need more dicks because cishet dude devs think two dicks touching is too gay, then isn’t a barrage of clown shoe dicks used like a boffa LARP weapon not actually the answer here? I feel as if I don’t even need to add that equating “dicks are funny” with poking holes in toxic masculinity has a strong thread of gender essentialism that isn’t great.
There’s a whole other set of concerns about how Gray’s article asks for dicks of all shapes and sizes but has multiple dick size-shamey jokes in it, which: you really can’t have it both ways on that one.
“Todd can’t we just have our funny dickbutt game?” You sure can. You’ll notice at no point did I say we should burn Genital Jousting to the ground (you’ll observe I even praised some parts of it). If you like it, find it funny, cool. Not my jam, but that’s me.
But “hey we need more funny dicks in games!” isn’t the long-term answer to inequalities and double-standards about gendered bodies in games. If anything, it unironically reproduces those standards. The way people talk about the dicks in Rust and Conan Exiles is already proof that “haha dicks are funny” is the existing default mode for talking about dicks in games. It’s the norm! And the point of resistance is to question a norm, not restate it.
I’m not saying “never do anything funny with dicks.” They can be pretty hilarious. I laughed at the Conan Exiles dick-floppin’ gifs because they are genuinely funny. But if I’ve learned anything being a 1.) queer 2.) read-as-dude 3.) fat person it’s that if the only way your selfhood is expressed in the media you consume is through being the target of a joke, then you’re going to be unhappy. You’re going to see yourself as the joke.
Instead, give me a range of dicks. For every Saints Row dildo bat, I want a “serious” use of a dick that doesn’t reduce its potential for discussing certain bodies to their humor potential. For us to stop being afraid of dicks — to cut them out of their part in the double standard — they have to be more than cheap props.