How Games Get Sexual Fetishism Wrong

By Kotaku on at

By Ed Smith

Fetish sex takes a lot of different forms. I've met your common-or-garden kinkster – the type that's read Fifty Shades, keeps a blindfold by the bed, can take a bit of a pain – and I've met a guy who asked his partner to kidnap him from a bus stop, drive him out to a field, tie him to a tree and push some car keys up his arse. True story.

But no matter how much fetish, or “fet”, changes from person to person, you can rely on video games to invariably get the lifestyle wrong. Fetishism in video games – chiefly BDSM – is used either as seasoning, a way to add titillation, sex appeal and adulteration to proceedings, or to characterise people and places as dangerous and ‘out there’. Some get it more right than others, but pretty much all games take the idea of fetishism, tie it to a bed and abuse it like... well, like this metaphor.

For games, fetishism is either a joke or dangerous. In real life it’s neither.

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

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Get used to seeing Rockstar games on this list. These guys love to chuck in a bit of fet, be it bondage, sadism or (in the case of LCS) ageplay and infantilism. Not sure what that is? Dig up an old episode of late-night Channel 4 fuckumentary Eurotrash and chances are you can find out. This is a fetish everyone loves to giggle at, basically because it's full-grown guys (and often-times women) dressing themselves up like babies. In LCS, you meet Giovanni Casa, a deli owner and game-described “pervert” who dons a bonnet and nappy before hiring two prostitutes, whom he then chases around a warehouse for some reason until you kill him.

It's hardly a nuanced portrait of ageplay, which rests on a lot of affection, intimacy and very personal psychological context. It typically manifests in people who had a bad childhood, or maybe a stressful adulthood, and are looking for some way to disconnect from their day-to-day lives. It's a form of escapism, almost a survival instinct. The fact Casa is this fat, ugly, kind of unpleasant guy who a) pays for sex then b) goes mental and tries to attack the two prostitutes, before the player carves him up using a meat tenderiser, tells you all you need to know about Rockstar's opinions on ageplay. Semi-kudos for putting this one on-screen – it's genuinely near the knuckle – but points off for portraying it as a grotesque, risible form of psychosis. I guarantee this hurt people's feelings.

True Crime: Streets of LA

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One of your missions in True Crime is to infiltrate a BDSM-themed brothel, which a gang is using as its hideout. The submissives you encounter are all male, which is rather at odds with how the fet scene is actually made up (in my experience), and they're all wearing chains, gimp masks and leather trousers. I appreciate that that kind of clothing is shorthand (I don't expect the writers of True Crime to fully engage with the nuances and variables of dominant/submissive dynamics) but this is an example of the old set-dressing routine, where fetishism is used to “spice up” an otherwise trad-stealth section. Plus, when the level reaches its end, you get into a fight with a bunch of the fet people, and they all limp around and laugh weirdly; they're like monsters or hunchbacks wearing nipple clamps. Fetishists are depicted here as creeps. Their sexual tastes are a kind of added danger. You're not just fighting goons, you're fighting goons WHO LIKE TO BANG EACH OTHER ECCENTRICALLY. It's cynical and empty, and evidence that many game-makers – and film and TV-makers, too – are content to ignore what fetishism actually entails and just appropriate it for mucky aesthetic flair.

Hitman Contracts

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This level reminds me of the blood rave scene from the original Blade film. All the fetishists are dressed in masks, gags and leather suits, and all smoking opium and dancing in cages. They may as well be fucking vampires: debauched, low, dangerous alien creatures that have surrounded the protagonist in their den. In fact, this level takes place in a slaughterhouse, so there's actually blood on the walls, like the Blade nightclub.

Hitman Contracts is a hysterical, dialled-to-eleven portrait of fetish sex, where (again) the participants aren't just kinky screwers, but dangerous degenerates. I can't stress how much people on the fet scene are not like this. Have you ever been to a fetish social? We call them “munches” and they basically amount to a bunch of people meeting in a pub to talk mainly about their day and sometimes about what kind of ropes they prefer. It's very nothingy. There are more extreme mass fetish gatherings (often called “play parties”) where people are encouraged to turn up in fetishwear and throw in with some sex acts, but they're nothing like what happens in Hitman Contracts. A lot of people in fet actually find play events a bit showy and try-hard. They're often considered the reserve of tourists, rather than the proper lifestylers who keep their dynamics to themselves and care more about the intimacy of dominance/submission than the props. I still like this section in Hitman Contracts – it's a powerful piece of characterisation – but please, don't get the idea that this is what people do. Even in edge cases, real-life public fet looks nothing like this.

Duke Nukem: Time To Kill

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This is only a brief moment, but it ties (pun intended) into another thing that games get wrong about fet. In Time To Kill, you find a secret room containing a woman dressed in dominatrix gear. “Turn out the lights and I'll show you the meaning of pain,” she says. So, you flick the switch and the wall slides open, and inside is a pipe bomb. Good joke, but it’s an example of how games repackage female domination (or “femdom”) into male sexual fantasy.

Bayonetta does this, too. I'm not convinced that she's an example of a “strong female character,” or that she has control of her own sexuality, since everything about Bayonetta seems designed to turn guys – as if fet and fetish women exist to serve the sexual whims of men. In real life, this gets dangerous. I have a friend who used to work as a professional dominatrix (she's just in it for the lifestyle these days) and she had to hire bodyguards and occasionally stop sessions early because the guys got aggressive. Very often, female dominants are seen as a tool for men to get themselves off with. And especially on the professional scene, where money changes hands, a lot of guys have the mentality that since they've paid cash, they can demand whatever they want.

Time To Kill’s dominant female character is the distillation of an unhealthy mindset that causes the breakdown of a lot of fet relationships and makes a lot of women on the scene feel threatened – where women, no matter how “strong” or in charge they act or appear, are ultimately at men's disposal. Plus, thinking on it, “Time To Kill” makes it sound like this is a game about Duke Nukem waiting for a train.

Manhunt/Manhunt 2

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The first Manhunt doesn't have any fetish stuff per se, but I remember the viral marketing that was set up around the game. Particularly the site “Valiant Video”, which was ostensibly a distributor for snuff movies. It's been retired now, but the Valiant site had fake forums on it that were contributed to by “people” who were fans of Valiant's product, and as well as talking about all the different types of killing and torture they got off on, these accounts would variously refer to the fetish stuff they owned – outfits, tools, pornography. Again, it's that True Crime thing, whereby fet people aren't into kinky sex just for safe fun but because they're somehow unstable. I'd say on the whole, looking at Streets of LA, Hitman and GTA, games conflate fetishism with psychopathy. Admittedly there are some crazies on the scene, but no more than in vanilla dating in my opinion.

Manhunt 2 is much worse for this. The third level is called “Sexual Deviants” and sees the player infiltrating a fetish club which, it turns out, is being used by sinister government agency The Project as a recruitment hub. The enemies here are referred to as “The Pervs” and the overarching idea is that, once again, fetish people are intrinsically mad, and therefore ideal candidates for The Project's various evil schemes. Part of me finds it amusing that the fetish scene is viewed as a nebulous kind of Manson family, just waiting to pounce, but I know that we're basically all IT managers and shop assistants: normal, uncomplicated folk. So this kind of representation is totally off. Again, it's fet appropriated into vampirism, like kinky sex sews bad people together into a dangerous society of the night.

Negotiation

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I wanted to end on a positive note, so here's Negotiation, a Twine game by someone using the pseudonym SexArtPolitics. I've tried to find out who actually made this so I could shake them by the hand, but so far no luck. Anyway, it's the most accurate representation of fet I've come across, not just in games, but in popular media in general. You choose a gender, a sexuality and an orientation (dominant or submissive) then ask and answer questions with a stranger you've met in a bar, all geared towards unpacking what kind of fetish dynamic is going to work for the both of you. This is what it's actually like. Fet is a very diverse scene, occupied by men, women, trans- and non-gender specific people. And it's not just “plug and play”: you don't show up at an event or website, introduce yourself and get to kinky banging. There's a lot of conversation, a lot of sharing, a lot of negotiation. As I said in the first entry, fet dynamics usually run on deep, deep intimacy – you're letting another person explore and experience feelings that are at the core of your personality. Negotiation gets this – unlike the other games on this list, it's clearly been made by somebody with experience of fetishism.

The best part is that Negotiation never moves onto anything physical; once you've gotten to know the stranger, and discussed your dynamic, the game ends, never indulging itself (or you) in gratuitous descriptions of sex acts. This, for me at least, is what makes fet exciting. The actual physical stuff is secondary. It's all about the getting to know someone – the sharing, the caring, the deep emotional exchange. Negotiation gets that. It understands that the props and outfits and perceived traditions of the fetish scene are mostly beside the point, and that at its centre, this practice is the same as any other kind of romance – fundamentally about two people sharing emotional chemistry.

(If you do want something physical, though, here’s a fun game about consensual spanking.)