Elena Bertozzi’s academic research submitted in 2003 for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy belongs to the class of the most enjoyable dissertations you could read, if you ever read one. Bertozzi, currently an associate professor of game design and development at Quinnipiac University, published it in 2012 under the title: “The Clitoris and the Joystick: Play, Pleasure, and Power in Cyberspace.” It’s also available below as a free ebook – republished here with her permission.
The book discusses the increasing relevance of play – the digital kind – in our society, especially that women, more than ever, compete in online games. We might believe that the organic body, with its natural restrictions (gender-imposed or otherwise) becomes irrelevant in a cyberculture fundamentally based on binary digits, however Bertozzi’s findings prove that the reality couldn’t be more different. She shows how fixed gender roles of game players continue to persist, if not fortified, in cyberspace. Furthermore, her book puts on display the contemporary culture’s view of women through the common virtual representation of the female body. Then she elaborates on why, despite the opportunities provided by technology, such representation of women thus far has been detrimental to their identity.
Here are some excerpts from the book:
First, a simple description defining play:
Play cannot be easy. It has little value (is no fun!) if it is easy. The point of play is that it is a struggle, but a struggle that can be won….Play is like orgasm in the sense that it involves a certain kind of repeated activity which causes tension to build and build and is then released. The player doesn’t want the release to come too quickly because the building of the tension is in and of itself the pleasure of the game.
But identifying play is not always straightforward:
We live in the Information Age where goods have been replaced by information. When a ‘worker’ is producing information, rather than goods, the process no longer feels like “work” because there is no end product. The worker’s relationship to the process of working shifts as easily as the s/he can switch between a spreadsheet window and a solitaire program on the computer desktop.
In pre-digital paradigms, an adult was someone who produced. The passage from childhood to adulthood was marked by leaving behind the world of play and embarking on a life centered on work. All of these distinctions are slipping. If an adult in our culture is not reproducing and his/her work does not result in the creation of products, then there starts to be a lack of distinction between work and play. If both work and play involve sitting at a computer moving information from one place to the other, then the only distinction between the two activities is that one is leasurable and the other is not. Appropriately, this blurring of boundaries appears within the games themselves. There are numerous “God Games” on the market which require the player to manage resources and guide the fates of the subjects which live or die according to the whims of the player (yes, this sounds a lot like work). Other games, such as the SIMS games require the player to design an avatar and construct a “life” which includes all of the mundane and ordinary responsibilities of the organic self, but in a digital matrix.
Likewise, the line between play and sex has become blurred:
If the function of sex is seen as more pleasure-seeking than reproductive, sex moves closer to play than to work.
The author highlights the androcentric bias, that has long existed in porn, in the digital game industry:
The designers and developers of most digital games are male as a visit to either E3 (the international business conference for the interactive entertainment industry) or the Computer Game Developers Conference makes evident. Although almost as many women as men play games on computers, women tend to play digital versions of analog games such as card, board and trivia games. The market for complex games such as first person shooters (Doom), Role Playing Games (Final Fantasy), action/adventure games (Deus X) and sports games is still largely male.
Historically, the interface/controller for many digital games was a “Joystick.” A joystick is an erect plastic object which is thrust in different directions, closely gripped and milked, and ultimately fired, each burst of gunfire or launching of projectiles simulating the ejaculatory act. What a name! What a way to symbolically designate the element of power and control involved in the act of playing these games! It is no wonder that men and boys spend hours with this technology. Joysticks are less common now because console games require more buttons and meansof interacting with the game.
Male-centric pornography distorts men’s expectations of real-life sexual pleasures:
[Males] are the dominant gender in cyberworlds and thus cyberworlds have been constructed to satisfy their fantasies. Males can lose themselves in cyberworlds because they feel perfectly comfortable there. They know the rules, because they made them. The Augusta Golf Club explicitly forbids women from joining the club, but there are other ways of enforcing the “Girls Keep Out” rule.
Currently there is an enormous range of sexual content available that appeals primarily to males. These sites do not house “real” women, but simulacra of women. These simulacra are eternally available, eternally penetrable, eternally willing to gratify every male need and have no needs of their own. If men choose to play with these simulacra, it is not necessarily a bad thing. In the age of AIDS and other sexually associated dangers, the cold clean world of digital sex has its benefits.
However this creation of male masturbatory fantasy cyberworlds is not without risks for males as well. If a man habituates himself to sexual pleasure through a digital interface (one hand on the keyboard and the other on his own analog joystick) what happens to his ability to engage in sex with a human partner? Just as the microwave eliminated the taste for and appreciation of unprocessed food for millions of Americans, digitally interfaced sex could create a whole class of Americans for whom sex IS electronically mediated pleasure.
What does online pornography mean for the digital female?
Some state that web pornography empowers women because it gives women control over the commercialization of the female body and because women can control the point of sale. These arguments may be true, but they are not grounds for optimism. If women are creating pornography, they are generally not creating it for other women.
The economic motor that powers the porn industry is making money by objectifying women, not empowering them….Examples of the trivialization and reduction of the female in cyberspace abound. Naked News (www.nakednews.com), for example, is a web site at which very professional looking women read the real news on any given day. These are women who aspire to serious journalism and desire careers as newscasters. On this particular site, however, as the women read the news they remove all of their clothes. It is almost a surreal experience to watch women reporting on the deaths of real people, recounting real events while they perform a striptease. This is an incredibly effective way of communicating the message that no matter how intelligent, professional and capable women can be, they are still just meat and what REALLY matters is what they look like without their clothes on. Thus the point of the site is not just to see women stripping, but to watch women publicly humiliate themselves and their sex for money.
Technological reconstruction of the female selfhood:
The role of woman as reproducer of the species is affected by the increased technologization of the reproductive process as well as by an overall decline in the inclination of citizens in highly technological societies to reproduce at all. The process of having a baby in the industrial world now entails a daunting series of tests and procedures. In vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and other technological interventions into the birth process reduce the mystique or “miracle” of birth to a process which currently only requires an organic female body because complete technological replacement of the reproductive process hasn’t been developed yet. Films like The Matrix and many others foresee a future in which babies grow in pods and are hatched like eggs.
Given that much of the construction of female selfhood is related to the female potential for reproduction (whether actually realized in the act of reproducing or not) it is interesting to examine “female” role models after this aspect is removed.
What then remains for women, if the role of the mother is not represented?…It is interesting to conjecture on the appeal of digitally represented sexuality in contrast to sexual behavior between organic bodies. The appeal of the hyperreal at the expense of organic experience is an issue that begs for quantitative measurement. We know that males use online pornography extensively, but we don’t know how this affects their sexual behavior offline. Digital sex is easily controlled, clean and eternally accessible.
Does extensive experience with the pleasures of hypersex make it less likely for males to seek out organic sexual partners? Certainly the publicity surrounding the marketing of the Real Dolls™ suggests that the hyperreal is so appealing that some are compelled to make the hyperreal real by creating organic embodiments of the digital
female fetish object.
But the hypperreal creates the illusion that the digitally perfect versions of “human” existence on the screen can cross over into the organic body. It is now “normal” for perfectly healthy teenage and young adult women to undergo plastic surgery to attain the perfectly round, gravity defying breasts that characterize digital beauties.
Advertisements advocating the injection of the toxic compound Botox™ into women’s faces began to appear in women’s magazines following approval by the FDA in November of 2002. The desire for a line-free, characterless, expressionless face (Botox™ works by paralyzing the muscles of the face) to match those of digitally generated models justifies actual poisoning of the body. This disregard for the “fleshy envelope” extends beyond females.
Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball provides the player with a fantasy island of perfectly formed women (animated, interactive Real Dolls™). The player’s role in the game is primarily to watch: watch the girls jump in their tiny bikinis, watch them roll in the sand, watch them move rhythmically up and down on their bicycle seats. The camera’s eye prefers to linger on the breasts and buttocks of the girls as they move through the gameworld. It is clearly a game to be played with one hand while the other is on the player’s own personal joystick. This game creates a male function is to move among and manipulate the female avatars in order to maximize his own pleasure. BMX XXX (released fall 2002) is interactive soft porn. The alleged purpose of the game (bike racing) is just a flimsy premise to allow the player access to the cut scenes of actual strippers and interactive lap dancing. Female embodiment in
this game is reduced entirely to a fetish sex object symbolically penetrated by objects including: hot dogs, poles holding bicycle seats and the boot of the pimp.
Women are not in charge of their own representations and are thus even more successfully objectified than in traditional media. As a male-dominated playworld, cyberspace has become a place where the depiction of the “female” is largely as that of an object which exists purely to be “fucked.”
Through this kind of sexual behaviour/play males can be trapped in a loop wherein the needs of the self are the only needs that matter. The dark side of interactivity is that it allows the user to create the maximally selfish environment from which there is no escape. Once you have habituated yourself to sexual situations in which the
“partner” exists purely to please you and the pleasee has no obligation/desire/ability to please in return, then the pleasee becomes incapable of sex with an (unpredictable) human being.
Technologically mediated play (and sex), rather than being phenomenon that bring people together, can progressively isolate players into masturbatory fantasies fueled by commodities which must be paid for.
The Gestell [German term for “what lies beneath technology”] seeks to dis-empower players through the construction of rigid gender roles which separate the female and the male into binary self-destructive/ other-destructive existences. Resistance, destruction and creation are enabled by the very technology that is enslaving.
Click here to download the full book “The Clitoris and the Joystick: Play, Pleasure, and Power in Cyberspace“ (free, in PDF).