Playing Naked: Procedural Misogyny in Videogame Culture

Curator's Note

Representations of female nudity in video games often reproduce patriarchal gender and sexual relations. In Platinum Games' Bayonetta (2010), the minimally-clad title character draws power from her sexuality, removing her clothes–made out of her hair–to attack her enemies. Nudity is, quite literally, Bayonetta's ammunition. Yet, far from empowering feminine subjectivities, Bayonetta's identity is derived from objectification and dependent upon a lack of control. 

Hideki Kamiya, Bayonetta's designer, calls the character his "ideal woman" and explains that the Umbra witch uses magic to turn her hair into a costume-cum-weapon. If she gets weak, he says, "she might just lose her power...and you know what that means!" Notably, Bayonetta's presentation as a video game character emphasizes the sexism of Kamiya's design. Paralleling the structural usurpation of female sexual choice in a hypermediatic society, Bayonetta is stripped of agency by the medium in which she is coded. She was created for men, by men, as a playable fetish object.

Feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian faults Bayonetta's reductive logic. Calling the character a "pornographic, overly-sexualized animated representation" of adolescent male fantasies, Sarkeesian critiques the game's many mysogynistic elements, like Bayonetta regaining her power by sucking on a lollipop. She also problematizes Platinum Games' Japan-based marketing strategy, which involved subway riders peeling away advertising cards to reveal the game's main character in the buff.

Sarkeesian correctly contends that Platinum's ad campaign elevates objectifying marketing schemes by asking people to "actively participate in doing misogyny." Sexist engagement is embedded in the game itself, however, whereby exploitative gameplay mirrors female essentialism. Video game researcher Ian Bogost coined the term "procedural rhetoric" to describe an argument made through the computational processes of a computer game. Perhaps the clearest example of Bayonetta's procedural rhetoric comes when Bayonetta encounters the doppelganger Joy, then proceeds to fight her via a sexy pose competition. Here, the game appears to argue that women are sex objects whose naked bodies are literally usable by men and threatening to other women.

Nudity isn't inherently problematic. In an era of increased sexual violence scrutiny, though, responsible game designers must ask: what procedural rhetorics can be employed to interrupt misogynistic depictions of female desire and the normative violence of the asymmetrical male gaze?

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