This Researcher Studied How Sex Workers Are Portrayed in Video Games
Bonnie Ruberg examined how sex workers are treated and programmed to behave in games like Grand Theft Auto V and Fallout: New Vegas.
In Grand Theft Auto V, you can hire a sex worker for a price she sets. You can watch her perform the service, then carry on with your game. Or you can stalk her, chase her down, and murder her. If you opt for the latter, you’re rewarded with your money back, and you get to keep the rejuvenated “health” that she gave you moments earlier. If the player is caught in the act of hurting a sex worker, the cops in the game will go after them as they would for other violent crimes.
The game never requires the player to behave this way, but the systems at play here imply a certain set of values: sex work has worth, is beneficial to the client, and exploiting sex workers, while risky, is always an option.
The presence of a thriving sex work industry in GTA V, and the way the player interacts with providers, says a lot about how developers view those in the sex trade. Considering GTA V sold almost 100 million copies, that’s worth examining. And the representation of sex workers across several mainstream games each send similar messages: The player is always too good, too attractive, or too skilled to pay full-price.
Bonnie Ruberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, Irvine, undertook a study on how sex workers are portrayed in video games. The paper is titled “Representing sex workers in video games: feminisms, fantasies of exceptionalism, and the value of erotic labor,” published in the journal Feminist Media Studies.
Ruberg’s research examined big budget video games, focusing on three in particular: Fallout: New Vegas, Sleeping Dogs, and Grand Theft Auto V. In each of these games, sex workers were interactive, non-playable characters, and the interaction options often rewarded the player for abusing the worker, or getting discounted services.
Before entering academia, Ruberg was a tech and games journalist—now, their research focuses on gender and sexuality in digital media and cultures.
“I'm really committed to social justice in digital spaces, though it's not always easy to be the spokesperson for that kind of thinking, especially amidst so much harassment online,” Ruberg told me in an email.
I asked Ruberg about their new study, what’s it’s like studying the intersection of gaming and sex work, and how game developers can make better characters that represent sex workers in realistic, labor-valuing ways.
What inspired you to start researching sex work representation in games?
I've always been interested in issues of gender and sexuality in video games, and I'm also a big believer in sex workers' rights. When I was a tech journalist, I focused a lot on the intersection of technology and sex, so I had the opportunity to meet and become friends with a number of sex workers who were also sex workers rights activists. I think their work is absolutely important and so strong.
The real trouble isn't that there are sex workers in these games, it's that they're represented in ways that make their labor (and sometimes their lives) seem less valuable.
When I started thinking about how sex work is represented in video games and what other feminists were saying about it, I was really struck that the current conversation was about how sex workers in video games were objectified just because they were sex workers. It's such a problematic and potentially really harmful idea to say that sex work is just fundamentally exploitation—as if sex workers don't have agency and should be treated like victims. Among other problems, it means we stop seeing how much work goes into sex work, which is a phrase that comes from journalist Melissa Gira Grant.
So this research came out of what I see as a need to start thinking differently about how video games—which are such a widely influential medium—represent sex workers. The real trouble isn't that there are sex workers in these games, it's that they're represented in ways that make their labor (and sometimes their lives) seem less valuable.
Did anything surprise you in the course of your research? What did you find that was unexpected?
I was really struck by how often, when sex workers appear in AAA games, they almost always offer to give their services to the player-characters for free or at a discount. If you watch the Feminist Frequency "Women as Background Decorations" videos, one clip after another shows women sex workers telling the player-character that they're so attractive they don't have to pay for sex or they can get a special reduced price. That's not something I had seen any one else address in depth when it comes to sex workers in video games—how problematic it is that these sex worker characters are always telling player-characters that they're so exceptional they're willing to devalue their own labor.
I can imagine someone defending negative portrayals of sex work in games by bringing up the studies that have shown that violent video games don’t result in more gun violence . What would you say to someone who might try to claim that it's not actually harmful to anyone in real life? What are the real-life consequences of representing sex workers in devalued ways in games?
The ways that AAA video games represent sex workers can definitely have harmful, real-life implications. As is the case a lot of the time with harmful media representations, the effect isn't necessarily direct. The main concern isn't that someone is going to play a game like this and then, the next time they're in a transaction with a sex worker, demand a discount. The concern is that the messages that video games send players affect the ways they understand other people and themselves. Sex workers are already in an enormously precarious position because of the cultural biases against them. Teaching players that sex workers' labor doesn't have value—at least not for them—makes it all the less likely those players will question their own biases toward sex work.
At the very least, let's treat the work of sex work and sex worker characters themselves with that basic level of respect.
How can game developers better represent sex workers?
First off, like with any type of "diverse" representation, one of the most important things that developers could do before incorporating sex worker characters is to talk with actual sex workers—and compensate them for their contributions, of course. There are lots of sex worker activists who have visibility online, and they would be great resources for consulting. Second, in terms of developing characters themselves, let sex workers and their labor get the same respect as any other non-player character (NPC) at *work.* Sure, how games treat NPCs is often problematic in and of itself, but there are lots of examples of NPCs in games who are working, they render a service, they get paid, and the player moves on: like shop keeps or people with a trade. At the very least, let's treat the work of sex work and sex worker characters themselves with that basic level of respect.
What are you going to dig into next, now that this study is completed?
Exploring issues at the intersection of sex, labor, and the digital is one of the threads of my research (for example, I wrote a piece for the journal Porn Studies a few years back about how the cultural fantasies of amateur online porn undermine the value of sex work)—but I also do a lot of other stuff related to gender and sexuality and digital media, so there's a bunch else on docket that's a bit less relevant here. In terms of sex/sexuality, labor, and the digital though, I recently wrote the first draft of a piece about the precarious labor of queer independent game making. There are dozen and dozens of amazing queer indie game makers these days, and their work gets celebrated as making the games industry and games culture "better," but often they're working really hard for next to no money. That's the kind of thing I'm hoping to explore more and shed more light on — how the cultural narratives we tell about folks whose work relates to sex or sexuality in games get obscured by the stories we tell in and about games.