Your VR Genitals and You

[Originally published June 22, 2016]

Every single person you know is self-conscious. That gorgeous guy you haven’t worked up the courage to talk to hates his thighs. That lovely lady you daydream about never feels like she got her makeup quite right. One of the US presidential candidates got into a literal dick-measuring contest because he couldn’t handle it when one of his opponent made a ‘small hands’ joke.

What a time to be alive.

Now, I’d never claim that we gamers are quite like Donald, but I will say that we struggle with issues of self-perception all the same. An ampleamount of research has shown that games have a real impact on the way that we examine and criticize our bodies – male, female, and otherwise. You don’t need a psych degree to see why this might happen. Media influences our perception of the world around us, and – when we constantly play as / interact with charming, attractive, put-together characters like Nathan Drake, Bayonetta, and Elena Fisher – we base our standards around the seemingly infallible characters we play as. When they’re not ruthlessly slaughtering hundreds of people just trying to do their jobs, they’re actually quite likeable – but that’s the problem, isn’t it? Very few games acknowledge the dark parts of their protagonists. When Nathan and Sam ride away from the destruction they cause in King’s Bay, they laugh – and the player’s meant to join them. Look at these bulletproof paragons. You relate to them. You want to be them – the game screams this at you. These are meant to be characters we look up to and emulate, and they dominate the narratives our industry feeds us. Sure, we have titles like Max Payne 3 and L.A. Noire that try to make you question their protagonists, but most games don’t choose to grapple with the sociopathy of their marble-sculpted stars. It’s a quietly sinister equation – charming one-liners + physical prowess + assumed moral superiority = status quo role models, full of culturally ignored flaws – and I fear its sum will change with the advent of VR.

There’s something undeniably different about playing a game in VR than in the typical manner. That’s kind of the point – otherwise VR would just be like any other pointless gimmick. Remember 3D? It’s okay, no one else does either. VR is a bit of a game-changer, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s completely altered the way our brains perceive our relationship with our in-game avatars. VR’s greatest strength – and, potentially, its greatest weakness – is that it removes one of those imperceptible layers between player and avatar. Sure, it increases the catharses of immersion, but that’s not without its drawbacks. Many games are about killing and dying, and – by removing one of those aforementioned layers – VR heightens the neurological responses to these experiences. This applies to virtual interaction as well. Polygon ran an article a while ago about the unique and intensified severity of VR harassment. The short and skinny is that VR allows potential antagonists to act deliberately, precisely, and viciously against your virtual form – a form that your brain more readily interprets as your own. There’s something a lot more personal and upsetting when a virtual hand contorts to intentionally simulate sexual assault than when someone toggles the crouch button to jankily ‘T-bag’ your 3rd person corpse. PR material for VR horror games often label them as ‘Too Scary’ due to the VR component. Sure, that’s some massages hyped-up PR BS, but there’s still a nougat of truth behind the marketing. The psychology of VR remains relatively unexplored, and this has me approaching the tech with cautious excitement. Given what we know about the link between games and negative self-perception, would it be unreasonable to make the claim that VR might enhance said negative causal link?

I don’t think so.

This question came to me – not in a book or a dream, but in one of Nick Robinson’s (Video Producer at Polygon) videos. It highlights a brief, tantalizing part of Far Cry 4 in which you get to see your own penis. This is interesting for two reasons:

  1. You almost never get to see virtual male genitals. S/O to Outlast for having the Chutzpa to put penises in their game, even if only for the shock value.
  2. As you’ll notice in the video, the penis is actually just so very slightly censored. A light blur obfuscates our ability to enjoy the few juicy frames of HD genitals. Heresy!

Similarly, the recent Death Stranding trailer teased us with a glimpse at Norman Reedus’s [insert Reedus-rhymes-with-penis joke here], but failed to deliver. Show us! Show us! We cried. But Kojima refused to relent, and we as a species must live another torturous day not knowing every fold, wrinkle, and crevasse of Norman’s genitals.

In these cases, the developers have full control over the player’s view. Even when a character is naked, the devs can limit the player’s ability to examine their own body, keeping things like the penis juuuuuuuuuuust out of frame. Not so in VR. Inside a Vive, you can look up and down and all around. As the tech improves and the games become more refined, it’s likely that we’ll be playing as the standard Buff and/or Busty characters we’ve grown so accustomed to – the standard characters that cultivate negative body images. If VR heightens the neurological responses to virtual physical interaction, does it not then stand to reason that the same phenomenon might occur when self-perception is involved? Sure, playing like an abstract floating beast might not trigger a negative response – I’m not a weird, ethereal VR orb (I think) – but playing as a ripped and ribbled super-dude might. I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to pursue certain forms and figures we enjoy, as long as we recognize them as somewhat unattainable.

But I’m getting away from dicks, and that’s a problem. Gotta keep things light. How do devs reconcile nudity with the freedom of VR? It’s going to be someone’s job somewhere to ‘render the dick.’ How big do they make it? How wrinkly? These are patently ridiculous questions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be answered. What does this mean for young teens and presidential hopefuls who constantly engage that pointless, depressing question: is my penis normal? This is, of course, to say nothing of women who feel self-conscious about their stomachs, busts, butts, etc. as a result of the bodies they see in games. This is a problem for every gender, but I don’t really see anyone talking about it. This is entirely speculative on my part; I’m no scientist, and – as I’ve mentioned – there’s really not a lot of VR-centric research to expand our perspectives. VR is a thrilling part of our new reality, but I don’t think that means it gets a free pass. Let’s examine VR with a critical eye, and hopefully keep it a tool of fun – not self-deprecation.

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