Actually, I was completely ignorant of the topic until very recently.
Yesterday I received an email from fellow LOTT-D member Absinthe of Gloomy Sunday fame. It contained a link to a thoughtful piece by the whimsically named Winda Benedetti, the "Citizen Gamer" columnist for MSNBC. In the column, Ms. Benedetti takes a look at The Torture Game and its more popular and grisly sequel, The Torture Game 2.
The article links to game, should you wish to try your hand at abusing the nameless victim pictured above. I do believe, though I have not tried it myself, that you can customize the face; this is a boon to those finicky gamers who derive no pleasure from torturing strictly anonymous and generic victims. Ms. Benedetti describes this fairly simple game thusly:
Here, a pale, androgynous human hangs from ropes on the computer screen before you. Among the devices at your disposal — a chainsaw, a razor blade, spikes, a pistol … and a paintbrush (take that!)
There’s little in the way of instructions and no points to be earned. Instead, this dangling ragdoll offers you a canvas to do with what you will — stab him with spikes, flay the skin from his body with a razor, pull his limbs off with your bare hands, paint him every color of the rainbow. No matter what you do to him, he never screams and his expression never changes. He only utters a vague “uuungh” when you’ve inflicted enough damage to kill him.
And that’s pretty much it.
I would only add to this that the victim is not exactly androgynous. He is clearly a he. Even Benedetti uses the masculine pronoun for the victim throughout the article. The awkward use of the term androgynous reflects the fact that, like a Ken doll, he possesses a smooth patch of blank flesh where his sexual organs should be. This underscores an odd detail regarding media torture that I completely overlooked in my series of post on so-called torture porn films: torture porn, in films and games, are remarkably sexless.
Sadly, sexual abuse and rape are a fact of torture. The photos out of Abu Ghraib, themselves a sort of "game" in that they seem to have been staged by the soldiers for the purposes of entertainment and were not a record of standard interrogation procedure, are a brutal reminder of this. Soldiers at the prison made their charges simulate and perform sexual acts on one another. They photographed them in various stages of nudity. In what is perhaps one of the most infamous photographs, PVT Lynndie Rana England, cigarette dangling from her lips, uses both hands to point at the penis of a naked prisoner who is being forced to masturbate for the camera.
By contrast, few examples of torture porn, either in film or in video games, incorporate this. This may sound odd considering Hostel's affection for the nubile flesh of Eastern European co-ed's, but one of the most obvious consequences of the extreme imbalance of power that exists in a torture situation – rape and sexual abuse – rarely figures in. None of the Saw films feature sexual violation or humiliation as a component of Jigsaw's traps. In fact, when sex does appear in the Saw films, Jigsaw's violence is usually presented as a scourge meant to punish the perverse or purify the sexually corrupt (among his victims we find a prostitute, an adulterer, and a producer of violent kiddie porn). In the Hostel franchise, the second film features the threat of a rape that is not, ultimately, carried out and ends in the castration of the would-be rapist, as if he was being punished for taking the act of torture into a still somehow taboo realm of sexual violation. Captivity, perhaps the most nakedly sexualized of the torture porn flicks, is still weirdly virginal. The victims are pretty women, but their trials are strictly non-sexual and, curiously, meant to de-sexualize them: good-looking women get their faces melted off, for example.
Why are our fantasies of torture so sexless? I'm not sure I have a good answer.
The limitations are not technical. Graphic sexuality, though never as popular with gamers as graphic violence, would be nothing new to the world of film or video games. In fact, there's a steady, if mostly non-mainstream, history of sexual violence in video games stretching back to the 2600s bizarre Custer's Revenge - in which you dodged arrows in order to rape a Native American woman (at least, we're told that's what was happening – it was the 2600 and every looked pretty vague) – and running all the way up to the modern GTA franchise – in which players are rewarded for killing prostitutes. If sex organs are missing from The Torture Game 2 it is only because the game's programmer didn't want them to appear.
Perhaps the barrier is strictly social. Sexual violence remains beyond the pale in a way non-sexualized violence does not. As a culture, we have shown a remarkable capacity for rationalizing and defending real and imagined violence: it must exist in the real world for security, as a bulwark to social order, to maintain the law, as reflection of our immutable animal nature; it must exist in the fictional world for catharsis, to reflect the facts of the real world, to give vent to primal urges suppressed for the sake of society. But add a sexual element to that violence and we sense that the field shifts. We're dealing with a different sort of taboo. We either play dumb or reject it. In the former case, we call it camp, stress its unimportance, or otherwise reject the notion that it carries with it the weight of representation. Could anybody enjoy Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS if they could not dismiss the idea that the film was a sincere and genuine sexualized exploitation of the Holocaust? Has any positive reviewer of that film ever just come out and said, "What really gives Ilsa its kick is that, in the back of the viewers' minds, we cannot dismiss the knowledge that we're desecrating the mass graves of 6 million Jews"? Ironically, our enjoyment of "exploitation" cinema might rest on the mental judo trick that we simply disbelieve that it is really exploitation in any fundamental way. In the latter case, we morally rebel. It is hard to imagine, for example, anybody arguing that, unfortunate as the sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib was, it was essential for national security. (In fact, right-wing defenders of the administration attempted both lines of reasoning: claiming that the abuse was the product of a few morally reprehensible bad apples and dismissing it as part of a meaningless "frat-like prank.") However, that same excuse is regularly offered for all manner of excessive violence – from civilian casualties to support of violence regimes to brutal interrogation techniques – provide it doesn't carry the added taint of sex.
Then again, it may have to do with the real appeal of torture porn being something almost pre-sexual. Benedetti writes:
Unlike most video games that come with a healthy dose of hack-and-slash, “The Torture Game 2” offers no story to give context to your actions. Your victim … he’s simply hanging there, waiting for you. Meanwhile, the game’s ragdoll physics lend a sickeningly hypnotic charm to the whole affair. With every touch of your cruel hand, every cut of the chainsaw, your victim sways, bounces and dances like some fleshy marionette.
This description reminded me of Freud's story of the fort/da game. There's something strangely comforting, regressive, and almost innocent about the fantasy of complete power. The Torture Game 2 speaks to this fantasy by what it leaves out. The victim can't talk. If he could plead and beg, it would be clear that his entire existence isn't simply predicated on your will. The victim is also sexless. This allows players to avoid that most taboo and anxiety-ridden area - an area that brings with it the danger of an implicit recognition of the fundamental and irreducible otherness of people.
These are, of course, just random thoughts. I'd be curious to hear y'all's take on this.