Sex Work

A Feminist Video Game Anita Sarkeesian Would Hate?


First, choose your city: Toronto, Vancouver, or Montréal. Next, decide whether avatar Andrea (Andréa, if you chose Montreal) will work on the streets, in a massage parlor, or as an escort. Then try to get screwed literally without being figuratively fucked by the cops—an ultimately no-win situation when it comes to The Oldest Game. Developed by a team of Canadian academics, the project is meant to highlight how the country's new prostitution law, C-36, makes life more difficult and dangerous for Canadian sex workers.

The law, which took effect in December 2014, "continues to criminalize various aspects of sex work, often removing safeguards and strategies that place sex workers in dangerous situation, placing at risk the very vulnerable people the bill ostensibly exists to protect," note the game's creators

Through various encounters with clients, colleagues and law enforcement in three difference Canadian cities, players will experience how the legislation changes the way sex workers live and work, and play through the additional challenges sex workers will face when trying to remain safe.

Winnipeg Free Press

Sandra Gabriele, a Concordia communications professor and one of the project's co-leads, is interested in using games as a form of journalism. She told The Globe and Mail:

"I approach this as an academic. So my question is: How well do news games succeed in helping us understand stories beyond the two-sided debate in typical journalism? We wanted to see if we could devise a game that explored the systems and point to the complexity of the situation, with the hope that people would then better understand exactly what's at stake."

Gabriele … first began considering the news game format when she read Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer's book Newsgames: Journalism at Play. "The argument they make is basically: games are really good at demonstrating how systems work, so in order to be a good player, you have to understand what all the factors are that you're trying to balance," she says.

"So I just kind of got the idea. It was right around when the Bedford challenge was being launched and I thought to myself, isn't this a great example of a place where understanding how certain systems work together, like the legal system, like policing in individual communities, like poverty and debt, lead to certain kinds of choices that sex workers are often forced to make."

Gabriele and Concordia journalism professor Lisa Lynch partnered with a team of students studying video game design and development, as well as student writers and researchers. Sex worker Marilyne Hudon served as a consultant. The team plans to make the game available for free online play this February.

In Decemeber, frequent Reason contributor Noah Berlatsky explored how the long-time feminist divide over sex work has spilled over into the world of video games. Well-known feminist video critic Anita Sarkeesian "often focuses on the way games treat sex workers," but her video critiques "have not garnered much praise from those most directly affected"; "many sex workers have argued that Sarkeesian's videos contribute to the objectification and stigma that she claims she is trying to reduce" and "tell her, repeatedly, that her videos fail to represent them." From Berlatsky: 

Much of the criticism of Sarkeesian has centered around her terminology. She doesn't call sex workers "sex workers." Instead she refers to them throughout her video series as "prostituted women." That's a term often used by writers who see all sex work as automatically exploitative or harmful to women, and by those who want to criminalize sex work. Sex workers have repeatedly tried to ask Sarkeesian on social media to reconsider her language, but she hasn't responded, and has continued to use the term. For example, in this recent tweet she says that fans of Grand Theft Auto have been harassing her by sending her images of "gameplay of the use & murder of prostitutes." The fact that gamers are using images of sex workers to harass Sarkeesian seems like it fits into her analysis—violence against sex workers is deployed in a misogynist way, in order to harass and intimidate a woman. But at the same time, Sarkeesian, by referring to the "use" of sex workers, seems to buy into the same logic, treating sex workers as things or utilities, rather than as human beings. (Sarkeesian did not respond to a request to comment for this article.)

I haven't seen or played The Oldest Game yet, so I can't say how well it lives up to creators' goals of portraying sex work realities and not negating sex workers' agency. But the way the developers talk and write about the project is encouraging. "With the goal of paying bills, the game normalizes sex work by stressing that, just like any other type of worker, sex workers are striving to meet their financial needs," state The Oldest Game's creators.

When a player must constantly risk being arrested, hurt or killed, the implications of the three laws at stake cannot be brushed aside. A player experiences these laws' consequences, rather than simply reading about them.

This game is impossible to win, highlighting that sex workers cannot earn their livelihood safely and legally while it remains illegal to keep a brothel, to live off the avails of prostitution, and to communicate in public for the purposes of prostitution. This will hopefully lead players to empathize with the plight of sex workers. It will help them to understand how monumental the Ontario changes to two laws is for sex workers, as well has how problematic it is that the third law (to communicate in public for the purposes of prostitution) still remains illegal

NEXT: Throwing Children Out in the Cold Still OK, If You're the Government

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  1. OT: Elizabethtown (KY) newspaper calls it like they see it.

    1. I wonder if they did that on accidentally on purpose.

      1. It has to have been a deliberate insertion by someone. The claim that it was a “typo” is as laughable as Jonathan Gruber’s claims that he “misspoke”.

        “Correction: We meant to say that most people become police officers in order to “hoot” minorities. As in catcall them. Wait, that’s bad too. THIS PRESS CONFERENCE IS OVER!!”

  2. Is Montreal the easy setting?

    1. no that’s Las Vegas or New Orleans the only places I know of where you can accidentally get a blowjob. well those places and bath houses.

      1. I dunno. I never went but I heard stories about the clubs in Montreal. And there are definitely well known neighbo(u)rhoods.

      2. I initially read this as New Vegas.

        1. I used to be a New Vegas prostitute, until I took a Fisto to the knee.

          1. Numbness will subside shortly.

    2. If you have a $100 bill, every one of them is on the Easy setting.

  3. If you pick the street option do you have to avoid hypothermia? Is the boss character a rapesquatch?

    1. I know University students bitching about a few hundred dollar hike in their tuition can afford Canada Goose jackets, but not sure about sex workers.



  4. Andrea should come south of the border and join Julia in a world where government cares for women from cradle to grave.

  5. I’ll say it: video games with a message suck dick after being gang-raped on top of a glass table. (Too soon?)

    In the genre, Bioshock is probably the best “message” video game, and it is merely adequate at best in terms of game mechanics. In contrast, authentically fun games do so not by beating its primary audience over the head with their inadequacies or the “grittiness” of the real world, but by creating a new one and glorying in its own absurdities or escapism.

    I feel that the above is overly charitable and overly subtle, so I will close by saying FUCK MESSAGE GAMES.

    1. video games with a message suck dick after being gang-raped on top of a glass table.

      So they only suck in your head?

      1. The only suck when he’s crushing hard on a boy and wants to catfish him…

      2. Well-played, heh.

    2. Clearly the best message game ever is Privates.

      Includes the amazing line: “YOU CAN’T KILL ME, I’M AIDS.”

    3. I don’t know, GTA 5, Liberty City and San Andreas were pretty good games with the message that crime pays.

  6. So are there haptic input/output devices.

    1. Asking for a friend

  7. No way this could be worse than Zoe Quinn’s text-based browser game about depression.

    1. That game was ABOUT depression? I thought it just CAUSED depression.

      1. No, it was her horrid tits that caused the depression.

        1. They’re, like, The Notebook sad.

  8. Great – take video-game sex and make it guilt-inducing.

  9. Anita Sarkeesian would find a reason to hate any game.

  10. If Anita ever comes out of hiding, we can ask her. Last I heard, her supporters got her out of America and she is in a cabin in the remote wilderness of Canada. Or maybe that was Offred.

    1. Serious question because I haven’t followed gaming media or the Gamergate shit for years: Has Sarkeesian ever actually debated someone over her arguments about video games or has it just always been preaching to the converted?

      1. Not that I’ve seen. She normally reacts to all criticism but cherrypicking out the threats and ignoring the rest. The “real debate” cannot occur until she feels safe.

        1. Good to know. Looks like she choose the ‘Echo Chamber’ perk.

      2. No debates, few responses but with no substance.

        She would last about 10 seconds in a debates where facts and context were required.

      3. Has Sarkeesian ever actually debated someone over her arguments about video games…

        That’s impossible, because you would actually have to argue against the male feminist (Jonathan McIntosh) who actually writes her nonsense for her.

  11. A video game where you take up the role of a plucky Canuck prostitute who prostitutes in several provinces….


    Sandra Gabriele, a Concordia communications professor and one of the project’s co-leads, is interested in using games as a form of journalism.


  12. One wonders what feminists think of a retro game like Q*bert, where the characters are of indeterminate gender and there’s no message whatsoever.

    They probably hate it for not being properly political

  13. Come on ENB, it’s been like 2 WEEKS since I’ve had to hear that *fingernails on a chalkboard* name!

  14. Sandra Gabriele, a Concordia communications professor and one of the project’s co-leads, is interested in using games as a form of journalism.

    She means as a form of propaganda. Sorry–and I’m not necessarily opposed to her message, here–but a game is a fake environment whose creators control all the possibilities. If you can’t win it, that doesn’t tell you prostitutes have it tough, it tells you the game wants to hit you over the head with how tough its writers think prostitutes have it.

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