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.
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.
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.Read more: Largest Sex Worker Conference in the US Is Canceled Amid FOSTA FearsWhat 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.
At the very least, let's treat the work of sex work and sex worker characters themselves with that basic level of respect.