A little while ago, I read an editorial over on IGN entitled “Why Do Booth Babes Exist?” It was a very insightful article, putting to words what I’d previously only perceived as a vague unease. I’ve never cared much for booth babes…okay, that’s a lie. But rather, my attraction to them is tempered by the impression that these are the free version of strippers – that gawking at women who’ve been retained to stand around in sexy outfits is one step down from paying women to take their clothes off. And of course, strippers themselves are just one step down from out-and-out prostitution.
The article ultimately makes a very calm, well-reasoned, and scathing rebuke of the whole idea of booth babes. Specifically, it points out the embarrassing truth: that while it’s normal for men to follow even the hint of sex, chasing that hint when it can’t possibly lead to sex, and we know it but still go after it anyway, is pathetic.
There’s more to the article than just that, of course, but that point is where the article’s main idea intersects most strongly with that of tabletop gaming. Much like the booth babes found at (fandom) conventions, tabletop role-playing games are infamous for adding sexual elements that seem to serve no purpose except to titillate for the sake of titillating.
Now, that’s a charge that’s mostly true, but not entirely. Fantasy artwork, usually associated with tabletop RPGs, is usually the worst offender in this regard. However, whereas a booth babe to promote a Mario game is utterly without context (unless she’s dressed, say, as Princess Peach), sexy artwork can simply be relevant. A picture of a succubus, for example, is erotic because a succubus is an erotic monster, and the illustration is simply reflective of that.
The above is a flimsy rationale, but still a valid one. Unfortunately, most fantasy artwork that aims for the groin doesn’t even try to cling to this level of reasoning. Instead, they often present sex in a manner that’s often wildly incongruous with even the minimal context set up by the picture itself. Does it make sense for the barbarian woman to be wearing nothing but a chainmail bikini when she’s fighting off the orc horde? Nope, but that’s how she’s dressed.
This is even more true when it comes to trying to integrate sex into the actual game-play itself. The problem is that, since tabletop games lack even a visual element (aforementioned illustrations notwithstanding) to act as enticement, there’s nothing left but to verbalize the sexual lure that’s being dangled in front of a PC. Doing so, however, is active rather than passive, and invariably makes explicit the sexual innuendo that’s implicit in almost any other medium.
Suddenly, it’s painfully obvious to everyone around you that you’re at least somewhat aroused, and willing to pursue the object of that arousal even though it’s an unreachable fantasy…which makes you look, as stated above, pathetic. If there’s no hope of actual sex, why are you focusing on it so much? It’s that, more than anything else, that brings about such derision for any aspect of eroticism in RPGs, and for the people who enjoy eroticism in RPGs.
In summary, as someone else once said, “fantasy violence is cool because nobody actually gets hurt. Fantasy sex is stupid because nobody actually gets laid.”