Sunday, April 06, 2008

Worlds apart

I have recently been reading two books which have made an impression on me - for wildly different reasons. One is a Swedish book on their recent debate around pornography and prostitution, Petra Östergren's Porr, Horor och Feminister, the other is Edward Castronova's Exodus to the Virtual World.

Reading these books simultaneously has been a truly weird experience. I came a little late to Östergren's book, as it is written mainly for the Swedish debate. It is a highly political book where Östergren reports her own research on pornography and prostitution, how this has been received by feminist activists in Sweden, and how pornography and prostitution is discussed in the Swedish public sphere. It is fascinating reading, not the least because of the feeling that Östergren is fighting what she sincerely believes to be the good fight: she has come around from being highly suspicious of the sex industry to becoming equally suspicious of the public image being painted of this industry. She introduces us to the results of her own research; hundreds of hours watching porn of all types, years of contacting, getting to know and interviewing prostitutes.

Östergren's conclusion is clear all the way through the book. She is very much against the recent law which made prostitution illegal in Sweden, and she shows how the process towards having this law accepted has totally ignored any sceptical voices among the sex-workers. The only permitted "voice" has been that of the generic tired, worn-down prostitute saying "yes, what I do is horrible and should be outlawed." She demonstrates how this is an example of hegemonic violence, and writes with a passion on behalf of the women she has learned to know in the course of her research. It is a emotionally raw piece of writing, which still manages to stay within the world of documented facts. Yes, she excludes the traditional image of the abused whore from the book, her examples are the ones who deal well with their jobs. But she is honest about that, and she is also right: that story has been told, and it's been told frequently.

It is a fascinating book both for the alternative take on a familiar topic, but also for the clear and elegant argument all the way through. She fights for a better world, and she uses her skill and her knowledge to do so, honestly and in a well-researched manner.

This has been my breakfast treat this week, before I have immersed myself again in game writing. Parts of the time focusing on games has been spent going through Castronova's more recent book. Being another political document throwing an alternative view out there, it is comparable to the Östergren book in the passionate and highly alternative views it presents. The similarities end there.

I have to admit I hope Exodus to the Virtual World is an ironic statement about the state of games scholarship, development and commercialism, and that I am just not getting the joke. Alternatively that he did it for the money, in which case he succeeded, I did buy the book after all. To accept that a scholar who is otherwise so sane and clear in his arguments in the field where he knows what he is doing has suddenly decided to write this book and means it seriously, is really a far stretch. Yes, we can all write not-so-good books, but this is a political statement promoting such a totalitarian system in the name of "fun", that it goes from being not-so-brilliant to being scary. It actually made me reconsider the dangers of studying games.

Östergren writes about how the Swedish critics of films are only allowed to work with pornography for a limited time, because after that they are supposedly emotionally stunted, and blind to what might offend others. Exodus to the Virtual World made me wonder if there should be a similar rule for game research: That after 5 years with games we have to work with something else, say - news reporting from Palestine or the economy of alternative energy - for two years before touching game studies again.

This doesn't keep me from taking advantage of the book though. There are enough clichés used that it's turning out to be very useful when refering to common misconceptions. I guess this shows that I am just becoming an emotionally stunted game scholar.

No comments: