Lyne Dwyer

Lyne Dwyer a game maker and PhD student Concordia University’s Communication Studies program. Their research interests include digital intimacies, gender, sexuality and digital media interfaces. While their MA thesis focused on the queer possibility of non-monogamies in the farm- and life- simulation game, Stardew Valley, their future projects center around designing game jams aimed at building experimental dating mechanics. Currently, Lyne is a member of a research team working on an ongoing project that explores intersections of games and socioeconomic class with Dr. Mia Consalvo.

Contact information:
celdwyer at

Sex and the City: A Sonic Analysis of Sex Work and Socioeconomic Class in Watch_Dogs 2

by Lyne Dwyer


Whether players are swinging through New York in Spiderman or cruising around Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City, sprawling open worlds are a common feature in today’s action-adventure videogames. Some of these games endeavour to replicate actual rather than fictional places, sparking questions of how researchers approach analyzing simulated city life. As part of a project addressing a gap in research on digital games and socioeconomic class, this paper examines representations of sex work in Watch_Dogs 2 to understand how the game distinguishes between differently socioeconomically classed neighbourhoods. Drawing on concepts from sound studies, I asses the affordances of soundwalking, a practice developed by members of the World Soundscape Project, as part of a combined method for doing feminist class analyses in game studies.

I begin by situating this project within literature about sexuality and sex work in games. I then provide an overview of Watch_Dogs 2, outlining a few key concepts from soundscape theory and contextualizing the use of soundwalking as part of a combined method for doing game analysis. I then use data collected during soundwalks in Watch_Dogs 2’s Tenderloin District to understand how sex work is used to signal that the player is in a dangerous and poverty-stricken neighbourhood. Combined with videogames’ tendency to privilege visuality, the complex aesthetic environments of the action-adventure genre limits what soundwalking can accomplish in isolation. However, this analysis shows how sound can work in tandem with other game elements to establish the player-character’s sexuality and shape their relationship to the sexuality of sex worker characters. Overall, while Watch_Dogs 2 arguably offers a more humanized understanding of sex workers’ lives and recognizes their labour as legitimate work, it still distances itself from sex and the realities of paying for it in ways that reinforce the stigmatization of sex work both within and beyond the game.

Keywords: Videogames, digital media, game studies, game analysis, sound studies, soundwalking, soundscape sex work, class, socioeconomic class, Watch_Dogs 2



Whether players are sleuthing around the city of angels in L.A. Noire (Rockstar Games et al., 2011), swinging through New York in Marvel’s Spiderman (Insomniac Games, 2018), or cruising the streets of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City (CD Projekt & CD Projekt RED, 2020), the sprawling open world is a common feature of many of today’ action-adventure role-playing games (or AARPGs). While some of these large scale projects invite players into fantastical settings with their own logics, histories, and cultures (e.g. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017), Horizon Forbidden West (Guerilla Games, 2022)), some of these games endeavour to replicate actual rather than fictional locations, sparking questions about how game studies researchers might go about analyzing various aspects of simulated city life. In the case of San Francisco, California, developers have rendered the “Golden City” as an interactive open world on more than one occasion, each version presenting players with distinct themes, mechanics and aesthetics. The most recent version of San Francisco, found in Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs 2 (Ubisoft, 2016), invites players to roam around a vast and detailed metropolis that was marketed in such a way that players’ expectations were geared toward an experience grounded in realistic settings and narratives. This was a clear departure from, for example, San Fierro, the parody version of San Francisco found in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004). However, one element these virtual cities share are encounters with sex work as ordinary and essential parts of city life. While these games approach players’ interactions with sex work differently, it is not uncommon for players to be solicited by sex workers or otherwise come across non-player characters (NPCs) doing erotic labour while walking, driving, or pursuing their next mission objective.

As part of a project addressing a gap in research on digital games and socioeconomic class, this paper takes up representations of sex work in Watch_Dogs 2 (hereafter W_D 2) as a case study for understanding how sex is implicated in the way that games distinguish between differently classed neighbourhoods. Earlier projects in game studies have found that games are “apt to replicate in their structure the values and activities associated with the dominant ideology” (Gailey, 1993, p. 81), essentially reinforcing class stereotypes and hierarchies of wealth and power, but class is still usually taken up as a secondary rather than primary axis of analysis (e.g., gender and class, race and class, etc.). Scholars have examined representations of working-class heroism (Iantorno et al., 2021) and explored class tangentially through an interest in economic recession (Pérez-Latorre et al., 2017) and dystopia (Pérez-Latorre & Oliva, 2019). Yet, while working on the first class-focused taxonomy of videogame elements (including visual representations, narrative, gameplay rules, and mechanics), our research team has found that, like in film and television, class depictions are “widespread but understudied, with this lack carrying over into the understanding of both the content of digital games as well as their reception” (Iantorno, et al., 2021. p. 2; Butsch, 2017). For the purposes of this analysis, we define socioeconomic class (or simply class) as being “based on a combination of economic (income, wealth) and social factors (family background, education, occupation, social prestige),” related to questions of access, and is “expressed in lifestyle, values, behavior, [and] manners” (Deery & Press, 2017, p. 6; Williams, 2017).

Drawing on concepts from sound studies, I asses the affordances of soundwalking, a practice developed by members of the World Soundscape Project, as part of a combined method for doing a feminist class analysis of sexuality in games. I begin by situating the project within existing literature about sex and sex work in digital games. After providing an overview of W_D 2’s story and gameplay, I then outline a few key concepts from soundscape theory and contextualize the use of soundwalking as part of a combined method for doing game analysis. Next, I use data collected during multiple soundwalks in W_D 2’s Tenderloin District, an area known for its socioeconomic precarity, to understand the role of sound (specifically the human voice) in how sex work is used to signal that the player is moving through a dangerous and poverty-stricken neighbourhood. I finish by discussing what the addition of soundwalking to my own game analysis toolkit contributed to a feminist class analysis of sexuality in games. How might game sound be implicated in the continued stigmatization and othering of sex work in games through the reproduction of harmful tropes and sexually risk-averse cultural scripts?

Videogames tend to privilege visuality and the complex aesthetic environments of many of today’s open world games limit what soundwalking can accomplish on its own. However, sound can work in tandem with other game elements to establish the player-character’s sexuality and shape their relationship to the sexuality of non-player characters in/and the game world. Since game sex “has conditions that are indicative of the main ways in which sex is shaped by contemporary commerce and cultural values” (Krzywinska, 2015) and “games can provide a type of cultural marker of the moral and ethical standards present in a given culture” (Harviainen et al., 2018, p. 606), foregrounding the role of game sound in shaping how players become orientated toward or away from sex work provides valuable insight into how games can reproduce a devaluation of life and labour that puts real-world sex workers at risk. I argue that while W_D2 presents us with a more nuanced and humanized understanding of sex workers’ lives and recognizes their labour as legitimate work, it still distances itself from the reality of sex (and paying for it) in ways that reinforce the devaluation of sex work both within and beyond the game.

Sex and Sex Work in Videogames

In a meta-analysis of game studies literature on the topic of sex, Harviainen et al. (2018) loosely identified three waves of “awkwardness,” each representing a shift in the uncertain position games research has occupied in relation questions of what sexual content and themes are appropriate, as well as the contexts in which their inclusion is acceptable. According to the authors, the period lasting from the late 1970s to the turn of the century was marked by outrage and moral panic, sensationalist rhetorics that Kryzwinska notes were often justified by concerned parties “by yoking together sex and violence” and curbed efforts to pay attention to the complexity of sex in games (2015, p. 105). Picking up on what groundwork was laid by scholars researching player communities (such as Christine Hine and Sherry Turkle), the second wave was characterized by an interest in sexual play and/as identity work. However, after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s infamously explicit “Hot Coffee” modification was leaked in 2005, “studying sexuality in games was risky in the sense that any open discussion on the topic could possibly ‘infect’ its scholars with the game-sex stigma brought forth by Grand Theft Auto” (Harviainen et al., 2018, p. 613).

During the third wave (2009-present), the authors indicate that researchers have been more willing to engage with sexual topics and themes, often following approaches established in gender studies and queer studies (Harviainen et al., 2018). This wave has seen a greater emphasis on qualitative methods as well as players taking up sexual themes or repurposing game elements for sexual play. Still, the authors argue that this is often “just the individual relationship to games and sexuality, rather than the communal one, which is now the cause of the queasiness and which can easily lead an author toward an apologetic tone” (p. 616). Throughout their analysis, the metaphor of game studies as “perpetually in its puberty” is used to describe the way that games cultures and research are often awkward, avoidant and risk-averse when it comes to sex, changing to suit new contexts but never quite “growing up” (pp. 609, 616). Risk aversion to sex is also evident in games themselves. As Brown (2008) notes, the majority of sexual content in games exists as a result players introducing it themselves through transformative play (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004) and emergent play (Sotaama, 2007). Additionally, when videogame characters do have sex (with or without the player’s involvement as a player-character), this tends to happen in a “player-disconnected” fashion: off-screen or through cutscenes and with little investment in bonding, emotion, or stimulating intimacy (e.g., foreplay and after care) between partners (Kice, 2015).

Existing scholarship on representations of sex work in videogames indicates that sex work has been a recurring feature of games ever since the medium was first popularized in the early 1980s (Evans & Tarver, 2017; Ruberg, 2019). According to Bo Ruberg, sex work is common in large-scale, mainstream videogames and is particularly prevalent in first- or third-person action-adventure, shooter and open world titles (Ruberg, 2019). Drawing on a combination of sex workers’ rights activism, feminist porn studies, and studies of gender and digital labour, Ruberg argues that representations of sex work are not problematic because they engage the player in the performance of erotic labour, but because that labour is regularly devalued through character dialogue (by which sex workers will offer players discounts and freebies) and other designed interactions (such as opportunities to use violence to reclaim money that a sex worker was paid). These interactions play into what Ruberg refers to as a “fantasy of exceptionalism” for a presumed straight and male player whereby the player-character is framed as being too “exceptionally attractive or exceptionally powerful” to pay for sex (2019, p. 315). This fantasy communicates a specific set of values, namely, that paying for sex is bad and undesirable and so it is “good” to not compensate sex workers for their labour (Flannagan and Nissenbaum, 2014).

Sex workers characters videogames are nearly always women in minor and non-playable roles (as opposed to playable characters, who are overwhelmingly male) (Evans & Tarver, 2017; Ruberg, 2019). However, key to Ruberg’s argument is the idea that we must develop a more sex-positive approach to understanding sex work in games by combining concerns over the objectification of women with questions of labour politics. This is supported by porn studies scholar Rebecca Sullivan and scholar and performer Jizz Lee (2014), who together call for a reframing of sex work as an economic practice in order to combat harmful logics whereby “economies of pleasure should not be allowed to intersect with economies of capital [and] sex work is seen as deplorable specifically because sex workers get paid” (Ruberg, 2019, p. 317). As it stands, representations of sex work in games tend to foreshorten the role of sex workers’ agency in the performance of erotic labour and perpetuate the discriminatory cultural narrative that sex work does not count as “real” work.

Since the issue is not that sex work is represented in games but how, Ruberg suggests that we must move beyond neoliberal feminist framings of sex work as an inherently exploitative practice and instead investigate the mechanisms through which the value of erotic labour is diminished or erased. Turning our attention to method, what can a game analysis that foregrounds sound reveal about how games understand sex work in this most recent phase of awkwardness?

W_D 2 and Soundwalking in San Francisco

W_D 2 is an action-adventure hacking game where players roleplay as Marcus Halloway, a computer whiz and social agitator who joins a group of radical underground “hacktivists'' to help take down the evil Blume Corporation. Combining their skills and shared passion for protecting the people’s data, the hackers break into San Francisco’s futuristic smart city infrastructure to turn Blume’s communication and information technologies against them and fight back against the corrupt Silicon Valley tech giant. Marcus and his colleagues, who form one branch an Anonymous-esque group called Deadsec, aim to accomplish this using a “backdoor” that Marcus installed on ctOS 2.0, the central operating system of the smart city technology that Blume uses to exert control over San Francisco’s residents. Gameplay involves using gadgets to gather information and complete missions ranging from breaking into data centres to busting human trafficking operations.

Fidelity to the real-world San Francisco is a central feature and selling point of W_D 2. Ubisoft’s marketing campaign included a “San Francisco Edition” that came with a double-sided map of the city as well as San Francisco themed packaging, lithographs, and laptop stickers (Ubisoft Store, n.d.). This “realistic” appeal is part of what grounds us in the game’s central conflict. For example, in an introductory cut-scene, a voiceover explains that an invasive “internet of things” was installed across the entire country to harvest data and track human behaviour, creating digital profiles that can be “bought, stolen, or sold in an instant.” Marcus’s first conversation with the Deadsec crew draws attention to how the unethical harvesting and selling of private data results in health insurance discrimination, loan denials and job or credit card applications being rejected before they are even submitted. This angle cements explicit class themes that are still relevant to players today, and establish Marcus as a hero who is serving vigilante justice by looking out for the best interests of average, working-class people and taking on a corrupt billionaire. W_D 2 is a generative selection for this analysis not only because of these clear class representations and themes, but also because its commercial success (W_D 2’s popularity led to the release of Watch Dogs: Legion (Ubisoft, 2020)) and release across multiple platforms makes it a strong indicator of the kinds of representations of sex work and cities that players are likely to find circulating in mainstream AARPGs. Turning our attention to method, why would a feminist class analysis of W_D 2 focus on game sound?

Soundwalking is a method used for researching soundscapes and soundscape ecology, or, the “study of the effects of the acoustic environment on the physical responses or behaviour of those living in it’’ (Truax, 1978, p. 127). As Pijanowski et al. point out, “ecology” here refers to the “study of natural sounds and how people respond and value these properties of the environment” (2011, p. 1216). Put simply, soundwalking involves intentionally moving through a space while de-centering the visual and listening to one’s surroundings. The term was originally coined by R. Murray Shafer as part of his work with Barry Truax on acoustic ecologies for the World Soundscape Project, a research group established at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s to address the impact of noise pollution in rapidly developing Canadian cities. Later, soundwalking was further popularized by Hildegard Westerkamp and Andra McCartney, whose work on soundscapes has often used “an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment” to delve into our relationship to place through listening (Westerkamp, 2001, n.p.). Soundwalking is an embodied, often public and shared exercise in listening to sounds in a natural (as opposed to virtual) environment, so what is the rationale for using this method in digital games research?

Research into videogame sound picked up momentum in the early 2000s, with scholars such as Kristine Jørgensen and Karen Collins studying how sonic elements including ambient sound, interface sound, dialogue and music function in computer games. Much of this research is concerned with the relationship between player action and game audio, investigating how we interact and interpret sound as they play (Collins, 2013) and how sound informs player action (Jørgensen, 2009). Collins in particular draws on psychological and cognitive science research to provide us with a theory of interactive sound, arguing that sound can enhance players’ understanding of the character dynamics and logics of a simulated space. She specifies that one of the primary differences between listening to a sound and interacting with a sound is the listener’s expectation, specifically, the expectation that sounds have a direct, physical relationship to their source (2013).

Collins also notes that, unlike game elements that are represented on-screen, game sound is not contained within the game’s hardware, but rather extends into and becomes a part of the physical space where play is happening. As Jørgensen explains, this makes game sound “just as real as actual sound” so that players might “respond to sound created by actual events in physical spaces,” an effect of game design that is “expanded through the player’s identification with the avatar through extending the body schema” (2014, para. 2). So, while Shafer emphasizes the importance of listening to the natural sounds of a given environment in order to truly bear “earwitness” to one’s surroundings (1977), alternative applications of soundwalking in game analyses have the potential to “reinforce the pertinence of the exploratory walk in a number of fields” including game studies (Paquette & McCartney, 2012, p. 143). This application also reflects Shafer’s distinction between simply walking and listening and a soundwalk in that, like a soundwalk, game sounds are largely scored in advance, programmed to trigger at specific moments as the player interacts with different game elements and is orientated in space (Shafer, 1974). For example, the media installation Inside Outside Battery uses GPS technology to narrate based on a participant’s location (Galloway, 2017). An in-game soundwalk also resembles an actual soundwalk in how players walking, stopping and turning through an environment become part of a sort of “compositional technique,” whereby the walker has a degree of power to construct a narrative about an environment through their impression of its sounds (Paquette & McCartney, 2012, p. 138). Within game studies specifically, soundwalking has been compared to “navigable narratives” in literary computer games (Hambleton, 2020), and also explored in relation to the concept of videogame immersion (Warde-Browne, 2021).

To prepare the soundwalks I conducted in W­_D 2, I first compared a Google map of San Francisco to the game world map and walked around identifying where the game draws boundaries between neighbourhoods, taking note of when superimposed text would announce my arrival in a new location as I moved (Google, n.d.). The game map is not completely accurate, but virtual San Francisco’s streets and neighbourhoods are arranged to vaguely approximate the dimensions of their real-world counterparts. The city is massive despite not being rendered to scale and so I drew up routes aimed at comparing the soundscapes of areas that have a reputation for being wealthier or safer (for example, parts of Downtown and the Financial District) with those that are recognized for being underprivileged or unsafe. For this reason, the bulk of the soundwalking used in this analysis was conducted in and around the Tenderloin, a borough in San Francisco known for both its diversity and its poverty (Waters & Hudson, 1998). I also examined each of W_D 2’s core and side missions in order to better understand how class and sex work relate to larger themes and story beats.

Importantly, the much-maligned Tenderloin is sometimes referred to as San Francisco’s red light district due to the historical prevalence of crime, drug use and street based sex work in the area (Waters and Hudson, 1998). According to Waters and Hudson, the Tenderloin was regularly ignored by city officials and left in disrepair, “condemned by politicians and newspaper columnists, but ignored and neglected when it came to doling out city services” (1998, n.p.). The authors note that an influx of immigration from Southeast Asia during the 1970s, combined with a surge in community organizing and activism, had transformed the pre-2000s Tenderloin into an active neighbourhood where many low-income people could still afford to live. Yet, like much of San Francisco and the Bay Area since the tech industry boom began, people’s quality of life in the Tenderloin has deteriorated due to intense gentrification, skyrocketing rent prices, crime and policing, the gradual atrophy of public institutions, and the growing inequality between the rich and poor (McClelland, 2018). My focus on the Tenderloin follows from the way W_D 2’s developers actively coded many of these signs of economic struggle into the game and included the presence of sex workers as a sign of urban decay.

Wandering the streets as Marcus, I used screen- and audio-capture software (OBS) to record my soundwalks. I conducted four soundwalks, each lasting just over 10 minutes for a total of around 50 minutes of material. After recording, I reviewed the footage while mapping out my interactions with NPCs and keeping a detailed gameplay log to document emergent and unexpected behaviours and phenomena (Consalvo & Dutton, 2006). Organizing and interpreting this data using concepts introduced by Shafer, Truax and others, I made note of the different kinds of sounds that I encountered: keynote sounds (the tone of a composition, around which everything else acquires meaning); signal sounds (sounds that function as warning signs); and soundmarks (sounds that are particular and significant to a community) (Shafer, 1977). I also simplified the exercise by excluding sounds that were not experienced through the act of walking and becoming more or less proximate to NPCs (e.g., the beeps and whistles of Marcus’s hacking tech interacting with ubiquitous smart city infrastructure). Integrating these analytical concepts into existing game analysis tools and methods (Consalvo & Dutton 2006, Fernández-Vara, 2019), what follows is a short exploration of what can a soundwalk through the Tenderloin tell us about W_D 2’s investment in sex across lines of gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class.

The Sound of Sex Work and the City

Since W_D 2’s core conflict involves hackers tackling issues related to data collection and privacy, it is no surprise that this version of San Francisco is packed with human voices and conversations for players to eavesdrop on. NPC speech was a predominant part of this city soundscape throughout the majority of my soundwalks, conversational speaking voices almost always audible over sounds that are produced by traffic, music, or NPCs’ physical actions (e.g., the slamming of a car door). My first observation, then, was that the sound design in W_D 2’s San Francisco is fairly vococentric: The game tends to privilege the human voice over other parts of a sonic hierarchy (Chion, 1990, p. 5). This effect is compounded by the fact that NPCs do not need to interact with the player-character or other proximate NPCs to speak. Not only do they call out to one another, shout, or have conversations in the street, they also frequently talk out loud while using mobile phones. These sounds result from movement through the game space alone and so it is not necessary to use any of Marcus’s hacking gadgets or be pursuing a particular mission objective for these voices to grab a hearing player’s attention.

The dominance of human voices in W_D 2 make soundscape analysis an exercise in what Michel Chion refers to as “semantic listening,” which involves interpreting a code or language (such as spoken word) in relation to a larger system of information (such as the game’s internal logics) in order to ascertain meaning. According to Dolar, the voice “stands at the axis of our social bonds” and is “the intimate kernel of subjectivity” (2006, p. 14). Based on Collins’ theory of interactive game sound, in particular the idea that sound helps to convey the character dynamics and logics of game spaces to players, designers prioritizing layers of human voices suggests that the game encourages players to engage in semantic listening to help them ascertain the character, atmosphere, and social makeup of different physical and social locations as they traverse the city.

In W_D 2, the game recognizes the Tenderloin as being distinct from the boroughs surrounding it. The area, comprised of about five city blocks, is packed full of sights and sounds that are associated with a stereotypically “bad” neighbourhood: The streets are papered with a visible layer of litter, uncollected bags of trash, abandoned mattresses and even the occasional dead body. At any time but especially at night, one might witness a fight, an arrest, a shooting, or even all three. Multiple NPCs are found huddled in doorways and stairwells, seated on cardboard, or walking on the pavement in bare feet. Some of these characters are clearly struggling with mental illness and there is a greater level of public intoxication compared to other areas in the city.

Because of the amount of garbage on the ground, Marcus’s footsteps regularly produced the sound of crinkling paper, plastic and cardboard as he walked. The steady background hum of street traffic persisted alongside a touch of wind, occasionally layered with the sounds of low voices, horns, screeching tires, car radios and sirens in the distance. Sirens were especially common at night, which is also when the traffic keynote tone is more regularly peppered with the sounds of raised voices, and the muffled thuds of flesh and fabric during a physical fight between NPCs. All of this communicates that people who reside in this neighbourhood disproportionately struggle with addiction and substance abuse as well as a lack of access to adequate housing. No matter how I orientated Marcus in space, these sounds gestured toward the character of the neighbourhood: the developers want us to know that the Tenderloin and its residents are in a state of crisis.

Importantly, the Tenderloin is the only place where I ever encountered an NPC who was a sex worker. The same group of three women doing sex work can reliably found in a narrow alley in the Tenderloin (unless it is raining). Sex work is acknowledged as a reality elsewhere -- for example, during my own playthrough of the full game, a line of text reading “Occupation: Escort” once popped up on the software interface up when I was hacking into random NPCs phones-- but an alley cutting through the heart of the Tenderloin is the only place where sex workers are actually visible and voluntarily present themselves to the player as sex workers. As a consequence, this is also the only place in W_D 2 where sex workers’ voices are positioned at the top of this game environment’s aural hierarchy. Taken together, sex work is sonically absent from everywhere but one of San Francisco’s most notoriously run-down areas.

These women’s voices seem to fit a combination of what Schafer refers to as signal sounds (warnings or indicators) and community specific soundmarks (sounds that are significant to people belonging to a given social group or with ties to a particular location) (1997). When Marcus approaches and becomes proximate enough to these sex workers’ virtual bodies, they each deliver their pitches and encourage him to buy sex from a distance. They call out to Marcus, flirting and complimenting him, but do not ever interact with his avatar directly. Marcus’s heterosexuality is established early on in a cutscene where he has a half-drunk one-night stand with a woman he met at a beach party and the sex workers’ small talk appeals to exactly these traits using sexually suggestive language (“Hey, daddy, you looking for some fun?”). From time to time, they also imply that Marcus is an exceptional prospective client who is deserving of a discount, for example, by insinuating that Marcus could enjoy the company of multiple women for the price of one (“Hey, baby, you can have me and my friends…”). In line with Ruberg’s claim, but this time through sound and without any direct engagement from the player, the devaluing of sex workers’ labour is “deployed as evidence of the player character’s sexual potency” through speech (Ruberg, 2019, p. 325).

What is important here is not just what is the game code makes actively possible but, equally so, what is disallowed. No matter how the player feels about Marcus’s interactions with sex workers or the act of paying for sex, they are not given any opportunity to accept vocalized offers of service. I tried on multiple occasions and at different times of day to engage with these NPCs, but they would only react if Marcus’s avatar collided with theirs, expressing anger ((“Are you blind? That’s it. Dreams shattered, day ruined.”), demanding that the player vacate the area (“Fuck you. Piss off! Yeah, you!”), or evading the player due to a compromised sense of safety (“Oh… I have to go.”). Not all games that include representations of sex workers must necessarily simulate sex work in detail in order to progress past accusations of unnecessary prudishness. Still, we can contextualize this refusal to allow engagement with sex workers (beyond an audiovisual confirmation of the fact of their existence) by comparing it with the approach taken in a comparable videogame city, namely, San Fierro in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA: SA).

GTA: SA is one of the best-selling videogames of all time in the US and the fifth main installment and seventh chronological release in the GTA franchise (Androvich, 2008). In this game, players take on the role of Carl “CJ” Johnson as the death of his mother, Beverly, brings him back to the city of Los Santos. After five years in exile, CJ must take revenge on the rival gangsters who banished him from his former territory and reclaim it for his own gang, the Grove Street Families. To restore CJ’s reputation and earn back the trust and respect of his loved ones, players must travel to various locations in San Andreas to complete missions, earn back money and status, and boost his physical stats as they progress through the game. These missions take on many forms and can involve stealth, ranged and melee combat, racing, as well as gambling, sports, arcade games and dancing mini-games. When following the game’s main storyline, San Fierro is the third city that players encounter.

While both games are free-roaming action-adventure sandboxes, San Fierro is a sort of loose reimagining of San Francisco that remains consistent with the affordances and limitations that make up the (in)famous pandemonium of the GTA universe. While nowhere as detailed as W_D 2’s San Francisco, San Fierro loosely approximates the general dimensions of the city as well as well-known locations and landmarks -- for example, one of the suspension bridges connecting this area to other land masses, the Gant Bridge, is loosely based on the Golden Gate Bridge. In part because of technological limitations at the time, the developers did not deliver a “realistic” depiction of a city so much as they created a tongue-in-cheek parody of US American culture.

Like in W_D2, San Fierro’s sex workers call out to CJ as he wanders the city and, unless sex worker NPCs are interacting with other NPCs (for example, by getting into a “cat fight”), the player usually has to make uninvited physical contact in order to hear them speak while walking. If the player bumps into or attacks a sex worker in San Fierro, she often responds by expressing anger (“You picked the wrong bitch!”), fear (“Please don’t shoot me, I’m not worth the bullets.”), or disdain for her occupation (“I need to get a real job.”) and may eventually retaliate. Should the player attack her, the act generates more game content (e.g., a fight sequence or a police chase). Taken together, we can infer that GTA: SA’s approximation of San Francisco serves more as an interactive playground where encounters with sex workers are just one of many attractions in a world designed with collision and mayhem in mind.

Unlike in W_D 2, GTA: SA players can buy sex. If players want to solicit an NPC sex worker’s services, they must get into a vehicle, pull up next to the NPC (with the option of honking the car horn to get her attention), press the “positive” response button when she offers her services, and then drive to a secluded area. The fact that GTA: SA requires players to drive a car to interact with sex workers in a non-violent way tells us that sex work is an extremely visible and normalized part of the game world. Sex workers, who are usually identifiable by their scant dress and their calls to potential clients, openly mingle with the rest of the city’s pedestrians as they make their rounds and can be found in just about every area that isn’t countryside. Sex work is more visible in GTA: SA, but the workers exist as more of a feature of the city itself than as people who live and work inside it -- essentially a sexualized version of the game’s vending machines, both of which allow players to exchange money for a boost in CJ’s health. As Ruberg points out, the fact that players can take back their money by killing sex workers in this game devalues “not only their labor but also their right to life as human beings” (Ruberg, 2019, p. 323).

Playing as Marcus differs significantly from playing as CJ in that his interactions with sex workers are framed as what is appropriate for an anti-heroic deliverer of vigilante justice, a good man who would never stoop to the level of paying for sex and so is not given the option of saying “yes” to sex workers propositions, let alone acting on it. Recalling Marcus’s casual hook-up early on in the game, W_D 2 regularly reinforces the idea that a good man/protagonist does not (and does not need to) buy sex. Marcus is an outsider in the Tenderloin, the only location in the game that confronts the player with framings of sex workers and the visibility of their labour as a sign of socioeconomic struggle. Their presence acts as an auditory and visual signal to the player that they have entered a rough neighbourhood -- the kind of neighbourhood that has the kind of sex Marcus would never consider paying for.


Socioeconomic class remains a relatively underexplored topic in game studies research and this meta-methodological analysis dives into some of the affordances and limitations of using soundwalking to understand class as it interacts with sex and sexuality. If we accept that “technology plays a key role in modern society in anticipatory sexual socialization” (Harviainen et al. 2018; Waskul, 2014), it follows that my soundwalks exposed unexpected dimensions of how game sound can work alongside other game elements to devalue sex workers’ lives and labour.

In W_D 2, this is accomplished by both distancing the players from the act of purchasing sex and inviting players to rehearse cultural scripts that make associations between the presence of sex worke and signs of a neighbourhood in decline. As Ruberg writes, “In video games, cultural values often become literalized in the form of play affordances, incentive structures, and point systems. At the same time, videogames prompt us to consider not just how sex workers are represented in-game, but also what it means for players to play with and play along with cultural attitudes toward sex workers” (2019, p. 316). Kice similarly tell us that “rather than taking NPCs for granted, players should be ever vigilant in questioning how each NPC in a game is designed to prolong gameplay and manipulate players’ experiences” (2015, p. 263). In W_D 2, sound figures into the rehearsal of these social roles, from fantasies of exceptionalism to the ways that sex workers are portrayed “as sexualized victims but never [as] workers” (Grant, 2014, p. 50), confirming the need for game studies scholars to take up new forms of feminist class analysis.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that W_D 2 fails to re-work any of the more harmful aspects of how sex work has been represented in games such as in GTA: SA. For example, there are aspects of W_D 2 that recenter erotic labour as an economic practice and not solely as a form of player-centric exploitation. Take, for example, the “Moscow Gambit” mission that was included in the game’s “No Compromise” DLC package. In this storyline, Marcus must gather information about one of Deadsec’s enemies by infiltrating the set of “Deadsexxx,” a pornographic parody of the hacker movement, and proving that the head of the operation has been mistreating the sex workers in his employ. The focus on exploitative labour practices during Marcus’s time on the Deadsexx set can be taken as one indicator that videogames may have “grown up” (at least a little) when it comes to sex work by figuring in questions of labour politics. This is also the case when it comes to the visual information from Marcus’s heads-up-display when he accesses sex workers’ information through ctOS 2.0, which refers to sex work as an “occupation” (“[Name:]Taylor Phelps. Occupation: Escort. Income: $59,000.00/year. Student studying graphic design.”) and therefore as a legitimate form of labour. These data profiles also show that W_D 2 does, to some extent, portray sex workers as regular people with lives, aspirations and problems that are not directly rooted in the job they do (for example, ctOS tells us that the aforementioned Taylor Phelps is a student). These design choices arguably help to humanize sex worker NPCs.

Yet, over the course of this analysis, I have identified several reasons why this progress feels somewhat undercut. First, this is because sex work is still explicitly gendered and limited to minor and non-playable characters with whom the player has little to no contact and whose stories do not figure into W_D 2’s larger fiction. The Tenderloin, an area that W_D 2’s developers intentionally portrayed as being dangerous and impoverished, is the only place where sex work is given explicit visual and audible representation. A second reason is that sex work in neighbourhoods that are framed as wealthier or safer happens behind closed doors rather than in the street. Both of these points resonate with Leslie Kern’s observations in Feminist City (2019) that the existence of women’s bodies in public spaces is “often seen as the source or sign of urban problems” (n.p.). Kern argues that these gendered experiences within the city are the legacy of a long history of racist and colonial violence that has systematically stripped women of colour (particularly Indigenous women) of positions of cultural, political, and economic power by dehumanizing them as carnal or promiscuous.

Another reason is that W_D 2 tends to only include sex work in Marcus’s missions when the player is rescuing them from a threat. For example, there are several missions that involve hunting down and exposing human traffickers, (a storyline that calls back to the GTA: SA rescue mission “Jizzy,” in which the player liberates an abused sex worker from her pimp). W_D 2 also makes a point of associating the areas that closely surround the Tenderloin with a gang called the Auntie Shu Boys, who are known in the game for being involved in human trafficking operations. Missions like “Shanghaied” and “Shadows” reinforce that the Tenderloin and neighbouring Chinatown, the only place in SF where sex workers were a visible and audible presence, is also the driving force behind human trafficking. Part of the issue here is not that representations of human trafficking were included in the game, but that traffickers themselves make more appearances and have more speaking lines than people who do sex work voluntarily. Recalling the passing of federal FOSTA/ SESTA legislation in the US in 2018 (the combined Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Acts), I argue W_D 2’s representations may risk conflating sex work, which is voluntary and consensual paid labour, and trafficking, which is inherently exploitative and non-consensual. Many sex workers rights groups in the US have criticized FOSTA/ SESTA for how it “limits sex workers’ ability to advertise their services online, forcing them into more dangerous street-based work” (North, 2019). So, while W_D 2 may disrupt the masculine power fantasy that games like GTA: SA lean into, this has yet to occur in ways that really resonate with sex-positive and anti-racist feminisms that advocate for sex workers’ labour rights.

Finally, the possibility of a simple conversation with a sex worker in W_D 2 is handled in an awkward and risk-averse fashion, even when these characters are calling out to us and encouraging us to approach. Within Harvainen et al.’s (2018) metaphor of sex in games cultures and research as being in a state of “perpetual puberty,” sex in W_D 2 is visible and sex work is acknowledged as a reality in the Tenderloin, but the game does not allow players to engage with the messiness of paying for sex. My soundwalks highlight how the “compositional technique” of players as they move through space is a form of orientation work, orientating player toward (or away from) other bodies in a virtual space, in or out of alignment with others based on what kinds of interactions are encouraged or proscribed by the game’s hard-coded systems (Paquette and McCartney, 2012, p. 138; Ahmed, 2006). A particular orientation to sexuality, specifically the protagonists’ inability lack of desire to engage with sex work, is enforced by the game despite the sound design foregrounding sex workers calling out to potential clients. Overall, even though W_D 2 is miles ahead of comparable games, it is still very much awkward and risk-averse when it comes to sex. In its state of “perpetual puberty,” the game re-stigmatizes sex work with a “look but don’t touch” logic that avoids addressing many of sex’s complexities and even pleasures, keeping it at a safe and digestible distance.

It may be helpful to consider these encounters in terms of “player-connected” versus “player-disconnected” sex in games (Kice, 2015). According to Brent Kice, player-connected sexuality (sexuality that is present on-screen and directs player activity toward bonding, emotion and intimacy) “enhances” players’ experiences of the game compared to player-disconnected sexuality (which lacks these characteristics and often occurs off screen and through simple buttons and prompts). While Marcus’s relationship to sex could be characterized as “player disconnected,” I caution us against extending this into claims that the player’s relationship with game sex is “passive.” In fact, Marcus’s lack of action when responding to the sound of sex work in the city is part of how the game gets players to work out an orientation toward sex and sexuality in the game world.  Understanding Marcus’ relationship as active rather than passive complicates the idea that sexuality in games can be encapsulated by a focus on the gendered sexualization of virtual bodies, opening us up to questions of how sound functions to help orientate players toward or away from other virtual bodies. If we understand game spaces as environments that are designed to anticipate certain kinds of use by players, then it is telling that sex workers’ voices do not actually function to tell players about an action they can take or a storyline they can pick up on. Instead, they invite players to rehearse stereotypical cultural scripts that reinforce an othering of sex work.

The overwhelming majority of videogames rely on an audio-visual contract in order for players to interact with the game and make sense of their surroundings. As such, relying on soundwalking as the sole method for data collection might be insufficient for answering questions about how meaning is generated as players interpret auditory, visual and tactile information simultaneously. Still, this analysis is exemplary of Paquette and McCartney’s (2012) claim that alternative applications of soundwalking are necessary for reinforcing the significance and usefulness of the exploratory walk-in fields other than sound studies. Incorporating soundwalking into our game analysis toolkits can generate new insight when combined with other methods, in this case interaction mapping and gameplay log borrowed from Consalvo and Dutton (2006).

A longer version of this paper would benefit from a more detailed examination of the way that sex workers are written into these games outside of the Tenderloin and with greater attention paid to the content and context of these characters’ actions and dialogue beyond what was recorded during my soundwalks to better understand how sound functions “an integral part of the identity of our cities” (Signorelli, 2015, p. 1). Especially in W_D 2, this would open us up to new kinds of questions about how sound is used to create a “realistic” depiction of urban life, and how those aesthetic choice manifest across intersections of human experience beyond sex and sexuality. Finally, whether or not another large-studio title featuring a virtual San Francisco is on the horizon, future games researchers can continue to use soundwalking to explore how the rapid gentrification of San Francisco and the Bay Area, in tandem with the rise of Silicon Valley and the growing presence of particular subsections of the games industry, inform the way that game designers have gone about representing housing inequality, wealth inequality and the digital divide.



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