5. Playing with Bodies
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. 149 5 PlayingwithBodies “LIKE TEMPLE RUN FOR THE VAGINA” In the summer of 2014, a Kickstarter campaign was launched for a new kind of video game device. The Skea game controller promised to make Kegels fun for women. Kegels, which are exercises often recommended after giving birth in order to deal with issues of incontinence, are meant to strengthen a woman’s pelvic floor. Upon the announcement of the Skea campaign, many declared that it was “like Temple Run for the vagina ” (referring to the popular endless running game).1 The campaign for the Skea was kicked off with a video featuring its inventor, a man named Tom Chen (referred to as a physicist and game designer). Chen rhetorically asks his viewers, “Which muscle do women need to exercise most? Buttocks? Abs? Not really. It’s actually the pelvic floor muscles. Either you want to be more sexy or more healthy.” He continues by demonstrating incontinence and other potential health risks by depositing fruit through a net in front of a poster showing the lower half of a lingerie-­clad woman’s body—­ a fairly offensive representation of women’s anatomy (Figure 24). The Skea ultimately promised to turn “boring” Kegel exercises into a fun game they referred to as Alice Incontinence in the initial Kickstarter advertisement . The campaign was successfully funded, bringing in $52,021 for its initial launch. Of course, game controllers have had gendered and bodily connotations before. Old Sega advertisements, for example, made a point of highlighting the phallic nature of the joystick with the lines “The more you play with it, the harder it gets” and “Something to do with your hands that won’t make you go blind.”2 These parallels between the body and digital gaming reinforce the preexisting narrative of Player One: the joystick game 150 . PLAYING WITH BODIES controller was permitted to take on phallic connotations because it reinforced the perception of the Sega player, who was presumed to be male. But the Skea was different—­ it was designed specifically for women’s anatomy. As a game controller, the Skea complicates questions of diversity and representation of video game players. On the one hand, a sex-­ specific game controller holds the potential to invite in new players, but on the other, its very premise hinges on cis-­ centric assumptions that those who identify as women necessarily have vaginas, and that those very vaginas probably need some kind of fixing (hence the call for exercise ).Within weeks another“smart” Kegel device, called the kGoal, offered a similar technology but without a gaming interface, and was also successfully funded on Kickstarter. The kGoal, though, did not promise to gamify the practice of Kegel exercise. Skea, then, stands out as the first attempt at using women’s sexual organs in gaming. This move essentializes and prioritizes women’s bodies in uncomfortable ways. While we often talk about the relationship between the player and the controller, we generally discuss the controller as a technological apparatus; rarely do we talk about the means of holding that apparatus (presumably, generally speaking , with hands) when we consider those bodily interactions. When the Figure 24. A still image from the Kickstarter campaign video for Skea, launched in the summer of 2014. The Skea promised to be a “Temple Run for the vagina”—­ a way to gamify Kegel exercises. The image shows Skea’s creator pushing items down a net, placed over the vaginal area of a lingerie-­ clad model on a poster. This process was meant to illustrate the idea that the vagina loses elasticity. PLAYING WITH BODIES . 151 mode of gripping turns from hands to something else—­ in this case, the vagina—­ we are left with questions of how the body relates to gaming and game controllers in a physically embodied way. The Skea, in many ways, was a failure. After being funded, the company that produced the Skea ended up having trouble making a smartphone app that worked efficiently.To this point, Alice Incontinence, with its lovely Alice in Wonderland–­ style graphics from the original Kickstarter advertisement , was downgraded to a simple game where long, phallic-­ shaped tubes fell down on a screen while the player was instructed to “squeeze.” This was no Temple Run, and the final version of the Skea involved more frustration than actual play. And so, as a historical artifact and from a biomedical perspective, the Skea builds on a history of masculine authority misrepresenting, commodifying , and essentializing elements of women’s health...


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