Yesterday, we briefly posted about project Boob Jam, a coding marathon event and ongoing project to address breasts in video game culture. Since then, we spoke with project creator Jenn Frank who wanted to clear up some of misconceptions as well as errors and misinformation in the recent BBC article we used as reference.

In this interview, Frank talks about being bored with the “male gaze” argument, about starting new discussions instead of “elevating” old ones and how there is no need to mistrust the so-called potential ”audience” of the counter-cliche breast-related video games that will be made at Boob Jam this September, because, ultimately “Video games are supposed to be fun!”  

Does Boob Jam hope to catalyze mature discussion and take back the dialogue around women in video games?

Ha, “catalyzing mature discussion” makes me smile because I am just as puerile as it gets, but I ‘m also cautious about using phrases like “let’s elevate the conversation.” In the realm of video games that type of language sets off all the alarm bells, makes people suspicious. Video games are supposed to be fun!

This morning I said to James Vincent, a reporter at the Independent that I hope striking the right timbre — “lighthearted, not idiotic,” — will go far in making would-be participants feel really welcome. Because, for me, “inclusive language” really does mean being very silly or cavalier about some things. This is dangerous territory, Marie — I don’t want to use a “tone argument” here — but I think you really can warm people up by making well-timed fart jokes.

Boob Jam has one mission statement and it isn’t to “elevate” a conversation, but to have a new conversation entirely.

I think video games, especially fighting games, already represent a lot of different kinds of breasts, aesthetically. I think that’s great. But any time the games industry and press talk about breasts, the arguments are always, always aesthetic. Isn’t that amazing? We’re policing bodies that don’t even exist! And most of the critics doing this policing of fictitious bodies are people who don’t have breasts themselves. I’m tired of it. I think most people are tired of it, and I think people like me — people with unfortunately large breasts — are definitely tired of it. I’m on the side of straight dudes who never want to see a controversy over boobs ever again.

At best, the “male gaze” and this perpetual argument about cup size is just boring. I think the worst thing anybody can be is boring.

I wonders if video games about breasts, even in “unsexy” situations, will be properly understood and appreciated by those who aren’t already sympathetic the message?

Are you asking how these games’ existence will be taken by a “gaming” audience? Are they, by design, built to be misunderstood? I’m not very willing to think about that too hard, actually, because I think that speaks to a fundamental mistrust of who this “audience” might be. That’s really deeply cynical.

I’ve written for a video game-playing audience since 2005, and while that has not always been easy, I have a very high opinion of the majority of readers, and of course I like my own readership most of all, and that readership has gotten older and smarter along with me. I think that reflects a certain shift in culture at large, where there’s this renewed self-awareness. If the games coming out of Boob Jam don’t interest some people, that’s fine, and they can just ignore it. No harm, no foul.

But I worry about worrying about who this masked “audience” is, because — and you know this as a writer, Marie — if people worried enough about who their audience is and how their audience will receive something, nothing interesting would ever get made. So I’ve tried to focus Boob Jam more on who is welcome to participate — which is everybody! — rather than on whoever might decide to play these games. I’m deeply uncomfortable with dictating who these games are “for,” because if you play a Boob Jam game and get anything valuable out of it, I really don’t care what skin you’re wearing. That aspect just isn’t very interesting to me.

I’m actually in a bit of a bind because the majority of people who seem to want to participate aren’t programmers, just as (I assume) the majority of people who want to play these games might not be so-called “gamers.” I’m still thinking about how to account for that. I might set up a separate part of the website for “game ideas,” just so people can unload their thoughts.

Will video games centered around a woman’s breasts serve to make her be seen as a more active subject?

That idea isn’t mine to legislate either. Like, say a game-maker wants to decontextualize tits completely, kind of pull a little Duchamp and stick a single boob someplace it doesn’t belong. Okay, this isn’t a perfect game idea — it’s still a little misogynistic, because we really do oftentimes divorce a person from her tits — but I think someone more adroit a thinker than I am could make this idea work.

But yes, I do think the private revelation that breasts are, uh, lumps of fat or milk factories or whatever, could go far in helping some people accept that the people attached to breasts are, you know, people. The human body is a human body.

Can the misogynistic members of nerd culture handle play games about frustrating bra shopping and learn to empathize rather than mock?

Isn’t it interesting? Just talking about breasts in a way that isn’t “what can this tit do for you?!” is a little confrontational on its own, right? That’s really interesting to me, that posing a breast as anything besides a “plaything” might be threatening to somebody. That is exactly why I’m so careful to frame Boob Jam as nothing more than a fun, silly intellectual challenge. I don’t have a real agenda here. I just think the existence of the Jam is statement enough.

Oh! Did you see that one viral video online? It was a commercial for some sort of tampon delivery service about this girl who gets her period at summer camp, well before any of the other girls have gotten theirs, and she crowns herself “camp gyno.” She’s this terrifying Queen Bee type too, and she puts herself in charge of all her bunkmates’ tampons. And this commercial is super clever because we all remember that early bloomer who gaily disseminated misinformation to the rest of us. So part of the video’s message is kind of a warning to parents, like, “Do you really want this kid to be the one responsible for your daughter’s reproductive health? Wouldn’t you rather give your kid a ‘period starter kit’?” That Queen Bee so totally exists.

But as clever as this viral ad was, the YouTube backlash was AMAZING. People arrived from far and wide to say the video was “inappropriate” or “disgusting.” More disturbingly, though, a lot of people — men, I think! — remarked that the girl in the video appeared to be “too young” to have her period, even though she is obviously somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13. All these Internet commenters were self-described arbiters of when a girl is “supposed” to get her period, voicing outrage — actual outrage! — because of a kind of “body horror.”

It isn’t a coincidence that I launched the Boob Jam campaign the afternoon after I’d watched that YouTube video. I was really impressed by how zealously and audaciously a faction of people will barge in to police any bodies that aren’t like theirs, and I very immediately connected that to how a lot of my professional peers discuss boobs in games. And that connects to a much bigger cultural problem, especially here in the US, where biological women are fighting this backslide in reproductive health.

People are very quick to legislate on matters of health — on body parts they themselves don’t have, or even understand, evidently — and that conversation needs to change immediately. Like, I think the figure is, 10% of women have PC OS, so it’s this stunningly common body malfunction. PCOS is an important reason to be on birth control, but people are so hung up on thinking of the female body as one giant sex object, it’s impossible to get them to acknowledge a hormone pill as a solution to a grave and rampant health issue. (And then PCOS isn’t widely understood itself, because there’s no real medical interest in women’s health, there’s no money there.)  I’m just using PCOS as one example because it’s an example that applies to me; other people have medical horror stories that will speak better about the fucked-up state of healthcare in this country.

Although one of my primary interests is reproductive health, I respect that won’t be everyone’s reason for participating in the Boob Jam. I do think breasts are more relatable, more intersectional, than, say, the piss-poor state of my ovaries, because more people have breasts than have malfunctioning ovaries, for instance. For me, my breasts are a metonym for my own larger health problems, because they’re externalized and you can just kind of “see” I have a hormone problem. But I’m just one person, and other experiences relating to breasts will be very different. I don’t even know whether I’ll make a game.

The point of this tangent is, I really welcome any negative reactions people may have, because those are interesting to me, too, and they’ll be interesting to other people. I think, when people are turned off by the idea of breasts as anything but a sex toy, that says more than I could ever slip into some piddling “mission statement.”

I will say, though — and this might be thanks to my relatively careful language thus far — this reaction has been blessedly rare. That makes me really optimistic, Marie! I think people are already emotionally capable creatures, but the receptiveness so far has been mind-blowing. In fact, I’d say the first day of the Boob Jam was the toughest day for me. Maybe reception hasn’t really changed and I’ve just gotten a little tougher, I don’t know. But it seems like people are able to read the website for themselves and go, “All right, that sounds okay, that doesn’t infringe on my state of being at all.”

It’s early, so it remains to be seen whether attitudes change, or maybe, even worse, everyone forgets about Boob Jam by its end date, which is over a month away. I don’t know! I don’t know what to expect, myself. It’s very scary. This is the calm before the storm, maybe. But I feel okay so far, mostly because I don’t feel accountable. The Boob Jam wasn’t my idea! It wasn’t any one person’s idea. It’s just an idea that found traction, and I’m just trying to facilitate it the best I can.


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