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  • Writer's pictureLyne Dwyer

Soundwalking and Sex Work: Soundscape Analysis as a Method for Studying Class in Virtual Cities

As part of this team’s collective efforts to experiment with a variety of methods for researching socioeconomic class in games, my work has recently involved investigating soundwalking and soundscape analysis as tools for understanding how class is represented and simulated. Combining my interest in game studies with my background in sound studies and sound production, I decided to conduct, record, and compare soundwalks from two large-studio (or “AAA”) open-world games that invite players to wander the streets of a virtual rendering of San Francisco, California: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar Games, 2004) and Watch_Dogs 2 (Ubisoft, 2016).

While both titles are free-roaming action-adventure role-playing games, their respective versions of San Francisco are distinct; while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ (from here on GTA:SA) San Fierro is a sort of loose reimagining of the city that remains consistent with the affordances and limitations that create the (in)famous pandemonium of the GTA universe, Watch_Dogs 2’s (W_D2) version is designed to remain as contiguous to the reality of its source material as possible. (Ubisoft even marketed W_D 2 with a San Francisco Edition that comes with a double-sided map of the city as well as San Francisco themed packaging, lithographies, and laptop stickers.)

Each games’ version of San Francisco is markedly informed by an array of game elements ranging from narrative and theme (such as territorial gang warfare and police corruption in GTA:SA or privacy and data collection in W_D 2) to mechanics such as mini-games, driving, and computer hacking. However, one element these games have in common one which I did not expect to become the focus of my project— are encounters with sex workers and the performance of erotic labour as an ordinary and essential part of city life.

What follows is not an in-depth analysis but a series of observations and questions about sex work in both these videogames. While I am by no means an expert on the topic of sex work, my aim is to understand how a game’s sonic elements perpetuate or resist against lasting and often harmful narratives, tropes, and cultural scripts surrounding sex workers and their representation in media. Since the way that marginalized groups are represented in videogames can significantly shape players’ attitudes toward those same groups (Williams et al., 2009), thinking through the way that sound might shape our perception of sex work can help us to gain a better understanding of how games might reproduce existing social stigma that sex workers face.

Soundwalking and Soundscape Analysis

Soundwalking is the practice of intentionally moving through space while de-centering the visual and listening to our surroundings. The term was originally coined by R. Murray Shafer during his time with the World Soundscape Project and then further popularized by composer and sound ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp. Westerkamp’s work delves into our relationship to place through listening, and she refers to soundwalking simply as “an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment” (2001, n.p.). For my own soundwalks, I compared Google’s map of San Francisco to the main maps from each game. Neither game map is exact but, after a quick tour, I found that their major neighbourhoods are arranged to at least vaguely resemble the actual city of San Francisco. I then drew up routes through a selection of neighbourhoods in order to contrast soundscapes from those that have a reputation for being wealthier or safer, for example, parts of Downtown and the Financial District, with those that have are recognized for being underprivileged or unsafe, for example, the Mission District and the Tenderloin, an area in the center of the city known for both its diversity and its poverty (Waters & Hudson, 1998).

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 prostitution in the area (Waters and Hudson, 1998). According to Rob Waters and Wade 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 do 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 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, rising crime rates, the gradual atrophy of public institutions, and the growing inequality between the rich and poor (McClelland, 2018).

Marcus encounters a group of people experiencing homelessness in the Tenderloin. (Screenshot)
Marcus encounters a group of people experiencing homelessness in the Tenderloin. (Screenshot)

In W_D2, the Tenderloin 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 of day (but especially at night), one might witness a fight, an arrest, a shooting, or even all three; and more than a few people can be found huddled in doorways and stairwells, seated on cardboard, rambling incoherently, walking around in bare feet, or being publicly intoxicated and clearly struggling with addiction and substance abuse. I decided to focus on the Tenderloin because of the way that W_D2’s creators appear to have actively designed signs of economic struggle and urban decay into the game. (Since the Tenderloin in GTA:SA is blended into the surrounding Chinatown and Nob Hill, I combined my soundwalk in this neighbourhood with one in an area called Garcia, which is based on San Francisco’s Mission District). Sex Work in Videogames

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 Bonnie Ruberg, sex work is quite common in large-scale, mainstream videogames, with a particular prevalence 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 interactive game elements (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 male player whereby the player-character is framed as being too “exceptionally attractive or exceptionally powerful” to pay for sex (Ruberg, 2019, p. 315). This fantasy communicates a specific set of values, namely, that paying women for sex is bad and undesirable and so it is “good” to not compensate sex workers for their labour (Flannagan and Nissenbaum, 2014). In such a way, videogames prompt players to reenact widespread cultural biases about sex work and perpetuate existing social stigma that actual sex workers face every day.

Sex worker characters in videogames are nearly always women in minor and non-playable roles (as opposed to playable characters, which are largely 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 representations of sex work that combines concerns over the objectification of women in games with questions about labour politics. This is supported by porn studies scholars Jizz Lee and Rebecca Sullivan (2014) who call for a reframing of sex work as an economic practice in order to combat neoliberal feminist 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). Evidently, existing representations of sex work in games tend to foreshorten the role of sex workers’ personal agency in performing 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. Now, we can ask: how does this manifest in the soundscapes of virtual cities?

The Sound of Sex Work San Fierro and Smart San Francisco

In GTA:SA, players assume the role of Carl “CJ” Johnson as he takes revenge on the gangsters who exiled him from the city of Los Santos in order to reclaim it for his own gang, the Grove Street Families. Players complete a series of missions that involve stealth, combat, driving, and winning mini-games. San Fierro is the third city players encounter and, apart from Chinatown (where architecture and street signs have a distinct style) and specific landmarks, its neighbourhoods aren’t that aesthetically distinguishable from one another. Sex workers exist in just about any part of the city but, unless these workers are interacting with another NPC (for example, by getting into a “cat fight”), players nearly always act upon them in order to hear them speak. If players bump into or attack a sex worker, she 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.”). Otherwise, if players want to purchase sex, they must get into a vehicle, pull up next to a sex worker (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 in order to interact with sex workers in a non-violent way had two noticeable impacts on my soundwalks. First, sex workers were nearly always seen before being heard and so are largely absent in the soundscapes (unless they were accidentally bumped into). Second, because sex workers must be on the sidewalk for players to approach, sex work is an extremely visible and almost normalized part of one’s surroundings in the game world. Sex workers (who are usually identifiable by revealing clothing) openly mingle with the rest of the city’s pedestrians as they make their rounds. However, these women’s agency is diminished because they function as objects that are waiting to be acted upon, much like the endless supply of stealable cars (as opposed to, for example, police officers, whose actions exist to elicit responses from CJ). In these ways, sex workers exist as more of a feature of the city itself than people who live and work inside it, 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 this money can taken back by killing sex workers devalues “not only their labor but also their right to life as human beings” (Ruberg, 2019, p. 323).

One of the sex workers who are commonly found on the sidewalks of San Fierro. (Screenshot retrieved from
A sex workers who is commonly found on the sidewalks of San Fierro. (Screenshot retrieved from

In W_D2, players assume the role of Marcus Halloway, a computer whiz who helps a group of radicals hack into the infrastructure of a futuristic smart city to take down the evil Blume corporation, which exerts control over citizens using ctOS 2.0 (or Central Operating System 2.0). Since W_D2’s story centers on issues surrounding data collection and privacy, it is no surprise that soundscapes in this version of San Francisco are packed full of human voices and conversations to eavesdrop on. While both games are vococentric (meaning that they privilege the human voice over other parts of a sonic hierarchy (Chion, 1990, p. 5)), this effect is compounded in W_D2 by the fact that NPCs frequently have conversations on cell phones; unlike in GTA:SA, these NPCs don’t need to interact with other characters directly in order to speak. Instead, conversation is almost always audible over the sounds that are produced by traffic, street music, or NPC’s physical actions (such as the slamming of a car door).

These elements of W_D2 make soundscape analysis an interesting 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 Mladen Dolar, the voice “stands at the axis of our social bonds” and are “the intimate kernel of subjectivity” (2006, p. 14). It follows that in soundscape analysis, semantic listening is an effective way to differentiate between the character, atmosphere, and social makeup of different physical and social locations as we traverse the city.

What stands out about the Tenderloin in W_D2 is the fact that it is the only place where sex workers’ voices take up a significant amount of space in an aural environment. While sex workers do exist in other neighbourhoods, they can only be identified visually when Marcus hacks into someone’s personal information. In other words, sex work is sonically absent from everywhere but one of San Francisco’s most notoriously run-down areas. A group of three or four women doing full service sex work can regularly be found in an alley that runs through the center of the Tenderloin. When Marcus approaches, these women deliver their pitches (“Hey, daddy, you looking for some fun?”), sometimes insinuating that he could enjoy the company of multiple women for the price of one (“Yeah, baby, you can have me and my friends”). Once again, 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” (Ruberg, 2019, p. 325). However, while players are invited into stereotypical cultural scripts surrounding sex work, they are not given the option to follow through. Unlike CJ, whose interactions with sex workers could easily be read as an extension of his other criminal or otherwise morally ambiguous activity, Marcus, anti-heroic deliverer of vigilante justice, does not have the option of saying "yes" to the worker’s propositions. Between this and the fact that the game opens with one of Marcus’ casual hook-ups, W_D2 further reinforces the idea that a good man/protagonist does not — and does not need to buy sex.

A group of three sex workers advertise their services to Marcus as he wanders down an alley in the heart of the Tenderloin. (Screenshot)
A group of sex workers advertise their services to Marcus as he walks down an alley in the Tenderloin. (Screenshot)

The voices of of sex workers in the Tenderloin loosely fit a combination of what Schafer refers to as “signal sounds,” (sounds that act as acoustic warning devices), and “sound marks,” which he describes as “a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community” (1977, p. 10). While there are elements of W_D2 that do work to frame sex work as an economic practice by positioning sex workers as workers first — for example, the occasional line reading “Occupation: Escort” will crop up when Marcus is hacking people’s phones of random citizens those people are never shown actually doing or speaking about sex work. The Tenderloin alone confronts the player with depictions of sex workers as sexualized victims of an inherently exploitative practice and acts as an auditory and visual signal to the player that they have entered a so-called bad neighbourhood.


There are elements of W_D2 that recenter erotic labour as an economic practice and not solely as a form of gendered exploitation, such as when NPCs are upset by Marcus bumping into them (“Are you blind? That’s it. Dreams shattered, day ruined”), feeling unsafe and walking away (“Oh… I have to go”), or demanding that he vacate the area (“Fuck you. Piss off! Yeah, you!”). In combination with visual information from Marcus’s heads-up-display (“[Name:]Taylor Phelps. Occupation: Escort. Income: $59,000.00/year. Student studying graphic design.”), sex workers are arguably more humanized and figured into questions of labour politics. They are, to some degree, portrayed as regular people with lives, aspirations, and problems that are not directly rooted in the fact that they do sex work.

Still, these gains feel somewhat undercut by the fact that 1) sex work is still explicitly gendered and limited to minor and non-playable characters and 2) the Tenderloin, an area that W_D2’s developers intentionally portrayed as being particularly rough around the edges, is the only place where sex work is given explicit visual and audible representation. Apparently, sex work in neighbourhoods that are framed as wealthier or safer happens behind closed doors rather than in the street. This resonates 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 notes 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 (particular Indigenous women) of positions of cultural, political, and economic power by dehumanizing them as primitive and promiscuous. So, while W_D2 may disrupt the power fantasy that GTA:SA leans into, this has yet to occur in ways that really resonate with sex-positive and anti-racist feminisms.

I’ll conclude by saying that soundwalking and soundscape analysis have proved to be a fruitful venture for studying socioeconomic class in videogames. First, I found that soundwalking and soundscape analysis are most effective when combined with other methods for doing gameplay analysis, such as critical play (Aarseth, 2003) and elements of Consalvo & Dutton’s methodological toolkit for the qualitative study of games, such as mapping interactions between characters and keeping a gameplay log (2006). The overwhelming majority of videogames privilege visuality and, much like film, rely on an audio-visual contract in order for players to interact with the game and make sense of their surroundings. Had I relied on soundscape analysis alone, it is unlikely that I would have made the observations that I did about representations of sex work in these games.

This project has also helped me to understand how a game’s audio design can be used as a vector for inviting players into rehearsing the cultural scripts that devalue sex workers’ labour. 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, video games 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). Evidently, sound does figure 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 (at least for me) the need for game studies scholars to take up new forms of feminist class analysis.

Going forward, my team and I have made note of some directions this project could take as it (hopefully) continues to grow and change. A longer version of this piece could would involve a more detailed examination of the way that sex workers are written in these games with greater attention to the content and context of these characters’ actions and dialogue beyond what was revealed during my soundwalks. It would also be worthwhile to carry on my analysis of different neighbourhoods in W_D 2 in order to assess how different urban locations are marked as belonging to inhabitants of particular socioeconomic classes. How do those distinctions manifest along not only classed but also gendered and racial lines? Additionally, how has 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, informed the way that game designers have gone about creating a “realistic” depiction of urban life, wealth inequality, poverty, and the digital divide?

If you’re keen to find out more about what’s happening at the intersection of videogames and sex work, check out The Oldest Game, a web-based news game put together by a talented team of creators, many of whom are graduate students, working with Concordia’s own Dr. Sandra Gabriele to explore debates surrounding the legalization of the sex trade in Ontario and Quebec. The game is made in collaboration with Canadian sex workers.

You can also visit Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights to find out more about calls for the decriminalization of sex work in Canada and Sex Worker Ed to learn about what we can all do to advocate for sex worker’s rights and promote safe working conditions and the right to self determination for all. (These are not perfect or comprehensive sources, but they are a couple of places where we can start.) References: Aarseth, E. (2003). Playing research: Methodological approaches to game analysis.

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