Why Are Video Games Obsessed With Bathrooms?

Read this excerpt from Heterotopias 003, a zine about games, architecture, and ideology.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/a3k3a8/why-are-video-games-obsessed-with-bathrooms
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Andy Kelly over at PC gamer wrote a really great article on video game toilets from a while back which I smile and think about whenever I see one in a game. Interesting this topic is popping up in other places.


Real talk, I check the bathroom design in a game to determine how much I should interact with things in the game, to sort of set a baseline of detail. If I can’t flush the toilet or use the sinks, I’m gonna assume that a lot of the stuff in the game is static. If I can, I’m gonna be plucking guitars and touching pianos, messing with every handle and doorknob, checking everything else out for the rest of the game.


I say there is not enough bathrooms in video games.

Seriously, bathrooms, toilets, washrooms, restrooms or what have you, give games a sense of an actual place that people live in (and therefore, do their business).

It is not obsession, it what games should thrive for, being places.

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A bathroom tells you a lot about the world the game is set in subconsciously. You can look at and it will tell you everything you need to know about the building it is a part of. Even something as simple as the size of a bathroom can tell you a lot about the living space.

I could write three books on the Silent Hill 2 bathroom scene alone, video games aren’t the only one obsessed


Something else about bathrooms in video games, other than the grounding factor, is that in general, bathrooms represent privacy in public spaces. The idea of going to a bathroom in real life is that you can go somewhere you won’t be disturbed for five minutes while you do whatever. So, in many, especially open world video games, something actively encouraged is to explore spaces fairly rigorously - after a lifetime of hidden collectibles and “storytelling” in environments players are encouraged to look around and inspect things as closely as possible. Usually this means players then stroll into bathrooms, smack every stall open looking for items, maybe inspect the mirror, and then leave. There are rarely any actual people inside bathrooms, and even rarer are people using them, and in addition, you can usually just waltz into the opposite sex’s bathroom (usually the women’s) without being stopped or reprimanded. This sort of lack of social etiquette and commanding of the space becomes an indicator to players that they can basically do whatever the fuck they want because nobody can stop them, and it extends to the privacy of people in all sorts of spaces in games. How often do you just walk in a house and run through people’s possessions for valuables without ever being stopped for it? It’s an overlooked but simple affirmation of the power fantasy that’s become so ubiquitous in games.


This is actually quite interesting. When I first read the article and the bit about interactivity, I was thinking about parser-based text games (which traditionally had placed value on interactivity of the environment as well). I think people have perhaps even discussed bathroom interactivity specifically in a parser IF context before. But, with the text games, it’s often your bathroom, not a public stall. I wonder what the confluence of factors is: the prevalence of “my shitty apartment” as a trope for new amateur IF writers, the tighter focus of IF games due to the affordances of text, the trickiness of getting multiple identically-named objects to work without confusion to parser or player, the traditional scope of popular genres in each medium…

Having just played through the Bioshock Collection, the examples presented here were fresh in my mind. The one from Infinite may be trite and obvious, but that’s what makes it necessary. The absence of segregated public bathrooms would have been an almost unforgivable oversight.

Which is why I find this section strange. How is that any different from a video game kitchen, bedroom, warehouse, or virtually any other setting. They are necessary because they are necessary. They are a baseline requirement for a believable space.

I’ll be honest: 99.9% of bathrooms I enter IRL do not engage my “social self,” and that’s still too many that do.

Hard not to see this topic and not think of No More Heroes, in which the bathroom is a key part of the life cycle of Travis Touchdown (the main character), as that is where you save the game for him. I’m not sure if there’s any greater meaning to that, but it comes to mind.

Of course, my gut response to the titular question is that, two decades on, video games have not recovered from wee baby robowitch asking “wait, why don’t any of the houses in Pokémon Red have bathrooms?”.

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