WARNING! This post contains video game images that some might consider graphic but, let’s face it, are mostly just hilarious.
Sex and Violence are two of the most commonly presented, intertwined and controversial concepts presented in fiction. Yet while violence is seen as pretty much the bread and butter of video games the exploration of sex and sexual themes is not something that video games are largely associated with. Adult content in video games has always been a subject of much scrutiny and a great deal of criticism. Perhaps this is because as a medium video games are still struggling to break free from the perception that they are childrens toys, an idea still reinforced among the wider media.
However the truth is that sex has always been a part of mainstream video games. You only have to look back at the release of games such as Softporn Adventure, Leisure Suit Larry and Wet: The Sexy Empire in the 80s and 90s to know that.
It is true that sex is nowhere near as prevalent in video games as violence, mostly because in the US while violence can usually scrape an M (Mature) rating explicit sexual content will usually mean an AO (Adult Only) rating. This can be a death sentence for a game’s commercial potential because it drastically affects publishers ability to market and distribute a game. Neither Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft will allow AO rated games to be published for their consoles and even Steam has only recently allowed an AO rated game, Hatred, to be sold on site. While Steam did offer games containing sexual content before, these were often censored.
The infamous ‘Hot Coffee’ mini game hidden in the code of GTA San Andreas. It was only accessible through modding or hacking but the controversy caused by it’s discovery caused the game to be re-rated as AO. The game was recalled and a new version was released without the mini game, allowing GTA San Andreas to remain M rated.
Video game journalists and critics have never been particularly positive about depictions of sex in video games and perhaps with some good reason. Criticisms of dead, doll-like eyes, terribly written dialogue or ridiculous background music are not without some degree of merit.
Dead-eyed sex scene from Farenheit/Indigo Prophecy
Sex scene from Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon which begins with the rather questionable line ““I wanna be blinded with your cyber love”
However the current crop of game journalists, critics and bloggers seem to be particularly sex negative when it comes to talking about sex in video games. Look up ‘sex in video games’ and the articles on mainstream gaming sites readily throw up descriptions such as as tasteless, unsexy, graphic, and meaningless.
Sex in games is almost exclusively used to give players, who are assumed to be male, something to ogle at between blood baths.
There seems to be slightly immature or even puritan aspects to the ways in which video game critics deal with the idea of sexual imagery or themes being presented in video games, with some writers seeming slightly grossed out that sex is in video games in the first place. Video game writers lament that sex is presented in games as a cheap laugh, thrill or as a mindless titillation reward for the player. But is that really fair?
In the world of video game journalism Mario murders innocent Goombas before retiring to have tender, meaningful sex with Princess Peach…
So, let’s break down these criticisms in as direct and frank way as possible, the first being that sex in video games is often silly looking and unsexy. Well, I hate to break it to them, but sex does not look like it does in the movies, even the pornographic ones. Professional pornography performers require a very specific skill set and a great deal of knowledge and experience to make sex look sexy, as anyone who has ever watched amateur porn will tell you. Sex in video games looking unsexy or funny comes down to a fundamental distinction between realism and aesthetic. Video game designers are trying to make animated figures look like they’re really having sex and REAL sex? With it’s movement, facial expressions and sound effects, most of the time doesn’t actually look very sexy.
Ride To Hell : Retribution and the ‘She just bit my balls’ orgasm face
Which brings me to my next point, why shouldn’t sex in a video game be funny or used as a comedic element? I’m British, often stereotyped as sexually repressed but a nationality that has a proud tradition of sex based comedy including Carry On films, saucy postcards and Monty Python sketches. Sex is often pretty funny to me and I don’t see why that shouldn’t be the case in video games. The idea that funny or silly video game sex somehow cheapens sex seems pretty old fashioned, uptight and prudish, like complaining that those having the sex are not married or that no-ones father was asked for permission beforehand. Nearly everyone in the world will have sex at some point in their life and everyone that has had sex will have had funny or awkward moments while doing so. Many people still find sex difficult to talk about, finding humour can make it easier and break down those kinds of taboos. Sex can be funny, and it’s ok to laugh at it.
Sex puzzle from the life simulator game 7 Sins
Another description thrown at depictions of sex in video games is the word ‘meaningless’. This adjective is a little more tricky to dissect because it measures how we as individuals perceive meaning in sex against how sex is used as a plot device in storytelling. While sex in a video game can be used as part of a puzzle or for amusement it can also be part of what drives the story of a video game forward. In recent years many video games have tried to make storylines more complex in an attempt to seem more cinematic. In doing so they have taken their cue from movies in regard to the way that sex is incorporated into the plot. However while audiences view sex in movies from a fourth wall bystander perspective video games is an interactive medium and so it is possible for the audience to not just observe, but participate in the sexual exploits of those on the screen. In games and series such as the Mass Effect, Dragon Age and anything from David Cage’s body of work (Heavy Rain, Beyond : Two Souls etc) players can actively make decisions regarding the sexual behavior of characters. But when you make sex a part of the game does it remove meaning? Does making sexual elements a mechanic of the game damage player perceptions of the intimacy and connection between those engaged in the sexual act itself? Well I suppose that is down to personal tastes and ideas regarding sex as an individual. Perhaps a better question would be SHOULD it mean that meaning or intimacy is removed? And here’s the thing, I don’t think it should.
Various scenes from Dragon Age : Origins and Dragon Age : Inquisition
Sex is a natural act, something we as a species engage in as a matter of instinct. Sex can connect people in a incredibly deep and powerful way. However, let’s be realistic. There are many reasons why people have sex and not all of them are deep and meaningful, in fact some are quite base or even flippant. We can have sex because we wish to physically express an intimate connection or we can have sex simply because it’s fun and it feels good. So it is with video games. Not all of the sex depicted needs to express any kind of deeper meaning or evoke an emotional response, either from the characters or from the player, it can just be there because people like to fuck so let the characters have some sexy time. As for involving gamers, because of the varied way in which players experience video games the choice to make sex a part of the game mechanic can actually strengthen meaning. Gamers that favour gameplay over plot can experience meaning from mastering the complexities of sex and relationships as a physical mechanic. Meanwhile gamers that care more about story than gameplay gain meaning from seeing the way that their choices regarding sex and relationships affect the plot thread of their character. A lot of this particular problem comes down to the difference between legitimate criticisms of developer design choices and the personal preferences and moral/ideological standpoints of the critic. If you believe that sex scenes in certain video games are meaningless then you have to be aware that that is a personal distinction and that others may have the complete opposite view. Another aspect is that once again we have to consider the current limitations of the medium. You want video game sex to give a true and accurate portrayal of some of the physical intimacy and potential/realised emotional connection between those engaged in sexual acts? Yeah, remember the part where we’re talking animated puppets made to look like they’re having sex?
So I imagine that by now some of you are thinking “No-one ever said we wanted to end silly or funny sex scenes in video games, we just want more depictions that are serious and worthwhile” and you’d be right, no-one is saying outright that they want these kind of depictions to end. However what they are saying is that they are a problem, by definition that means they are seen as something to be fixed or remedied
a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
Sex in video games is just one part of a larger discussion in gaming at the moment, connecting with issues such as sexualisation, objectification and how games portray the sexuality of, particularly female, characters. This discussion often takes place in the context of perceived wider social ramifications of the use of particular depictions/tropes. Of course the critics that believe these representations are a problem and should be ended will not come out and say so directly, they would be dismissed as a fringe view or as advocating censorship. However it comes down to this, if these critics truly believe that depictions of sex, sexuality or sex based imagery in video games contribute to negative treatment of particular groups of people within our society then why wouldn’t they be trying to stop those kinds of depictions from occurring? It is a perfectly valid opinion to want to see more instances of sex used as part of evocative storytelling in video games, but you know, that doesn’t need to mean less funny, silly or superficial sexual shenanigans in video games either. When those that talk about video games choose to use their platform to tear down what they believe to be bad, rather than to raise up what they believe to be good, then is it any wonder the assumption is that they want to censor?
Sex scene from GTA V
Sex has always been a part of video games and as the medium continues to grow, not just as a industry but as an art form, it is likely that we will continue to see depictions of sex and sexual themes in future releases. It is my sincerest hope that video game writers and critics will learn to be a bit less…well…frigid about it. By all means discuss whatever deep, meaningful or ideological perspective that you wish but remember video games, and sex, is supposed to about having a good time.
Seriously, there’s no need to take sex in video games quite so seriously.
Thanks for reading
Feel free to leave a comment and/or follow me on Twitter @angelheartnight
Also in case anyone missed it I was interviewed about #Gamergate by Metaleater.com