In previous installments of the Weekly Guide to Gaming, we have tackled the issue of VIOLENCE. But what about that equally controversial, arguably more repressed taboo, SEX? This week we cast off the taboo and unabashedly ask, sexual content in video games: why not?
IMPORTANT NOTE: As if it's not obvious, portions of this article may be NSFW.
Sex and Video Games and Whether the Twain Shall Meet
By Russell Davidson
Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) - The First Pornographer?
So I'm reading about video game ratings, you know, where someone somewhere reviews the game and rates it anywhere from a E for Everyone to M for Mature. Fine. But then I notice there's an A rating, meaning Adult. Now, I've seen some nasty shit in some of these M games, heads chopped off, people sliced open, people eaten, I could go on. You really couldn't get much more violent. These are the M games. So no amount of violence is going to get you an A rating. Obviously, this means A is reserved for games loaded with explicit sex, right? Ok! I wanna see some of these!
But you know what, there ain't but crap out there. Fellow correspondent Mike Leader is going to show you the few examples that exist, going back to the 80's. Really not that many, and really not that good. Low quality, and low quantity. Almost underground. There are new, available games, like Leisure Suit Larry, but these are a joke, no fun to play and no fun to look at. Why hasn't gaming jumped all over this potentially huge market? Some stuff like this can be found in Japan, no doubt, but here, it's almost as if people are scared to marry XXX and gaming, notice the flap over Grand Theft Auto's "Hot Coffee" scene (a sex scene that could be opened with a special code).
Is this because games are supposed to be "for kids?" Or is it more because the porn industry has yet to dive in?
Technology is driven by demand, and people have always demanded porn. One of the first things ever printed on a press was Aretino's "Postures" (1524), detailing various sexual positions. Paperback books, and their making, were developed as a less-expensive alternative to hardbacks, allowing pornographers to cheaply mass-market their wares. Some of the first photographs ever taken were pornographic, and the development and popularity of the Poloroid instant camera was said to be a direct result of consumer demand for "private" pictures. Then, some guy at Sony or wherever comes up with video tape, and the XXX industry explodes. Almost every video rental store started out only renting porn, then expanded to mainstream films. In the beginning, porn titles available for rent outnumbered regular movies 10 to 1. Soon everyone buys a machine.
But then you've got rewinding issues, you want more control over what you're watching. Here come DVD's, allowing for freeze-frame, scene selection, etc. Soon everyone buys a machine. People invent this technology, and porn takes it the distance, nudges it out there, perfects it. Porn started the cable TV pay-per-view service. Then there's the internet. The money generated by porn on the web is in the billions, bigger than Hollywood, bigger than video games. When the internet first popped up it was, as it is now, loaded with XXX material. It grew and grew as a direct result of people looking for and paying for porn. When the web debuted, the two most popular searches were "sex" and "porn." The same is true today. And now the industry is working on cell-phone adult entertainment, live-streaming, working on video cams, is taking the technology further. Porn has got the bucks to invest in this stuff, and the ever-eager audience to help foot the bill.
Where will porn go next? A virtual reality so real you'll swear you're having sex? Guess we'll have to wait and see. Maybe we could play games where you're a John Holmes-type character, earning points and "member" upgrades, like the more women you satisfy, the bigger your weiner gets. Or perhaps you could score depending on what sexual acts you talk people into, like a bonus for a facial, or for convincing a heterosexual to participating in homosexual acts, or for continual screwing without blowing your load too early, or without first having a heart attack, or catching a disease, or maybe you've got to "please" others, taking them to unforeseen bliss with some serious button-crunching . What about an actual console add-on into which you could stick your johnson, actually screwing it, to go along with the game (it could work for women, too, with a console-controlled vibrator-type gizmo)? Rhythm is key. Sounds messy, but certainly possible. New frontiers, baby!
And this takes us back to the original question. Why hasn't the porn industry been all over this gaming phenomenon? Will it always be frowned upon, the merger of the two?
I look for porn to push open new boundaries. I'm waiting for them to push this one.
The History of Sex in Video Games: A Personal Account
By Mike Leader
Sexual relations - be it procreation or recreation - definitely play a large role in society. However, due to its more distinct stigmatisation and taboo-status in relation to violence, the representation of sex in gaming is often idiosyncratic and controversial. The most recent (and overblown) controversy was over the Hot Coffee minigame in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a rejected, rhythm-based sex simulation included in the game's romantic sidequests. While not in the finished game, the minigame was still present in the game's code, and astute modders were able to bring it into the light. The knee-jerk reactionaries (including Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton) were quick off the mark - resulting in a re-rating of the game to AO, Adults Only. The game was also subsequently re-rated, and refused classification in Australia, effectively banning it. The Hot Coffee controversy is one of those flashpoints in mainstream gaming news but it is still facile and short-sighted.
Sex, like violence, has been a part of gaming since the early days, just in a much more underhand, and often subtle way. As my fellow collaborator Russell Davidson attests, video games are an untapped medium for true pornography, for undeniably erotic adult content. However, to say that gaming is frigid or inexperienced in sexual matters would be wrong. Here, I've attempted to break down my own knowledge of this corner of gaming into easily digestible categories, as well as looking at artful, tasteful alternatives. I'm not aiming for definitive status; this is just what I'm aware of.
Sexual content integral to gameplay, but not in the least arousing: "amusing" or "WTF?" games
Some of the earliest examples of sexual content in computer games are back on the Atari 2600, where a developer by the name of Mystique specialized in "Adult Video Games". These are notorious in gaming history, not for erotic or arousing appeal, but for how bad they are as games. Custer's Revenge is probably the most well-known, where you played as General Custer, dodging arrows, in order to rape a Native American girl, who is tied to a post (or cactus).
There was also a game called Beat 'em and Eat 'em, which involved the main character jerking off on top of a building, with two naked girls, mouths opened wide. The aim of the game was to catch the 'goods'. I've not played these games, although a quick scan of screenshots and vids will attest to their low, offensive quality. I also bow to the Angry Video Game Nerd, who suffered playing these games for the education of internet folk, and made a video overview. The AVGN brings up a fair point: are these games even remotely arousing?
Another prime example of a more "humorous" approach to sexual content in video games is seen in the Leisure Suit Larry franchise. My experience with the franchise is minimal: when visiting a friend's house, we would take the box from the shelf in his dad's study and stare at the buxom women and sleazy titular character. We weren't allowed to play on it, as it was definitely adult property, but boy did we dream. Unlike the Mystique games, the LSL games were quite critically acclaimed, and were one of Sierra's more popular "point and click" series in the late 80s and early 90s. The "point" of the games involved wooing women with large breasts into bed; however, the sharp dialogue and witty references made this game stand out. The original games, like games of its type from both Sierra and their rivals Lucasarts, still stand up today thanks to their writing, even if the gameplay has become outmoded. However, LSL has enjoyed a revival of sorts, with newer games developed for consoles and PC, including LSL: Magna Cum Laude and the soon-to-be-released LSL: Box Office Bust. Again, sex is integral to the gameplay, but is it arousing? Is it "porn"?
Sexual content NOT integral to the gameplay, but integral to the EXPERIENCE: "borderline misogyny"
This is one step up. There are games which do involve content, be it images or videos, but the act of sex, love-making or wooing is not necessarily "part of the game". Some of the more intriguing games in this category are of Japanese origin, and involve successful gamers being "rewarded" with hentai porn of varying extremity. One example is a game called Hentai Columns, which is a variation on the popular puzzle game Columns. I once unknowingly played this game (as a ROM at a friend's house), and I was surprised that when you had cleared the screen of blocks and gems - you were faced with porn! These kind of games are called Eroge games, and offer other variations of popular game styles, such as dating simulators, where the player sees more of the girlfriend as you socialise.
The thinking behind these games is not sex as humour, or sex as beauty - it is more about women as sex objects. It is very easy for games that handle sexual content to spill over into misogyny, milking the basest (perceived) tastes of the key 15-25 year old male bracket. A prime example of this is BMX XXX, a notorious clone of the Dave Mirra: Freestyle BMX game concept, but with generous helpings of scatological humour, topless women and unlockable stripper videos. Whereas Leisure Suit Larry featured often genuinely witty dialogue, one needs only to watch the trailer for BMX XXX to see how it makes no secret of its distasteful aspects.
My girlfriend, a light gamer and mild enthusiast in all things pornographic (aren't we all?), found the majority of the games featured in this article funny - but couldn't help but feel offended by BMX XXX.
Sexual content not integral to gameplay, not necessarily integral to experience either, but is still there: "The Line Begins to Blur"
In contrast to the shameless foregrounding of the sexual content in BMX XXX, there are very popular games which feature aspects of adult content, but these things are not central to either the experience or the gameplay. A prime example of this is the Dead or Alive fighting series. DOA stands alongside the Street Fighter and Tekken series at the peak of arcade and console fighting games in terms of graphics and gameplay. However, one thing that made DOA stand out was BOOBIES. Whereas beautiful female characters, often with revealing costumes, or bulging chestlines are not uncommon in other games in the genre, DOA added more bounce to the ounce. The series also furthered the art of character modelling, pushing consoles' hardware to its limits in order to, well, show off some beautiful, fleshy hardware. A spin-off series, titled Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball, was released on the Xbox in 2003 and features the aforementioned beauties on vacation on a tropical island, lounging around in bikinis and playing with each other. Now, this game is near-laughable because of its unabashed promotion of eye-candy as a selling point - check the opening cinematic for its sequel!
Yet the game was well-received by the majority of the gaming press! IGN, in its review, calls it "outstanding":
"The fact that every character in the game is showing off plenty of flesh never became irrelevant even when I was locked in a close match where every bump, set and spike was crucial... From head to toe, some of the best character models ever".
There is indeed a space for well-rendered beauty in well-made games. However, things are complicated, the line between true beauty and sleazy exploitation begins to blur. DOAX2, despite its core gameplay, still contains purely arousing extras, such as pole dancing sequences starring the characters:
This aspect is probably closest to the "pure" definition of pornography in gaming in my experience. Actually, what am I saying? This approach to female characters is not limited to Dead Or Alive, even fighting games, just check this three part list of "best cleavages" from ArmchairEmpire.com (one, two, three). This is EVERYWHERE. Metal Gear Solid, despite its focus on intense stealth action gameplay, in-depth storytelling, and tongue-in-cheek humour, still has time for "bodacious babes" such as Meryl, Sniper Wolf and, most importantly Eva (from Metal Gear Solid 3). Not only does she practically burst out of her jacket, but the player can unlock a mode, called "Peep Demo Theater", which makes it so that in all cutscenes, she is sporting a sexy bikini.
Sexual content, part of gameplay, not entirely integral to whole game: "Tasteful?"
I've now been drawing reference from very mainstream, very lauded games. However, their depictions of sexual content is still very much from the masculine, objectifying gaze. However, there are games which engage with the use of sex as a game mechanic that aids the story, or is just an element of interaction. This is similar to a debate in the film world, documented by Phoebe Raven in a recent CC2K article about Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs - can realistic, artful, in this case interactive, representations of sex be separated from the allegations of misogynistic sordidness? Mass Effect, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2007, featured a subplot in which your character (which can be male or female, depending on the player's choice) can have a romantic relationship with more than one NPC (non-playable character). As part of these romantic "sidequests", the player can initiate sex scenes that are short, erotic and, well, tasteful.
Another equally interesting example is in the French-developed game Fahrenheit (renamed Indigo Prophecy in the US and Canada), where the gamer plays through a short rhythm-based mini game simulating sexual intercourse; like Mass Effect, this occurs at the end of a romantic dialogue, and, like the few other "adult" scenes in the game, serves characterization and plot development. These scenes are not explicit, yet that didn't stop them from being removed for the American release (only just getting a 17+ Mature rating).
And so, when seen this way, the approaches to sex or sexual content in video games is quite diverse. You have those trying to push forward both in terms of artistic representations and pornographic representations. It's a shame that the former is finding more resistance from those who like to lobby, ban and censor. Gaming is still in its infancy as a medium and an art form; the technologies developed in the last 5 years, let alone the last 10 or 20, have furthered its capabilities hugely, and its articulation has matured in more ways than one. Nevertheless, there is still yet to be straightforward, intelligent references to male homosexuality (apart from arguably in Rockstar's Bully), and we are still waiting for female characters to break free from the sexualised masculine gaze. From the pornographic angle - how will adult developers utilize these growing capabilities to shape, mould and create more arousing material? We can but wait, gaming still has far to go.
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