Let's talk about sex... in video games

Tagged: GTA, Gaming
Source: Ars Technica - Read the full article
Posted: 4 years 34 weeks ago

No one seems capable of remaining neutral about the topic of sex in video games, but it's not exactly clear why that is. Ars investigates.

These days, video games and controversy are old friends. Unsurprisingly, the biggest controversies seem to arise whenever the topic of sex in video games appears in the public forum. Whenever the topic rears its ugly head, critics come out of the woodwork, condemning the video game industry for trying to sneak sex into our homes and corrupt the youth of America. It's a debate that's become all too familiar for gamers, developers, and publishers over the past few years, and why people are so up in arms about the situation in the first place is more than a little vexing.

The controversy surrounding sex in video games isn't exactly a new one, but it certainly has hit the public eye recently. One of the earliest examples of sex causing a stir in the video game industry came about with Custer's Revenge, a game in 1982 that had such objectionable content that Atari ultimately sued the game's developer, Mystique, in an effort to publicly distance the Atari console from the game's negative media attention. More recently, the sex/nudity in games like BMX XXX, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and Mass Effect have garnered a fair degree of coverage and outrage, even when it isn't deserved.

But why do people in the game industry get so upset about anything sexual appearing in games, especially when there is so much gratuitous violence permeating the medium? Why doesn't violence in games spark the same amount of outrage? The long answer could fill a book, but Brenda Brathwaite, author of Sex in Video Games, and Damon Brown, author of Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture, offered a few answers to Ars that begin to scratch the surface.

Brathwaite started out with the obvious suggestion that our intolerance for sex in games goes all the way back to the Puritan founders of America. "I think it's purely a cultural thing. In other countries, like Germany, it's completely the opposite; it's our culture, and that's just the way we view things." It is true that critics in the United States seem to be willing to do battle with sexual content, while countries like Britain and Germany often do the opposite, with politicians in these nations doing their best to ban violent games while never even mentioning sex.

Brown suggested another reason we freak out about sex is that we've come to expect heavy amounts of violence in games, while sexual content is still so uncommon that it's shocking when it appears. "Part of the answer is that video games are assumed to be violent," he pointed out. "For instance, how many mainstream cover stories have there been on violence in video games and the effect on children, à la Columbine? Comparatively, there have been hardly any about adult/sexual content, even during the Hot Coffee scandal. High levels of sexual video game content are still relatively new for mainstream America, beginning with GTA 3 or, at best, Leisure Suit Larry."

Finally, the third major thing that makes people uncomfortable with sex in games is that games are still perceived as being products for children. "We're still in the perception that video games are for kids," Brathwaite said. "That perception is carried out in an extreme way in places like Australia, where they don't even have a rating for adults. So, if your games can't be played by kids under [a certain age], you can't even publish them there."

Even in the United States, the rating system reflects the idea that games are for kids. According to its official requirements, the ESRB is open about its preference that applicants have experience dealing with children: "ESRB raters must be adults and typically have experience with children, whether through prior work experience, education or by being parents or caregivers themselves."

"This is the key to medium, in that we're viewing everything through the eyes of a child," Brathwaite pointed out. "It's not that kids don't matter or should be excluded, but our rating system is, by default, a bit reactionary."

For many gamers, the main problem with this concern about sex in games is that it doesn't exist in other forms of media. With books, movies, television, and comics, sex isn't a huge issue these days, but it's still a major concern when it comes to video games. In short, this is a massive double standard, since games containing sex are often slapped with an AO rating and movies with far racier content are allowed on retail shelves. Ars community member Nagumo claims to have "seen Baise Moi in Wal-Mart," a film that "features scenes involving rape that show real penetration and ejaculation! Never mind the sodomy with a .45."

While gamers have a right to be upset about this double standard, claims Brown, they should also realize that it's a bit of a good thing, too. "Movies had the long-standing Hayes code until the 70s, comics had the Comic Book Code of 1954 —requiring that womens' features not be 'exaggerated'— and so on," he said. "And books are still being banned! Video games were created only about 50 years ago and didn't become mainstream until 35 years ago. The video game censorship battle, which, while continuous, hit the mainstream a decade and a half ago with Mortal Kombat, and is just a sign that our pastime is being recognized as a cultural influencer."

Something that many critics don't realize is that there is a market for sexualized video games. Granted, it's certainly miniscule compared to the mainstream market, but it's there. Aside from the fact that some developers of these games are able to sell uncensored and/or more explicit versions of their titles via direct download—thereby avoiding retailers and the censorship issues that occur to get a game there—many users will sexualize their interactions with each other or create risqué content. "Sex is already incredibly common in games already, we just call it 'emergent behavior between two players,'" Brathwaite said. This emergent player behavior can range from teabagging your opponents after you frag them in Halo to creating a strip club in Star Wars: Galaxies to engaging in full-on sex in MMOs like Second Life or Sociolotron.

If you haven't heard of Sociolotron before, you're not alone. The game is an MMORPG that, aside from standard fare associated with the genre, features sex as an integrated part of the world. This makes it different from Second Life because the sex isn't user-created, it's actually built into the game from the moment you start. The game, which came into existence in 2002, was actually a happy coincidence for its creator, known only as "PlayerDark," and serves as evidence that other players are also interested in adult experiences in their games. "I was working on a text-based adult game to run as a hobby when the company I was working as a programmer for went out of business," he explained. "Since it was very difficult to find another job as programmer around here at that time, I decided to try and make [Sociolotron] a commercial game. Thanks to the help of a number of players who helped with testing and suggestions, I was able to finish it within a year approximately."

However, not everyone has been supportive of Sociolotron. Even other gamers have a habit of looking down their noses at the MMO and the content it contains. "[When people first hear about the game,] mostly it’s a reaction of… 'Dude, another porn game, only freaks play it, but not me,' and some sort of snickering look-down reaction," PlayerDark explains. "One has to get used to it. Our players are mostly a nice group, and those who find their way into Sociolotron and stay with us usually become hardcore fans of the game.

Of course, the future of sex in games is difficult to foresee, but it stands to reason that it's something that will persist and grow, especially as the average age of video gamers continues to increase and games are no longer perceived as just being for children. At the moment, it's something that will have go grow by inches rather than by leaps and bounds. One possible milestone could be the launch of Sociolotron 2 , which is tentatively scheduled for next year.

"From Pompeii to modern times," Brown observed, "history has proven that we will use any available technology toward sexual gain—or, as Playboy editor Scott Alexander put it, 'If there is a new technology, we will try to fuck it'… there is a market for it, and it will be delivered through any channel that stays open to the consumers' desires."

 

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