I don’t think there’s a hugely vast variety of content to examine for this month’s musing topic, so I apologize in advance if this article is redundant to what you’ve already read in other musings (though I haven’t read them yet). Also this is a little long, so fair warning.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to talk about sex…in games. You know, it’s that thing in Bioware games that happens when you “win” a romance with one of the characters (hopefully an attractive human female). It’s that part of God of War where after a funny yet provocative mini-game you “score” an ass-load of red experience orbs. It’s what you do in Fable 2 after you’ve exhausted the game and have absolutely run out of more interesting things to do. It’s sex…but not really.
My musing this month will hopefully illustrate everything that I think is wrong with sex in games, why it’s wrong, what developers can do about it, and the few times I’ve seen it go right. I’ll also probably have a tangent or two. It’s a fair bit of ground to cover but it all boils down to one basic point (which I will spell out for you here if you don’t feel like reading this anymore): sex, itself, is not a game, but most games treat it like one. This is a problem. If you’re burning (hopefully not while you pee) to find out why, keep reading…
Let’s first briefly discuss sex itself. Contrary to popular belief, while sex is awesome, it is not always the best part, or the goal, of most great romantic relationships. However, if you’ve never had sex and your only knowledge of it is from mainstream videogames, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Actual sex, with someone you love, can be borderline spiritual. It can be a big deal. That’s why a big part of why people get pissed off when their partners cheat on them (in addition to the whole trust and betrayal thing). Videogames, however, rarely feature sex this way.
In most games, sex is the reward for or the last level of virtual relationships. Even when it’s not in the context of a relationship, it’s treated like a game (or part of one). Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: ‘What a minute, RichardBlaine. We’re talking about games! There should be a reward for having to sit through all of those boring conversations and since games are all about ‘playing’, why is it bad to get to ‘play’ sex? Heavy Rain tries to make brushing your teeth a game, right?’ While there is some merit to this way of thinking, it’s based on presenting sex as a naughty treat for people who want to be titillated. It’s barely ever actually taken seriously. Let’s look at some examples.
Almost All Bioware Games: Bioware has been getting better about this, but they tend to feature sex as the thing that happens when you’ve talked to that one girl in your party enough times. Be honest, how many of you breathe a sigh of relief when you get to the end of the game and find out that you said the right things to get the sex scene to happen. I do. The reason why is because Bioware structures their games in such a way, so that sex is the sign that you “won” or “beat” the Romance quest, and I like winning at things. There’s usually not a reminder in your quest log, but let me ask you this: How many more lengthy conversations do you voluntarily have with your romance character after “the sex scene”? The answer is none…because the quest is over. Even if you try, you’ve normally exhausted all of the meaningful dialogue scenes the game offers in order to reach that point.
Almost All Other Games (that include sex): Generally, when sex is included in games, it’s regarded as a strategic element in the game, a game unto itself, or (like Bioware tends to do) a reward for completing something…
Fable: While I kind of respect how “matter-of-fact”-ly the game treats sex, there’s no real reason to do it unless you want a kid (which there’s also no real reason for). Before you accuse me of hypocrisy, let me explain. If the game wanted to use sex to titillate, it failed for being so heavily censored that it elicits none. If it wanted to use it in a meaningful way, it also failed because I defy anyone to “actually care” about an NPC that just says ‘Hero’ when you fart at him/her.
GTA: Sex is a way to make/lose money, regain health, or a reward for completing a date “mission”.
Indigo Prophecy: Sex gives you happiness points. While also true in real life, I have a problem with this because MILD SPOILER WARNING there’s a point in the end-game where you can choose for a character to either leave the city with their partner or stay and do their job. The game goes out of its way to paint the partner as a purely sexual object and demonstrate that the character, on the other hand, is devoted to their job. However, if you pick to stay (to help the city, because you’re devoted to your work, because the game gives you no reason to care about your partner, etc.) your character has a “bad ending”. You’re rewarded (with points and a ‘happy scene’) for pursuing sex. END OF MILD SPOILER
God of War: Sex is a mini-game that yields you lots of experience.
That’s enough. You should hopefully see where I’m going with this. Now before you stop reading because you think I need to take my head out of my ass, listen; I totally get that a lot of these examples are intentionally satirical and are aimed at older audiences that should already know better, but we all know that a lot of young people play these games and I think they send a very unrealistic message about sex. Few people of any age, hopefully, believe that if you talk at a girl for long enough, she’ll suddenly want to mate with you, but it doesn’t paint a realistic picture of romance. “Who cares?” you say. Fair enough, but it’s true and worth noting. The bigger problem is that a lot of developers want you to take it seriously more often than you realize. However, the way sex is usually implemented in video games, it’s impossible to take the act seriously; and consequently, take many of the characters and story elements seriously. I also believe that it causes you to take it less seriously than you would when it’s actually done half-well. I’m not really going to address the Uncanny Valley situation because I think it speaks for itself but it isn’t the main problem.
So when does sex work in videogames? When it means something and sometimes when it never actually happens (heavy stuff, I know). Let’s examine Half Life 2. Spoiler alert, Gordon Freeman has not “yet” banged Alyx Vance. However, I want him too (though I’d rather not watch). Why? Because the game (through narrative and character interaction/development) has convinced me that these two people “really” care about each other. I believe it, because I (the player) have been made to care about Alyx. Not in a weird voyeuristic “I’m going to look for nude mods online” way, but in the same way that everyone cares about characters from movies, TV shows, books, and games that they like. I want to see her and Gordon get together because the game made me believe that they should be together. They’re the Jim and Pam (The Office) of videogames. I think (in this case) the absence of sex puts more focus on the building of a relationship and creates a situation in which the player is more likely to believe that it’s a realistic possibility. Translation: we care more, partly because they aren’t “doing it”.
One of my favorite examples of sex in a game is in Dragon Age. “Wait, RichardBlaine! That’s a Bioware game! You said they’re bad! You’re a liar!” Not true. I always said “most” or “usually” and did mention that Bioware has been getting better about this. I, like most people, romanced Morrigan. While I was appalled by the way the gift giving system factored into the romance (talk at her AND throw jewelry at her to get her naked), I loved the way the narrative used sex in a surprising and meaningful way. MAJOR SPOILER WARNING In case you don’t know (but don’t mind being spoiled), Morrigan will stop having sex with you if she falls too deeply in love with you. I love that. The game is saying, this character cares too much about you to have sex with you, because of what it means to her. By the end of the game we find out why, and they pull another fast one on you. Morrigan offers you sex to save your life, in exchange for her disappearance and the god-child that will be born of your union. Sex suddenly has huge implications. Not having it might kill you! (Which is true in real life, by the way) It was a great moment for her character (despite what Anthony Burch wrote in his article) and a great moment for sex in games because I cared about the character and I cared about the consequences, which were significant. As a side note, I totally did it because having a god-son (haha) makes the story way more interesting. Martyrdom=Boring. A father/son relationship with super powers and moral ambiguity=Star Wars. It was good stuff. END OF MAJOR SPOILER
In examining the successful (in my opinion) cases, I think it’s pretty clear that minimizing the role of sex as some kind of gameplay reward helps. Perhaps more important to this equation are interestingly written and well paced character interactions, which will often create a situation in which love and sex are much more believable possibilities. Now there’s something to be said for the way Bioware looks to be handling that one weird, butch chick in Mass Effect 2 who seems to be into sex for the sake of it. That does reflect a lot of real world views. I haven’t played the game yet but I think that if they handle it as advertised, I’d support that “Romance story” because it’s portraying the act honestly for that character and her perspective. In a way, it’s more believable that you’d be having sex with someone like that than an innocent flower that you manage to melt in a few hours after listening to her backstory and refraining from saying things like “You’re boring” or “I don’t care”.
So, what does this mean for the hundreds of game developers reading my musing (I’m talking to you Jaffe)? Should they not use sex in games? No! Sex in games is fine. But here’s the deal, when it’s supposed to be satirical, make it clearly satirical (see: Bayonetta). When it’s supposed to titillate, be honest about it and remember that innuendo and suggestion can be more powerful than laying all of the cards on the table (there’s porn for people who want that). When it’s supposed to be serious or something that happens with a character we should care about, make it mean something to the characters and the story and don’t rush it. Those Bioware NPCs fall in love with you way too easily. It’s a real turn off when they’re too eager.
To close with, I think the best way to look at sex in games (presently) is by thinking about morality systems in games when they were very first introduced in the mainstream several years ago. They were very unrealistic, simplistic, and often depicted a much more shallow and superficial understanding of what they were trying to represent. Some people, not everyone, wanted more and I think they’ve improved quite a bit in several (though certainly not all) cases. I think sex (in games) is currently in the same place. It can provide a lot of opportunities for powerful and compelling storytelling and, hopefully, it will be handled with greater care and complexity in the future.
(This article was written from a male perspective, but I think the same points apply when you swap the pronouns.)