Video games have had an ongoing relationship with objectionable content from an early start with such games like Mortal Kombat or Leisure Suit Larry. It isn’t really that video games were particularly more offensive then their contemporaries in film or other media, rather the interactive component led to many believing the effect it could potentially have, could be that much more detrimental. It’s no surprise that mainstream news and media outlets have blamed them from everything from school shootings to a general social decline amongst youth particularly millenials.
While this criticism is mostly permeated by violent content and its effect on desensitization, sex has had an altogether different relationship. It isn’t something that has come up as frequently, primarily because games for the most part have avoided its inclusion. While video games are chockful of sexualization and sexualized characterization, the act of sex itself is something that is often ignored or tackled in a somewhat clumsy manner.
Sex has appeared in games for a long while, but in the past it has been rare or often separate from the mainstream. Japan has had dating-sims and eroges for ages, and even GTA: San Andreas with its notorious Hot Coffee controversy showed that even a mainstream studio such as Rockstar was toying with the idea of making the act interactive in some fashion.
But for the most part when sex has appeared in games, it has come at the cost of overly justifying its inclusion with narrative significance, the act can’t merely be included because it’s just something that people happen to do. And even when developers and writers go through great lengths to make sex contextually meaningful and decent, the media hasn’t held back from lashing out and calling it pornographic anyway, infamously seen with the first Mass Effect and Fox New’s subsequent coverage of it.
But like many issues that seemingly video games have yet to overcome, the clumsiness of sex isn’t so much a problem of social or cultural ignorance or acceptance, rather it’s a more mundane one.
Errant Signal in his “Violence in Games” video, argues that the systematic nature of video games lends itself to favor spatial interactions (shooting, racing, running, fighting) above others that are by his terms more “back-endy” such as with something like Football Manager 2014. While there is obviously a demand for violent play, the over-reliance on it in the vast majority of games is also largely due to mechanical reasons.
For example, a quick look at most controllers today easily shows an interface custom-built to engage in spatial interaction such as violent play. Left analog sticks allow us to move around a space (x/y axes) while the right stick allows us to both look around and aim a gun or other weapon (z axis). Buttons either act as movement modifiers such as jump, crouch, or interact, or simply engage in a violent action such as shooting a gun, swinging a sword, or lobbing a grenade.
While sex would typically fall into the spatial interaction category, the reasons as to why it is deemed a more unconventional interaction by mechanical means, is that unlike the other systems, it doesn’t really provide an easy way to interface nor the means to deliver a narrative over a long period of time.
Simply looking at how the rather complicated task of just walking or running is controlled conveniently by two directional sticks shows the manner in which movement gets generalized to be easily controlled by the player. QWOP and its many derivatives like Surgeon Simulator 2013 shows that too much control makes simple tasks difficult.
While violent movement and action isn’t necessarily simplistic, it is a manner of interaction that can be easily generalized into fewer base motions fluidly. On the other hand something like sex mechanically speaking is messy and much more complex in regards to transcription.
There isn’t really an easy way to generalize its components to translate well into an interface, or at least those that have already been standardized. But more importantly, it doesn’t provide a primary mode of action to tell a story, or engage the player in an experience lasting ten or more hours.
I guess the crude but simple contrast one can draw is that typically playing a game, one can easily spend several hours or more continuously playing. Sex typically doesn’t last that long, nor does engaging in its simulated analogues such as watching pornography and masturbating.
That all said, games that have attempted to inject sex into the medium have largely done so in two ways, in a mode of spectatorship or one that actually makes the player engage in it as a participant. Neither method is mutually exclusive, nor is one particularly more correct then the other.
Spectating upon the act
Often the easiest way to include anything in a video game that is narrative focused and doesn’t have a mechanical or spatial system designed for it, is to showcase it through the usage of cinematics or moments of non-gameplay. This typically allows the narrative to function and not derail simply because the developers couldn’t design a proper system to handle something that would conceivably be over in mere minutes to seconds. For example, in a game like Tomb Raider where Lara Croft occasionally finds herself in a close quarters brawl, the game presents this as a cinematic with QTE button prompts. While they could have included a system of play that allowed Lara to perform more complex actions, it wouldn’t have made much sense from a development context since these moments only make up a fraction of a percent of the whole game.
Obviously this approach has downsides but ultimately it’s somewhat unavoidable. Studios simply don’t have unlimited resources and time to work with, and systems of play that get utilized the most will obviously call for the most attention in development.
From a narrative standpoint, sex in general has typically been handled in the scope of cinematics or a derivative of it, whether that be QTE or something else with extremely minimal interaction. Much of the more complex interaction would occur before the act, in a sort of interactive foreplay.
Dating-sims while crude provide the best basis for how this works. Typically dating-sims follow a very rigid format. In essence they are visual novels with a few key choices thrown in to present different endgame outcomes. These different outcomes typically just mean which character you end up with. Given this format isn’t intended to necessarily provide a challenge more a form of escapism, outcomes are all essentially win states.
It’s also probably important to note that not all dating sims are necessarily crude or result in sex. They range from the more innocent such as Sakura Wars or Tokimeki Memorial to the more adult like Kanon or Air. Regardless though they all follow the same mechanics in terms of play.
Essentially these games work by reading through large amounts of text in the form of a visual novel. At key points, players are offered choices in how to respond that ultimately branch out into different outcomes. The incentivization process is one that sees the player aiming to end up with a particular character and in the case of the more adult eroges, ultimately have sex with them and get a few visuals of it happening.
These win states while crude closely resemble the way in which cinematics are often used in mainstream gaming conventions in the West. A game such as the first Mass Effect mechanically, differs only marginally from these Japanese games. In Mass Effect players can optionally choose to engage in a similar yet cut down form of textual conversation with dialogue choices that will guide them to several outcomes.
The outcomes are either whether the player chooses to pursue a romantic interest at all, and if so which character this happens to be. Unlike the Japanese dating sims however, this whole affair isn’t the main focus of the game, nor is it completely separate. For example, playing a Commander Shepard that pursues a romantic relationship with Liara actually runs parallel to the main narrative of the game. Both complement each other nicely and the subsequent characterizations make sense holistically. It’s also possible to destroy chances of romantic coupling if certain statements are said that put a strain on the relationship.
The incentivization process is also a bit different as well since it’s not an expectation or known development that sex will occur (assuming it’s a first playthrough). Thus when sex occurs it’s not something that is merely a win state or reward for engaging in a form of play, rather just another step in an ongoing narrative.
Lastly on Mass Effect, the act of sex isn’t interactive in itself, rather it is depicted during a cinematic. Everything else that leads up to the act however is a form of interactive play. As mentioned previously the notions of spectating and taking part are often not completely separate.
The cinematic as well is entirely nonsexual with the majority of the coupling consisting of stylized shots that quickly pan and tilt over both participants embracing. The tonality of the whole sequence is more romantic then anything else, and the most explicit image we get is some sideboob.
As a comparison Witcher 2 depicts sex with a completely different attitude. One that sees its inclusion as a bit more unnecessary and out of place in regards to the narrative or characterizations present. Witcher 2 opens with showing both Geralt and Triss shortly after engaging in sex, before any sort of player input or interaction could take place. And also to note, before any sort of development track could be presented.
In direct contrast to Mass Effect, Witcher 2 presents sex as completely outside the scope of gameplay or narrative and in a way that might be construed as obscene. The camera focuses heavily on Triss and her body, more so then Geralt. CD Projekt RED also shamelessly used Triss in promotional materials that displayed her in pinup fashion which was somewhat dissonant with how the game has been received by the public.
Witcher 2 has been a game that’s been nearly universally praised and held up as a new standard of the industry. Poland the country in which it was developed even saw it as a huge economic success, seen in Prime Minister Donald Tusk gifting President Obama a copy of it while on a visit a couple years back. None of this is really to criticize Witcher 2 since it is in fact a well crafted game, rather the motivations or lack of in the inclusion of sex aside from injecting a sexually attractive female that could be marketed. And also, the complete lack of criticism on its part when Mass Effect with its rather tame inclusion initially got labeled as offensive and pornographic.
Then again that was nearly seven years ago and it seems like we might have finally reached a point where sex much like violence is no longer such a serious taboo at all.
Recently I played through Wolfenstein: The New Order and it’s actually the game that primarily inspired me to write this article. It was a game that like the previously mentioned games, featured sex through cinematics. Much like Witcher 2, it was in a manner that was non-interactive taking place in a space void of player input.
The difference though is that Wolfenstein: The New Order presented sex largely outside the scope of literary or narrative significance while doing so in a mundane fashion. Blaskowicz and Anya engage in it various times throughout the course of the game. While romance is present, it’s hardly the defining factor. The two characters are thrust into a conflict that places them in a position where they naturally want to seek companionship from somewhere, and there are simply no other options around. It’s not to say it is merely a matter of convenience, rather sex in Wolfenstein: The New Order is more in line with being a coping mechanism for its characters, or a method to inject some pleasure into their rather nightmarish situations.
And Wolfenstein: The New Order does all this without coming across as obscene or pornographic, which shouldn’t be that much of an accomplishment since film, TV, and every other medium has done it without reproach consistently.
It’s is also not to say that sex is completely insignificant either. The relationship between Blaskowicz and Anya while not defined by romance, is also not one that is arbitrary or unimaginative. Both are deeply complex characters and throughout the course of the game, we sort of learn why there even is an attraction between the two in the first place, and ultimately why the relationship couldn’t progress to a further level.
What is most striking however about Wolfenstein: The New Order is in how sex has become as mundane as violence or anything else. MachineGames didn’t needlessly justify its inclusion away by excessively tying it back into the main narrative, nor did it simply include it in obscene fashion. The sex isn’t particularly that theatric or attractive to view, it’s sort of rough if anything.
Allowing players to engage or interact in certain activities has more significance then simply injecting more gameplay into a game. It can allow for more immersion but also signify or put emphasis on those activities or interactions. Furthermore the intentional absence of them can also draw attention in the same manner.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 for example injects various sub-systems to create a wider sense of realism. Not only do players have to drive trucks to deliver goods and manage a company, but they also have to routinely pull into rest stops to get sleep to prevent fatigue.
Something as simple as a sleep requirement prevents Euro Truck Simulator 2 from feeling like a non-competitive racing system. It’s not merely getting from point A to B, but a replication of the real world concerns and challenges faced by long distance truckers.
Exclusion or the intentional absence of a system can also be a means to shoehorn players into designated paths or modes of play. Stealth titles like Splinter Cell or Hitman which utilize systems of shooting, often prevent these same systems from being utilized too heavily. Rate of fire, accuracy and effective distances are all severely crippled. This forces players to simply not engage hostiles, or do so with great care and at close range. Ultimately this type of exclusion promotes one type of gameplay, namely stealth, over the run-and-gun play favored in games like Call of Duty which shares similar systems of shooting.
In summary, gameplay systems can effectively still be as relevant when they are included or when they are intentionally left out. This is obviously different from simply intentionally leaving a system out due to laziness, poor planning, or lack of ideas on how to properly implement.
Sex as a system sort of exists outside this notion of intentional inclusion or exclusion. When it has been included in play, it’s often been to dissonant effect and out of place. And as for exclusion, it’s largely been done so from a lack of thought.
Rockstar with GTA: San Andreas toyed with the idea of making sex an interactive experience. The base system of rhythm games was used as an overlay and the whole experiment was largely comedic and ludicrous. It never made it to the final release and Rockstar even denied its existence until modders uncovered it in the game’s data files.
Saints Row 2 among its many diversions, allowed the player to engage in prostitution. Through “ho-ing” players could enter gas station bathrooms and other locations where they could engage in this form of play. While nothing was actually visible, the act was entirely interactive. Players jiggled the analog sticks to find the right g-spot, the audio from the characters as well as the controller would let the player know when it was in the right spot by vibrating.
Both of these examples simply utilize sexual interaction as a form of comedy where sex is merely a means to something else entirely. The depth of the interaction isn’t all that complex, nor are cases like this that vast. If anything, mainstream games that were willing to take it just this far are quite rare. Eroges and other Japanese hentai games make up the bulk of sex as simulated interaction. And many of these consisted of the aforementioned interactive foreplay, or cross over into the entirely pornographic.
Modding is an interesting facet of gaming in this context, primarily because it answers a few questions on what players are actually okay with and desire. It’s not surprising that the two most moddable games currently Skyrim and Fallout New Vegas, both have an abundance of sex-related mods. The forum LoversLab is almost nearly devoted to these since the majority of them are inappropriate for submission to either Steam Workshop or the Nexus.
From a mechanical standpoint though, games like Skyrim probably exclude such content not because of its direct offensive potential, rather the ability for players to take this particular sandbox and use it to engage in legally questionable play.
There is a reason why games such as Saints Row or GTA never include NPC children, as the potential for abuse (while simulated) will then be present. Apparently the ESRB is fine with players running over adult pedestrians with cars, but isn’t when they are children even when considering an M rating.
Conversely Skyrim does actually include NPC children into its world and modders have edited their properties to make them killable. One of the more well known mods “Killable Children” lets players kill and murder children just like any other NPC in the game that isn’t essential.
While such a mod isn’t questionable directly since many players run these types of mods to simply make the game more realistic, there is obviously the potential for abuse. When coupled with the various sex-related mods out there, the potential for some rather distasteful play is somewhat obvious.
This isn’t really meant to criticize, rather to point out a rather simplistic reason why developers might choose to leave out certain systems of play or assets when they are not directly problematic. Games are unique in their interactive nature, and can be utilized and played in ways outside the scope of what its original creators intended. This is vastly different then say a film which is by and large exactly how its creator intended the work to be experienced. One can’t go into the film itself and adjust various elements to their whim.
Skyrim modding though does allow for an examination into just how far mechanically speaking sex can be taken. Without getting into specifics of exactly which mod does what, modders have been able to utilize both existing assets as well as creating new ones to create a system of play entirely outside the scope of what the base game offered. A system while strange to many, is fully functional with proper animations, dialogue, and implementation in order to be utilized by players (who so desire), to engage in a form of play that isn’t dissonant with the game’s other systems and lore.
Unconventional systems and the need for interaction
Ultimately sex as interaction is nearly nonexistent when trying to find cases of where it was used outside the scope of comedy or to be purposely ludicrous. Even under the eye of spectatorship, sex has had somewhat of a distanced relationship until recently. When used, it was done so sparingly and with considerably purposeful intent, at least in the mainstream.
Recently, sex much like everything else that used to be taboo has seemingly finally become rather mundane. Wolfenstein: The New Order treated it in both a thoughtful and decent manner, without having to over-emphasize its significance. And that is definitely a turn for the better. While I wouldn’t easily call Wolfenstein: The New Order wholly mature or refined, it does represent a natural progression for videogames to be valued similarly to other mediums such as films.
Even the rather complex and somewhat questionable modding of games like Skyrim are not simply relegated to the bottom reaches of the Internet like the early days of 4chan with its rather seedy /b/ and /d/ boards. Popular Youtubers like MMOXReview often cover sexual content, although typically in a satirical fashion. While other channels like Brodual or GopherVids essentially ignore their existence in attempts to portray a more professional outlook on modding.
Honestly it’s been a bit perplexing why it was ever taboo to begin with. Violence while criticized continuously throughout the history of videogames, never took a step back because of it. It has always been a central part of it and gone on without negation.
Sex on the other hand has been something that the industry has sort of had to dance around. With well known film directors like Lars Von Trier producing both hardcore pornography and including unsimulated sex in his regular feature films like Antichrist, it seems ridiculously primitive when some suggestive stylized shots in Mass Effect caused such unnecessary outrage. Especially so when also considering Mass Effect was already rated by the ESRB as M (17+) meaning no one who wasn’t legally an adult could even buy the game anyways.
With all that said, it’s still questionable whether sex as interaction has any role to play in the medium. I haven’t seen many cases where it could have enhanced the experience but it’s not something I would also relegate solely to the realm of pornographic. As games continue to become more varied in the types of stories and narratives it can portray, it is something that has to be tackled eventually. I find it hard to believe that such a major component of human interaction can merely just be communicated through borrowed film conventions.
Countless Indie titles in recent time have if anything shown us that games can rely on spatial systems separate from the conventions of violence. Papers, Please tells an incredibly emotional story through the mechanics of operating a border checkpoint as an immigration officer. Gameplay consists of stamping passports, verifying their authenticity against rigorous and continually changing standards, all the while doing so in a timely fashion without making mistakes. The stressful play parallels and works in conjunction with the stress of having to earn enough money to provide for a family in a dystopian society. Making just one mistake at work can mean no dinner or heat for the night, and letting in the wrong person can result in equally tragic consequences.
Games like Euro Truck Simulator 2 or any of the countless Farming Simulator titles while being completely open-ended with no written narrative, still offer up rewarding experiences. Doing simple delivery jobs and slowly progressing to both longer distance hauls with better payouts while growing your truck company over the span of all of Europe is engaging because it simulates its real world counterpart interactively and in a convincing manner. None of the systems of play are out of place, and players need to worry about everything from sleep deprivation to obeying speed limits, all while making deliveries on a timely manner.
Ultimately this isn’t a call to make sex interactive or more frequent specifically, rather using it as a case study of how the industry has handled unconventional spatial systems offhandedly. While the medium is well suited and almost tailor made to systems of violence, racing, and exaggerated action, this doesn’t mean it can’t be used to explore other systems of interaction, especially when like sex, they are spatial as well.
Games like Actual Sunlight that explore depression and the subsequent hopelessness of crawling out of it, could potentially use something like sex as interaction to express feelings of awkwardness or an inability to connect to others socially. Instead, it seems like games that do attempt to express anything complex often fall back on doing so textually completely negating the usage of the medium it is in.
Again looking back at Actual Sunlight, the game is more or a less a wall of text with minimal interaction. While exclusion can often be used as an emphasis point, here it’s obviously done from a lack of knowing how to make these various components interactive. This and other games like Gone Home while still achieving things that simply can’t be done in text or film, still beg the question of why they needed to be games at all? Especially when the only sort of systems they utilize are those borrowed from other models or mediums. There is something particularly ironic that Actual Sunlight was built in RPG Maker VX Ace, and that Gone Home mechanically doesn’t stray that far from its FPS roots despite its nonviolence stance.