Why are big-budget game developers so afraid of exploring sexual themes?

Fear of sex

Our society already gamifies sex,” game developer Anna Anthropy points out on her blog, linking to a Google image search on the word ‘Cosmopolitan’. Hundreds and hundreds of Cosmo covers pop up, with coverlines such as ‘75 sex moves men crave’, ‘100 best sex tips’, and ‘Guys rate 50 sex moves’, as if women can win or keep a boyfriend by thoroughly completing a checklist. Sex is everywhere. ‘Sex comedy’ is a Hollywood film genre firmly marketed at young men and women: Easy A, Superbad, American Pie. We are consistently told that sex sells, and are bombarded with tits-out HBO dramas and ‘edgy’ TV series such as Game Of Thrones. The porn industry has more vigour than ever. And yet the best-known western videogame we have about sex is Leisure Suit Larry. Is the industry afraid of sex?

BioWare has tentatively included thematically serious sex scenes in its games, to much public comment, ever since the first Mass Effect. David Gaider, lead writer on BioWare’s Dragon Age series, gave a talk at this year’s Game Developers Conference called ‘Sex in Videogames’, in which he pointed out that sex is an exceedingly popular topic on the BioWare forum. Yet videogames, he says, have a very particular image problem. “We’ve had negative reactions [from the media] to go along with the positive – not all of it is particularly credible, but it’s important to understand where that negative reaction comes from… you have to understand how people view our players, who they think our players are. The public views our audience as mostly children… For us, who play games, we are like, whoah, that’s so far behind – 20 years behind the reality.” Any attempt to make a game with sexual content, even with strict age ratings, may be construed as a subversive move for a medium until now best known for its supposed influence in school shootings.

Gaider went on to explain how the game industry itself is no better: we tend to think of players as being young adult males, which is still a good ten years behind the reality. The ESRB reports that the average game player is now 34 years old, and that 47 per cent of the gaming audience is female. Regardless, sexual content remains scarce, and female characters are still primarily the ones being sexualised. During sex scenes, the woman tends to be the focus – her body, her vocals, her nakedness.

The Witcher’s sex scenes are representative of many across videogames – shot from a male perspective.

Take the Witcher 2. It contains a sex scene between Triss and Geralt that involves a 360° shot of Triss removing her clothes entirely by magic, while Geralt dives into the bath with his trousers on. It’s incongruous from a narrative standpoint for Geralt to do this: he’s no prude. Triss’s hips, buttocks, super-perky breasts and orgasmic expressions are the focus here, and her loud moans are actually the subject of the cutscene’s narrative device. In contrast, there are no camera shots of Geralt’s naked chest or buttocks, shots of his face or any kind of audible vocal expression from him during this fairly explicit scene. It’s a neat shorthand for the way games treat sexual encounters: sex scenes are for heterosexual men to look at, and are usually shot from that male perspective. It brings to mind Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel who, when accused of sexism, retorts, “What’s wrong with being sexy?” Perhaps by portraying sex in the same tired manner, the game industry is missing an opportunity not only to try new (camera) positions, but also to broaden its (sex) appeal.

But what about playable sex scenes? These are few and far between in videogames, and the ones we do have – such as the one between Lucas and Tiffany in Farenheit – seem clumsy and awkward, made more ridiculous by the idea that you can ‘win’ at sex by pressing a button at the right time. (Farenheit was rebranded Indigo Prophecy for the US market, with most of its sexual content scrubbed to avoid an ‘Adults Only’ rating.)

Richard Lemarchand, ex-Uncharted lead designer and visiting associate professor in interactive media at the University of Southern California, objects to sex being portrayed as an interaction that can be won, lost, or completed. “That kind of modelling in a game of sex comes at the subject with a certain mindset,” he says. “There’s a ‘game of skill’ to be played here – if you win the game then there’s a positive outcome, and if you lose the game there’s a negative outcome. I think a lot of people have that idea about sex itself on many different levels – you know, if you wear the right aftershave and you say the right things you might get to have sex with someone… I think a lot of people grow up thinking there is a right and a wrong way to ‘do sex’.”

Fahrenheit’s sex scenes are made ridiculous by the idea that you can ‘win’ at sex.

Famed for saying to a crowd at NYU Game Center that game creators put up too much front and didn’t make themselves vulnerable enough, Lemarchand goes on to say that he is heartened that games are becoming more about the idea of play as being intrinsically rewarding. “The historical place that we’ve come from in game culture is to do with zero-sum games, or to do with win/lose states in games. I’m excited to see a shift in games away from win/lose conditions and towards systems and artefacts that embody many different kinds of playfulness. The greater this shift, the more optimistic I get about being able to map that onto unisexuality. As I have struggled to come to an understanding of sex and what it means to human beings, over the years I’ve come to understand that sex is not just about navigating obstacle courses and goals. Play is an end unto itself.”

However, Lemarchand is still keen to emphasise how difficult human interaction is to model. “As games have advanced in the last few years, there’s obviously been a move towards figurative descriptions of either quasi-realistic or stylised realistic scenes… It’s very hard in computer graphics to get characters even emoting well at one another. Depicting the human body, and the human emotion… something as complex and as nuanced as that – which you need to depict sex well – this presents one of the biggest hurdles to depicting sex in games.” For example, he says, “we always agonised as to whether we could get the characters to kiss well in Uncharted” – a game where he says the team preferred to cut away rather than depict sex graphically.

Former design director for Epic Games Cliff Bleszinski shares Lemarchand’s sentiment. “Take Mass Effect, for example,” he tells us, “a fantastic series that I’ve praised numerous times, but when the characters interact in their sex scenes it kind of looks like two cosplay mannequins rubbing together. I think the key is to suggest sex, and to imply first, before we try to make Hot Coffee: The Standalone Game.”

Mass Effect’s sex scenes looks “like two cosplay mannequins rubbing together,” says Cliff Bleszinski.

Not everyone feels this way, though. Martin Hollis, the veteran designer whose work spans GoldenEye 007 to Bonsai Barber, is making a game about love for GameCity Festival 2013, and he is not sure that it’s just game mechanics that are steering big-budget titles away from more sexually aware themes.

“In terms of game mechanics, there’s no theoretical problem,” Hollis says. “Videogames have a lot of repetition. Sex itself is… repetitive seems like the wrong word, but you know what I mean. Given the repeating layered loops in the structure of most ludic or game-like games, it is silly to say that the medium is intrinsically antagonistic to sex. In fact music, dance, sex and games naturally and structurally have an intimate relation that we can loosely call ‘rhythm’… What we see, however, is 6,000 years of games about competition, conflict or war. The cultural history of games we have been bequeathed makes it difficult to mine [other] tropes, mechanics or systems, so it is an uphill struggle to design the abstract part of a game concerning sex. Even the concept of a romantic game is a difficult one for a westerner familiar only with middle-of-the-road western games.”

The structural history of games can be a crushing load to bear for game designers: the fact that there is no real track record of sexually explicit interactive experiences being profitable or successful is a theoretical roadblock. Game designer Matthew S Burns once lamented games’ structural problems on his blog, pointing out that their reluctance to leave familiar game mechanics behind causes the accompanying narrative to suffer as a result. “The very second you try to wrap actions like [shooting aliens or punching people] in a ‘good story’ that does not somehow address what happens during the mechanical part of the experience,” Burns argues, “is the second you fail to write a good story.”

“It is silly to say that the medium is intrinsically antagonistic to sex,” says game designer Martin Hollis.

Is that why Mass Effect, God Of War, even Grand Theft Auto’s sex scenes seem incidental and barely developed? Is it because we are failing to address sex directly, with a new language of game mechanics? Is sex doomed to be a punchline like in Leisure Suit Larry, or a racy subtext like in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines?

Imagine, though, that developers had not spent years and years iterating on technology to make violence more realistic, and instead focused on making emotional experiences, sex and the interaction between characters’ bodies more believable.

Independent developer Pietro Righi Riva is making a Unity game called Awkward Sex, which simulates two human bodies that hover where your mouse leaves them: the aim is to click and drag where you would like them to go. Of course, the game is called Awkward Sex, and you are inclined to make the two bodies touch each other, but it’s melancholy and difficult. Positioning the two humanoids to meaningfully touch each other is a slow, almost impossible process. Imagine that we had mastered this years ago: would we be playing games that had more to say about sexual interaction?

There’s still hope. Japanese games have always embraced sex as a subject and theme, although they can be very misogynistic and often avoid 3D modelling or any real approach to sex as a meaningful interaction between two characters. And there certainly isn’t a dearth of actual thematic discussion of sex in the indie game scene. As previously mentioned, critic and developer Anna Anthropy often makes games about sexual experiences, shunning hyperrealistic graphics for discussion about the issues surrounding sex. Anthropy’s game Mind Fuck, about staring down your partner erotically in a competition for points, is multiplayer and entirely based on one button – the rest of the game leverages your real-life relationship with a partner.

Anna Anthropy’s Mind Fuck.

A text-based adventure about saucy police antics, Anthropy’s Sex Cops is a game where the oppressive constraints of the narrative options act as a domineering dominatrix on your erotic adventure. Twine game developer Porpentine used the same constraints to make Cyberqueen, where your character is erotically abused by a sci-fi computer resembling SHODAN from System Shock. From what Lemarchand and Bleszinski have said, perhaps large-budget videogames are actually crippled by their own compulsive reliance on incredibly sophisticated 3D graphics – so much so that the complexities of sex are impossible to portray in a nuanced and non-ridiculous manner.

But exactly what is it that allows independent games to explore these issues more freely? Although David Gaider’s games and the Mass Effect franchise have clearly done well, what stops big-budget games being more explicit, more incisive, more exploratory with sex like indie games? There’s something else at work. Conservative attitudes present in western culture, particularly in the US and Australia, are limiting the ways in which such content is portrayed in games.

“The taboo of sex in console games is politically and commercially censored more strictly than that of male nudity or the taboo of killing people,” Hollis says. In particular, Hollis cites the furore surrounding the Hot Coffee mod made by Patrick Wildenborg for Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which allowed players to access a previously unrated sex minigame that existed in the game’s undeleted assets. The Hot Coffee content, although inaccessible without the mod, caused GTA: San Andreas to be re-rated in the US, turning it from an ESRB rating of ‘Mature’ to ‘Adults Only 18+’, which made many shops pull the game from their shelves.

The Hot Coffee scandal saw Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas pulled from shelves and re-rated in the US.

This is a serious issue for publishers in terms of profits, and a warning shot for big videogame developers. But it’s an issue that the makers and distributors of free games about sex – such as Anna Anthropy and Porpentine – don’t have to worry about. “The bottom line is that the only way my games got made is because I made them myself, for free, on my own time without compromise,” Porpentine says. “[Most commercial games] focus on realistic graphics and refuse to experiment with stylisation that would better evoke emotions and arousal. They rely on highly structural, antiquated mechanics instead of designing organic controls suited to intimate experiences. You see stylisation in every other artform, but [triple-A games are] focused on realism in a way that reminds me of when rich people only cared about extremely realistic paintings with detailed lighting.”

Hollis cites commercial and political censorship as one of the main reasons why big studios won’t touch the topic of sex. “After Rockstar Games’ clumsy and accidental ejection and Take-Two’s spanking, we should expect little from console games because of self-censorship,” he says. “With Hot Coffee, a conflux of conservative America, Australia and opportunistic politicians did wrathfully smite a game publisher who [had] thought naughty thoughts. People say there is no such thing as bad publicity, but there certainly is such a thing as being badly removed from the shelves. The view seems to be that 17-year-olds should be allowed to engage in virtual murder but they don’t have sex, and therefore do not need to know or learn about sex in the interactive medium. Sex is very wrong and illegal, whereas mass murder is acceptable and legal – in games. One is abnormal and the other is normal; what a strange world we have made.”

“When I was 12 years old it was perfectly OK to watch Robocop or Predator,” Bleszinski says, “but the second that a breast was flashed on screen, my mother would attempt to toss a blanket or a coat over my head. That probably explains a lot of my adult issues. Americans in general have really weird ideas about sex and violence, and that micro-example kind of summarises it nicely.” Bleszinski feels certain that commercial games can still address the diverse ways in which humans interact with each other; he’s just unsure about how well they can do so.

“I still have hope that we may someday feature titles that deal with the nuances of relationships and how very complicated yet beautiful sex can be,” he says. “I have a feeling that Oculus Rift might just help with the immersion aspects of depicting a sexual experience. [But] when it comes to nuance and pacing and depiction, that’s another battle altogether.”

Wicked Paradise, “the world’s first erotic virtual reality videogame”.

Someone who is already attempting to fight that battle is Jeroen Van den Bosch, the founder of Wicked Paradise. His team – a group of triple-A veterans who’ve worked on Rage, the Call Of Duty series, Lost Planet, Madden and PlanetSide 2 – is in the very early stages of developing “the world’s first erotic virtual reality videogame” as episodic content powered by Oculus Rift. Although Van den Bosch says that he will initially be making experiences targeted at straight males, he adds that he would like to branch out into making games for other sexual orientations too. The 3D virtual reality headset will offer more immersive experiences, and so is ripe for exploring other experiences than the usual death machines; already it is being lauded as a way for those who may have mobility problems to experience things they may not be able to do in real life.

Asked if he thinks there is a special risk attached to making erotic games, he says: “I think a big part of the industry evolved into choosing the safe route and rehashing their successful formula year after year. I remember in the early days of my career in the game industry there was much more room for creativity. Games with unique premises such as Messiah, Magic Carpet and Little Big Adventure had a place. But slowly over time, it seems that most of the triple-A studios moved towards the same style of games, and every year we have a slightly better version of the same game being released. Most of the really creative games have moved to the indie scene. These smaller studios simply don’t have the same budget as large studios. There are special risks in doing a project like this, but I don’t want to play it safe. You just need to have the conviction to go for it.”

For Van den Bosch, the sophistication of 3D technology is more of an asset for him than a limitation. Having 3D bodies interact is the crucial part of his work. “It is difficult, but it’s not impossible. I think Mirror’s Edge did a great job of avatar embodiment, giving the player a virtual body. Ultimately it boils down to having very talented 3D character artists and animators on the team who fully understand every aspect of human anatomy and know how to translate that into realistic behaviour in a virtual environment. But at the core of it, we are using the same motion-capture techniques that are used in triple-A firstperson shooters, so just from a pure technological standpoint there is no difference.”

Wicked Paradise uses “the same motion-capture techniques that are used in triple-A firstperson shooters.”

But is he overestimating how much work it will take to have two or more 3D bodies touch each other meaningfully? Van den Bosch agrees that his job would be significantly easier if the industry had iterated on the mechanics of love rather than the mechanics of violence for years. “I always found it amazing that it’s perceived ‘normal’ to blow people’s heads off in games. However, when you create a game that focuses on happy feelings, like sex or relationships, it immediately becomes controversial. That just doesn’t make any sense to me. Luckily that is rapidly changing, and I think we see it in other media as well. For example, Game Of Thrones is a fantastic series with a rich, complex storyline and copious amounts of sex. That paid off for them.”

Are we talking videogame porn here, then? Is that where we are going? “No, not at all; we are not making porn,” Van den Bosch emphasises. “Unlike porn, in Wicked Paradise [the developer’s first game will be self-titled] the player isn’t watching something passive on a screen, but rather the player is immersed in an interactive virtual reality experience. That’s a huge difference. We are actually working with a critically acclaimed erotic novelist to help us create a rich, mature storyline.”

Do we even need a “rich, mature storyline” to justify our interest in sex? Can’t sex itself be an expression of who we are? Thanks to the fearless personal games that indie developers are making, the examples of how to treat sex as a nuanced expression of the human condition are out there, waiting for the larger culture to cast off its superficial titillation.

If it has proved a difficult task before, focusing on hyperreal graphics may not be the answer. Focusing instead on character, and the different ways characters are affected or motivated by sex, is something that could help benefit the wider videogame-playing public. Games would be the ideal environment, for example, in which to explore the idea of consent – what it is and what it means to people. If sex is addressed more directly in this way, it could lead to greater respect for others’ bodies, not to mention greater respect for sex itself.