Over the years video games have confidently reflected many key elements of human life: love, hate, joy, suffering, creativity, and, of course, violence. There is one aspect, however, which the medium has largely tiptoed around: sex. Modern games like Mass Effect, Second Life, Leisure Suit Larry and Grand Theft Auto, which have elements of the touchy subject (so to speak), have been notable for their relative scarcity, especially in relation to the abundant media scorn they have received. So why is society so edgy about the interaction of sex and games? And do game-developers have good practical reason to cower from the subject?
The age-old argument used to explain the medium’s aversion to sex is that games are for children and young adults. Parents are the prime-purchasers of video games. Therefore buyers don’t want to see sexual content – hence sex and games can’t compute.
However, figures released this year by the Entertainment Software Association show that the average gamer is 31 – a fully grown adult. Still, publishers nevertheless have a vested interest in desexualising their games. By removing sexual content from a title they can maximise its appeal (or at least sales successes) by making it acceptable to both adults and the parent/child demographic. Indeed, skirting around sex (i.e. avoiding it or framing it in a non-explicit way) is unlikely to put people off: video games are played by adults for the largely same reasons as they are by kids: leisure, not ‘pleasure’.
Another explanation is that sex, an inherently physical affair, is difficult to recreate with non-physical polygons, especially without looking rather odd or downright awkward: an elucidation which anyone who has witnessed a video game sex scene will likely attest to. The love making sections in Mass Affect, for example, look more like bits of cardboard rubbing against one another than rumpy-pumpy. Perhaps in prediction of such issues, the absurdly-infamous sex segments in the Grand Theft Auto series have always skirted around the problem by hiding the act under bedcovers or in a bouncing automobile.
Researches looking at the relationship between sex gaming, Sidney and Shirley Kaplan, once theorised that video games’ ‘dry’ nature is a result of their lack of physicality. This, they suggested, is because games lack ‘body-English’ – unconscious attempts to influence the movement or trajectory of an object after one no longer has influence over said object. In contrast, movements made in video games are utility based: every button push is for a purpose – hence no implicitly sexual jiving or thrusting. As an explanation for video games’ widespread asexuality, this seems rather dubious. Anyone who’s ever played a racing game can recall hopelessly exercising ‘body-English’ when leaning their controller in a doomed attempt to get a tighter turn: a hardly arousing phenomenon.
Interestingly, Japan, in contrast to ‘the West’, has a colourful history of sex-based games. Indeed, the country has whole genre dedicated to sexual pleasure: ‘Eroge’. Eroge games boast sexually explicit content, often hentai, as their centrepiece and are incredibly popular. For a British gamer it’s startling to see how at ease people across the globe are with this video game type.
Games themselves do not appear suffer from an inherent performance anxiety when addressing sex. As the Japanese have shown, the technology required to address the subject does exist within the medium. Rather, western taboos surrounding sex aggravate pre-existing technological challenges, keeping sex a scary, awkward, subject.