Friday, March 26, 2010

Double Take: Why is that Sexy?

by Daniel Bullard-Bates and C.T. Hutt

C.T.: In the beginning, the video game consumer market was mostly composed of boys, young men (ages 6-13) who wore denim jackets and sported mullets (oh, the eighties). It was an innocent time, a time of Paperboy and Punch-Out, a time when adult themes and weighty social considerations didn’t really factor in for developers any more than it did for us. Time marched on, as it does, and we (the key market) grew up (kind of). As our intellectual curiosity began to percolate so too did a volatile potion of hormones. Suddenly, we wanted more from our games. We wanted relevance, we wanted character, and we wanted the mysteries of our lives reflected on the screen in a dazzling display of high technology with controls at our fingertips. Above all, we wanted sex. The blossoming medium and an ever expanding base of developers were happy to respond to our demands. Just like the genie of Arabic lore our wishes were granted, but not without consequences.

Sex and other adult themes are now a part of video gaming. As an inherently complicated subject for many homo sapiens, it is no surprise that the portrayal of sex and sexuality in games gets into some pretty dicey territory. With this Double Take we are going to be discussing instances where the medium took the inclusion of sexuality in some confusing and occasionally misguided directions.

Daniel: In a recent post on Insult Swordfighting, Mitch Krpata writes about God of War 3's sex scene, saying, "It's funny, probably intentionally, but one gets the impression through much of the rest of the game that we are supposed to be taking the violence seriously on its own terms." This is indicative of a larger problem with the way that sexuality is approached in video games. Violent video games can go one of two ways: either the violence is exaggerated and unrealistic, or it is taken more seriously and depicted in a realistic fashion. Sexuality in games is rarely taken seriously at all, and when present, is usually played either for laughs or for pure titillation.

Very few game designers have made serious attempts at incorporating sexuality into their games in a mature way. BioWare has moved the line forward some, but some of their products still exhibit a bashfulness bordering on the bizarre: Dragon Age: Origins, for example, includes a possible sex scene with Morrigan which depicts her wearing a more modest top than she wears in any other portion of the game. Am I honestly meant to believe that, in the heat of the moment, she changed out of her comfortable, witch of the wilds threads, into some strange, brown, restrictive bra? I'm not chomping at the bit for more nudity in my games, but I would like sexuality - if it is present at all - to be taken seriously. Game designers should refrain from breaking the immersion of a game at all costs.

Playing through the beginning of The Witcher, I encountered another bizarre implementation of maturity and sexuality. Somewhat casually, the game reveals that a female character is interested in sleeping with Geralt, and they have likely done so in the past. The ensuing sex scene, if pursued, is tasteful, and we are led to believe that this is consistent with their previous relationship. Just as I was ready to praise the game for its mature depiction of human sexuality, I received a collectible trading card as a reward for my lovemaking. As it turns out, this is just one of many cards that can be found throughout the game. Each sexual encounter gives Geralt a physical trophy to be kept on his person, like notches in a belt. The contrast between this adolescent idea of sexual conquest and the previous maturity of the writing and situation is extreme.

C.T.: I agree with you about the score card system in The Witcher: it’s pretty weird, but some people just like to have a ton of sex and Geralt of Rivia was certainly such a character. My problems with sexuality in video games revolve around when sex appears where it has no earthly reason to be.

I remember the first time sexuality in video games stuck in my craw. I was ten years old and having a great time playing through Secret of Mana for the SNES, which I still think was a great RPG. My characters walked into a store to buy the most up to date armor set for my adventuring party and found that the best option for the female character was an item called the “Gold Bikini”. I’m no physicist, but I knew more or less what a bikini was and I was pretty sure that no matter what the numbers in the equipment menu said, there was no way it was going to help protect my character during a fight. I was so confused by this obvious mistake in programming that I asked my mother if I was reading the numbers wrong or something. She told me that I was reading the numbers right, but that the writers must be idiots.

I’m afraid the situation hasn’t improved much since then. I recently finished playing Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots which featured some deeply messed up war traumatized female villains. Each one used some kind of awesome looking mech suits to beat the sunshine out of your character, that is, right up until you defeated them. At that point they came out of their suits wearing nothing but skin-tight, butt-hugging spandex. These killer ladies have back stories that read like The Heart of Darkness and they are all portrayed as comely sexpots just waiting to break out of their shells for the right man. Who the hell came up with that bright idea?

Fantasy games and Sci-Fi titles seem to have a hard time portraying badass female characters in a non-sexualized way. When developers are trying to say something about how women can be as strong fighters as men I’m all for it, but when they equip those lady warriors with armor that only covers one breast it kicks their legitimacy out the window. Swinging a sword or pulling a trigger is ugly business; no one, but no one should look sexy doing it.

Daniel: Enjoying lots of sex and treating sexual encounters as collectible trophies are two entirely different problems. There's nothing wrong with a person/character engaging in plenty of consensual sex with a variety of people, so long as that person/character is honest about their intentions and doesn't treat their partners as commodities. This is a big problem with any industry that tries to sell products based on sexuality; it is difficult to tell the point at which "sex sells" becomes selling sex. And when we treat sex and sexuality as something that can be bought and sold, we begin to treat human beings as for sale, at least in one aspect. This line of thought, of course, goes deep into the problematic worlds of pornography, prostitution, and various other forms of sex work. There are no easy answers there.

Luckily, a great number of gamers have pushed back against ridiculous ideas like the chainmail bikini and similar immersion-breaking ideas. As video games mature, more and more people are interested in seeing worlds that are internally consistent over worlds that have lots of sexy people lounging about. That doesn't mean we won't take both when we can; as long as sexiness and sexuality is consistent with the world presented, the result can both feel real and look sexy. Returning to my Dragon Age example, the original concept art for Dragon Age showed a woman (perhaps early Morrigan?) dressed in some sort of ridiculous high fantasy sorceress bikini. The final product still had Morrigan showing a little skin, but it wasn't so tawdry and out of place.
There are two things that developers have to keep in mind when involving sex and sexuality in their games:

1) It must be consistent with the world they are building, and not remove players from their immersion and enjoyment of the game. A lot of developers are getting way better about this than they used to be.

2) It must not exist solely to objectify characters and give horny teenagers another reason to play the game. Immaturity begets immaturity, and complicated issues like sexuality should be taken seriously. This doesn't mean that sex can never be funny; intercourse is probably one of the funniest things you can do. Just make sure that sex, when it shows up in a video game, serves some narrative or thematic purpose. Sex isn't just a bullet point to put on your list of game features. It's a major, important aspect of life on this planet.

C.T.: I’m with you on the two proposed rules. I don’t want to suggest in any of this that sex has no place in video games. Quite the contrary, I don’t think you can realistically strive to realize the full potential of an artistic medium without addressing this important part of the human experience. I imagine that as the medium continues to mature sex and sexuality will have a greater role to play and hopefully a more developed one that what we have seen so far. I just hope that developers don’t take too many of their cues from Hollywood on this subject.

Have any games gotten this right?

Daniel: I can't think of any, but then again, very few movies and books have portrayed sex realistically, so I'm not particularly surprised. Perhaps our readers will have some further insight.


  1. You didn't even touch on Bayonetta? While that one is full of over the top sexuality, I've seen more than one reviewer praise it for at least being internally consistent. What are your thoughts there?

  2. I tried playing Bayonetta, but had to stop when my tear ducts started bleeding. What I did see of the game was definitively over the top, but I guess it was fairly consistent for the world the developers created. It wasn’t really the sexuality in Bayonetta that bothered me, overblown though it was. It was the banality of the game that turned me off to it.

    You can get a hot dog at a corner vendor everyday for lunch and it will be a consistent dining experience, that doesn’t make it a good one.


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