Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex

The graphics may have improved, but the games industry’s attitude to sex is trapped firmly in the past, argues Harry…

Videogames have been around, as a commercial entity, for more than 30 years now. In that time, the medium has taken huge strides in almost every aspect, from the technology we play games on to the number of colours developers are able to display on screen. Modern games are almost unrecognisable as the progeny of Space Invaders and Pong, such are the changes each new generation of hardware has introduced.

It’s often said that, compared to television and film, the videogame medium is in its infancy, a mere pup compared to the elder statesmen of visual entertainment. The immaturity of videogames can be forgiven because, in essence, they’re at that difficult teenage stage, obsessed with bodily fluids and naked flesh. But is that fair, or is it a get-out-of-jail card that’s played a little too often by an industry that doesn’t want to accept its limitations?

In this series, I’m going to look at four ways that videogames are lagging behind the rest of popular culture, how their interactive nature causes a raft of problems and how, if it’s possible, videogames can start to grow up.

First up, lock up your daughters, sons and dependants, because we’re going to talk about sex.

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Sex can refer to one of two things – gender or copulation – and we’re going to deal with them both here, for two reasons. Firstly, because the way videogames portray women and men is intrinsically linked to the attitudes the medium has towards the sexual act, and secondly, because both meanings of the word are often presented in a spectacularly confused manner.

Let’s start – and I never thought I’d say this in an article about videogames – with gender.

An Entertainment Software Association report in 2009 showed that the average age of a videogame player is 35, that three quarters of gamers are over 18 and that, perhaps most surprisingly, women over the age of 18 buy almost twice as many videogames as boys under the age of 17. That’s surprising, because if you judged the videogame industry’s main demographic by its advertising campaigns, you’d be forgiven for thinking that teenage males, specifically those with an unhealthy interest in viscera and humongous breasts, made up ninety percent of the audience.

Women are, more often than not, represented as impossibly proportioned objects of desire, with breasts larger than their heads and waists narrower than their thighs. Fighting games are a prime example of this. Look at the discrepancies between the male and female brawlers in the Soul Calibur or Dead Or Alive series.

Whilst the men are invariably fully clothed, if not armoured (Voldo being the exception rather than the rule here), the females parade themselves around in sparkling bikinis, thongs and metallic lingerie. Even Sophitia, who is at least blessed with some semblance of protective clothing, is given a skirt so short that it’d make 80s porn stars blush.

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Of course, there are games that buck the trend, but it’s still fair to say that they are few and far between. Women in games are flesh pots, designed to be ogled by the players. This is in spite of the fact that, as the ESA survey shows, most of the videogaming public aren’t the pubescent ne’er do wells the industry seems to think we are.

I realise that videogames are escapism of the highest order, and that yes, film and television objectify women in similar ways. The problem is, though, videogames offer very few alternatives to this model of femininity, and not only does that affect the roles female characters play in videogames, but also the way we conduct digital sexual relations.

In videogames, even ones that handle the subject deftly, sex is almost always a reward. Take the Mass Effect series, for example. Here, you can indulge in interspecies sexual relations, if you see fit, but to get to the point where a character is willing to bump uglies with you, you have to have followed the correct series of dialogue prompts.

There’s a veneer of freedom, but the relationship you’re creating with the character you want to sleep with is a shallow one. Fail to perform one action, or choose incorrectly on one dialogue tree, and they’ll lose interest in you. Sex becomes an achievement, a notch on the bedpost of your high score table, instead of being the physical expression of an emotional connection between two consenting individuals.

Most games resort to simple, softcore smut, with God Of War 3 being a good, recent example of polygonal rutting at its most ridiculous. The Fable series, championed by some as proof that games can deal with adult themes, attempts to add a level of moral responsibility to its proceedings. But a game that rewards players for engaging in orgies and sees them using condoms dug up from the ground is hardly likely to be held up as a bastion of maturity.

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Even Heavy Rain, a game so close to being a film that it may as well be one, introduces its only female character in the shower, after which she is chased, semi-nude, around her apartment.

Videogames seem to be stuck in an uncomfortable rut when it comes to sex, unable or unwilling to fully commit to the idea that it’s not something to be giggled at in a Carry On style, but nor does it need to involve the gynaecological extremes of hardcore pornography.

There are plenty of films and television series that manage to deal with sex and sexual activity in a way that’s both intelligent and entertaining, but what they don’t have to deal with is the intrinsically interactive nature of videogames.

Look at the Hot Coffee scandal surrounding Grand Theft Auto. It wasn’t so much the content of the deleted sex scenes that was hilarious, rather it was the way you controlled thrusts and grinds with button presses.

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Jumps and punches and any number of other actions, when translated to commands on a joypad, make a sort of sense. Partly because, as gamers, we’ve been slowly indoctrinated into the vagaries of making things on screens move around, and partly because the on-screen actions are contextually explicable. In other words, we traverse digital worlds using button presses because we’re told to.

Sex, however, can’t legitimately be reduced into combinations of directions and garishly coloured buttons. It just doesn’t work as an action communicated through the manipulation of a controller. So, if videogames want to embrace sex, they’re going to have to do it (stop sniggering) through cut scenes, not through controller interaction and (heaven help us) not through gesture recognition.

Believable sexual relationships and the realistic representation of gender are two of the most difficult steps videogames are going to have to take on the long, winding road to maturity. Accepting that women are more than the bits that stick out in front and behind them, and that men aren’t just muscular gun turrets would be a good start, but it’s going to take more than that.

There’s an air of misogyny, whether real or not, that the mainstream media believes exists around videogames, and the industry does little to disprove that perception. You only have to look at the boxes for graphics cards, which are often emblazoned with half naked digital women, to realise that a lot of the problems videogames have are of their own creation.

Videogaming is more than just a pastime now. It’s developed its own culture, and as exponents of that culture, it’s up to us to make sure that we’re not misrepresented. As the demographic shifts further towards gender equality, so the games themselves should as well. Just because videogames are a relatively young form of entertainment, doesn’t mean they have to follow the same convoluted route to adulthood that their forebears took.

Sex happens, it’s happening right now, and it’s a complex and complicated, emotional thing. The challenge is to represent that in a mature, though not necessarily an “adult”, way. Learning the difference between those two terms will lead the industry a damn sight closer to maturity than it’s ever been before.

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