The Hard ProblemVideogame SexThe Hard Problem - RSS 2.0
I would like to begin this month's column by assuring you I do not get paid by the page view. This month's topic is driven purely by creative juices, not by cash incentives. If cash incentives were involved, I would devote my columns to Why Console X Is Better Than Console Y and just keep changing X and Y every month in order to generate fresh outrage.
Let's talk about videogame sex. I see three main categories of sexual content in videogames: Sex Appeal, Titillation, and Actual Sex. Sex Appeal covers the Lara Crofts of the world: primary or secondary characters who are designed to look sexy so you want to spend time with them in a game. Titillation is the Mass Effect/ God of War model where carefully composed sex scenes transpire just off camera. Actual Sex is rare outside of Japanese erotic games ("eroge") but GTA's infamous Hot Coffee minigame and the very Hot-Coffeeish sequence in the game Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the U.S., with the sex removed) qualify just fine.
I would further postulate a few different ways to use sex in videogames: Marketing, Narrative, Gameplay, and Reward. Marketing is straightforward: see Bayonetta, a game whose main character delivers the potent brand message that this is a game you will masturbate to. Narrative is the domain of Bioware and eroge, wherein sex is overtly present but is there as part of the storytelling. Gameplay gets us Hot Coffee, Fahrenheit, and God of War, in which you are playing some sort of minigame to actually control the sexual act itself, whether it is depicted onscreen (Hot Coffee, Fahrenheit), or offscreen (God of War). And finally there's Reward, such as the Tetris/Bejeweled clones that slowly uncover a photo of a bikini model as you clear each level.
So with that framework in mind, let's talk about sex, baby.
In America, videogames are just like other mass media in having that strange and volatile combination of prudishness about sex and the constant exploitation of it. Mostly this is expressed as cartoonishly sexy female characters turning up to briefly interact with the grunting, steroidal males who are too busy constantly killing things to really notice. If the women show up for too long they have to get killed so the men can go berserk and demand vengeance. They're basically Wendy and our characters are the Lost Boys and I think that means Cliffy B is Peter Pan? This stuff gets confusing.
Bioware operates at a different extreme. It uses sex in its narratives in some misguided act of defiance to help make its fairly tiresome case that this is real storytelling here, people, okay, a case which I am obviously yet to be convinced of. Watching a short clip of my character snogging with a blue alien to a smooth jazz soundtrack in between repairing malfunctioning robots and selling story tips to journalists while apparently procrastinating on the whole universe-going-up-in-flames front - well, let's just say the PG-13 blue alien sex didn't fool me into thinking I was suddenly watching "The Sopranos" or "Battlestar Galactica." This "please take us seriously" approach is also the domain of Valve's Half-Life 2, in which costar, Alyx, has been carefully crafted to be a compelling character who is quite pointedly not jerk-off fodder. It's the fact that she isn't cartoonishly sexy, unlike most videogame women, that makes Valve's agenda transparent: They want to be respectful and thoughtful about the role of female characters in games, and so in the genre slot where a cartoonishly sexy sidekick usually goes, they give us a reasonable approximation of a real woman. (Although there are other opinions on this.)