So sex in videogames is a popular topic these days. A lot of this spawns from games actually including sex (or what pre-teens assume is sex), so the conversation is expanding a bit to include something more advanced than Custer’s Revenge and dating sims. Still, I couldn’t help but read Martin McLauchlan’s article A Bit of the Old Up, Up, Down, Down and start to think yet deeper on the subject. Do games really need to mature, or is it something more?
In the simplest form, I disagree with McLauchlan. Not to the extent that many games help to perpetuate the immature sexuality, no, that much is very much true. Rather, I feel there’s a deep misunderstanding of the relationship between maturity and the medium itself. The game doesn’t necessarily matter compared to the way we view it. To put things simply:
Sexual maturity doesn’t come down to the game, it comes down to the gamer.
To jump from McLauchlan’s argument, Catherine is praised by so many for portraying sex as a part of an adult relationship rather than just something to rope in the curious, but that very argument is undermined by the game’s cover. When a mature gamer looks at the cover, they probably see what McLauchlan hopes we see: A game that celebrates temptation and features a character in tune with her sexuality. What many other gamers see is far different: Hey look, some cleavage on a Fapanese character.
Sure, you can play Mass Effect with the hope of seeing the sex scene at the end, but you can play Catherine for the same reason. Depravity does not stop when the game attempts to be more mature about it. Sex is sex, period. And even such, as a mature gamer, happily married, seeing a game like Catherine doesn’t make me ponder the issue of infidelity as a narrative. Rather, I see the cover and roll my eyes, seeing yet another manic pixie girl, albeit an anime manic pixie girl, tempting me and every lifelong nerd to get a look at her pantsu. Regardless of how the game handles the topic of sex, the appeal surrounding it doesn’t do much to dispel the myth.
Furthermore, the concept of sex in games isn’t new and isn’t always used in the extreme ways. There’s a lot of subtle play involved, assuming you’re looking for it, that is. Take Harvest Moon 64. I was absolutely enthralled by the idea of starting my own farm, raising my dog and horse, and eventually finding a wife (and yet Farmville bores me now, what a world). That last part, finding a wife, comes down to wooing one of the five girls in town with gifts, casual conversation, and nice deeds here and there. Yes, it’s simplistic and feels a bit “pick the correct answer to get lucky,” but when I was playing as a kid, I wasn’t thinking about anything more than how cute the game was.
Fast forward ahead to later in the game after getting married. Usually when the main character hops into bed, he just sprawls under the covers and passes out. However, after the marriage, his wife stands by the bed and waits to go to bed with him unless he’s taking forever. Hopping in bed changes from just sprawling as a single farmer to what appears to be cuddling with a wife/lover. Even as a young teenager I went “Whoa!” After a few nights of this she informed my character that they were going to have a baby, and I once again seemed shocked with a “Whoa!” My dad smirked and said, “Well yeah, what do you think was going to happen?”
Harvest Moon 64 clearly isn’t about the sex, but sex is there if you’re looking for it. Even when surrounded by the manga-influenced graphics and all-around wholesome attitude, babies have to come from somewhere, and it doesn’t take much to connect those dots. But as a kid, this revelation that these two characters apparently had sex didn’t result in me giggling about game characters doing it. Rather, I was touched by something sweet that I felt invested in.
An even greater example comes straight from Mass Effect. To explain this I’m going to have to get into some spoilers, so skip ahead if you don’t want to know some minor plot points.
The first time I played through Mass Effect, I chose to essentially be myself, the Boy Scout soldier with no wiggle room. I sparked up a relationship with Liara, feeling it made the most sense as she was quiet and matched my character’s need for something uncomplicated. Everything played out like a high school special, but by Mass Effect 2, Liara had left and I had to move on. Still being the Boy Scout, now more like the captain of the high school football team, it made the most sense for my Shepard to chase after Miranda, because she seemed essentially like the cheerleader of the group. After all was said and done, I sort of forgot about that whole experience. Why? Because I started over as a renegade female Shepard.
In this alternate timeline, my new Commander Shepard took no crap from anyone, killing anyone who was a liability and generally acting like a heartless bitch as much as possible. The only character she was nice to was Kaiden, and to some extent Ashley, as they shared a sort of badassery. The game seemed to go normally, with a bit more Jennifer Hale flair mixed in, until it came time to decide who died between Kaiden and Ashley. Ashley had died during male Shepard’s timeline because I needed Kaiden’s technical experience more than Ashley’s skills. In female Shepard’s timeline, Kaiden was the logical choice for a sacrifice.
The result of this choice meant that during the end of the first game, Shepard was left all alone. Liara didn’t show up as I’d chosen to make this Shepard utterly cruel to her, cutting off any possible reunion. The only character that she had really opened up to was now dead.
However, things really got interesting in Mass Effect 2. This new Shepard remained tough as nails, leaning toward power and cold ambition over “Let’s all get along!” That’s where Thane showed up. To remind those that may have forgotten, Thane is the drell with a shady past as an assassin who only stopped what he was doing once in order to not kill the woman he ended up falling in love with. After her death, he abandoned his son Kolyat to find her killers. When Shepard met up with him, he was attempting to atone for his past deeds and keep his son out of his line of work.
Oh, and he had a terminal disease.
Adding everything up, the story progressed naturally for female Shepard to match with him. Jacob was too much of a goody-goody, and Garrus was more of an old war buddy than a romantic interest. Thane, however, is a tragic love story waiting to happen. Shepard sent her first love to die, and now that she’s found love again it’s with a man who has less than a year to live. When their story reached the conclusion at the end of Mass Effect 2 on the eve of the Normandy 2’s suicide mission with Shepard’s insistence that they spend that evening together, living, it didn’t feel like I’d chosen a series of right answers in order to see some hot alien sex. It felt like I’d chosen the correct path for a deeply touching narrative to play itself out.
But again, this all comes down to the gamer. In this instance, I very much wanted to be mature and view the sexual encounter as something of substance between two strong characters. In Fable II, I made the hero have sex with his wife for the novelty of the act and the achievement because I wanted nothing to do with that game’s narrative. That was my choice – not the game’s, not the developer’s.
Are videogames evolving a more mature stance on sex? No, not really. Have they started to slide backwards? Absolutely not. The sex has always been there, it just matters how you want to look at it. A thirteen-year-old can choose to remember Titanic as that one movie where we see Kate Winslet topless, or they can decide to remember it had a boat in it somewhere. I remember the boat. How about you?