Over the last few months, the world has had a lot of things to say on the topic of sex and games, some of it good and some of it bad. At first, there was the “Hot Coffee” incident, which arose after secret sexual content was discovered in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That, of course, facilitated the further rise of lawyer and anti-gamer, Jack Thompson, whose starkly conservative views on sexual content earned him public attention well after the scandal had passed. Close behind came a wave of attempts at game-related legislation, which stressed the sex-related concerns of politicians and parents over in-game violence.

At the same time, the gamer home front has been fighting back by shining a constructive light on the issue of sex in games. The International Game Developers Association formed a Sex Special Interest Group under experienced industry-worker Brenda Brathwaite. And developers gave the topic serious thought during the Sex in Games panel at the Women’s Game Conference this October in Austin.

All this newfound publicity has begun to change the way the video game community views sexual content. Now, more than ever, we’re starting to recognize that sex isn’t just an underbelly, a niche market or a footnote in the gaming universe. Sex, in one form or another, permeates all videogame genres. It’s an important part of human relations, of life, of storytelling, and as such, it’s an important part of games.

Even sexual content has undergone something of a revolution, sparked by technological innovation and the ever-growing availability of high-speed internet connections. Online sex games seem more plentiful now than ever. Plus, the overwhelming popularity of many massively multiplayer online games – from World of Warcraft to Second Life to Sociolotron – has encouraged sexual interaction between players in a whole new way, and on a whole new scale. MMOG sex itself can be broken down into numerous subcategories and subcultures. It has even spawned a unique type of pornography, generated and sold in game.

Twenty years ago, sex in videogames was simple. The options were minimal. You dodged arrows, and to celebrate, you had your way with a Native American girl tied up against a cactus. No one asked whether you’d prefer missionary or doggy style, whether you swung toward hardcore, vanilla or maybe even furry. Technology restricted sexual content, and we were left with a generic fantasy. But both technology and sexual content have come a long way since Custer’s Revenge. And as the medium becomes more intricate and more varied, the implications of sex in games become more and more complex.

Whether you love or hate sexual content in games, the fact of the matter remains: It raises some interesting questions. The big one on everyone’s minds, it seems, is the question of morality.

Anti-game activists claim videogames are a bad influence, that they inspire trouble. Pro-game thinkers, on the other hand, believe that games are actually a good influence, that they have meaningful, constructive value. A lot of heated debate has passed between the two camps, and a good deal of time and energy has been spent fighting against, and conversely justifying, the inclusion of sexual material in games. People on both sides are anxious. Whatever we’d like to believe about overcoming our animal instincts, sex still has power in our culture. The question is, who will use it, and to what end?

What if children are exposed to hardcore content? What if parents decide to take a backseat role in selecting appropriate games? We need a moral code. People shouldn’t be allowed to conduct themselves willy-nilly. Right?

The problem is, at its heart, sex in games isn’t a question of morals. Bogged down in the rhetoric of “good” and “bad,” we often overlook the issue of artistic license. Videogames are a form of art, and sexual content is therefore a manner of expression, one that’s neither good nor bad.

Having accepted this, we can begin to explore sex in games as a social puzzle, not a moral one. Even if we, as a gaming community, are still unwilling to consider sex games art, that shouldn’t stop us from analyzing them. Consider pornography, an entertainment medium arguably as morally ambiguous as they come. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to understand it, and from that understanding glean information about ourselves as viewers.

The comparison between pornography and videogames isn’t a random one. Plenty of sexual content walks the fine line between the thought-provoking and vulgar. It begs the question: Is there a difference between in-game sex and pornography? That, of course, depends on how we define porn. The most obvious definition, the dictionary definition, points out its blatant sexual energy and its ability to arouse. Yet, as keynote speaker Adam Singer pointed out at the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival this past August, all successful art has an element of the erotic, and the power to arouse. Certainly, plenty of sex games include so much shameless nudity and kinky pretense that they seem to overstep the “element of the erotic” and enter the world of straight porn. But where can you draw the line? Can graphic sex never be artistic? We can accept the necessity of nudity when we see it in art. We can accept the necessity of sex when we see it in romance.

What can pornography possibly have that makes it so different? Why do we label pornography those things which, in other contexts, are normal parts of life?

The answer is this: What really differentiates porn from other representations of sex is that it’s innately one-sided. It lacks an interactive dialectic. Consider a somewhat old-fashioned scenario. A man goes to a video store. There, he buys a tape promising “Hot Lesbian Action.” He takes the tapes home, sticks it in his VCR, and watches it. It arouses him. This has been, so to speak, a totally masturbatory encounter. That’s to say, no one else has been involved but him. Though our lesbian-lover has had a sexual experience, no other subjective being has experienced it with him. The object he purchased has affected him; he has affected no one. Actual sex necessitates two subjects, two real people engaged in a dialogue – who, for better or for worse, influence one another. Porn, on the other hand, is literally an objectification. It literally negates the existence of a second active subject. It singularizes sex. It makes desire a closed circuit.

When videogames enter the equation, however, something totally new comes to the table: interactivity.

Of course, sometimes sexual content in games is non-playable, like the purchasable strip tease in Indigo Prophecy. This sort of material faces the same dilemma as run-of-the-mill pornography: namely, can you rectify the objectification in porn by creating a meaningful dialogue between the work and the viewer – or is the sexuality gratuitous, and therefore artistically useless?

Introducing playable sex material into the mix, however, really makes things interesting. Why? Because interactive sex shatters the mold of pornography; it creates a dialogue. Consider once more our friend who trekked all the way to the store for his tape. It’s still pleasure he’s after, but now he has the internet. Instead of watching porn, he plays a simple simulator game. In this game, he’s able to manipulate an animated woman, to unclothe her, touch her, and eventually bring her to orgasm. At first, such a game seems like a blatant candidate for the porn bin. As before, there’s only one actual human subject. Only one person is having a good time. Only one person is playing. So, there is again an objectification – perhaps even more so this time, since the female objects of desire who were previously shielded by the unchangeable thing-hood of a pre-recorded tape, can now, through manipulation and subservience, be fully turned into objects.

Unlike before, though, there is a dialectic here, a certain give and take. The man loads the game, and he clicks. In response, the girl’s underwear is removed. In response, he becomes more aroused. In response, he clicks again, so that the girl moves the arm that covered her breasts. In response, he becomes even more aroused, inciting him to use his mouse to stimulate her sexually. This dialogue could go on indefinitely. Or, at least, until one of them – the real life man or the virtual woman – reaches climax. And since the goal of the game is to make the girl orgasm, she has even more authoritative agency; her fulfillment stops the game.

So, is this game pornographic, or isn’t it? It offers subjectivity, but that subjectivity is preprogrammed. Does sex need a dialogue of emotion, not just action, to raise it above the level of porn?

Some games complicate the sexual dynamic even further by turning interactivity on its head and directly affecting you. Most do this through peripherals – items like the Trans Vibrator, or any number of specially-designed videogame sex toys – which impact you physically depending on how you play the game. They react to you; you react to them. Again, there’s a cycle. As always though, it’s a cycle with only one real subject who can feel pleasure. It’s a dialogue with yourself. In this light, even the most interactive sexual content is just a complicated, disassociated form of masturbation. Really, all games face these questions of dialogue and one-sided interactivity, whether or not they offer traditional sexual content. Developers often respond in similar ways, with less controversial, reverse-interactive peripherals – like controllers with rumble packs. Perhaps not surprisingly, such controllers are frequently converted into – or at least joked about as – outright sex toys.

As if the issue weren’t confusing enough with one-player sex games, the implications go haywire when sexual interactivity involved more than one person. When MMOG players engage in sex, for example, they really are forming a human dialogue. There are at least two people involved, even if they are mediated by computer screens. So, are these interactions wholly non-pornographic?

Everyone experiences sex differently. For sure, many MMOG sex participants are engaging in emotionally meaningful sexual encounters. Yet it seems that – even when the sex is between two people who are equally involved in real life – there persists something of the pornographic. There is still a divide breeching the dialogue, leaving us, when all is said and done, alone with ourselves.

Online sex, in any form, allows both subjects to remain, to a certain extent, emotionally and physically separate. Even as developers strive to make online sex as realistic as possible, the fact remains: It’s not real. That is not to say that online sex is “good” or “bad,” or “better” or “worse” than real life sex. It fills a different purpose. Nor is the title of “pornography” meant as a negative one. Pornography fills a specific, legitimate human need, one we rarely confront with our heads held high.

If our interest in sex in games is so normal, why does it illicit so much shock and titillation? Perhaps it’s because sexual interactivity treads on the toes of our accepted understanding of both sexuality and game. It shows us how each defies the boundaries of the other. As a society, we’ve tried to mask the power of sex by compartmentalizing it, by telling it what it can and cannot be. In truth, we have done the same for videogames, whose true power to reflect and reveal the human condition is overwhelming in its enormity.

In knocking down these restraints, sexual games have both excited us and caught us off our guard. They let loose the floodgates of unease that comes in the wake of classification’s dismissal. They unearth the profound anxiety that lies at the heart of our technological age.

Bonnie Ruberg is a video game journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, and Slashdot Games.

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