Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Sex in videogames: Is it corrupting our youth? Politicians and parents across the country have certainly voiced their resounding “Yes.” After all, what’s the world coming to when teens, lured in by the simple promise of a cup of coffee, can find themselves simulating intercourse? These games are almost – dare we even say the word – pornographic. We have to regulate them, otherwise smut could flourish somewhere it has never been found before: in the hands of our young people.

Which, of course, is nonsense; our youth are just as corrupted as the rest of us. And videogames are hardly the only culprit.

Anyone who’s ever accidentally typed a poorly-chosen phrase into Google (“tasty Asian,” for example, instead of “good Chinese restaurant”) knows the sheer abundance, diversity and accessibility of porn on the internet. Surely, any child who can hack Grand Theft Auto can effectively use a search bar. Add to that the fact that everyone knows “the internet is for porn.” So, why is it that videogame sex and hardcore pornography – the former reviled, the latter often ignored – receive such very different reactions?

Porn, it seems, enjoys a limbo status. It’s frowned upon, but at the same time, it’s considered something of a necessary evil, or at least an unavoidable one. People, we feel, will always like pornography, so other people will always make it. Not that porn is without its legal restrictions: Like M-rated games, it’s 18 to buy, and, like M-rated games in tomorrow’s Utah, a felony to sell it to underage consumers.

Still, thanks to the internet, porn is so easy to acquire as to render over-18 laws almost negligible. Many sites make it clear they’re for adults only, and parental controls are always an option, but these, too, do little to stop determined teens. Especially since, if all else fails, there’s always text-based cybering. Does this ruffle the feathers of concerned parents? Certainly, but on a larger scale – both cultural and governmental – we seem to have let it go. We recognize that only extremists would try to illegalize porn completely. More importantly, we acknowledge that pornography is not the root of evil. Young people seek it out. It doesn’t seek out them.

Yet, when it comes to sex in videogames (which, by comparison, could rarely be considered graphic), we’re still running around with our hands in the air, shouting, “Won’t someone please think of the children!

Why? In part, it has to do with interactivity. The biggest difference between a pornographic movie and a sexy videogame is, whereas the movie viewer only watches, the videogame player is directly involved – and implicated – in the on-screen action. It’s the same argument anti-game campaigners use about videogame violence. Not only do you witness someone die, you kill them. Not only do you see someone having sex, you perform the penetration.

It’s this immersiveness, many argue, that gives videogames their unique ability to corrupt, to enter the minds of young, impressionable players who are unable to distinguish between the moral systems of the game and that of reality.

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Then, there’s the trouble that videogames are widely considered toys for kids. Gamers know that game enthusiasm isn’t limited by age and that many titles are complex and hardly childish, but the general populace associates gaming with Mario and Luigi, with children glued to their GameBoys. Thanks to the popularity of the Xbox, this image is changing, but those who have their panties in a twist over videogame sex are, by nature, more conservative and reluctant to see the shift. They think they are defending kids. And kids and sex – so our social taboos tell us – should never mix

The truth is, even if videogames were once the realm of children, they’ve grown up. They’ve become art. As art, they’re entitled to incorporate whatever material, sexual or otherwise, they choose. In claiming the need for legislation to regulate games, parents and government officials are attempting to knock videogames down from their art status. They’re saying, “No, we still have power over what you show the world.” Moreover, they’re refusing to acknowledge games as art in the first place.

Maybe what drives these concerned citizens is not just rigid morals, but fear of change. On the surface, videogames seem so easy: So easy to stereotype as an anti-social subculture, so easy to peg as a worthless pursuit, so easy to fit into the large scheme of “corruption.” But the medium Americans thought they knew is changing, pulling the rug out from under assumption.

Videogames have become something that can’t be controlled, and, as such, swarms of people have taken up the challenge of controlling them – like children told they cannot, and so they must.

Beyond even this, though, these activists seem to fear a change in themselves. Videogame sex brings us face to face with the uneasiness of our technological age. Whereas before, we were turned on by real human bodies (granted, bodies mitigated by a screen), we are now faced with the attractiveness of digital forms: naked avatars, rendered breasts, button-mapped seduction. The fact that this intrigues us is, in an understandable way, frightening.

In order to protect ourselves, are we displacing our fear onto our kids? Or, maybe, this evolved attraction is all the more eerie when we view it in our children.

Perhaps this answers, too, why we allow normal pornography its place, while attempting to legislate videogame sex into oblivion. We’re trying to legislate away our own unease and confusion; we’re looking for a way to regulate ourselves. But no bounds, legal or otherwise, can stop the evolution of attraction, or of games.

Bonnie Ruberg is a videogame 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 Wired.com, The A. V. Club, and Gamasutra.

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