The game industry isn’t in its infancy anymore. No, the game industry has entered its pimply, squeaky-voiced adolescence. Its body has started to change and things like “stories” and “emergent behaviors” are starting to grow in new places. It wants to smoke behind the gymnasium with Cinema and Literature. And, of course, it has started thinking about what people have underneath their clothes.
At the time of this writing, the Electronics Software Rating Board has produced content ratings for over 11,000 games. Of these, only 69 have been considered to have “Strong Sexual Content” and only 93 to contain “Sexual Themes.” All told, fewer than one percent of all games rated by the ESRB contain any measure of significant sexual content, representing a drastically smaller figure than that found in any other entertainment industry. Hyrule may contain the Master Sword but not, it appears, master bedrooms.
However, the scarcity of sexual content in games is only one aspect of the problem, for the sex that games do have is shallow, unsatisfying and ultimately more trouble than it’s worth.
This is exactly what the mod community discovered about Hot Coffee before it erupted into a national scandal. Once the initial shock value had worn off, one could begin to understand why a developer might have chosen to cut the feature: It simply wasn’t very interesting. This wasn’t a question of game mechanics, as some clever game designer could surely have solved that problem. It was a question of motivation. At the end of the day, players were playing the mod for completion, for a laugh or simply to see what all the fuss was about. These are the exploratory motivations of juveniles, not the reasons that most adults choose to have sex.
If asked, most people would probably tell you that they care deeply for the individuals with whom they choose to have sex. Despite our society’s increasingly liberal views toward sex, particularly among the youth, it is still rare for people to maintain sexual relationships that service purely physical needs. This should be unsurprising, as a broad array of biological and cultural factors conspire to ensure that sex be more than a purely physical activity. Without appealing to the emotional dimension of sex, sexually-oriented games cannot help but be incomplete experiences.
The developers of sexually charged games such as Rumble Roses and Dead or Alive understand this problem well. It may seem strange that despite existing as almost purely sexualized objects, the women in these games offer little more titillation than can be found on basic cable. In fact, these women do not engage in explicitly sexual activities precisely because they exist as purely sexualized objects. The game developers realized that for sexual content to be truly compelling, it would require emotional attachment.
Cultivating such an emotional attachment is a difficult task, but not an impossible one, as can be attested to by the legions of fans who have mourned the loss of their favorite characters over the years. If the ability to create both emotional attachments and sexually desirable characters exist, why are they rarely, if ever, combined into a single product? It may be because the power of emotional attachment ensnares not only the players of games, but the developers, as well.
Tomonobu Itagaki, the creator of the Dead or Alive series, once explained in an interview that Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball was “not really a sex game,” and that he thought of its characters as “like daughters.” “What kind of father,” Itagaki asked, “would want to show his daughters naked?” When such feelings of pride are generated by what are essentially polygonal china dolls, imagine the feelings that might develop for a character with whom a player could begin to fall in love. What kind of lover would want to show his beloved naked?
But what kind of father chases suitors away just as his daughter is blossoming into womanhood? The idea of creating emotionally interesting characters is still fairly new, and developers are filled with the passion of youth and its concomitant jealousy. This jealousy, like many adolescent passions, is misdirected. Developers must realize that they’re making lovers not for themselves, but for their audience. They’re fathers, not suitors, and the most important lesson a father will ever learn is how to let go.
No matter how hard we try, gaming won’t stay sequestered forever. Hot Coffee was only the mainstream gaming industry’s first clumsy attempt at sex. It was awkward, embarrassing and everyone involved wishes it had never happened. But the awkwardness will pass, the embarrassment will fade, and this newfound interest certainly won’t go away. Gaming is going to want to get better at sex, and the only way to get better is to practice.
Charles Wheeler is a game developer currently working at gamelab in New York City.