Sex in Space 1

Of late, the debate about sex – and in par­tic­u­lar, sex­ism – in video games has been bub­bling to the top of the pot again. We’ve had con­tro­ver­sies rang­ing from bat­tered hooker-nuns to accu­sa­tions of rape and “tor­ture porn” doing the rounds and every­one is weigh­ing in with their opin­ion. That’s not entire­ly a bad thing, as clear­ly the prob­lems caused by sex­ism in our indus­try are still very much in evi­dence and they cer­tain­ly aren’t going to go away on their own. Sadly, this being the Internet, a good­ly amount of the com­men­tary aris­es from the bottom-feeders of forums and com­ment sec­tions, and as is to be expect­ed from such bas­tions of schol­ar­ly integri­ty, can best be described as “angry, bare­ly coher­ent dri­v­el.” Despite that, it’s still bet­ter for the medi­um and the com­mu­ni­ty that the sub­ject is being dis­cussed than swept under the rug. In the past months, this web­site alone has fea­tured arti­cles about the gen­er­al­ly neg­a­tive atti­tudes towards women in games and how being forced into a skimpy, fetishis­tic out­fit doesn’t mean a woman can’t still kick your arse six ways from Sunday. Good points were made, and you should go read them. However, that’s not what we’re going to be dis­cussing today. This arti­cle is to address what seems to be an issue that goes beyond the sim­ple sub­ject of bounc­ing boo­bies and deep­er into an equal­ly wor­ry­ing but much less report­ed trend; the fash­ion in which con­tem­po­rary games treat the phys­i­cal act of sex itself, and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions which (or rather, which should) arise.

A woman parad­ing around in her under­wear and sport­ing tits like bas­ket­balls (no, thank­ful­ly not rough-textured and orange) is incred­i­bly sex­u­al­ized, there’s no deny­ing it, but rarely do things progress beyond the ogling stage. Players are pre­sum­ably intend­ed to enjoy the sight of those jiggle-physic-tatas bounc­ing around as a spec­ta­cle, then go back to punch­ing the woman in the face (depend­ing on the type of game, that is; it isn’t advis­able to resort to fisticuffs with the princess/love interest/presidents daugh­ter)

Saving the world, one prac­ti­cal out­fit at a time.

Many games will fea­ture sex­u­al­i­ty but com­par­a­tive­ly few will fea­ture sex. Female char­ac­ters in video games are usu­al­ly fan­tasies, tit­il­la­tion in the vaguest sense, and the play­er isn’t sup­posed to think about them in any fur­ther detail than that — they’re win­dow dress­ing, intend­ed to catch the eye for a moment, but ulti­mate­ly dis­pos­able. When a game does fea­ture sex, it’s often as part of a rela­tion­ship between devel­oped char­ac­ters rather than one-note sex objects and is more like­ly to fade to black than show the act in all its sweaty glory. Tasteful, right? Surely that’s a pos­i­tive exam­ple com­pared to the in-your-face sex­u­al­i­ty which we find in other games? Sadly, the answer is no. Let’s talk about the rea­sons why.

Step One: Courtship

Firstly, we have to look at the pro­gres­sion a rela­tion­ship goes through to reach the point of sex­u­al inter­course. We shall dis­count hen­tai games or games like Leisure Suit Larry, as those are games in which the sex­u­al act is cen­tral rather than inci­den­tal; you can’t play the games with­out encoun­ter­ing it. We’re also going to ignore the infa­mous Hot Coffee inci­dent – after all, while it’s usu­al­ly option­al, sex in GTA both has tan­gi­ble in-game ben­e­fit to the play­er and is almost never pre­sent­ed as roman­tic, and is also (GTA being what it is) noth­ing more than a puerile joke – and Kratos’ dis­turb­ing but­ton match­ing rage-sex because frankly I’d rather not think about it ever again.

What we’re pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with today is the RPG genre, par­tic­u­lar­ly the out­put of BioWare (which hurts to say, because I must con­fess I’m some­thing of a BW fan­boy). In the major series there tends to be the option for a roman­tic sid­e­quest which can be safe­ly ignored with­out any major effect on the over­all plot. The choice is all in the hands of the play­er, and if said play­er choos­es to role­play a total­ly asex­u­al space wiz­ard it won’t spoil the over­all expe­ri­ence.

Now, in the real world, a couple’s first time is up to the cou­ple involved. Some rela­tion­ships never make it fur­ther than a one-night-stand, oth­ers can con­tin­ue for years while the par­tic­i­pants save them­selves for mar­riage. For some it’s the sec­ond date, for oth­ers it’s when they “feel ready,” and that’s their own busi­ness. In BioWare’s games, rel­a­tive­ly early on, the play­er will have encoun­tered the small pool of poten­tial bed warm­ers and can either focus on one or keep all of the options open as long as pos­si­ble, flirt­ing with every­one like a dirty tease. We’re told that these are our options, and if we don’t like any of them then tough shit; there may be an entire galaxy out there but if we want to get laid it’s got to be one of these peo­ple. The rela­tion­ship we’re shown is not a getting-to-know-you char­ac­ter pro­gres­sion as such, but more a series of obsta­cles to be cleared before we get to the good stuff. There’s never any doubt that bon­ing will occur – it’s just a mat­ter of how many con­ver­sa­tions are required to make it hap­pen.

In the case of Mass Effect there’s a dis­turb­ing addi­tion­al fac­tor to con­sid­er. Commander Shepard is actu­al­ly the direct supe­ri­or of many char­ac­ters he or she is attempt­ing to seduce (For the Alliance Military: Ashley, Kaiden, Steve Cortez and Samantha Traynor. For Cerberus: Miranda, Jacob, and Kelly Chambers). Fucking your sub­or­di­nates is gen­er­al­ly frowned upon, and with good rea­son; at best it weak­ens the chain of com­mand whilst under­min­ing the objec­tiv­i­ty of the supe­ri­or offi­cer, and at worst it’s a fla­grant abuse of power. That, ladies and gents, is our hero! Let’s also remem­ber the wider con­text in which these liaisons are occur­ring – gen­er­al­ly, our lovers are caught in the midst of an extreme­ly stress­ful event, deter­min­ing the fate of the world or even the galaxy. Enormous respon­si­bil­i­ty rests on their shoul­ders, every sin­gle day they’re bat­tling mon­sters and aliens and what­ev­er else wants to bite off a chunk of deli­cious torso meat. Every day could quite lit­er­al­ly be their last. This does not seem like the best state of mind to be in when decid­ing whether to start a last­ing rela­tion­ship, which is how the game – pre­sum­ably in an attempt to avoid being labeled a porn-simulator – will usu­al­ly attempt to por­tray the sit­u­a­tion. Rarely is the play­er given the chance to screw around with those char­ac­ters with whom they have no emo­tion­al con­nec­tion (Oh, Zevran, you bad boy!), instead the empha­sis is placed on love or at the very least strong attrac­tion. Yet despite this, there’s never the option of wait­ing, not for mar­riage or even just until every­one has had time to come down from the potent and judgment-impairing cock­tail of ter­ror and adren­a­line.

Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but how do you feel about get­ting naked once we’re done with the alien zom­bies?”

Theoretically, the pur­pose of sav­ing one­self is to be absolute­ly cer­tain that this is a per­son worth hav­ing sex with. It can take time to fig­ure out whether you want to let some­one get to home base, but not in video games. Instead, a series of steps must be fol­lowed to get your intend­ed to open up to you (heh) and once the chain of actions is com­plet­ed, bam! Thou Shalt Get Thee Some Nookie. In the Mass Effect series, this sim­ply involves talk­ing to your prospec­tive lover at the right times and say­ing the right things. Do this enough, and they’ll decide you’ve earned a ride on the sex train to Happy town. There’s no need for mutu­al phys­i­cal attrac­tion (it’s gen­er­al­ly just assumed, though in cases like Tali’s it’s dif­fi­cult to real­ly see how), com­pat­i­ble per­son­al­i­ties or any con­sid­er­a­tion of long-term inten­tions. Just say the rights things, and they won’t be able to help them­selves from falling into bed with you. This can occur regard­less of Shepard’s per­son­al­i­ty as defined by the play­er; since all choic­es are open to all ver­sions of the char­ac­ter (bar­ring the extreme paragon/renegade choic­es which rarely occur in romance-themed con­ver­sa­tion) it’s pos­si­ble to sub­vert Shepard’s per­son­al­i­ty, say­ing total­ly out-of-character things just to get some tail. Basically, it’s pos­si­ble to turn even a “good guy” Shepard into a dirt­bag who’ll adopt a dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ty just to get laid. In the Dragon Age series, things are even more dis­turb­ing; the basic mech­a­nism remains the same, but in this case if the object of your affec­tions doesn’t like the deci­sions you’re mak­ing it’s pos­si­ble to manip­u­late their opin­ion of you with var­i­ous gifts. Of par­tic­u­lar effect are those trin­kets to which your intend­ed has a strong emo­tion­al attach­ment, effec­tive­ly caus­ing them to asso­ciate the play­er char­ac­ter with hap­pi­er mem­o­ries. Yes, that’s right; you can bribe and emo­tion­al­ly manip­u­late your sup­posed friends into sleep­ing with you. Doesn’t that just sound like the epit­o­me of a healthy sex­u­al rela­tion­ship?

Taken togeth­er, the above points serve to high­light the wor­ry­ing atti­tude that video games in gen­er­al seem to have toward sex; that get­ting some­one to like you is as sim­ple as fol­low­ing a sequence of steps, or if that doesn’t work, buy­ing their favour. What sort of mes­sage is that send­ing, that if you do cer­tain things for some­one they owe you a night of brain­less hump­ing? It’s rem­i­nis­cent of a major aspect of the loath­some “nice guy” iden­ti­ty, which is based around the idea of enti­tle­ment. You’ve been there for her; you’ve looked after her, now you’re due some rec­om­pense. Doesn’t mat­ter if she only sees you as a friend, you’ve been work­ing your arse off, so where’s your reward?

It’s a hor­ri­ble atti­tude to take but it’s still promi­nent, par­tic­u­lar­ly amongst the geek com­mu­ni­ty. Go to pret­ty much any gam­ing forum and I guar­an­tee you’ll find at least one thread with posters com­plain­ing about how women never date the “nice guy” that these men (and it is almost always men – anec­do­tal evi­dence is no true evi­dence at all, but how often have you seen a female poster whin­ing about this?) believe them­selves to be. The way video games treat sex is basi­cal­ly the same line of think­ing – if you do A and B, then you’re due some C, because a sex­u­al rela­tion­ship is pri­mar­i­ly based on whether you’ve earned it. That notion, that sex can be some­thing that is owed to some­one else by virtue of them doing noth­ing more than behav­ing like a civil human being, is pret­ty damn dis­turb­ing. Of course, it pales in com­par­i­son to…

Step Two: The Reward

Quick, answer a ques­tion: how do all the afore­men­tioned BioWare titles react when the play­er char­ac­ter final­ly gets around to form­ing the beast with two backs? Usually at the very moment that the screen fades to black, we get some­thing like:

Oh yeah. That’s classy.

It’s a con­stant across all the games, in one form or anoth­er. DA:O awards a vari­ety of achieve­ments based on who was seduced (or even bet­ter, an achieve­ment for seduc­ing every­one), where­as the Mass Effect games pre­fer to hand out some Gamerscore just on the basis that sex was had. At first glance this might not seem so bad; it’s essen­tial­ly reward­ing the com­ple­tion of a sid­e­quest, and why shouldn’t there be some G or a tro­phy for that? Well, because it’s not just about that. Think about the word­ing; an achieve­ment for hav­ing sex sug­gests that hav­ing sex is an achieve­ment in and of itself (a tro­phy might not be so bad, it could just sug­gest you’re real­ly good at it, enough so to win an orga­nized com­pe­ti­tion. Congratulations!). That’s a dan­ger­ous mind­set, and one that is already over­whelm­ing­ly observ­able in our media. The ideals pre­sent­ed in the “teen” genre of movies, for instance American Pie, make it abun­dant­ly clear that to be a man, a manly man, you must have had sex, and it’s far from the only exam­ple.

These men are indi­rect­ly respon­si­ble for rough­ly half of all teen preg­nan­cies.

As an inter­est­ing aside, this treat­ment of sex as an achieve­ment makes for a pret­ty con­vinc­ing piece of evi­dence that games are still over­whelm­ing­ly mar­ket­ed to the stereo­typ­i­cal male mind­set. The dou­ble stan­dard we see pre­sent­ed in our media says that while men should be hav­ing sex all the time, women should keeps their legs closed and wait for the right guy. In enter­tain­ment aimed at young females the mes­sage is much more like­ly to be “don’t allow your­self to be pres­sured, wait until you’re ready,” where­as young males are more like­ly to be remind­ed that they were born ready, dammit, so why aren’t they out there hump­ing right now? Sex in games is clear­ly geared more toward the lat­ter than the for­mer, which must pre­sum­ably be an alien­at­ing expe­ri­ence for the female gamer who has had the mes­sage pound­ed into her head that if she behaves like the char­ac­ter she’s con­trol­ling out­side of the game world, she’s a slut. We can also see this reflect­ed in the pos­si­bil­i­ties for homo­sex­u­al rela­tion­ships in video games; until fair­ly recent­ly sex between two women was far more preva­lent than sex between two men, for exact­ly the rea­son you’d expect. When Mass Effect decid­ed to allow mano-a-mano hump­ing the flame wars could be seen from Mars, because two dudes is “icky” while two girls is “hot” accord­ing to the men­tal frame­work of the aver­age teenage male. Even the osten­si­bly sexy male char­ac­ters are geared towards the male per­spec­tive – they tend to be ridicu­lous­ly well-muscled, stub­bly and griz­zled look­ing, reflect­ing not so much what women are attract­ed to but what men think women are attract­ed to. The sex­u­al­ized female char­ac­ter is an appeal to the sex­u­al desire of the male, and the sex­u­al­ized male char­ac­ter is an appeal to the power fan­tasies of that same male.

How many of you read­ers remem­ber, after the first time you had sex, won­der­ing why you still felt the same? Why you hadn’t changed as a per­son or learned new things about the mys­ti­cal nature of the uni­verse or burst into a campy song-and-dance rou­tine? Essentially, despite what you’d been told, you dis­cov­ered that there was noth­ing dif­fer­ent about you at all. You’d just had a new expe­ri­ence, but that’s hard­ly unusu­al, so why were you expect­ing some­thing more? The mes­sage we absorbed from our media was that this thing — “the first time” — was a huge deal, and yet there was no fun­da­men­tal change to be observed in our­selves. This achieve­ment, this post-coital pop up, rep­re­sents our secret culturally-conditioned expec­ta­tions: the sign from the uni­verse we were await­ing that said, “Well done! We’re all very proud of you.” It per­pet­u­ates the idea that sex is a more impor­tant step on the road to adult­hood than matu­ri­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ty.

A game grant­i­ng an achieve­ment for sex is more than just a leery, wink­ing high-five. It’s a val­i­da­tion of the belief that sex is the point of a rela­tion­ship. Check out the flavour text for Mass Effect 2’s “roman­tic” achieve­ment; accord­ing to the text the ‘chee­vo is award­ed for “suc­cess­ful­ly” pur­su­ing a rela­tion­ship with a team­mate. When does this one pop? Right after you and your cho­sen warm body have ini­ti­at­ed the no-pants dance. Relationship suc­cess, as defined by ME2, is sex. Not love, com­pat­i­bil­i­ty, chil­dren, dura­tion or any­thing else you might use to mea­sure the suc­cess of your own rela­tion­ship – noth­ing but down-and-dirty shag­ging. The impli­ca­tion is vic­to­ry (hell, our soci­ety even uses the word “con­quest” to refer to peo­ple we’ve slept with!). Having man­aged to talk some­one into drop­ping their knick­ers for you, you have become a win­ner.

Step Three: The Morning After

Well, you’ve done it. You worked hard to get here, and your per­se­ver­ance has been reward­ed with the bump­ing of uglies. So…now what? Where do we go from here?

So, how about those local sports teams?”

The answer is, more often than not, “nowhere.” It’s rare for a game to show the emo­tion­al fall­out from the player’s night of play­ing hide the sausage; in some cases (Mass Effect 2 is a notable exam­ple, as the steamy stuff hap­pens imme­di­ate­ly before a “sui­cide mis­sion” which upon com­ple­tion winds the clock back to a pre-sex part of the game) the char­ac­ters will clam up and sim­ply not talk as if any­thing had changed. The same old con­ver­sa­tions about the same old top­ics, with nary a hint that the char­ac­ters are now some­thing more than col­leagues. Once the deed is done, life con­tin­ues much as it did before; time is occu­pied by the con­stant pro­ces­sion of ogres or Vorcha who require a face full of fire, bul­lets or fire-bullets before they stop try­ing to gnaw on your tits. As dis­cussed ear­li­er, the act of sex doesn’t have any truly pro­found effect on the per­son­al­i­ty, but the effect on a rela­tion­ship is gen­er­al­ly more notice­able. Not least because the cou­ple involved keep find­ing excus­es to sneak away to the same sup­ply cup­board in between mis­sions.

Physical effects are a non-issue too — there’s never any acci­den­tal preg­nan­cy, for instance, which you’d think in the (pre­sum­ably pre-contraceptive) world of Dragon Age would be a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem. Outside of the Fable series, sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­eases appar­ent­ly do not exist, although per­haps a lit­tle lee­way should be given in light of the effects magic (or alien tech­nol­o­gy) could poten­tial­ly have on this issue. There’s also no sex­u­al acclima­ti­za­tion as our new-minted lovers go through the process of learn­ing what they do and don’t like. Everyone has their kinks, after all, but this is never addressed – what if it turns out both part­ners are into S&M but are both fierce­ly dom­i­nant? That’s never going to work. What if their fetish­es are incom­pat­i­ble, one enjoy­ing bal­loon ani­mals in the bed­room and the other hav­ing a thing for pins? Obviously, it’s not real­ly appro­pri­ate for (most – never say never, after all) games to be so full-on in dis­cussing the stark details — Fox News would have a field day! — but that doesn’t mean they don’t mat­ter. All of this is sim­ply swept under the rug, with the char­ac­ters bare­ly even mak­ing ref­er­ence to the fact they’re now sleep­ing togeth­er. All that build-up, and then noth­ing, as if once the screw­ing is over the rela­tion­ship ceas­es to be impor­tant. The game is com­part­men­tal­ized, keep­ing the sor­did details away from the shooty-shooty-kill-kill, and never allow­ing the two to meet. Once the sex has been had, that part of the game is done with, and we need pay it no more thought.

It’s that ado­les­cent mind­set again, the one that sees sex as the be-all end-all of a rela­tion­ship. Coitus has been achieved, now go back about your busi­ness in the knowl­edge you’re a win­ner. What more could you want?

Step Four: The Aftermath

You might ask how any of this real­ly mat­ters. Why is this worth get­ting worked up about when the same games also offer achieve­ments for straight-up mur­der­ing a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple? Surely such an incen­tive to geno­cide is worse than reward­ing an evening of pas­sion? The answer lies in con­text. The games we’ve dis­cussed, and many oth­ers, are action games. The pri­ma­ry focus is mow­ing peo­ple down with magic or machine guns, and in most cases the “blow up X num­ber of dudes” achieve­ments are gained as a nor­mal result of play. The play­er is gen­er­al­ly given a good rea­son to be killing peo­ple, whether that be self-defense, sav­ing the world or because some prick drank the milk you left in the fridge which was very clear­ly labeled. Not so with the sex-related achieve­ments. They’re an entire­ly option­al extra, they can be missed entire­ly with no real loss to game­play, and they seem to serve only as back-slapping to con­grat­u­late the play­er.

Remember, achieve­ments have no in-game use; they’re pure­ly for the per­son hold­ing the con­troller. These achieve­ments are not con­grat­u­lat­ing Shepard or The Warden for get­ting their end away, they’re con­grat­u­lat­ing you, the play­er, for man­ag­ing to manip­u­late some­one into doing the nasty with you. Once again, val­i­da­tion; you’ve had sex! It was vir­tu­al sex with a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter and you didn’t even get to watch, but fuck it, that’s good enough. You should be very proud of your­self.

The treat­ment of sex in these games often serves as noth­ing more than the rein­force­ment of an unpleas­ant belief that seems endem­ic to our cul­ture – you should be hav­ing sex, and if you’re not, there’s some­thing wrong with you. Screwing some­one is to be reward­ed, regard­less of how you made it hap­pen. A rela­tion­ship is not work­ing unless you’re get­ting some, and when you do, hooray! That’s it, you’re fin­ished. There’s no rea­son to con­tin­ue being nice after that point, because you’ve already got­ten all the reward you need­ed. Might as well jet­ti­son your para­mour from the near­est air­lock and start work­ing on the next con­quest, you stud.

In light of all this, is it fair to expect mature behav­iour from gamers in mat­ters of sex­ism and sex­u­al­i­ty when even the games them­selves can’t present sex­u­al inter­course in a fash­ion more advanced than that of horny ado­les­cents? There are plen­ty of good rea­sons to have sex: love, pro­cre­ation, free drugs. There are also plen­ty of bad rea­sons to have sex, and “because soci­ety expects me to” is a pret­ty fuck­ing stu­pid one. We lam­bast our fel­low gamers for imma­tu­ri­ty or a bad atti­tude towards sex­u­al­i­ty but we rarely seem to tar­get our ire on the games them­selves. Quite the reverse; BioWare’s out­put has been praised for the matu­ri­ty and depth of their sto­ry­telling – and right­ly so, for the most part – but few seem will­ing to address the games’ dis­turb­ing depic­tion of an adult rela­tion­ship. Yes, the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty has a long way to go before we are wide­ly viewed as mature human beings (have a look over at Fat Ugly or Slutty and just con­sid­er how relent­less­ly sex­u­al the mes­sages tend to be – “get back in the kitchen” seems to be less pop­u­lar than “show me ur tits,” or vari­a­tions there­of, rein­forc­ing the idea of gamers as sex­less, des­per­ate freaks) but at least some of that blame rests with the devel­op­ers who choose to rein­force a twist­ed view of sex. When ask­ing why gam­ing tends to attract the child­ish idio­cy that it does in all mat­ters sex­u­al, maybe it’s worth point­ing out that very few efforts have been made by the medi­um to demon­strate any­thing dif­fer­ent.

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.

One thought on “Sex in Space

  • Cha

    Interesting to con­sid­er the romance with Isabella in Dragon Age 2. For her sex is such a casu­al thing that sim­ply sleep­ing with her isn’t con­sid­ered good enough for the achieve­ment. You have to get her to see it as some­thing longer last­ing. I’m not sure I com­plete­ly approve of the poten­tial mes­sages there either, but it’s an inter­est­ing exam­ple of BioWare try­ing some­thing slight­ly dif­fer­ent.

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