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.

  • 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.