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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)
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.