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Book Excerpt and Review - Sex in Video Games

Brenda Brathwaite's latest book, Sex in Video Games, provides an insider's knowledge on the history, practical application, and future of sexual content in games. In this Gamasutra double feature, we first review Brathwaite's book, and then reprint the entirety of its first chapter.

For today's Gamasutra feature we are pleased to present a review by former Gamasutra editor Brad Kane of industry veteran and Savannah College of Art & Design professor Brenda Brathwaite's new book Sex In Video Games, published by Charles River Media.

Following the book review is the first chapter of Brathwaite's book, "Defining Sex," in which she introduces the topic of sex in video games, and categorizes it by its usage, its range and its purpose. Brathwaite also looks at sex in the industry outside of games themselves, including a history of E3's infamous "booth babes," sex as used in game advertising, and unintended sex in games, be it emergent, modded, or hacked.

Book Review

4 out of 5 stars

Pros

  1. Objective, academic examination of the past, present, and future of sex in games.
  2. Examines social, moral, legal, financial, and ethical issues surrounding a controversial topic.
  3. Author presents multiple viewpoints without becoming preachy.

Cons

  1. Book gets a touch heavy – over-seriousness itself could be said to be a kind of non-objectivity.
  2. This is a debate book – not a lot of practical advice for companies currently developing adult titles.
  3. More inter-industry facts and stats might be useful, to give a better sense of how adult games compare with other adult industries.

One of the most notable chapters in the history of sex-in-games is last year’s now-infamous “Hot Coffee” scandal, in which a modification to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas allowed players to play a XXX mini-game, which involved intercourse with a female NPC. Anyone with an eye on the industry will remember the spectacular fallout of that scandal, involving Hillary Clinton and ultimately leading to an industry-wide investigation by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Brathwaite brings the entire incident into new focus in this book, delivering a play-by-play account of the scandals’ key events, and placing the episode within its proper social and historical context.

The Hot Coffee incident is certainly memorable, but it’s the ramifications of such episodes that ultimately leave their mark on the industry. And so “Sex in Videogames” – an IGDA-approved textbook by expert Brenda Brathwaite – comes at just the right time. This academic exploration of the role of sex in interactive entertainment is based on extensive historical and social research, and provides the first thoroughly objective published perspective on this highly controversial topic.

Much of the book is dedicated to exploring the social, legal, and moral issues raised by sex in games, and examining the various perspectives – both liberal and conservative – that contribute to the growing debate on the role of sexuality in interactive entertainment. Yet even this academic work gets steamy at times, for Brathwaite leaves no corner of her topic untouched. So hold onto your hard drives as we explore the sometimes exciting, sometimes offensive, but always controversial world of Sex in Videogames.

Long Time Bed-Buddies

Leisure Suit Larry. Virtual Valerie. Lara Croft. Jenna Jameson. Even the booth babes. Sex and gaming share a long and sordid history together.

The book begins by with an examination of the history of sex in games – a history which dates back to the earliest text-based adventure games and runs parallel with the technological growth of the industry. Beginning with pioneering titles on the early Atari and Apple machines, and carrying the exploration along the changing landscape of Full Motion Video, networked gaming, and the modern console, Brathwaite thoroughly and faithfully traces the evolution of gaming as medium for risqué content. She also examines current trends in the industry – such as the current trend toward sexy characters in non-sexual games (e.g. the girls of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball), and the continuing evolution of more directly sexual (e.g. Playboy the Mansion) or outright pornographic games.

She also explores another aspect of the history of sex in gaming – “emergent sex,” or unintended sexual content emerging from player behavior. This comes in many forms, be it in MMORPGs like the Sims Online, in online worlds such as Second Life (in which an entire prostitution district has sprung up, along with associated economy), or in more unexpected forms – such as in the case of Rez, Sega’s musical shooter, which in Japan shipped with a force feedback controller that many users took for a vibrator.


Sex, Money, and the First Amendment

So what are the implications of all this interactively erotic entertainment? There is no single answer, but it’s clear that sexual game content has ramifications in the legal, political, financial, and moral sectors.

On the legal side of thing, Brathwaite explores some of the legislation that has attempted (and in some cases succeeded) to restrict or censor the content of video games. These measures have varied from the innocuous -- such as requiring game ratings to be posted on all game packages -- to the extreme, such as banning games with AO ratings, declaring video games a “harmful substance,” or even banning games altogether – which has happened in two countries.

This leads directly into questions regarding free speech and the First Amendment, which are ultimately at the heart of the sex-in-games debate. Is sexual content allowable under the guise of freedom of speech? Does “interactivity” justify increased regulation for video games? Should sexual content receive less constitutional protection than violent content? Where is the line between an individual’s right to privacy versus the state’s right to regulate obscenity? These are the questions that Brathwaite poses and explores, in each case presenting all sides of the various debates, and examining the current state of affairs on each issue.

There are financial considerations at work here too. Simply choosing to develop an adult title can lead a company into some thorny business issues, such as the specific concerns of managing employees working on adult titles, the high potential for sexual harassment lawsuits, and the challenges of developing a feasible sales model. Once an adult title has been finished, the battle has only just begun – for if a game receives the wrong rating and gets turned down by retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Target, publishers must choose between modifying their game, resorting to alternate sales models (e.g. internet-based sales), or facing economic ruin.

Ratings, Responsibility, and the ESRB

So how can all of these conflicting perspectives be reconciled such that the marketplace for adult games maintains a healthy balance between free expression and the responsible content management? According to Brathwaite, the onus of responsibility lies with everyone involved: parents, retailers, politicians, and perhaps most of all, developers and publishers. This is in fact why the ESRB was created – as a mechanism for formalized self-regulation within the industry – and so the author covers this topic in some depth, examining early attempts to rate the content of games, and breaking down each level of the current ESRB ratings system. There’s also some discussion of what types of material should be appropriate at each ratings level, as well as proposals for how the various social and political groups involved in the ratings debate could work together so as to protect both the right to produce sexual content, and the right not to be exposed to it.

The book also examines international components of the sex-in-games debate, particularly in terms of contrasting sexual mores from around the world and their impact on cultural responses to sex within games. Nowhere is the cultural contrast more defined than in Japan, which publishes an order of magnitude more sexual games than any of the western markets, and where the tolerance for Western sexual taboos such as incest, rape, and sex with minors is seemingly through the roof.

Sex and Games: Together Forever

As the first book to thoroughly explore the important topic of sex in games, “Sex in Videogames” is a welcome addition to the marketplace of ideas. Brathwaite’s objective, academic perspective allows her to explore these difficult and controversial issues with clarity and authority, and her meticulous references to other articles and publications lends critical authenticity to a topic that would otherwise be subject to more intense scrutiny.

This book comes at a time when guidance in this area is needed, and will almost certainly give readers from any social group an increased understanding of the issues surrounding sex in games. However the current debates play out, sex and games are bound to be together for many years to come, and whether you’re a parent, a politician, an educator, a developer, or simply an interested observer, you’ll find it useful and informative to read up on this intriguing and controversial aspect of the interactive medium.


The following is the first chapter, entitled "Defining Sex," of Brenda Brathwaite's book Sex In Video Games, excerpted in full.

DEFINING SEX

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sex as “1 : either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male, 2 : the sum of the structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics of living things that are involved in reproduction by two interacting parents and that distinguish males and females, 3 a : sexually motivated phenomena or behavior, b : sexual intercourse and 4 : genitalia. [Webster01].”

Not exactly a definition for sex in games.

SO WHAT IS SEX IN GAMES?

It should be an easy question to answer. Yet listening to participants at the “Sexuality in Games: What’s Appropriate?” roundtable at the 2005 Game Developers Sex in Video Games Conference, it’s clear that “sex in games” means a great many things to a great many people.

“Can you show masturbation in a game?” asked one.

“Is kissing all right in an E-rated game?”

“How does one handle reproduction in a game like Zoo Tycoon®?”

“I’d like to talk about the portrayal of female characters in games.”

“What about the booth babes?”

In its first session—roundtables run once a day for three days—the roundtable raised more questions than it answered. It also expanded the definition of “sex in games” to include more than just physical intimacy.

Sex in games includes everything from flirting to hard-core sexual simulators. It occurs when characters kiss or people “hook up” in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Models that parade the show floor at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)—particularly those who appeared prior to E3’s 2006 enforcement of its attire restrictions—are as much a part of sex in games as the avatars that walk through game worlds. The sexual content found in video game advertising has as strong a place in the discussions as the sexual content that happens quite by accident.

So what is sex in games?

SEXUALLY THEMED CONTENT

Sexual content in video games ranges from the completely abstracted to the explicit. With such an array of material, how does one categorize sexual content in video games? There are several ways to look at it: by use, by range, and by purpose.

Sexual Content by Use

When sexual content appears in a game, it’s there for a reason, whether to carry out a specific gameplay mechanic or to convey an aesthetic, a particular feeling, to the player. In general, there are three specific uses for sexual content in games.

How is sex used in games?


Sex as Mechanic

A gameplay mechanic is a rule of a game. A barrel that blows up when it is hit is a mechanic, as is a floor pressure plate that causes a secret door to open. Throwing a die, taking a card on your turn, or advancing three spaces on a board are all mechanics of board games. For some video games, particularly those in the hard-core market, sex is a mechanic. In the online game VirtuallyJenna, for instance, players use a variety of tools to bring a virtual version of porn star Jenna Jameson to climax. In Playboy: The Mansion™, characters who develop a sufficiently high relationship with each other might also “get it on” in the Grotto.

When sex is used as a mechanic, it can be employed actively or passively. An active sex mechanic allows the players to directly control the action. The controversial mini-game revealed in the infamous Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas™ “Hot Coffee” mod allows players to control the avatar’s thrusting. By timing the avatar’s thrusts properly, the player can please the woman. Other games like Roboho or 3D Sex Villa allow the player to insert sex toys into virtual characters or, in the case of hardware-enabled virtual sex simulators, like those designed to work with the Interactive Fleshlight, allow a male player to insert his penis into a sleeve hooked up to a computer’s ISB port. The Interactive Fleshlight is designed by Sinulate Entertainment. By contrast, a passive sex mechanic puts the game in control of the actual sexual content. For instance, DreamStripper (Figure 1.1) lets the player choose the clothing and moves of his stripper, but he cannot actually control her body directly. Likewise, in The Sims2, the player can do all kinds of things to bring two characters together, but ultimately, when they have “woo hoo,” if they have “woo hoo,” it is up to them.


FIGURE 1.1 Ensign Games’ DreamStripper.
© 2005 Ensign Games, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Sex as Reward

There are dozens of strip poker games available online, and it’s in these games that sex used as a reward is most obvious. In the first such game of its type, 1982’s Artworx Strip Poker, when a player wins a hand, his or her virtual opponent removes a piece of clothing, gradually revealing more and more. Whenever a game awards or makes sexual content available to the player as a result of his or her actions, sex is being used as a reward. The Guy Game™ used a similar tactic, but instead of cards, its mechanic is trivia questions. Players begin by selecting a sexy co-ed avatar. Then, players watch brief film clips of women being asked trivia questions. The player must guess the answers to these questions, and further, guess whether the women will answer them correctly. The better the player does, the more his in-game avatar reveals. The amount of nudity the player sees in the video clips within the game is also tied to his performance. The game initially pixelates topless nudity, allowing only top-performing players to see nonobscured video clips of the women. The Guy Game was eventually removed from the market when it was revealed that one of its participants was 17 when she agreed to participate. As a minor, she was legally in capable of giving her consent.


Sex as Aesthetic

Sex is an incredibly immersive experience that affects all the senses deeply. Games that hope to fully simulate this experience must affect as many senses as they possibly can to recreate a sexy aesthetic. Devices such as the Sinulator™, Interactive Fleshlight, and SeXBox allow players to feel sexual stimuli while playing a game. The Sinulator is a vibrator that can be controlled over the Internet, while the SeXBox is an Xbox controller whose vibration devices have been removed and inserted into sex toys. Both are covered later in this chapter. The Scent Dome™, a device that emits smells as directed by a program, could be used to convey the scent of a woman or a man. Visually, computers and consoles are easily capable of recreating the sights and sounds of sex, too. Video, live streaming images, and high-polygon renderings of virtual characters are all commonplace (www.renderotica.com) as are soundtracks, sound effects, and chat and voice between systems. While this technology currently exists, none compares to that of a real human being.

In some cases, that’s actually key. For those who desire sex with things that are impossible on this earth, computerized images and the artists who create them are a proverbial saving grace. In online worlds where anything goes, dragons can have sex with foxes, and people can pleasure themselves while on fire . . . or dead.

Of course, most of today’s games, particularly the mainstream ones, don’t go that far. Instead, they use sexual content to make the game more appealing to convey a somewhat sexy aesthetic. The aesthetic the developers wish to convey often reveals itself even before the game’s opening screen. Games with names like Roboho™, Rapture Online™, and Do You Like Horny Bunnies? suggest the game to come. The aesthetic can be carried out into the game’s interfaces, HUD (“heads up display,” the interface that overlays the main gameplay screen), options, mini games, animations, and even the loading screens. For instance, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude™ features a conversation mini-game in which a sperm attempts to avoid obstacles in a side-scrolling maze of sorts. 7 Sins is also full of similar sexually themed mini-games. Playboy: The Mansion features Playboy trivia and quotes on its loading screens, and unlockable centerfold photos.

The way a game’s camera is used also reveals its aesthetic. Games occasionally zoom in on a particular character or show him or her from a sexually flattering angle that accentuates some feature of the character’s body, like the buxom bar maid in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. Some games even allow players to control the camera. Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball features a voyeuristic mode that lets players watch the women from multiple angles and zoom in for a closer look.

As an aesthetic, sexual content also appears as “window dressing,” whether it’s the breasts of a bartender, the relationship between in-game characters, or the set ting of the game. Phantasmagoria2: A Puzzle of Flesh™, for instance, sets some of its scenes in a fictional S&M club called “The Borderline.” Playboy: The Mansion allowed players to recreate Hugh Hefner’s famous home right down to its steamy grotto.

Sex by Range

The range of sex content found in video games is as wide as that found in any other medium. It ranges from the hard core to the fully abstracted. Even within individual categories, there is great variety. Early text-based games, particularly the early online worlds, featured hard-core scenes that could only be imagined by the player, while more recent games feature avatars with buxom, bouncing breasts that steal the scene. Some avatars appear to be on their way to a stripping engagement instead of a day in the dungeon.

What is the range of sex in games?


Abstracted Sex

When asked to point out the sexual content in Zoo Tycoon2, most people aren’t readily able to. “There’s no sex in that game,” said one. “In Zoo Tycoon? Are you sure you have the right game?” said another. However, breeding animals is very much a part of the game’s appeal. The sexual content in the game, though, is fully abstracted.

“In order to successfully breed animals, you need to care for them properly and care for their surroundings,” said Linda Currie, a designer on Zoo Tycoon 2 and now producer at its developer, Blue Fang Games. “Happy animals make baby animals. You need to meet their basic needs like hunger, thirst, and environment, and their more advanced needs including mental stimulation, social interaction, exercise, and privacy. You must also have a male and female animal in the same exhibit” [Currie01]. If all the conditions are met, the baby animal just shows up.

The Sims™ also abstracts the actual reproductive act. Like Zoo Tycoon 2, specific conditions must be met, but once met, a baby arrives. Grand Theft Auto 3 also featured abstracted sex. Although the game was much maligned for allowing players to have sex with a prostitute, the actual sexual content in the game was relatively tame. Players saw the car bounce up and down, nothing more.

Family Friendly Content

Sexual or “racy” content found in games for children, if it is found in a nonabstracted form at all, tends toward three things: clothing, comic mischief, and kissing or other gentle expressions of affection between game characters. Clothing on game characters can at times be revealing, although in games designed for a younger crowd, it is rarely more than tight-fitting outfits, the occasional bikini, or a bare-chested male character.

As the age of the game’s target audience rises from children to teenagers, the sexual content found in games increases. Revealing clothing and crude jokes are more commonplace, and romantic relationships between characters may develop. In The Sims2, players can watch characters kiss and make out and even have “woo hoo,” although the latter is far more comical than titillating. From time to time, The Sims characters even remove their clothing to change clothes or to shower, for instance. When The Sims characters are nude, the game pixel blurs their bodies so the player cannot see anything vaguely sexual. Underneath the blur, however, The Sims characters aren’t revealing much. Anatomically, they are the video game version of Barbie® dolls.

There have been games released to a teen market that did feature partial nudity, however. Titles such as Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter™, Shadow Hearts®: Covenant™, and Atlantis Evolution all feature partial nudity, although the duration and context of the nudity is quite limited. Whenever partial nudity is found in a T-rated game title, it is always noted on the box cover in the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) content descriptors.

The Mature Audience

As games target an older, more mature audience, those 17 and above, the amount of sexual content increases still more. A character’s clothing may become far more revealing and suggestive. A character like BloodRayne™, from the game of the same name, is exceptionally attractive, and her clothing leaves little to the imagination, even when she’s mostly covered. Within games, animations sometimes become more suggestive and sexy, particularly “idle” animations in which female characters stand still waiting for another action or those that do not directly affect the primary game (e.g., noncombat animations in a combat-intensive game). The dance of the Night Elf in World of Warcraft® is among the animations regularly cited as particularly sexy among gamers. Dialogue may comment on a character’s attractiveness, and situational humor may become suggestive. The writers of Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin, mastered the art form within their game, which was ultimately nominated for a Game Developers Choice Award for its writing. For sexually themed games, mechanics may include soft-core sexual situations, including prolonged kissing, fondling, fetish realization, and actual, but obscured, intercourse. In such games, penetration is not seen, but rather implied. The characters may be animated, performing sex while still wearing underwear or while obscured by pixel blurs. God of War™, for instance, features a threesome between Kratos, the lead character, and two women. Rather than seeing any sexual action, however, the camera focuses on a bedside table and a vase wobbling thereon. Other games like 7 Sins, Playboy: The Mansion and the first iteration of the “Hot Coffee” mod shows characters having sex with their underwear on.


Hard-core Sex

Hard-core sex in video games is uncensored, unashamed, and almost always un rated. Far beyond Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ “Hot Coffee” sex mini-game, hardcore games are characterized more by what’s left out rather than what’s put in. Often, a hard-core “game” is only a game in the most basic sense of the word—for instance, in Orgasm Girl and others like it, the player needs to get the character in the game to orgasm to “win.” Other times, the game is nothing more than an adult toy that lets the player use a variety of sex toys on a simulated man, woman, or fetish object. Such games as Soma Doll, VirtuallyJenna, and 3D Slut all fit this bill, and are often referred to as “poke the doll” games. Still other games simulate hard-core sex stories, particularly early 1980s games where it was only possible to tell, not show.

Some hard-core games do try to make a game of it, though. For instance, Sociolotron, an MMORPG, gives players a standard RPG world to play in and also allows players to explore their sexual desires. Players are free to express themselves through their clothing—or lack thereof—and their actions. Patric Lagny, developer of Sociolotron, designed the game with this freedom in mind. “We have put great effort into making it possible to break any taboo, as far as legally possible, and have some quite shocking and blasphemous game elements. I believe in free speech and intend to use the rights the USA takes great pride in pointing out all the time” [Lagny01]. Lagny notes that the game does have its necessary limits. While encouraging people to explore their sexuality, the game will not allow any kind of pedophilia and goes to great lengths to insure that this type of content is impossible to create or to role play in the game world. They even record a log of every action and word exchanged between players. Furthermore, notes Lagny, “We have excluded some things that are legally questionable, like sex with animals or ‘furry creatures,’ or the graphical description of extreme sexual torture. In fact, Sociolotron gets away with remarkably little violence and blood, except an occasional splatter on the ground. I’m quite glad to discover that there are still some people out there who find sex more attractive than gruesome violence” [Lagny02].

Japanese “hentai” and “bishoujo” games are also frequently hard core. Known more gently as “dating sims,” the more adult hentai and bishoujo games allow players to experience graphic anime sex. One company, Peach Princess, produces English-language localizations of these Japanese games. For instance, Doushin— Same Heart features the three characters known as the Suruga sisters. Whenever one of the girls gets sexually aroused, the other two sisters also feel the same way. Another game, Water Closet: The Forbidden Chamber (Figure 1.2), allows the player to choose different fetish play paths, each from a different character’s perspective.


FIGURE 1.2 Peach Princess’ Water Closet: The Forbidden Chamber.
© 2006 Peach Princess, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Sex by Purpose

Why is sex found in video games? The same reasons sex is found in art, movies, television, or books. To stimulate players sexually is just one reason. Sexual content can be used to entertain, as it is in countless television relationship dramas. It can be used to teach, just as it is in sexual education or health classes in high schools everywhere.

For what purpose is sex used in video games?


Sex to Stimulate & Entertain

At the “Sexuality in Games: What’s Appropriate?” roundtable at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, one developer noted that he had no real problem with sexual content in games provided that it wasn’t “just sex for sex’s sake.”

“What’s wrong with sex for sex’s sake?” asked another developer. “Why else have sex?” she continued. “That’s the best use of sex.”

When developers choose racy clothing, busty or beefy characters, or suggestive themes, the use of sex for sex’s sake seems most obvious, but its intent in that use is questionable. Rather than stimulating, such sexual content is most often merely entertaining or pleasing in a passive way. Sometimes, the clothing or physical attributes of such characters are so over the top that they become comical. Are designers really hoping that the buxom avatar will turn a player on, are they dressing her to be pleasant to the eye or to meet the industry status quo?

There are games that feature sex for sex’s sake, however. Rapture Online, a sex positive massively multiplayer online erotic game (MMOEG), features a player-to player stimulation model. Games with this model enable live players to connect on line and explore their sexual fantasies and fetishes with each other. Such games are, in many ways, an evolution of Internet chat rooms. Other games feature a player to-computer stimulation model. Games like 3D SexVilla, Virtual Hottie, and VirtuallyJenna allow players to have a sexual experience with a virtual partner.

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