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Sex in Video Games Conference: Sex, Ethics, and Video Games

As part of coverage from the recent Sex in Video Games conference, Gamasutra contributor and 'Sex, Ethics, and Video Games' panelist Ren Reynolds gives his own intriguing perspective on the panel's subject: the responsibility of developers.

Ren Reynolds, Blogger

July 4, 2006

8 Min Read

Sex and ethics are old bed-fellows but adding video games into the mix enables us to ask whether the threesome contorts into some interesting new moral positions or is just something you should never try with friends.

That is, are there any moral questions that video game developers should ask themselves when creating a game that contains or facilitates adult content and themes? Oh and to be clear - by ‘adult' I mean sex - sex in the form of narrative themes; nude or semi-nude images and forms (male, female, animal, robot); cyber sex between individuals; sexual violence etc.

The quick answer is that not only are there ethical issues to consider but there are good business reasons to consider them during game development. Here I am referring mainly to matters of that we might term practical ethics or ethical intuition – things that give us a strong indication about the public mood in respect of a subject that suggests that there might be legal, political or public relations reason why one might want to consider an issue with some care.

Much of the popular debate about the goods and ills of video games center on children, so let's jump into the deep end and consider issue of children and sex. The position that seemed to be put to the panel at the recent Sex in Video Games conference was that: just so long as we keep kids out of adult games and keep government out of regulating them, there are no real moral issues to consider.

This is wrong on all counts.

Firstly, the idea that we should keep children and sex as completely separate universes is itself a moral position, and in some respects a very contentious one. Currently the chief practical issue with this position is that it can lead to denying children access to sexual education – something that some would argue is a human right especially in the highly sexualized society we currently live in. But the idea that control of information (or ‘ignorance' as some may put it) leads to abstinence and thus good sexual and mental health which all wraps up into a state of virtue is a particular moral stance and one that a developer asked to create a game on safe sex, STDs or simple biology may have to engage with. Moreover a developer may find themselves challenged with the flip side of the argument – that information about sex, especially online, where it is out of certain forms of control and most of all in a game, which by it's nature can be seen to trivialize a subject, leads to promiscuity and the consequences that may follow from that.

In tandem with the above issue of children's access to information and images aimed at them for the purposes of education, is the issue of children accessing material that is intended for adults. Here I will side step the highly controversial issue of children's access to adult material e.g. pornography, and pre-suppose that children should be kept out of games that involve sex and sexual images. The question that faces a developer here is what moral and legal duty do they have to ensure that children cannot access the material that they create.

This is one of several issues that I want to discuss. Chances are that if you create something with sex in it, there is a high chance that at least one child will see it – who has never seen a single piece of pornography until they were over the requisite legal age in their country of residence?

This issue opens into a number of political debates that I do not have space to go into here. But as a practical matter, developers need to be well aware of the licensing and content regulation in different countries. As has been made famous by games such as GTA III, Carmageddon and others, regulations around the world differ. The EU tends to have statutory licensing, the U.S. has a voluntary scheme and Australia does not even have a category for adult games.

From an ethical standpoint what licensing does is shift and formalize responsibility onto others. A developer creates a game with certain content in it, it is then up to some regulatory framework and the authorities that enforce that framework, or the retailers that apply it or the adults that are supposed to take note of it, to take ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the content is only consumed by those that it is intended for.

From a moral standpoint, I'm not sure it's so simple. To illustrate, it's worth considering the case of so-called alcopops. These are drinks that are very like soft drinks / soda but have high alcohol content. Whether they are deliberately targeted at children is a moot point, but the fact that they appeal to them is not. The sweet taste and attractive packaging are highly attractive to younger people. But, sales of alcohol, in most countries, is controlled by law and there is some legal drinking age – usually somewhere around the age of majority. So are the makers entitled to say that they have no moral responsibly whatsoever for the popularity of alcopops with under age drinkers? No. In the same way, makers of adult video games need to be mindful of their packaging and distribution methods and should take at least some duty of care about who their product will appeal to.

Where this all gets even more problematic is when we go online. Here this issue is simple – how far does a developer need to go to ensure that an online adult game is only accessible to adults? To be frank, this is a very difficult question indeed. Just about all a developer can do is make sure that the person signing up for an account has some form verifiable ID that means that they meet the minimum age requirement to access the virtual space. After that – who knows who's logging on?

But it's worse than that. Even in online games aimed at kids, especially teens, there is one thing that is certain: a bunch of kids connected online will have online sex and some of them will probably use the system to meet and have physical sex, and for some of them, this is going to turn out bad.

Is this the developers responsibility? Maybe.

Is this the developers' problem? Yes, and you need to do something about it.

What I mean by this is that a developer of an online game can take one of two broad positions. They can say that what goes on in their virtual spaces is nothing to do with them at all. As the recent mySpace case over sexual assault demonstrates – if your community is big enough, someone will make it your problem. The alternative is to acknowledge that some form of intimacy is going to occur and either take steps to stop this from happening (such as ToonTown) or recognize it and provide help and advice. The latter position though may result in unwanted media and pressure group attention.

The last point I want to touch on is obscenity. This is a serious issue that is particular to developers of adult games. Content that can be considered obscene tends to have special laws associated with it and as a number of lawyers at the Sex in Video Games conference pointed out, the rules on obscenity can be vague and can differ widely from country to country. The moral question here is whether you want to offend, the legal one is do you want to run the risk of ending up behind bars or paying off a large fine. The simple advice is that if you feel that people might be offended by the sexual content in your game, remembering that being seen in the context of a ‘game' might alter people's perceptions, then you really should start to consult a lawyer that is a specialist in the area.

Lastly you should also consider what your staff thinks. If you have an openly libertarian ‘pro-sex' environment then fine, but for any development company that moves into the adult sphere, I suggested there is duty to take into account the sensibilities of people that may end up working on the project or just being involved in / being exposed to adult material. Moreover one should not make assumptions about who the material is going to offend, gender or other outward trappings may be a very bad guide.

So please have fun, be sexy but remember that there are some good practical, legal and moral reasons to think deeply about some of the content you might be creating.

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About the Author(s)

Ren Reynolds


Ren Reynolds is a consultant, writer and philosopher based in the UK. He has written on the ethics of computer games, virtual property and digital identity. He is currently working on cheating and privacy in virtual worlds and is an author on the TerraNova blog.

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