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Sex in Videogames, Part 3: Dramatic Significance

Sex in Videogames, Part 3

Ernest Adams, Blogger

November 21, 2000

8 Min Read

Julius Caesar, the greatest general of his age, pursues his enemy Pompey to Egypt.

Arriving with an army in Alexandria, he finds the twenty-year-old Cleopatra locked in a power struggle with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. Taking her side, Caesar conquers the Egyptians, kills Ptolemy, and makes Cleopatra both his mistress and Egypt's queen.

Four years pass, and in 44 BC Caesar is assassinated in the Senate. In the civil wars that follow, Cleopatra tries to remain neutral. Mark Antony summons her to account for her actions, but is hopelessly captivated by her charms. They return to Egypt together, living in ostentatious debauchery. Eleven years later, in a war with his great-nephew Octavian, Antony overrules his own generals at Cleopatra's insistence and initiates the battle of Actium, which ends in disaster. Hearing a false report of Cleopatra's suicide, he falls on his sword. Cleopatra, fearing she will be exhibited as a prisoner in Octavian's triumphal march, poisons herself.

1200 AD

King John of England, a notorious lecher, sends envoys to ask the king of Portugal for his daughter's hand in marriage. At the same time John makes a tour of his feudal lands in France. While visiting Hugh the Brown of Lusignan, one of his most powerful barons, John develops an insatiable lust for a fourteen-year-old girl named Isabelle of Angoulême. However, Isabelle is already betrothed to Hugh the Brown, a status almost as binding as marriage. John recalls his envoys, sends the unsuspecting Hugh off on a diplomatic mission, and marries Isabelle with the approval of her father.

Outraged, the Lusignan family rises in revolt. John challenges them to a trial by combat in which he will not fight, but be represented by paid professional champions. The Lusignans appeal to King Philip II of France, who is in strict feudal law John's overlord, and Philip summons John to account for himself. John refuses. It is the excuse Philip is looking for, and in a series of wars he conquers John's provinces in France one by one. By the end of John's reign his ungoverned lust has cost England a huge part of her empire. After John's death, Hugh the Brown finally marries Isabelle after all.

1997 AD

Bill Clinton, the President of the United States and the most powerful man in the world, conducts an illicit affair with a young woman on his staff. Seeking to avoid a scandal, he prevaricates when asked about it in a deposition for a lawsuit. The truth is revealed the following year in secret recordings made of the young woman discussing the affair with a person she had thought was a friend. Clinton's political opponents in the Congress summon him to account for his actions. When his answers are unsatisfactory, they impeach him for perjury and obstruction of justice. In an almost purely partisan vote, he is acquitted at trial. Clinton's behavior has embarrassed the nation, while his opponents have spent millions pursuing him and accomplished nothing. Clinton's long-suffering wife is subsequently elected to the Senate.


Sex: the thing that takes up the least amount of time and causes the most amount of trouble. - attributed to John Barrymore

Sex doesn't provoke wars or topple empires nowadays, but its capacity for causing trouble is still pretty staggering.

In the earlier parts of this column I wrote about other aspects of sex in videogames: seduction and explicit sexual activity. In this one I want to look at the broader role that sex plays in our lives, and how that can translate to computer games.

Sex is one of the most important forces that motivate human beings. Unlike most other animals, we are capable of sex, and interested in it, whether we are fertile or not. Sexuality plays a social role for humans beyond simple reproduction. It helps to cement the bond between mates, but it can also break it. All human societies place some restrictions on sexuality because if they didn't the result would be social chaos, but attempts to over-legislate sex are usually failures -- all they do is drive the proscribed activities underground. Powerful, unpredictable, and resistant to reason, sex is most noticeable in history as a destabilizing influence. It's seldom an organizing factor; it doesn't work that way.

Games, especially simulations, tend to have nice, neat rules: maximize the right variables and you win the game. If you introduce a destabilizing influence, you risk frustrating the player. What we do instead - all too often, in my opinion - is to create an extremely complex interlocking system of variables, and the player's challenge is to figure out how they interact. Randomness is played down, and experimentation - trial-and-error, to be blunt about it - is encouraged. Such games reward people who have a large amount of time to play and a particular kind of analytical mind. They don't reward people who are looking for a few minutes' fun. (This issue is further addressed in an earlier column of mine, Casual versus Core.)

So is sex too big a random factor to include in the plots of computer games? If your best naval captain falls in love with a lady on shore and suddenly starts finding a lot of excuses for keeping his ship in port (and believe me, this was once a real problem), is this going to drive the gamers nuts? I think the answer is, not if you tell them in advance that it's a possibility. Wargame players don't object to unexpected bad weather, as long as they know that it's a possibility and can prepare for it. Role-players don't object to randomly-generated monsters; they're part of the rules of the game. Why should they object to love affairs? There are plenty of popular games that have large random factors: Monopoly and poker and backgammon and Tetris, for example. As long as people understand it, it's an enjoyable part of the game.

More importantly, the effect of sex on people's lives isn't really that random. We may not know exactly who is going to click with whom, or when, but the consequences can often be guessed. Isabelle and King John's meeting was sheer coincidence, but John's behavior was in keeping with his character, and anyone could have predicted Hugh the Brown's reaction.

Sex is, of course, a staple of soap opera plots -- who's doing it with whom, and who else knows about it -- just as violence is a staple of action plots. Given that most games are still about action and not relationships, I don't think sex is going to replace violence as the principal element of most M-rated games any time soon. But in spite of that, sex is too important to for us to go on ignoring. It may play a less vital role in politics than it once did, but it still profoundly affects the decisions people make, and the reactions of others.

This is something we just don't see in computer games. Even The Sims, which comes as close as any game I've seen to simulating meaningful sexual relationships, skirts the powerful influence that sex has on people's feelings and actions. Bella Goth, the neighbor in The Sims, is famously free with her favors, but her wronged rivals don't try to settle their scores with a double-barreled shotgun or even a merciless divorce attorney.

The motivations given to computer game characters are extremely simple. Greed, lust for power, revenge, mindless patriotism, a desire to thwart evil - that's about it, except in some of the richer Japanese games. Love seldom enters into it and sex, almost never. By ignoring sex as a factor in human affairs, we're limiting the kinds of scenarios we can present. What would have happened if Cleopatra had been a man? Caesar might still have backed his cause, but Mark Antony almost certainly wouldn't have forgiven his neutrality so easily. Nor would he have allowed his heart to rule his head at the battle of Actium.

There's an ongoing debate about whether interactive entertainment can be an art form, and if so, how expressive a one. Everyone has their own answer to this question, and we're certainly not going to reach any conclusions here. Still, I'll go out on a limb and propose a test of sorts. Art with a capital "A" serves to illuminate the human condition in all its manifold circumstances, and that includes sexuality. Many art forms (painting, sculpture, literature) are easily capable of this; others (flower arranging, macramé) not so much so, or at least not very accessibly to most observers. Until interactive entertainment is capable of saying something meaningful about sex - not just showing it, but commenting on it, inspiring thoughts and feelings about it - we're still down there with macramé.


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About the Author(s)

Ernest Adams


Ernest Adams is a freelance game designer, writer, and lecturer, and a member of the International Hobo game design consortium. He is the author of two books, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, with Andrew Rollings; and Break Into the Game Industry: How to Get a Job Making Video Games. Ernest was most recently employed as a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and for several years before that he was the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL Football product line. He has developed on-line, computer, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Playstation 2. He was a founder of the International Game Developers' Association, and a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers' Conference. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at [email protected], and you may visit his professional web site at http://www.designersnotebook.com. The views in this column are strictly his own.

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