Sponsored By

The Challenge of Sex: The Sex in Games Design Challenge

This exclusive feature revisits and expands on the presentations for the 'Sex in Games Design Challenge' given at last November's Montreal Games Summit, interviewing participants about titles such as Heather Kelley's Lapis and Frank Lantz's Sporgy.

Bonnie Ruberg, Blogger

January 16, 2006

10 Min Read

2005 was a year of questions about sexual content in games. Is it moral? Is it tasteful? Is it revolutionary? Or is it just inevitable? Whatever your take on the sex in games debate, one thing is for sure: it poses a unique challenge for video game developers. Sex may be a basic human function, but it involves a complicated set of mechanics, both physical and emotional. How does an act as complex as sex translate to interactive gameplay? Designers of the infamous GTA “Hot Coffee” patch took the easy road; after all, sex doesn't get much simpler than hitting the shift key to switch positions. Contestants in a recent game design challenge, on the other hand, have given the question of developing sex a more in-depth and creative look.

Entries for the Sex in Games Design Challenge, moderated by Jason Della Rocca, Executive Director of the IGDA, were presented during the Montreal International Game Summit this past November. "Video games are emerging as the dominant form of art and entertainment of the 21st century, enjoyed by hundreds of millions of players worldwide,” states the challenge's abstract. “As a culturally potent and expressive medium, developers should be able to explore all aspects of the human condition. That said, even if these barriers didn't exist, could we even create a game with meaningful representations of sex? From cheap titillation to eroticism to more complex notions of sexuality, sexual tension, and innuendo, if challenged, what could we design?”

Four developers took part in the challenge. Each came up with a unique approach. “For starters, no one did a straight up sex game,” said Della Rocca. “We thought at least one challenger would design a more stereotypical interactive porn/intercourse simulator. But, none of them did. Instead, each took a somewhat more abstract view of what sex meant.” After all, as Della Rocca pointed out, “It would be pretty easy to map functions to buttons. Up/down. Turn over. Squeeze. But, how fun would that be?” The real challenge, noted Della Rocca, comes in making sex more than just sex. “I'm not sure if the actual in/out of sex is really what folks are after. This approach essentially reduces an extremely complex phenomenon into simple button mashing. What's more important is nailing the more subtle aspects - stuff like love, passion, flirtation, innuendo, tension, jealousy, lust, etc... It is much less about putting big boobs up on the screen.”

Heather Kelley's entry, Lapis, a self-described magical pet adventure and stealthy primer on female sexual pleasure, took first place. According to Kelley's presentation, Lapis aims to “teach techniques of female gratification.” By stroking, tickling, or even blowing on the fur of a friendly blue bunny, a creature Kelley called “evocative” of female anatomy, players can recreate the pattern of female sexual response. Successfully stimulated bunnies rise into the air in a “representation of freedom, release, magic, joy.” Kelley also emphasized the variety of gameplay, which mirrors the variety of possible sexual response. “Different things work for different bunnies at different stages of the game,” she said. Though Lapis is geared toward female players, Kelley reminded, “Everyone in the world could stand to learn something about female pleasure!”

A game designer at Ubisoft's Montreal Studio and chair of the IGDA's Women in Game Development Special Interest Group, Kelley used Lapis to reconsider in-game sex as the “rhythms of arousal.” She explained, “I faced this challenge of embodying arousal by treating it as a feedback loop – a process of interpreting sensory cues and adapting your actions in real time.” Lapis, which was designed to take advantage of tactile gameplay opportunities on the Nintendo DS, lacks “any references to literal sex acts” said Kelley. “Instead, the game concept addresses more generally the idea of touch, of environment, of sound, sights, and emotions, combining together over time in certain ways that culminate in a climax – in other words a win condition.” “What is sex,” Kelley pointed out, “if not a multi-sensory interactive experience with a constant feedback loop and biologically built-in reward structure?” Despite rumors that Ubisoft will be producing the game, Kelley stressed that, to the best of her knowledge, Lapis is not in fact in production anywhere.

Sporgy, Frank Lantz's challenge entry, is not an independent game, but a mod for Will Wright's upcoming title, Spore. The creative director and co-founder of New York City company area/code, Lantz explained, “The mod hijacks Spore's ‘content pollination' infrastructure to create a secret subculture of sexual play that operates beneath the surface of the main game.” Installing Sporgy creates an urban sex club found literally underground. Lantz called the club “a cross between the cantina in Star Wars and the nightclub in Cabaret - a dark and seedy place where decadent creatures give themselves up to intricate games of perversion, dissipation, sensuality and pleasure.” Like Kelley, Lantz pinpointed rhythm as an intricate part of interactive sex. “The actual gameplay of Sporgy,” said Lantz, “is a cross between a two-player rhythm action game and a special-action dueling game like Phantom Dust with a gestural interface inspired by Chris Hecker's rock climbing game. All wrapped up in Twister.”

Lantz's design eliminates the dilemma of adding sexual anatomy by utilizing tools Spore already provides. “The main idea is that Sporgy takes all of the body parts that you carefully designed into your Spore creature and gives them a secondary meaning,” Lantz said. “So you don't design the sexual characteristics of your Sporgy creature, they are the residue of the survival choices you make during the earlier stages of the game.” At the same time Sporgy's interactions mirror human sexuality, they reevaluate the roots of normal desire. “I was thinking about fetish. About how sex loads the body up these bizarre, extra meanings.” In Lantz's presentation, “functional” body parts took on “symbolic” meaning. Parts used to attack, for example, came to symbolize aggression, while parts used for defense stood in as markers of submission. Lantz even put forth a narrative explanation for how these fetishes, and Sporgy itself, have developed. “Sporgy is played by creatures who have no interest in following the game's trajectory up out of the slime,” said Lantz. “They decide to stay in the slime a little bit more, to get deeper into the slime and explore it horizontally.”

Pascal Luban, founder and general manager of The Game Design Studio, designed a multi-player “soft porn” concept based on mini-games. Players engage in a series of these games, which are not necessarily sexual, said Luban. The winner is then “rewarded by a choice of action to carry out on the other players' avatars such as taking clothes off or performing a sexual act.” These decisions are shown through images that are “kinky but not vulgar or shocking.” Luban explained, “The idea is simply to engage in erotic actions with other avatars... I wanted the game to reflect the true nature of sex: fun, convivial and an activity where every player wins.” As to whether sex lends itself to interactive play, Luban noted, “Sex is probably one of the most interactive activities mankind enjoys.”

In thinking of the concept, Luban said he put himself in the position of designing a real game for a publisher. “A game is like any other product. To succeed, it must meet a demand and find its distribution... I wanted to deliver a concept that would have a real chance of making money and succeeding on the marketplace.” Luban explained that his design could work online or off, for either PC or cellular phone. “Today, the explosion of mobile phones is opening up a new window of opportunity. Development is inexpensive and the number of potential clients can be counted in the hundreds of millions,” he said. “I see a huge potential for this kind of game on mobiles phones that let you play a somewhat kinky game with other people in an anonymous setting.”

The final contestant, Eric Zimmerman, CEO and founder of gameLab, looked at sex in a very different way. “The whole point was to try and approach the topic from an unusual angle,” said Zimmerman, “not simply to make a game which depicted sex.” Though he readily admitted the narrow, hetero-normative implications, he decided “to look at sex as reproduction, the process by which sex results in offspring.” Zimmerman applied this approach to the idea of game development itself. “I wondered whether it would be possible to use sex for game design,” he explained, “through a set of module elements that controlled larger structures, like digital DNA.” In Zimmerman's concept, games “breed,” then “they would have children that were the mix of both.” These next-generation games could be played online, where player interest would determine natural selection. For his parent games, Zimmerman chose early ‘80s arcade titles, such as Breakout, Asteroids, and Donkey Kong. “Truly weird things would result [from these matches],” noted Zimmerman. “The end goal,” he said, “would be to stimulate game design thinking... We think of game design as intentional. But what if we could design a process that would randomly design games?”

Zimmerman also mentioned that the concept was meant to be humorous. A sample “offspring” game from his parent DNA list proves his success on that front. “In a sensually abstract space of eye-catching rainbow stripes,” it reads, “you are a triangular outline of something that somehow manages to represent a spaceship, that is rescuing a princess from an angry giant ape. Tenderly grip and rotate your paddle controller, as you maneuver through a maze of tunnels, eating and eating but never gaining any weight, while you sidestep the cutest little flaming barrels you've ever seen, to rid the world of evil, low-resolution bricks.”

Zimmerman – whose newest book, The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, co-edited with Katie Salen, is due out from The MIT Press in mid-January – normally leads the game design challenges at the Game Developers Conference. In the sex in game challenge, the tables were turned. “Several of us had attended Eric Zimmerman's design challenges at past GDCs,” said Della Rocca, “and thought it would be exciting to ‘borrow' the concept for the Summit ... The fact that we got Eric Zimmerman himself to compete as a challenger was a treat.”

Though Zimmerman somewhat sidestepped the challenge of developing interactive sex, the creativity of his and all three other entries suggests that perhaps the answer to good sex design is in imagination, in symbolism above realism. As Lantz pointed out, “It's really hard to do something about sex without getting silly or cute or naughty in a goofy, ‘wink-wink' frat boy kind of way.” Gameplay that seeks merely to recreate real-life sex may always be lacking. “Sex is already something you do for its own sake,” said Lantz. Yet when sex-related gameplay and graphics are abstracted, they can become something separate from real-life sex, something fun for their own sake. The challenge's winning entry doesn't depict sex at all. In fact, its players may never even know they're enjoying a sex-based game.


Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Bonnie Ruberg


Bonnie Ruberg is a staff writer for a number of video game news sites, as well as a freelance journalist specializing in gender/sexuality issues in video game culture. In addition, she maintains a blog on the topic, Heroine Sheik (www.heroine-sheik.com). Her most recent work has appeared, or been slated for appearance, in The Escapist, Slashdot, and The Onion. Bonnie Ruberg is also a student of creative writing, and many of her short stories have been published in national journals, both online and in print. She can be reached at [email protected].

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like