Video Games And Sex

By John Walker on May 27th, 2008 at 10:03 am.

This is worth a watch. It’s a short lecture by Daniel Floyd on the subject of sex in videogames, made as a Flash video for a Media Theory class at Savannah College of Art and Design, openly inspired by Zero Punctuation.

He doesn’t make any stunning revelations, but does sum up the subject efficiently and coherently, and reiterates the key point that if games are to explore sex in an effective way, they need to learn to also portray relationships and intimacy. Thanks to Nicholas for the tip.

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68 Comments »

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  1. Larington says:

    Made me chuckle a few times. Nice lecture.

  2. KindredPhantom says:

    A really enjoyable and interesting insight into sex and videogames, i enjoyed it.

  3. Lightbulb says:

    Worth watching, mostly agree.

  4. Joe says:

    I think that the intimacy he says games need to head towards is already starting to be catered for. Half-life 2 is the best example, with Gordon and Alyx having built up a strong relationship over the original game and it’s episodes, and sex is only referred to briefly and often humorously. It’s a start, at least.

  5. Seniath says:

    So my RSS feed for your blog wasn’t lying to me, just getting confused then eh? :P

  6. Phil says:

    I remember the Guardian pointing out at the height of the Hot Coffee media circus that sex was one of the only things you could do it San Andreas that was actually about making a NPC feel good, as opposed to dead. The other was dancing, which was all about leading up to sex.

    It was strange Katana based decapitation was frowned on but essentially fine, crude depictions of consensual cotus was enough to cause Hillary Clinton to weep hot tears of rage.

    This Film is Not Yet Rated makes a similar point about America’s (and by extension Britain’s) relative happiness with violence but horror around images of sex in mainstream media.

    That said, Fahrenheit’s semi-random Zombie shagging near the end is an effective counter argument to ever, ever dealing with sex in games again (though that was possibly because the games ending was so truncated.)

    Nomad Soul seemed to get things about right, relatively mature, important to the plot and, crucially, even respectful, with the main character criticising the player if he attempted to get in on the wrong side of the bed.

  7. John Walker says:

    Heh, yeah Seniath. The WP pages for both blogs are next to each other in my bookmarks, and they look so damned similar.

    At least it didn’t happen the other way around : )

    Phil: While the DDR sex in Fahrenheit was possibly not the most sensible way to go about executing the act, I think the build up to it at least demonstrated some maturity. It’s break-up sex, and honest about it. It only happens if you both drink the right amount, and if you remind her why she used to love you – guitar, conversation, kindness, etc. Yes – you can see the code behind it too easily, but I like the honesty and sadness around the whole scene.

    Edit: oh, unless you mean with the cop, in which case: oh dear yes.

  8. Rook says:

    You missed a sex scene that happens earlier with the black guy and his girlfriend. It was terrrrrrible.

  9. Kieron Gillen says:

    Phil: “The other was dancing, which was all about leading up to sex.”

    AND IN THE GAME!

    KG

  10. Phil says:

    @John – The scene I’m refering to is the one at the end, in the train carriage, with the ninja hobos looking on, when the male and female characters, who barely know each other, skip about seventy pages of character development and joylessly jump each other’s bones despite the fact she knows he’s DEAD.

    Sod the Internet coming alive for little reason to serve as the last boss – for me the Zombie sex was the point when plot logic was taken outside and shot.

    I never got the fun break-up sex mini-game, games imitating life unfortunately.

  11. Kast says:

    Well work watching. Though I have to admit to not being able to recall a film that couldn’t do without a sex scene.

    We all need a little intimacy, it’d be nice to see more in games.

  12. Dinger says:

    Cute flash presentation. I disagree entirely with the “way forward” and the false teleology.
    If we look to movies, we see the same thing, lots of silly exploitational sex, often of the “teencore” variety, and occasionally propagated by those same cinephiles who now want to deny that videogames can ever be the art form you want them to be.
    The “way forward” is not to look at movies for inspiration. That’s the “current regime.” GTA III and IV’s content is not that different from urban crime movies, except that there’s a lot less boobies and better music.

    And false teleology: it’s a copout to say this is an art form in its infancy. Computer-based games are in their fifth decade. You want videogames to be an art? Fine, go out and assert it, and those who claim otherwise can be damned. Yes, as the new kid, games get blamed for society’s ills. Ridicule those crackpots as extremists. There are fewer of them every year. Censorship is just a challenge to work around. Are you going to let it ruin you, like Mae West, or kill them, like Marlene Dietrich?
    Waiting patiently and doing what the Man says doesn’t build acceptance. Go out there, do your art, and ignore those who would shackle you, whether other developers bent on making a buck from exploitation pieces or the threatened elites of mass culture gushing opprobrium at the genre.
    Go read some Frankfurt school, then watch They Live, a John Carpenter film condemned like so many others for its violence (well, maybe only for the interminable wrestling scene), and whose Marxist subtext is rarely appreciated. The last scene — the only one featuring boobies, by the way — points the direction for games to take if they want to be considered art.

    Oh, and Roadrunner wasn’t made to be shown on television Saturday mornings. It just happened that way. (well, maybe the awful Depatie-Freleng ones after WB shut down the studio, but they only make a fraction of the 46 or so RR cartoons)

  13. cannon fodder says:

    @Kast

    Basic Instinct

  14. Rayna says:

    great presentation:) hopefully once he’s in the industry he’ll be able to practice what he preaches!

  15. Smee says:

    I always liked Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force’s rather innocent and charming approach to relationships. Quietly developing an attraction and flirting with her throughout the game was a pleasing addition to the core shooting action. No sex too, just adult conversation. Shame there weren’t any lesbians in the sequel.

  16. upa-upa says:

    I’ve never felt ‘They coul duse sex scene here’ about any game I’ve ever played

    however there’s a genere for sex scenes – games with sex scenes only (or mostly) – and thumbs up for that. :D

  17. Rook says:

    Basically, can anyone think of a good gameplay mechanic for sex? Because I really can’t. And if this is the case you’re basically saying games need more cutscenes, which I don’t think is true at all.

    Relationships, emotions, sexuality. All of these things I can get on board with and you can really run wild with the gameplay there. But sex itself, I can do without.

  18. dhex says:

    (well, maybe only for the interminable wrestling scene)

    you mean “the amazing wrestling scene” right?

    games should probably stick to shooting for intimacy and relationships; maybe we can clone chris avallone to write them?

  19. Flubb says:

    Let’s not beat around the bush here: the only two reasons for sex in either videogames or film is titillation and voyerism.

    Anything else is prentious wording for the above reasons.

  20. Rook says:

    “games should probably stick to shooting for intimacy and relationships”

    Partly, as I had the ending to MGS3 in my head, but I kinda misinterpreted the “shooting” bit there. Made me lol.

  21. mrrobsa says:

    @Phil – Re:Fahrenheit

    I must be some kind of virtual casanova (oh the irony) as I think I got to cyber-bonk three times over the course of the game. I will admit to being charmed by the game, and I thought the analogue stick thrust action was a bit too much and made me laugh quite a bit, but overall I thought it handled sex well, and I was quite proud to play a game that wasn’t afraid to be mature or have a bit of an edge.
    For the record though, yes, the litter-strewn underground train carriage sex was mind-meltingly stupid.

  22. Phil says:

    Flubb – Gotta say you’re utterly wrong – look at the sex in Irreversible, it’s there to shock, scare and scar the viewer. In games, look at Leisure Suit Larry, where its played almost entirely for laughs.

    Sex is ultimately just an action, its reason for being there is whatever the creator, in whatever media, intends it to be.

    @mrrobsa – It was charming game that initially I utterly enjoyed, though a charming game that had third act problems the size of Birmingham.

  23. Jochen Scheisse says:

    He who thinks media are simple, consumes too many simple media or stays on a simple level of interpretation. Which is fine if you enjoy that.

  24. Dinger says:

    See, a great and gloriously flawed work of art such as They Live polarizes even its critics on its merits.

    Gameplay mechanic for sex? Randomly assign controls to do positive and negative things, and change the assignments intermittently, but at an increasing rate. Hitting the right controls will have the avatar say seductive things, and do pleasing things to both parties. Hitting the wrong controls will make the avatar blurt out the name of the wrong partner, inadvertently criticize the partner’s physique, age or sexual performance, or evoke a shriek of pain or bored comments (“Hey, you there, when you’re done there, how about giving me some loving?”)
    After between 20 seconds and 4 hours of fumbling around the controllers, one or both parties is unable to continue, and, there’s a completely random chance of affection, tears, apologies or insults.

    Really, some things just don’t translate to the simulated world.

    Okay, I haven’t done it for a while, and I swear I won’t do it again for at least year. But when considering sex-and-videogames, gameplay over graphics, and the nature of art, I invite you all to consider Huxley on the Cinema of the Future:

    His fordship Mustapha Mond! The eyes of the saluting students almost popped out of their heads. Mustapha Mond! The Resident Controller for Western Europe! One of the Ten World Controllers. One of the Ten � and he sat down on the bench with the D.H.C., he was going to stay, to stay, yes, and actually talk to them � straight from the horse’s mouth. Straight from the mouth of Ford himself.

    Two shrimp-brown children emerged from a neighbouring shrubbery, stared at them for a moment with large, astonished eyes, then returned to their amusements among the leaves.

    “You all remember,” said the Controller, in his strong deep voice, “you all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford’s: History is bunk. History,” he repeated slowly, “is bunk.”

    He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk. Whisk�and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk�and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom�all were gone. Whisk�the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk �

    “Going to the Feelies this evening, Henry?” enquired the Assistant Predestinator. “I hear the new one at the Alhambra is first-rate. There’s a love scene on a bearskin rug; they say it’s marvellous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects.”

    “That’s why you’re taught no history,” the Controller was saying. “But now the time has come �”

    The D.H.C. looked at him nervously. There were those strange rumours of old forbidden books hidden in a safe in the Controller’s study. Bibles, poetry�Ford knew what.

    Mustapha Mond intercepted his anxious glance and the corners of his red lips twitched ironically.

    “It’s all right, Director,” he said in a tone of faint derision, “I won’t corrupt them.”

    The D.H.C. was overwhelmed with confusion.

    Those who feel themselves despised do well to look despising. The smile on Bernard Marx’s face was contemptuous. Every hair on the bear indeed!

    “I shall make a point of going,” said Henry Foster.

    Mustapha Mond leaned forward, shook a finger at them. “Just try to realize it,” he said, and his voice sent a strange thrill quivering along their diaphragms. “Try to realize what it was like to have a viviparous mother.”

    That smutty word again. But none of them dreamed, this time, of smiling.

    “Try to imagine what ‘living with one’s family’ meant.”

    They tried; but obviously without the smallest success.

    “And do you know what a ‘home’ was?”

    They shook their heads.

  25. Flubb says:

    @Phil: Practically every male I talked to when the LSL’s started coming out was interested in seeing naked women, regardless of how frustrated they’d be in that enterprise.
    If sex was just an action, then why do we see so little defecation in games and films? Sex is intended to raise ratings and viewers.

  26. wcaypahwat says:

    Honestly, we need more scenes like that one in The Darkness. Hell, I wasn’t even playing it and it still touched me.

  27. Phil says:

    @Flubb – Raising ratings and getting viewers is certainly the main motivation for the inclusion sexual content by many creators. Though you claimed;

    “the only two reasons for sex in either videogames or film is titillation and voyerism.”

    That’s simply not true. What you claim actually dovetails into the arguements of censors who would ban any realistic depiction of sex as simply pornographic, and hence worthless and bannable.

    Sexual content should be a judged on the intention of the creators, in exactly the same way violence is; hence This Is England is rated lower than Hostel 2, despite both featuring gore and violent imagery. But until recently, show a erect cock in your film and you were banned (and if you forgive the pun) without hope of release. Things are now slowly changing, but the emphasis is on slow.

    The frankly bizarre press over reaction to the relatively chaste and entirely plot justified sex scene in Mass Effect is a good example of this.

  28. Cooper says:

    I’m glad Fahrenheit got brought up. I found the scene before the break-up-sex one of the best of the game, it worked in all manner of ways, getting the balance of good things to appropriate from cinema and bringing to the scene what games and computer programs can add to that. The actual sex, though, was just plain weird; whereas the rest of the scene played out fairly naturalistic, not despite of but because of the ineraction / game, the sex scene suddenly made me realise I was playing a game, something I had forgotten up to that point.

    There was a piece in the ever wordy but increasingly content-less escapist magazine recently on this subject and the same was said in the comments in regards to the need to look somewhat to movies, but not entirely, and mentioning fahrenheit (again, before it descended into surreal abandon) and HL as examples of intimacy and relationships done very well.

    Surely, as with movies and all things pop-culture, there’s loads and loads of sexual titilation for cheap thrills and laffs, as well as a few sincere attempts at ‘getting it right’, which, to a greater or lesser extent, do or do not work. Video games are no longer in their infancy. Adolescence, maybe, and they can be as ‘mature’ in regards to these issues as others.

    Rather than co-opting ideas and techniques from film, game mechanics need to overcome the simulated, rendered nature of games (which deny the efficacy of facial expression and empathy actors can mobilise), and utilise the things they can provide that film or other media can’t, in regards to interaction and emergence. It’s pleasing to see some people have the skill out there to get this right. More, please.

  29. Graham C says:

    Its great essay, but unfortunately it is probably preaching to the converted.
    I did ejoy the image of the DS printing money.

  30. Razor says:

    @KaST

    >Though I have to admit to not being able to recall a film that couldn’t do without a sex scene.

    The Shawshank Redemption.

    I know, I am evil >=>

    Oh yeah, great video, too.

  31. Flubb says:

    @Phil: You’ll have to convince me that the inclusion of sex into media does *not* serve either voyeuristic or titillatory purposes. I can’t see how either of those leads into pornography and debates about censorship, as there is a world of difference between the two. Michael Winterbottom might think he’s exploring sexual dynamics through ‘9 songs’, but the legions of downloaders on Bittorent are watching it for another reason.

    Bottom line is that sex sells, and that’s pretty much its only function in (modern) media.

    Must away to look for more bad puns :)

  32. Ryan says:

    Once games official admit to themselves that they are in fact art, anything is possible. Sex is a part of the human experience and so it’s only relevant that it would makes its way into a game; not to sell, but to reveal truth.

    Ryan

    lessons in brevity

  33. Rook says:

    I don’t really buy this games are art arguement, at least any more than I do for tiddlywinks or football.

  34. dhex says:

    well, in a strange way “art” means “legitimate” if not actually “good” – this has nothing to do with reality, but such is the nature of art. or “art.” or something.

    personally, i’m a big fan of competency. i don’t really care if the games i’m interested in are art, or just a smokescreen by the global elite, or whatever, so long as it’s done competently.

    i don’t particularly think anything explicitly graphic can be done competently by this industry, due to a number of constraints. but personal intimacy and emotional bonds? that’s a far more reasonable goal.

    See, a great and gloriously flawed work of art such as They Live polarizes even its critics on its merits.

    there were flaws? where? the only flaw is that it’s too perfect.

  35. Phil says:

    @Flubb – Sex certainly sells, but it’s not all it does and to claim otherwise strays close to Mary Whitehouse territory, where it is considered without artistic merit and simply pandering to people basic instincts (like er.. Basic Instinct does). Both Titillation and Voyeurism are related to arousal whilst sex on screen (either in games or more commonly films) can be anything but.

    But you set what sounds like a challenge; Sex without voyeuristic or titillatory purposes eh? Fair enough;

    Sex as a source of horror/shock – Irreversible, Deliverance, Cannibal Holocaust, 120 Day of Salo, Pulp Fiction

    Sex in these movies is expressly designed to be too repulsive to be titillating to an average viewer. Voyeurism implies detachment; these movies are designed to cause a strong emotional reaction. You’re not meant to passively viewing it, you’re meant to be shocked, even appalled. In Salo’s case the director expected a large portion of the audience to simply walk out.

    And who cares what a portion of audience uses the media for? It’s the intent behind it that’s the key thing – you can’t control how people will engage with it. I’m sure some Furries have uses for the Care Bears movie the original writers and director never thought of :)

  36. eyemessiah says:

    The question of whether or not games are art seems to me to be an increasingly irrelevant taxonomic problem, and I don’t think there is any danger inherent in skipping over it entirely.

    I’d like to see more realistic sexuality (not necessarily sex acts themselves – maybe this is an important distinction?) in games simply because I would like games to tell me more grown-up stories.

    @Flubb – Sexuality is often titillating, in real life & in entertainment. Its really nothing to worry about, either for you or for game designers!

  37. Nubtamer says:

    WIN.

  38. Gap Gen says:

    It was worth watching this for the video links that came up after it.

  39. vaca says:

    What is with the horribly high pitching added to the voice? Annoying as all hell.

  40. Pidesco says:

    Sex in games isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom of the greater issue, which is that game narratives are generally poorly written, mindless drivel, that couldn’t pass for good writing in any other medium. Furthermore, a lot of the times when games manage to have better writing than average they still don’t make their stories stronger on account of games being games, and just largely make the narratives develop in a vacuum, in complete independence from the actual gameplay.

  41. Kadayi says:

    The actual relationship stuff in the Witcher (not the shagging games) was kind of interesting, esp as it centered around your decisions regarding the welfare of the orphaned child. You in effect forming a family unit with whichever of the 2 principal leading ladies you chose to pursue a deeper relationship with.

  42. Arathain says:

    There’s a really serious problem with this piece that goes a long way towards eroding some well thought out content. Throughout the entire thing women were only displayed in the context of being sex objects, and mentioned not at all. How can we possibly even discuss a fair treatment of sexuality without dealing with these ghastly objectifying female stereotypes just as directly as we deal with the male ones? Heck, how can we deal with any issue of sexuality at all while failing to include half the world’s sexual participants in the discussion?

    Disappointing.

  43. Quirk says:

    Sex scenes need not be gratuitous, if they shed light on the characters involved and the relationship between them. It’s fairly trivial to conjure up distinguished literary examples.

    Games are largely not, however, possessed of the narrative richness of a book or movie. Most games draw childlike pictures in black and white – you’re fighting for the good guys, the other side is composed of bad people who do bad things. In such simplified contexts, it’s going to be hard to make sex into anything but titillation. It shouldn’t be a revelation that you need characterisation first.

    I can think of one game that I thought fully justified its excursion into “adult” territory, and that’s Masq, which RPS linked to a little while ago. However, Masq is fundamentally about narrative in a way that no mainstream games I’ve seen are.

  44. The Unshaven says:

    I think that some of the best explorations of intimacy in games have come from Planescape: Torment and Star Control 2.

    Anyone else remember Star Control 2? The sex-easter-egg was great, because it was funny and it involved too adults *playing together.* They were having *fun.* And that’s absent from a great deal of attempts to represent sex in any media.

    Torment certainly went for the Intimacy angle with *all* of the PCs, rather than those you might boink. These people *mattered* to you because of how you dealt with them over time, and that’s what gave the ending such impact.

    I think that handling emotional intimacy is a thing that games can do in different (potentially deeper) ways than cinema, because YOU care about the NPCs, rather than seeing the world through a protagonist who cares.

    The fatal downside of sex-in-games is that it focuses too much on the mechanical element of sex. Such as Fahrenheit’s rhythm-based thrust-focused minigame…

    I support all of Fahrenheit’s horrors because it was innovative and tried new things. Many of these things were hideous aberrations in the eyes of gods and men, but we wouldn’t know that if some nutter hadn’t tried.

    – The Unshaven

  45. Kommissar Nicko says:

    I’m going to agree with Flubb, but go further.

    Even having wracked my brain, I cannot come up with a movie that would have been unworkable without a sex scene (at least none that I’ve seen, and I’m no film connoisseur). Furthermore, I cannot come up with a book that would have been lacking without a sex scene. Keep in mind that I do not qualify in these statements films or books or whatever that are about sex (like, for example, Shortbus, which I have not seen, but I know a bit about).

    As a writer, I see no function in describing the act of sex, nor do I see a purpose in its depiction if you have a narrative to attend to. In writing, it’s like including a scene wherein a character takes a massive shit, describing the texture, the aroma, et cetera. Does the reader know what taking a shit will be like? Yes. Does the reader know what sex is like? Yes. (Usually.) Do you need to describe to the reader what the shit was like? No. Do you need to describe to the reader what the sex was like? No. (Usually.) The same is true in games: all of these things are acts that can easily be summed up or glossed-over in a sentence (or a few frames, or a Fallout-style fading-out-then-in), but it is the effect of these acts that are what is important.

    What is most important is the outcome of the event: Does it go well? Poorly? Is it interrupted? Does it ruin the relationship, or strengthen? Unless the actual character of the act itself has bearing on the events of the narrative, there is really no purpose to its inclusion. This applies not just to film, but to literature, and to games.

    The take-away is that the relationship is important, not the actual act itself, though the relationship can culminate in the act. To me, the pinnacle of this expression is in the Sims: both sex and shitting take the same amount of narrative “time,” but the effects of the former are far-reaching, though the act itself is not explicit.

  46. Flubb says:

    I think conclusions are going to revolve around two ideas:
    1. Videos are/are not art and
    2. Sex as mechanics vs Sex as metaphysical
    Sex isn’t just titillatory, but the ways in which it’s used in 99% of the cases is. You can always come up with exceptions (de Sade) and people (practically any libertine), and while I haven’t watched Salo, what I’ve read about it in the past (and a quick pickup through Wikipedia) he’s presenting ideas that contribute exactly what to your every day life? Every sex act is an act of degradation? The death of sex and eroticism through commercialisation? Now transfer that to the average Xbox gamers living room and see if their eyes glaze over.
    Go ahead and tell a good story, but unless your story is specifically about sex and the consequences on humans, unlike Quirk, I cannot think of a single novel or film which required it, or would be degraded by its absence.* The legions of sex-less classics show that it’s possible ;)

    * I expect someone to take up that challenge :)

  47. Quirk says:

    I’m not suggesting, by the way, that we need six pages of grunting and elaborate phallic metaphors. However, not describing sexual situations at all amounts to a deliberate self-restriction. It’s much like trying to write dialogue that in the mouth of a real example of your character would contain swearing without using any. It can be done, it can be convincing, but its elaborate circumlocution has more to do with social delicacy than good writing. That we’re all familiar with writing overburdened with such social delicacy thanks to the public morality of the Victorian era doesn’t really excuse attempting to reproduce it in the modern age.

    Now for an example – Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. Having set up a main protagonist possessed of such powerful sexual repression, even revulsion, trying to avoid describing the act when it takes place would have been deliberately artificial. Greene does not spend more than a paragraph on the act itself, but disconnecting from the character at that point would have flawed the prose rather than improved it.

    Raymond Chandler’s sex scenes are likewise for the most part brief, and not at all titillating; but their existence throws unexplored aspects of Marlowe’s character at various points into relief – the rare casual encounter that only accentuates his loneliness, the scenes that start as though they will become sex scenes and turn into rejection of one sort or another, and Marlowe’s own dalliance with and rejection of commitment in The Long Goodbye.

    And Nicko, while going to the toilet is a routine action, sex in stories rarely is. If the character goes to the bathroom and finds himself in the throes of food poisoning, describing his ordeal becomes immersive rather than gratuitous. And even then, food poisoning is unlikely to provide as important a plot point (unless it had some deliberate cause) as the change in relationship between two characters brought on by their having sex.

    However, while withdrawing from the character’s head as he is reaching a heightened emotional state can be jarring, depending on how detached the author has been from the character up until that point, attempting to describe the scene in too much detail is even more likely to lose the reader. For all the meaning we attach to it, sex is faintly ridiculous, and particularly so to British sensibilities. Giving the reader time to think about this is undesirable.

  48. dhex says:

    As a writer, I see no function in describing the act of sex, nor do I see a purpose in its depiction if you have a narrative to attend to.

    naked lunch?

  49. Kieron Gillen says:

    I’m tempted to argue the opposite: I can’t think of a work of art that couldn’t be improved by a bit more fucking.

    KG