Sex is a natural part of most peoples’ lives. If it weren’t for sex, there wouldn’t continue to be people, so it’s important that sex is something that people continue to do and enjoy. It’s also a very private thing for most people, not something they share details of, so perhaps it isn’t that surprising that many depictions of sex in fiction are considered immature, unrealistic or just egregious.
What I find a bit peculiar is that fiction – be it in a novel, on a cinema screen or in the story of a video game (I’ll be focusing mostly (well, pretty much exclusively) on this last category) – seems to have violence pretty much down pat. Fiction allows us to experience violence and murder in ways that are sometimes considered distasteful, but perhaps just as often thought of as artistic and thought-provoking. These aren’t normal things in a person’s life, so why is it that representations and depictions of them have been perfected to a higher level than ones of sexual activity?
Weeeeeell… I have a bit of a theory about this, and I’m afraid it’s going to have to start with a bit of discussion about pornography. I promise this won’t become a regular topic (I’ve already discussed porn once for the Overthinker, albeit at a bit of a distance) but I think it is worth talking about here, so bear with me. See, I have a more general theory about the success of Internet pornography which I think might be relevant to other depictions of sex in the media.
What things do humans need? Well, there are a lot of things but the real basics are food, sleep and sex; that’s probably the triumvirate of fundamental human urges. Sex is a bit different from the other two because individuals don’t need to reproduce to keep themselves alive, but it’s nevertheless something that individuals of a species feel compelled to do in order to keep their genes going. It has one other distinguishing factor: for a person to obtain sexual gratification, they don’t have to actually have sex – if that doesn’t make sense, think about how you can’t survive just by thinking about food or sleep, but you can achieve a degree of sexual satisfaction… on your own, as it were. I don’t really want to go too much into the mechanics of the thing, but I think we all know what I’m talking about.
On a slight tangent which will become relevant shortly, the Internet is a useful and accessible thing which makes all sorts of commodities and information possible to view almost instantaneously without having to so much as leave one’s bedroom. Naturally, people find it very handy to be able to fulfil their basic needs in a convenient way; the Internet allows me to obtain food delivered directly to wherever I am simply by pressing a few keys. I could also order a mattress or something if I wanted to sleep better, or perhaps do some research on how to achieve a deeper sleep. Finally, if I feel like fulfilling that third need… well, I can do that too.
What I’m getting at here is that the Internet can be used for lots of things, but some of the most popular sites are those which help people to ensure that their needs don’t go unfulfilled. Food sites are booming, as are online supermarkets or takeaways; pages about health are always successful; pornography is enormously successful. I think there are probably two primary reasons that the parts of the Internet targeted at fulfilling sexual needs are so very popular: firstly, the need can be fulfilled without any requirement to purchase a product which would have to take time to be delivered. If I’m hungry, I need somebody to bring food to me. If I’m horny, I don’t have to wait at all for the thing I need to be immediately accessible. Secondly, food and sleep are readily available in all sorts of forms and places, while sexual gratification can’t be found as easily in a store. Even if I did want to go and buy a magazine or a toy or something, I’d have to pay for it and I’d have to be okay with people seeing me go into the place and pick out the thing – I could order online, of course, but why pay for something and wait for it to come when there’s so much free stuff that I could be accessing right this moment?
All of this is intended to go some way to explaining (my personal theory as to) why online pornography is so popular and so prevalent. It’s not in dispute that pornography has altered the public perception of what exactly sex is, what it looks like and so on, and (without citing any official research) I’m pretty sure that the demographic most affected by this altered image of sex is going to have an awful lot of overlap with the audience that most games are marketed towards. Certainly, I imagine that there will be a fairly big overlap between pornography’s audience and gaming’s if only by virtue of the fact that both sets of people share a predilection – or perhaps an aptitude – for the Internet and technology in general. That said, it’s starting to make sense that the image of sex presented in many games is… porn-like. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that other than that it’s a hyper-erotic depiction of sex which is designed in part to get away with as much as possible without falling prey to censorship and in part to give an often teenage audience a sort of semi-permitted glimpse into the world of sex. What I mean by that second comment is probably best illustrated by an example:
In 2007, the first Mass Effect game came out. I was thirteen at the time. Though I didn’t get to play the game for a while, a lot of my friends had it, and one of the main things they talked about was the ‘relationship’ feature. To hear them tell it, the system pretty much boiled down to ‘fill up a hidden meter until you get enough points to bone’: though the intention might have been to create stories with the relationships, the result was that people played through those relationships purely for the scenes. At least among my peers, who fell pretty nicely into the game’s target audience, nobody cared about the relationships for the value they added to the characters’ lives or the emotional depth of the plot; it was all about the payoff. Just complete however many missions, trigger as many flags to gain points and eventually you’ll get to see a little hint of sexy time. It’s not even as if the sex scenes were particularly revealing, consisting of perhaps a little bit of an underwear shot before a suggestive fade-to-black, but the fact that they were included in a product that anyone could legitimately own without fear of judgement – which is to say, accessible in a totally socially acceptable manner and not requiring illicit sneaky Googling – made them very exciting to the adolescent mind. The trick was, I think, that taste of the forbidden hidden within the mainstream.
Mass Effect may not have been the first game to include this sort of relationship system, but I seem to remember similar things suddenly becoming much more prevalent after its success. The Witcher came out in the same year, and also featured a mechanic whereby the player could be rewarded with pictures of sexy ladies if they completed certain quests. It’s sort of like earning your titillation, you know?
Even games that don’t include some sort of Sexy Time Mechanic in and of themselves will probably have been modded at some point, if there’s a community for it. The Elder Scrolls games are particular targets for this because they’re so popular among modders anyway, so it only makes sense that among a sea of possible mods there would be little islands devoted to making everyone naked.
To be honest, my favourite game that deals with sex is probably Saint’s Row IV, which might seem an odd choice. Its ‘relationship system’ is little more than a thinly-disguised mockery of the ones appearing in Mass Effect and such like; the player can pretty much just walk up to any of their companions and proposition them, which will result in either a very brief hookup scene or, if it’s Keith David, polite rejection. It’s a hilarious parody of the way other games have dealt with sex and relationships, and I almost think the super-casual way it allows the player to proposition any of their crewmates is a more realistic image than completing a particular sequence of tasks or gaining a particular number of points in some sort of relationship stat before suddenly… well, unlocking sex. It certainly doesn’t try to make it glamorous, nor does it treat it like a commodity that’s only available if you’ve completed the pre-requisite quests; the gamification is totally removed. I think I prefer ‘consenting adults just decide to have sex sometimes on a casual basis’ to ‘jump through hoops and you might get to see Miranda in her underwear’. It’s totally bizarre, and I never thought I’d say this about a Saint’s Row game, but it actually feels like the more mature way of approaching things.
As for why games can deal so well with violence when they’ve not really managed to nail sex (pun intended), I think that’s actually fairly simple. See, perhaps the most common thing that a game allows a player to do is to interact with a depicted environment, and this usually involves moving around a virtual space. Whether it be Mario jumping in 2D or that guy from Call of Duty shooting Call of Duty stuff in 3D (I know next to nothing about COD), a big part of gameplay is interaction with the surrounding environment. That said, one of the main functions of games is that they allow players to overcome obstacles and achieve objectives. What’s the easiest sort of obstacle to depict in a spatial environment? Well, platforming is the obvious one: run, jump, and otherwise move around in such a way as to reach the end of a set course. In that scenario, the obstacle to overcome is the environment itself. To spice things up, add an extra obstacle in the form of an enemy. How do we overcome this obstacle? Through violence, of course!
Violence is one of the easiest things for a game to include as part of its mechanics because it’s such a perfect combination of factors: it represents something to be overcome, thus giving the player a feeling of achievement; it can allow conflict to play out, thus making the story interesting; it’s intuitively matched to spatial interaction. Think of how puzzles were the most common form of obstacle in text-based games; that made sense because they were the form of obstacle best matched to the strengths of the medium. Same thing with violence and games which have a spatially represented environment. Sex, on the other hand… not so simple.
So what have we learned?
Well, violence is easy for games to depict, so they’ve got pretty good at it. Sex, on the other hand, is difficult for games to depict, but as they say, sex sells. It’s such an in-demand thing that it’s inevitable that games have decided they need to include it one way or another, but they haven’t got good enough at it yet to be able to do so in a really mature way. All of this is qualified with ‘in most cases’, by the way. I’m sure there are indeed games which do in fact include sex as a big part of their stories, and do so in an elegant and mature way. With any luck, that’ll be the norm before too long and we can all stop going on about it.