How Video Games Address Intimacy

I wasn't expecting to delve deep into the video game industry's sexcapades. Not until I came across the spicy Sims mod, WickedWhims, and thought, "It is sort of odd they refer to it as 'Woohoo!'" You would think a life simulator would address sex a tad more frankly. However, in the context of the game industry, The Sims' silly handle on coitus makes sense. It's 2023, and developers are still grappling with how to depict and talk about sex.

However, the industry's attitudes and actions result from decades of inconsistent performance. Don't get me wrong; video games have included sex since their early days. After all, the medium did rise to prominence in tandem with the golden age of pornography. In the early ‘80s, video game company Mystique published several crude pornographic games for the Atari, with titles as subtle as Beat' Em & Eat' Em!

As you would guess, Mystique's games reflected the sexism and racism of the era. For instance, X-Man (Not a Marvel reference) features a pixelated sex scene where the protagonist mounts a woman as his reward for escaping crabs in a maze (weird). However, the most notorious was Custer's Revenge, a title that tasked the player with sexually assaulting an indigenous woman.

Has the gaming landscape improved much since then? Sure, we've had the ESRB step in during the nineties. But, the rating system has fostered spotty censorship. For example, in the early 2000s, Rockstar Games skirted the ESRB entirely and hid the notorious "Hot Coffee" scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Another industry peer, God Of War, featured a minigame where Kratos services nameless courtesans. However, rather than display sexual acts, the game implied enough with a cartoonishly rollicking nightstand (and that was under the ESRB's radar).

Granted, I'm not assessing whether sex should get featured in video games. Considering sex is a normal and natural part of human life, I think it should. I'm evaluating how. The previous examples share several problematic themes in their depictions:

  1. Sex is a prize to get claimed, regardless of consent.
  2. The focus prioritizes straight male fantasies and pleasure.
  3. Camp or novelty depictions of sex get favored over more nuanced portrayals, often with BIPOCs, women, and queer people as the punchline.

For such a mature subject matter, these themes reek of a childish prudishness stemming from a lack of sex education.

If you're reading this thinking, "So, what? These games are almost twenty years old," I wouldn't fault you. The public discourse regarding race, gender, and sexuality has evolved significantly. And several games show us how the industry is stepping up to the plate.

One indie game of the past year has done exceptionally well at finding that sweet middle ground that frankly discusses sex without delving into the pornographic: I Was A Teenage Exocolonist. This game covers puberty's 'icky' parts with remarkable grace and honesty. Experiencing your protagonist's first wet dream, watching your trans bestie adapt to HRT, or listening to your tomboy gal pal gripe about her period all feel relatable. Furthermore, a Content Warnings menu guides players and families through every theme in the game.

And for players looking for spicy moments without degradation, some triple-A titles are knocking it out of the park. Dragon Age: Inquisition's Sera/Qunari sex scene proves that sex can be silly and campy without harming others. The Last Of Us Part 2 gives Ellie and Abby genuine sexual agency, leading to hot moments of shared intimacy.

Unfortunately, we're living in a period of intense culture wars. As new, progressive artists steer gaming into a more inclusive, sex-positive realm, an old guard perpetuates sexual violence from behind the scenes. In the past few years, several studios have come under fire for blatant sexism, racism, and queerphobia in the workplace, including Ubisoft, NetherRealm, Riot Games, and, of course, Activision-Blizzard.

Furthermore, toxic gaming culture still breeds in the dark corners of the internet, where alt-right ideas funnel from internet forums into Counterstrike voice chats. In many cases, this rampant gamer aggression leads to severe real-life consequences, like when GamerGate supporter David DePape assaulted Paul Pelosi, husband of House Representative Nancy Pelosi.

So, how can we improve depictions of sex in gaming and free the medium from its toxic roots? Several experts have provided us with effective remedies.

In a feature for The Guardian, games writers Holly Nielsen and Kate Gray advocate for "good writing, good characters." So often, the best sex scenes in gaming result from robustly detailed stories that respect their lovers rather than objectify them.

Robert Yang, an erotic game developer focusing on queer history and civil rights, advocates for more clarity from censors and media platforms. In his appeal to Twitch, Yang asks for communication with creators when one of their games gets banned, a formal appeals process, and new categorizations for "artistically sexual games that don't function as pornography."

Lastly, communications and media professors Rabindra Ratan, Cuihua Shen, and Dmitri Williams advocate developing an "upstander culture" in online gaming. They state, "next time you encounter gaming toxicity; something as simple as "don't be toxic" can go a long way."

In short, art is a reflection of life. Therefore, the art of video games will embody its creators and the culture surrounding it. If we wish for more healthy, honest, and fun portrayals of sex in gaming's future, we need to confront and dismantle the oppressive ideologies of our past.

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