Once again, it’s time for us to discuss the representation of sex in video games. As the average gamer age keeps gets older with more and more games being designed with adults in mind, and as gaming strives to find its place next to film, television, and music in the mainstream with more mature subject matter, we are probably going to start seeing more and more sexual situations in our video games.
In the past, this has been a bit of a sore subject, largely due to the public’s bizarre notion that any amount of horrific violence is good times for all ages, but a little bit of virtual lovin’ is going to warp the fragile minds of our children. Here in the present, it’s still a sore subject, but the focus has turned towards the inequity present in gaming’s roots as a pastime for young males. That is to say that positive non-hetero, non-male representation in these situations is often lacking.
With consensual sex being the pleasurable polar opposite to the unpleasantness of violence on the scale of real life social interactions, it’s baffling that in the virtual realm the roles have somehow been reversed with sex being seen as unpleasant and senseless violence a preferable pastime. But that’s a discussion for another time.
When I say “sex-positive gaming” I mean normalizing sex in a manner that portrays sexuality in a light that is desirable and/or relatable for mature adults within video games. So constant mindless barrages of bouncing anime girl boobs in your face and naked slave girls chained to walls desperate to show their gratitude to your big strong hero: not the object.
Contrary to popular online opinion, the answer is not to cover up all female characters in burkas and refuse to ever show them in a manner that could be construed as attractive or desirable lest an admiring male gaze shall be upon them. If people didn’t sexualize one another, none of us would even be here. Sexuality is the most natural possible thing, so let’s get out of the habit of demonizing it in the name of impressing internet strangers with all of the intellectual delicacy of Donald Trump and Hulk Hogan discussing race relations.
Instead, let’s embrace this biological/emotional necessity and genuinely delightful part of the human experience by learning to make games that celebrate sex as a (nearly) universal human experience while respecting those involved at the same time. These are the rules gaming needs to get on board with if it’s going to wash off the sleazy sheen of sexism and push the medium forward into the present.
Once upon a time, girls played with dolls and toy ponies, boys played with military action figures and video games, and straight people assumed homosexuals were just doing it to piss God off. But these days grown men are openly worshiping My Little Pony, gay marriage is the law of the land, and women are carving out their section of the gaming market.
In order to make gaming’s transition from cartoonish violence for young boys to respected interactive storytelling art form, we can’t get by servicing only vanilla preferences. We’re definitely seeing a lot more diverse LGBT representation in modern games than back in the day when Final Fight was pointing out that the women you were beating to death were transgender, so the inevitable march of social progress is not passing us by, but we’ve yet to see it catch on the way it has in film, music, and television so there’s still miles to go. BioWare has arguably made more strides than anyone else in the modern era and The Sims series normalized same-sex relationships years ago but most devs haven’t jumped onto that bandwagon just yet.
That’s not to say that every game needs homosexual romances and a transgender protagonist, but with interactive entertainment becoming increasingly immersive and offering players more and more options and more realistic and complete worlds to explore, it’s important that companies keep in mind that gaming can and should be for everyone and as such, there should be representations that reflect the diverse world we live in. That’s not “SJW shit”, that’s just properly servicing your customers. And in the spirit of eliminating long-standing gamer stereotypes…
Know Where the Line Between Tongue-In-Cheek and Creepy Is
Video games can be a great way to enjoy the ridiculous and sublime in ways that wouldn’t really be advisable in real life, but are fun in digital form. The occasional ironic, self-aware suggestive pose or sex-tinged satire is good times, but sometimes when it’s slammed into your face often enough, the ironic can quickly become earnest and gamers can seem like slavering creeps to anybody unfamiliar with these tropes.
Bayonetta’s sex kitten act is an ironic caricature right down to her oral fixation and is juxtaposed with her insanely ass-kicking personality to strike the right balance of having and eating cake. On the other hand, taking a character like Samus Aran, a Master Chief-like character most recognizable in her awesome power armour, and portraying her more and more in her skin-tight Zero Suit (as in “zero left to the imagination”) is definitely altering her image for the worst. As a game-ending slice of eye candy: good times. As her new default appearance begging to be leered at: unnecessary and distracting. Or taking the female characters of Dead or Alive and crafting an entire subseries based around collecting increasingly skimpy swimsuits, participating in extra-bouncy minigames, and gawking at them while they sunbathe. Really, gaming?
It’s cool to have a giggle at the occasional moe character or sex bomb presentation complete with gratuitous booty shot, but that should never be a constant thing. When a joke is repeated too often, it ceases being funny and just becomes an annoying trope at best and downright creepy at worst. And if we want more people to respect gaming as a medium and be willing to give it a try, we need to tone it down a little and grow up a bit. Which brings us to our next point…
Portion Control is a Must
We humans do enjoy a bit of eye candy, but just like regular candy, it’s not healthy to gorge yourself. I’m a big fan of exploitation films, but I’m not really going to enjoy a film that is just wall-to-wall T&A and genre cliches. Compare late night Cinemax to old Roger Corman movies, for example. One is a fun romp of sex, violence, and foul language and the other is just fap material for desperate people with no internet.
Don’t populate an entire game with nothing but scantily-clad female stereotypes moaning and flashing their panties all the time if you don’t want to look like a goon. Just like a movie can’t get away with 20 minute fake sex scenes and be taken seriously even as light entertainment, gaming needs to learn that a constant bombardment of sexual imagery limits its appeal and murders any attempt at genuine character development and atmosphere.
And just like in real life, half the fun of sex is in the anticipation and the spontaneity of the moment. Only an adolescent should feel the need to constantly stuff their eyes with cleavage and yoga pants. A little mystery and a few surprises beat constant in-your-face sexuality any day. Even if your only opposite sex interactions are with your 2D waifus, it’s got to feel a little condescending to have them constantly set on ten. Dial it back a little and make the characters a little more believable, yeah? And while we’re at it, let’s pollinate our minds with the following mantra…
Equality, Equality, Equality
You may have noticed that I’m focusing on female representations here. Well, name me a mainstream game where men are portrayed as hyper-sexualized….. that’s right, keep thinking. Again, I’m not against sexualizing some characters. We’ve got no shortage of real live people who enjoy playing up their own sexuality and there’s nothing wrong with representing those people in-game. And as much as some female internet dwellers may pretend to be above such base vulgarities as sex appeal, we’ve all seen Fifty Shades of Grey and Magic Mike‘s sales numbers. Money doesn’t lie.
Speaking of which, Hollywood films and network television know the value of a nice six pack, as evidenced by any number of handsome male leads whipping their shirts off because why the hell not. And yeah, the ladies like. So where you at, gaming? Japan has its otome, but that niche is a tiny one stateside with all of Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi and Hatoful Boyfriend to choose from on consoles. Plus, women (and men who swing that way) shouldn’t have to settle for visual novels about dating pigeons to get themselves some interactive romance. Game devs should want to tap into this market, and as male gamers we should want the women in our lives to love gaming as much as we do, if nothing else. There isn’t really a downside here.
One approach to a sex-positive game could be found in Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed. While it definitely toes the line between funny and creepy (what with the combat being based around publicly stripping clothing off of your foes and all), it does do a pretty good job of being equally pervy towards its male and female characters with its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. It both celebrates and pokes fun at the ridiculous images that otaku/gamer culture puts out in the name of adolescent fantasy and give both male and female players ample opportunity to let their freaky geek flags fly in a judgement-free environment. If you want to put a wallpaper of a blushing elderly man in his underpants as your in-game cell phone wallpaper, get on with yourself. You may not get another opportunity.
And really, that’s the whole issue with sex in gaming. It’s been too one-sided for too long and it’s understandable that women would want in and desire more and better content for themselves in the games. Just like a lot of men fear an imaginary dystopian future where every game is aimed at women -which will never happen since the male base is extremely established and going nowhere- a lot of women are hesitant at best to support an industry where nearly every single game is aimed squarely at men. It will cost us almost nothing to make gaming better for everyone, and the upside is massive. Once we clear that hurdle, maybe, just maybe, we can all stop being so uptight about sexuality in video games and create an environment where more of the mature, sex-positive games we as adults deserve to play can get made.