Tuesday, March 22

On Interactive Sex

Sex has been a great point of controversy in games, for what is basically their entire existence.  Naturally, it has been the point of controversy in other media as well, but those seem to have gotten past it.  Music, TV, movies, books, have all had their turn in the hot seat.  Right now, it’s gaming’s turn, and so far the general output of sexualized content in games has been mostly unhelpful.
How did we ever think THIS was a bad idea?
The trouble first really started in 1982, with a game many of you may have heard about, Custer’s Revenge.  For those of you with too good of taste to have ever looked to deeply into this thing, you play a crudely rendered General Custer who must make his way across a field bombarded by arrows so he could rape a Native woman tied to a cactus.  The Angry Video Game Nerd has done a review of older sex games, which is equal parts funny and educational, so I encourage you to check it out.
Since Custer’s Revenge though, games have endeavored to show sex in a more enlightened fashion.  There are, in fact, a large number of games with sex in them, such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Heavy Rain, God of War, etc.  These are all mainstream titles, and they all depict sexual activities, but only one was ever really called out for it, Mass Effect.  People complained about it being a porn simulator, but of course never saw what happened, or what the scene consisted of.  God of War was much more terse with its lone sex scene, and it was primarily there for a bit of extra experience and a re-tutorial on the Quick Time Events.
Before I get into the real discussion (strap in, this may be a long one), I want to pull a quote from Extra Credits, done by Daniel Floyd, James Portnow, and Alison Theis.  You can find a link to their videos on the left.  Specifically, I’m pulling this from their “Sex in Games” episode.
“… actually playing a sex scene will almost always feel gratuitous, the simulacra of that act just naturally destroys immersion.”
I think I understand where they’re coming from on this issue, but I don’t think the quest for making immersive, interactive sex is a wasted endeavor.  The first time we see sex in a movie is awkward and throws one from the experience, as is the first sex scene we read in a book.  However, all other media have managed to get past that first hurdle.  It could be that gaming, and the necessity of interaction, are what make it difficult, but I believe it can be pulled off.
The game I’ve played that got the closest to an interactive sex scene is Heavy Rain.  I know some people are loathe to call it a game, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.
Makes me want to write an article
about the Uncanny Valley.
Heavy Rain plays out with a control scheme specific to each situation the player is in.  There are various prompts that appear and the player chooses one to perform the movements of.  There is a scene about three quarters through the game where two of characters make out and enter a sex scene.  Or can, I haven’t seen it not happen.  You control your character right up to the point where they actually begin having sex.  For all its faults, this game is wonderfully immersive, and I think the control scheme is one of the better methods by which we could experience interactive sex.
I’m sure there are some people who are now asking the question of why we’d want to experience sex like this.  As I never stop saying, video games are about experiences, and should endeavor to bring the gaming audience the widest variety of experiences they can.  Sex is an emotional, primal, and fundamental part of human existence.  To deny its translation as a gaming experience would be, I believe, a profound loss for the art.
As for the place of sex in stories, it’s been on my mind a lot lately.  When a character has sex, that says a lot about them.  The why, the when, the how, that’s important to them.  Do they get emotionally involved?  Do they avoid relationships as much as possible?  These are more than questions about sex, these are questions about relationships. 
These questions help define a character, and the way they interact with others.  Often, it reveals a side of a character others do not often get to see.  For instance, in Dragon Age Origins, you can get a character in your party named Zevran, a very sexual character, and provides a sexual partner whether your character is male or female.  Zevran is a man who takes a very casual approach to sex, and often hits on the protagonist, leading the player to believe that having sex with Zevran will be consequence-free.  Later, the player find out that there is more depth to Zevran’s character.  He actually does become fairly attached to the protagonist, and will take it quite hard if the protagonist decides to end their relationship.  When this happens, he seems genuinely betrayed and seems, if only for a moment, to regret his choices regarding his sexual lifestyle.
Another point that I’ve found to be very effective is the implication of sex.  For instance, in Persona 3 and 4 there is the heavy implications of sex when the player completes that character’s Social Link.  Chie, happy together,” along with a voice over from that character.  I find, though I’m sure other people don’t, that this implies sexual intimacy between the characters, and makes their relationship so much more affecting.
Are you that shocked?
This is a game in which you can buy babies.
Alright, the last thing I want to talk about is the interactive sex that already exists between players.  For instance, playing the Sims online, or in Second Life are able to have their characters perform sexual acts with other characters.  In Second Life especially, they are able to even create specialized areas the are Sadomasochist dungeons, where players will go to role-play less conventional sex.  This is at least a step in the right direction, as it does acknowledge that sex is possible in games.  The sexual acts performed may not be perfect, or necessarily look realistic, but it’s clearly enough for the hundreds and hundreds that already play.  There are lots of things to learn from online games and the relationships people naturally develop in other settings, even one with few real consequences.
It is from the relationships of real people that we can create believable and real relationships in games, and I believe that those relationships will be able to go as far as any real one.  It may take some time, and it will take endurance on the part of the audience, the want to last through the first awkward shambling steps we take.  But if we can take our time, and give the first attempts the constructive criticism they need, we make it through the controversy that arises, and come out the other side with a vastly matured medium.


  1. What do you think is the major thing holding back the natural integration of sex in gaming? If we can manage to get past the uncanny valley in terms of graphics, what kind of implications will it have?

  2. I think the major thing holding us back is our control methods. I'm a big fan of the Xbox 360 controller, and I find motion controls like the Kinect very interesting, but I don't think either is configured well enough to simulate sex in a way that isn't awkward for the player. If I could think of the control system best suited so far, it would be in Heavy Rain, but even that's not quite enough. I don't think motion controls are the future for interactive sex either, especially not with a lack of force feedback.
    As for getting past the uncanny valley, it will do a lot to lessen the awkwardness of those scenes. For instance, I always really notice the uncanny valley when characters hug or kiss, especially not hyper-stylized or cartoony characters. The make-or-break point for me in Avatar was the kiss between the CGI characters, because I'd never seen it done well. And in Avatar, it was. If we get past the uncanny valley and onto the other side (the canny hillock?) then we can increase emotional response to the near-human looking characters and let the player fall into the act, without throwing them out of the experience.
    As a related note, look up the special methods being used to create Rockstar's next game, L.A. Noire. There's some amazing (and amazingly expensive) technology at work, and I think it's a big step in the right direction.