I’m not anti-sex, video games just suck at not failing at it

One of the charges that routinely gets hurled at me is that I’m a sex-hating prude that hates sex in games and thinks that people who put sex in games are just the worst. Which is pretty ludicrous, but it’s the lowest-hanging fruit of dismissive criticism aside from “she’s crazy”, which means it’s something I hear a lot. For a lot of people, it’s easier to attack the messenger than it is to engage with the message, especially when the message is openly critical of something that you like.

However, it’s also true that about 99% of the things that I write here pertaining to sex and female sexuality as they are portrayed in video games are harshly critical. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since writing my last post, because Bayonetta is a character that you really can’t write about without examining how her sexuality is portrayed and how that portrayal is actively harmful.

Sex in videogames: seriously, why is it so bad?

The reality is that as a medium, video games are 10-15 years behind other art forms in their portrayal of female sexuality[1]. That’s not to say that the rest of art and pop culture get it right – there are still an awful lot of terrible things to be found in movies, comics, and television. But there are also a wealth of examples of non-video-game pop culture in which female sexuality isn’t demonized, punished, or objectified[2].

As for video games…? Even after wracking my brains, I was only able to come up with a handful of games with totally positive portrayals of female sexuality, and even then half of those had caveats:

good_depictions

Although romance has been a staple of the Final Fantasy series, it’s been pretty much void of sex, with the exception of that not-a-sex-scene-that’s-still-totally-a-sex-scene in FFX. Which is a shame, because as much as Squeenix fails at costume design, their writers are really top notch at writing believable female characters who are a mix of strong and vulnerable and everything in between. And despite the fact that they didn’t technically have sex, I thought X’s not-a-sex-scene was a really touching portrayal of Yuna and Tidus allowing themselves to be mutually vulnerable to each other. (And you will never convince me that they weren’t totally having sex offscreen and that the music montage was just some epic afterglow.)

BioWare is a better example in that its sex scenes are actually sex scenes, although this hasn’t always been the case. While Dragon Age: Origins takes the cake for the BioWare romance I found most compelling (I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, but my female warden fell for Alistair so frigging hard), the fact that the designers chickened out and rendered all of the sex scenes with characters in their underwear really bugged me. It actually felt more objectifying than the Mass Effect series’ sex scenes, which were underwear free, just because at least Mass Effect wasn’t specifically calling attention to people’s junk.

Still, ridiculous underwear aside, BioWare has done really well in their portrayals of female sexuality. There are women who are lesbians, bisexual, hetero, and cheerfully ambiguous. They have women who just want casual sex, women who are after romance, and women who aren’t really sure what they want. And none of these women are presented as wrong, or as being punished for their sexuality. Even better, there’s no difference between how sex scenes are handled between FemShep and BroShep. No matter who you play, there’s real tenderness there.

And sure, there are missteps. Like Morrigan’s blatant and stereotypical sexuality, or Jack with her ridiculous nipple straps and her MaleShep romance option of fixing her with sex, which I just find really terrible. (Seriously, feminists get told all the damn time that what we need to “fix” us is a good dicking, so I find that trope particularly offensive.)

But beyond Final Fantasy and recent BioWare titles, I was stuck. An informal straw poll on Google+ yielded a few more like Saint’s Row IV (which I haven’t played) – a notable example that was put forth by several people. (I’ll admit to being surprised.) Gone Home also came up, as did The Sims[3]. ..aaaand that was about all any of us could come up with. Sadly, it seems AAA game studios (that aren’t BioWare) simply don’t have a clue how to write sexual content that doesn’t exist to solely to objectify female characters.

Not that that should come as a surprise. 88 percent of game industry devs are male, and it’s been well documented that harassment for women in the industry is pretty much a given. (Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Jennifer Hepler, Jade Raymond… the list is very long and very depressing.) Much as we think of games as an interactive medium, interactions have to be programmed. Every interaction has to be scripted and its potential outcomes defined, and the people doing that programming are largely white and male – and all of that is happening in an environment steeped in misogyny and brogramming culture.

Is it any wonder, then, that AAA games nearly always fail to deliver genuine portrayals of female sexuality? How can they, when the few women in the industry can’t effectively advocate for themselves, let alone for a fictional female character? So when AAA game studios try to include honest portrayals of female sexuality, the result is nearly always something like this:

So_romantic

Oof. Right in the feels.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sex in tabletop game design: an example to be emulated [4]

The conversation about how to handle sex at the table is hardly a new one in tabletop land. Of course, being a different medium, that conversation has resulted in different tools. Some of those tools can best be described as “safety nets” – tools to help people feel safe in playing through content that makes them vulnerable. I’m only going to mention those tangentially as a separate conversation worth being aware of; though if you’re not familiar with lines and veils  and the X-Card, you should definitely read up on them.

What I find more interesting, however – at least for the purposes of this conversation – is the different mechanical approaches that varying designers have taken to solving this problem of how to address sex in a mechanical way in ways that feel meaningful, without resorting to cheap stereotypes. While this is far from an exhaustive catalog of games worth considering, here are some games that explicitly include sex mechanics I have played and enjoyed:

1) Kagematsu – a game in which the sole male character (a ronin) is played by a woman, and all of the other characters are trying to seduce him with the purpose of convincing him to stay and protect their village. In playing this, I loved how it greatly inverted players’ default point of view.

2) Apocalypse World focuses on the consequences that result from sex, with custom sex moves that only take effect after characters have sex, and with varying results, depending on just who it is that’s doing it. (And let me tell you, things get real interesting when it’s two PCs having sex.)

3) Much to my regret, I have yet to play Monsterhearts as anything other than a convention game. Still, Monsterhearts is a fantastic game for exploring themes of emerging sexuality – queer or otherwise – and the confusion that this can cause. As an Apocalypse World derivative, Monsterhearts has sex moves. However, it’s worth noting that a Monsterhearts-specific move lets all PCs make rolls to turn someone on – the person targeted is either turned on or not as determined by the dice.

Of course, the main thing that all of these systems have in common is that these are systems that aren’t exclusively engineered to model violence. Violence is definitely a large part of Apocalypse World, because hey – apocalypse. But Apocalypse World is also designed to model relationships, sex, fucking, psychic horror, and general social dysfunction. Monsterhearts does include harm (damage), but that’s far less central to the system than the mechanics modeling relationships, obligation, arousal, and sex. And Kagematsu doesn’t even have any violence mechanics at all! Kagematsu’s rules focus on modeling affection versus desperation, and about the most violent thing that players can choose to do mechanically is slap Kagematsu – which doesn’t leave any lasting effect, aside from the effect on what he thinks of you.

These sorts of mechanics lead to sex that feels messy and vulnerable and real. Sex that can feel fun or fraught; romantic or deeply unhealthy or even both; complicated and wonderful and meaningful. And the mechanics drive that story!

The best example I have witnessed of this is actually something that just happened in an Apocalypse World campaign that I’m part of. My character and another PC had been “circling the drain” (as I had previously described our relationship), with sex as an almost-inevitable conclusion that we somehow hadn’t managed until the end of our most recent session. And when it did finally happen, I was so very excited because of this little rule on my character sheet:

quarantine
For those of you familiar with AW, it was my Quarantine and the Hocus. Yes it was just as messed up as it sounds.

And let me tell you, knowing that this was a move that was going to come into play, the rest of the players were super invested in the scene! There wasn’t any phone-checking or side conversations, because the Quarantine sex move is so goddamn sweet in a post-apocalyptic world composed almost entirely of awfulness! Which is how this happened:

loved-oh-snap

And then the rest of the scene happened, and it was great and we moved on with our lives. It wasn’t until later that it really struck me that people had reacted as if we were playing D&D and I’d just rolled a one-shot on a dragon, which just goes to show why I love Apocalypse World so very much. It is absolutely possible to get player investment and excitement in things other than death and violence!

The problem is that the complete lack of these sorts of mechanics is where the majority of video games run into problems. The majority of AAA video games are violence simulators, with a couple other sub-systems thrown in. And that’s not to decry their worth as games – I’ll admit that I find using Adrenaline’s slow-mo effect in Mass Effect to line up a sniper rifle shot through an eye-slit in a riot shield immensely satisfying! But when 90% or more of a game’s mechanics revolve around various flavors of how to kill things, it shouldn’t be surprising that portrayals of female sexuality wind up as hollow retreads of awful sexist stereotypes.

Even BioWare games, which I feel generally handle female sexuality pretty well, rely on an incredibly shallow sub-system slapped on top of their violence simulator. If you do things a, b, and c and say things x, y, and z – you can accumulate enough points sleep with a woman, so long as the option has been programmed to allow you to do so. Their very sophisticated script-writing obscures the fact that the only design that has gone into modeling character relationships is a simple system of one-time bonuses and penalties, hidden behind pretty graphics and clever dialogue.

And as a game designer, I just feel like we can do so much better! Yes video games are a different medium with different constraints than tabletop. But tabletop designers have been learning from video game design for years. Maybe it’s time for video game devs to start looking at tabletop systems for solutions to the problem of how to use mechanical systems to drive satisfying stories about sex and relationships.

Sadly, until that happens I think the best we can expect is a thin veneer of romance on top of games about killing things and taking their stuff.

[1] Worth noting, that I’m almost exclusively writing about cisgender female sexuality here, simply because of the dearth of examples available to me.

[2] Granted, those examples are almost always indie-affiliated. But that’s a different conundrum.

[3] Which I wouldn’t have thought of, since the Sims don’t have any character beyond what the player constructs for them. But at the same time, any punishment of female Sims for having sex comes entirely from the player and not from the game. And given that having recreational sex is an entirely different option from having procreative sex, the mechanics are pretty darn feminist.

[4] I’m going to speak specifically about indie tabletop design, mostly because that’s the type of game that I play and the type of games that my friends design. That’s not to say that there aren’t games outside of Indie Tabletop Land that might not also provide positive examples.

26 thoughts on “I’m not anti-sex, video games just suck at not failing at it

  1. Sims 3 is actually the reason I ended up having the “where do babies come from?” talk with my six-year-old – I managed to get through a second pregnancy without actually having to elaborate on HOW the daddy puts the baby in the mommy, but she wanted to know how to make her sim pregnant and I figured it was time.

    As for feminist games . . . I know it’s not a AAA title, but I really loved the portrayal of sex and sexuality in Magical Diary by Hanako games (a female designer, incidentally). It’s essentially a Hogwarts sim – your character goes to a school to learn magic – but there’s actually a specific talk given by one of the professors about sex, consent, and boundaries, as well as a talk on gender identity (invisible spirits don’t split into male/female, apparently). There’s no actual sex in the game, but it’s not some secret forbidden thing. I’d highly recommend giving the game a try if you’re curious – it’s on Steam for pretty cheap and it’s worth at least one playthrough🙂

    • Ah, another Magical Diary fan! All the feels ~~

      I totally second Hanako games, and recommend Christine Love. These two women write female characters extremely well and endearing. In fact, they just write great stories!

      Don’t listen to troll, they’re obviously, well, a troll. If you think games are about violence, FPSs, and killing everything in sight, well, I suppose you wouldn’t like these developers. For everyone else, check them out!

  2. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll mention it again, but I think Crusader Kings 2 would be well worth your checking out. The game is a master class of emergent narrative, the characters interact in such beautiful unexpected ways all the time, even if all you see in game is portraits, traits, event text and some relationship numbers.

    • [Deleted. Though I appreciate your reframing the comment to be more civil, eugenics is completely tangent to the issue of positive portrayals of female sexuality.]

      • Yeah, you can do a lot of really awful things in CK2. A LOT(forced conversion, murder of children, holy wars, forced concubinage, etc). Anyone who has played the game for more than 1 hour will have done at least 5 of them. But really? This is the level of discourse we’ve gotten to? Really?

  3. [Fair warning. I have stopped giving any fucks and am just straight-up trashing gross comments now. If you think that’s unfair, too bad. I’m hanging on to all these glorious fucks and not a single one shall be given unto you.]

  4. Final Fantasy XIV strikes me as another. There is sexualization of both men and women… while the women are MOSTLY the dancers in Ul’dah (desert city of greed, death, and turning “blood into gold”), there is a case of a limited time event with women there who I can best describe as being “booth babes”… and it’s pretty obvious that’s what’s going on, except there’s the fact all of them aren’t just working for the miners but all have mining equipment on like a pickaxe on their back.

    For men, it’s not as regular, but on the other hand, the cases I can think of are more in your face in cutscenes, like a catguy walking out in his underwear and lounging after you break into his hotel room.

    But generally, the sexuality feels a lot more even, and there’s more a sense of… agency there. I’m certain there have been more women that have hit on my woman PC than men. There’s a guy who is very much a horndog, but a generally nice one. There’s a woman who is totally going after a guy… to the degree that on seeing him, she hugs him to her chest, then lifts him up. And it’s pretty obvious her “reason” for being there is mostly an excuse to see him.

    We’ve seen clueless guys hit on women who aren’t interested. And I’m not sure the leader of Ul’dah isn’t romantically involved with her “mount” (her top general who is a BIG human guy that holds his arm up in front of his chest so she can sit on it). I mean after a bit of betrayal, she runs crying into his arms.

    I’m not going to say it’s a perfect game, but at least the women feel strong and awesome. I mean, every single one of the main three nations is run by a woman, and two of those are also the leaders of that nation’s military as well.

    In short, I think games CAN do better, and I hope that comes sooner than later.

  5. First time commenting here!

    I get a confusing feeling with some videogames. For example, I like The Witcher games, but I think sex is absolutely innecessary in them. It makes me uncomfortable.

    In the first The Witcher game, sex with female NPC’s was rewarded with collectible cards. And in The Witcher 2 you could skip the scenes, and that was OK, but some were inserted into the gameplay, and had nothing to do with the story or anything at all. For example, in one cinematic you enter a room and two female characters are having BDSM sex with each other, in a rather noisy way. You know, just so nobody “misses” what’s happening.

    The developers from CD Projekt Red said that sex is a natural part of life and will continue to be featured in The Witcher 3 and, of course it’s a natural part of life, I’m not even discussing that. But I do dare to question if it’s necessary in any way or if it has some narrative value at all.

    Check the comments section on any The Witcher 3 trailer on YouTube… you’ll see lots of fanboys wanting a threesome in the next game. Is that the kind of customers they want? Really?

  6. In terms of RPGs, I would totally check out Black and Green games. Shooting the Moon, Under My Skin, and Breaking the Ice are about romance in the way that most games are about combat.

    • Emily Care Boss is a shining example of brilliance and human decency, and I regret that I haven’t had the opportunity to play more of her games. But yes, not mentioning her as someone who does fantastic work with games that portray relationships was a failing, so thank you.

  7. I have to ask, what’s the point of those sex mechanics in Apocalypse World? I’m not even sure why you’d need to roll dice instead of just role-playing, unless you’re rolling not so much to ask, but to get some kind of special benefit for it, beyond what posing a question might reasonably result in. Sorry, I’ve never played it before and this just really baffles me. The only sex-related mechanics I’ve ever used in an RPG were for penis size (shut up, we were twelve at the time!) and chance of pregnancy depending on race

    Wish I had something to add to the conversation, but I generally don’t play games involving sex, so I can’t think of any examples that do it well. I’m also a bit of a prude, so my solution’s pretty much to just drop sex altogether (romance is fine, but let’s keep it m/m), which I can’t imagine is too helpful

    • Okay, so this is a great question, but I want to disclaim that I’m speaking COMPLETELY about my personal play preferences here and not from a place of What is Feminist vs What is Not Feminist.

      Myself, I really like roleplaying games that include sex! It makes things messy and compelling and emotionally charged, and if I’m playing with a group I trust, it can be really fun to immerse myself in a character and pretend to fall in love (or lust) with someone. But like anything, I recognize that’s a play preference and not everyone would agree. (Some people DON’T like sex in games – and I would totally support them in pursuing games that didn’t involve sex!)

      The thing I like about having a dice-driven mechanic in Apocalypse World is that it raises the stakes for having sex with someone and makes the outcome unpredictable. Going into that scene, I was really hoping I would roll high, because I wanted the scene to be romantic and sweet. And I rolled great, and it was, and it was awesome! But the narrative consequences would have been equally fascinating if I’d bombed the roll and the sex wound up being weird and awkward and made the relationship more distant. Knowing that was a potential outcome raised the stakes and made the scene feel more compelling.

      And, you know, YMMV and all that.

      • Restricting player agency like that just seems completely antithetical to what I think of when I read/hear “roleplaying game”. I’ve known for awhile now, though, that people no longer limit the term to descendents of free kriegspiels. We really need more labels to avoid confusion (I can think of a few that would more correctly be called STGs)

        “… if I’d bombed the roll and the sex wound up being weird and awkward…”

        I think half those questions would produce the same result :p

        • As a big fan of Apocalypse World and derived games (as well as some other games with social mechanics) I’d say the a big advantage of these rules is that they allow for social conflict and other mechanically supported social interactions while maintaining agency. The way they tend to work is involves asking questions, offering incentives like XP, making threats, maneuvers that put people at a disadvantage etc.

          When well crafted, these sorts of rules can be far more compatible with player agency than hit or miss or margin of success skill systems with a smattering of social skills. Even when a move is successfully used on your character, you’ll generally have a choice of how to respond that ensures that the move is still meaningful but gives you a way out, even if it’s a painful one.

          They certainly aren’t for everyone and some of them are story telling games. But I think the Powered by the Apocalypse Games and also a lot of the Luke Crane games (Burning Wheel and such) are still games where you can do a classic approach of playing your character and pursuing their ends to the hilt rather than going about it with a mindset of telling a story. Just as there’s advantages (and disadvantages) of having rules for a high stakes battle, a high stakes negotiation or even a fraught meeting between a broken up couple can benefit from rules support.

          All that said, I think they all tend to be more setting specific than combat rules necessarily are. Getting it to work with agency depends on exploiting the social context of the environment, so you’ve got to find setting and themes that work for you.

          Anyhow, I’d love to see that sort of thing worked into more video games, for all the reasons listed in the article and also because they can be way more interesting than dialogue trees or the gift based relationships.

        • Please refrain from dragging the “storytelling game vs roleplaying game” RPGPundit nonsense here. Thanks!

            • I’m not trying to be nasty, I just think the attempt to reframe certain types of RPGs as “not really RPGs, but story games” is generally a red flag, as well as usually either disingenuous or concern trolling. I’d like to see this blog remain a safe space from that kind of thing.

  8. The first game I played with romance options was Baldur’s Gate. They’ve come a long way, but they’re still so linear. Mass Effect does a great job. I remember on my second play through being confronted. One character demanding I choose, the other shrugging her shoulders, not worries about the prospect of sharing. There is so much room for improvement though, and treating the social sim elements like a side to combat mechanics won’t allow for it.

    The bottom line, for me, is that sex should be part of that social game. Not the goal, not the conclusion, not the freaking point.

    You also had me thinking back on the first Witcher game. I enjoyed that game, but there was an obvious clash with the female characters. They were diverse and strong with various motivations and flaws, but the developers took that and dressed them up as sex toys, making a stupid collecting game about it. If I could seer away the ridiculous delivery, I think it could have been one of my favourite ranges of women out there.

  9. Oh goddammit, ten years iv had that FFX, finished it five times and i even studied international film, and NOT ONCE did i notice it was a sex scene. I suppose teenage me must have just have glazed over it once the soppy music kicked in:/

  10. Personally, I think this is matter of laziness. I understand that design demands severe simplification, but you know that you can’t sell stuff you found in just any shop, because there are written rules stating how the shop work. There are no such rules concerning social behaviour (and this is actually a good thing, but the way), so one must use information found in the immediate surroundings and fiction, such as books, movies and, well, games.

    Of course, any point-based solution veers dangerously into a ‘score x to score’ territory but that’s just peachy provided the system is sophisticated enough to resemble any coherent and probable human interaction. Also, there is another thing I noticed in most, if not all games that use such themes. Sex is a prize for playing your card right in, pardon the crass pun, one hand rather than night of poker. What I have in mind is that when there is a ‘sexual interest’ for a player, he or she usually starts more or less neutral, remains so for majority of the game (or, in extreme examples, until the end of the (sub)plot) and then it moves to the sex scene. Which means that there is no ‘romance’ option, just a ‘perfunctory sex’ option or ‘infatuation ex machina’ option. There is almost no elaborated middle ground – breaking the ice, checking ground, exchange, closing ties, companionship, friendship, sorge, agape, eros and all the fancy foreign words in between.

    This is a dangerous move, as it may perpetuate popular juvenile notion that the friendship between man and woman is impossible because it inadvertently becomes sexually charged and so, when you PC and NPC are of different sex, this might lead to the notion that people of different sex are no good for a friend or professional companion and given that majority of players are young males prone to power fantasies (and thus choosing male characters) this might have unpleasant consequences indeed. This can be (and, judging from reaction I meet, often is) successfully glossed over with ‘unisex romance’, where developers can always say that sex of NPC doesn’t matter (and thus, cant be abused), because the reactions of NPC do not depend on PCs sex or orientation). And just to make my point clear – I don’t criticize the convenient bisexuality of characters. I simply don’t like the possibility of abuse their lack of sophistication gives (and it’s ‘lack of sophistication’ as in ‘flat/unidimensional’ not ‘simple-minded’).

    This is especially jarring in any game presenting a large ensemble when one could feasibly implement such a complex system to get the player an opportunity to seek romance with one NPC, friendship with another and meritoric agreement with yet another, showing the whole spectrum of possible interactions both between PC and NPC and between NPCs themselves [1]. But to do so, one would need to give the characters a real, more or less adult personality (if the PC/NPC is an adult, that is, but of we’re speaking about sexual dynamics, it better should be) and introduce situations where PC could show his or her character traits for NPCs to observe and react. And this is not a simple task. Its is much more difficult that throwing in another clichéd dialogue or combat sequence.

    Sure, you can argue that there is no time to cram all the important stages of the interpersonal dynamics in the action packed game, but then again, if something is not worth doing well, it is usually not worth doing at all. You make a game for kids? Then the sexual content is not for them. For teenagers? Well, then you should show them how the relationship might work (not a absurd thing nowadays, with idiocies like ‘friendzone’ and whatnot flying around the internet). For adults? Well, make something complex enough that adults won’t laugh off in the first place.

    [1] A short example – character trying to ‘romance’ more than one character could quickly get shunned by all of them (or all those intelligent enough to see it and storing enough to call PC on it) as a ‘cheating bastard’, thus ruining chances of successfully finishing ‘romance subplot’ and possibly losing an ability to unlock the full gamistic potential of the character (well, no one wants to go above and beyond duty when working for a selfish arsehole).

    P.S. As usual in such occasions, I would like to point out that the problems of sexism in games stems not from the fact that the industry is dominated by men. It is because industry is dominated by boys. Boys of unusual age if you will.

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