Gaming

On The Depiction Of Sex & Nudity In Video Games

ScreenCritics Sam explores the controversial depiction of sex and nudity in video games, and how the media has vilified its mature representation.

Issues surrounding the depiction of sex and nudity in video games has certainly come under scrutiny from many publication boards and media outlets. As a medium on par with the visual storytelling assimilated with film and to an extent, audible through music, sex seems to be a bit more taboo in gaming – perhaps in direct relation to the interactive aspects of it. So what makes it stand out more in video games than any other medium? Getting down to the root of the controversy is a winding road with several implications that warrants a deeper study and understanding of gaming in the mainstream eye.

The first depictions of sex and nudity in video games began at a time long before 64-bit gaming actually gained traction. In 1982, Japanese developer Koei released a highly controversial erotic computer game titled Night Life, which was the first true instance of a graphics-based video game depicting sex and nudity. The Atari 2600 later saw the development of a lesser-known video game called Custer’s Revenge, which depicted its main protagonist, General Custer, raping naked Native American women. This came at a time when video games were largely geared towards children, and the reveal of an 8-bit naked woman being sexually assaulted by its main character certainly pushed the boundaries of taboo themes in gaming.

With the progression of technology came a much higher pixel resolution and more detailed graphics that would showcase sex and nudity in games in a more purposefully provocative light. While newer consoles improved graphically, the core of the argument still remained a very controversial subject; gaming was still mainly a child’s means of entertainment. A little while after the release of the powerful graphical capabilities of the Nintendo 64, PlayStation and PC graphics cards did we really see a spike in the demographic of gaming, shifting to young adults and beyond. This meant developers could tackle more mature stories and content in their video games – ones not bound by the limitations of entertainment for children any more.

Despite the controversy surrounding sex and nudity in games at the time still being a hot target for news outlets and media publications on the dangers of mature content exposure to children, titles like Sierra’s adult game Leisure Suit Larry, which followed the journey of a man on his sexual escapades, broke into the mainstream spotlight and further enforced more counter-measures to be taken. The ratings system would be implemented as a result, where mature content in games could be controlled and filtered through a ratings board before mass distribution.

The main question still remains a debated topic concerning sex and nudity; does it actually contribute to the experience of the game itself? I’d like to focus on a few key mainstream games that walked that fine line. Namely, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the astoundingly controversial “Hot Coffee” mod that whipped the media into a frenzy in the mid-2000’s. In the sexual mini-game, players could engage in explicit sexual acts with their digital girlfriends that existed in the game, often with them inviting you in for “coffee” before activating it. This was removed by Rockstar before the games release, but it didn’t stop PC players from hacking into the encrypted files and discovering that the mini-game actually remained in the coding.

The mini-game wasn’t accessible through the console versions of San Andreas, but PC players could easily download the mod and re-activate it if they desired. Despite the game already carrying a Mature Rating and mainly out of reach of children, the media still attacked the game, citing it as “dangerous for children”. Once again, this was due to the misunderstanding of the media largely failing to understand the ratings system in place that deemed it almost impossible for children to walk into a retail store and purchase it without the consent of a legal parent or guardian. This didn’t really help the case either as parents blindly bought the products anyway, later blaming the developers. Call me cruel, but the ones at fault should partially be the parents. This only stoked the fire for the media to quickly label “mature” games as inappropriate for kids (to which I reply… no shit), and took to vilifying gaming without any understanding.

But considering the overall themes and gameplay style of the Grand Theft Auto games, was a sexual mini-game really jarring at all in the context of the series? After all, this was a video game that allowed players, if they so choose, to engage in sexual acts with hookers and kill them, or even visit strip clubs. For a child’s mind, it was certainly a cause for concern if they were exposed to this, but if the ratings system failed to bring to light the restrictions of a game, it wouldn’t spell a bright future for mature content in gaming. At least for a media that turned a blind eye to it.

I’d like to shift attention to The Witcher and Mass Effect series – both games that, for the most part, depicted sex and nudity within the game as either integral parts of the plot or purposefully included to capture the setting and placement of its characters. The Witcher series, with the backdrop of Polish fantasy and lore, focused on the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a “witcher” (or in other words, prestigious mutant monster hunter) that wandered the fantasy world helping people in need of his expertise. To remain accurate to Polish lore, the games included sex and nudity through various brothels Geralt could visit or seducing other female characters, proving to be vital to the plot progression and character development.

Mass Effect, however, played it a bit less on-the-nose. Due to a dialogue tree that would affect the players progression and decisions to the plot, they could also build relationships with side characters that usually resulted in sexual cutscenes. These came under scrutiny by the media as well as they weren’t entirely central to the plot, but were rather seen as unnecessary sexual side-plots that would otherwise be detrimental to the experience for children – and considering the mature content, not just in sex and nudity but also themes and narrative, of both of these titles, there wouldn’t be much fulfillment for kids anyway.

To get out of the rut that the media has unfortunately painted for video games as primarily geared towards children – a study that has proven false today as the main demographic for video games are teenagers and young adults – we first have to grasp the purpose behind its depictions. In the cases of the aforementioned games, they do serve a greater purpose besides mere eye-candy. As long as gaming continues to tell more mature stories worth investing in, they shouldn’t be constrained to the misunderstood image that the news and media so wholeheartedly attack them for. In the same way film ratings are in place, gaming shouldn’t be treated differently, but celebrated for its bold steps forward towards a wider spectrum of players and developers that want to see sex and nudity as integral parts of a game, and not feel personally victimized for something others fail to comprehend.

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