Every Sunday we offer up an article from our archive, either for you to discover for the first time or to get acquainted with all over again. This week we present Rich Stanton's look at sex in games, originally published in 2012.
If you only play one game today, make it Sepe's Cumshot. In this you control a disembodied hand and stimulate the penis of a man called Sepe. The poor thing starts off limp, but stroke it a little and see what happens. As you work it more furiously, Sepe's cock engorges with blood, and his body hulks up. He's loving it! You can finish him off yourself.
Sepe's Cumshot is a funny game - and a big part of that is how your wrist is moving like it would during male masturbation. By that critical measure of how closely the mechanics and theme intertwine, Sepe's Cumshot is probably the best sex game ever made. But you could hardly call the competition stiff.
Sex in games is generally dreadful, and some of the time it's outright nasty. But these days there's more than ever before. For western developers it's a topic either avoided or incorporated unconvincingly. For indie devs it's less taboo, so smaller 'sex' games tend to be more original. And what about you, the player?
According to the mainstream you're male, for a start: the vast majority of video game sex is man on woman in that order. That bias has to be seen in the context of society's own mores and realities, but in games it seems especially pronounced.
Studios like BioWare are leading the movement in the right direction by allowing sexual relationships between characters regardless of gender. And as far as the grinding mannequins go, Mass Effect's relatively classy. Its sex is presented in very short cutaways focussing on partial body shots with no jiggling, though the lighting and music are terribly cheesy. Mass Effect largely alludes to sex rather than showing it, with the closest it gets to naughty a few bums and orgasm faces.
It's impossible to imagine that scene turning anyone on, yet this led to the game being described as "Luke Skywalker meets 'Debbie Does Dallas'" by Fox News. This controversy's interesting because it was manufactured: there's nothing to Mass Effect's 'sex', not even a pair of genitals. Yet it had a clear impact on Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, where the characters get it on while wearing underwear.
This is one of the reasons mainstream games have been so tame up to now. Whenever the gutter press decide it's time for a video game scare then sex and violence are the preferred topics. And in their eyes, one particular game combined the two like no other.
You can't look back on Hot Coffee without realising how absurd it was, and how one aspect of it kept sex out of games for years. Even though the incomplete mini-game couldn't be accessed without altering the original software, the ESRB re-rated the game up, from Mature to Adults Only - a disaster in America, as most major retailers don't stock AO games. Rockstar was forced to patch the PC game and re-issue the console versions.
Hot Coffee was a simulation of sex where both characters are clothed that you can't even access without modifying the original. What Rockstar faced in response to this was the American right at its most unreasonable and outraged. A smaller developer might have crumbled. You cannot predict or control that kind of reaction: who would invite it?
In this context, and especially considering the budgets involved in mainstream development, it's no wonder the big games are unusually light on the sexual act itself. Regardless of the media, sex is still a largely taboo topic where the boundaries of public acceptance are constantly in motion and vary by region: CD Projekt's The Witcher had a US release that removed all full-frontal nudity. E3 bans sexual content from its show floor. Such factors are not insignificant: what's the point in developing content that only a fraction of your audience might ever see?
Thank god for the internet. Mainstream games are one thing, but there's a whole underclass of games with sizeable budgets dedicated to having virtual sex. In form and function, most are simple MMOGs that feature explicit sexual animations. 3D Sex Villa 2 is typical, offering a visually impressive client (in the context of its genre) but leaving no ambiguity about its target audience: "F**k horny cyber babes" is one of the charming lines from its homepage. There's even dodgier stuff: Ripened Peach Sex Sim (urgh) works on micro-transactions where you buy girls and other enhancements. The pubic hair chooser is currently 55% off, so get it while it's hot.
3D Sex Villa 2 also supports the most cringe-inducing feature sex games currently offer - what is known as a 'sinulator'. This is a sex device that links up to the PC that can either be used as a 'controller' for single-player games, or controlled remotely by another player. Sadly I am a virgin when it comes to sinulators, so here's a first-hand write-up.
Each to their own, but the concept behind these dedicated sex games is banal - meeting places with basic avatars, pornographic stylings, and the queasy option of plugins. I'd prefer a chatroom. Such coarse convention is the underlying problem that mainstream video games have to confront. Bluntly, people often confuse porn with sex. And as an adjunct to this, games tend to treat sex literally - that is, for something to be sexual, we have to see sex.
There have been other approaches. The Copenhagen Game Collective made the Dark Room Sex Game which used Wii remotes - the whole thing only lasts a minute (ho ho) and you have to see and hear to understand how it works. That is a virtual sex act between two consenting adults.
There are simply too many indie games about sex to track, but needless to say there are endless pages of simple flash games that offer dubious pleasures. Most are one-click affairs, some are funny, all are absolutely dreadful. I followed one link to video game-themed flash games, however, and struck gold. I'm going to withhold the link because it's gross, but the description says everything: "Sexy Juri Han from Super Street Fighter IV fights naked with her [REDACTED]. She rides hard and good as she [REDACTED] her [REDACTED] against the big [REDACTED]. After third round, click on the question mark, and Juri will start singing Ke$ha's Tick Tock."
These games are obviously trash. The more serious small stuff treats sex as a potential mechanic or theme rather than one specific act. This can go from Edmund McMillen's The C Word, a grotesque shooter that brought its creator a lot of criticism, to something like A Closed World by the GAMBIT MIT Singapore Games Lab, a short RPG about sexual identity. The upcoming Polymorphous Perversity is a retro-styled RPG where you can have sex with pretty much anything.
There's one more factor to sex in games - what Brenda Brathwaite, author of Sex in Video games, terms 'Emergent Sex'. Brathwaite references phenomena like World of Porncraft, a site that exists because Blizzard won't allow sexual content in World of Warcraft. So the users who want that, go there. The earliest example of this is also the proto-MMOG, MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), which gave rise to the term Mudsex, specifically referring to roleplayed virtual sex.
Emergent sex includes things like nude mods and those crazy sites with Sonic the Hedgehog porn (really), but Brathwaite's point is simple: people want sex. And as social games become more normalised and a part of people's lives, more will want the option of virtual sex. The most interesting thing is how only one mainstream virtual world has incorporated detailed sex into its universe, and it was all driven by the players.
I once spent a few days in Second Life, and though the time wasn't especially enjoyable there were definite highlights. Second Life allows sex, but regulates it - limiting the deed to private clubs and rooms. The most hilarious fact about Second Life sex is that the avatars have no genitals. Players have to buy some (and there's a brilliant PC Gamer article about it).
The whole thing seems ludicrous, but I am the foolish one. Sex in Second Life was and still is a major part of its economy. As Tiffany Widdershims, a Second Life brothel matriarch, said during the virtual world's heyday: "One learns a lot about the truth of human nature from charging guys to pay for cartoon sex, and then watching them flock to it. 99% of people will tell you that they are against pornography, and yet it's 40% of online activity. The whole thing is pretty ridiculous, really."
That's a point. Sex is the most natural thing in the world, and the reason you're here. Both literally, and because you were interested enough to click through. But we don't talk about it in video games, or often in real life, in anything but the most generalised and softened terms.
I don't want more sex in games. But I think the whole way we consider the topic is wrong: in mainstream games, at least, sex more often than not means clumsily-animated dolls at the end of a subplot in the mission structure. That circumstance will only change with a breakthrough.
Perhaps Catherine, released last week, is one: a deep meditation on commitment, lust, and the consequences of adultery. The sex in it mixes gruesome and soft-core styles to unsettling effect, but it's the confusion and conflicting impulses of the main character that strikes a chord.
That's something. But until a game like Catherine is a huge hit, mainstream developers are hamstrung by circumstance. Cultural and legislative differences will always be a problem, the solution to which is making content more ambiguous and bland. And so sex in games, the representation of the act, is extremely unsexy.
There is something furtive about video games and sex - a shyness, you could call it, or perhaps simply it's a fear. Video game sex goes for serious, and ends up ridiculous. We snicker at the lame setups, corny dialogue, the soft plink-plonk of piano music in the background - and most of all at the idea someone, anywhere finds this arousing.
But if history, and Asia's huge interactive erotica market, show anything it is that sex sells. Sex is the number one interest of the human race, and every medium is fated to try and capture it. It feels like something that's never been done right, but who knows how long it will take for a game that changes minds. For now, we have Sepe's Cumshot. If you fancy a challenge, beat it.