David Gaider, game designer and writer for Bioware, has a lot to say about sex. You may know Bioware as the Canadian game company that produced some of the most explicit sex scenes in any Western video game. Gaider is, in part, responsible for that.
Gaider’s talk on sex in video games is great. It’s 50 minutes long, but you can break it up into manageable chunks, and it’s well worth the time. Gaider addresses not only the nature of the sexual content in Bioware games, but also some of the underlying issues and complexities: gender representation, sexuality, sexism, and diversity. If we’re talking about sex in gaming, we can’t ignore these issues.
Note: For the purpose of brevity, this article will deal primarily with the Western (American, Canadian, European) game industry. We are excluding, for instance, Japanese dating sims. This topic will be addressed in a later article, however.
First of all, parents should know three things. First, practically no Western games contain explicit sex scenes. Bioware has arguably created more sexual content than most other game producers, and its sex scenes are far tamer than anything you might encounter on prime-time TV.
Second, parents should know that games that do contain explicit sexual content are not made for kids, not marketed to kids, and—in most cases—cannot be bought by kids without parental consent. The average age of gamers is 30. These titles are rated M for Mature. (This isn’t to say that young people aren’t playing these games anyway, of course.)
Third, not all sex scenes in games are created equal. The sex in the Mass Effect series is the culmination of a romance; players have built relationships in the game, and the relationships are realistic and positive. The sexual content in Grand Theft Auto V, in contrast, is misogynistic, has no emotional attachment, and is played for laughs or pornographic value. Parents might not want kids exposed to any sexual content whatsoever, but some games provide a far more positive representation than others.
Sexuality and LGBTQ Representation
Bioware is well known for its inclusion of same-sex romance options. Dragon Age II features four bisexual characters, though only one of them is explicit about his orientation (and then only if the player has chosen a male character). Many have praised the games for their positive representation of LGBTQ characters. Still, Bioware has endured a good deal of criticism from some gamers because of this.
Skyrim, Fable, and the Sims are all examples of games that include same-sex relationship options, but it would be a stretch to say they include LGBTQ characters. Mass Effect 3, on the other hand, depicts a man—the pilot Cortez—who is openly gay. This aspect of his character is important, but does not marginalize his story. (I will note here that quite a few Japanese games include openly LGBTQ characters.)
In his talk, Gaider points out that not all gamers who choose a same-sex relationship are gay themselves. Some simply appreciate having the option. Some may be exploring their own sexuality and identity in a safe environment. Regardless, positive representations of diverse sexuality are hard to come by in video games currently.
We’ve pointed out before the extreme lack of female protagonists in games, but the lack of representation isn’t limited to main characters. There simply aren’t a lot of female characters in games, and there are even fewer when we examine only playable characters. There are a couple of reasons for this: a) there aren’t many women working—or welcome—in the gaming industry, and b) too many industry leaders believe that “catering” to women will decrease sales, because “women don’t game.” This is an unfounded belief, of course, but it’s a tough one to shake.
It is true that games with female protagonists don’t sell well. One reason for this is that they aren’t given much of a marketing budget. Another reason is that they’re not all good games. Even if the marketing budget were adequate and the games were better, the number of female protagonists from major studios is so small, the statistics wouldn’t provide a valid example.
But…doesn’t sex sell?
Sexy vs. Sexualization
Sex does sell. Sexualization sells too, unfortunately. Games are some of the worst offenders when it comes to sexualization—the practice of portraying female characters as exaggerated sex objects. This does, in fact, turn many women off gaming. It also damages those who do choose to game—both in terms of direct abuse and in terms of self esteem.
Many games that do not include sex do include sexualization. Women invariably wear less than their male counterparts, and are often depicted as either sexually promiscuous or sexual victims. For more on the problem, check out Anita Sarkeesian’s video series, Tropes Against Women. The backlash Sarkeesian faced following the series demonstrates the direct abuse I mentioned earlier.
Thus, because women are associated with sexuality so often, the presence of women in games—both virtual characters and real female gamers—is also equated with sexuality. This is unacceptable on a number of levels, which brings us to the next fact of sex in video games.
Unfortunately, sexual violence is an issue in many games. Rape is a common backstory (not just in games, but in many media formats) given to female characters. Sexual violence is sometimes inflicted on the family members or love interest of a male character in a move called “fridging,” which aims to give motivation the character by killing off various women in his life. The Grand Theft Auto series is known for its depictions of sexualized violence against women.
To Wrap it All Up
I highly recommend giving Gaider’s speech a try. He is an accomplished speaker, and anyone who is interested in or concerned about the state of sex and sexuality in the industry will be inspired by his talk.
The best way to address sex in video games is to address sex in real life. It’s hard to say when a child will be exposed to sexual content, and gaming certainly isn’t the only place kids come into contact with it. It’s important to make sure kids know they can talk to their parents about anything they encounter. And again, not all video games are created equal. Some content might be too mature for a particular kid but acceptable in general, while other content might be unacceptable to a parent regardless of the player’s age. Parents should know what their kids are playing (and what their kids’ friends are playing), and discuss their concerns outright. Hopefully we can help with that!
This is the first installment of a series of articles on sex in video games. We will be examining the sexual content and the nature of that sexual content in various popular video game franchises, including Grand Theft Auto, Fable, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Sims, and more.
Stay tuned for more in our Sex in Video Games series.