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Interview: Developing Sex in Games

November 15, 2005
 

Sexual content in games has come to the forefront of video games news more than ever in the last few months. The “Hot Coffee” debate, sparked in June of this year with the discovery of hidden graphic content in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, has raised disputes across the country, and left politicians and parents alike up in arms. Now a new wave of controversy is hitting the game industry in the form of government legislation.Yet, in the midst of this whirlwind of discourse and worries, few people are turning to the men and women who know sexually-themed games best - their developers. These professionals can offer valuable insights into the creation and intention of sex content, as well as the related misconceptions on the part of the gaming community and society at large.


Brenda Brathwaite

Brenda Brathwaite, a 23-year veteran of the video games industry, has worked on 21 published titles, including most recently Cyberlore's Playboy: The Mansion. She is also the founder and chair of the International Game Developers Association's Sex Special Interest Group, which has as its goal the welcoming of “all developers actively creating or interested in the development of adult sexual content.” The SIG also aims to promote discussion about the adult content development community, and “the unique issues, challenges, possibilities it faces.”

Sex - A Special Interest?

Said Brathwaite on the importance of the new group, “Developers of sexual content have issues that other developers just don't have. For instance, in most offices, pornographic content on a screen would be a reason for dismissal, not reference material for animations. That's only the tip of the iceberg.” Other issues make developing sex, and publicizing it, tricky business. “Developers of AO content are hampered by distribution and marketing problems, are regularly attacked by censors and out of respect for others, can't discuss the design or development challenges they may be facing in open forums.” As a result, “up until last year's GDC and the formation of our SIG, developers of sexual content were pretty isolated.” Now, however, “the SIG is bringing them together... to share ideas.”

The timely appearance of the Sex SIG may seem to suggest that it was created in the wake of this summer's controversy, yet Brathwaite clarified that was not the case. “Many people think it was in response to 'Hot Coffee,' but we were already well underway when that hit.” Instead, the group's actual origins are based in the desire for discussion. “At the 2005 Game Developers Conference,” said Brathwaite, “I hosted a roundtable called ‘Sexuality in Games: What's Appropriate?' I'd recently finished up Playboy: The Mansion, and while working on that game, we had a lot of questions about sexual content in video games that we couldn't get answers to. There was no reference material and no body of games to look back upon... By hosting the roundtable, I hoped to get developers of M- and AO-rated sexually themed games together to discuss the topic. I left GDC with a pile of business cards.”

Barriers To Entry

Despite the unity and support of the SIG, adult content developers are still facing plenty of obstacles. “There are places where I'm looked at differently when I talk about my role with the Sex SIG or work on Playboy: The Mansion,” Brathwaite noted. Of course, the largest threat to the free development of sexually-themed games is censorship. “I am incredibly against censorship of video games for any reason,” said Brathwaite. “While I agree with the intent of the laws – to keep sexual and violent content out of the hands of minors – the actual implementation of the laws is flawed in so many respects. This issue is a confusing one, and legislation is a drastic solution.”

The fault, therefore lies not so much with developers, but with consumers. “Parents need to accept their responsibility... Legislate away, but it won't fix the problem.” As for the current wave of political interest in sexual content, Brathwaite feels “the ESRB system works... Parents get it. Kids get it... I think they're doing a good job. Legislators, on the other hand, cry that the ratings aren't working. In every case, the “fix” that legislators recommend actually confuses things terribly. Read the text of these laws. They're absurd,” - just as absurd, remarked Brathwaite, as “punishing an entire industry and treating its output as different than that of any other artistic medium.”

Indeed, in many ways sexual content and its development are not unique, despite commonly-held misconceptions. “There is this natural assumption that sexual content equals hardcore and that's not the case at all. Like anything else, there is a range... from kissing and flirting to hardcore sex, and developers don't need to have the whole range in their games.” Continued Brathwaite, “Like any other form of content,” there's a time and a place; “it works best where it naturally fits.” As with many other types of gaming, “the key to a good sexual game... is allowing the player freedom of choice and expression.” Adult content in and of itself is nothing new. “Sexually graphic game content is just the latest expression in a long, long, long line of such expressions. Every new technology – printing press, photographs, telephone, television, computer, Internet, VCR, video game – has become a means of showing sexual content. Though the technology has changed again and again, the sexual content is pretty much the same as it's always been.”


Playboy: The Mansion

A Cornucopia Of Content

In this respect, video games have much in common with other art forms. “Every medium enjoys a range of content from kids to adults and that's just fine. You have Highlights and Hustler, Mother Goose and A Clockwork Orange, The Wiggles and Eminem, Tom Hanks and Ron Jeremy... Our medium is no different.” Brathwaite pointed out, “The ‘issue' that video games have is one of perception. Those who get most upset about it are upset because they perceive people are putting sexual content in video games that are aimed at kids, and that's just not happening.” At the center of the problem though is the fact that, “somehow, when it comes to video games sexuality got set to ‘bad.'” Besides, claimed Brathwaite, "sexual content is no more or less interactive than real life... In fact, at this point, I'd say games are a lot more tame than what happens in real life.” Even the development process, “isn't as different as you might think.”

Sex games, however, are affording some new opportunities in gaming communities. Unlike many other video game genres, sexually-themed titles often encourage participation from sexually diverse gamers and open sexual exploration. “Not only is there a place for it, it's actually a reason many such games are developed. They allow players to experiment with sexuality in a safe way.” In addition, though Brathwaite admits the vast majority of adult content is developing with straight men in mind, certain games offer chances for crucial female involvement, such as “MMOSVGs and cybering in MMORPGs,” where there is a “strong female player presence.” Brathwaite noted, “In many cases, the MMOSVGs are actually being developed by women.”

Conclusion

In the end, despite stigmas and misunderstandings, responsibly placed sexual content is thriving, and IGDA's Sex SIG is helping it to do so. It may take politicians and parents time to understand the role of adult content in video games, but, as for the industry itself, said Brathwaite, “The response has been exceptionally and overwhelmingly positive.”

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