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Sex in Videogames, Part 1: Seduction

September 15, 2000
 

For the last eight years, I've been employed by Electronic Arts in one capacity and another, most recently as a lead game designer at Bullfrog Productions, EA's UK subsidiary. But at the beginning of September, I cut loose at last - became an independent design consultant, at least while I'm looking for another job in the UK. So what's the first thing a newly-minted design consultant does? Hies himself off to the nearest trade show and hands his business card to all and sundry, that's what. In my case, this was ECTS, the European Computer Trade Show, held annually in London in the autumn.

Problem was, when I got there, I couldn't get inside. There was a big crowd bunched up just inside one of the doors. Eventually I slithered through and discovered the source of the logjam. It was a booth for a company selling a product called Erotica Island, and the booth staff seemed to consist primarily of very fit, very tanned young women in bikinis. They were all having their pictures taken by a large number of goofy-looking guys, with whom I doubt they would ordinarily be seen dead if they weren't being paid for it. One of the women handed me a flyer as I went past, but it wasn't until just now, sorting through my mountain of trade-show junk, that I turned it up again. The game, if it is a game, seems to be some sort of strip/sex show featuring animated women drawn in the manga style. No men, as far as I could tell. The flyer suggests it will be pretty explicit, but I don't believe everything I read in trade-show flyers, either.

Erotica Island is definitely not my cup of tea, but the incident got me thinking about the larger issue. What about sex in computer games? Not just scantily-clad Amazons running around with guns, but real sex. Should we or shouldn't we - and if we should, how?

Well, to start with, it's obviously not a great idea politically. Most of the game-playing countries in the world have outright censorship in place even if, oddly enough, their populations are generally less uptight about sex than America's. The United States, on the other hand, has the fabulous First Amendment, which is supposed to prevent censorship… and a very vocal, active group of people who are doing their best to make sure that we, the interactive entertainment community, are not covered by it. At the last Game Developers' Conference, Doug Lowenstein, the head of the Interactive Digital Software Association, said something really scary: three Supreme Court justices are due to retire during the next administration. I don't know how he knows this, but Lowenstein is paid to be politically connected and I'll take his word for it. That means that whoever we elect this November is going to have a profound effect on the way the First Amendment is interpreted for years to come.

Erotica Island is definitely not my cup of tea

Of course, with the candidates we've got, we're really between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there's George W. Bush, a Republican. For Republicans, there's no safer political bet than cracking down on corrupt pornographic filth. The GOP is starting to realize that there's more than one opinion about guns, abortion, gays, and affirmative action, but nobody stands up for porn. On the other hand, we've got Al Gore, the husband of Tipper, the woman who took on the music industry over the issue of potty-mouthed rap musicians and won, sort of; and Senator Joseph Lieberman, the game industry's bête noir. Lieberman's not the monster he's often portrayed as by infuriated gamers, but I don't think we can count on Al and Joe for any support, nor to appoint any First Amendment stalwarts to the bench. Whichever way we vote, we probably lose.

Now throw in the recent Federal Trade Commission finding that, just as the tobacco industry pretended its products weren't intended for kids and then aggressively marketed to them anyway, a number of game publishers' documents show that they have been deliberately targeting their M-rated games at kids. I'd say that pretty well describes corporate hypocrisy in a nutshell, and so we've just given ourselves another black eye. The bottom line is that the political situation is looking pretty grim for us game developers, and now is not the best time in the world to be turning out sexually explicit video games.

However, there's bound to be somebody or other who will do it anyway for the sake of a quick buck, and there's not a thing in the world we can do about it. So let's set aside the political question and look at it from a design standpoint. How would one tastefully incorporate sex into a computer game? Very few games actually have sex in them - the industry is much, much more circumspect about sex than they are about violence, at least in America. Planescape: Torment had sex in it, but it was purely optional. It took place off-screen and it consisted only of sordid transactions with prostitutes. Besides, the game made sarcastic remarks about you when you did it.

Planescape: Torment had sex in it, but it was purely optional.

It seems to me that there are three ways that sex can be made a meaningful part of a game: seduction, sexual activity, and dramatic significance. I'll look at each of them in turn. I should add a disclaimer here that I know almost nothing of gay sexual mores, and I'm only going to talk about heterosexuals from here on.

Seduction

Seduction is one of the great human games. It's the subject of countless legends and works of fiction and is intertwined with all kinds of other political, social, and religious thought, especially in the west. Eve's act of offering the apple to Adam was seen by medieval theologians as the original act of seduction and proof of the innately corrupt nature of all women. (They came up with a clever dodge to excuse the Virgin Mary from this charming generalization.)

Men who play the seduction game with flair and success are called "womanizers," and they are publicly disapproved of while being privately envied and admired, at least by other men. Women who play the game with flair and success are called "sluts," and they are disapproved of even more, though not without a certain wistfulness on the part of men who would secretly like to meet them. Because seduction, especially by men, often involves some kind of misrepresentation, it's seen as sleazy and distasteful.

I know of two games that have been about seduction - sort of. One was the wildly popular Leisure Suit Larry series, which actually took that sleaze and made it part of the game, with humor and good cheer. Larry was a loser on the make and we all knew it. No one could possibly take the games seriously; they were obviously a joke, and barely even an R-rated joke at that. Light-hearted and silly, they were quite popular with women in spite of their subject matter, which suggests how inoffensive they were.

The other game I know of was a completely odious little title called Man Enough. It was rejected by Electronic Arts, though I believe that someone picked it up. In Man Enough, you (a man, of course) were trying to convince one of three women to sleep with you by choosing the right conversational gambits. This was done by selecting one of three lines to use in the usual RPG/adventure game fashion, and then observing the woman's response to help you choose the next line, and so on. It wasn't a text game, though; in addition to her reply there was a photograph of the woman showing her reaction - smiling, puzzled, angry, etc. The production values were terrible. This romantic fantasy seemed to be taking place in a tackily-furnished suburban home, and the women were often too close to the flashgun, which caused white spots in the pictures.

The worst thing about the game, though, was the dialog - the lines they gave you to say. You didn't sound like a suave and attractive seducer; you sounded, as one review put it, like a ham-fisted drunk trying pinch the hostess at a cocktail party. I suspect whoever wrote it didn't actually date much himself. And just to top it off, there were weird mini-games built into the storyline. One of the women wouldn't respect you unless you were able to beat her at - get this - paintball. Well, I suppose it must be someone's notion of foreplay. The game was non-explicit, incidentally; you went to all that effort to seduce someone via paintball and the game modestly closed the curtains when you finally succeeded.

As I see it, there are various difficulties with seduction in computer games. The first is the sleaze factor. If seducing someone is made a goal, a victory condition of a game, then it necessarily means that the player has to try a variety of approaches before he succeeds. He can't be himself, he has to be what the game wants him to be; to lie, or at least misrepresent himself as something he's not - in short, a sleaze. I suppose it could be used to teach adolescents good manners while on a date ("Oops! You talked about yourself all night - no phone number for you!") but that's not very interesting. One possible workaround is to design it in such a way that, like a good dungeon master, the game rewards role-playing in character. The seduction only succeeds if the player chooses actions or words which are in keeping with his avatar's character.

Real seduction, though, involves a thousand subtle variables that - for the moment - we can't begin to simulate. A coy smile or a roguish twinkle at just the right time are far beyond the capabilities of any computer game - heck, they're beyond the capabilities of a lot of flesh-and-blood actors. Seduction in a computer game would have to be based only on conversation and larger-scale, less subtle actions, and therefore it isn't really going to seem like seduction, more like just another puzzle to solve.

And that, of course, is the biggest problem of all: it's necessarily mechanistic. At worst, it could give people the erroneous impression than obtaining sex is just a matter of being manipulative enough; that one can interact with a man or woman as with a piece of software. In any case, it certainly has nothing to do with real sex. Sexual chemistry is not a matter of clicking on the right menu item. Think of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, or Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman.. There's nothing mechanical at all in those smoldering scenes. They're about pure desire, emotion unfettered by logic. That's what makes them magic. Superimpose a mouse cursor over them and the magic goes away.

You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together - and blow.


Seduction can be incorporated into computer games, but only in a coarse, clockwork sort of fashion. I have two suggestions about this. First, if you want a seduction scene, make a non-interactive scene. That way you can give it real sexual power without diluting it with clicks and icons. Second, if you simply have to include an interactive seduction, make it optional, not a required part of the plot. That takes away some of the goal-orientation, which reduces the sleaze factor a bit. If it happens, it happens, but it doesn't have to happen.

I'll talk about actual sexual activity, and the dramatic significance of sex in the next part of this article.

Attention friends and fans: as I mentioned above, I'm no longer working for Electronic Arts, but now an independent design consultant. That means that 1) after all these years, I'm finally free to talk about EA and its products, which I will start to do in future columns, and 2) I'm on the lookout for work. If you have any design work to be done, large or small, give me a call. Also, if you have a design and would like a critique, I would be happy to help - for a fee, of course. Send E-mail to ewa@earthling.net if you're interested.


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