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Sex in Videogames, Part 3: Dramatic Significance
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Sex in Videogames, Part 3: Dramatic Significance

November 21, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

Sex doesn't provoke wars or topple empires nowadays, but its capacity for causing trouble is still pretty staggering.

In the earlier parts of this column I wrote about other aspects of sex in videogames: seduction and explicit sexual activity. In this one I want to look at the broader role that sex plays in our lives, and how that can translate to computer games.

Sex is one of the most important forces that motivate human beings. Unlike most other animals, we are capable of sex, and interested in it, whether we are fertile or not. Sexuality plays a social role for humans beyond simple reproduction. It helps to cement the bond between mates, but it can also break it. All human societies place some restrictions on sexuality because if they didn't the result would be social chaos, but attempts to over-legislate sex are usually failures -- all they do is drive the proscribed activities underground. Powerful, unpredictable, and resistant to reason, sex is most noticeable in history as a destabilizing influence. It's seldom an organizing factor; it doesn't work that way.

Games, especially simulations, tend to have nice, neat rules: maximize the right variables and you win the game. If you introduce a destabilizing influence, you risk frustrating the player. What we do instead - all too often, in my opinion - is to create an extremely complex interlocking system of variables, and the player's challenge is to figure out how they interact. Randomness is played down, and experimentation - trial-and-error, to be blunt about it - is encouraged. Such games reward people who have a large amount of time to play and a particular kind of analytical mind. They don't reward people who are looking for a few minutes' fun. (This issue is further addressed in an earlier column of mine, Casual versus Core.)

The unpredictable nature of sexual relations may lead to frustrating situations for developers and gamers alike.

So is sex too big a random factor to include in the plots of computer games? If your best naval captain falls in love with a lady on shore and suddenly starts finding a lot of excuses for keeping his ship in port (and believe me, this was once a real problem), is this going to drive the gamers nuts? I think the answer is, not if you tell them in advance that it's a possibility. Wargame players don't object to unexpected bad weather, as long as they know that it's a possibility and can prepare for it. Role-players don't object to randomly-generated monsters; they're part of the rules of the game. Why should they object to love affairs? There are plenty of popular games that have large random factors: Monopoly and poker and backgammon and Tetris, for example. As long as people understand it, it's an enjoyable part of the game.

More importantly, the effect of sex on people's lives isn't really that random. We may not know exactly who is going to click with whom, or when, but the consequences can often be guessed. Isabelle and King John's meeting was sheer coincidence, but John's behavior was in keeping with his character, and anyone could have predicted Hugh the Brown's reaction.

Sex is, of course, a staple of soap opera plots -- who's doing it with whom, and who else knows about it -- just as violence is a staple of action plots. Given that most games are still about action and not relationships, I don't think sex is going to replace violence as the principal element of most M-rated games any time soon. But in spite of that, sex is too important to for us to go on ignoring. It may play a less vital role in politics than it once did, but it still profoundly affects the decisions people make, and the reactions of others.

This is something we just don't see in computer games. Even The Sims, which comes as close as any game I've seen to simulating meaningful sexual relationships, skirts the powerful influence that sex has on people's feelings and actions. Bella Goth, the neighbor in The Sims, is famously free with her favors, but her wronged rivals don't try to settle their scores with a double-barreled shotgun or even a merciless divorce attorney.

Is sex too big a random factor to include in the plots of computer games?

The motivations given to computer game characters are extremely simple. Greed, lust for power, revenge, mindless patriotism, a desire to thwart evil - that's about it, except in some of the richer Japanese games. Love seldom enters into it and sex, almost never. By ignoring sex as a factor in human affairs, we're limiting the kinds of scenarios we can present. What would have happened if Cleopatra had been a man? Caesar might still have backed his cause, but Mark Antony almost certainly wouldn't have forgiven his neutrality so easily. Nor would he have allowed his heart to rule his head at the battle of Actium.

There's an ongoing debate about whether interactive entertainment can be an art form, and if so, how expressive a one. Everyone has their own answer to this question, and we're certainly not going to reach any conclusions here. Still, I'll go out on a limb and propose a test of sorts. Art with a capital "A" serves to illuminate the human condition in all its manifold circumstances, and that includes sexuality. Many art forms (painting, sculpture, literature) are easily capable of this; others (flower arranging, macramé) not so much so, or at least not very accessibly to most observers. Until interactive entertainment is capable of saying something meaningful about sex - not just showing it, but commenting on it, inspiring thoughts and feelings about it - we're still down there with macramé.


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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