Brenda Brathwaite opened the first Sex in Video Games Conference in San Francisco this week. In a typically forthright, assertive and informed keynote she gave the audience a view of the past, present and future of erotic games.
Starting with a review of the year, Brathwaite reminded everyone that the first day of the conference also marked the first anniversary of the "Hot Coffee" debacle and the beginning of one of the most eventful years for games with adult themes. During the last twelve months the IGDA SEX-SIG has been formed, breasts appeared in Oblivion, booth babes were banned from E3 and Wonder Woman was ejected, and rafts of proposed legislation in the US has been struck down on First Amendment grounds.
The Blame-The-Game Game
In an impassioned analysis of the current U.S. moral climate over games, Brathwaite reminded the audience that "we have been here before" as, when it comes to the popular press, "all new media are dangerous."
Citing the Hays Code of the 1930s and the Comic Code of the 1950 Brathwaite discussed how so called sexual content always seems to be framed in terms of protecting children, as if all gamers are kids and all media should be reduced to a form that kids can consume.
Saying "let’s take sex out of all media," she challenged the audience to imagine a world of books and art with absolutely no sexual references whatsoever, no nudity, no adult themes…in fact, a world made up of images fitting only for children. Showing an image of Two Live Crew’s notorious Straight Outta Compton being replaced with the PBS children’s show characters Barney and Friends, Brathwaite continued, "[imagine] if all music were for kids." Lastly she proposed that in the current moral climate, "if Brokeback [Mountain] was a game that just had two guys on a bench talking," someone would still try to ban it.
Video games are not just for kids, Brathwaite said, quoting ELSPA findings that "statistics show that the current video game player is a 29 year old male." Ending her analysis of the current situation she wondered if like other art forms that accept adults as an audience "will we ever get to a point when a sex scene in a game is not news." Lastly, commenting on the supposed offence that is taken to certain game content she stated "I am offended that the female form nude is [found to be] offensive."
Sex in Games – The Taxonomy
In the next section of the presentation, Brathwaite looked beneath the labels of Adult Games or Sex Games and provided the following guide to the many ways in which mature content and themes can be included in video games.
- Educational games – these are games that seek to educate the user about some aspect of sex, be it safe sex, information about STDs and even games that are designed to promote abstinence.
- So-called ‘poke-the-doll’ games – where the user interacts with an avatar to generate some kind of effect, examples include MacPlaymate from 1987 and the recent Virtual Jenna (the branded game from adult star Jenna Jameson).
- Dating games / ‘Hentai’ – These games are popular in Japan and a hit with import fans. The basic theme is that one employs various strategies to date, and in some cases, have virtual sex with a series of women or men.
- Strip games – Brathwaite noted that almost any game can be turned into an ‘Adult Game’ by include a stripping element.
- Mainstream games (with explicit sexual elements) – Some games with an explicit adult theme have been successfully targeted at a mainstream audience. These games tend to have a sexual theme and include full or partial nudity. Examples include The Sims, Singles, Playboy The Mansion, BMX XXX, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna cum Laude and The Guy Game.
- Mainstream games (with Adult elements) – This is an unusual category of game that is target at a general audience that includes form of adult but is not marketed as an adult game nor is it picked up on by the mainstream media. Examples include God of War, which includes a seemingly unnoticed sex scene that is simply part of the game play.
- Advertising games or so-called ‘Advergames’ – These are games that are created to advertise some service or product, they are generally small games created in technologies such as Flash. They frequently contain humor and sexual elements, often combined, such as in the Flash game Busted.
- Mobile Games – Sex and sex games are two elements that are driving the mobile download market into the adult demographic. As with other segments of Adult gaming, brand recognition is important as the launch of adult star Ron Jeremy’s RJ Mobile demonstrates.
- Hacking, Patching, Modding and User crated content – Creating game mods has been a popular pastime since Doom. As many modders have discovered, ‘nude skins’ can be applied to many games and add a sexual element. Current examples of the art include The Sims 2 and Britney's Dance Beat Mods.
- Hardware Integration – this is one of the lesser know areas of adult gaming where hardware, whether specifically designed for sexual use or not, is integrated with a video game. The two best know examples of this are Jane Pinckard's infamous review of the Rez Trance Vibrator and Kyle Machulis’s SeXbox and SeXbox 360, which integrate the vibration element of a Microsoft Xbox with a vibrator and butt plug as a from of teledildonics.
- Indie Games – This is more of a category of production than a genre of game, but the relation between the indie sector and adult games should not go un-remarked, as a vast number of adult themed games have been created. As Brathwaite, noted "Flash was for sex games what the printing press was for books."
Myths About Sex In Games
Next Brathwaite dispelled a number of popular myths about sex and video games.
Myth #1, People don’t want sex in games: The fact of emergent sexual practices in just about every online game and the modding scene’s creation of adult textures for just about every game that can be patched shows that there is a latent demand for adult content in games.
Examples of the user community creating it’s own content where the market is not supplying it include the World of Warcraft erotic machinima site 'World of Porncraft,' which is devoted to sexual uses of MMOs and Sex MMOrgy; the fact that even Habbo hotel, a game with no in world economy, has an emergent sex industry where people "babbo for furniture"; and lastly, what Brathwaite described "the grand daddy of emergent sex," Second Life, a virtual space that has a sexual culture that is "exceptional and totally community generated," a space where you can purchase virtual sex, where there are reviews of escort services and even an adult publication for the furry community called ‘Play Pony.'
Myth #2, Only losers want sex in games: This appears to be an attempt to marginalize cyber sex and other erotic fantasies, however sex and games appears to be a broadly popular topic. As Brathwaite noted "When I look at game tab, a site that ranks stories by popularity, I have no problem finding sex stories in the top 10."
Extolling the virtues of online sex, Brathwaite remarked that online sex can be "interactive and safe." What’s more, there are whole sets of fetishes that have emerged that are unique to virtual environments.
Looking beyond video games and even traditional pornography, Brathwaite cited the ‘Spice’ series of erotic novels aimed at women, which form part of fastest growing segment of the publishing market, thanks in part to publisher success in selling erotic material through mainstream stores such as Borders.
With a playfully sarcastic twist, Brathwaite also mentioned other "losing business models" such as match.com and eHarmony – sites full of millions of people that "obviously are not in the slightest interested in sex."
Myth #3, Sex in games is a new thing: Although this was the first Sex in Video Games conference, sex and games are not recent bedfellows. According to Brathwaite, Richard Bartle, co-creator of MUD, the first multi-user online game created in 1979, does not recall there being an explicitly sexual elements in the game – Shades, a game that quickly followed introduced ‘private’ rooms and so almost certainly opened the door to in-game cybersex. Brathwaite also noted that the first graphic representation of a penis in-game probably arrived in about 1982.
What Issues Face Sex and Video Games
Closing the session Brathwaite addressed the main issues currently facing the adult video games market.
The Media: Handling the media is going to be one of the most difficult issues facing developers and publishers today. However, as games such as God of War have demonstrated, it is possible to include mature themes in games without attracting negative press attention.
In the future, Brathwaite observed, game developers must be keenly aware of "ratings and age appropriateness" and must be careful to "declare content in games." Also, publishers should be selective with the packaging that they use for games.
Expanding the Market: Looking at the current offerings in the adult game market, Braithwaite pointedly stated that sex appeals to "more than just straight guys." Asking what games are available for "women in their prime," Brathwaite remarked that there seems to be nothing on the market, with the exception of emergent sex in online games, which is user generated anyway.
Learning from Emergent Sex: Lastly Braithwaite encouraged developers to learn from players. In reference to spaces such as Second Life and World of Warcraft she remarked "look at what they are doing there… some just want text."
Summarising what it is that many players want from sex in video games, Brathwaite stressed one thing that all developers should remember, that "other players turn players on."