Sex in video games has spurred many troubled discussions since the medium’s inception. Given that games have something of a PR problem when it comes to aspects and content that may upset some audiences, sex in games presents many challenges to developers. As a member of the IGDA’s Sex and Romance SIG and a proud prospective purveyor of risqué content in both game and novel form, this is an area I feel merits more exploration.
For a little history, smutty games have been around for longer than you likely think. The Angry Video Game Nerd did a retrospective on Atari porn a long time ago yet. There were also several unlicensed NES games that were on the naughty side that came out in the same era like Peek-a-Boo Poker, and just like most of the cringe-worthy titles the Nerd covers, the context and intent was pretty simple. There was no deeply-entrancing storyline or characters to get to know. You wanted to see ultra-pixellated boobs and dongs, and you got what you came for (pun absolutely intended.)
Some of these overtly sexual titles were seen as either blatant cash grabs or given that video games were primarily marketed to kids back in the 80s, the kind of content that was on par with trying to sneak a Playboy out of a store. Others, like Custer's Revenge, were a hell whole lot more problematic on SO many levels (seriously, you're raping a Native American woman against a fucking cactus. This is the entire game. No further commentary is needed.) As the medium evolved, so have other problematic portrayals of sex in games such as the infamous rape scene in Phantasmagoria, the Grand Theft Auto series and subsequent "hot coffee" mod, and fellow adventure junkie PushingUpRoses did a Terrible Sex Scenes in Video Games retrospective where she covered a mix of old and newer games and explained why they were bad and why some just had a disturbing portrayal of sex.
The Leisure Suit Larry series was the first time a lot of people in my generation saw sex in a video game where it was comically censored, or just alluded to, and while you had plenty to do in these games the entire premise was more or less based on Larry getting lucky. Even if we found respite in the sheer silliness of these games full of innuendo and self-deprecating humor, there was little to no character development and most of the sex scenes were poor of context. Then there was a game that had lukewarm reception in its native Japan but found a rabid new audience in the US, Junai Monogatari (aka True Love) where similar to Larry, Daisuke (or the name of your choosing) has a mission of getting laid and finding a companion to woo after building up his stats throughout the game and watching the various storylines unfold.
It was a game rich in throwing hentai in your face but it was definitely not context-poor. Even when you're laughing your ass off at the music that plays during the sex scenes and the dialogue that makes 50 Shades of Gray look like a doctoral student's essay on Marshall McLuhan, you got to know Daisuke's bevy of lovers and watch him grow as a character as well.
But how come in spite of all the evolutions in game development, both in narrative quality and technological achievements that can offer more experiences and perhaps more pleasing visuals, showing sex beyond an allusion is still so difficult?
The Medium Itself is Stacked Against Game Developers
One of the primary challenges for game developers is that in spite of the incredible technology at our fingertips today, video games simply have limitations when it comes to more explicit content. It's not to say that game art can't be erotic, or that when combined with the right words and audio cues it can't be any less stimulating than other mediums. But despite the technology, and the experiential components, games still have major obstacles when it comes to sexual contexts and portrayals of sex.
Let's look at some other mediums that portray sex in various degrees of leaving things to your imagination: the written word is powerful, and all about leaving things to your imagination. It's persisted throughout millennia as people wanted to use sex to show were it fit in with a story, recount a sexual experience, or just plain leave something for future generations to get off to. Throughout the 20th century, Lady Chatterley's Lover was the book you didn't your parents to know you were reading if you were a young woman because they thought it might give you ideas. Harlequin Romances? Still going strong in the New Tens. Thanks to the discreet experience offered by Kindle these days, erotic fiction is booming there for readers of all ages, genders, reading levels, and kinks.
Regardless of whether it's regarded as literature and studied in university classrooms like Lady Chatterley's Lover or fiction discussed in Twitch chats late at night like Chuck Tingle's "Tinglers", sex scenes that are incidental or driving the plot of a book rely largely on the reader's imagination. This also rules true for books that are reliant on the sexual aspects to get a readership. Even if all the characters are being described in the author's vision down to the protagonist, the reader is more or less injecting themselves and their fantasies into what they're reading.
Compare this to TV and film where it's the actors who carry this. Attraction is subjective but if the acting is bad or there's no chemistry between the people acting out that scene, it can definitely ruin the feel of that scene. No less, those are real people on the screen and it often looks more natural (unless we're talking about alien sex or something. Or whatever was going on in Avatar.) Because these are visual mediums with no interactive elements, your imagination isn't playing as much of a role as it is when you're reading.
Now cut to games. A sex scene or sexual aspect or mechanic can wind up just being awkward, uncomfortable, or perhaps unintentionally funny. Pixels can only show us so much, and how much do you REALLY want them to show you? If you're part of a larger team that has a full-blown art department with plenty of muscle, you're no better off than the indie developer feverishly commissioning that hand-drawn erotic illustration for their game made in Ren'Py or perhaps making their own naked pixel art. A 3D model that moves around like a really fucking twisted version of Weekend At Bernie's on top of another model that moves less than a veal calf is not really that exciting to watch. (That was my impression of the Ride to Hell: Retribution scenes.)
Even if you're the type who digs animated porn (the Sex & Romance SIG is against kink-shaming!), you have to admit that the medium itself has so many shortcomings. There's always going to be players who wished you would've kept more things to the imagination-- or shown more, if you used the limitations games present just to allude to sex taking place or keeping the content relatively tame.
Distributors Tend to Look Down Upon Erotic Content
Even if your fans love you all the more for putting sex in games in any shape or form and are mostly happy with the way that sex is portrayed in the narrative context or as a game mechanic, you have another major business ramification of getting down and dirty: distributors may smack you away for not meeting their content guidelines.
Back when retail was how you had to sell games, getting an AO (adults only) rating from the ESRB was basically suicide. MA ratings were fine because they were edgy enough to spark discussion, but wouldn't land devs and publishers in hot water with retailers. Today, an AO rating would still be harder to sell but if enough people liked the game and had a means to buy it easily then it wouldn't be the business suicide it would've been decades ago. That is, assuming that the current set of gatekeepers wouldn't be too displeased: remember when Papers, Please initially got rejected from the App Store for the sporadic instances of pixellated nudity that had no sexual context whatsoever?
For further context, a tasteful and erotic scene that would land a movie an R rating with zero impact on its distribution opportunities can end up getting an indie developer blacklisted from distributors such as the App Store, or told they can't submit their games to certain sites to reach a larger audience unless they remove or censor the sauciest parts. Large publishers can take more risk with this as buzz that goes around about explicit content often helps sell the game, and they usually aren't looking to diversify on multiple platforms like indies. (And so long as they don't get AO ratings, retail prospects won't be hurt.)
Had JAST USA ported Junai Monogatari these days, on one hand they'd be able to reach Western audiences hungry for narrative gameplay and eager to talk about these games and stream them if enough people bought directly. On the other hand, it would've been straight up impossible to distribute such a game on many channels used today which is really how most smaller developers make a living today. Even with content warnings and a ratings system in place, whether standardized like the ESRB or more informal like Common Sense Media, the gatekeepers tend to frown upon games that feature a hefty dose of smut.
But how does one define "hefty dose" here? Why do the gatekeepers let some games with fairly dirty content, segments, or mechanics through, but deny entry to others? Would a developer be willing and able to censor their own work if it means getting more sales than what they'd get just hosting the game on their own site as the primary means of getting it? Should they be forced to do so? Given how often we see sex in other mediums, even for ads selling everything from cars to toothpaste during primetime hours for crying out loud, why is there still such a moral panic about sex in games?
It's not 1995 anymore so putting sex in games won't necessarily make them sell better because of shock value, whether they're multi-million dollar AAA productions or something an indie developer puts out and is afraid it wouldn't get attention otherwise. At the end of the day, it's your art and you should decide how you want that story told. If you want to put sex in there, go for it. But know the risks in both business matters as well as a scene that will play out more awkwardly than finding out a one-night stand you had years ago is the defense attorney in your small claims case.
If you're interested in more forward-thinking discussions on sexual content in games, you'll definitely want to check out IGDA's Sex and Romance SIG and chat with us at the next GDC! Distribution challenges are a major hurdle that disproportionately hurt indie developers far more, but no matter how big the development budget is, everyone runs a risk of sex scenes looking stilted or just not meshing with the narrative at all.