news\ Sep 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Sex and the Single Gamer

Sex and the Single Gamer
By Stefanie Fogel

Are games maturing alongside their audience?

These days, it seems like everywhere you look, video
-game characters are flaunting their pixellated private parts. Whether it's a giant topless Cleopatra in Dante's Inferno, a congressman flashing the full monty in Grand Theft Auto IV's The Lost and the Damned, or the copious amounts of side cleavage in both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, sex and nudity in games have become more prevalent over the last couple of years. And while the industry has seen its fair share of controversy over its increasingly racy content, one has to wonder: Is sex in video games becoming more acceptable?

I dare say the answer is yes
... and no. One only has to look at the industry's current struggle in Australia for an adult rating to see that video games are, to many people, still considered mainly as products for children. In Australia, if a child can't play it, it doesn't get published.

Even in America, the ratings system reinforces the fact that video games, like Trix, are for kids. In describing its ratings process, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) states that "raters must be adults and typically have experience with children, whether through prior work experience, education or by being parents or caregivers themselves." All of this is in spite of the fact that the average gamer is 35 years old, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and that 40 percent of all gamers are women over the age of 18. However, only 16 percent of games sold in 2008 were rated "Mature," while 57 percent were rated "Everyone" or "Everyone 10+."

Meet the newest "sex symbol," Heavy Rain's Madison Paige

And yet, there are signs that video games are growing up. In 2007, many praised the way BioWare handled the topic of sex in their hit RPG Mass Effect. The scenes, in which protagonist Commander Shepard can choose to romance a member of his (or her) ship's crew on the eve of a climatic battle, were tastefully handled in a way that felt neither gratuitous nor controversial for the sake of publicity. It was certainly no racier than what a person can find on cable television.

But that didn't stop conservatives such as blogger Kevin McCullough and Fox News from attacking the game. One panelist on Fox's The Live Desk With Martha MacCallum even went so far as to inaccurately describe it as "Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas." Since then, BioWare has taken a tamer approach to sex in their titles, causing some gamers to cry, "Self-censorship!" Seeking to address those concerns, BioWare's Stanley Woo had the following to say on the company's social networking forums:

"It's kinda funny that this topic keeps coming up over and over again. People who claim to be old enough and mature enough to handle sex and nudity in a game seem to believe that any
lack of sex and nudity in the game is a sign of self-censorship. They generally don't believe that a game can be called "mature" without explicit sex and/or nudity."

He adds, "Let me tell you, folks, that as a developer full of mature individuals, we are also free to not have explicit sex and/or nudity in our games, no matter what you, Fox News, the government, or Bunky the Wonder Clown has to say about it. We have never considered it a 'problem,' it is simply a choice we have made and we have every right to make that choice."

Morrigan was one of many romance options in Dragon Age: Origins

Fair enough. I think even BioWare would have to admit, though, that the sex scenes depicted in one of their most recent titles, Dragon Age: Origins - in which your character and paramour of choice roll around by the fire with their underwear on - felt a bit awkward and cheesy. For a developer with a reputation for creating strong narratives and emotionally engaging experiences in their games, you can't help but feel that it was a misstep that helped break the sense of immersion they were trying so hard to create.

"Immersion" is a buzzword often heard throughout the video
-game industry, one that can often be used to justify the appearance of nudity and sex in its products. Recently, Quantic Dream's David Cage cited immersion as a factor behind the decision to include nude scenes in the Playstation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain. In the interactive thriller, one of the main character's breasts and backside are shown as she takes a shower, right before two masked men break into her apartment and a tense struggle ensues. Videos of the scene have already been leaked on the web (watch it here - NSFW) and it is no different than what you would find in any thriller on the silver screen.

Speaking to Official Playstation Magazine, Cage defends the scene, and said, "The game is not shocking for the sake of being shocking. There's never sex for the sake of sex or gore for the sake of gore. Nothing is gratuitous, and I think everything supports the narrative and emotional immersion of the player."

It's difficult to tell how Heavy Rain's mature themes will be received by both critics and consumers. But, as the average age of gamers continues to increase and the perception of video games as "child's toys" continues to weaken, mature content will gain a firmer foothold as the industry works to find more and more ways to market its products to a consumer-base that is all grown up.

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