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Games are scared of sex

Opinion: And that's why they're not taken seriously, argues PSM3's Andy Hartup

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Having made a number of reasonably clear-cut decisions during Mass Effect 2, you're offered the chance to sex up a selection of your surprisingly attractive companions. Would we even bother if Miranda - instead of being based on actress Yvonne Strahovski - was modelled on Susan Boyle? Even Jack's scary-hot lesbian look ticks demographic boxes. There are no plain-faced chocoholics in space, it seems.

And it's all very tightly controlled. You're restricted to specific characters and times, and although the dialogue is commendably sleazy, it's an aside rather than an integral part of Shepard's emotional journey.

Why? It's tough to blame BioWare entirely. Games such as theirs are increasingly made for adults, as they must be in order to grow with the generations that play them, but they still can't be seen to be for adults. They're expensive to make, so publishers have nightmares about shops refusing to stock 'controversial' titles.


The reality is, of course, that any game that goes on sale has already been passed by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), and there's little controversial about 18-rated entertainment featuring sex. It's worth remembering that 'Hot Coffee,' the infamous sex mini-game exposed by hackers in GTA San Andreas, fell well within the 18 certificate it already had.

Indeed, the BBFC passed John Cameron Mitchell's 2006 film Short Bus with no cuts - non-simulated sex and all - without anyone fainting about the generation of maniacs it would create, wailing about 'the children' or declaring the rating system 'doesn't work' and demanding undemocratic bans. Presumably, that's because even idiots accept films can be for adults as well as children. And presumably it's also because these idiots, unlike us, have forgotten they spent their teenage years watching as many dirty films as possible.

But reason doesn't matter to a media witch-hunt. Lost sales or recalls are financially disastrous, and there's nothing that lights up a righteous newspaper like sex - so the risk remains too high, and the idea that games are for children continues unchallenged.

So confusion reigns. Dragon Age, though handling sex slightly better than Mass Effect, stumbles into other problems. You can romance anyone of either sex (so yes, you can Brokeback Mountain a dwarf), and even have multiple partners.

Consequently, sex becomes less of a 'thing.' Sadly, low-rent character models and comedy orchestral swells turn sex scenes into farce. Perhaps BioWare are trying to make a serious point about sexual liberation in games - but we're too busy laughing at what looks like boxy, flesh-coloured armour wearers clawing at each other to notice.

The boldest attempt to address sex as a defining thing humans just do has come from David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain. Although some see the relationship between Ethan and Madison as rushed and unlikely (most of Ethan's chat up lines involve him suggesting he might be a serial killer), the very fact their relationship sparked debate beyond 'dude, best game nipples ever' shows progress.


Cage used their deepening relationship to continue the story - sex and closeness is a part of Ethan's emotional journey - and it made Ethan more human than a thousand Cole MacGraths, Lara Crofts or Kratoses. Kratees. Kratii? We're not sure.

Heavy Rain never sets out to titillate, and it's telling that gamer discussion focused on the fingerchopping scene and that final choice - not the bunk up. Sure, the character models didn't mesh too well, but no illusions were broken. Through Heavy Rain, David Cage proved that games and gamers can handle sex and - perhaps because no guns were involved - the papers barely noticed.

It's only by treating sexual desire to the same degree of scrutiny as other interactions - the violence, the dialogue, the friendships - that we can hope for games to grow up. If our protagonists are blank of basic human desires, how can we empathise? Why should we care about a character if she's an idealised, flawless mannequin?

OK, we don't need sex everywhere. Far from it. We don't need to see Batman nudging Catwoman towards his rubber codpiece, or a Sly 4 mini-game where Murray bends Carmelita the Fox over a safe and... well, does something other than collect pick ups.

But many gamers are well into their 30s - we have families, go to work, pretend to be interested in foreign affairs. We own coffee-making facilities. We kiss without giggling. We even have sex. So it's high time developers stopped treating us like horny teenagers, and grew up as well.

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