Valve’s recent knee-jerk escapade at GDC had Gamehounds’ Edie Sellers in a lather this week. On her podcast she expressed surprise and annoyance at their decision; namely the withdrawal of Kim Swift, project lead on Portal, from the yearly game design challenge, this year provocatively titled ‘My First Time’. It’s a dully predictable move in an industry still remarkably coy about sex. “My first time”, was an open challenge, marrying sex and autobiography, and the final submissions from Swift’s two substitutes and the remaining contestants showed invention and a mischievous streak, but certainly not the headline-baiting boldness that Valve would need to justify such cautious behaviour.
You don’t have to look far though, to see why they might not want their name attached to anything that could be misinterpreted as sordid or corrupting. The media-fuelled hubbub over Mass Effect in early 2007 speaks volumes for how different the general public perceptions are between film and video games. The sex scene in Mass Effect is by all accounts no different to the kind of soft-focus, fare you would find in movies like Daredevil or Ghost, with lingering shots of perky backsides and a fleeting nipple or two. This was fed through the Fox-news exaggeration machine, given a quick bake in their conjecture oven and passed around between a group of people who haven’t played ANY video games, let alone Mass Effect, and the resultant debate, now well-worn on YouTube borders on farcical. While Spike TV’s Jeff Keighley defended the game’s content with maturity and crucially having actually played it, he was up against the wall of loudmouthed, opinionated busybodies spouting non-sequiturs like “Who can argue that Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas is a good thing?” and my personal favourite, and the basis for this article; “What happened to Atari and Pinball and Pac-Man?”. This sentence crystallises the problem game developers face when trying to advance the industry in any challenging way. Too many people still envision single-screen 8-Bit arcade machines from the early 80’s when the words “video game” are mentioned, and they can only see children playing them, because why would an adult do so? Time has moved on, those children have now grown up and have children of their own. Now the games they play can be vast, complex odysseys with lifelike HD graphics, and the singular inability on so many people’s parts to marry this evolutionary step with the notion of a growing and maturing audience is what holds back sex in games.
Violence? No problem. We jumped that hurdle in the early 90’s with Mortal Kombat, a game so cartoonish and innocent now, that it’s very hard to see what all the fuss was about. Bad language has crept in slowly, seemingly one curse at a time, until with trailblazers like The Getaway, no word was unmentionable. Sex; however is still the thorniest subject in an industry that regularly produces entertainment that involves slaughtering Nazi’s, drug-dealing or dismemberment on such a regular basis that we see these as commonplace, even conventional. A rough sort of acceptance has formed in the minds of outsiders. The above is just the sort of thing that happens in video games. But sex is different. Look at the examples we have of games that dared to deal with this nest of vipers; Custer’s Revenge on the 2600, in which you play the famous General defiling various Native Americans, Leisure Suit Larry, with its smirking innuendo and juvenile attitude, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with the drawn out court case over “Hot Coffee”. Then there’s the actual Japanese PC-based rape simulator “Rapelay” by Illusion Soft, which Amazon wisely decided to stop selling. Projects like this, whatever the intent of their developers make it hard to build a positive case for sex in games and seem to serve only to inflame public outrage.
Violence is horrible and illegal to the vast majority of non-incarcerated, non-military citizens, but sex means so many different things to so many people that there is no way to reach a general consensus. It’s totally subjective, and highly likely to provoke a negative reaction. It’s an act that can be beautiful, embarrassing, incredibly fun or utterly awful, different every time or always the same, may be meaningless or lead to life-changing relationships and indeed the continuation of the species. Asking why it can’t be in a game is a question with its answer rooted in culture. I could (and should) write a thesis on this, but the short answer is that the public appreciation for sex is changing with the times, slowly, as we crawl away from the Victorian period when it became so utterly reprehensible to even mention. It took decades for sex and nudity to be accepted in books films and TV, but those are long-established entertainment forms and comparatively video games are still in their teens. It will take a few more generations before all the people who only remember Pac-Man are gone and those born into an era of Mass Effect and any other game that dares to tackle intercourse reach the obvious conclusion that people of all ages play games and those of a certain age should have no problem exploring relationships of all kinds, with and without sex. The detail and emotion-heavy gameplay of the future could indeed prove quite interesting. Taboos are broken all the time. Last month’s cocky, male full-frontal in GTA: The Lost and Damned was a first, and whether Ms. Sellers is right and the scrawny chicken-neck of a reproductive organ on offer was a poor example or not, I agree with her that it’s steps forward like this that bring the industry that little bit closer to real maturity. Maybe then we’ll get to see “My First Time” as a full game.