Can sex and gaming co-exist responsibly?

April 1, 2012 Sexual Politics

By Russell Goldman

What’s in a game?

This is a complex question, made far more complex by the rather broad definition of “Gaming”. This being the case, I’d like to start by providing a list of pastimes that I assume to fall under the banner of Gaming: Computer and console games, board games, card games, miniature war games, table top roleplaying games and live-action roleplaying games. Arguably, there are other types of games that might well fall under this banner, but these are the types of games which we’re going to look at:

Miniature war games

This category of game is relatively simple to examine in terms of its approach to the inclusion of sexual content. Like many products in this day and age, commercial miniature war games (such as Warhammer 40,000 and WarhammerFantasyBattle, both produced by GamesWorkshop) are designed to appeal to a primarily teenaged, male demographic – despite the fact that many older male gamers, and quite a few female gamers, enjoy this hobby.

Given the limited narrative structure and opportunity for the development of background information in the arena of strictly miniature-based war gaming, sex is included through the quite common device of the scantily-clad female form. This technique of appealing to teenagers is common and quite traditional. Obviously it’s also quite superficial and somewhat juvenile. But it is important to us as it informs many of the most common approaches to incorporating sex into Gaming.

“All ages” cards and board games

This leads us neatly onto card and board games, which both employ sex in a very similar and juvenile fashion. They generally appeal to teenagers through suggestive and somewhat revealing artwork (such as Magic: TheGathering, produced by WizardsoftheCoast, and Descent: JourneysintheDark, produced by FantasyFlightGames). Of course, this is only one side of the equation in the case of card and board games.

XXX cards and board games

There are a number of card and board games specifically aimed at adults. These games are designed to make “bedroom play” and flirtation more exciting for couples and groups and they each enjoy varying degrees of success in this regard (Games such as Xxxopoly fall into this category). The real problem with these types of games is that they all tend to range from being tongue-in-cheek to quite ridiculous. They are produced more as novelty items than serious sex education tools or relationship aids. The few serious games developed along this vein tend to face extremepubliccensureandcriticism, making it very hard for them to get off the ground. Obviously, sex has an uneasy relationship with card and board games, much as it does with war gaming, but this also leads us further down the rabbit-hole.

Computer and console games

Once again, we’re faced with the same two uses of sex: The superficial inclusion of sexual elements to boost sales (just look at Lara Croft of TombRaider fame) and the creation of a whole genre of novelty games aimed at adults (of which the LeisureSuitLarryfranchise must arguably be the most iconic). We run into the same problem with these games as we do with miniature war, cards and board games…they treat sex in a somewhat juvenile fashion. This does little to nothing to improve sexualintelligence, provide sex education or improve sexual communication between couples.

Sex-ed video games and apps 

That being said, there are two other ways in which sex is incorporated into computer and console games. The first approach that deserves a mention is the sex education video game, as typified by games such as AdventuresinSexCity and apps such as the DurexBabyapp (also a very clever marketing tool for Durex). These games and apps seek to promote safe sex and better sex education. But they fall short of the mark because they lack replay value. Either they simply test general knowledge or possess a gimmicky quality that makes them fun for a short period, robbing them of any lasting appeal. This further limits their impact in the marketplace, as they fail to achieve the same level of penetration as “mainstream” video game titles.

Video game sex plots

The second way of including sex in computer and console gaming is to make it part of the narrative of the game. This most frequently applies to Role Playing (Video) Games (RPGs), which tend to be much heavier on narrative than First Person Shooters (FPSs) or Real Time Strategy Games RTSs. Unfortunately, more often than not, this approach tends to be severely limited in scope, boring, repetitive, clumsy and also juvenile in its implementation. Sex scenes are very often “pasted” into the narrative without having sufficient reason to be included  (Fahrenheit is a good example of this) or sexual achievements are turned into minigames based around sexual prowess and the theme of sexual conquest (TheWitcher and the Fablefranchise are good examples of this attitude).

That being said, however, there are exceptions to these generalisations, such as DragonAgeII, which was very liberal in its approach to same-sex relationships and made an effort to incorporate romance directly into the storyline and was met with a certain amount of publicoutcry as a result.

Table top and LARPing

Clearly, with the exception of a few ground-breaking mainstream titles, such as Dragon Age II, sex in the world of computer and console gaming still has a long way to go…which brings us neatly to two final types of Gaming which I would like to discuss – namely tabletoproleplaying and live-actionroleplaying (LARPing). Unlike other types of games which struggle to incorporate sex in a responsible manner, these cornerstones of escapism have one big advantage working in their favour: At their core, they have no set narrative!

Choice

Table top and live-action roleplaying are collaborative forms of gaming wherein a single player, or a select group of players, are responsible for the creation of the narrative. These players, also known as Game Masters (GMs), create their own narratives within a framework provided by the publishers of these games. These narratives are created by GMs with the co-operation of other players, who portray the protagonists in the stories being told. The framework provided by publishers is usually fairly loose and, typically, comprises mechanics for playing the game and, possibly, a setting. This means that the companies who produce the core rules employed in these types of games can’t, in any way, dictate the content being developed by the people playing the games. The end result is that individual Game Masters (GMs) can incorporate sex and sexuality into their games however they see fit! Does this mean that sex is automatically incorporated responsibly into these sorts of games? Unfortunately, no. But it does mean that those of us involved in these sorts of games (GMs and Players alike) have the opportunity to incorporate sex into the stories we tell in a responsible, mature and adult fashion (should we choose to do so).

This is not to say that I’m advocating the use of table top and live-action roleplaying games as a means of engineering group-sex scenarios. Or ham-fistedly ramming gratuitous sexual descriptions down unsuspecting individuals’ throats. But these media can be used responsibly to provide methods for sex education, the improvement of sexual intelligence, personality development and sexual exploration.

Russell is a sex positive advocate, literary graduate and an established game master and storyteller.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,