Sex in Computer Games Part 2: Explicit Sex
In the first part of this column I discussed the political risks associated with making a sexually explicit computer game. Such games already exist, though, and there will inevitably be more of them. Although it's unlikely that mainstream American publishers will start producing them any time soon, a recent article on the Fox News website described how adult-video makers are planning to distribute explicit games for the Sony Playstation 2, circumventing both Sony's licensing procedure and the game industry's rating system by releasing them as DVD movies rather than games. The Japanese have been making games based on hentai (erotic cartoons) for some time now, and they have a growing fan base in America. And of course there are already dozens of "reveal the pornographic picture" games available - strip poker and the like. But they're not about sex, they're just sex-themed. How do we design a game that is literally about sex?
Let's start by acknowledging that whatever we design isn't going to have much to do with real sex, for obvious physical and emotional reasons. Physically, lovemaking bears little resemblance to looking at a screen and pressing buttons on a controller. Emotionally it's even more dissimilar, because the player is only interacting with a piece of software. Good sex is profoundly mutual. You can't have a shared experience with a computer program.
Some would say that "having sex with your computer" is a bizarre, even perverted idea. I'm less inclined to criticize. Not long ago I saw a fascinating TV documentary called Forbidden Pleasures on Britain's Channel 4. The subject of the show was people with unusual sex lives, and one segment was about an autistic woman. She was very intelligent and well-spoken, but she had a great deal of difficulty being around other people and almost no empathy. She didn't understand, for example, why a stranger would care if he saw a child hit by a car. The woman was quite unable to have a sexual relationship with another person, but for some reason she found her ice skates deeply erotic. She got pretty excited by the patterns in brick walls, too. I figured that she was enjoying herself and not hurting anyone, so what's wrong with that? Playing a game about sex on a computer isn't that much odder than caressing brick walls.
In any case, I'm going to leave aside questions of what's "normal" or not, and concentrate on whether it's possible to simulate sexual activity tastefully and well. Sex, like playing baseball or fighting dragons or leading armies in battle, is something that people have fantasies about. I see no reason why people wouldn't enjoy simulated sex just as much as they do simulated warfare. It's not unthinkable to have sex in a game; it's a matter of deciding how to implement it.
One possibility is to treat it as a non-interactive cut-scene just like any other cut-scene in a game. It could, for example, be the natural outcome of success at the seduction game discussed in the part 1 of this column, and this is how many Japanese dating simulations work. In this case, the issue is really one of filmmaking rather than game design. Sex scenes, explicit or otherwise, are filmed all the time for movies, television, and adult videos. Some are particularly erotic; others are flat and lifeless. There seems to be an inverse relationship between how explicit a scene is and how well-filmed it is. Most adult videos are boring after the initial titillation wears off. The actors can't act, and they obviously couldn't care less about each other. The conventions of the genre require the actors to pose in ways that don't look much like real lovemaking. Some of the hottest scenes from Hollywood, on the other hand, imply a lot but show very little. In any case, whether you do this well or badly depends on your skill as a director. There's a huge amount of material to study for examples, from torrid TV soap operas to homemade amateur videos.
But suppose it's an interactive scene. You, the designer, want to depict sexual activity in which the player is an interactive participant in some way. The next question is, what is he (and let's face it, our player is probably male) going to see and do?
Let's start by considering the first-person perspective; it's popular these days. The earliest title of that kind was a black-and-white game for the Macintosh called MacPlaymate. A hand-drawn animation of a naked woman lay on a bed, the mouse cursor turned into a hand, and the object of the game was to arouse her to orgasm by touching her with the cursor and moving the mouse around. She responded by writhing and moaning. There were other things you could do as well - the cursor wasn't always a hand. You could also dress her in a variety of garments, change her appearance and so on. But the player was not present except in a disembodied form, just as in first-person shooters the only visible manifestation of the player's presence is his weapons.
I think this whole concept is a bad idea. MacPlaymate was only the first in a long line of such games, but it pretty well typifies the genre. It presents sex as something you do to someone rather than with someone. MacPlaymate and its successors perpetuate the notion of woman-as-toy, a sort of electronic love doll whose only function is to be manipulated by the player. You could argue that at least the object of the game was to give someone else pleasure as opposed to achieving it for yourself, and I agree that that might have some merit if it were implemented with real sensitivity - it could be used as a learning aid for the sexually dysfunctional, for example. But the woman in MacPlaymate never got fed up with your fumbling and went to wash her hair instead; her sexual responsiveness was unidimensional and inhumanly patient. Since you weren't really there, she couldn't reciprocate, either. A better representation of sex is as an activity enjoyed by two people - the third-person perspective.
It's only a matter of time before somebody motion-captures two people having sex, if it hasn't been done already. There are technical obstacles that I'm sure we can all think of - the idea of
making love while wearing one of those suits with all the sensors and metal armatures isn't terribly appealing - but I'm sure it can be done. Soon afterwards, we'll start seeing the animations for sale as part of a stock footage library.
In the third person, we have a choice of direct control or indirect control. With direct control, one of the people on screen is an avatar of the player, and we directly map the controller's buttons to his or her on-screen actions. With indirect control, we provide the player with choices to select from, and the characters on-screen respond. The player is a third party guiding the action from offscreen - in effect, a sort of movie director.
First we'll look at direct control. Direct-control games choose a limited set of game-world activities to map onto the controller. In vehicle simulations, the vehicle's steering, acceleration and braking usually map fairly directly to the D-pad or joystick. In shooters and action games, the avatar's legs aren't treated as individual objects, but instead the avatar moves in response to steering-like controls, as if he were really a sort of vehicle also. Sports games work much the same way. The other buttons are mapped to specific actions: jump, dive, pass, shoot, hurdle, etc.
There have been one or two sports games that actually mapped the athlete's legs onto buttons, but the mechanism was never very popular. There was a Konami arcade game called Track and Field that worked this way. You had to press two buttons alternately, as fast as you could, and you had to do it in a steady rhythm or the runner would get off his stride and slow down. A lot of players complained that they hurt their hands banging on the cabinet. That design might be reasonable for something like a foot race or the triple-jump, but it's unsuitable for more complex activities. In sports there's a clearly-defined goal and a relatively limited behavior space. Sexual activity is much too subtle for this kind of treatment, and thematically inappropriate in any case. Real lovemaking is free-form and unscripted. It involves the whole body, in a variety of intricate motions. If you reduce them to what the usual game controller is capable of, the results will be awkward and ridiculous.
For comparison, consider marionettes. Marionettes have greater precision than game controllers, because they have a number of analog strings moving in three dimensions rather than one or two two-dimensional joysticks and some binary buttons. Even so, there's no way that a marionette show including sex could be anything other than a very crude depiction. It wouldn't be sexy; it would either be laughable or repulsive, depending on your attitude to such things. Thunderbird sex? I don't think so. It can't be done well with current game controllers, and to me, that means it's not worth doing.
That leaves us with indirect control - high-level guidance rather than low-level controls. This is the obvious extension to The Sims, and don't tell me you haven't already thought of it. In the current version of The Sims, you get to tell the people in your house when to take a shower and when to use the toilet, so you might just as well tell them when, and how, to make love. Being an American product, The Sims firmly ignored this notion, but it might not have if it had been made in Europe or Japan.
Indirect control makes the game different from direct control in a number of ways. With direct control, the player can do anything, but none of it very well. With indirect control the player has less freedom, but the animation of his choices can be quite accurate. The total number of possible activities is smaller, but at least it doesn't yield ridiculous results. With indirect control you can allow as many options as you like; it's a question of how much animation and programming you want to do. In The Sims, there seems to be only one kind of kiss. In a sexual version of The Sims, you would get rid of all that stuff about doing the dishes and reading the paper, and replace it with many kinds of kisses.
Indirect control also enables the designer and animators to decide what's going to happen and how it's going to look. In a direct-control game, whether it's sex, sports, or a vehicle simulation, the player has to be able to see very clearly what he's doing, which means you have little choice but to be explicit. With indirect control, you can choose camera angles to hide or reveal just as much as you want to, because the action isn't dependent on the player's vision.
So far I've concentrated on the mechanical aspects of simulating sex; what about the game aspects? Well, a lot of the principles that applied to seduction apply here as well. You're not going to be able to capture the subtle nuances, the genuine feeling. More importantly, good sex isn't structured; it's not about tuning some variable to an optimal value. To treat sex as a puzzle to solve is to miss the point. As with seduction, if some sex act is a required element of the game, a "victory," it will lose its magic and become mere sleaze.
I can see two good ways of implementing sex in interactive entertainment. One is in a The Sims-like simulation, where the player can explore sexuality in an undirected way. To be more than just a plaything, though, the game must simulate the people as having preferences and desires - and limitations. As with real sexual partners, the sex could become more imaginative over time, or get dull if the player doesn't put any effort into it. I think such a game could be erotic, fanciful and fun, particularly if there were some Easter eggs in it!
The other is in role-playing games, where sex is not an end in itself, but has a significant role in the plot. Sex doesn't exist in a social vacuum; it profoundly affects all our lives and even the course of history itself. That will be the subject of part 3.
In summary, there are a whole lot of reasons not to include explicit sex in a computer game: political reasons, marketing reasons, and moral or social reasons, if those concern you. One more reason is that it's very difficult, both technically and aesthetically, to do it well. It's easy to be exploitive and tawdry, and there are thousands of pornographers for whom that's good enough. But I'm not here to encourage the creation of crass, offensive games. If you want to do it, work hard at it. Create a game whose excellence justifies its choice of subject matter, a game that lives up to the rich, multifaceted nature of sexuality. Try to capture some of the sense of joy, pleasure, and mutual caring that is the essence of good sex.