Joystiq interviews Brenda Brathwaite about sex and games

One could say Brenda Brathwaite wrote the book on sex in games -- and they'd be right. She is the author of Sex in Video Games, lead designer on Playboy: The Mansion, founder and chair of IGDA's Sex Special Interest Group and professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Brathwaite spoke with Joystiq about next week's Game Developer's Conference, how to keep sexual content under control and the story of the year that really got her blood pressure elevated.

At the Game Developers Conference this year you'll be talking about the business end of designing erotic games. What does that mean?

We're doing two roundtables this year at the request of previous attendees: designing erotic games and, second, the business end of erotic games. This will give attendees a chance to really get into each issue deeply. When it comes to designing erotic games, I expect we will probably cover such things as appealing to a diverse sexual audience, incorporating fetish play, MMO design, and pitching games to existing adult stars and publishing powerhouses. There's also interest from many people in solving that M-rated issue: how can we maturely incorporate mature themes into the narrative of the play – the same stuff you'd see in an R-rated movie – without being locked out of retail? Games have certainly done it, and as our ability to tell stories in games increases, figuring out how to do it well is becoming more an more an issue. The average gamer is a guy in his 30's, you know. Shows from Lost to Grey's Anatomy feature mature storylines that we, in games, feel at risk to take.

What advice do you have for designers and publishers entering this market to not ruin it for the rest of the people? What would you tell them to do to keep their nose clean?

The most obvious one is one that I think we're already doing: declare all your content to whatever your rating board may be. If your game is unrated, be sure to provide non-erotic splash pages that require age verification, ideally by credit card. Don't solicit players with erotic emails via email bomb that might get into the inbox of someone who doesn't want to see it at all. Be aware of and respectful to the varying degrees of people's tolerance to sexual content. It's okay if they hate it. Respect that and do what you can to make sure they don't accidentally trip across your game. Likewise, be tolerant of other people's kinks, particularly in the MMO space. This is more a player-to-player issue, but designers need to be truly aware of the needs of those individual communities and respectful of them all the same.

What concerns do you have about the ESRB in the post-Lowenstein era?

None, really. I expect it will be business as usual, though Lowenstein has been a tremendous asset to an industry under fire.

I do, however, wonder what will happen to ratings when we, as a game buying public, start purchasing more and more of our content from a global and digital source. While games have almost always self-identified mature content -- even in the days before any ratings system -- when they're not required to get an official ESRB rating in order to get into retail big box stores in North America, will that same level of adherence to the ratings apply? We're probably a couple console generations from that, though.

Anything over the last year past Hot Coffee that really got you mad?

I expected the flurry of legislation, so that didn't really get me any more riled that I normally am about anything censorship-esque.

Jack Thompson's profoundly homophobic comments and actions surrounding Bully certainly caused a spike in blood pressure. I mean, come on. Welcome to 2007, Jack. There are GLBT people. Get past yourself. Move on. What's next? Should we remove all Warhol, Maplethorpe, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Capote from museums and libraries worldwide? It was just absurd to me and felt so very 1950's. I understand that he desires to protect people from content that he deems inappropriate -- his comments were inappropriate.

I've also been particularly bothered by the general perception that games are just bad and don't do anything of value. I hear that from so many people and from so many sources. Seeing a design document for a serious game I am consulting on, one person commented, "Finally, something good to come out of video games." In one single sentence, that guy had just leveled the entire art form. I hear it on the radio, on television, in newspapers -- "those violent, terrible video games."

I was talking with Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters, at a conference recently, and we discussed how video games are being treated much the same way that other media were in the past. There was a time when reporters, upon arriving at some terrible scene or another, would ask, "Does he listen to heavy metal? Any Ozzy in there?" Now, it's most certainly about video games. Only 12 percent of the games that we make are M rated. A teeny sliver of 1 percent is AO. And that's okay. Other artforms -- from movies, to music, to books, to fine art -- have their range of offerings. It's only natural that we would, too.

There is a whole world of good that has come from games, and much that can be learned from them. A kid with ADHD zones out after 30 minutes of class but can play WoW for 8 hours. There is something to be learned from games -- something good. I only wish this current political obsession with our medium would blow over.

Is there an easy way to incorporate sex and sexuality into gaming without sending up red flags?

If we're talking about a mainstream game, yes. The first key thing is to have a good game in which the sexual content fits naturally within the narrative. If you don't have a good game, adding sex to it won't save you. BMX XXX, my second favorite bad game -- recently topped by Big Rig -- just doesn't work as a game, sex or not. So, you have to start with a solid foundation.

Next, consider your audience, and make it appropriate. The Sims and Sims 2 have all kinds of relationship stuff going on, but it's handled tastefully and in a way that will not offend the game's audience. It's almost comical, similar to the way that the older Leisure Suit Larry titles handled more mature themes. God of War is also a game that handled its more mature sexual content well. You knock the vase off the table, but the player can imagine what they think is happening. I think GoW did raise some flags though. I heard that at least one major retailer wouldn't carry it due to its sexual content. When it started selling like hotcakes, though, the game appeared on that retailer's shelves.

The easiest way to incorporate sex into a game without raising flags is to add a chat interface and allow multiple people to play the game. That'll do it every time.

It doesn't look like sex based games are going to go the retail route. With digital distribution being their way, any games out there now, or soon, that you think stand a good chance of being a sleeper hit?

You know, I heard Greg Costikyan of speak on a panel at the Montreal Game Summit back in November. He said, in essence, that retail store sales of games would soon be a thing of the past and certainly not the primary method of selling games. He's right. We only need to look at the music industry to see that middlemen in physical buildings aren't as necessary as they used to be. With the various live components of consoles making content immediately accessible, I think within one or two console generations, we'll be looking at exclusive online delivery. It makes sense to do that, too, particularly considering how much these things cost to me.

This means that if digital distribution becomes the primary means of both selling and buying games, the pseudo-censorship that's gripped American retail stores and stymied content development – anything that could be seen potentially sexually-themed content -- like Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in U.S. and Canada) – will be over. has an adult section as do several other online sites. I think it's a matter of time before the sex game hits of today –,,, and about a dozen others – become known to a wider audience. The whole sex game industry is a sleeper right now.

Are you currently working on any games or advising?

I am working on two games presently. I have been consulting with the University of Connecticut on their Safer Sex Video Game. I've also signed a massive NDA recently. This allows me to tell you that I am working on the design of "A Game" for "A Company." NDA's are fun like that.

What's your next book about?

I have been asked to write a couple books, neither of which has anything to do with sex or sexuality, believe it or not. That's fine, too. I'm a game designer, after all, and designers are known for getting intensely interested in something before moving on to another topic -- and becoming just as intensely interested in that.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.