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Player vs. Everything: Online Games and Sex

Cameron Sorden

As humans, sex is something that plays a very important role in our lives and personal experiences. It's a pretty universal and emotionally charged topic that can dramatically influence how we think of ourselves and how we view our relationships with other people. Even outside of the act itself, ideas about sex and human relationships shape the way we act, the way we dress, the way we live, and the people we associate with. Dealing with the complicated issues surrounding sex is part of the human condition. It's not at all surprising that sex is frequently portrayed in all forms of media which attempt to explore that human experience. However, are video games (and specifically online games) really ready to examine this topic?

There was a really interesting lecture posted by the videogame news blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun a few days ago in which Daniel Floyd discussed the topic of sex in video games. His key point is that if video games are going to attempt to explore the topic of sex effectively, they need to portray it in a way that ties it to relationships and intimacy. Watching the video made me start thinking about how sex is portrayed in MMOGs, especially with the recent launch of Age of Conan, a game that sold itself as a "mature title" with strong violence and sexuality. After a lot of reflection on the topic, I really don't think that mainstream online games are ready to explore sexuality, nor are they even capable of portraying it tastefully with their current limitations.

Granted, Age of Conan is a pretty bad example to use. The game was based on the pulp fiction writing of Robert E. Howard, and his stories are known for their blatantly sexist, trashy style. Reading the Conan stories are about as close as you can get to the equivalent of trashy romance novels written for a male audience (which doesn't mean I enjoy reading them any less -- call it a guilty pleasure). Expecting a game based on the world of Hyboria to treat sex tastefully and elevate the medium is asking too much and missing the point of the setting. Instead of being the first mainstream online game to treat sex maturely, Age of Conan was the first mainstream online game to take gaming's hyper-sensationalized sexuality and jack it up to obscene levels. Contrary to being a bad thing, however, I think it shows a lot of courage that they stayed very true to Howard's vision of the series. It also opens the opportunity for discussion of these topics by inviting criticism and analysis.

In the lecture at RPS, Floyd makes several excellent points about sex in videogames. Portraying sex as it relates to relationships and intimacy is an incredibly important part of the picture which all too often gets left out, and a mature exploration of sexual topics will not and can not occur as long as we're inundated with images of totally unrealistic women with Barbie-doll proportions and clothing which seemingly defies gravity while having no conceivable practical application. The same thing could be said of male avatars, with their steely eyes and chiseled bodies. However, one thing that Floyd doesn't discuss is the interactive nature of games. I think it's a mistake to ignore that, because I believe that it has a huge role in this discussion. It's part of the reason why sex in games is so controversial compared to sex on television or in movies.

With other media and forms of artistic expression, the observer takes a passive role. You're experiencing the story, absorbing the events, and watching how the characters interact with one another. Seeing other humans interact is immensely important for our personal development. It's how we pick up social mores and learn how to act around other people. This is a very different experience from video games, where the player takes an active role in the process. The player makes the decisions, guides the story, and chooses what to do or not to do. Because of this important distinction, the player becomes a participant. Instead of learning by watching, they learn by doing.

Unfortunately, even single-player games have nowhere near the level of narrative mastery required to effectively explore the complicated and delicate framework of interpersonal relationships with sufficient realism and accuracy. Before we can begin to explore Harry and Sally's sex life, we need to understand how Harry met Sally and why they're having sex at all. Videogames, at this point in time, have absolutely nothing that we can point to and compare to the emotional complexity of the issues examined in movies like Husbands and Wives, When Harry Met Sally, or Before Sunrise. When viewed in that context, games that tend to be lauded for their masterful storytelling, like Planescape: Torment, Morrowind, Half-Life 2, and Mass Effect, are laughably crude and ineffective by comparison. Ironically, the mainstream game which arguably does the best job of modeling believable human relationships while still allowing the player to control their flow is the one that gets the most negative press because of its content: Grand Theft Auto 4, which forces you to maintain relationships between the characters in a fairly realistic manner.

Online games are even more problematic for exploring complex relationships in a game setting. MMOs already have huge issues with narrative, caused in part by the fact that it's difficult to tell a good story with millions of active participants who all want to play a role and have their own unique part in the story. Non-player characters, with whom you would probably interact to explore these ideas, play a much smaller role in online games than in single player games. It's for these reasons that online games are primarily focused on the player and their relationship with other players, not about their relationships to NPCs.

Even if there was a game structure in place which modeled and allowed you to realistically engage in a complex relationship with an NPC, I'm not sure we'd want that. Since these games are about you, in the context of your avatar, I'd say that there's even something a little bit weird and unhealthy about developing a realistic relationship with a fictional character. If learning in games is experiential rather than observational, wouldn't it make far more sense to have players interact with another human-controlled character to learn about and experience relationships? I certainly think so, and that's exactly what you see in virtual worlds like Second Life or the whispered conversations of players engaging in cyber-sex in World of Warcraft, as amusing as it may be. I think that either engaging in interactions of that sort or observing non-player characters engaged in realistic relationships are both far more normal and healthy than allowing a player, controlled by a human, to interact in a sexually charged scenario with an NPC, controlled by a computer.

Of course, the majority of the people who play the mainstream online games aren't there to learn about relationships or engage in cyber-sex. A game design which encourages players to participate in the formation and development of complicated emotional relationships with other players could have devastating effects on the existing relationships of those players in their day to day lives, and would be irresponsible for game designers to attempt to encourage in a game unless it was specifically intended for that purpose. If you're playing a dating game for single adults with the intent to role-play online relationships that's fine, but it doesn't really have a place in World of Warcraft or Age of Conan.

So, what's my point? Here's the condensed version: If you believe that you can't explore the topic of sex realistically or maturely without also exploring the complex relationship and intimacy issues which surround it (which I do), that it's unhealthy to attempt to encourage players to develop complex and realistic relationships with a computer-controlled fictional character (which I do), and that it's not easy, appropriate, or particularly desirable to provide an environment which encourages players to explore those issues with other players in a mainstream online game which isn't primarily about sex (which I also do), the only other option is to explore those topics in the traditional manner of film, literature, and television -- by allowing players to observe computer-controlled characters interacting in realistic and emotionally complex relationships. I don't really see another way to do it without hijacking the player's character and controlling their behavior in a pre-determined way that might be different from what the player would do or their vision of how their character would act.

Since online games are still fumbling towards the concept of even working non-player characters into the framework of an MMOG and struggling with serious narrative issues, it seems to me that the whole genre is woefully unprepared for a tasteful and mature approach to sexuality. Attempting to force it in without first addressing those issues is a sure recipe for a botched presentation. No matter how you do it, it's going to come off as immature, childish, silly, and ridiculous. Simply put, online games aren't ready to really explore the topic of sex yet -- not in the way that Floyd is talking about in his lecture.

Video games are still in their infancy; MMOGs even more-so. We haven't really gotten a grasp on how to use this medium to tell stories effectively, yet. Trying to explore the topic of sexuality on the design side of an online game is like trying to run before you can even crawl (let alone walk). For now, MMOG designers should just leave the topic alone. Like sex itself, nothing good can come from trying to force this weighty issue on games before they're really ready to handle it.

Let's just let our games grow up a little before we start worrying about sex.

Cameron Sorden Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT

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