The conversation on violence in video games has grown stale. It doesn’t make anybody go out and commit violent acts. Most studies confirm this, and common sense will tell you that millions of people play violent games each day and don’t commit any acts of violence. That, and the U.S. violent crime rate for the past few years is the lowest it has been in 50 years.
Sex in video games is a little more interesting.
There aren’t a lot of games that feature nudity or sex scenes. The nudity that does survive is always a female and usually in the context of a strip club or shower. Sex scenes are usually full clothed, or the camera pans away so that you just hear what is going on.
I am fine with all that. I would hate it if games began to write in needless sexual content a la Game of Thrones.
However, there are times where sexual content is absolutely necessary to the story. Characters have fallen in love, or maybe some plot device relies on showing that a character has become pregnant. People may be running in the nude because zombies or aliens started rushing in their bathroom window. I certainly wouldn’t take the time to put pants on.
I find this type of content realistic and helpful to the look and story of a game.
Typically, publishers and the organization in charge of game ratings, the Electronic Software Ratings Board, do not agree with me. These groups will tell a developer to remove or change this type of functional sexuality. Developers can always choose not to, but they risk their game receiving an “Adults Only” rating that will doom their game. All three major console companies and most major retailers refuse to carry any “Adults Only” games.
The really crazy part is that often times the very same game features graphic scenes of violence and murder, but the ESRB and game publishers seem to take that much less seriously than any naughty business.
America is completely backwards in this way. It isn’t just the video game world.
Tonight I could watch an episode of NCIS, the country’s highest rated prime time TV show, and see an agent beat a suspect into submission or shoot a dangerous criminal at close range. This doesn’t really phase anyone.
However, if the camera were to be placed at the wrong angle while that agent was showering to clean off the blood from these encounters, television audiences would be in an uproar and CBS would receive millions of phone calls. An angry mob would storm into the streets of New York City and demand Mark Harmon’s head as appeasement.
This ridiculous reversal of what’s offensive is perfectly illustrated by the release of the popular game Beyond: Two Souls.
The game follows the life of Jodie (played by Ellen Paige) and a spiritual entity that she has been connected with since birth. The game was given a mature rating by the ESRB due to graphic violence, adult language and some very minimal sexual content.
The European and Australian versions of this game were edited. The violence was a little too severe for these countries, so about 10 seconds of graphic imagery was removed.
The game was also scrutinized in America, but it was due to the limited amount of sexual content in the game. In some instances of the game, there is an attempted sexual assault. Jodie can also choose to sleep with one of her coworkers. There isn’t any nudity in either scene. Here they are:
Jodie takes a PG-rated shower after the last scene.
The game contains scenes of genocide and child soldiers in Somalia, but the powers that be are more worried about coupling. That is more than a little silly to me.
The Mass Effect series is another example of America’s resistance towards sexuality in games. BioWare, the developer of the game, prides itself on its writing and character development.
Players assume the role of a male or female commander who leads a crew of different characters during a futuristic war. A large part of the game is the player’s interaction with the other crew members. Depending on what you choose to say to each character, your player can form strong friendships with the other characters on his or her ship.
Or you can abuse them and send some to their death. It is up to you.
These relationships can also become romantic. They are pretty tasteful and completely voluntary. The most recent Mass Effect game even allowed for homosexual relationships.
Dusty Everman, the writer of one such romantic story arc, took to the BioWare Blog to elaborate on the process:
“I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, ‘I like blondes.’ It will just be an accepted part of who we are. So I tried to write a meaningful human relationship that just happens to be between two men.”
Here is a video that details most of the interactions that take place in that particular scenario:
I think this added agency is fantastic. I didn’t choose to have a relationship with the gay member of my crew, but I think the growth of these types of options is an important step for video games.
While critics heaped praise on the game, the public response was mixed at best. Mass Effect 3 was obliterated on Meta Critic, but that was mostly due to the game’s unpopular ending. There were quite a few homophobic remarks threaded into the thousands of negative reviews for the game. The actual level of intolerance/disapproval is hard to gauge from online sources because probably about 35% of all message board comments contain a derogatory term for gay people, so don’t be too quick to damn the typical gamer as a bigot.
Speaking of damning people, Fox News also weighed in by calling the first “Mass Effect” game “Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas.”
Here is the footage. I just feel bad for poor Geoff Keighley. He was trying to defend a great game and probably knew that this sort of interruption-filled pummeling was coming, but I don’t think a guest is ever ready for Fox News. This is an old clip and I am sure a lot of you have seen it before, but I never get tired of hearing that the University of Maryland conducted a study that indicated “that boys who play video games can not tell the difference between what they’re seeing in a video game and in the real world.” That statement ended the segment pretty quickly.
All that is to be expected though. I just hope that the BioWare writers can stick to their guns and continue writing meaningful work regardless of the hate, because what they are doing is important. The whispers surrounding the new Dragon Age game seem to indicate that they are doing exactly that.
I am sure game developers have come up with a pretty large bag of tricks to deal with the backlash from sex or nudity in their games. For some, more violence may very well be the answer.
Here is a pretty silly hypothetical situation that I thought of while playing games like Left 4 Dead or Dead Island:
(A zombie game is being reviewed by the ESRB)
ESRB: In chapter 3 of act 2, there is a nude male figure lying dead on the ground.
Developer: Yes, he was a zombie. Zombies don’t worry about putting pants on. They just attack.
ESRB: Well, it has to go if you want a mature rating.
Developer: OK. What if I cut that zombie’s bottom half off? Maybe by a chainsaw or something? That way just his torso and all of his intestines and guts are showing as he rests in a pool of blood.
ESRB: That will work.
I am not saying that we need to do something about the violence in video games. Some games can be a bit excessive, but I know that I can just take the game back if I ever get too offended. I just think it is ridiculous that Americans believe that depictions of sex and the human form are more offensive than depictions of graphic violence, and the gap between the two isn’t even close.
When I was a kid, I knew that watching a movie in which two people took their clothes off was going to get me in way more trouble than watching a movie in which one person chops off the head of another. I hope that backwards view will change as my generation begins to raise children, but I don’t have a lot of faith that it will.