In 2008, Bioware’s Mass Effect came under a hailstorm of criticism from the mainstream American media for some of its content. What was the cause of this outrage? The 40 hour epic contained a 40 second scene where the main character is depicted having sex with the romantic interest of the story. How is it that a video game can cause controversy for including such a brief and inexplicit scene, whilst other mediums often feel free to include sex of a very explicit nature without fear of backlash? To answer this, we have to look at video games’ historically uneasy relationship with sex and sexuality.
Sex has been present in video games since their invention, though it’s fair to say that it has rarely been treated with maturity. The first real case of controversy about sex in video games was in 1982, when Custer’s Revenge was released for the Atari 2600. The player took control of a naked American general George Custer, and the object of the game was to avoid oncoming arrows and reach a nearby captive Native American woman, in order to rape her.
Over the next few decades, video games began to grow as a creative medium. Developers not only pushed the boundaries of gameplay and graphics, but also sought to explore the issues video games could deal with as an art, including human aggression, fear, friendship, and various life philosophies. Strangely though, sex and human sexuality seemed to be one issue left behind in the dust. Instead, hyper-sexualised stereotypes, one dimensional token female characters and pandering to the dumb became the accepted norm.
Sadly, video games are just as guilty of this today. From Soul Calibur V’s recent derogatory marketing campaign (as well as an entire series of female characters that seem all too eager to don combat armour that offers zero protection to the breast and crotch areas) to Call Of Juarez: The Cartel’s immature and offensive handling of the subject of human trafficking in modern day Mexico.
There are, of course, exceptions. Some video games manage to treat sex as a serious subject through their narrative and their mechanics. Take Kanji Tatsumis battle with his shame of his homosexuality in Persona 4, and Samus’ championing of gender equality in the Metroid series, (that is until Team Ninja took over and completely ruined everything). All too often though, video games seem stuck in a very immature mindset of objectified women, hyper masculine men, and a general avoidance of tackling sex and gender with any level of sophistication. From Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty, Gears of War to Final Fantasy.
We can see then, that whilst the backlash against Bioware might have been overdramatic and ignorant, it clearly highlights the need for the video game industry to develop maturity in dealing with sex in order to be taken seriously. If video games are to ever win mainstream artistic acceptance, if the industry is to ever make its Brokeback Mountain, its Picture Of Dorian Gray, then we need to show that, as gamers, we can show maturity and restraint when it comes to sex and sexuality.