“We’ll get home again, Shepard. I believe you’ll lead us through, ‘O Captain, My Captain,’” Ashley states to Commander Shepard as they converse in his quarters.
Changing the topic somewhat, Shepard asks, “It occurs to me that this might be our last night alive. Got any plans?”
“Trying a frontal assault? All that training, you’d think they’d teach you the best approach is indirect. To draw the enemy out of their fixed defenses. There are regs against this, you know. You ready to deal with the consequences?” Ashley responds coyly.
Taking on a more serious tone, she continues, “I’ve spent my whole life fighting to get want I want. To get it done, I had to bury a lot of things. During that whole time, not even once did I feel like I was worth what I was fighting for.” She pauses before revealing, “You make me feel good enough.”
Perhaps sensing both vulnerability and opportunity, Shepard commands, “Bunk here tonight, Ash. With me.”
“Bold words, Shepard. I like bold,” Ashley responds playfully.
“At this point, I think I know fairly well what you like,” Shepard states, sensing the inevitable.
Finally giving in, Ashley capitulates, “You’ve only scratched the surface. Scratch a little deeper.” She grabs Shepard by the back of the neck and pulls him towards her.
Thus starts the twenty second sex scene in Bioware’s Mass Effect that created an uproar on the Fox News program “The Live Desk With Martha MacCallum.” Author and pop psychologist Cooper Lawrence denounced the game due to its so-called pornographic content, stating, “Here’s how they’re seeing women: They’re seeing them as these objects of desire, as these, you know, hot bodies. They don’t show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality. And it’s a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with.”
In a later interview with the New York Times, Lawrence recanted her comments due to the enormous backlash created by her appearance on Fox News. “I recognize that I misspoke. I really regret saying that, and now that I’ve seen the game and seen the sex scenes it’s kind of a joke.”
While much of the controversy surrounding the sex scene in Mass Effect was created by ignorance and misinformation, it still brings to light the culture surrounding sex in the United States. Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum have a history of condemnation towards nonmarital sex, sexual promiscuity, and pornography. Sexual liberalism and diversity are often cited as detrimental to “traditional morals” and “family values.”
However, the prevalent political and social stance on sex in America has a history of being completely disconnected from the reality of the subject.
The nineteenth century Victorian era in the United States is one that is often characterized by prudery and censorship, though the reality was much different. As discussed in the journal article The Word Made Flesh: Language, Authority, and Sexual Desire in the Late Ninetenth-Century America, a movement for open discussion on sexuality through the use of obscene language was spawned by the Free Lovers in the 1850s.
Free Love newspapers published articles that rejected the predominant views of children as sexually innocent, and openly discussed the use of birth control. In one 1890 letter in The Word, a mother describes exactly and in detail the act of copulation to her twelve year-old daughter when asked, “Mama, what does ‘fuck’ mean?” Another letter in the newspaper Lucifer describes a man seeking a cure for his “insatiable appetite for human semen.”
The 1950s Kinsey Reports furthered this disconnect between reality and perception by blurring the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality, exposing extramarital sex and premarital sex to be fairly prevalent, and revealing prostitution to be a much more regular practice than originally thought, among many other topics. Combined with the introduction of the first oral contraception, the Kinsey Reports are thought to be a major contributor to the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.
Les Cousins Dangereux
Despite the predominant disconnect between sexual perception and reality in the United States, the videogame industry demonstrates a much more balanced sexual dichotomy in Europe and Japan.
When The Witcher was originally released in 2007, the European versions included nudity in female portrait cards that were collected after engaging in sexual activities with the corresponding in-game characters. The North American version of the game had such nudity censored, an editing that was recently rectified by the Director’s Cut version of the game.
French developer Quantic Dream went through a similar process two years earlier in 2005. In order to release Indigo Prophecy in North America, the studio was forced to remove scenes depicting nudity and sex, one of which was interactive. The game, titled Fahrenheit in other parts of world, remained unedited in European releases.
Outside of Europe, Japan’s large eroge or hentai games market encourages open sexual exploration on the part of the gamer, into areas that otherwise might remain foreign. Themes in such games can range from basic social and relationship development to more taboo subjects such as incest, rape, and bondage.
Earlier this year, as reported by Kotaku, the western media discovered a three-year-old PC game titled Rapelay, a rape game intended for a Japanese audience that was legally released in the country. Due to the fallout of Rapelay and outside influences, Japan’s Ethics Organization of Computer Software decided to cease the manufacture and sale of games that included rape-related activities.
Why has the United States developed so differently from Europe and Japan in terms of sexual perceptions and beliefs? It is a question with answers that can be traced back to the beliefs of the Puritans who sailed to Massachusetts Bay in 1630.
Perhaps a more relevant question, especially in light of the recent self-censorship of the Japanese erotic games industry, would be whether the American videogame industry should strive to increase sexual content in games.
North American developers Bioware and Obsidian Entertainment seem to think so. Upcoming videogames Alpha Protocol, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2 are all slated to have various scenes depicting sex under various circumstances.
Speaking to Destructoid, Chris Avellone, lead creative designer on Alpha Protocol, stated, “I think it’s an important step, and it’s not sex for sex’s sake, but it’s part of human interaction that makes you more involved in the game world and your characters.”
“Just like in the real world, sex runs the range from entertainment to a symbol of the depth of feeling between two people, and not having that reflected in a role-playing experience feels [sic] does RPGs an injustice.”
Bioware’s Greg Zeschuk shared a similar sentiment when discussing Mass Effect and Dragon Age with CVG. “I think from our perspective we want to reflect real human relationships. If you’re trying to have a relationship with a character we want to reflect that and the impact of the connection with that character. And if that involves some sort of intimate scenes, we want to provide those for the player.”
Avellone’s and Zeschuk’s sentiments are certainly laudable. However, are they too little?
Much of the appeal of videogames results from an escapist factor. Videogames allow players to experience events and emotions that would otherwise be impossible to experience, and do so without any of the real-world consequences.
Even games based in reality, such as those in the Call of Duty series, depict individual protagonists that are able to kill hundreds and even thousands of enemies while absorbing an infinite number of bullets. After completing the game, players are able to continue with their lives healthily and normally. They are not subject to any real-world trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorders, experienced by actual soldiers returning from active duty.
As violence is often exaggerated in videogames, why should sex be any different?
While North American developers are focusing on muted sex grounded in human interaction and complex relationships, European and Japanese developers are able to take the much more gratuitous and escapist approach. The Witcher features a sexually promiscuous protagonist who can hire prostitutes. Japan’s hentai games can feature, as stated, rape and other sexual violence.
Pushing the Envelope
Depicting sexual relationships in a complex and muted light, as some North American developers are currently doing, is simply not enough. As videogames are an escapist form of entertainment, depictions of sex can and should be embellished and overstated, in the same vein of violence.
However, given the predominant disconnect between sexual perception and reality in the United States, increasing sexual content will inevitably create a backlash from various social and political organizations. Taking that sexual content to another exaggerated level will only increase that backlash.
Nevertheless, both exaggerated sexual content and the resulting criticisms are necessary for videogames to mature as an artistic and engaging medium.