Sexual and Romantic Content in Games

Having recently become a father, the issue of graphic and gratuitous violence in games has been in my thoughts lately. It probably says a lot about me that this leads me to wonder where all the games with sexual and romantic content are.

So, no, this isn't an anti-violence screed, though I am thoroughly bored with bodies that explode and splatter in viscerally rendered 3d. It's more of a pro-sex, or specifically sex-positive screed.

One of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, has stated that she is "still bemused by the prudishness of some SF readers when confronted with sex-positive scenes compared to the Romance-reader crowd, and this in a genre that includes some of the most repellent negative sex scenes I've ever read." (full article here).

The situation in gaming (the largest share of which is sci-fi or fantasy) is basically similar, with the medium caught between prudishness and repellence, with a heavy dose of exploitation thrown in. Hypersexualized costumes and beyond-barbie impossible 3d models for the female form are the norm, and when games include sex at all, it tends to be truly sophomoric: a series of "James Bond" style disposable sex objects, combined with mortal fear of being labeled porn: games like The Witcher and Mass Effect which still represent sex with a kiss and a fade to black.

Then there's the sublimation of sex into violence, as in games that feature sexy semi-nude female "monsters" that die with orgasmic cries, going at least as far back as the succubi from the first Diablo, and the whole Laura Croft tradition of 3rd person games with impossibly top-heavy and jiggly girls shooting things. That genre reached an apex with the self-aware but hardly self-critical Bayonetta, a game about using pole-dancing inspired moves and "gun shoes" to kill angels.

There are a number of 3d sex "games" out there, mostly focussed on the tawdry idea of getting Laura Croft or someone like her to perform fellatio.

There are story and character driven games in the Japanese visual novel genre, some of which are quite remarkable for their plotlines and characterizations, but almost never for gameplay, which usually consists of a lot of reading and an occasional dialogue choice.

At the same time, these bishojo ("beautiful girl") games are simultaneously cliche fests, mostly involving schoolgirls and canned characterizations based on famous and fetishized anime characters. Except for the rare yaoi ("boy's love" or gay, mostly intended for a straight female audience) title that gets translated, these games are both very heteronormative and traditional to retrograde in their depiction of gender norms.

Japanese visual novels also include many of the most "repellent negative sex scenes" in gaming, fetishizing rape and "nonconsensual" sex, incest, bestiality, sexual harassment, sex addition, human sacrifice, and unrealistic notions of BDSM sexplay. Even the more pure and vanilla games tend to ascribe to the painfully outmoded Victorian view of women as asexual until seduced/corrupted, at which point they become nymphomaniacs.

Fantasy is fantasy, and if fantasies of using a rife with a sniper scope to blow someone's head apart are acceptable, then sexual fantasies of domination, sadism, and even rape, must be equally acceptable. I have long been against censorship, and having a baby has not changed that.

This brings me at last to my goal: I want to draw attention to games that make sex, sexuality, and romance a major part of their story and (preferably) gameplay in a positive and healthy, or at least thought-provoking way.

I'm reviewing a series of games for Play This Thing! with that goal in mind. As I do so, I'll be posting some of my more scholarly, and more personal, musings here.

The first review, of yuri ("girl's love" or lesbian) themed RPG-Maker game "Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle" is now available.

At least two more are coming, one of bleakly surreal Russian indie title The Void and the other of a blatantly sexual game by a Japanese dojin group, Erotical Night. I chose these three titles because they are all remarkable in very different ways, with very different narratives and styles of gameplay.

If all goes well, I may continue the "series" from there.

iggy at insert credit did a

iggy at insert credit did a pretty cool writeup of ie, tatemasu that talks about ways in which it subverts (gay, bear) eroge/porn conventions and ends up being sort of unnervingly realistic, the meat of what he talks about is in the third page here:

i can't remember if i originally got this link off of you but emily short had interesting things to say about the relationship dynamics in emily's holiday season:

also you might check out lost in blue or harvest moon/rune factory if you're looking for something more mainstream


Iggy's review is really amazing - and "ie, tatemasu" does some interesting things. It's a shame that I can't read Japanese, or I'd have to see if I could get my hands on a copy.

I really like the fact that the game transitions from being about sex to about relationships and love: inasmuch as "ie, tatemasu" reflects gay culture and not just gay porn (Iggy's contention), this is yet another way in which gay culture is both more honest and, IMHO, more healthy than the straight world.

I hadn't seen Emily's post before, so you didn't get that from me. Interestingly enough, the option to choose friendship over romance is also present in a game that I'm considering adding to the list of reviews for this series, but I'll hold my tongue until I make up my mind about that review.

Culture and Corporate Policy

I think that your question as to where all the Romantic games are suggests a very interesting line of thought about why the videogame industry is what it is today. Much of it has to do with the way that the industry defines itself and its audience, with the small segment of "Hard Core" gamers being designated as the most desirable and profitable demographic, while other groups, including women, are marginalized. These companies most generally recruit from within the narrow demographic of their audience, thus reinforcing the same cultural norms.

This is, of course, far from a complete answer. There are many other factors that may or may not contribute to the game industry's approaches to sex and sexuality. One particularly interesting example of industry intervention was Nintendo's long-time policy of forbidding sex and nudity (along with religious imagery) from American releases. While excessive blood was also restricted, violence itself was deemed much more permissible. Echoes of this policy can still be seen today in videogame companies, such as the submission guidelines for Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie Games (which is still much harsher on sex and relationships than it is on blood and violence).

I look forward to reading more of your scholarly musings on the subject.


I think you're right that the industry continues to cater to the "hard core" in a way that reminds me of how "Spawn" and most other 90's era Image Comics (the new, much smaller Image is a different animal) participated in the "growing up" of comics - more violence, more amoral behavior (not meaningful moral ambiguity), and bustier female characters, all without anything resembling maturity.

Of course, in the parlance of marketing, if you're over 28 (I think that's it) you're "old" and if you're "old" and female, the entire entertainment industry considers you irrelevant. I was just looking for a source I saw recently about this, but I can't find it at the moment, and I don't have time to search further riight now.

But at least other media seem to recognize that they have a female audience, not to mention that not all men (not even all "young" men) are all about guns and cars.

There is an exception, as the other comment reminded me. Many "casual" games (marketed almost exclusively to women) feature relationships in some sense, but tend to be absolutely puritanical about sex: the entire romance novel business would go belly-up if it took this perspective.