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Big Ideas: Sex in games

The history of sex in video games is an interesting one. It's a kind of irony that from gaming's humble origins on gigantic mainframes to their current positions in most homes in the nation, the public's perception of video games has trended downward, with the prevailing idea that games are for children and teenagers. But the earlier games were certainly geared toward adults, if for no other reason than only adults had access to them.

So as home computers evolved to the point where games became more and more sophisticated, their subject matter also evolved to include more thematically adult issues. Far from the relatively tame fare seen in Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are the great porn games of yesteryear -- titles like Softporn Adventures, by the then-named On-Line Systems, which would later become Sierra On-Line. People took their sex games seriously in those days. What happened?

It's easy to guess: with more and more homes containing devices that could play naughty games, the probability grew that a child might accidentally play one of these games, so the pornography had to be toned down, first of all, and later still, hidden away behind a prominently-displayed adults-only rating on the box. Over time, this would lead to a steady dilution of any sort of sexual content in games, as the video game industry simply grew in both size and popularity. The fact that we are beginning to see the return of sex being taken seriously by developers such as Bioware just underscores the point.

This is a shame for fans of the old-style sex games, as many of these titles were funny, creative endeavors by people who weren't just providing prurient content -- they were entertaining in many ways. Consider the original Leisure Suit Larry point and click adventure series. One could almost say that the sex was secondary, with the main part going to writer Al Lowe's humor. These days you're more likely to see a lot of bare flesh in a Strip Poker game, but a corresponding lack of inventiveness -- in either setting, delivery, or storyline. It seems like the industry doesn't even remember how to do it right anymore; reviews of the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, Box Office Bust, depict a title that tries far too hard to be raunchy, with the jokes coming across as mean-spirited, rather than clever. It's not enough to just use sexual terms and situations; there has to be some kind of heart behind it all.

But is adult sexuality something that we necessarily need in games? We seem to be doing fine without it. Or, rather, we're fine with the way we've compartmentalized our sexual urges to remain apart from our games -- at least, those of our games whose focus is on combat, rather than socialization. If you look at games like The Sims and online spaces like Second Life, you'll see that sex hasn't disappeared, it's merely changed form. Our generation, and those to follow, will have spent more time in front of our computers and game consoles than ever before, so it's no surprise that we've made the most of these new tools to adapt our needs and desires to this new context. What's more, being virtually composed of little more than pixels allows us to safely experiment with a variety of stimuli and morphologies that we might have shied away from in the real world. As they say, on the Internet no one knows you're a dog ... or a cat ... or a vampire ... or a centaur ... or a robot ...

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