In 1987’s sleeper hit Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, the player takes control of a middle-aged man named Larry, with ultimate goal of having sex with one of the game’s four women. Larry is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a virgin, and the game gives the player a limited amount of time (and money) with which to obtain his ultimate goal.
While he has the option of sleeping with a prostitute (and thereby contracting a fatal STD should he fail to first procure a condom), the game largely consists of winning over women by buying them gifts, until the reward of intercourse is obtained. The game ends either if he succeeds in his mission, or if the allotted time runs out. In the latter case, it ends with him committing suicide.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards could, if presented differently, have been a commentary on the social pressures facing men in society, the stigmatization of virginity, or the objectification of women in modern culture. It wasn’t, of course, and it represents the great missed opportunities of a medium so simultaneously filled with sexual imagery and yet lacking in meaningful discussion of sex itself.
The depiction of sex and sexual relationships in video games has matured since the juvenile days of Leisure Suit Larry, but in most cases, it’s possibly only a graduation from the juvenile to the adolescent. Indeed, like Leisure Suit Larry, games that include sexual relationships, or the possibility thereof, often dangle the sexual encounter as the ultimate reward for (usually a man) pursuing a relationship (usually with a woman), and gloss over the societal, personal, and physical aspects of sex.
Give Leliana enough gifts in Dragon Age: Origins, and you get to watch your character’s polygons rub against hers. Wear the right clothes and drive the right car in Grand Theft Auto IV, and go home with the girl. Say all the right things to Tali in Mass Effect 3, and you get to see her face in a picture, though not when you’re actually having sex with her, which you can also do. All of these present sex as both fundamental to a meaningful romantic relationship, and its final culmination or reward, rather than simply a part of many (but not all) such relationships. They also tend to overlook what sex means to the parties involved and to the society in which they live.
It’s perhaps understandable that sex would be treated as a reward in video games. Video games, and especially role-playing games (RPGa), are very reward-driven. Most people enjoy sex, many seek it, and from a biological viewpoint, the pleasure it often provides can be seen as the carrot designed to ensure the immortality of one’s genes.
But unlike other enjoyable biological drives, such as eating, sex has an entire culture of mystery, taboo, and social constructions that have rendered the predominant media depictions of sex and sexual relationships profoundly different from the lived experience. That sex is a reward for the correct behaviors or actions, and that its necessary for a fulfilling life, is part of that media myth, and one that video games largely play into.
It’s also problematic. The depiction of sex as a reward for completing a task reinforces the societal pressures (often on males) to push for sex as frequently as possible. It suggests when sex isn’t wanted, it’s an obstacle to be overcome, rather than a choice to be respected. People don’t have hidden progress bars that need to be filled before they reward you with sex. It’s a choice they make.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt comes to mind as one game that used sex somewhat more realistically, at least with respect to the two main female romantic interests, Yennefer and Triss. Here, sex is just a part of their relationship; it’s important, but it’s neither all-consuming nor the final culmination of that relationship. In fact, there are scenes far more suggestive of romance and intimacy than the game’s many sex scenes, such as this one (spoiler warning).
The Witcher 3 also rarely uses sex as a reward, except perhaps in the case of Jutta, the hilltop warrior who Geralt must defeat in single-combat in order to bed. But, for the most part, there are no hidden progress bars to be filled here. You have sex when both parties want to, something as realistically portrayed as any game I’ve seen (unicorns aside).
But The Witcher 3 does have its own problems, not least of which is its lack of diversity with respect to race or sexual orientation. This is an area that BioWare has taken big steps forward by allowing the player to play various genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. While many of these games do fall into the trap of viewing sex as a reward, they also have brilliant moments in which sex is placed both in the individual character arcs and in the world at large.
The scene with Dorian, for example, in Dragon Age: Inquisition addresses what sex means for Dorian and the player character, while placing it into the culture of the Dragon Age world. Unfortunately, this is something seldom seen in gaming.
But even games as generally thoughtful as BioWare’s tend to gloss over the physical act of sex itself. While it’s understandable that they can’t be sexually explicit without running afoul of the ESRB, I can’t think of a single example in which sex in video games is portrayed as anything other that perfect and immensely satisfying for both parties. Having great sex is hard enough for long-married couples, let alone the first-time lovers so often depicted in games.
Experimentation and communication are incredibly important. It would be nice to see some discussion between characters of that fact, or having a character that didn’t love every moment of the act every time. Media already places enough pressure on young lovers to miraculously be experts without video games contributing to unrealistic notions of what sex has to be, or what one’s sex life should look like.
In the same vein, video games also have a tendency to encourage a sort of Pokémon approach to sexual encounters: gotta catch ‘em all. Dragon Age: Origins even has achievements for completing these romance options, all of which culminate in (implied) intercourse. Notably, The Witcher 3 has a surprising twist if Geralt tries to romance both of the primary love interests, but there’s nothing but inducement to explore every other option, from master Gwent players to hilltop warriors.
The message, especially to younger gamers, is that you should be having lots of sex, and if you’re not, you’re not doing it right. Virginity is rarely discussed except as something to be overcome. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with having lots of (safe) sex, or many different sexual partners, but that should be the result of an informed choice, not the result of societal pressure. Choosing to have no sex is perfectly valid, too: a fact undermined by the achievements and rewards bestowed on players that seek out as much of it as possible.
It’s perhaps a hard issue to address, since it’s difficult to make a player feel rewarded for choosing not to do something. Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s forced monogamy, in which you must first end a relationship before beginning a new one, is no better. It comes across as heavy-handed and moralizing. Perhaps more romantic options in which sex is either impossible (Why didn’t Mass Effect have any of these?), difficult, or simply not an important part, should be available.
Addressing these issues is why we both need more realistic depictions of sex and sexual relationships in games, and less sex-as-reward. The former investigates an often important part of many people’s lives and relationships, while the latter reinforces societal pressures to push for sex as often as one can without addressing the needs and desires of either party, or putting sex in its personal and societal context.
Media already places enough pressure on young lovers to miraculously be experts without video games contributing to unrealistic notions of what sex has to be, or what one’s sex life should look like.
Ultimately, it’s good that games are including sex, because it helps break the unnecessary taboo that surrounds the issue and allows us to talk about it more openly, without incurring the puritanical wrath of those who want to see every nipple covered. But we need go beyond simply rewarding the player with depictions of uniformly great sex for filling arbitrary progress bars. If we explore sex in games at all, we should see all of its depth, its triviality, its joys and pains, and its importance, or lack thereof, in the characters’ lives.
Or, perhaps, it can be handled like this: