Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Why is a Bare Breast More Offensive Than a Severed Arm?

Shamus Young | 22 Jul 2014 15:00
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More importantly, arousal is a very personal thing and we're more particular about when and where we want to feel it. I don't mind being grossed out in front of my mom, but I definitely don't want to be aroused in front of my mom. Making something sexually titillating immediately makes it something that you don't want to see in certain situations. People aren't so much upset by what they're seeing as what they're feeling. While you can ease the impact of violent imagery by reminding yourself it's "just a movie", that's not so easy to do with sexual content. That really is a naked person and they really are affecting you on a physiological level. You can stop believing in a movie, but you can't control what sorts of things arouse or embarrass you.

This probably explains why people are so much more prickly when it comes to sexual content versus violent content. It's not that people think murder is better than sex, it's that sexual content makes them feel things they don't want to feel and turns communal entertainment into a moment of shared awkwardness. This is especially problematic in the world of television, where you look for content by surfing channels and you don't have a convenient way of knowing what sorts of content you're going to be exposed to ahead of time. This creates the dreaded "danger surf", where other people (the kids, or grandma, or your neighbor) enter the living room in the middle of your channel surf and suddenly it's your job to land on something tolerable that isn't going to shock, offend, or traumatize the other people in the room.

I don't want to make it sound like adult content never has a place on the small screen. But some people do feel that way, and I understand why. I get why they feel that television should be an inherently family-friendly medium. This problem has been made much, much worse by American cable companies insisting on selling their channels in bundles. As I pointed out above, everyone has a different idea of what is "okay", and bundles are a horrible system for dealing with gradients like this.

So that's television: A horrible tug-of-war between the family "prudes" who want to be able to channel-surf with the kids and the "hedonistic" singles who will reliably watch anything with gorgeous and sexually provocative young people in it. Throw in terrible cable service, the long-standing trend of content getting racier over time, the background culture war that's always going on, and the occasional accidental escalation of content levels and you've got a pretty good system for pissing people off and creating lots of silly moral panic.

So what about videogames? As odd as sex can be in movies and television, at least they have sex. What's the deal with an industry where massive body counts are the norm and human sexuality is barely acknowledged? Videogames don't have the drawbacks that you find in passive media. A single-player game is obviously designed for one person, so you don't have the problem of social awkwardness when you're viewing something salacious in mixed company. Their labeling is better than movies, offering details about what sort of content the game has to offer instead of a silly age rating. They're [over] marketed to young males, who are by far the biggest consumers of sex-themed media.

It seems like a marketing no-brainer: Put more titillating sex in the game and sell even more to those young males everyone is so interested in. Forget the "Citizen Kane" of videogames, why hasn't anyone tried to make the Eyes Wide Shut, Chasing Amy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, or Porkys of videogames? (And just to be clear, I'm not suggesting these are all great movies. Also, I'm talking about games ABOUT sex, not games with sex as gameplay. I'm not talking about pornographic games, but simply games where characters have or pursue some sort of sex life.)

But rather than chalk this up to puritanical attitudes to sex or a lust for violence, I think there are a lot of really practical reasons why sex doesn't show up in videogames. Assuming you're not making some sort of juvenile stick-thrusting minigame like hot coffee, then a game about sex is probably a game about people and relationships, and we've never been good at systemizing that sort of thing. We can't do games where people talk about sex for the same reason we can't do games about contract negotiation, subterfuge in diplomacy, or philosophical debate. Computers are too stupid to act as a proper conversational foil for the player. The best you could do is have a BioWare-style conversation wheel, and that would probably be really sad and awkward.

Worse, the "divergent experiences" problem becomes even more extreme in interactive media. If we all react differently to sexual content in passive media, then we're going to react even more strongly when we're asked to participate. I might be able to sit through an uncomfortable sex scene, but I really don't want to pick up and controller and push the characters into it.

So before we condemn our society as monsters because we don't have more sex and less violence in games, let's remember that this trend is more a reflection of what computers can do and less a reflection of what we value as a society.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work at Twenty Sided.

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