Playing video games today, it can be a little weird to reflect on the perception they’ve had over the years. Once, they were little more than expensive kid’s toys. My parents were against getting me a Nintendo, but mostly because sitting in front of the TV would ‘rot my brain’ and not because it would make me go out and murder a prostitute. The era of moral and media panic came shortly after, first with congressional hearings over Mortal Kombat‘s gore, then the Jack Thompson era and scrutiny over every bit of violence and nudity over maturity in games in general.
Fortunately, the sense of constant scandal and furor has died down a bit since, although it occasionally rears it’s head. We had a bit of hubub in 2007 over the idea of a player character having fake sex with a fake blue alien (heaven forbid!), but I suspect it won’t be as remarkable when a similar act is presumably still possible in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Hopefully, a decade is enough time to get over that one. Of course, the Grand Theft Auto franchise can be counted on to stir controversy with every entry, and GTA V was no exception with its torture scene and overall sexism. Life goes on.
There’s no doubt that the standards in the industry and cultural mainstream are changing, and this is important on its own as a measure of video games alongside other forms of media. After all, we’re only now dragging people to grudging acceptance of barely R-rated themes in an industry competitive in size and profitability with Hollywood. There’s no reason games can’t or shouldn’t handle such maturity, can’t address the same range of human interactions that appear in TV, film, and literature, the latter of which has featured such themes for millennia.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. The simple presence of adult content like foul language and sex isn’t the marker of maturity, and it can easily be used to promote a hopelessly immature and outright terrible one (ask Duke Nukem Forever). “Sex sells” is an adage for a reason, and with the AAA market still heavily male-skewing, there’s a lot of incentive to use whatever risque content you can get away with to appeal to this demographic. I hardly need to breakdown the usual suspects, but there’s female avatars in swimsuit-style outfits aplenty and a frequent tendency to use sex as a reward rather than a meaningful story point.
Even forward-thinking AAA games are still hit-and-miss when it comes to this kind of material, but in the grand scheme, the selection of crude offerings and more well-intentioned missteps is still something we ought support. Why? Because you can’t explore issues that you can’t even raise in the first place. In fact, the evolution of gaming goes hand in hand with its more troublesome traditions. Without affection ratings and other dating elements nudged into RPGs, we wouldn’t have the well-loved companion romances of the Bioware library, complete with some of their more inclusive modern offerings. And without many (and sometimes egregious) examples of vile human behavior offered in the name of “grittiness,” we probably wouldn’t have the varied selection of games meditating on ethical choice that we do today, like in the ever-popular survival genre.
Sometimes, these contradictions even appear within the same series, or the same game.
In The Witcher series, Geralt is an infamous womanizer, and your typical reward-style romances are scattered throughout. Find the right NPC, pick the right story options and dialogue, get sex (complete with NSFW collectible cards in the first game, and graphic cutscenes in the later ones). Yet some of these offer interesting characterization, such as with Ves in the second game, an interaction that might best be described as two soldiers baring their scars. Then there’s Geralt and Triss, notable for being everything but the typical prize. The two characters start in a relationship and there’s no tricky game elements to push it forward; they’re a loving but independent pair who are totally comfortable with one another in a way that’s refreshingly frank. That dynamic grows more important as Geralt’s past (with a troublesome prior relationship) is slowly revealed.
Returning to Grand Theft Auto, we have a game that blatantly tramples the line between gritty and exploitative, taking a blase approach to sex and violence alike. With pedestrians to mow down, stripclubs to visit, hookers to regain health from (and then possibly rob), and all manner of crimes to revel in, it’s not hard to understand why it’s so often been a target, and it’s probably even deserved some of the scrutiny. But the games have also given us some interesting characters and stories (like Niko’s American Dream gone awry in IV), narratives that we couldn’t have experienced if the games shied away from the underlying topics of criminality. Now this same genre is poised to give us Mafia III, a game with the potential to explore serious things like race and the meaning of family, against a backdrop that will undoubtedly be violent, criminal, sexist and racist.
Outside of the AAA market, the lines have traditionally been less well defined. Especially on PC, where programmers and modders are free to create whatever content they can code and even hack it into other people’s games, adult material has always had a presence; just about every game with a female lead or major NPCs has or will see a nude mod at some point. Compared to the controlled console market, this is the Wild West. But it’s also a side of gaming long sectioned off from public view by the borders of technological expertise and accessibility. The Hot Coffee scandal was only one because of this strange divide, with the mainstream public reacting with shocked astonishment to something that was totally trivial to any PC gamer.
With amateur-accessible game creation frameworks (like RPG Maker or Ren’Py) and distribution channels like Steam Greenlight and the bundle scene, the barriers that once separated these gaming spheres are rapidly diminishing. In their absence, the indie scene both drives and benefits from mature mainstream offerings. Creators can show off their work with fewer financial limits, meaning that while sex still sells, it doesn’t have to, and the bottom line can be less of a driving force than art and storytelling. At the same time, as the mainstream comes to terms with the spectacles of the largest AAA controversies, a title like This War of Mine can flourish, rather than meet the pitchforks and torches of the Thompson crowd. Because that’s exactly what would have happened if a game where you can rob an elderly couple for food had gotten mainstream press in the 90s or early 00s.
In the end, I think most of us will agree that the increasing maturity of games is a good thing, even when it means that some games will sometimes miss the mark in how they address adult content and themes. Boundary-violating titles carve out space for creators large and small, and will ultimately help video games reach a parity with other forms of media in the public view.
The opinions in this editorial are the author’s and do not represent OnlySP as an organization.