The Gloriously Stupid History of Sex in Video Games
There's more to it than that "Lara Croft naked patch" you trawled Altavista for back in '97.
Illustrations by Stephen Maurice Graham
It's 1997 and I'm searching for the fabled "Lara Croft naked patch" on the internet. It is sometime around the era of when it took about 60 years and the screech of a modem that made your ears bleed to download anything. After about 30 years of downloading, and with blood running down my neck, I finally see outside my own 12-year-old body and think, "What the fuck are you doing, in a few years you will have the body of a woman and your boobs won't look like the pyramids at Giza, either. You can just look at your own real goddamn tits. This is a thing for those boys at school to guffaw at and be like, 'gross'." The internet is a wonderful place for self-discovery.
This was probably the first time I was aware that sexual content was available on the internet, because I understood in a sort of nebulous way that Lara Croft was supposed to be connected to sex. Whatever it was that I was downloading turned out to be a bunch of porn and not anything remotely to do with Tomb Raider, unless you are making a very specific euphemism. The look of dismay on my tiny 12-year-old face is something I wish someone had taken a photo of. Now, I look at the pictures of 1997 Lara Croft naked and polygonal I can't understand why anyone would bother. It seems like an actual obstacle to jerking off.
Thankfully, we've got a little better at this shit as time's gone on.
1978 – 1981: PLAYER IMAGINATION FOR PLAYER MASTURBATION
Did you know that early on in game history graphics were rather difficult to do on computers? This meant that the text parser dungeon ruled supreme in the beginning. The erotic capabilities of text were certainly taken advantage of in the early days of the "video" "game". Back then in the primordial soup something called MUDsex was born: cybersex that takes place in a real-time RPG world.
Like choose-your-own-adventure text games, Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) still occupy a small niche of the internet. Yet in 1978, Roy Trubshaw probably had no idea that his MACRO-10-based roleplaying MUD game would open up a whole new online way to roleplay fantasy elf-banging. MUDs enabled players to type out sexual roleplay in character. Even if it wasn't totally anonymous, it wasn't as awkward as playing Dungeons & Dragons and looking Bob in the eyes while you describe attempts to do the notorious PIV on his level-10 hobbit mage.
This was progress! As game development icon Brenda Romero once said to Joystiq, "The easiest way to incorporate sex into a game without raising flags is to add a chat interface and allow multiple people to play the game." People could even develop feelings of affection over the internet for their virtual sexual partners, which may still have a stigma attached to it (World Of Warcraft players who "marry" each other are still subject to internet ridicule) but the determination of human beings to express themselves by virtualfucking is a truly wondrous and (occasionally) inspiring thing.
Today, you can still find texty MUDsexers over at Achaea, although online trollgarden Encyclopedia Dramatica makes it sound like this is a terrible crime. Even though they both have jerking off to trolls in common.
People usually cite the 1981 text game Softporn Adventure for the Apple II as being one of the first games that was actually about sex. Looking at the cover for the game is quite enough to make sex look like the dullest thing in the world. The women seem a bit sleepy. The waiter in the picture is wondering how long he can stay serving drinks in (?) the Jacuzzi without his balls shrivelling to the size of raisins.
Softporn Adventure is known as being the blueprint for the now infamous 1987 graphical adventure game Leisure Suit Larry In The Land Of The Lounge Lizards. A parser game where you type two-word instructions to the computer as to your next actions, Softporn Adventure swings between scatology (you can drown in sewage just by flushing a toilet) and rape jokes, the sort that a teenager might make: "She takes a pill... her nipples start to stand up! Wow!! She's breathing heavily... I hope she rapes me!!" Sure, bro.
Both Softporn Adventure and the later Leisure Suit Larry take you on a sleazefest night out whereby you marry a woman who ties you up and steals your money, you sleep with a hooker and then "fall in love" with a woman who becomes enamoured with you after you give her some fruit. (My fruit-loving nature is oft talked about among the male types.) It isn't meant to be representative of reality (though writer Charles Benton has said that it was inspired by his personal experience) and it revels in it. However, there's little sexual content in it either, and everything is played for schoolboy jokes.
In comparing Leisure Suit Larry and Softporn Adventure though, the first-person voice implying the player's direct involvement makes Softporn Adventure's story more titillating. And the text leaving the imagery to the imagination makes it somehow sexier.
Leisure Suit Larry suffers from graphics. Most games with sexual content suffer unsexiness via graphics. Every time you try to show sexualised images of bodies in games, it's either too inept, or does not match the player's idea of what a sexual body or situation looks like. If you describe in textual format how an encounter happens, the player can imagine a scenario or person that is attractive between the descriptions, making even the shittiest sex scene somewhat titillating. This probably goes some way to explaining the survival of MUDsex. It's why people phone sex lines. It's about the power of language. It's why people describe their actions in bed to each other. Sex is often in the head, not in the image.
Having said that, Leisure Suit Larry doesn't actually try: the actual act of sex is "censored", and the gags (comedy-wise) are what's important. People often say Leisure Suit Larry wasn't actually about sex, and they were right: the veneer of it, the image of it, the idea of it and the shit jokes it had sold it. And in the end, the commercial success was what mattered. Larry went on to have many successors.
1982 – 1998: MOSTLY WOMEN WHO ARE NAKED AND STATIONARY, UNLESS YOU ARE JAPANESE. IF YOU ARE JAPANESE YOU MIGHT BE OK
Very few sex games, or games that include sex, are actually about sex, although Koei's 1982 game Night Life was sold in Japan as an attempt to help married people figure out their sex life and featured the aptly named chapter "Let's Fuck!!" Night Life included some nice silhouettes of some popular heterosexual bedroom gymnastics. The faceless people in the drawings serve more as a kind of catalogue of ways heterosexual people can fail to pleasure each other than a turn-on, although I can't be sure that in that era people weren't orgasming at the fact their computer could beep "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" after hours of programming.
Koei, along with companies such as Enix, Square and Nihon Falcom helped create the early demand for what are now known as "eroge" games, or Japanese erotic games, many of which can be incredibly narratively complex. Many eroge games have helped grow the popularity of the visual novel genre considerably, and are currently generally good about catering to almost every sexual taste, even if the themes can be dark and violent on occasion. Dōkyūsei in 1992 was a landmark title and known for being the first dating simulation game, and follows the adventures of a boy who pursues a girl, but is somewhat... distracted by other girls on the way. This provided a template for many other eroge games to follow.
1985 brought the Portuguese game Paradise Cafe for the ZX Spectrum, a hideously racist and sexist game about paying women to suck your John Thomas, although also notable is that this was actually a lot more sexually graphic than any other game at the time and featured uncensored pixelated labia and yellow erect penises. The game's undeniable low point is when a black pimp rapes you for being unable to pay for your fellatio. I would rather have dinner with Piers Morgan than ever play it again.
Most games with "erotic content" are just games that include depictions of women with little to no clothes on, which apparently is enough to have people (mostly men) cum in their pants violently. These titles include Bubble Bath Babes on the NES, Strip Fighter 2 on TurboGrafx-16, The Yakyuken Special on Sega Saturn, Miss World '96 (Nude), and other games that Seanbaby mentions in Electronic Gaming Monthly issue 162.
Now blessed with YouTube, the average gamesman can look up videos of these and reassure themselves that they would have enjoyed the "erotic content" as much as they might enjoy the "eroticism" of Custer's Revenge on the Atari 2600, which co-opts a nation's genocidal shame to portray the unsexiest video game boner in history. WHO THOUGHT GENOCIDE AND RAPE WOULD MAKE A GOOD BACKDROP FOR A GAME? And Custer probably got his dangle stuck in a cactus in the process. WHY?
Richard Eter's 1998 adventure game Fuck Quest is a parody of the original Leisure Suit Larry, in that you go from screen to screen collecting things so that you can fuck a lady. However, Fuck Quest actually climaxes (hurr) with the player lowering a giant disembodied penis in and out of a woman's orifices until "fireworks" happen on screen, and a silly amount of beeping happens from your certainly overpowered computer, simulating at best what it would be like if a BBC Micro tried to bang its own floppy disk drive.
Fuck Quest is so outlandish that I find it curiously charming: every screen is childishly drawn in Microsoft Paint, the "House 'O Porn" sex shop is an architectural feat resembling lopsided tits, and the player has to fool his prey by wearing a Brad Pitt mask to bed. My adventures with it are here on Rock Paper Shotgun. There is also a sequel to the game, Fuck Quest 2: Romancing The Bone, which I haven't played, but the title alone deserves a trophy.
2000 - TODAY: SOPHISTICATED BIG-BUDGET GAMES WITH RUDIMENTARY SEXUAL EXPRESSION
There's a dearth of big-budget games that even include sex, never mind those that directly centre upon the business of x-treme cuddling, and so far the history I've presented has been woefully centred upon the heterosexual male experience. Japan catered better to gay and sometimes even lesbian sexual experiences through eroge visual novels, but the West has typically lacked any enthusiasm towards making sexual content in games that cater to non-heterosexual fantasies. However, as big-budget games have widened their appeal and become more sophisticated, they have also become better – if not exactly the best – at representing gay or non-heterosexual experiences.
Ah yes, The Sims! Everyone's favourite virtual doll's house, in which you may place your carefully conditioned virtual housemates into a swimming pool, delete the steps and watch them drown with the same evil glee you get when you are with your boyfriend in Topshop and you "accidentally" scare the shit out of him by wandering into the maternity section.
The Sims is a series of lucrative video game soap operas distributed by Electronic Arts, a perennial crowd pleaser now working on its fourth edition. In it you can create little virtual AI people and play house. They can fall in love and have sex (known in Sim parlance as "Woohoo"). The actual act of genital joy in The Sims is blurred out for the kids, but in massively multiplayer online life simulator Second Life, almost a sister game to The Sims but without the placid AI, you can buy yourself some genitals and go some extremely shady places if you are brave enough.
In the early days of The Sims, I created a horrorshow of a house in which the likenesses of all my flatmates coexisted, resulting in gay love triangles, my boyfriend making out with the other flatmate's girlfriend, and my character attempting to sleep with everyone in the house. My Sim eventually died of hunger because I was too busy trying to get my pissed-off ginger boyfriend back into bed. If there's anything The Sims taught me it is "break fast before breaking bed". Or, you know. Death.
Sims are technically bisexual, in that depending on player preference, Sims can be interested in either men or women, conditioned in their preferences by play. This is not the way my personal sexuality works, but it allows for a pleasant fluidity in the way that The Sims relate to each other. In The Sims 2, each Sim is created with a slight preference either way. Later with The Sims 2: Nightlife, you get "chemistry" that can rule how much Sims are attracted to each other, where Sims can have two things that are a "turn-on" and one that is a "turn-off", such as beards, "stink", vampires or – for some reason – logic. The gayer you want your characters, the gayer they get. The more hetero you feel, the more hetero you can make your fuckpuppets.
Erotic frisson is created by making Sims romance each other. The human drama that takes place in your little doll house is thrilling in a Rear Window sort of way. Kieron Gillen wrote particularly definitively on the subject in 2007:
"While sex is only a relatively small part of The Sims – crucially, your Sim can meet and form relationships with other Sims – it's the dark heart that underlies everything. It's not the engine of the game, but the romantic potential is its fuel, driving it onwards. Perhaps appropriately. The Sims simulates life and life's nothing but a mass of social fabric wrapped tightly around that spark of attraction."
In light of this, it seems odd that though many big-budget games are obsessed with portraying simulations of ourselves in fantasy worlds, we still face a particular dearth of uncensored sex, or even interesting romance systems that lead to light petting, outside of Japan. This is partly due to puritanical attitudes of media. When, in 2005, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had some leftover assets of an unfinished "Hot Coffee" (clumsy-sex-via-controller-bashing) minigame left in the code, a patch that could be downloaded to access the broken thing was made. The patch was brought to the official rating board's attention and the whole of America seemed to go aflame. This seemed from the outside to be partly due to the fact that America's right-wingers already disdained the globe's best-selling male crime world, and partly due to the fact that few in government quite understood what a "patch" meant.
They also didn't really know how fucking annoying video games are to modify. As I learned with the Nude Raider patch, a porn video or magazine would have been purloined with more ease. Comparatively, hours spent trying to download/get the Hot Coffee modification to work just to get a blurry mannequin with no genitals to flap about a bit seems a lot like a flagrant waste of Stoya time.
In any case, Hot Coffee was not the only thing that made right-wing America's rage alarm go off. The EA-published game Mass Effect, a slick space opera role-playing game, taking narrative tips from Star Trek among other things, was targeted by conservative-leaning Fox News in 2008. Fox claimed that in Mass Effect there was "full digital nudity", players had the opportunity to "engage in graphic sex" and that it was "being marketed to kids and teenagers", all of which were false statements. Cutscenes, featuring profiles of characters together with no full frontal or explicit nudity are triggered in Mass Effect, sexual images similar to those used in prime time television. The game was rated Mature – appropriate for players 17-years and older.
Fox News, Mass Effect Sex Debate Video
Incidentally, the Fox News piece also included the caption "SE'XBOX?", which at the time made me laugh so hard I hurled my uterus up through my mouth onto the floor and a nearby cat ate it.
The joke was on Fox, as usual. By Mass Effect 3, the space opera not only included woman-on-woman sex scenes, but man-on-man sex scenes, too. As Charlie Brooker's excellent article on the matter touts: "Some people are gay in space. Get over it."
POSSIBLE 2002 MISUSE OF PERIPHERALS
Of course, some games aren't entirely meant to be sexy, but get co-opted by enterprising consumers for sexualisatory purposes. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, developer of the psychedelic music game Rez said to Eurogamer that when he made a big release (ahem) of the game in 2002 bundled with a "Trance Vibrator" that he certainly did not mean the vibrating peripheral to be used... down there. Instead, he said, "I like to feel the vibration by the foot."
Jane at Game Girl Advance clasped the vibrator to her crotch and wrote down her thoughts on the so-called "foot" massager. She seemed to very much enjoy the sensation of the vibrator intensifying its vibration to the beat of the music. My own personal sources say the vibrator is somewhat "weak" for a sex toy, but nonetheless pleasurable.
Today's hypnotic music-based game odysseys such as Luxuria Superbia and SoundSelf are ripe for such peripheral exploitation. Both have erotic, synaesthetic undercurrents. Surely someone out there could DIY us up some sort of rubbery vibratory controller-friend for them? Could we just mod a Wii controller or something?
SEX OUTSIDE THE WORLD OF CAPITALISM
The state of sex in video games is incredibly healthy in a way it never has been before, if you look less at the big-budget games and look for the smaller, more artistic options. Tools for making some kinds of games are inexpensive or free now, and games can be distributed quickly, easily and at little cost over the internet. These games are often not subject to vetting for "family friendly" material, such as games on consoles are.
Games such as Love Hotel, a free game that resembles SimTower, are available if you wish to indulge at playing a love hotel manager enticing couples for a few hours of the no-pants-dance.
The Copenhagen Game Collective made the Dark Room Sex Game, played with Wii remotes or a keyboard, which uses audio and haptic cues to have players correspond to a rhythm. The speed increases until your peripheral reaches "climax".
Text games have made a recent comeback thanks to the free hypertext engine, Twine. Anna Anthropy made Encyclopaedia Fuckme and Sex Cops Of Tickle City. Merritt Kopas recently made a game about consensual violence in the bedroom, Consensual Torture Simulator.
My own game, Sacrilege, about taking home men from a club, is a short journey through intense sexual relationships as a matter of emotional terrorism.
Nina Freeman made the adorable How Do You Do It about her teen sexuality.
Ute by Lea Schönfelder is a game about the constraints of society on women as sexual beings. It concerns you attempting to have rhythmic sex bumps with every single man on the map.
And there's the granddaddy of all online sex games: Sepe's Cumshot.
Ledoliel is an iPhone game that is essentially like a grown-up, bizarre fantasy Tamagotchi simulator. It is a "dating toy", where your strange little being is a puzzle that often has strangely mature or suggestive needs and desires.
Sext Adventure is a game made by Kara Stone and Nadine Lessio where you use your phone to sext a bot that will then lead you down a narrative path of erotic dick pics, steamy messages, and even money shots. However, each strand of story has a different emotional journey. It's not just a game about eroticism, but relationships and how they progress.
TODAY AND THE FUTURE: JAPAN FINALLY MAKES PERIPHERALS USEFUL
In the Year of Our Lord 2013, we finally did it. We finally did it! We made an erotic game that shipped with a cock controller. With the Ju-C Air peripheral you stick your dick into the dang thing and it masturbates the player while also providing in-game feedback. It also has an analogue stick, an action button and a left and right click on the shaft. It comes with the erotic sex game Custom Maid 3D. By shoving your dangle in and out at various speeds, you can have your maid of choice respond to your magic wand. You can even make the virtual maid wear a pirate hat while you do it! A PIRATE HAT.
And in 2014... They made Custom Maid 3D available with Oculus Rift. Virtual reality maid-boning has finally come true. We're living in The Matrix! We're in an Asimov book! WE HAVE SUPERSEDED NEUROMANCER. Gods be praised, we can all now go home and fuck a video game.
Unless you don't have a penis. You can't come. The future is not for you.