The “M” rating is somewhat of a badge of honor among many games, never to be confused with a “seal of quality” but, at the very least a “seal of legitimacy.” Inside, we know this game isn’t out to mess around. Drugs, harsh language, gory violence, and–of course–sex is what we’re in for, and that’s deemed “mature.” But is it?
Now there’s been a bit of a stigma surrounding games, gamers, and the topic of sex for quite a bit. Apart from unfortunate social stereotypes, media ‘activists’ and politicians have always been quick to paint the video game medium’s attitude toward sexuality as that of the most base, superficial, and border-line criminal. This was not a new paradigm on behalf of the ‘alarmist’ media, of course. Well-informed readers will recall Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, was brought before Congress itself as evidence that Batman and his “chum” Robin was actually a subliminal suggestion to the Dynamic Duo’s young readers that homosexual behavior was an acceptable practice. While I’m not arguing that homosexuality shouldn’t be acceptable in society (and it totally should be), the fact is that Batman was arguing nothing of the sort in 1954 and to suggest that it was clearly forcing connections that just didn’t exist.
A more recent and infamous example of alarmist scaremongering was Fox’s “SE’Xbox” report regarding the intimate sequences in the original Mass Effect. The reporter of this story accuses Mass Effect of being an outright ‘porn simulator’ in these sections. Now anyone who’s played the original Mass Effect knows that this is not hyperbole, nor exaggeration; but an outright lie. The mechanics the reporter suggests are extant in the game are completely absent, plain and simple. It was such a blatant breach of journalistic integrity, that the reporter was forced to issue an apology once her grievous ‘error’ was brought to light.
The “romance” sequences in Mass Effect are so tame, in fact, that they show no more than what might appear in a PG-13 movie, let alone “Mature” media. Honestly, you’d think a person would have to stretch pretty far to find anything objectionable about it. Well, apparently I’m far more flexible than my physique would suggest, because I found something quite objectionable in that sequence…and it’s a problem that pervades the industry almost totally.
Mass Effect has an achievement called “Paramour,” and the criteria to unlock it is to “complete a romance side quest.” I find the wording of those criteria rather fascinating. For my first playthrough of Mass Effect, my Shepherd became involved with Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams. Now an officer getting involved with an enlisted person–let alone Captain of a vessel–is a serious no-no in every military one would care to ask. Knowing this, my Shepherd declined Williams’ intimate “offer” on the eve of the final mission. To be clear, he didn’t end the relationship, but he knew that it would be seriously irresponsible, as Captain, to become ‘distracted’ before such an important engagement. The suggestion, of course, being that once the mission was over; we’d utterly devour each other.
But, even when the game ended with Shepherd and Williams ostensibly still a couple, for some reason I didn’t get the paramour achievement. It seems, for all the praise Bioware gets for making rounded, humanized characters; they still turned their females into sex objects. Literally. Having sex is an objective for then (and ONLY then) is the romance considered “complete” in their eyes.
I’m not making this up, either. According to Bioware’s Jonathan Perry in an interview with OXM, “We also want to focus not just on the sex itself, but also that this is the culmination of spending a lot of time with a character and getting to know them[…]” There you have it; intimacy is the “culmination” of a relationship, rather than merely an element of it.
Is that “mature?” Seems a tad juvenile to me. Now you may argue that I’m being unduly harsh in my expectations. “These games are adventures, not over-wrought Tolstoy novels.” You may argue. While that is a fair point, I still can only feel that there is still a large degree of seriousness missing when Saints Row can ape the mechanic just as effectively.
Rather than even pretend there are relational elements beneath the surface, the protagonist can simply initiate an “intimate” episode with a single line of dialogue. On the whole, very little changes between the characters afterward; perfectly illustrating how this attitude toward sexuality, no matter how ‘tasteful’ is truly farcical.
This severely limited scope into relationships in Bioware titles is not an anomaly either. In Dragon Age 2, I pursued a romance with Merrill the elf. This time they avoid the rather sticky implication that the romance is only “complete” once you’ve had intercourse and, instead, rewards you for finishing the game with both characters intact as a couple. Here, intimacy actually establishes the relationship (She’ll be present in your home from then on and offers your character comfort when someone important to him is killed). But this, too, created a problem.
At one point we have to go on a quest whose resolution ends up being us having to kill everyone Merrill has ever known or cared about (apart from myself and the rest of our party)…and we never talk about it at any point afterwards. I don’t mean awkwardly trying *not* to talk about it, I mean it’s like it never happened. She just stood in the designated spot in the house and muttered the same single line of dialogue she had been spouting since she took up residence. This missing element went a long way toward dehumanizing Merrill to me; making me utterly aware that she was just a prop.
So, I know recent events may have made this topic a bit of a sore subject among certain people. I’d like to take a moment to clarify my position: I am not arguing that this is objectionable because it can be viewed as ‘sexist’ (if pressed, I’d complain that it slights both men and women); what I’m arguing is that this mechanic and others like it belie a lack of maturity when it comes to human relationships on behalf of the games industry, and that this is worth addressing.
“What would be a better example?” You may ask. Well, allow me to present Catherine.
In Catherine, sex isn’t the ‘completion’ of a relationship; it’s the start of one. It explores the murky, frightening, and devastating territory of infidelity; and the concepts and nature of romance and sex itself. It divides the affections of its protagonist as he must decide between the reliable but oppressive Katherine and the adventurous but unstable Catherine; leaving the player to decide which he’d ultimately like to ‘hitch his wagon’ to. That’s pretty mature. That is a very real concern for a lot of men and women.
However, I know every game with a romance option can’t be Catherine, and no one wants to turn their epic space adventure into a dating sim. But the fact remains that, for all intents and purposes, when you are “done” with your romance the instant you put your clothes back on; the only “depth” being achieved is the same as the depth one would achieve with a prostitute. Now if that’s what you’re into; that’s okay. But for those of us who have grown invested in our romance options, such attitudes cannot help but feel cheap and lacking in “maturity.”
This is, of course, when developers allow us to become invested in our partners at all. I was rather excited over the prospect of getting “married” in Skyrim. In a series that centers around doing odd jobs for people all over Tamriel, I thought it would be interesting to perform a quest line for someone I (presumably) had some affection for and vice-versa. Alas, I found the ‘romance’ offering in Skyrim to be so shallow, that I honestly wonder what the point of including it was in the first place. I mean it was just the most lifeless, loveless, animatronic depiction of a relationship I had ever seen.
For those who haven’t explored this, marriage in Skyrim breaks down thusly: do a favor for somebody, put on an Amulet of Mara, accept their marriage proposal; and now you have a shop NPC wandering around your house. If they have a “follower” tag, they may also join you on your adventures; but the depth of your relationship is not explored any further. To be honest, this feels more at home in the SNES era of games.
I can appreciate that in a game with the range of The Elder Scrolls, any amount of resources that could be spared for the marriage quest would never be enough to render an experience that couldn’t at least be described as clunky, but when so much as stumbling a book can launch a mystery that takes me from one end of the province to the other, I don’t think a small quest line meant to humanize your new husband or bride would be too much to ask.
As I bring this article to a close, however, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that sex and intimacy means different things to different people. It is here I’d like to pay due to perhaps the most mature look at sex and relationships in gaming: The Sims series.
What’s amusing is that The Sims are T-Rated games… this is even with a dedicated “Have Sex” (WooHoo) button for every adult character. The gender of the opposite party is immaterial. The marital status (as in you being married to them, them being married to someone else, or any other possible combination) is also irrelevant. You can even specify whether or not they use prophylactics.
Just reading that makes it sound a thousand times worse than the infamous Mass Effect ‘scandal’, just without the aliens.
Now the thing is, sex in the Sims means whatever you want it to. Oh sure, you can go around treating women (or men, for that matter) like sex objects. There are even mini-objectives regarding sex like “hook up with someone,” “woohoo with three people,” or even “woohoo with someone specific.” But these are treated more like impulses than true objectives. Whether you’re after all the tail you can find, or a single, monogamous relationship, or would rather skip human contact completely; this T rated title runs nearly the entire gamut of human intimacy. What is truly troubling is that these mundane, gibberish spouting sims treat relationships in a more mature fashion than nearly any “well-written” game character you’d care to compare them to.
At the crux of this is not a matter of some politically correct imperative. Such concerns should not be a major factor in entertainment media. What we should hope for, as interactive storytelling evolves, is not just better graphics, slick writing, or “tasteful” nudes; but that which is the most quintessential of the human experience: our interactions with each other. Because what use is ‘getting the girl’ when she just stares at the wall once she’s got?
Ryan J. Hodge is a sci-fi author and works for Konami Digital Entertainment (all opinions are his own). His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook and Paperback.
Check out his thoughts on other things here.
4 thoughts on “Measuring “Mature””
This article needs more high impact sexual violence.
Ryan Hodge is quickly becoming my favorite of the LaserTime contributors. Your articles are lengthy, sure, but still to the point, very interesting, entertaining, and do raise very good points that ultimately come from a place that wants video-games to improve. I applaud that a lot!
This case in specific is one I definitely agree. Most games that offer “romantic” relationships as options often do think that all that means is for the main character to get in bed with the other and that’s it, relationship complete, no need to bother with anything else. And sure, it might be unrealistic and a lot of work to have someone who you become an item with to react to everything you do afterwards, specially if you have to do this for 5+ other characters, but a couple of extra lines definitely doesn’t feel like a lot to ask.
I’d also like to point out, that even though the Mass Effect series does have issues portraying relationships, they did do some of what you bring up in here. For example, I was in a relationship with Tali since ME2, and when I met her again in ME3, the game didn’t just acknowledge it of course, but it also integrated the fact that we were in a relationship in the banter during some missions, like when you go invade one of the Geth spaceships shortly after you reunite with her again. It was just a couple of lines, and it was completely optional, because had I not brought her over to that mission, it would have never happened. But the fact that they bothered to put that in there went a long way to make me feel like the relationship meant more beyond just carnal bonding.
Here’s to game developers hopefully paying more attention to details like that regarding relationships between characters in the future. And not just with romantic relationships either, friendships or even enmities to that you chose trough a game could use more fleshing out as well.
Interesting and thought-provoking as always, Ryan. I do have to disagree with your Mass Effect example, only because the sex scenes in Mass Effect aren’t treated as a reward or sex for the sake of sex. The scenes themselves are depicted in a more loving and intimate manner meant to represent the personal connection between the two characters. I think that’s what Perry was trying to say in that quote. He’s not trying to say that sex is the only thing that matters in the relationship or that sex is the end goal.
I don’t think the problem with the relationship mechanics in BioWare games (post the first Mass Effect) are the product of immaturity, but rather that it is a, it can be argued, not the main focus, and thusly not given the attention it needs to achieve quote/unquote maturity. I’d suggest this is certainly the case in DA2, a game notorious for its cutting of corners.