Mainstream video games have a problem with sex. The question they struggle with today is not whether or not to include it, but rather how to portray it.
According to Robert Yang during a 2016 Games for Change talk, most video games are still missing some key points: Sex can be awkward, and it's definitely messy.
"Bad sex helps us think about sex in general," Yang said. "Because sex is more than just good or satisfying. I mean, it's good if you can have good and satisfying sex, but sex is also bad. Sex is also often embarrassing. Sex is also weird, funny, sad. Sex is all of these things."
Yang, the developer behind games such as Cobra Club, Hurt Me Plenty and Rinse and Repeat, discussed the topic in a talk called "How To Be Better at Sex (in Video Games)." In one example, he brought up Dragon Age: Inquisition, a title praised for its handling of LGBT characters and sex.
"I actually don't really like the sex in [Dragon Age: Inquisition] because I feel like it wants to be this weird, perfect porn sex," Yang said. "And perfect porn sex is always clean and efficient, no mess, no false starts, no hiccups or anything ... Don't make perfect porn sex games. I think that's where a lot of the mainstream industry goes wrong. They want these perfect supermodels having perfect, ordinary sex or something, but that feels kind of dishonest almost. You can't really relate or empathize with that kind of thing."
"In these games, sex never bleeds. Sex never oozes..."
Dragon Age isn't alone in not quite capturing the full feel of coupling in Yang's analysis. The developer name-checked franchises such as God of War, Mass Effect or The Witcher, pointing out that these games "isolate sex from the rest of the game." That's not how it works.
"In these games, sex never bleeds," Yang said. "Sex never oozes outside of a cutscene or minigame. How can you enjoy sex if you can't accept that this is what bodies do and sex does? Sex involves negotiation, awkwardness and uncertainty. These things are beautiful and valuable because they reflect our experiences and honestly. I want to honor the depth and complexity of sex with games."
In his own work, Yang has explored many different aspects of sex and sexuality. Hurt Me Plenty was inspired by BDSM and kink communities who view sex in three different stages (or more), he said — negotiation, play and aftercare. There's power in a safeword, which allows anyone to end sex on their terms at any time. Hurt Me Plenty takes this concept very seriously; players who don't stop at the safeword are actually locked out of the game for varying amounts of time.
"I think BDSM and kink are kind of about how pain is not the same thing as abuse, but rather abuse is abuse," Yang said. "If you conflate the two, you're kind of obscuring what abuse actually is, because abuse takes many forms. It's not just physical."
Cobra Club, a game about taking dick pics, explored how men can feel empowered and sexy (though with a twist ending). Rinse and Repeat, Yang's first-person shower simulator, only allowed players to shower with their hunky friend at specific times. It made players conform to the game's schedule, Yang said, showing that sex is neither convenient nor willing to wait for you.
In addition to his own work, Yang also highlighted many others by fellow indie devs, such as Consentacle, Sabbat and Striptease. In discussing these games, he noticed a pattern: They talk a lot about bodies.
sex is neither convenient nor willing to wait for you
"I think that, in the end, is kind of what sex is concerned with a lot — bodies, and how to represent bodies and how bodies interact," he said.
His advice is to think of sex as a mix of experiences — sad, weird, depressing or awkward — instead of equating it to something like pornography. Feeling weird or anxious about it is OK. Games are powerful because they, like other art forms, allow us to make sense of our lives, the developer said. To make sense of sexuality is a natural step.
"For a lot of people, sexuality is a constant source of anxiety," Yang said. "Sexuality was the reason why I felt kind of alone and afraid in high school and growing up. Sexuality still is why so many young people are homeless and commit suicide. Sexuality is why Pulse in Orlando happened. We need to acknowledge this other side of sexuality too, or else we're lying about what sex and sexuality mean and signify to us."