Sex, lies and video games

20 April 2010

Written by: Matt de Neef

Matt de Neef

I’m not a huge fan of being stuck at home for two weeks due to illness. That said, my recent bout of ill health did give me time to do some important things that I usually don’t get time to. Playing Playstation, for example.

As well as completing the breathtaking Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in two solid days, I was also able to spend some time with the relatively-recently-released Heavy Rain, thanks to the generosity of a work colleague.

The game is essentially an interactive mystery/ thriller film in which the player gets to control four characters in their separate but intertwined quests to learn the identity of the Origami Killer. The game is groundbreaking for a number of reasons, not least of all due to its branching storylines.

At many points throughout the game the player has genuine control over the way in which the story will progress from that point. Want your drug-addicted FBI agent to succumb to his cravings? Sure, but the choice will have real ramifications later in the game. In a similar vein, if you manage to let one of the main characters die, then the remainder of the game is played out with the rest of the dead character’s scenes omitted.

I could spend a great deal of time talking about the merits of Heavy Rain as a demonstration of progressive video game design but, in the interest of brevity, I will leave such discussions to the experts.

The lovely folks at the ABC’s Good Game describe Heavy Rain as ‘a very adult game…with plenty of high definition nudity’ and they are right on both counts – the game is both unsuitable for children and replete with well rendered depictions of the naked human form.

On at least two occasions the player is able to witness the token hot chick in a state of undress – the first time as she takes a shower and the other time as she strips for some sleazebag called Paco. It’s worth pointing out that both instances of nudity are justified by context and do not feel like they are there simply to titillate male gamers. That said, I’m genuinely surprised that there hasn’t been a significant moral outcry about the adult content in this game.

You see, a video game that contains sex or nudity is kind of like an episode of Today Tonight that doesn’t feature a story about a dodgy tradesman, the latest advance in brassiere technology or grocery prices. It just doesn’t happen that often and when it does, it is cause for genuine surprise for the viewer. Think about it, how many video games have you played that contain nudity or sexual activity? Now compare that to the number of video games that you’ve played that contain graphic violence. See what I’m getting at?

One of the few games that has featured nudity in the last few years is the ‘action role-playing game’ Mass Effect. In an ‘optional romantic subplot’ the main character is able to participate in a romantic union with a humanoid alien who happens to have shiny blue skin. The sexual encounter lasts less than two minutes in a game that has an estimated play-time in excess of 30 hours and the nudity in the scene is limited to a fleeting shot of the female character’s backside and some badly obscured ‘side-boob’.

But of course we can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. When Fox News found out that the game had an element of sexuality to it, no matter how minimal, they took the story and ran with it. In this laughable attempt at considered journalism one panellist seems to describe Mass Effect as ‘Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas’. And then there’s the intro to the story, delivered by host Martha MacCullum:

‘It’s a new role-playing game that’s leaving nothing to the imagination … In some parts of this you will see full digital nudity … and the ability for the players to engage in graphic sex. And the person who’s playing the game gets to decide exactly what’s going to happen between the two people if you know what I mean …’

Even if this intro wasn’t a complete fabrication in order to create hysteria, I would still struggle to see the problem. It’s believed that around 90% of the most popular video games feature violence of some kind and yet the moment that nudity or – god forbid – sex finds its way into a video game, all hell breaks loose. I mean, it’s not like nudity and sex are natural components of every day life.

Take the infamous ‘Hot Coffee’ mini-game from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as a further example. In the ‘normally inaccessible’ on-screen liaison, the game’s main protagonist engages in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend, demonstrating proficiency in several different sexual positions.

Even though the ‘Hot Coffee’ mini-game was only accessible by using third-party tools to modify the game from its intended form, its discovery created a significant outcry around the world. In the US, the game’s rating was changed from ‘Mature’ to ‘Adults Only’, a rating bestowed on only 25 games in 15 years of the current classification system. In Australia, the rating for San Andreas was reassessed in light of the ‘Hot Coffee’ mod and the game was consequently ‘refused classification’. A ‘Hot Coffee’-free version of the game was eventually re-released later in the year, prompting the Office and Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) to reinstate the MA15+ rating.

Let’s be clear here. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a brutally violent video game in which the player is able to kill innocent bystanders in a multitude of gruesome ways. If mowing someone down with an AK-47 is a little bland for your liking, then why not take a chainsaw to their face instead? Bored of blowing people’s heads off with that sniper rifle? Why not whip out the old katana and get chopping instead?

I’m not saying that violent video games shouldn’t be available for adult gamers, far from it, but where’s the consistency here? 15 year-old Australians are allowed to buy San Andreas and murder innocents in a variety of ways and yet it is a badly rendered, fully clothed and animated sex scene that forces the game into the land of the banned.

What kind of message does this send to fifteen year-old kids that play the game?

‘It’s ok to run down the street, shooting old women with an Uzi but having sex with your girlfriend, well, that’s totally unacceptable. ’

Granted, there has always been significant opposition to the Grand Theft Auto series on the grounds that the games are too violent and that they have potential to cause lasting damage to young gamers. But all of that protesting and lobbying never managed to convince the OFLC that the game should be ‘refused classification’ – no, only the power of sexual behaviour was able to convince the powers that be that San Andreas might not be suitable for 15 year olds.

And while we’re on the issue of games classification, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent retirement of Michael Atkinson from his role as South Australian Attorney-General. As I wrote in an article for The Age late last year, Mr Atkinson had single-handedly been able to stall the discussion about an R18+ classification for video games. Under the current system, a unanimous vote from all Attorneys-General is required in order to introduce an R18+ rating for games and, due to his personal convictions, Mr Atkinson refused to support a push for the new rating.

But now, with Mr Atkinson out of the way, the R18+ issue on the table for the next Attorneys-General meeting in May, and Mr Atkinson’s replacement apparently being an R18+ supporter, Australia’s classification system might finally be brought into line with the rest of the developed world

Matt de Neef is joint editor of upstart, and has now fully recovered from his illness.