Thursday, 27 January 2011

Does Sex sell in Gaming?

Just to make it clear, this article has categorically nothing to do with games of a sexual nature or gameplay mechanics relating to anything like it. If you're interested in that kind of thing you can put your various disgusting implements and tools away right now. This article is about sexuality and videogame design with emphasis on the characters that appear in them.

Sex sells everything apparently, one could argue that they even use it to sell things like dog food and flat-pack furniture, which have no business being sexy in the slightest. They even try it on in gaming, case and point below for the massively multiplayer game Evony.

I play for the idyllic backgrounds... honest :/

As shallow as the above tactic may be, does sex selling have an influence towards character design in videogames? With the industry raking in more money than it ever has, marketing/profiteering type people will surely be keen to increase their share of the market using tried and tested methods like sex selling. There have been all kinds of attempts at doing this, some more shamefaced than others and all experiencing various levels of success. There was a weird spate of volleyball games on the Xbox featuring full casts of scantily clad women, where considerable effort and creativity has gone into presenting digital boobies and bums and has devoted little emphasis to designing a robust and playable volleyball game. One of the worst offenders in this category is Tecmo's Dead Or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball games, which must sell most of their copies by sheer force of jiggly bouncy persuasion. Tell me I'm wrong about this and keep a straight face. Try it.

It's all about the revolutionary AI! Honest!

This technique doesn't merely constrain itself to tempting pervy game nerds with the promise of boobs galore. The state of many open world games and first person shooters lends itself to all kinds of power fantasies. In RPGs there are games like Oblivion and Fallout 3, where you're a small fish in a massive pond from the start and have to work hard and appease and work with other NPCs to get any sort of success. Compare this to the likes of the Grand Theft Auto series, where one can easily become a massively powerful macho gangster early on with the ability to have his way with bimbos and prostitutes left, right and centre with relatively little effort, skill or (more disturbingly) meaningful consequences of any kind.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Commited crime? Just stay at a hotel and it'll all blow over!

With first person shooter games, the only examples I can only think of  that don't have a sexually charged protagonist are the Timesplitters series and a very small section of Banjo-Tooie (where you play bear wielding a bird. Not hot), which isn't great considering the sheer volume of shooters out there at the moment. The bulk of games out on the market fall into two main subcategories where your character is either; 1) A big swinging dick-man of a commando, that has the respect and admiration of all the allied NPCs in the game and presumably some dark mysterious (and shallow) backstory that he is very stoic about, or  2) James Bond. You rarely, if ever, play as a character that is weak, relatively powerless or scared. At least not to my knowledge.

James Bond 007: Blood Stone
Not even real life CGI lizards can faze this guy.

Compare attractive character models in games to real life celebrities. You're just as likely to meet and seduce Angelina Jolie as you are to pull the abstract concept of Lara Croft. Being attracted to or becoming a follower of either entity seems equally pointless in the sense that nothing real is likely to ever materialise from obsessing over them. The celebrity may as well be a sprite in a game and vice versa for all it matters. The difference between the two situations is that with the games you are able to either take the role of the 'celebrity' in question and play as them, where a sense of power and superiority can come with that where it wouldn't in the real-life case. As I've mentioned before, entire game concepts can be built around the idea of simply 'being somebody' and having elevated status and abilities without necessarily building a particularly innovative game structure to test the player with. That comes second.

Nintendo Mario

All of this leads to the following question which I leave with you. When you next play a game ask yourself, "If I replaced the main character of this game with a fatter, less attractive character with diminished status, would the game still be fun?". If you answer 'No' to this question then you've basically got a game which fails the 'Super Mario Asexuality Criterion'*.

*Seriously look at him... dresses like an idiot (dungarees!?) and not much of a head turner. You wouldn't accept him on Tinder.