Reality Check: Video Games' Fear of Sex

The ESA thinks there's no such thing as going "too far" with violence, but that's not the case with sex.

In the fight over the California gaming law currently before the Supreme Court, the debate boils down to whether or not states should be able to limit access to violent content in the same way they restrict sexual content. In 1973, the Supreme Court drew limits to the power of governmental obscenity statutes, confining the scope of regulation specifically to works depicting or describing sexual conduct.

Now legislators want to expand that scope to include depictions of violence, such as those found in Postal or Grand Theft Auto. To its credit, the Entertainment Software Association is fighting this abridgement of game makers' free speech rights tooth and nail, and has been for years. In doing so, the ESA is going to the wall for objectionable content, much in the same way the American Civil Liberties Union fought for the free speech rights of neo-Nazis in 1978, or NAMBLA members in 2000. Granted, Rockstar's open-world crime games are considerably more popular than those reprehensible groups' viewpoints, but the ESA is still standing up for games that have been described by the state like this:

The game involves shooting both armed opponents, such as police officers, and unarmed people, such as schoolgirls. Girls attacked with a shovel will beg for mercy; the player can be merciless and decapitate them. People shot in the leg will fall down and crawl; the player can then pour gasoline over them, set them on fire, and urinate on them.

That's an awful part of an awful game. And the ESA is defending games like Postal not because it really thinks maiming and urinating on helpless people is really valuable speech, but to protect the rights of other creators to explore culturally uncomfortable subjects for more worthwhile reasons in the future.

This is perfectly OK.

In an interview with GameSpot for a recent feature on California's violent video game law currently before the Supreme Court, ESA CEO Michael Gallagher heralded the group's efforts to preserve freedom of speech for developers.

"We very much stand firmly on a proud history of defense of the First Amendment," Gallagher said. "It goes back for multiple forms of media over decades, where others have gone before us. And we proudly stand on the shoulders of those advocates, standing up for the entire country's rights for freedom of expression, freedom of speech, especially in the context where it applies to video games. Yes, we represent the video game industry and we're very proud of that, but we do stand on very firm bedrock American principles in that defense."

Good on the ESA for that. However, it's a little disheartening to see the trade group draping itself in the First Amendment to protect developers' depictions of violence in games no matter how brutal, but offering no such interest in fighting the same fight for depictions of sex. When asked what the difference was between the law currently before the Supreme Court and obscenity statutes that have limited access to sexually explicit material, Gallagher wasted no time drawing a line.

"Sexual material is not appropriate for children," Gallagher said. "That's easy to understand. It's easier to enforce."

There are a couple of things to deal with in that quote, the first of which is how easy it is to understand or enforce current obscenity statutes regarding sexual material. The 1973 Supreme Court guidelines for assessing material as obscene involve "(a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

So what's an average person to determine when his or her community is made up of disparate groups, some exceedingly liberal and others arch-conservative? How specific does state law need to be in determining the sexual conduct? Is there wiggle room there? Should the amount of allowable "wiggle room" be specified in that law? And as for what has serious artistic value, that's a debate that's already wound up in the courts at least once. Take the The Tin Drum case for example. An Oklahoma County judge had the 1979 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner banned as child pornography and sent police around to rental stores to confiscate all copies (including those that had been checked out at the time), a measure that was later found unconstitutional.

"Violence runs through virtually every aspect of our entertainment experience, our literary experience, and our life experience," Gallagher said. "It runs through the evening news, it runs through the Bible, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Harry Potter, and yes, it's in video games. Drawing those lines is not the province of the state, not the province of government."

Gallagher's assertion that violence permeates our culture in a way that sex doesn't is flimsy at best. There's a reason you can know somebody "in a Biblical sense." You could write a book on all the sexual interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood (but someone already beat you to it). And as for Harry Potter…I'd rather concede that point than read the books looking for a double entendre in every "Engorgio" or "Expelliarmus."

Even Iowa State University's Craig A. Andersen, the psychologist behind much of California's scientific research suggesting that violent games increase aggression in players, questions the double standard for sexual content.

"Somehow we think of violence as sort of normal, and as a society we think of sex as dirty and abnormal," Andersen told GameSpot. "When the reality is that most people will not be victimized by a serious violent crime, whereas most people will spend a considerable amount of time engaged in sex."

In fact, Andersen said that if public policy regarding media depictions of sex and violence were based solely on their documented harmful effects, laws would be much more restrictive of violence than sex. According to Andersen, the scientific evidence that children are harmed by being exposed to depictions of consensual sex is scant, so long as the sex in question isn't demeaning or violent.

But this is pushing it.

It doesn't take a psychology degree or even a particularly keen observer to notice that sex is everywhere in American society, whether we approve of it or not. It sells us everything from alcohol and website domains to chewing gum and body spray, and while it's often used as a Trojan Horse for other messages (like "buy new horse-size Trojans"), it can convey a point in and of itself.

All of that said, I understand the impracticality of standing up for sex. Obscenity statutes have been in place for decades and survived Supreme Court scrutiny, and there's very little will in this country to overturn them. And even if the ESA had that desire (it doesn't), and even if its member companies were clamoring to push the envelope with sexually explicit material (they aren't), the responsibility can't lie solely at their feet when every other media trade group has resigned itself to accepting the law as written and enforced. Still, it's a hypocritical double standard, and the more we can acknowledge it, the closer we'll be to someday discarding it.

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Discussion

172 comments
wwlettsome
wwlettsome

Always amused and a bit disgusted at our society's penchant to accept violence in movies, tv, literature and games but shun anything sexual in the same media. And yet one is a perfectly normal activity between two consenting adults and also required for the continuation of our species while the other is a criminal activity except in self defense or times of war. We are strange creatures.

SadPSPAddict
SadPSPAddict

@x4skill - As a parent of 4 children I can say with absolute certainty that I ( and my wife ) have properly grounded them so they understand the difference between video games and the real world. This is something that many adults have an issue with - especially those buying "cartoon porn" ( something you have experience with?? I didn't even know it existed until 10 mins ago reading your comment ). Ultimately I know what is best for my children when it comes to education ( the older two have both passed exams to get into selective schools and I am confident the younger two will follow when the time comes ), to what they eat ( all are fit and healthy ), to how they dress, to making sure they get enough exercise ( the oldest is the the first 15 school rugby team ). So overall I have 4 well rounded and grounded children and all 4 school reports ( that came out in the last few days here in the UK ) were a pleasure to read so don't try and tell me I'm getting it wrong!

x4skill
x4skill

@SadPSPAddict You think it's ok because things are already screwed up at school? What kind of stance is that as a parent? He hears all sorts of stuff, might as well say screw it. Sounds like you just want a friend more than a son. And if you start putting nudity in games, what'll happen? A bunch of kids will be jerking off to it. Everyone seems to forget that were talking about pixels. Not people. Go buy some cartoon porn while you're at it.

noahmorrow07
noahmorrow07

the esrb rating are there for a reason to warn parents of the content in a game i believe that is the statement that the politicians need to realize. we have all these things,... warning them about the content the game they are observing has, yet they want to push it more by banning that content? if a person was really against it then they would check the ratings, like a good parent should and decide upon that. we dont need the gov. to disturb everyday entertainment like they have our gas prices.

raiding_kvatch
raiding_kvatch

'while it's often used as a Trojan Horse for other messages (like "buy new horse-size Trojans")' - This made me laugh quitre a bit. An intelligent rational feature; I find America's attitude towards sex (particularly in games) especially frustrating as a European, where we have somewhat more of a permissive attitude towards sex, as the games industry is dominated by America, resulting in there being next to nothing even resembling mature adult in relationships in games.

xSlider257
xSlider257

A very valid argument when presented intelligently. I agree that while this may not make people magically "wake up" and reexamine their conceived notions of right and wrong, it is an important step in potentially bringing about a change that some may indeed want.

-Saigo-
-Saigo-

In many situations the harshness of M rated games serve as a buffer to the harder realities of everyday life. I don't get why politicians focus on issues revolving around virtual worlds when great issues exist in the real one!

SadPSPAddict
SadPSPAddict

All very interesting but as a parent I HATE WITH A PASSION the government thinking it can tell me how best to raise my kids! If I want my 11 year old playing Black Ops or Saints Row 2 then he will ( and does :) ) I raise my children to understand the difference between real life and video games and from my personal experience of standing outside his school I know he is exposed to language beyond belief and fully understood the "sucks like a vacum cleaner" reference in Saints Row 2. Wake up you government morons - kids go into the real world 5 days a week!!

Amnesiac23
Amnesiac23 moderator

I used to work at GameStop and it always bothered me how much parents HATED sex and swearing, but on the other hand it was perfectly okay for their children to be playing some horribly violent game. They seem to have their priorities a bit mixed up.

dante-1776
dante-1776

@wadejenkins there is no need to apologize like you sad i am a grown man. and its my point exactly it happen all the time. and people don`t seem to mind that its there all the time. the phrase sex sells is true but what people are forgetting that its also private and mend for other things then commercial product. and oke i have to agree with you i don`t have the right to alter other peoples lifestyles but the same is true for them. i think it can be more discrete and the same goes for violence. i don`t care that is there but can it be a bit less in your face. and yeah friendship sounds good to me.

wadejenkins
wadejenkins

@dante: i apologize if i hurt your feelings, but never ever misquote me, for instance "people like you using sex as a tool" -I didn't say it was a tool or that it should be treated as such, i simply stated that it happens a lot, people do it all the time and also pointed out that it is not as precious as you seem to think it is. Ruining other peoples entertainment options because you have hang-ups about something is stupid; your letting you "morals" get in the way of others lifestyles. In future don't misquote me and we won't have a repeat of this situation. Once again, I apologize. Friendship?

dante-1776
dante-1776

@wadejenkins fist of all, there is no need to be rude like that. i simply stated that i think sex is special. and that there is no need to exploit the fact that there are people that see the need (like you) to use sex as tool and see nothing wrong with. the fact that its being used to sell games and movies better proves to me that there is nothing better there. like i said there is sex and there is sex in a game, i think the balance is lost. If you disagree you may do so but don`t be rude to people. it just underlines the fact that more and more people have lost their moral code. that's my opinion at least...

Sahle123
Sahle123

There is so much love in all these comments.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

@Kratos_Kills Yeah, in reality people tend to keep their sexy bits private, but if we're talking about videogames, what would be the problem? Sex in videogames isn't public either, and just as violence, nothing's really happening. Watching some naked person in a videogame is no stranger than taking pleasure in inflicting injury or death upon virtual people. They're both perfectly acceptable precisely because none of it is real. Mind you, even in reality, the stigma against sex and nudity is kinda absurd, if you try and think objectively.

wadejenkins
wadejenkins

@mc_bally_who: you know the f*#cken program, hit the nail on the head with your comment earlier.

wadejenkins
wadejenkins

To clarify all I'm saying is that violence and sex should be at the same levels in games that they are in movies. I feel the same emotion in Mass Effect 2 when Subject Zero finally let me play hide the sausage as when Otis in The Devils Rejects cut one of the travelling band members faces off and wore it back to the hotel respectively, joy and awe/disgust. If games and movies didn't have scenes like these they would be as boring as cardboard, therefore it is highly important these types of themes are explored to advance the story line. also @kratos-kills (kratos is awesome) lol @ "sex is real you HUNGER for it" -if you're a rapist yeh i suppose you do hunger for it; reasonable people have this thing called discipline. Thank you for that comment honestly the way you've written that has made me piss myself laughing.

wadejenkins
wadejenkins

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

kazumashadow
kazumashadow

@Kratos_Kills you mentioned ealy that red dead redemption didnt have a single nudity but i finished it and im pretty sure there was a mission wich in the cut scene show that mexican dude who helps you bangin a chick on top of the table

dante-1776
dante-1776

oke i try to explain it one more time. there is sex and sex in games. trust me i like to see hot dressed women in a game. but i don`t have to see all of her naked. same goes for violence. i love mortal kombat and so i love to pump somebody full of lead. but i don`t have to see the cruelty of some guy that is torn limb from limb. there is a fine line but it is lost during the course of time. i still love games and i will keep playing them but i wish that the balance can be found again.

lorax1284
lorax1284

If people who watched depictions of violence acted on them as often as people who watch depictions of sexual behaviour act on them, the streets would run red with rivers of blood. So, what this all comes back to is puritan "religious" turds trying to keep people from having sex. If people SEE sexual activity, the get aroused and want to HAVE sex. Or masturbate. So, the government restrictions on depictions of sexual activity are so the government can control masturbation. I'm no libertarian (I believe it doesn't properly reflect the weaknesses of human nature) but I think the laws related to sex and sexuality (including prostitution) should be "loosened up" a bit to properly reflect the STRENGTHS of human nature: a little 'tang or wang in a game ain't gonna make serial rapists out of anyone any more than MK or Postal will make someone a serial killer.

lorax1284
lorax1284

Sure there are degrees of sexuality: the line for defining "obscene" isn't hard: depictions (photo-realistic or otherwise) of genitals or (in the US, for women) breasts (in Canada, women are actually allowed to walk the streets topless, as an gender-equality issue... but there aren't hundreds of women walking around topless all over the place). "A peck on the cheek" is to "sex" as maybe a slap on the face is to "violence". I wager the violence definition could be modified to include "if internal organs, bone, or muscle tissue is visible" then that's called "obscene"... if only blood is shown, that's not... the problem with "violence" is that lots of "violent" things happen that are accidental. So crafty game players could show all the guts they want IF it wasn't due to a violent assault. Video game characters can be ACCIDENTALLY disembowelled, just not by the INTENTIONAL act of another character. What a quagmire (giggity)

SkamArtist
SkamArtist

Think about this, when you go to the magazine section in a bookstore they have tons of magazines of all genres. Usually at the top and partially covered are the adult magazines. It has been this way for many years. I see no reason why this can't be possible for video games. The industry needs to understand that the gaming community is a lot more mature now. We can handle it. Create very strict laws for selling these types of games to minors. Also, don't forget about adult material on the internet. Kids (if looking) will gain access to these types of things on there own. Regulating the amount of sexual content in a game is not the answer.

martin_ker
martin_ker

What do you do in you life more? Kill in some very violence way or f*ck I have not kill anyone yet but I f*cked a few times.... So why it is such a problem to have a tiny little sexual content in the game... You have violence almost in every game but sex content in a few.... From this point of view - sex is not a problem, violence is. You can watch killing in the news in the afternoon but beware of naked nipple in the evening... I have seen more nipples than dead bodies.... In my opinion you can put in the game whatever you want and i won't be offended, my only responsibility is what i want my kids can see, play, read... and if they watch, play or read something inappropriate i will just explain, not punish, explain to them that f*cking is nothing bad but killing someone is... Those by-government-so-called-moralist see problems where they are not.... And i am from Czech republic where are no restrictions yet, there's no green blood and zombies in Carmaggeddon.... PS: I like killing in games, civilians most likely... :-))))

BlackBaldwin
BlackBaldwin

this whole column is just a waste of time. I shudder to think of all the tax paying money wasted on these issues while teachers loose their jobs and young adults that would like to go to school but get denied due to state funding education grants being pulled to cover stupid hearings like these...

babyboy9680
babyboy9680

Its just a waste of time , taking violence, or sex out of games will solve nothing, if anything it would make people even more violent, from boredom. Kids will be exposed to violence and sex anyway,in this imperfect world we live in...Before video games or movies were even invented people were killing shooting, and obviously expose to sex,and I'm betting half if not most of the violence that happened back then was out of boredom,the crime then was higher if not the same as it is today.......it falls on the parents to raise there kids right and teach them to know, right from wrong, and trust that you raised your children to be smart & to have common since and to know better....if you don't want your kids exposed to that kind of stuff, get rid of all the T.V's in your house,and keep them lock indoors and have them take home school....and even then your kids still will eventually be exposed....just teach your young ones to be smart & to use common since, & to know how to make the right choices,and to be ready for the things they will encounter or witness in life...... thats the REALITY CHECK...

GamerLegend10
GamerLegend10

@Kratos_Kills actually there is nudity in RDR. and seriously why is sex such a big problem? its a normal, natural activity... @payne6705 i think its only to give a sense of realism (dead rotting lady in swamp house is much worse lol (side mission)) personally i didn't see any real problem with that. @ziproy i think you have got the wrong idea maybe you should read the article again...

GamerLegend10
GamerLegend10

it should be fine to have sex and violence in games, banning them would just be like hiding people away from facts that flood our real world...people do it all the time, try to shelter kids from harsh realities of life, im just saying that a little bit of violence/sex in games is not that harmful. (depending on the specific person and specific content of the game) anyway as long as the games have suitable age ratings then they shouldn't be sold to anyone who could be damaged, disturbed, offended by the content (although its ultimately up to parents to keep these games away from their kids). Games with high amounts of violence/sex are likely going to have a M or 18 rating, and i doubt anyone of that age needs the content of those games being policed. honestly im sure realistically violent films and porn should be much more of an issue...yet not many people want to stop them, am i right? Main point: these games (with high levels of violence/sex) are made for adults, not kids. Get over it

GamerLegend10
GamerLegend10

so he thinks violence is good, but sex is evil?...hmm...oookk i find it sad how many people fight against violence and sex etc. in games...there just games, for example very very few people will take them seriously enough to change their real life behavior in a more violent way.

wadejenkins
wadejenkins

Seriously explaining these things to these people requires too much tenacity for me.

gamingfrendly
gamingfrendly

to be saying the truth sex in games is plain wrong sensored mybe idont think games should be porn advertisors as for violnce some games needs an overdose of it but some dont and some push it too far adding a naked women to a game wont fix the bugs or give you any gameplay fun or advantge its just to make it sale more so you see a pixlated tit now before you thumb down have a cup of coffee and think about it and as Kratos_Kills said" best example of this is; Red Dead Redemption, it had not a single nudity and it was one of the best games... so there is no need nudity to make a great game." games dont need boobs in every corner or every street sign oh and rockstar are my favoret divs butt they are really sex crazed.

Dordledum
Dordledum

to be blunt. Violence in games might make people violent and sex might make people horny. I'd rather have more horny people than violent people in this world.

MC_Bally_Who
MC_Bally_Who

I think much of this is to do with the backward reputation games STILL have as being a thing for kids in popular culture. It's much easier to assume that kids/teenagers aren't going to go off on a gun toting rampage than it is to assume they won't be interested in sex at some point. In laymans terms it seems to many that SEX + Videogame= Encouragement to have sex, while VIOLENCE+Videogame= Ok, because after all who would dare to actually kill someone?

dante-1776
dante-1776

@wadejenkins growing-up has nothing to do with having to see t*ts and k*ks whenever you are playing a game that is not as sweet and innocent as mario. the point is that (and i agree with Kratos_kills again) violence is something you don`t do as a normal person. in games you can beat the the living daylight out of someone and not hav to harm another living being. sex on the other hand is something special it make the world go round. without it no one wood have lived. and putting it on public display is a insult. i agree that love and sexual tension can make a story but making it porn does not add anything.

Kratos_Kills
Kratos_Kills

@parrot_of_adun violence is not something you do in real life, you do it in games, you let your rage out. sex is something private, its not something public. do you do that in public with your beloved ? @wadejenkins same answer applies to you, private and public things differ. also violence doesnt affect people, its just there and you dont do it in real but sex does, you hunger for it. while its something private, in this era it becomes almost public due to all mediums that are lowering morale

DAMSOG
DAMSOG

The problem is the interactive nature of video games compared to videos/movies. Remember when swearing was taboo in games? Now we have games that spew out lines that would make a sailor blush. Whatever the decision comes to we wont get it here in OZ anyway....our government doesn't trust us....

eddyoshi
eddyoshi

dunno why i red this, dont really understand it anyway

MrKyleKatarn
MrKyleKatarn

Let the boobies out in games amd have naked women galore. Lets how many pseudo uptight people vote this down.....

bourne2live
bourne2live

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

aesir05
aesir05

parents don't have time or don't care enough to monitor their kids. To them kids playing games and staying out of their hair is good enough to shell out for a game the kid's begging for I think its console makers who have to 'push' and improve the existing parental control system. If every parent who buys a PS4 or X720 would be forced to setup parental controls on day 1, things would be easier for everyone when games kids get a play would refuse to boot up. This is easy to say but tough to actually do unless major marketing dollars are put into it and the sony xbox console boxes advertise this for parents to set it up as soon as they plug the system in.

planetslayer
planetslayer

I remember in the old days (lol) there used to be parental controls on some games e.g. soldier of fortune which blocked certain content such as nudity and blood/gore. Wouldn't it great if more games had that option these days especially for parents who don't want their kids to miss out on a good game but also don't want them exposed to that sort of stuff. I know in some games there's still the option to remove blood and gore (Fallout 3?) but most of the time this lacks a parental control. Which of course causes varying problems. My solution is this: enable more parental control on games so that when a parent goes to buy a game the package/case will include an instruction pamphlet on how to setup a limited account for their child that blocks content based on the parents rules. Now if all mature games did that there wouldn't be as much of a problem.

wadejenkins
wadejenkins

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Lazerith91
Lazerith91

Proof that everyone giving thumb votes are horny teens who can't get real women. You say you think nudity should be allowed you just don't like it and they still give you thumbs down :)

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

@Kratos_Kills Red Dead Redemption had nudity. Also, don't you find it a bit strange that you refer to nudity as "pollution", but are just fine with all the savage violence in RDR? After all, those parts of the human body you're so uncomfortable with serve only to further LIFE, whereas violence... I'm sure you know why that's not exactly acceptable. I'm all for sex and violence in videogames, and I'm just fine with games that have neither, but to decry sex and nudity as pollution, but then to turn around and start butchering virtual wild west dudes is simply beyond my understanding.

VolcanoMan001
VolcanoMan001

R rated sex and nudity in movies, but in video games it causes massive controversy for some reason. It should be allowed in video games if it is allowed in movies, with an appropriate M rating of course. I just don't get the double standard.

The_OnionKnight
The_OnionKnight

There's a supply and demand concept in games, if you play a game that indicates it has content you don't approve of then don't buy it, the ratings are there read it. Don't want your children playing it? Then execute proper parenting practices. Don't blame the car company when you crash because your reckless. Not all people are eager-to-go-crazy converts when playing "offensive" video games, some laws need to respect that people are capable of sound thinking and not some mouth frothing zombie.