Culture

Sex and Role-Playing Games

Ah, I see that I have acquired your attention.

Much ink has been spilled to explain why sex is such a big thing in video games, including computer role-playing games (RPGs); while not nearly enough ink has been spilled to explain why sex is also sometimes a thing in pencil-and-paper RPGs.  I say “not nearly enough” because the limiting factor, alas, is that the tabletop RPG market isn’t nearly as huge as the video game market. Believe me, I’d love to have people pruriently freaking out about tabletop RPGs the way they do about the latest video game, because it’d imply that there was a similarly huge pile of money on the table…

But I digress.  A lot of folks want to know why there’s improbable costumes and exaggerated body forms and bosoms with their own internal gravity fields, and why there’s often rather infamous (yet wooden) cutscenes in certain video games, and why there’s the stereotype of the guy playing the bard who is always trying to seduce the barmaids, and so forth. There are so many, many theories, usually linked to a particular hobbyhorse or doctoral thesis (if indeed the two can be meaningfully told apart), but the reality is simple, right? There’s sex in role-playing games for the same reason that there’s sex everywhere else: most people like sex.

Note that I’m not saying that there should be sex, or that there should not be sex, nor that all kinds of sex should/should not be present.  Merely that most people like to have sex. They typically react well to having sexually-significant material present in their entertainment. Men typically like having said material provided in a certain way, which doesn’t completely overlap with the way that women like to have it present; and of course there’s the entire spectrum of… ah, variations on the theme. So game designers — naturally enough — will add that stuff to their games. Sometimes well. Sometimes badly. Usually somebody will call it pandering*. They’re often right, not that it matters.

If all of this still seems strange, that’s fine: it is strange.  But, objectively: so are cheerleaders at football games, and the genre conventions of classic romance novels, and women presenters at car shows, and pretty much all of advertising, really.  Which is to say: it’s more strange as meaning “unfamiliar” than it’s strange as meaning “weird.” Like pretty much everything else involving human sexuality, a lot of the meaning lies in the context. Which, in my somewhat cynical opinion, is what half to two-thirds of the wars over sexualization in video games are about: to wit, who gets to define the context**. And those fights are going to go on until long after we’re all dead. Why not? They’ve been going on since before we were all born, after all.

PS: All that being said: …yes, the current state of the art of animation allows for rather vigorous forms of body-part fetishism; and tabletop RPG publishers sometimes have to commission artwork from people who haven’t quite worked out how to draw human bodies properly yet.  That is indeed a factor in all of this.

*And pandering really can get highly weird when alternative sexuality is involved.  One of the legitimately funniest things that happened in Mass Effect 3 — a game with a surprising amount of humor in it, considering that it’s a games that’s apocalyptic on a galactic scale — was the way that game designer Bioware handled same-sex romances for your player-character.  They had two non-player characters who were reserved for same-sex romances only; you simply could not romance them if you were playing an opposite-gender character. Very progressive, yes? Yes… and amazingly shameless pandering. You see, the lesbian romance was clearly written under the assumption that a heterosexual male would be running the character… and the gay male romance was just as clearly written under the assumption that a heterosexual woman would running the character. Thus, the gay male romance was full of passionate emotions and Someone Learning To Love Again — and the lesbian romance was Hey! Let’s go take a shower together!  And didn’t that blatant catering to the way heterosexuals consume same-sex porn just go over the head of most of the reviewers. It was glorious.
**It’s not all context, mind you.  There are in fact people who are kind of scary-unhealthy in the way that they think and act about sex; and there are in fact people who find certain academic theories an excellent vehicle for their ongoing efforts to try to make everybody else as miserable as they are. But… it’s mostly about who gets to define who the normal people are. Which is pretty funny: because, honestly? Nobody is.

(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)