Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

3 April, 2007

Adult topics
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:55 PM

The issue of games achieving legitimacy is something I’ve talked about a few times before. I think that this is one of the most important topics facing our industry today.

As I’ve said before, part of achieving legitimacy is to avoid the label of being a “kiddie” medium. And that’s most definitely easier said than done.

To review why this step is important, remember the words of Scott McCloud I’ve posted before, “As long as the broader community assumes that comics, by their nature, are without social value and, by their nature, are suitable only for kids — then charges of obscenity will always hit their mark.” This applies to games, as well.

At this point, I’m mostly going to be speaking about U.S. attitudes and behavior as it relates to this topic. There are differences in other places in the world, but I’m most familiar with the U.S. and the attitudes there. And, most of the troubling attitudes come from the U.S., despite our once proud defense of freedom of speech.

But, look at how comic books and cartoons are viewed in the U.S. They are considered kiddie things, something that young kids (or immature adults) enjoy and waste their time on. Unfortunately, games also tend to fall into this category in most people’s eyes, particularly those who deal with making laws. Hence we have committees about how games are corrupting kids, but R-rated movies get a nod of approval.

The problem is, of course, that games aren’t just for kids. Of course, the same is true of comics and cartoons. But, how do we get that message across?

One reason why this is a major problem is because adults actually need games more now than ever. This was covered in an interesting article I read recently, How we learned to stop having fun. It was an interesting talk about how western culture went from knowing how to let loose and have fun to becoming too serious and suffering heavily from melancholy (a.k.a., depression). The money quote, IMHO, was:

Nothing speaks more clearly of the darkening mood, the declining possibilities for joy, than the fact that, while the medieval peasant created festivities as an escape from work, the Puritan embraced work as an escape from terror.

What does this mean? Well, that adults need to capture fun again. How many people work at their dead-end jobs and “hate” their lives? It seems like a natural fit that games could teach people how to let loose and have fun again. How the world doesn’t need to be a crushingly depressing place.

It was also interesting to read how social mobility led to a lot of these problems. A peasant working on the land didn’t have to worry about proper appearances all that much. He had the steady assurance of he daily work, and didn’t have to worry about losing his job. The comfort of knowing your place in the world is secure is interesting. Thinking to “the grind” in online games makes this make more sense. I’ve written before that online games serve up a fantasy. That fantasy is that you just have to put in your time and you’ll be rewarded. Do the same, predictable things and you’ll get that warm fuzzy feeling of eventually reaching your goals. Of course, those goals also happen to be to reach the top levels of power and be greater than other people, bringing in a bit of modern personal advancement to make it feel right. Interesting when put into this context.

Focusing again on legitimacy in games, we can talk about how to achieve that. One way I think we can do this is by talking about adult topics without resorting to mere sexual titillation or hyperviolence. Unfortunately, our society is awash with poor messages both of these areas.

So, let’s tackle the area that games rarely pay much positive attention to: the loaded issue of sex. Another article I read recently was, BOG VENUS VERSUS NAZI COCK-RING: Some Thoughts Concerning Pornography by Alan Moore. Very thought provoking because it dealt with how we viewed sexuality through the ages. The author brings up some interesting things, such as how modern pornography in the U.S. (and U.K.) show two sides of the issue. On one side you have pornography as a necessary release from the sexually-themed bombardment of modern society (advertising, movies, fashion magazines, etc.) but we have “moral guardians” that make sure that any use of pornography is accompanied by guilt and even self-loathing. Using pornography is a sin, and sex must be ignored even though it is everywhere we look. A sure recipe for frustration.

So, what could games do in order to satisfy the criteria of “good pornography” as Alan Moore speaks of in the article above? Could we make a game that fulfills this criteria, or would any attempts be instantly set upon by the forces of legislature?

As an aside, I highly recommend reading up on this topic from Brenda Brathwaite. She does a great job talking about the problems with sex in games and why it usually doesn’t work. Smart stuff that would be a great springboard for talking about topics like this.

So, what are your thoughts? Can we have more mature games without, ironically enough, going too immature? Or, is it hopeless due to the knee-jerk reactions about games being only for kids?

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  1. Well the linked article seems to focus very specifically on artistry.

    “We’ve observed already that in places such as Denmark, Spain or Holland porn appears to act to some extent as a release valve, venting sexual pressures harmlessly before they can explode in sex crime or abuse. We also noted that this doesn’t seem to work in more restrictive cultures where reflexive guilt and shame seem to attend the very notion of pornography. What if it were possible to bring such a degree of artistry to our pornography that this immediate link between erotica and dire social embarrassment was severed? Might pornography in this way be allowed to function as it does in more enlightened climes, reducing our appalling score of actual men and women scarred and violated, actual children raped and killed and dumped in a canal? Isn’t such a thing at least worth the attempt?”

    Since I have the aesthetic sensibilities of a turnip, I have no idea how games could incoporate erotic content in an artistically valuable way. I suspect that it involves much more than Second life pose balls with copulation/fellatio animation scripts for avatars but I don’t know what it would be.

    Comment by JuJutsu — 4 April, 2007 @ 10:36 AM

  2. JuJutsu:
    Fahrenheit (i.e. the European version of Indigo Prophecy) managed to incorporate a bit of sex without it seeming shoehorned into the plot. It wasn’t exactly erotic – you actually had to wiggle the joystick for every under-the-covers thrust. That scene and a few others did make it pretty clear that it was an adult game. They were removed from the Indigo Prophecy version, right?

    Surely incorporating erotic content would the same as with films. The line between a pornographic film and a film with graphic sex is its context, storyline and meaning.

    OTOH, after some 15 years of games development we still seem to have trouble incorporating violence in an artistically valuable way.

    Comment by Weefz — 4 April, 2007 @ 2:16 PM

  3. I am reminded of Fallout II, where you could sleep with the gangster’s wife (and her daughter!) in order to get the combination and steal what you needed from the safe in his bedroom. It was a bit over the top and darkly humorous, but no one at the time called it lewd that I could remember.

    You could also have a shotgun wedding for getting seduced by a farmer’s daughter, too.

    I think the trick is to first have a game that tells a story in a serious, adult tone. If the adult themes in your game are gratuitous and not really connected to the plot, then it’s not going to be accepted by the audience. On the other hand, if it makes sense for it to be there, then the audience won’t fixate on it because it’s part of the larger tapestry.

    Comment by Talaen — 5 April, 2007 @ 2:44 PM

  4. Hmm.. In my poor man opinion one of man adult playing games, reading sci fi or fantasy is to escape secual pressure so pronounsed in current world.

    That why most of popular games is asexual, even if it would not be part of our western culture. Opposit true for some games, but in a whole..

    Comment by Alexei Gladkikh — 9 April, 2007 @ 1:05 AM

  5. An interesting thought, Alexei. I have two thoughts.

    First, as Alan Moore wrote in the article I linked in the main post above, a good dose of sexuality can be a good antidote to the sexual pressure in everyday life. In fact, the says that most of us need such a release from the messages of the world. Assuming this is the case, what can we, as game developers, do to make this a positive experience? Is there something special about computer games that makes our medium more appropriate for the “good pornography” he talks about?

    Second, I think ignoring sexuality doesn’t help. Many fantasy books are accused of being “adolescent power fantasies” because they appeal to the lust for power and dominance, but don’t have very complex sexuality. Having a respectful dose of sexuality can help round out the stories. Of course, if the sexuality is done poorly, it can just add to the sexual pressure. I think one of the tricks is to make sure that any sexuality is, as Talaen wrote above, part of the larger story. I also think it is best to avoid any overt descriptions or depictions; the best treatments of sexuality I’ve seen in books and games tends to be when it’s very low-keyed, not when it’s presented like an episode of Penthouse Letters.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 April, 2007 @ 1:23 PM

  6. There is a book caller “Return from the start”
    By Stanislaw Lemm

    If I translated correctly. West recently discovers him and even made Solaris movies, his other book.

    If anyone read both of this books. Are they sexual? Man-woman relationships is one key part of both, but are these books really sexual?
    I do not think so.

    Comment by Alexei Gladkikh — 10 April, 2007 @ 12:23 AM

  7. > That fantasy is that you just have to put in your time and you’ll be rewarded. Do the same, predictable things and you’ll get that warm fuzzy feeling of eventually reaching your goals.

    How is this different from an office job?

    Comment by Rich Bryant — 10 April, 2007 @ 8:23 AM

  8. Alexei Gladkikh wrote:
    Stanislaw Lemm

    I have to admit that’s on my large “to read” list. But, books have always handled the topics of relationships and sexuality a lot better than games have. Part of the problem is that the visual medium makes it harder to show internal dialogs. Interactivity means it’s impossible to control the actions of all the characters to show a subtle scene. The perception that games are for kids makes people hesitant to try to tackle these issues.

    Rich Bryant wrote:
    How is this different from an office job?

    It’s not, really. In some of his talks, Raph points out that the “bottom feeding” behavior that causes people to get bored in online games is actually similar to the the “safe” path for people in their everyday life. In a way, we can hardly blame people for repeating the winning strategy from their offline life.

    Of course, this is also what causes publishers to release “safe” clones and sequels. Innovation requires risk, which is usually bad news in our daily life. It’s all connected. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 April, 2007 @ 5:30 PM

  9. Brian,

    You and I completely agree on the legitimacy issue. It’s interesting that a graphic novel can be made into a film – a “legitimate” form of entertainment – yet the originating source still remains outside that realm.

    Sex games? Yeah, right?!

    Here’s my take:

    Comment by Kelly — 18 April, 2007 @ 2:41 AM

  10. Kelly wrote:
    It’s interesting that a graphic novel can be made into a film – a “legitimate” form of entertainment – yet the originating source still remains outside that realm.

    The recent movie 300 was panned by critics. Quite a few of them called it “video game-like” as if that were an obvious insult. Interesting that they didn’t try to deride it is being too much like a comic books, since that was the source material.

    An interesting post, Kelly. Definitely an interesting topic at the IMGD conference. I think an indie developer is the only way we’ll see a decent game of this type being made.

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 April, 2007 @ 2:47 AM

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