What videogame intimacy says about us.
It’s one thing for your average male gamer to ogle two women getting it on, but it’s another thing altogether to ask the typical straight dude to engage in a romance with another virtual male—even if that man is made of pixels. This is exactly what BioWare—the makers of the 2011 fantasy role-playing game Dragon Age 2—discovered when a staunchly vanilla gamer found himself on the receiving end of some unsolicited homoerotism.
From the moment that it was technically viable, sex has appeared in videogames. In the early ’80s, when gaming technology evolved from simply racking up high scores to inviting players to engage with coherent storylines, sex was used to increase the stakes and overall drive of the narrative, in addition to providing cheap thrills.
Why score an arbitrary number when you can defeat the villain and score a babe? Whether mildly romantic (Mario saving the princess in exchange for a kiss) or downright smutty (Leisure Suit Larry feverishly hunting for a shag), videogames offered standard fantasy fulfillment for mainstream guys.
But more recently, developers have taken things a little further by allowing romantic relationships that might appeal to a wider variety of players, something that doesn’t always sit well with more traditional fans. In the case of Dragon Age 2, said perturbed gamer posted a critique on the company’s message boards arguing that BioWare wasn’t catering to its core demographic: “the straight male gamer.” Not surprisingly, this caused ripples not only in the gaming community, but also on myriad LGBT-oriented forums.
The fact that this ultra nerdy videogame was even mentioned on such forums is a sign of how integral gaming is to popular culture. Clearly, “dudebro” is no longer the sole demographic. This shift is most likely connected to the rise of community games like The Sims and World of Warcraft, and casual gaming systems like Wii, both of which cater to a variety of players. Videogames are evolving to be more user-friendly in their inclusiveness and maturity—especially when it comes to sex and sexuality.
A reasonable starting point in charting the history of sex in North American videogames would be the 1982 Atari dud, Custer’s Revenge, a tasteless turkey in which players controlled the iconic general, who sported nothing but boots, a bandana, a cavalry hat and a full-on erection. The goal was to dodge arrows in order to reach the other side of the screen to hump a nude Native American woman tied to a cactus. When the NES first debuted here, two years after the North American videogame crash of 1983, Nintendo of America took the opposite approach and implemented a series of strict guidelines that developers had to adhere to. No licenced title could feature swearing, graphic violence or religion, and Custer’s Revenge–level depictions of sex were replaced with squeaky-clean romance.
Outside of the innocuous world of Nintendo, games for Sega and other consoles were experimenting with far more taboo depictions of sex in order to profit from this hole in the market. Sega constantly mocked Nintendo’s G-rated status, asserting that Nintendo was for boys and Sega was for men. Today, most game developers aren’t avoiding Custer’s Revenge–style depraved depictions of sex entirely—Grand Theft Auto is particularly hardcore—but some are starting to embrace it as less of a shock tactic and more of a legit narrative device. We’re gradually seeing characters with relatable morals and desires.
Like today’s popular teen TV dramas aimed at young and impressionable audiences, videogames are beginning to introduce well-rounded, non-stereotypical queer/gender-variant characters to cater to their increasingly open-minded audience. In doing so, titles like Dragon Age 2 are gently encouraging gamers to shift their values and morals—not just with respect to their avatars, but perhaps also in real life. Providing dudebros with the “opportunity” to get it on with other dudebros may actually present a chance to help shift macho homophobic attitudes.
If it’s any comfort, that Dragon Age 2 hater received a lot flack from men and women, gay and straight. And happily, BioWare made it clear the company has no time for such intolerance: “We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention…and the person who says that the only way to please them is to restrict options for others is the one who deserves it least.” The future of gaming looks a lot brighter than it did 30 years ago.