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Sex in Video Games

Book Review of Sex in Video Games

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Updated August 16, 2012

Sex in Video Games by Brenda Brathwaite

Sex in Video Games by Brenda Brathwaite

Charles River Media

Reviewed: Brathwaite, Brenda. Sex in Video Games. Boston: Charles River Media, 2006. Publisher details and a sample chapter available here.

In the first chapter of her indispensable book Sex in Video Games Brenda Brathwaite notes that sexuality (in one form or another) has been present in video games since video games were invented. From the earliest text based interactions to the evocative joysticks of the 70s, to teledildonic-hacked X-boxes, give people a new form of technology, Brathwaite asserts, and they’ll get down with it (and with each other using it).

Given this long term relationship, and the ubiquitous cultural clichés of computer nerds using video games to vicariously satisfy their sexual desires, it may seem surprising that it took this long for a complete history of sex and video games to be published.

But as Brathwaite’s detailed history and careful analysis explains, the way that the gaming industry considers sex is very different from the way game users experience it. Sex is an integral and immediate part of user’s interactions with technology, while the industry’s relationship to sex--from developers, to publishers, to marketers, to lobbyists-- has been rocky.

Brathwaite carefully chronicles the over thirty-five year history, dividing video games that are designed to be more sexual from those designed to be less, though end up being sexual nonetheless.

On the whole, games with explicit sexual content (those that offer opportunities for sexual interaction) don’t score high points with Brathwaite, or users, because they tend to be limited by both technology and the sexual imaginations of game designers. Games where sex was not a design element, but where users create sexual situations, offer much more dynamic and interesting examples of the way games can be sexual (e.g. World of Warcraft and Second Life). Brathwaite has coined a term for the kind of sex that happens in these ‘non-sexual’ games, “emergent sex”.

Emergent sex, or the sex that happens beyond the designers intent, is a rich concept, encompassing everything from flirting to fetishistic edge play. Sex in Video Games offers dozens of real life examples of users building sexual possibilities into game environments that don’t explicitly promote sexual behaviors. In this way Sex in Video Games is a wonderful primer that will hopefully generate more discussion and research on emergent sex.

Following a detailed history of sex in video games, Brathwaite examines issues of censorship, self-regulation inside the video game industry, as well as how sex and video games plays out across cultures. There is a brief but important chapter, written by Deborah Solomon, covering issues of obscenity.

The book also raises questions about what sexual content is appropriate in what sort of games, and whose responsibility these issues should be in the first place. Brathwaite offers insight without being didactic. Her conversational style invites debate and critical thought on every issue, proving the value in communication, a value ignored by the industry for over thirty years.

There are times when Brathwaite’s explanation of user’s desires and motivations seems too simplistic and lacks the subtlety of her discussion of the general place of sex in games. But this emphasizes the need that Brathwaite indicates for greater collaboration within the gaming industry, between the gaming industry and gaming communities, and across disciplines including sexology, anthropology and psychology.

Sex in Video Games is a must read for anyone working in the area of gaming or sexuality.

About the author:
A 23-year veteran of the video games industry, Brenda Brathwaite is a game designer who has worked on 21 published titles. She is also a professor of game design at Savannah College of Art & Design, and the chair and founder of the International Game Developers Association’s Sex Special Interest Group. As a consultant, she is currently a designer on an Xbox 360/PS3 game for a major publisher. Brenda is a frequent speaker at industry events including the Game Developers Conference, the Women's Game Conference (a part of the Austin Game Conference) and Future Play. She has also been a guest lecturer at numerous universities and colleges.

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