We're in Room 3020 at the Game Developers Conference, the weeklong gaming fest held in the cavernous halls of Moscone West. All around us, groups of dedicated designers with surgically precise skills meet to discuss the fine points of building for Xbox, PlayStation, GameCube, et al. Most know exactly what needs to be done. But not our group.
"What if your character talks about hand jobs?"
Brenda Brathwaite, senior designer at Cyberlore and one of the leads on Playboy: The Mansion, has just thrown open the "Sexuality in Games" round table, and topics are shouted out. These people make computer games about sex. So far, there aren't many games about sex. So far, none is in Wal-Mart. That's exactly what's bugging this group.
"It blows my mind that you can show a dead baby in a crib," says Brathwaite, referring to Max Payne, one of myriad violent games that made the cut. "That's fine, put it on a shelf" -- she bends low and growls -- "right where the kids can see it."
We breeze through the history of sex in games, which consists entirely of the Sims, the social game with the cute graphics. A Sims designer calls the sex "fun, funny, and part of the gameplay" in the calm, rehearsed tone of one testifying before Congress. In making Playboy: The Mansion, on the other hand, Brathwaite saw herself as a pioneer. "Can you show nipples?" she asks. "There was no one to ask. We were on the front lines."
Playboy decided upon "magical black thongs" that didn't show waist-down nudity yet still allowed characters to have sex. Wal-Mart demurred, despite an M (Mature) rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Leisure Suit Larry ran into the same wall. Larry just wants to get women drunk and have sex, but Wal-Mart and Australia, the country, banned the game. "The ESRB doesn't matter. Wal-Mart and Best Buy matter. An M rating is not satisfactory to Wal-Mart," says Benjamin Hoyt, one of the game's designers. (Later Hoyt would wonder about the moral implications of his chosen career path: "Should I feel bad? Can we talk about that?")
The discussion turns to Europe. "You Americans ...," a Swedish designer begins, clearly amused. "Why are females passive characters in games? Europe is more concerned with rolling heads than nudity." Obligatory anecdotes about European television, American moral standards, and Janet Jackson's nipple follow. The religious right is duly attacked. A former ESRB rep is stirred to action. "It's not just the religious right," he says. "Even blue states hate sex in video games. People just don't like it."
You can hear a pin drop.
Dog Bites rarely "games." Following a bad run of '80s Pitfall, the only title we own is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and only because we're too old to fall off a skateboard and be expected to get back up. When we walk the aisles of the vendor-clogged GDC Expo, we hardly know what's going on. The graphics, the swordplay, the spray of gunfire -- we're dutifully overwhelmed. How on Earth do you play these games? How do you amass an army, pilot a dragon? But the Nintendo booth leaves us more suspicious than perplexed. The 20-foot bar and console kiosks are packed with people playing Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. Gamers should not be this enthralled by Jungle Beat. We know this because players beat conga drums and clap their hands instead of using controllers, and gamers have the best thumbs in the business.
Perhaps it's the gameplay. A striking woman wearing a short black skirt, high black boots, and a knotted Nintendo T-shirt asks Dog Bites if we'd like to hit the monkey. We notice a half-dozen other identically dressed women, working the crowd with identically broad smiles. Men surround a blonde, gripping the portable games wired to her belt.
The scene exemplifies the way sex mixes with gaming: as a hook, a visual thrill. Character development is difficult. Games can't realistically support anything but the most casual relationship, so we get flash, the glint of sun off a chain-mail bikini. But at a nearby booth for a game about sex, there's no sex. There's practically no booth.
"Do you make Leisure Suit Larry?" we inquire.
It's odd we have to ask. High Voltage Software sits in a back corner, staffed by two, its counter curiously empty. A poster features characters from the game but no Larry. A passing man pleads for a tchotchke.
"Can I get a shirt?"
"How about I trade you something for a shirt?"
We find out the goodies are hidden behind the counter, reserved for job applicants. HR Director Maggie Bohlen somewhat nervously tells us about Larry, how players ply the women with drink and move Larry's sperm to "win the favor" of women. Favor? "Sexual favors," she clarifies, giggling. We feel almost naughty.
"We don't have a problem with ripping someone's spine out."
It's day two of "Sexuality in Games," and Brathwaite is holding up a magazine ad of a woman in muddy lingerie. It's an ad for a motocross game, of course. This gets the group started on a favorite subject: the chain-mail bikini.
"You're sending a woman into a dungeon protecting her groin and breasts," marvels Brathwaite. A man in glasses reasons that chain-mail bikinis have magical properties. Brathwaite admits that she has designed a few of the outfits herself. In the rear, a woman announces she is working on a sex-positive erotic simulator, which causes every head in the room to turn, as one, toward the raven-haired designer. "The problem is poor design," she says. "There needs to be more choice. Women are simply presented as ready for sex."
The following day, we nod through a 9 a.m. lecture on Joseph Campbell, perhaps the 20th century's leading thinker on the power of myth and mythmaking, by game designer and novelist Bob Bates. Campbell is a god to developers, and Bates instructs them on the nuances of the hero's journey, the playbook for role-playing games. Create a believable myth and you've got yourself a steady flow of royalty checks. "The force of myth is irresistible," Bates says. "Games are myth-reinforcing activities. We need to believe we matter. Player and character become one through the magic of identification."
He's right. No other medium has quite this power. In gaming, you swing the sword that severs the head that topples the enemy, not an actor. You cause the bloody chaos, not Uma Thurman. It's this power that makes people nervous. No one wants kids simulating sex, and to Wal-Mart and most of America, games, even when stamped with an M rating, are still for kids.
On our way out, as we pass through the independent-games pavilion, our eye catches Jonathan Skinner, a slight, bearded man with a permanent smile standing next to what is clearly a labor of love: Steer Madness, a computer game starring a pacifist, vegan cow. Homemade signs adorn Skinner's booth; an indie-band soundtrack muffles nearby explosions. He offers the controller to wary passing groups, shrugs, and turns back to his bicycling cow, which "receives rabbits, delivers soymilk, protests fur, and changes advertisements." No sex, no violence. It's the only game we've seen with veggie dogs.
Skinner spent two years designing Steer Madness. In his version of "the crunch," the harrowing drive to complete a game, he lived off Visa and worked nonstop for six months. His game is up for a few awards at the Independent Games Festival, notably for the soundtrack. He agrees that his presence at this conference is odd. His game is sold in vegan stores and the PETA catalog.
Later that night at the awards show, applause erupts as the freewheeling steer appears on-screen. Everyone is slightly drunk, thanks to free booze at an earlier Booth Crawl. Steer Madness wins its category, Skinner's indie-band soundtrack scoring him an award for Innovation in Audio. He hustles to the stage, says a few inaudible words into a dead microphone, and the animal-activist genre is born, proof positive that in gaming, anything can, and eventually will, come to pass. (Michael Leaverton)