Game On

Can they show penetration? Dog Bites visits the Game Developers Conference to find out.

"Can you show penetration?"

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.

Ah.

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?"

"No."

"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.

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