By Ben Grandis
Warning: The following article contains descriptions and images of sexual references in gaming. It also contains minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition. It is considered NSFW. Viewer discretion is advised.
Sex and video games, despite being two very wonderful things, don’t often mix well together. Sex in gaming has ranged from being shallow and laughable at its best to outright sexist at its worst. Many games treat sex as a challenge that can be “won” by the player, so long as they follow a “correct” number of actions to woo their intended conquest. This troubling trend is especially dominant in “dating simulator” games.
In these games, players are tasked with conversing with, dating, and sleeping with as many women as possible, by any means necessary. Once their intended conquest is successfully seduced, the player is often shown an awkward animation of the two characters having sex. These sequences best resemble mannequins being aggressively stacked on top of each other. A bonus in-game achievement may even light up the screen, signaling victory.
This enforces the unhealthy expectation that any real-life woman can be convinced into having sex as long as you perform the necessary steps to persuade her. It objectifies sexual partners as prizes for the player. The assumption that any woman can be seduced by following the right script has been ingrained in our popular culture long before video games made their claim to it. But the interactive nature of gaming makes it all the more believable to any player who adopts this “pick-up artist” approach.
So how can video games mature and have a better sex life? In today’s world where misogynistic young men who feel entitled to sex commit mass murders, its more important than ever that video games set the right tone when it comes to human sexuality. With conversations about consent happening thanks to the #MeToo movement, video games have the unique opportunity to teach gamers great practices when it comes to sex and dating.
Let’s take a look at one of the best examples of sex and romance in gaming for us to learn from. Bioware’s 2014 Fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Inquisition has one of of the most sophisticated romance systems ever seen in a video game. With eight potential companion characters for your protagonist to romance, each one has their own gender and racial preferences that they will be sexually attracted to. Cullen the Templar, one of the player’s chief advisors, is only attracted to human and elven women. Even if you play as a dwarven female and try your best to seduce him, he will politely decline since you aren’t his type. While this may seem harsh or unfair, it reflects the biases that many people experience in their everyday sex and dating life.
However, the most innovative part of Dragon Age‘s romance system is the “approval meter.” This meter is an invisible metric that the game uses to determine how your companions view you and your actions. Whenever your character makes a decision, companions will express agreement or disagreement with your actions. The more severe the decision, the greater the impact that choice will have on your companions’ approval of you.
If you wish to seduce a particular companion, they must approve of you and your behavior outside of your relationship with them. Even if you are their preferred gender and race, even if you are kind, flirty, and invest lots of time getting to know them, your actions will still impact how they view you sexually. Not only will a romance with a companion be impossible if they have negative approval of you, but they may even end an already ongoing relationship with you if you repeatedly make decisions that offend them.
For example, if you are a female character, you can have a romance with the lesbian elf Sera. Sera is a staunch atheist and finds religious people to be irksome. When she confronts you about your spiritual beliefs, she will call off your ongoing sexual relationship with her if you disagree with her and stick to your religious values.
Why is this romance system so revolutionary? How does it teach gamers good habits when it comes to their sexuality?
What Dragon Age: Inquisition gets right about sex and romance where other games have failed is just how complex they are. There are just so many factors that can determine who we are attracted to. Dragon Age not only tackles these complications with grace and humanity, but also touches on the most critical pillar of a healthy sex life: consent must be earned, active, and is not permanent once given.
Many games allow the player to seduce a romantic interest. But few allow that character to withdraw their consent and break-up with the player once the relationship is established.
But the harsh truth is that couples do break up. Whether its due to loss of interest, finding you two are incompatible, meeting someone else, or for any other reason, people withdraw their consent from real romantic relationships all the time.
By having video game characters exercise their right to active consent, games can teach us how to be better partners with whomever we are intimate with. They emphasize that sex is a privilege, not a right. And remember folks, consent is sexy. Let’s hope that the future of gaming gets that message.