It’s 2004. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has just hit store shelves, and players are stepping into the shoes of CJ for the first time.
As with any title in this open-world gangster series, it wasn’t without controversy, but it was drowned out tenfold by the acclaim. Praise was heaped on its story and characters, and it is praise that is still felt today. For Rockstar, it was simple. Deal with the usual complaints of their game encouraging violence, and bask in the high sales.
But then, the “Hot Coffee” mod happened, and in America at least, all hell broke loose.
A gamer by the name of Patrick Wildenborg had unearthed a fully animated and interactive sex scene between the main character, CJ, and various women. The “Hot Coffee” minigame had been disabled from the main release, but most importantly, was still on the disk itself. To the gaming-illiterate politicians of the 2000s, it was clear: Rockstar had hidden a vile sex scene in their kids' game!
The obligatory class-action lawsuits ensued, as parents were disgusted that they had bought their children an M-rated game that featured some clothed polygon-on-polygon action. The pushback was so severe that GTA: San Andreas had its rating pushed up to Adults Only, forcing it to re-release a version with the Hot Coffee scenes completely removed from the disc so it could once again be sold in stores.
Now let’s fast forward to 2020. We’ve seen Commander Shepard sleep with half his crew, we’ve had lap dances in Grand Theft Auto V, and of course, we’ve seen every inch of Geralt of Rivia's lovemaking, foreplay and all.
In just 15 years, how is it that we’ve gone from some PlayStation 2 models causing a full-blown moral panic, to full-frontal sex barely making the news? And perhaps more interestingly, how has the representation of sex changed as gaming evolves? Today, let’s dive into the history of sex in games.
Part 1: The Shameless Era (1981 - 1990)
Truly, it is hard to understand why sex was put into Atari 2600 games at all. There’s nothing erotic about the sex acts performed by these barely human characters, and the “humor” is the equivalent of having the worst South Park gag play on repeat.
The first of its kind was in 1981, with the aptly titled Softporn Adventure. Released on the Apple II, the title is an adult-oriented text adventure, with phenomenal dialogue such as “Holy cow! Her boobs are huge,” and, “She’s taking a large sausage shaped object and looking at it longingly!”
And if, for some bizarre reason, you could ignore the fact that the aim of the game was to shag some text, or swallow semen, it’s not like the gameplay was any good either, often just being stolen from a pre-existing title, with some tits pasted on top.
Beat ‘Em and Eat ‘Em has now become shorthand for any crude depiction of sex. In this game, you control two blonde women and collect semen in their mouths, lovingly provided by a man on top of the screen. Perhaps the biggest embarrassment of this era is the notorious Custer’s Revenge, in which you play as General Custer and have to avoid arrows so you can reach the goal: a tied-up, naked, Native American woman.
And it wasn't just the West. Eroge, a Japanese genre of erotic video games, has its roots in this era. Curiously, it appeared to be marketed to both men and women in a relationship, rather than just men.
Night Life, for example, contained guides for different sex positions and, most curiously, a feature to keep track of the woman's menstrual cycle. But the region wasn't completely innocent, as seen through Lolita: Yakyūken, which depicted underage nudity in a basic rock-paper-scissors game.
“Our object is not to arouse, our object is to entertain [...] When people play our games, we want them smiling, we want them laughing,” said Stuart Kesten from Mystique, the producers of many adult games of this era.
Despite this, there’s no real reason to revisit this age, other than morbid curiosity.
Part 2: Playing Coy (1991 - 2004)
As gaming got more realistic, surely that would lend itself to sex in mainstream games, right? Not really.
In mainstreaming gaming at least, developers appeared shy of any graphic depictions, and opted instead for references and jokes. At any rate, the jokes had at least gotten better than blondes taking a load to the face.
If this can be considered as sex in mainstream games, Duke Nukem first hit our screens in 1991. Full of semi-naked babes and sexual wisecracks, it sets the tone for this period.
But there was one advancement: the invention of the suggestive fade to black. Of the games that utilized this, there’s Fallout 2. This stands out not only for it not being used exclusively humorously, but also for one of the first incidents of same-sex hookups making it into a popular title. Sex was used to indicate to the player how much things had changed since the first Fallout—in the first game, life was all about survival, but now, there’s room for some fun, and the population longs to replicate pre-war behavior.
We also saw the shy first steps of a company who will be coming up a lot later on: BioWare. Baldur's Gate 2 introduced four romance options which, while far from their future work, did also include the suggestion of sex. However, this was a subject BioWare were seemingly still getting comfortable with, as its other major title, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, did contain romances, but dared not imply anything too risqué. Yet it does deserve credit for hiding a lesbian character in the cast, who will confess her feelings to a female protagonist should they not go for the male option.
But examples of sex being used like this are few and far between. Whether it’s Duke Nukem or even Conker's Bad Fur Day, this was the era of sexual content being the punchline to better jokes than we’d heard before.
Over in the Japanese market, however, we began to see the rise of a genre many enjoy to this day: erotic dating-simulators. Dōkyūsei, released in 1992, is prominent in this time period for taking the sexual elements of adult video games, but having it so the eroticism had to be earned by players through interacting with the characters. This is perhaps a small step away from the passive roles women tend to take in these games.
Part 3: Getting Braver (2005 - 2013)
As we hit the seventh console generation, the potential of sex in video games had finally been realized: Sex can be used in many, many different ways.
First we have pure fantasy fulfilment. This came about in 2005’s God of War, in which players had the chance to bed two women, naked from the waist up, in the form of a quick-time event. Less crude than the Hot Coffee mod, this is not only brave for the inclusion of the two naked women, but their moans of pleasure too. It’s still a way off being realistic (you hop on the bed and press the circle button to initiate the 10-second encounter), but it’s an improvement on what had come before.
But we can’t go much further without mentioning the one you’re probably here for: Mass Effect. It’s undeniable that the sex and romance was a bit of a fantasy for some of us, but it also serves another purpose: It develops the characters themselves.
In Mass Effect, players take the role of Commander Shepard and have the option of pursuing a relationship with one of three crewmates: humans Ashley and Kaidan, and the feminine alien, Liara. However, if you were a Fox News viewer in 2008, it was all about Liara.
While not as widespread as the Hot Coffee incident, Mass Effect drew its own controversy with the fan-favorite blue alien, as she was open to a relationship with both a male and female Shepard. The sex scene between the two was far tamer than God of War (unless you’re really into side boob), but the key difference is that this was intimate, which is likely why it attracted controversy.
And so the floodgates were opened, albeit shyly. BioWare never looked back, and almost every game it has developed since has included sex scenes, with each installment getting braver. In Mass Effect 2, the scenes are longer. We see Miranda out of that skintight leather jumpsuit, and Garrus and Tali openly talk about interspecies sex. It’s part of these characters' lives in a realistic way, and can create what I am sure is probably some of the most memorable moments in the series for players.
While Mass Effect may be the most notorious, it wasn't the bravest. That honor goes to the original The Witcher, also released in 2007. Here, you can collect numerous "romance cards," which are earned by sleeping with various women, such as Triss Merigold or even just some unnamed nurses. The cards depict a tastefully erotic picture of the lucky lady, but aside from that, we don't see a whole lot of Geralt's lovemaking just yet, save a few moans of pleasure.
But we’re not quite done joking around. Fable 2 featured very Fable-esque sex scenes, with your standard fade to black, and some comically cringe-inducing dialog to show that your Hero is doing the do. Yet this was the last of a dying breed. Attitudes were changing.
But before we leave the era, we can’t go on without bringing up the ones which tried, but haven’t aged as gracefully. Of the more forgiving entries, there’s Dragon Age: Origins. It’s commendable to see BioWare try to make the sex scenes longer, but there’s nothing more awkward than seeing every thrust and moan when the animation really was not ready for it.
Then there’s Heavy Rain, with its not-quite-there animations, where we see Ethan and Maddison awkwardly mash their open lips together in something meant to resemble foreplay. The rest of the act—the undressing, the neck kisses, the making out—is pulled off far better, but is completely cheapened by the unnecessary inclusion of quick-time events (at least God of War wasn't trying to be serious). It just doesn’t get much more awkward than having these two characters go at it, while you’re actually still having to control them.
Despite some ugly misses, the good intentions were there—as seen by what came next.
Part 4: Game Of Thrones, But In Games (2014 - Present day)
Oh how far we’ve come. Now, not only is sex everywhere, but there’s almost something for everybody: every story, every preference, every sexuality.
In 2014, we got the third installment of BioWare’s fantasy series, Dragon Age: Inquisition, featuring one of the bravest depictions of sex yet. While genitals are still off-limits, we’d reached a point in AAA gaming where we could have meaningful and grounded romance scenes with tasteful nudity. Inquisition features fully exposed breasts and a wide arrange of sexual experiences.
Go with Cassandra, and you get something right out of a romance novel, with the sex marking the point of emotional vulnerability in the relationship, as the lovers lay everything bare—both physically and emotionally. On the other hand, go with Iron Bull, and you get some fantasy BDSM action.
Perhaps most unique is Sera, a romance option exclusive to female characters. With her, you see the side of sex we don’t normally get in gaming—having a laugh about it. There’s something beautiful about seeing two naked women, completely in love, laughing after being intimate. Sex can be funny, without sex itself being the punchline. It isn’t dirty, it’s human.
Then we have The Witcher 3, which is something straight out of a film. Much like Dragon Age, sex is treated like a normal part of life, a part which Geralt happens to enjoy a whole lot. Whether he’s having some fun with an old friend, or getting intimate with his true love (whichever lucky lady that may be). It shows Geralt as a man as lustful as Kratos, but without cheapening the women he beds. If anything, they own their sexuality, and grow for it. And let’s be honest, they make for some of the hottest scenes in gaming, full stop.
Sex is now personal, and personalized, in mainstream games. Its vast and varied potential has been realized, and moral panics seem to be put to rest.
Conclusion: How Far We’ve Come
The point of this is that love, relationships, and sex have so much potential in gaming. Whereas in the past, mainstream games containing sex were just a pale imitation of the act, taking the role of a viewing hole for peeping toms, it’s now used for character development, story—and hell—sometimes because it’s just hot to see Geralt and Yennifer go at it.
For the most part, everyone involved has their agency. The Witcher, Mass Effect, Dragon Age—all series where the characters want to have sex, because it’s only natural. What was once rife with misogyny is now a celebration of female sexuality.
Not always, of course. But goddamn, does it go without saying that the subject is in a much healthier place. We don’t cringe at it, and we don’t feel the need to make it the butt of the joke.
Sex is hot, sex is funny, and sex is human. And it looks like society might just be ready to see that reflected in video games.