It’s almost Valentine’s Day, so that means it’s time for AmbiGaming to analyze the heck out of relationships!
We’ve talked about love, we’ve talked about stereotypes, we’ve talked about romance. So what’s in my sights today, leading up to this Valentine’s Day 2021?
Physical intimacy, of course. And all the issues that come along with it.
Don’t worry, this post is safe for work, but be warned that we will be talking about how games handle relationships and intimacy, and some unintended implications from these portrayals.
Pardon the pun, because I’m actually starting off by talking about Dragon Age, and I couldn’t think of an innuendo that went with that franchise title.
As some of you might know, I played Dragon Age: Origins the year before Dragon Age: Inquisition came out, so I was very much an adult. It was my first RPG, although in my preliminary research on things I absolutely needed to know about this genre – and this game – I found out that NPCs were romanceable, a new and exciting prospect.
I happily settled into the Leliana romance storyline, and then one night at camp was shocked when the option came up to go to bed with her. I was so shocked, I picked an option that said I wasn’t ready for that, and got a little bump in approval, which I thought was cute and very validating. Funnily enough, I forgot to save after that, and so on the second playthrough of that conversation, I went for it.
Believe me when I say I figured after the “fade to black” kiss, that would be it. I sat there with my mouth open when that was not the case. I can’t tell you what my thoughts were, because I’m fairly certain I had none, other than, “This… this is in a video game.”
As I fed my subsequent BioWare habit, I found out that Mass Effect had come under fire for being considered a “sex simulator.” After romancing Liara and seeing the scandalous 3 seconds of blue butt that caused the outrage, I was again surprised: partly for only that causing the outrage, but that also, again, this was in a video game. But I moved on. Apparently, this was a thing with BioWare, and I’m not uncomfortable watching those types of scenes, so I shrugged and moved on.
Enter Mass Effect: Andromeda. I took a stance after my first playthrough of it, saying that the “romance culmination” scenes seemed very hetero-centric, with full-blown animations for Cora and PeeBee when romancing a male Ryder, and a recycled (and barely plausible) scene for PeeBee with a female Ryder, and fade out for the exclusively homosexual romances, and a fade-to-black with the bi-alien-sexual romance. If I remember correctly, I said something akin to “sexy time for none, or sexy time for all.”
I still think that the culmination scenes were very hetero-centric, and that in itself is a problem, but after thinking about this more, I softened my stance, saying that at the end of the day, the culmination scenes should be specific to each character and that is still my stance to this day.
But it was around that time that I also began thinking about the rampant intimacy issues in games.
A Change of Heart
I pride myself on not being a particularly terrible person. An odd way to start a section, I know, but important nonetheless.
After playing through the Dragon Age and the Mass Effect trilogies multiple times, and going through a number of romance options (though not all of them), I went into Mass Effect: Andromeda with a pretty clear expectation of what a BioWare romance entailed. My Ryder’s heart was smitten with Suvi Anwar, the Scottish science officer who was a delightful combination of Leliana and Samantha Traynor, and my poor awkward Ryder fumbled along through the romance subplot with me behind the wheel, confident in my BioWare wooing abilities, and knowing exactly what to expect.
Imagine my surprise when the “culmination scene” was a kiss, followed by a fade to black. And that was it.
That’s it? I thought. Really?
On the heels of this came a little eye-roll, and I dismissed it as the developer not wanting to upset Gamers™ by making them face homosexuality. Or maybe they didn’t want people treating homosexual relationships as a commodity to be ogled.
So, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on, slightly indignant at how unfair it was.
Wait a minute.
I can say with absolute certainty I have never felt like anyone “owed” me anything in a relationship.
But there I was, annoyed at… that was it?
It was then that I saw the harmful cycle that video games put us into, using sex as reward for doing something “right.” Or worse, using sex as a reward for “picking the right dialogue options.” Or, even worse, reinforcing that if we do all the right things, we’re owed something by a romantic partner, and feel cheated if we don’t get it.
A quick perusal of the internet showed that I am not the only one to have complained about the Andromeda romances in this way. Nor am I the first person to talk about games using sex as a reward, though games like Ride to Hell: Retribution are so shocking abysmal that we see the “sex as reward” in games like that for what it is, compared to a more polished story that sneaks in these harmful ideas.
But Athena, I hear you say. Sex sell! Of course they put it into the game!
Yes, but interestingly enough, and as you can see from this very scientific Twitter poll, of the folks who had an opinion on my timeline, most didn’t seem to want to play a game because of the intimacy scenes.
88% of people were totally fine with not having graphic sex scenes in their games. Eighty-eight percent.
And to be honest, I don’t pick up a game for the intimacy scenes, either. But this particular issue goes beyond what we specifically play a game for, or whether we play a game in the hopes of watching a sex scene. What this article speaks to is the potential harm that can be caused by priming our brains to “expect” a certain “payoff” within the context of building a relationship.
Which brings us back to the problem at hand.
Storytelling and Intimacy
A long time ago, I delved into the research (if any) of the correlation between playing video games and committing violent acts in the physical world. After a few posts, we concluded that while violence is not directly caused by viewing/partaking of violence in games, it can potentially desensitize us to violence, and changes how we interact with violent imagery and violent ideas in our lives.
In a way, experiencing or committing violent acts in video games is a sort of exposure therapy for violence at best. And we’ve talked before about how video games give us a safe way to practice social interactions or experience otherwise-uncomfortable emotions.
As we grow and learn how to act in society, we are constantly under the pressure of behavior conditioning (don’t worry, we’re not getting into this today). We’re always experiencing consequences for our actions, and adjusting our behaviors – learning – as we go along. It’s how we learn that temper tantrums don’t get us what we want (or that they do), and that treating someone poorly is unacceptable (unless it is).
In the above example (although this is not a specific-to-BioWare problem), I had been conditioned by the games to expect certain storylines to play out certain ways. If I did tasks A, B, and C, well I expected D to happen because of a job well done.
Sure, that works for a game, but what happens when actions meant to build a relationship become tasks to complete, in order to achieve/earn a trophy or titillating reward? What have we subtly learned about relationships?
Was I particularly upset that I didn’t watch a sex scene? No, not at all. The indignation I felt was that I hadn’t received the expected, the earned “reward” – all emotion had been removed from the situation, and the relationship became transactional.
It is this stripping down of what makes intimacy important (pardon the pun) to a basic reward following a calculated transaction that distressed me so much.
To be sure, in storytelling, intimacy is a powerful device, and often the fact that this type of relationship happens can be important because it changes the dynamic of the people’s relationship. So, while I may gently come down on the side of saying that it’s important as a device within a story – the same way as it is an important happening in a relationship, if that’s what you’re into – I would argue that it might not be necessary to watch it occur. At what point do we go from storytelling device to dangerously voyeuristic? Or, perhaps worse, dangerously transactional?
Deeper Intimacy Issues
We have a few points to hit here, one relating to affection as a reward, one relating to observing stalking behaviors in media, and one involving what happens when we see sexual objectification occur in media. Content warning for these issues.
First up is the most apparent issue: using affection (in this case, physical intimacy) as a reward. This is something that, I would imagine, we all do to a certain extent: if we’re really angry at someone, we probably aren’t in the mood to show affection, even though we still care about the person. Those feelings would most likely return after the issue has been resolved. It’s a way of showing what is and isn’t acceptable in a relationship, at its most base form.
However, if used too much, or used incorrectly this type of withholding can make a relationship seem like love and acceptance is conditional. This is the “sex as reward” danger, and this comes up in games (and, sadly, in real life). Affection and intimacy aren’t meant to be used as a weapon, or as a threat, but as an expression of affection and closeness.
To be sure, at the end of the day, we might want different things. In fact, men tend to prefer physical intimacy as a sign of closeness, whereas women prefer emotional intimacy. This is okay, and we deserve to be treated with consideration. However, no one is owed intimacy (of any kind) simply because they showed up, were nice, and flirted a little.
Using affection as a reward can be motivating, BUT if used incorrectly can make a relationship seem like love and acceptance is conditional. Sex isn’t meant to be used as a weapon, or as a threat. It is, as the description says, an expression of intimacy. Or at least, I suppose in theory it’s supposed to be. And at the end of the day, we might want one thing or another, but no one is owed this type of intimacy, just for being nice.
As we’ve talked about before when discussing whether or not video games cause violence, video games are a practice ground for social skills, and a trove of information for our brains to sift through and determine what is “acceptable” in a society. Just as exposure to violence can make us more tolerant – or at the very least less repulsed by – violence, so too can exposure to, for instance, stalking make us more tolerant to stalking.
Now, these romanced characters in games are not being stalked, but we as consumers are being shown and are acting out, over and over again, situations where our showing up, being nice, flirting, and giving a few gifts results in a particular consequence. We see this over and over and it shows us that this is what we can – or worse, should – expect from a relationship.
This is harmful. We’ve already talked about no one being owed anything, but in this case it goes a little deeper. It can make people think that this is how they are meant to act, and if they aren’t acting in a certain way, then something is wrong with them. It can make them feel obligated to do things that they aren’t okay with, because it’s what’s expected – it’s what that other person is owed.
All these aspects begin to stitch together a picture of the dangerous playground relationship portrayals with “sex as reward” put us in. As we view scenarios that are less about intimacy and more about getting a reward for good behavior, we stray dangerously into objectification, which, again, if we see it more, and as it becomes more “normalized” for us, makes use more likely to reinforce harmful gender stereotypes (for all), and to increase tolerance of violence against girls and women or femme-presenting individuals.
I mentioned before that I advocated for characters staying, well, in character when it came to romance scenes. I think in the current state of things, this would be a way to keep everyone happy, because if a person in merely acting how they would act, then that’s realistic enough. I’d also advocate for, you know, maybe not putting fully-animated sex scenes into games that aren’t meant to be pornographic.
And I think there are a number of people who’d be okay with this.
As a grumpy LGBT+ aside, I still maintain that what Andromeda did by fully animating heterosexual relationships and doing the fade-to-black for the same-sex relationships is a complex issues, because on the one hand, LGBT people have historically been fetishized and so this was a way to circumvent that, but on the other hand, it was glaringly obvious that the scales were tipped regarding what we saw, and for what kind of relationship.
Although a slightly different issue, this ties into the sex-as-reward because… if that’s what it is, then it should be equal for everyone, right?
As a thought experiment, I’d be interested to see a game where, like in real life, relationships are a little more complex. Maybe the person needs to like you, or maybe they like you but not like that.
What is this nonsense? you might ask. I play games to escape reality, not be turned down by lines of code.
To which I say:
Dragon Age: Inquisition actually – tentatively – handled this well, at least for one of its characters. As a female Inquisitor, if you flirt with the fantastic warrior Cassandra, she smiles and plays along, but let it go too long and she’ll – quite sweetly, I might add – corner you and tell you how much you mean to her but only as a friend and is that okay, because you’re really great and I value your friendship, but I just don’t like you like that.”
It was possibly the sweetest interaction I’ve ever had with a character in a game, because she liked the Inquisitor so much but just… not like that. And my Inquisitor’s little heart broke but she survived and managed to move on. Like real life, only without the heavy judgement and lost friendships.
Another example that was just brought to my attention is The Game Bakers’s Haven, which depicts an established couple trying to survive on an isolated planet together. It can be played single-player, which means that the player can control dialogue for both parties. Additionally, there seems to be no “wrong” answers to a situation, rather answers that will affect your character’s personality and the plot down the line – much like how an established couple might not always “pick” the right dialogue options, but tired to navigate forward regardless. I was struck by this quote:
So, it seems like this is a step some games might be trying to take on their own. And that makes my little gamer heart happy.
As an extra added bonus, with more game situations, and games, like this, we could all be put into more realistic social situations, yet in a safe way, like we’ve talked about before. We’d be exposed to, and practice handling, being let down, or being disagreed with, and not self-destructing. Or, to return to the Dragon Age example, if we found ourselves/our character on the end of unwanted attentions, we could practice politely turning people down. The possibilities of portraying healthy relationships is absolutely endless.
If done correctly, I think this kind of gameplay could be a boon to the industry at large. Mature content? Learn how to handle disappointment like an adult. That’s maturity. It’s in a game? Well, there doesn’t need to be a negative in-game social consequence, like there is so often in the physical world (and, consequently, this is also implemented into Haven). Win-win for everyone!
If we’re “mature” enough to degrade relationships to transactions with expected rewards, and “mature” enough to handle realistic ballistics and photorealistic people being photorealistically killed in photorealistic first-person view, and if we’re mature enough to practice shooting sniper rifles and other skills that most of us will never use in real life, we can handle being shown what non-transactional, dynamic relationships look like.
What do you think? Do games have intimacy issues? Are there topics that you think games aren’t mature enough – or creative enough – to handle? What realistic relationships have you seen in a video game? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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