Gaming professionals and enthusiasts are talking about sex in video games Thursday (June 8) in San Francisco, the epicenter of American game development and the staging ground for the Summer of Love.
And what the 150 developers, gamers, lawyers and sex-industry professionals gathered for the inaugural Sex in Video Games Conference want is more of it, not less.
"The perception is video games are for kids," said Brenda Brathwaite, a veteran game designer and the conference organizer. "But people have a right to do this. Don't tell me I have to abide by this little Disney-esque palette. I may never even use the hard-core end of the palette in any game I make. But don't tell me I can't do that."
The two-day event will play host to an array of developers who do intend to use that end of the palette, in everything from games that allow players to meet, flirt and sleep with each other online to single-player computer games that enable adult users to interact with a (usually) female digital model.
The conference will encompass the hard-core and the soft-, showcasing the latest breakthroughs in pornographic games while hosting discussions about how video games affect dating and personal identity. One transgender speaker at the conference, according to Brathwaite, grew up physically male before finding comfort playing online games as a woman.
Brathwaite isn't easily shocked when talking about sex in games. "The sex that was included in 'God of War' didn't feel sensationalized; it didn't feel out of place," she said, referring to the controllable but off-camera ménage à trois from last year's M-rated PS2 hit.
Brathwaite is a professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. She's working on a nonsexual fighting game for Xbox 360 right now but says her nonsex games barely register with the people who know her. "I did 19 games, and it's all gone," she said of her new reputation. "I'm the sex-game lady."
She has worked in games since the mid-'80s. For two decades she worked on the sword and sorcery of games such as "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Wizardry." But a few years ago, she traded in that fantasy job for another, designing the 2005 Hugh Hefner simulator "Playboy: The Mansion."
Now she maintains a blog about sex games for the International Game Developers Association, giving equal time to Planned Parenthood's game about the acceptance of homosexuality and the trailer for "Virtual Hottie 2" (key innovation over the original "V.H.": Gameplay allows for "one-handed operation").
Many of the issues planned for the San Francisco conference, like those involving the convergence of games and porn or the panel about the rising tide of "massively multiplayer erotic games," are for adults only.
But Brathwaite said the discussion of sex in games should be a broad one — one that is even relevant to a PG audience. Romance, for example, fits into her definition of video game sex, as does flirtation and kissing, all of which she believes are still too rare in games.
"Fitting love and romance into games — to me, that makes sense," she said. "It's in every other form of media. It's very popular in every form of media. We don't get all excited and call each other and say, 'Oh my gosh, there's a love scene in that movie.' That's just so, 'Yeah, so what?' I think eventually it will get like that in games."
She noted that dating video games — hard-core ones and those that are squeaky clean — are popular in Japan but have yet to make inroads in the U.S. She hopes that will change.
Also relevant to the nonporn gamer is the scheduled discussion of graphics. Sex-game developers will discuss ways to span the uncanny valley — that problem where graphics that are made to look realistic but fall just a little short wind up looking more fake than cartoonish ones.
"Some people say we just need to make [graphics] look more realistic and [players] will be turned on," Brathwaite said. "But you wind up with [characters] who look plastic. They look undead. They look freakish."
Sex-game developers don't want their characters to scare consumers off, so the community is determined to surmount the challenge. Whatever accomplishments they make in the service of making flesh more realistic and flirtatious faces more believably expressive would likely benefit the looks of the characters in the next sex-free first-person shooter or fighting game.
Brathwaite hopes the San Francisco conference will get a sequel, but it's too early to say.
Being the "sex-game lady," she still has plenty more slated on a colorful to-do list. Among her goals is to identify the earliest occurrence of video game sex, possibly in certain online games that predate the text-only 1981 "Soft-Porn Adventure." She's also interested in getting game developers to team up with sexologists to find ways to create sex-therapy video games for troubled couples. And she has a sex-related game she's working on.
"It's not so much a sex game, but it certainly facilitates it," she said. "I would say it has definite erotic overtones." She's mum on the rest, but one thing is clear: She's not using the Disney-esque palette on that one.