Review of Sex in Videogames by Brenda Brathwaite

Sabine Harrer
sabine.harrer[a]tuni.fi
Postdoc Researcher
Tampere University

Brenda Brathwaite: Sex in Videogames (2006). Charles River Media: Boston, United States.

Sex in Videogames by the acclaimed game designer Brenda Brathwaite (now Romero) was first published in 2006 and is one of the first books to explicitly address the intersection of games and sexuality. However, the process of reviewing it for this special issue on Sexuality & Play has not been easy. As a relic from the past, it comes with problematic suggestions around sex and sexualisation which shed doubt on its contribution to academic discourse.

On the other hand, these lapses in themselves might show us something about mainstream ideas about sex and the games industry in 2006 and might inspire conversations about where to ideally take research in this area today. Instead of reading Sex in Videogames as if it were written today, it should be considered an historical document, an archive of sorts provoking two kinds of insights.

First, the book documents the existence of a number of sex games from the 1970s until 2005, covering little known titles and niche products developed in the intersection of pornography and videogames. Secondly, Sex in Videogames is a meta-document in that it archives a particular seemingly apolitical way of treating sex and videogames which is no longer feasible. Since recent developments like #GamerGate and #MeToo have exposed the game industry’s pervasive problem with (sexualised) power abuse (Massari 2017, Penny 2019), the book is part of a prelapsarian past, a game culture before the fall when the now hyper-visible “toxic gamer culture” (Consalvo 2012) could still be ignored.

This historical place can explain some of the authorial choices made in Sex in Videogames, notably its awkward avoidance of power and violence as the two elephants in a room.

Spanning over 300 pages and 14 chapters, the book attempts to cover the meaning, history, and legal culture around sex in the (US-American) games industry. One of the central problems with the book is that it does not reflect its main goal in investigating sex and videogames. Is it a design manual, a text book, or a games culture study? Who are the prospective readers, and how might they benefit from reading the book? This lack of a central premise necessarily affects the structure of the book, making it a loose collection of examples rather than a coherent argument.

For example, the book starts with a brief dictionary definition of sex and moves towards an inclusive interpretation of sex in games as sexually themed games contents, advertisement, “sexy” visuals and avatars, and “emergent sex”, the authors’ term for cybersex. This list of game-related contexts in which sex has appeared in one way or another ends with a remark that the book excludes sexualised violence, arguing that “such mechanics do not represent sex, instead they represent violence or the threat of violence and are therefore beyond the scope of this book” (SiV, p. 37).

However, as it turns out, the book does not follow through with this promise, giving significant space to the notorious rape simulator Custer’s Revenge and descriptions of abusive griefing behaviour by players engaging in “unwanted advances” (SiV, p. 109).

The chapter on the history of sex games provides perhaps the most unique contribution of the book. Documenting a number of obscure games developed between the 1970s and 2005, the chapter includes titles which have rarely been touched by mainstream games studies. Due to the sheer number of special interest titles like Dr. Ruths Good Sex Game, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Mac Playmate, Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, and Cool Condoms alone, this chapter is worthwhile reading. However, the critical task of understanding these games in context is left to the reader. Most problematically, Brathwaite does not mention her involvement in some of the games, including Playboy: The Mansion, which is mentioned favourably throughout the book.

When it comes to understanding sex between players, Brathwaite suggests the term “emergent sex”. A large part of the chapter on emergent sex speculates about reasons people engage in sexual activities in games which were not specifically designed to cater to such experiences, treating sex more like a design feature which has slipped the designer’s control, rather than a pervasive aspect of human life.

A strong focus of the book is on the question of regulation and legislation in the US context as it existed in 2005, with a total of seven chapters dedicated to related topics (4, 6–12). Readers receive overly detailed introductions to industry rating boards, content guidelines, and policies. A refreshing exception is Deborah Solomon’s chapter on “obscenity”, which insightfully characterises the uneasy status of obscenity laws in US regulation and its implications for the treatment of videogames.

The book’s exhaustive treatment of legal perspectives stands in stark contrast to the 9-page long discussion on “positive inclusion”. As an example for positive inclusion, the author mentions products in the sexual health sector, such as advergames by condom manufacturers promoting their products through safe sex games. Two other, rather obscure examples for “positive inclusion” are sex-themed games without visuals and the enjoyment of sex games for sex’s sake. These examples contain unexamined assumptions about “good” sex, such as the idea that non-visual representations of sex are morally superior to graphic portrayals, or that sex for sex’s sake is even possible. Whose enjoyment is addressed, specifically, when sex for sex’s sake is enjoyed? When considering the examples given throughout the book, there is a tendency that this is a heterosexual cis-male player.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect in Brathwaite’s discussion of inclusion is the lack of attention to what has been excluded and should therefore be considered for inclusion. Apart from the failure to address diverse types of pleasure beyond the heteronormative player spectrum, the dimension of diverse creators is missing. Creators at the margins of game culture have productively engaged with sex through videogames in non-normative ways, as games like Caper in the Castro (1989) show. Such titles are not included in Sex in Videogames.

Overall, apart from serving as a chronicle for obscure sex-themed games from the past, how can Sex in Videogames be of value to readers in 2019? I suggest that the many flaws of the book might teach us something about how not to talk about sex anymore. First, Sex in Videogames shows that striving for an “objective” take on sex in videogames removes accountability. Brathwaite’s neutral authorial voice keeps her from critiquing whose enjoyment is prioritised, and by implication, who benefits from reading her book. Secondly, Sex in Videogames fails at drawing a basic link between sex and politics, resulting in a conflation of sex and sexualisation.

Given the hostility players and creators who are not white and cis-male face on a broader cultural level (DeWinter/Kocurek 2017) this conflation comes at the cost of those who are already oppressed. Were Sex in Videogames written today, it would have to reflect on its complicity in promoting harmful kinds of “sexiness” which further exclude pleasures that already exist at the margin of games.