Nudity in video games has always been controversial.
Despite the controversy, nudity in video games isn’t as prevalent as you might think.
The ESRB was created to regulate nudity and violence in video games.
Mass Effect gets sex scenes and how to use them tastefully.
Why is nudity in video games such an extreme taboo? In a medium debated and surrounded by controversy regarding violence, language, and Satanism (looking at you, Doom and Diablo), complete nudity isn’t nearly as prevalent as the minimally dressed avatars in your favorite MMO might have you believe.
Is nudity in video games too explicit? What kinds of games feature nudity, and what popular games have sexual features? HaloHYPE bares it all here.
What’s the Deal With Nudity, Anyway?
Is nudity in video games actually that widespread? Nudity has brought controversy to games over the years.
In 2017, the team behind Watch Dogs 2 had to remove naked NPCs due to backlash. While Ubisoft is no stranger to onslaughts of criticism, this is a particularly touchy subject with censorship and families. This also is rooted in how video games are perceived. Video games are often seen as being for kids by those who don’t play them.
This is categorically untrue. In fact, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer in the U.S. is 33 years of age. More than 215 million play games regularly, 83 percent of gamers agree that games create a feeling of community, and 77 percent of parents play video games with their kids.
Adults play video games, so adult content naturally happens from time to time. As with movies, music, or books, what content is appropriate to allow in their home is up to the individual.
Depictions of nudity are often easy targets for controversy. In HBO’s megahit series, Game of Thrones, sex happens often and explicitly, and women characters are nude far more often than their male co-stars. This does speak to the creators’ intended themes of misogyny and how women are second-class citizens whose only purpose is to bear men's children. The story does strive to show that this treatment of women is unethical, but critics say this is undercut by women often acting as sexual props and eye candy — get a pair of boobs on the screen to keep people watching.
Then you get a series like House of the Dragon. As a prequel series to Game of Thrones, those same themes of misogyny and domination of women are still featured and explored in nuanced ways. Most impressive of all, though, is that the inevitable sex scenes (this is still Thrones, after all) have drawn no controversy.
On the contrary, critics praise the show for its use of intimacy coordinators. These professionals function to keep actors safe and comfortable when filming taboo and awkward sex that are a staple in the show’s feudal fantasy world.
The above two examples start to address the creator's intention. The use and intent of nudity and sexual explicitness is what matters, not necessarily if the game contains any. Of course, if the intended audience is 17 or younger, nudity should not happen. That's why in games rated M for Mature, it’s fair game for creators to tell mature stories. If nudity or sex improves that story, it has its place.
As long as the game is open about what it contains, what's the issue? Doesn't it then fall on the consumer to be responsible?
The ESRB Rating System
The worry with explicit imagery in video games isn’t just a visual concern. It’s an interactive one — when you actively interact with an object or character in a sexual manner, there are strange and taboo interactions possible. Everyone agrees that teabagging in Halo is fair game, though. You beat that guy, and it’s hilarious. Teabag away.
Because human beings are horny creatures, nudity has been depicted in games since the beginning. There even was an early market for pornographic games that started in the early 80s. As graphical fidelity improved, there were — erm — explorations of such images released for mass consumption. Violence and sexual content in video games — but mainly the highly public 1993 congressional hearings surrounding Doom and Mortal Kombat — led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board or ESRB.
The United States-based ESRB serves to rate games with simple descriptors to inform potential users. Think of it as the video game equivalent of the Motion Picture Association of America rating system with its G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings.
The ESRB has the following rating system for video games:
Rating Pending (RP): Used for promotional materials of games that have not received a final rating.
Rating Pending — Likely Mature 17+ (RP): A second RP used for games that anticipate mature audiences.
Everyone (E): This rating is assigned to games with content appropriate for anyone.
Everyone 10+ (E10+): These are games suitable for everyone ages 10 and up.
Teen (T): This category includes games with moderate degrees of violence, crude humor, and suggestive themes and language.
Mature (M): These are games intended for an adult audience that feature blood and gore, sexual content, strong language, and intense violence.
Adult Only 18+ (AO): This rating is usually reserved for prolonged sexually explicit imagery and is the rarest of the ESRB ratings. However, it has in the past designated games with gambling of real-life currency.
The ESRB’s rating system is to educate consumers about what kind of material is in the games they’re considering, especially when it comes to nudity. Whether that’s one sex scene or naked NPCs doing illicit acts, this level of regulation isn’t just appreciated but necessary.
Even though nudity and sex scenes in video games are mixed — just like in movies — some are explorations of eroticism, some are exclusively for the male gaze, and some actually advance the story!
Developed by BioWare, The Mass Effect Trilogy has the player step into the shoes of Commander Shepard, a male or female character depending on the player’s preference. As the story progresses over three games, the player’s decisions and interactions with characters have consequences and set up or deter options for later entries. Major influences of the series include Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and, of course, Star Wars. It is operatic, epic, emotional, and popular.
The series has romance options meaning the player has the choice to flirt with NPCs and build romantic relationships. This romance system presents writers with the chance to develop impressive characters and dynamics within the world. If you’re a super nerd, try your hand at romancing alien species. It’s unusual for non-gamers to consider, but video games create worlds for players to immerse themselves in. Romance, at least to this extent, provides interesting ways to roleplay and build up interesting backstories.
However, as a game dealing with sex and naked humanoid bodies, Mass Effect has had its share of controversy.
Neoconservative media outlets like Fox News attacked the original game for its romance scenes and partial nudity. Louder was the criticism of an intimate encounter between two women: Commander Shepard and one of the popular side characters, a space alien named Liara T’Soni.
“Sex doesn’t belong in video games played by children!” the naysayers yell.
However, this argument crumbles when you realize that The Mass Effect Trilogy is meant to be rated M for mature. Surprisingly enough, the games never have an instance of full nudity, male, female, or anyone in between. Not once.
Whether you believe not having any full nudity is a negative or not, where Mass Effect gets sex right is within character and story development. Like House of the Dragon, the scenarios are thoughtful, not prolonged, and build toward immersing the player into its world and serving an epic tale of heroism, leadership, and compassion. Even characters known for their physical attractiveness, like Miranda Lawson in Mass Effect 2, are never shown fully naked.
Further, Mass Effect is one of the best examples of how to write romance in video games. Not only are there several heterosexual options, but players and critics laud the series as a pioneer of homosexual relationships and sexual minority representation in games.
One of the most wholesome storylines in the entire saga is the romance between Male Shepard and Kaidan Alenko, something only available in 2012’s Mass Effect 3. It took time for the trilogy to warm up to the option of male homosexual relationships, and two romances are finally available in the last game of the trilogy.
Kaidan and Shepard’s romance is a prominent example of how decisions from the first game carry over to the finale as Kaidan may not make it out alive in the first Mass Effect. The romance itself is whimsical, and Kaidan’s confession of his feelings for Shepard is awkward but ultimately builds up a charming story.
He mentions being choosy, never having known or admired someone like Shepard before, and wanting to be with him before the galactic-level threat in the story finally lays siege. It’s wholesome and natural and serves a satisfying representation of a segment of society too long overlooked. The sex scenes are likewise tasteful.
Nudity in Video Games in 2023
Mature games are where nudity is allowed to be shown. A lot of these games have sex workers and locations for their employment.
In Grand Theft Auto V, players can choose to visit strip clubs that don’t serve story purposes which feature fully topless women who are hirable for private dances. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt also has brothels where players enter and watch short, but still explicit, sex scenes of topless women. These examples do fit the game worlds they occur in and are completely optional for the player. If it isn’t desired, they can avoid it whether by enjoying other features the game has or by playing another game entirely. It is never forced upon the player.
Here are some examples of popular prominent games that push the envelope when it comes to sex and nudity.
The Witcher Series
While some instances of nudity are optional, some are mandatory. Characters like Triss Merigold and Yennefer are depicted nude or suggestively often, and the player character Geralt of Rivia spends plenty of time with his shirt off and showing off his assortment of battle wounds, scars, platinum white hair, and muscles. The Witcher is pretty damn horny at points if that’s your thing.
As the cyberpunk science fiction subgenre goes, themes of a future capitalistic hellscape of high technology and low quality of life lead to compelling story ideas involving currency, cybernetics, and android intelligence. The last one is often explored when it comes to nudity and sex work. Cyberpunk 2077 includes options to romance other characters with shots of sex and nudity and even customize your genitalia — a rare instance for a game this size.
On the other hand, nudity is optional and can be turned off entirely. Providing this option is a plus for players of all preferences.
Make Your Own Decisions
Nudity in video games — just like anywhere else — all depends on the person who interacts with it.
Outright removal is impossible, but neither should it go unregulated. There are plenty of instances where nudity or sex scenes are tasteful. Strides potentially made to show off more male full frontal is welcome as women are objectified more in video games than men.
If Overwatch does anything well, it’s sexualizing everyone. Hell, even the Master Chief got his glory shot and sex scene in the Halo Paramount+ TV series. It won’t be discussed here if that was a good thing, however.
To keep up on everything Halo, gaming, and gear, keep it here on HaloHYPE.
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