Explicit games gain ground, risk putting off customers

December 5, 2004
San Mateo County Times
By David Morrill, Business Writer

PARENTS CONCERNED about video games with blood-bath brawls, drive-by shootings, and sword-severed headsare about to face a new source of anxiety -- the influx of games that revolve around sex and nudity.

The latest video games to enter the $7 billion-a-year market don't have a whiff of violence in them. Instead, they are pushing a different envelope.

"We are definitely seeing titles with more graphic depictions and greater levels of realism concerning sexual content than what we have seen in the past," said Patricia Vance, president of The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which rates the games.

Although games with nudity and strong sexual content have been around for years for personal computers, it's an area that console gamers have been introduced to in just the last few years. Now, these games are being designed for Xbox and PlayStation 2 consoles.

"It is bad if this is the way video games are going," said Nancy Kidder, a parent of two who was recently shopping at Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton. "I already have a problem with how much violent games there are out there, and now I have to worry about sex in games, which is really disturbing."

Already released this year are two video games -- "Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude," and "The Guy Game" -- with warning labels that say they have "Nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and alcohol use."

Both games made it onto the National Institute on Media and the Family's annual report card, which is a short list reserved for just the most violent or sexually graphic video games. "This segment of games keeps getting more realistic, and they keep pushing the envelope," David Walsh, the institute's president, said at a news conference. "The problem is that these games are the ones that are particularly popular with kids, particularly teenagers."

And video game experts say parents should brace themselves because there are more on the way.

In January, "Playboy: The Mansion" will be released on PS2. The game will include strong sexual content and nudity.

"Sex has made it into every other entertainment medium, so it just seems natural that it would make its way into video games," said Wes Nihei, editor-in-chief of Oakland-based GamePro Magazine. "You really can't be surprised that it's happening."

While other entertainment markets have long been raising the sex bar, the move into the console games market is still in its early stages.

In November 2002 video game publisher Acclaim released "BMX XXX," which allowed players to use tokens they earn to watch strippers. Although it was panned by video game critics, the fact that it contained nudity made it a groundbreaking title for modern console games.

While the primary focus of "BMX XXX" was its biking aspects, the latest titles clearly revolve around sex.

In Leisure Suit Larry, the object of the game is to hook up Larry with as many women as possible. In the console versions, there is a "censorship bar" over Larry and the females' bottom halves when they are naked. The series was originally launched for PCs in 1987. But this latest installment, also available for Xbox and PS2, is by far the most sexually graphic to date.

In "The Guy Game," players take part in a trivia game. The reward in this game, however, is not wedges such as in "Trivial Pursuit." Instead, the players are rewarded with video images of women in bikini's taking off their tops and baring their breasts.

And in "Playboy: The Mansion," players will be able to "shoot" the magazine's centerfold by making decisions about where to take the photographs and what the models should (or should not) wear. Also, players can earn credits to view photos of actual playmates.

Of the new releases, these are the only three games that have nudity, but there are four other titles released in 2004 for either Xbox or PS2 that have ratings describing strong sexual content. They are "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," "Onimusha 3: Demon Siege," "Siren" and "Hitman Contracts."

To date, the ESRB's highest rating, AO (Adults Only), has only been given to games for the PC market.

"Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude," "The Guy Game" and "Playboy: The Mansion" console versions all received M (Mature) ratings by the ESRB, which is one step below AO.

The reason PC games have been able to push the envelope is that developers don't need to go through an approval process to make it to the shelves. On the flip side, console games for Xbox, GameCube and PS2 must get the nod by hardware manufacturers Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony before they can be sold for the respective consoles.

So why are these games coming out now?

One reason, experts say, is that the average age of a video gamer continues to rise the longer the consoles have been around.

Currently, the average age that the video game industry targets is 29, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

"It would be naive to think, given that market, that forevermore video gaming would be a completely pure and chaste field," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of ESA.

Still, others believe that by adding more and more sex to games, video game developers risk hurting the younger gamer, who eventually will replace the target audience.

"The parents who get games for children are still a core group of the buyers, and if companies continue to push the envelope in this direction, they risk alienating this group," said Lewis Fein, spokesman for toy catalog company Spillsbury.

As for the console manufacturers, video game historian Keith Feinstein of Videotopia believes that Microsoft is the biggest risk taker followed by Sony, with Nintendo far behind.

When "BMX XXX" came out, Microsoft allowed the version featuring nudity to be released for its Xbox while Sony went with a censored version for the PS2. Feinstein believes Sony did this so that when it added nudity to its titles in the future it would seem to be a reaction to what Microsoft did.

Feinstein believes Nintendo might quietly accept sex-oriented gaming if it becomes popular on the other consoles, but for now the company is more intent on keeping its focus on the children's market as much as possible.

The other reason for the sudden emergence of these games is that the technology and realism of video games has improved.

For the old-school video game console Atari 2600, there were several adult titles developed and released, such as "Bachelor Party," "Burning Desire" and "Custer's Revenge," but in these cases a naked breast often was represented by a single extended pixel.

Now, there is no question what the pictures represent.

"There definitely had been flirtations with the sexual content in the past, but, really, the titillation started with the Tomb Raider series and Lara Croft," said Feinstein. "Developers said, 'Let's make her a hot woman and target the game to 15- to 18-year-old boys.'"

>From there, console game developers continued to push the envelope in realism around the same time relationship simulators -- such as those in Electronic Art's Sims series -- became popular.

Now, with realistic nudity making its first entry into console video games, Feinstein believes that what happens over the next few months will be important in determining whether the trend is here to stay.

"Now that the 'genie' is out of the bottle, everybody will see the titles are out there making money and whether there is a lot of social backlash," he said.

Marc Sherrod, director of The Art Institute of California in San Francisco's video game design and art program, said he sees the latest trend eventually fading.

"To me it is just like Hollywood, where eventually the fervor of it dims down," he said. "I think if they're smart, they will focus on where the money is going to be; and I just don't see this as being it."

Ultimately, video game experts agree that if a title is going to succeed, it must be a great game well beyond what it delivers sexually.

Thus far, numbers seem to back that claim.

"Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball" features women in skimpy bikinis but has been considered a strong title by many reviewers. Since it was introduced in January 2003 through September 2004, it sold more than 259,000 copies in the United States for the Xbox, according to the NPD Group, which keeps track of video game sales.

In comparison, "BMX XXX," which was introduced a year earlier and was deemed by most critics as a horrible game, has sold 151,000 units combined for Xbox, PS2 and GameCube through September.

"Video games are very perishable, so the winning formula is to have a title that is both popular and can be versioned every year such as the John Madden football series," said video game expert Gabe Zucherman of Trymedia Systems.

One of the risks developers of these types of games face is that retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Target won't shelve the titles if they decide they aren't appropriate.

"We make every effort to be a responsible retailer, and that includes the sale of video games," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk.

Zucherman said that if the sex-in-console-games concept ever becomes a financial success, he wouldn't be surprised if adult entertainment companies such as Playboy and Vivid add video game development divisions to their operations.

For now, though, it's expected to be a market that is entered very slowly.

In 2003, 85 percent of games sold were rated E (Everyone) or T (Teen), according to ESA.

"There are close to 1,000 games for a console and PC that come out every year, and you are still looking at a very, very small number that are probing this area," Lowenstein said. "But it remains to be seen how successful those games will be. In the end, it is still all about the quality of the game."