Murder. Mayhem. All manner of indecent virtual behaviour has evolved alongside polygon counts and experimental control schemes to become a part of the language of videogames. All except for one. Why is explicit sexual content kept strictly taboo while elsewhere the adult entertainment industry continues to thrive? In the parts of the virtual world where adult content does exist, millions of dollars are being made, yet despite widespread hand-wringing about piracy, second-hand sales and tough economic conditions, mainstream publishers regard this lucrative and near completely untapped revenue stream with an almost puritanical eye.
To understand the present, one must first understand the past, and adult video games have certainly had a checkered history. The maxim that any new medium can and will be made to facillitate pornographic or sexual content in less time than it takes to blink has been proven true throughout history, and videogames are no exception. Dating back to the text-based MUDs of the Seventies, interactive sexual experiences – both profound and immature – have become a natural extension of the form. After all, the average male isn’t thinking of collecting floating coins every seven seconds, and those kinds of games sell well enough.
With the introduction of pixelated visuals and the success of the home console, the gloves came off, and developers immediately began slapping phallic symbols and nudity onto proven gameplay staples. The Atari 2600 saw an influx of sexually explicit games in 1982, particularly the notorious Custer’s Revenge – often considered one of the worst and most offensive games in history – in which the titular player character is rewarded for dodging a screen full of arrows with the rape of a tied-up Native-American woman. Other notable titles included Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em and Burning Desire, both of which feature male ejaculation as their core play mechanic.
Upon the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, the company’s strict certification process effectively created a prohibition against this kind of content – the legacy of which is still felt even now – and destroying any chance adult material had of becoming a part of the mainstream industry. Developers of adult games had little choice but to focus on the PC market, which was barely regulated (and certainly not to the same degree as consoles).
In 1987, Leisure Suit Larry made his first appearance in a series of adventures that directly stemmed from the comedic Softporn Adventure series for the Apple II. The advent of full-motion video pushed what was possible in adult games to an entirely new level, and the controversy surrounding them increased in tandem. Phantasmagoria and its sequel, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle Of Flesh, were developed by Roberta Williams – of King’s Quest fame – and published by Sierra Entertainment in 1995 and 1996, respectively. The series’ graphic FMV violence is second only to its explicit sex and rape scenes, which led to it being heavily edited outside of the United States. At the same time, Lara Croft was making her worldwide debut as a seductive new face for the games industry, and her unprecedented popularity led to a new dawn for buxom female protagonists.
Around the turn of the millennium, the Japanese market for erotic titles featuring submissive, impossibly endowed and often underage female characters had become very popular and very profitable. A handful of these games, such as A-ga and Battle Raper, allowed all manner of interactive perversion, and a widely publicised outcry in the West – which only started years after the fact – led to the establishment of the Ethics Organization of Computer Software in 2009. However, the controversy is proving difficult to shake, and reccurring bans on adult games and their impact on sales have presented developers of adult games with a new problem leading into the digital age.