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From retro hot-tubs to contemporary bear love: A brief history of sex in video games

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Baldur’s Gate 3, the hit role-playing game (RPG), has made headlines for its huge playable world, deep narrative, and a scene of a bear having sex with a playable character (well, a mystical humanoid being taking the form of a bear. Stand down, PETA).

The game features full frontal nudity, and the relationships you form with characters you interact with, including romantic and sexual relationships, are a big part of its ark. It’s already become hugely popular, showing that in 2023 sex and relationships can be part of the core of mainstream video games rather than sectioned off in ‘adult gaming’ categories.

In terms of the depiction of sex in video games, we’ve come a long way from the cheesy, morally dubious sex-based games in the early 1980s. Here’s a brief history of sex and video games, to help us understand how we got from pixelated phalluses to consensual bear sex in 2023.

1980s: Come on in, the water is warm…

Softporn Adventure

Softporn Adventure, released in 1981 on the Apple II computer, is believed to be among the first of what you might call a sex-based video game. Although the game’s cover featured naked women in a jacuzzi (including women who worked in management roles for the game company Sierra), it was a text-based game where you take on the persona of a male character attempting to hook up with various women. Lines in the game included descriptions such as: “She’s taking a large sausage-shaped object and looking at it longingly.”

Propelled by news coverage about its racy cover, content plus hate mail the makers received from irate members of the public, the game reportedly sold around 50,000 copies; a huge amount for the Apple II at that time.

Custer’s Revenge

It quickly became clear that —as is the case for so many media formats— sex can help sell video games. Soon sex-based console games with graphics, not just text, were flagged with cover box messages such as “An adult video game cartridge”, acting as much as sales points as parental warnings. Among the first was 1982’s Custer’s Revenge on the Atari 2600.

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custers revenge screenshot

In the game, you control the famous 19th Century US army officer, George Armstrong Custer, with the goal of ravishing a ‘native’ woman. The game technically featured an erect —albeit mercifully pixel-blocky— penis. Even accounting for 40 years of hindsight, the tone of quirky silliness the makers were striving for doesn’t really get away from the fact that it was basically a racist rape game.

Night Life

Some diversity of tone within the adult game sphere was highlighted by the release of the Japanese game Night Life, also in 1982. It was more of a guide than a game, showing the player various sexual positions with diagrams. But it showed that not every adult game in the early ’80s had to be, at least, mildly predatory in tone.

night life game

Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em // X-Man

Some games of this era were, however, essentially closer to porn without the proper visuals than actual video games. One of the first companies to specialize in this niche was Mystique, which made games as pornographic as the limits of the Atari 2600 console allowed. 1982’s Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em, for example, had Space Invaders-style gameplay and involved firing semen droplets from an erect penis into women’s mouths.

Also notable was 1983’s X-Man, which utilized Pac-Man-style gameplay as the player guides a man with an erect penis around a maze to find a woman. The player repeatedly wiggles the joystick to attempt to ‘pleasure’ the woman, during the climax period.

beat em and eat em screenshot

Paradise Cafe // Sam Fox Strip Poker

It’s hard to imagine many people using these early ’80s games for true titillation rather than lewd laughs, but they were an indicator of how so much of the video game industry was viewed, and who it was serving: the straight male gaze (a gaze that has also often mocked trans people in video games).

1985’s Paradise Cafe on the ZX Spectrum, for example, features pretty explicit sexual imagery – properly full frontal, if you can call it that considering the basic blocky graphics. In 1986 Samantha Fox Strip Poker was released, revealing the model Fox’s breasts if you won.

sam fox strip poker

Leisure Suit Larry

It is 1987’s Leisure Suit Larry, though, that was arguably the most influential sex game of the decade. Made by Sierra, the company behind Softporn Adventure, it was a text and graphic adventure game with the goal of the titular Larry losing his virginity.

The game didn’t feature graphic images but was set in a seedy fictionalized pixelated city, where Larry can sleep with sex workers and peruse porn magazines. Part of the series’ success could have been down to it arguably being more relatable than the arcade-style likes of Custer’s Revenge and X-Man.

The main character is a late-30s male loser, laughable rather than loathable, who tries to impress women that are clearly out of his league: an experience that may not have been lost on the game’s target demographic at the time. The game’s double-entendre-led comedic tone helped it become a sleeper hit and spawn sequels that continue to be released in the 2020s.

leisure suit larry

Some of these games received news coverage because of their racy content, but they largely remained untroubled as a ‘top shelf’ section in the early years of the rapidly expanding games industry. In the early 1990s, however, the threat of proper clampdowns emerged.

1990s: From moral panic to Lara Croft

Cobra Mission // Dokusei

In 1992 Cobra Mission: Panic in Cobra City became the first Japanese ‘eroge’ game (meaning erotic video game) to be translated into English, featuring a plethora of grammatical errors and misspellings. It was an RPG-style game featuring Manga-style female nudity and was released in the same year as Dokyusei: a narrative story game that functioned like an erotic dating sim.

cobra screenshot game 1992

Night Trap

The following year the US Senate held hearings on video games and their regulation. The spark for this was violence, rather than sex. Mortal Kombat had been released in 1992, with its gory fight scenes and trademark ‘fatality’ moves fuelling moral panic among conservative parents. The hearings did, though, mention Night Trap: a Sega CD game featuring full motion video. The game involved a story about vampires attacking a house populated by teenage girls having a sleepover and it was accused of promoting sexual aggression against women.

night trap sega cd version

In 1994 in the US the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was established, to function as a self-regulatory organization assigning age and content ratings to games. An ‘Adults only 18+’ rating was introduced, where most adult content games would sit from this point onwards.

Leisure Suit Larry (again) // Dancing Eyes

The 1990s also saw adult games begin to split off from what would be considered ‘mainstream’ gaming culture. Nintendo didn’t officially license adult games, and Sega had a similarly dim view of licensing them, so they were largely pushed out of the popular living room console section of the video game industry. However, the development of video sequences and 3D graphics allowed more sophisticated (in some ways) games with sex themes to be released on PC.

dancing eyes screenshot

More Leisure Suit Larry games came out, and puzzle games such as 1996’s Dancing Eyes, by the Japanese company Namco, were given erotic sheens with 3D graphics and gameplay involving solving puzzles to remove women’s clothes.

Tomb Raider // Duke Nukem 3D // Grand Theft Auto

Other games in this decade, not billed as ‘adult’ releases, nevertheless capitalized on sexualized imagery. Tomb Raider, released in 1996, featured the busty, tight clothes-wearing protagonist Lara Croft, who became one of the era’s most prominent female sex symbols, albeit one who was fictionalized.

Duke Nukem 3D, meanwhile, characterized the edgy, seedy tone that would later be seen in the Grand Theft Auto games. Duke Nukem 3D was a first-person shooter, with a focus on violence, but also featured busty strippers the titular character could give dollar bills to – and while the game took flak for its portrayal of women, but this didn’t harm sales.

duke nukem 3d stripclub

2000s and 2010s: Welcome to the internet age and 3D nipples

The Sims

Into the 2000s, the widespread use of the internet and browser games opened up a new level of interactivity for adult gaming. Second Life, launched in 2003, allowed you to roam a virtual world as a 3D avatar, engaging in sex with other players should you both desire.

There were parallels with The Sims, launched in 2000, with the ‘life simulation’ game allowing 3D characters to have romantic relationships, including sex (or ‘woohoo’ as it is commonly known in Simlish), albeit not explicitly on-screen, unless you were privy to certain cheat codes.

the sims woohoo

Rather than pure visual titillation of early ‘adult’ games, these games and platforms were moving closer to a more ‘real’ sense of intimacy, although sex was not billed as the main focus in either of the aforementioned titles.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Hot Coffee mini game)

In 2004 the allure of sexualized content in ‘edgy’ games such as Duke Nukem 3D was once again highlighted in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, by Rock Star Games. Although the official release did not feature sex scenes, a playable ‘mini game’ in which the main character CJ can have sex with another 3D character was found to be accessible through the game modding community. Known as the ‘Hot Coffee‘ mini-game, it only added to the controversy around the release, which was under fire in conservative US circles for its violent themes.

grand theft auto hot coffee mini game

By the next decade, 3D graphics were getting pretty impressive, with many games having filmic aspirations in both plot and presentation. 2010’s Mass Effect 2, released on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, was one of many action games featuring sexy scenes between characters in 3D cut scenes.

God of War III // Witcher 3

God of War III, also released in 2010, pushed things further with female characters’ exposed nipples and a sex scene, albeit one that doesn’t show the action when things properly kick off.

The Witcher 3, out in 2015, was also notable in terms of character nudity, showing female nipples in a sex scene the main character takes part in as part of his story arc.

The 1990s also saw adult games begin to split off from what would be considered ‘mainstream’ gaming culture. Nintendo didn’t officially license adult games, and Sega had a similarly dim view of licensing them, so they were largely pushed out of the popular living room console section of the video game industry. However, the development of video sequences and 3D graphics allowed more sophisticated (in some ways) games with sex themes to be released on PC.

witcher 3 sex scene

3DXChat // College Kings 2

Around this time highly explicit adult games were becoming more of a ‘thing’. With graphics and titillation the main focus rather than gameplay, games such as 3DXChat, a sort of hardcore Sims, carved out a niche separate from mainstream video games that just happened to feature some sex scenes.

3DXChat, launched in 2012 and updated regularly since, is essentially fully pornographic, with players inhabiting avatars showing off erections, cumshots, and everything in between. Later, highly-explicit narrative games such as College Kings 2 moved into this space.

3dxchat screenshot

Modern day: Rising Steam and ‘real’ gaming sex

Super Seducer 3

Over the past few years, beyond live online games, PC, and Mac game download platforms such as Steam have become home to an increasing amount of NSFW games. In 2022, over 500 NSFW titles were added to Steam, which has a policy of allowing pretty much any sexual content that doesn’t include depictions of real people engaged in sex acts: i.e. actual porn.

the sims woohoo

In lieu of that, we get a plethora of ‘sexy’ hentai games plus releases such as the live-action Super Seducer 3: which is basically a pick-up artist sim that was eventually banned from Steam following confusion over what its sexual content actually comprises.

Dominatrix Simulator (VR)

VR porn games have also proliferated in tandem with the rise of VR porn in general, again sectioned off from the mainstream gaming industry.

Games such as the in-development Dominatrix Simulator [NSFW], released via the sex-focused games platform, feature explicit 3D sex scenes in VR and are all about titillation.

dominatrix simulator vr

The Last of Us Part II

Meanwhile, in the gaming mainstream, some sex scenes have become more realistic and better embedded in games’ storylines. 2020’s The Last of Us Part II, for example, featured a sex cut scene between characters far from the typically shallow ‘model’ style, showing a fair bit of nudity. The scene between the Abby and Owen characters was genuinely romantic and served the plot.

the last of us part 2 sex scene

Baldur’s Gate 3

This brings us all the way up to Baldur’s Gate 3, made by Larian Studios. The game, released on PC on August 3, 2023, has already become one of the most popular games ever on Steam. In it, romantic relationships and sex scenes are integral to the game’s arc, which is largely based on how bonds between your playable character and their allies develop.

The game’s developers have said they were striving for authenticity in the relationships. This may sound far-fetched when a character can morph into a bear, but this scene develops from a point of genuine connection and romanticism between the two characters.

The ludicrousness of this sexual situation may have garnered headlines, but looked at in context, especially when compared to the depiction of sex in games past, it feels deeper and more reflective of human relationships than most of what has come before. There’s also plenty of full-frontal male nudity, which feels refreshing in light of so much male-gaze video gaming over the decades.

baldurs gate 3 bear scene

So, here’s to the next decade of progressive, authentic sex in mainstream video games – whether they feature characters that can morph into enormous hairy creatures for coitus or not.

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