Why are games so terrified of sex?

Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn in Arkham Asylum is far more sexualised than her normal playful jester self

Ah yes, sex. Where would we be without it? Certainly, it'd be easier to find parking spaces, but much tougher to find a date to the movies (or perhaps a reason to go on a date in the first place).

Yet despite the fact that most would agree that a good horizontal rumba is rather better than, say, a good session of genocide, the number of real PC games that have dared take on more sexual subjects can practically be counted on the fingers of one hand and… oh, behave.

See, your smirk is the problem. Games have always had an uneasy relationship with sex. From the outside, many seem to be pandering to the egos and fantasies of little boys – developers falling over themselves to create bouncy barbarian maidens in chainmail bikinis, glistened oily hunks with ridiculously large swords, gangsters doing deals in strip clubs, and lithe athletic heroines with chronic back-ache.

Female characters get it the worst, whether it's trying to fight in high-heels or freezing to death in arctic tundra, or suddenly finding that heavy all-covering platemail suddenly morphs into something low-cut that shows off lots of belly, no matter how it looked on the dead orc it was taken from.

For the most part this is as far is anyone dares go. Actual nudity, graphic sex scenes, or even characters commenting on the fact that the team's new Paladin looks like she funds her adventures down the local docks are never actually mentioned, leading to the most incredible coyness.

Take Grand Theft Auto, whose gangsters happily murder, swear, drink and make up whole new laws to break… but where do they hang out? A seedy bar where they can ogle girls in bikinis that could easily go in a PG-rated movie, if not for the naughty language.

When the player romances one of the possible girlfriends in the game, do we see any action? Nope, just a few sound effects played over an external view of the city.

Too hot for screen

It's no surprise that developers are scared. Putting sex into a game not only makes it harder to sell (at least in the US, where the dreaded Adults Only rating keeps titles out of the bigger stores), it paints a bright red target right on its face for the pundits and talking heads.

Two games in particular have faced this in recent years, Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and – more bizarrely – the brilliant Bioware RPG Mass Effect.

GTA is easy to understand – it's a game the moral majority has always hated, so finding out there was a sex-based rhythm game called Hot Coffee buried in the code was like Christmas.

Never mind that it was as objectively erotic as banging Barbie dolls together, and consisted of nothing more than two fully clothed, entirely consenting adults dry humping for a few seconds, the scandal was enough that when GTA4 came round, the worst Rockstar did was the tongue-in-cheek 'Warm Coffee' achievement during romances. Although the first DLC, The Lost And Damned, did slip in a naked politician's dangling penis.

Interestingly enough, a very similar mini-game also appeared in the adventure game Fahrenheit - a quick-time-event involving moving the mouse forward and backwards in time with the main character's thrusts. Silly as it sounds, it worked OK – although the scene was removed for the American release.

Mass Effect's controversy on the other hand was just mindblowing. Its most graphic sex scene consisted of a couple of flashes of a blue woman's bottom and a little obscured side-boob.

It took place almost at the end of the game, between characters who had come to know and care about each other, on the cusp of a mission that was almost guaranteed suicide. It was clean, classy, and so inoffensive that even psychologist Cooper Lawrence described the controversy over it as "kind of a joke".

Who is Cooper Lawrence, you ask? She's the psychologist who didn't actually bother watching the scenes in question before going on Fox News to publicly condemn the game's sexism and objectification of women. Nice one, Cooper. Thanks.

Even worse was one conservative blogger, Kevin McCullogh, who described the action like this: "It allows its players – universally male no doubt – to engage in the most realistic sex acts ever conceived. One can custom design the shape, form, bodies, race, hair style, breast size of the images they wish to 'engage' and then watch in crystal clear, LCD, 54-inch screen, HD clarity as the video game 'persons' hump in every form, format, multiple, gender-oriented possibility they can think of."

To clarify: No. Just… no. On every level, no. Still, all this did apparently have one effect. Bioware's most recent game, Dragon Age, also has sex scenes. In style, they're very similar to Mass Effect's, with one key difference. This time, the characters keep their knickers on at all times. So far, no controversy.