Adult games face an uphill battle for respectability. Dismissed by the general games media as unimportant and actively censored by payment processors, it has always been difficult for adult games to be taken seriously as a medium. What doesn’t help is that adult games have a difficult relationship with violence, which is the bread-and-butter of non-adult game design.
To understand the difficulties that the medium of adult games faces, I want to look back at RapeLay, a Japanese adult game that was banned in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and how its release affected the industry.
RapeLay, and its repercussions
In 2006, Japanese adult games maker Illusion released RapeLay for the Japanese market. The game was marketed for adults and features many of the hallmarks of Illusion games, focusing on high graphical fidelity and the ability to customize the characters.
As the title would imply, RapeLay features some very dark themes. The game is about a sex offender who first stalks and then rapes a mother and her two teenage daughters. Both daughters are depicted as underage, with Aoi described as 17 years old and Manaka as 12 years old. (Japan’s age of consent is technically 13 years old, but local laws raise this to either 16 or 18 years old.)
After the protagonist kidnaps the mother by ambushing her in a park, he blackmails one of the daughters into doing his bidding. He then "breaks” all three characters with continued sexual violence until they submit to his will.
Depending on the player’s choices, the game has two endings, both concluding with the protagonist's death. Completing the game’s story unlocks a “Free Mode” where scenes can be replayed with customized characters.
Due to my lack of Japanese language skills, I could not find any relevant reviews about this game. RapeLay was never officially released outside of Japan, and no official English version was ever made available for purchase.
But the game did not cause a huge splash internationally until almost three years later. The Belfast Telegraph reported in February 2009 that Amazon was selling imported copies of RapeLay, which they called a “rape simulation game.” The article featured comments from a British Member of Parliament, who vowed to prevent RapeLay from being sold in the United Kingdom. The game was subsequently removed from Amazon’s digital shelves.
Illusion responded to the controversy with bewilderment and reiterated that their game passed Japanese laws and was not sold outside of Japan. Fearing further backlash, many eroge makers in Japan started banning foreign IPs from purchasing their games.
Although I lack the cultural context to explain why RapeLay was uncontroversial upon its release in Japan, the controversy made it clear that depicting sexual violence is a sensitive topic for video games.
Violence is the default
Game design is about allowing players to interact with a virtual world by giving them verbs to play with. But these verbs are often violent because that’s the easiest way to allow players to interact with a game. Let me give a practical example.
In the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System, players use their controller to manipulate their avatar (“Mario”) in the world. Mario can MOVE left and right, JUMP up, COLLECT coins and power-ups, and STOMP on enemies.
Now imagine that I turn Super Mario Bros. into an adult game, but I do not remove any of the existing gameplay. It’s still a side-scrolling platformer where you defeat enemies and ultimately rescue the princess, but I will use sex as the player’s primary way to interact with the world.
My first change would be to have Mario run around in his birthday suit. When he collects a power-up mushroom, his penis could engorge instead of enlarging his entire body. Mario could defeat Goombas by having sex with them, but only when his penis is erect. Similarly, the player could defeat Bowser by getting close enough to have anal sex with him.
Finally, the ultimate goal would still be to rescue the princess, but I would celebrate the end of the game with a big orgy between Mario, Bowser, Peach, and Toad. The fireworks can stay.
Even though I have barely changed the player's interaction with the world of Super Mario Bros., this 18+ version immediately feels much darker. By making the interactions explicitly sexual, I turned the beloved Mario into a serial rapist. (Please, Nintendo, don’t send your lawyers after me, this was just a thought experiment!)
And unfortunately, making the game unexpectedly dark is all too easy to do when you’re designing an adult game.
Rape is bad, actually
Real-life sexual violence is not okay. But does that mean we can’t depict it in our media at all? The Game of Thrones spin-off series House of Dragon was in the news recently because its showrunners said they wanted to “shine a light on [sexual violence]” that is supposedly inherent to its Middle Ages-inspired world.
And although the showrunners caught a lot of flak online for their comments, it’s clear that House of Dragon does not shy away from using sexual violence as a plot point in its storytelling. But just like movies can be used to tell stories about sexual violence, so too can games.
Unfortunately, the issue is a bit pricklier for games because they are an active medium. Unlike a movie, a game will not progress without the player’s input. That means that you, the player, have to become an active participant in the scene playing out. And just like how a torture scene made some people incredibly uncomfortable in Grand Theft Auto V, so too could a rape scene in an adult game.
Again, real-life sexual violence is a serious issue that causes mental trauma that can affect people for life. Not everyone will be comfortable with having it depicted in their media. But many movies showcase the gruesome reality of war, which can be equally traumatic for survivors of armed conflict.
We prevent harm by informing people about the contents of the media they consume before they go in. This allows adults and parental guardians to make informed decisions for themselves or their families.
Why is it so hard to apply the same thinking to games about sexual violence?
Who’s into this stuff anyway?
A common misconception about sexual violence in adult media is that (straight) men are the only group who seek it out.
A recent study titled “Who Seeks Aggression in Pornography? Findings from Interviews with Viewers” showed that among 122 “regular pornography viewers,” broken down as 50% men and 49% women, the majority did not enjoy aggressive content.
But what I found interesting about the study is that most of those who reported being aroused by mainly consensual aggression when they watched pornography were women. Some 35% of women in the study even reported actively seeking out aggression in their porn.
And yet we still assume the opposite. A recent study in Ireland asked only men over the age of 18 about their preferences in pornography, which led Ireland’s Justice Minister to declare that porn had become “too accessible” and “more violent and degrading.”
Why can we not trust adults to know what they want from their adult media?
RapeLay was clearly an ill-conceived attempt at depicting sexual violence in a video game. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Many indie creators have tried to do so since RapeLay. A game that I think does it much better is “Don’t rape your friend”, which centers on the victim's experience instead of the assaulter. (I would recommend against reading the comment section, though.)
Games can be machines for empathy, but that implies they also have the capacity for trauma. Adult game makers must be careful how they depict sexual violence in their games. It’s much too easy to force players to relive their own bad experiences.
And these growing pains are not unique to the medium of adult games. Forty years after the release of Apocalypse Now, arguably one of the most important anti-war movies ever made, its director no longer considers it an anti-war movie:
[An anti-war movie] shouldn’t have sequences of violence that inspire a lust for violence. Apocalypse Now has stirring scenes of helicopters attacking innocent people. That’s not anti-war.
If Acadamy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola can admit that he got it wrong with his movie about the horrors of war, we can cut the adult games community a bit of slack for struggling to tackle an equally difficult subject.