With the exception of Japan (see Eroge and Visual Novel), nudity is a taboo subject in the world of video games, usually stemming from the vast misconception of video games as a sort of "child's toy". It has been stereotypically associated with poor-quality, unlicensed titles for systems like Atari and NES, and while only slightly more common on PC, the quality of titles featuring nudity was never deemed especially good. Over time, though, the depiction of nudity in video games has matured and been integrated into more mainstream games. Nudity is usually one of the first things to be censored when games are brought to the North American video game market, due to social stigmas still attached to nudity and the human body. It is, however, garnering acceptance in the video game industry, and even some places outside of it.
Nudity on the Atari 2600
A US company billing themselves as producing "Swedish Erotica," Mystique began making games for the Atari 2600 featuring nudity and sexual content. Understandably, Atari 2600 wasn't known for producing lifelike images of any kind, so the nudity these games were meant to portray was more or less lost in translation. Still, that didn't stop Mystique from publishing around 6 games, many of them double-sided cartridges that allowed a variation of the game to be played when flipped over. These were usually just gender reversals of the other side with a different name and slightly different premise. Atari tried to sue Mystique, claiming that their image was tarnished by the glut of poorly-programmed, crudely-sexual games they published, but in the end, lost the suit. During the video game crash of 1983, though, Mystique went under anyway. Afterward, the game rights to Mystique's products were transferred to PlayAround, who managed to keep the games going for a bit longer.
The Custer's Revenge Controversy
A particularly notorious game to have been developed by Mystique was Custer's Revenge. It depicted (again, very crudely) a scenario in which General George Armstrong Custer would venture into the desert, wearing nothing but his boots, his hat, and a scarf, under the fire of "Indian arrows" to rape a Native American woman that was stripped of her clothing and tied to a post. The game came under fire from several groups, including women's rights activists and Native American activists, for such a depiction. In spite of, and possibly even as a result of the nature of the game, it is widely regarded as one of the worst games in video gaming history.
Nudity on the Nintendo Entertainment System
With the era of the NES came a code of gaming ethics imposed by Nintendo of America to ensure that its video games were suitable for as great an audience as possible. This meant that, among other things, companies now had to get their game certified and licensed by Nintendo in order to sell their game for the platform. Many companies complied, but there were a few who did not, and one of these companies was Taiwan-based Panesian. Panesian manufactured 3 games for the NES without acquiring a proper license, Bubble Bath Babes, Hot Slot, and Peek-A-Boo Poker. Due to their unlicensed nature, these three games were produced in very small quantities, and are now highly-sought after collectors' items, going for as much as US $300 in some markets. The games are also known for their difficulties, ranging from challenging to outright extreme, their pixelated nudity, and their amusing application of Engrish. Surprisingly, Bubble Bath Babes was later released by another company under the name of Mermaids of Atlantis, eschewing the naked woman near the bottom of the screen for a more harmless mermaid.
Nudity in Contemporary Games
In the mid '90s, the violence controversy surrounding games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap led to the creation of a bureau designed to rate the content contained in video games and other entertainment-oriented software, called the ESRB. Its role in gaming was to provide a universal standard by which games had their content measured in order to receive a rating designed to help consumers gauge the content contained in the games they were buying, much like movies are rated by the MPAA. These ratings include M-for-Mature, ages 17 and up, and Adults-Only, ages 18 and up. Many games that contained any kind of nudity, even in small amounts, like bikini swimsuits, quickly ensured that games were rated higher on the scale. Many stores would not, and more so now, rent, sell, or even carry games with the designation AO at all, forcing any games involving nudity and sex onto the Personal Computer, which had less-stringent rules about such content. To further compound matters, most large-party console manufacturers refused to allow licensing to games which are given a final rating of AO from the ESRB. Several games have had to reduce the explicitness of their content to be allowed onto their intended platforms.
However, as gaming standards relaxed, nudity itself, and to a lesser extent sex, has made its way into contemporary gaming. Hybrid Heaven for the Nintendo 64 featured a nude male visible from behind in the introductory sequence taking a shower. Duke Nukem 3D made it to Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn with its risque depiction of strippers intact, though Duke Nukem 64, its incarnation on the Nintendo 64, didn't fare as well. Breath of Fire III featured a brief segment with a nude female character, though the resolution was small, and "offensive" physical features like nipples were omitted from the character sprite.
There have been a few other games to have featured brief stints of nudity between, but nudity presented as an actual component of a game was unheard of on consoles until the poorly-received BMX XXX was released. For three platforms, Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's Gamecube, and Sony's PlayStation 2, the game arrived with a surprising amount of its lewd content intact, though ironically, the "family-friendly Nintendo" version was completely uncensored, while the "edgier" Sony mandated that its version have black bars obscure the nipples, and the full-motion-video sequences featuring Scores strippers required nipples censure by the BMX XXX logo. In order to gain access to full on topless nudity, though, the player was put through the ringer, required to score very high on extremely difficult BMX competitions to unlock it, maintaining the trend of hard-to-access nudity.
As time goes on, though, the video game as a valid art form is gaining notoriety and relevance, and with it comes more maturity in terms of how games are designed. Setting appropriate nudity, like that of Conan and Age of Conan's depictions of slaves held captive nude were left intact. God of War and its sequel successfully featured interactive sex minigames with topless women (albeit with all sexual actions taking place off-screen), something even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas couldn't get away with. Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude brought the series' trademark raunch to the Xbox with no actual cuts in content, including both female AND male nudity, and the game even featured a persistent option to render the female characters Larry interacted with throughout the game topless and in skimpy underwear at whim, no matter their location once the corresponding feature had been purchased in the game. On the other side of the spectrum, Quantic Dream took their interactive story epics Fahrenheit (known in the United States as Indigo Prophecy), and Heavy Rain and expressed nudity and sex in a more realistic, mature atmosphere. Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) received M-for-Mature ratings on consoles, but also received Adults-Only-rated versions of their games available on PC, while Heavy Rain received M-for-Mature ratings on the PlayStation 3.
While the depiction of sex and nudity has notably matured, some games have still caused their share of controversy. The Guy Game, released for multiple platforms, was an interactive trivia game similar to the You Don't Know Jack series with some minigames thrown in for good measure. The catch to the game was that positive performance in the game would slowly reward the player with female nudity. Reception of the game was miserable, but worse still, some of the game's footage included that of a 17 year-old girl who had not had her age verified. Four months following its release, an injunction was brought against it, preventing its sales. The company tried to recover later by making a similarly styled DVD, but eventually went out of business.
Even mainstream games get stung by controversy once in a while. The epic role-playing game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion suffered its share when a file allowing for a topless female skin was packaged with the T-for-Teen rated game. Shortly after the game's release, the file was found, and word spread quickly over the internet of the file, causing the ESRB to inquire into the matter. The inclusion of topless nudity is not a first for the series, however, as it featured in The Elder Scrolls: Arena a small portion, and more so in its sequel, Daggerfall, The topless modification, combined with a couple of violent elements that had been overlooked in the initial ratings process, resulted in the game being re-rated M-for-Mature.
This resembled a similar controversy, the Hot Coffee incident of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, mentioned above. The incident in question refers to a hidden minigame intended to allow the player to simulate sexual intercourse with the woman he was dating upon successfully being invited in for "coffee." It, too, featured a nude skin of sorts, though it was unfinished, and after this inquiry, San Andreas was re-rated AO-for-Adults-Only, leading it to be removed from shelves until M-rated copies specifically excluding the nudity and sexual content of the minigame could be provided. Original versions of the game containing the content are still sold, however, and are deemed a collector's item by some as a relic of the days before mainstream sex controversy.
Mainstream Acceptance of Video Game Nudity
The industry, for all its progress, still has a difficult task of putting a face of legitimacy on nudity in video games (again, with the exception of the Japan's Eroge and Visual Novel titles). However, external sources are giving it a leg up. In October of 2004, Playboy put together a special issue featuring the "Girls of Gaming" as its cover article. In it, they put on display pictorials of popular female characters with a focus on sex appeal, some of them appearing topless or nude. This kind of exposure in the industry was unheard of, outside of private circles of fan-generated fantasy art. The focal image created expressly for this article was an image of a topless Rayne, protagonist of the Bloodrayne series. It proved to be an extremely popular issue, and since, Playboy has published a yearly article dedicated to the same notion: to get the heroines of video gaming in the buff. Originally, other publishers were afraid of offending their target audience with nude versions of their characters, but as the articles were continued to be published each year, many of those publishers have realized that their audience is exactly the kind that would appreciate their creations in a more mature light, and as such, the women depicted in the articles have become better suited to the magazine's format.