To Broaden Fan Base, Game Creators Consider New Genres

The Oblivion game caused a stir last month over a third-party modification that allowed players to create topless characters.
The Oblivion game caused a stir last month over a third-party modification that allowed players to create topless characters. (Bethesda Softworks)

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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

As a woman working in an industry known for being guy-centric, video game designer Brenda Brathwaite wishes that more Xbox or PlayStation titles would incorporate romance as part of the story. It would bring in more new gamers, she argues -- namely females, who make up a small but growing segment of the gamer population.

But, as far as romance in video games goes, "we haven't reached the level of 'Brokeback Mountain' or 'The Graduate,' to say the least," she said. She's not even sure yet how that sort of interactive storytelling would work.

"How do you tell a love story in a game?" she wonders.

There's still a long way to go, but the video game industry is looking beyond the shoot-em-up, blow-em-up formula to pique a gamer's interest. For evidence, consider a sampling of the video game trade shows taking place around the country this year -- the Christian Game Developers Conference; the Games for Health conference; or the Serious Games Summit, which showcases games for educational or training purposes.

Brathwaite isn't breaking ground on romance titles -- but she has put together a first-of-its kind video game summit, which will be held in San Francisco next week.

The subject matter: sex.

It's still a squeamish topic for many, including parents as well as the retailers that strategically stock video games. The problem is that video games are still seen as a pastime for kids, even though the Entertainment Software Association puts the average age of gamers at 33, a number that goes up every year.

"Some people say sex shouldn't be in games," Brathwaite said. "If you said that about any other form of art -- books, movies -- people would be irate."

Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, an organization dedicated to protecting kids in the online age, said her group doesn't object to adult content in games. Instead, she said, parents need to pay closer attention to the games' ratings.

"The only information a parent needs is already there if they're just willing to look," Aftab said. "What we're finding, though, is many parents just don't care."

Next week's conference -- which is expected to attract more than 150 people from more than 20 companies -- admittedly won't be a blockbuster event. But it offers a hint that some people are discovering the potential of adult-oriented video games. Speakers will range from programmers to pornographers and its panels include titles such as "Morals & Ethics & Sex & Games."

Braithwaite suspects that there's interest in the topic but also understands that the industry is tiptoeing toward the taboo. "Even the smallest inkling of a sexual situation in a game is a problem," she said.


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