Video Games

Should video game characters have customizable sex organs?

Players must battle mythical beasts in “Conan Exiles.”
Players must battle mythical beasts in “Conan Exiles.”

This week on “Adventures in Video Game Criticism,” your fearless host looked at a fair amount of video game penises. I’d like to say it’s the weirdest thing I have done in three years of writing this column, but I can’t be certain.

The Early Access release of fantasy role-playing game “Conan Exiles” had many gaming and entertainment news sites focused on one thing: in-game nudity. Specifically, players are allowed to customize the size of female characters’ breasts and male characters’ penises.

For many, including myself, it raised an obvious question: Why?

My first response upon seeing the news stories was that it can’t possibly be necessary. Nudity and sexuality in a mature game are just fine, especially if they further the plot or lend a sense of realism. But does cup size serve any purpose? It’d be one thing if huge breasts caused your barbarian to move slower or have back pain, as that would at least serve realism in some way, but it does not appear that genitalia dimensions serve any purpose in “Exiles.” The game isn’t finished yet, and I have yet to play what is available through Steam’s Early Access program, but I doubt that they ever will.

Creative director Joel Bylos and executive producer Lawrence Poe told IGN last year that “Exiles” would feature nudity and sexual themes to remain true to the “Conan” book series. It also makes sense in a general way. These are barbarians. You start out with literally nothing – no food, weapons, clothing – and that appears to be a major part of this survival game.

The nudity can also be switched to off or partial during character creation, which shows a lot of foresight. People aren’t forced to see armies of flopping body parts while getting through “Exiles.”

But reasons for nudity do not necessarily explain the need for an “endowment” slider. Yes, that’s really what it is called.

Customizable breast size isn’t exactly common, but I’ve seen it before. And the “Saints Row” franchise has a “sex appeal” slider that would adjust the male character’s bulge in his pants, but I don’t know of a non-adult-only game where actual penis size is a part of character creation.

People outside the gaming sphere will likely boil down the development choice to simple demographics. Games are made for boys and men. Boys and men – especially the immature, basement-dwelling gamers of pop culture lore – like looking at boobs and laughing at penises. Maybe some will take an even deeper psychological dive, theorizing that said nerds want to live out their fantasy of playing a powerful male character who’s big in all respects.

While that explanation overgeneralizes, it’s quite possible. The gaming sphere is diverse, but it’s probably safe to assume more males than females are playing “Exiles.”

It could also be the publicity factor. I had no idea “Exiles” existed until it launched. And now, I am writing about it. Heck, I will probably buy it. It looks like a mix between Funcom’s first “Conan” game, “Age of Conan” and “Rust.” The game has also been covered extensively in gaming press (it’s a slow time) and even made a few mainstream media sites.

Some could make a decent case for equality being the reason.

The gaming industry is often fairly criticized for its depictions of women. For decades, female characters have had tiny waists and surrealistically large chests and hips. I remember hearing a rumor during the filming of the “Tomb Raider” movie that Lara Croft’s dimensions had to be adjusted because Angelina Jolie couldn’t perform the stunts required while sporting the character’s bust.

That could lead developers to say OK, you get to decide everything about these women. Make them as realistic or cartoon-like as you want. But I don’t think that’s what critics are asking for. I want the non-playable characters you encounter in a gaming world to look like actual people. The men often do, and the women often don’t. That’s even more true for female characters in linear, story-driven games. And give them an actual breastplate, not a bikini with metal squares on it.

Maybe this logic led Funcom to then think, “Let’s offer the same customization to male characters, as both will be starting off naked and scared in the desert.” That’s equal, right? But that’s a bit of a slippery slope.

This choice could hurt them when the game is set for a console release. I am betting the Entertainment Software Rating Board will have a fit about this, and an adults-only rating would force the game off retail shelves and could even shelve its release, as some consoles refuse to put out any game rated as such. I imagine the “partial nudity” option will be mandatory for console players.

I’m inclined to believe it was probably a quick decision made without any sort of political agenda. Barbarians are often naked, and people have bodies with vastly different parts. But unless it somehow serves a purpose – and I can’t and don’t want to imagine what that could possibly be – developers of future games should probably leave this feature out, if only to avoid the “won’t somebody please think of the children?!” outcry.