What's the last time you got knocked up in-game? Was it The Sims 2? Fable II? Or all the way back in 1992 with Dragon Quest V, featuring the first known playable pregnancy?
The choice to make pregnancy a part of gameplay adds a whole layer of moral issues to development, as well as some awkward questions about how to represent all nine months of swinging hormones, morning sickness and stretch marks.
"It's actually 10 months. A lot of people don't know that," points out Clary Alward, managing editor at the self-explanatory Pregnancy Magazine, the premier publication for all stages of pregnancy.
Pregnancy in video games has come a long way from the 16-bit days where you couldn't even render a baby bump with the industry's best artists. These days we have Harvest Moon games with magic pregnancy potions, Fable II with fancy pregnancy cut scenes and the Sims franchise which has graduated from "shower of daisies" to an actual trimester system.
Pregnancy in The Sims 2 is the most realistic and gives players the greatest sense of accomplishment. Here's how it goes down: a would-be parent has to select the "Try for Baby" option when "Whoo-Hooing" with a member of the opposite sex. If the attempt is successful, a soft chime indicates to the player that the female Sim is pregnant. For the next 72 sim hours, the mom-to-be will experience bouts of morning sickness, run out of energy more quickly, need to use the toilet more often and will usually be more hungry (as a result of throwing up from the morning sickness). At the end of each 24 sim-hour "trimester," the mom's stomach will expand — that's called "popping" in pregnancy language — and on the third day, she goes into labor by grasping her stomach, writhing and moaning. Then you get a nifty little cut scene where the mom's plumb-bob (a.k.a. green glowing gem above her head) splits into two and the baby falls out of thin air into her arms.
MJ Chun, Associate Producer on The Sims 3, says the decision to include pregnancy as part of gameplay in The Sims 2 was made partially because the game featured multi-generational families. But the bigger goal was achieving a level of realism.
"One of the challenges [of realism] was communicating to the player that it was time for the Sim to go into labor," Chun said. "A couple of ideas were debated including having the Sim's water break but it was high on the icky factor and too subtle visually to easily observe in game."
So, does our pregnancy expert sign off on it?
What Clary had to say about The Sims 2 was was something between amusement and disgust: "I really am amused by the writhing and the grasping of belly and the wailing… In the movies when you see women freak out during birth — that is known as 'transition.' Transition is the most intense part of birth, including labor, including the whole phase of delivery. It's wicked, wicked painful. And so the fact that [the developer is] portraying the entire labor and delivery process as like being transition is… it's perpetuating all kinds of stupid things."
Clary also worries that the game sends the wrong message by not covering some complicated parts of pregnancy and its aftermath. For example, I told her about one my Sims that had a Lifetime Aspiration to have 10 kids. The first five pregnancies were okay — but around baby six, my Sim started to have a Fear of having a baby (this is what postpartum depression looks like in the Sims). Because she still had a Want for the baby, the Fear was canceled out when babies six, seven and eight were born. But then, baby number nine caused catastrophe.
My Sim no longer had a Want for babies and the Fear of having babies was still there even when she wasn't pregnant. On the first day of her ninth pregnancy, her husband-Sim died. I couldn't get her mood back to normal before the baby came, so when the Fear of having the baby activated, she had a nervous breakdown. To make matters worse, one of her kids had just failed out of school, so the Social Worker showed up and took all nine kids from the household.
What does this say about pregnancy? Is it realistic in that many mothers struggle with wanting a kid and not wanting one at the same time — or is it just a case of user error not to be read into too deeply?
Clary didn't think what happened to my Sim was all that realistic (especially the Therapist hallucination), but she did say that the game was sending the wrong message by limiting pregnancy to just morning sickness, labor and postpartum depression. There is such a thing as adoption in real life; courts will give unfit mothers a second chance; and it's not unusual to not want the things you thought you wanted before you got pregnant. Clary said she thought game developers should be more responsible about the way they integrate pregnancy and to always make sure that there's a point to it.
Games that have a "point" to pregnancy seem to be about establishing an emotional connection to characters. Dragons Quest V is like that — the twins you have with whichever wife you pick are a major part of the story. A more recent example would be Fable II.
Technically, your female character in Fable II doesn't get "pregnant" — you just get a cut scene that explains you gave birth and then the game resumes with a cradle in your house. It's the same for male characters as it is for female. But that wasn't the way that Lead Designer Peter Molyneux designed it.
"Originally we did plan to depict pregnancy in game with the female hero's stomach expanding," he said. Lionhead Studios decided to opt for a cut scene instead, though, after considering all the moral quandaries that come of having a six-month pregnant mom-to-be wielding a broadsword and getting cut up by bandits.
What I got a kick out of is the part where you have to be married to have kids. I didn't know that when I was trying desperately to get my character, Missy, pregnant. I eventually figured it out — after Missy had slept with half of Albion — and got her hitched to the town crier. In short order, she was at last blessed with a little bundle of joy named Finally.
All of the work I had to do to get Missy pregnant definitely did make subsequent plot choices in Fable II feel more important. I'd spent a ridiculous amount of gold to get the town crier a ring then oh-so-much time pleasing my baby son by dancing in front of his cradle — of course I was more invested in the characters than if I'd just been given these attachments at the start of the game.
Clary's reaction to Missy's story was something between amusement and unease. "There's some really strange imbalance between the real world's mores that they place on the game," she said. "And then there are… some very, very strange messages you could tease out from gameplay."
The most bizarre pregnancies I've ever experienced have been in the Harvest Moon games. The most recent installment — Tree of Tranquility on the Wii — lets you play as a boy or a girl. Each character can get married to one of the townsfolk and have a baby that they raise over the course of the game.
The way it works is that a year to the day after your character gets married in the game, the wife will faint during a cut scene. The husband rushes her to the hospital where the doctor informs the couple that they're expecting. And then the game goes back to business as usual — no "popping," no morning sickness, nothing — for three more months until the baby comes (again, in another cut scene).
It's bizarre that when playing as the girl character you're pretty much farming, fishing and horseback riding all the way up until the point of labor. Then one morning, your husband finds you lying in bed looking ill and then rushes you to the hospital to have the kid — which is essentially his only contribution to the entire process (aside from the obvious fertilization part). Jerkface doesn't even help you out on the farm or watch the kid when it wanders off down toward the river.
The implications are staggering: you have to be married, the baby will take care of itself and your body doesn't change at all physically during pregnancy and of course you can go out and till those fields! Clearly because this is a kids' game, realism isn't high on the list of priorities for the developers when it comes to implementing pregnancy. But it does strike me as a weird way to go about it, if not just plain wrong.
Clary's concern about over-simplified pregnancy in kids' games is that children will see this and it will be their only exposure to pregnancy 'til the real thing happens.
"It's like Guitar Hero," she said. "You play Guitar Hero and it's nothing like playing guitar. I would definitely argue that Guitar Hero and the like should become more like real guitar playing. So I can see a point in having children in games but I think that the gameplay should then arc toward being more realistic as it goes on in development."
The bottom line from Clary's perspective is that many of these games are designed by guys for guys. They're not going to care about realism — they only want it to be fun. That's not to say that pregnancy in a video game couldn't be fun; Clary said she could see women who play World of Warcraft wanting to get their characters pregnant just because of all the time and energy they invest into the character.
"There'd be a point to games doing this," she said, "but whether I think they can do it well or do it accurately or make it something that both men and women would be interested in… I'm kind of doubtful, honestly."
What can we look forward to in games that will feature pregnancy? Well, MJ Chun says to expect more of the same from Sims 3, plus some interesting new ideas.
According to Chun, players can now take their sim to the hospital when she goes into labor, or they can just make Mom stay home and have the baby the ol' fashioned way. Expecting mothers are not house-bound however, the way they were in The Sims 2. "Moms can lead a full life and go visit the library, visit their neighbors, go to the beach or even catch a movie," Chun said. "They [still] get maternity leave so they don't have to go to work."
Expansions in The Sims 2 introduced ways to influence pregnancy, like a cheesecake that gave the mom twins. Sims 3 will have other weird ways to influence the number and gender of babies than just food — like watching certain TV channels or trading in lifetime happiness points for a Fertility Treatment reward (which could lead to triplets).
Oh, and Chun added, "There are now playable ghosts who can have babies."
Ghost babies? GHOST BABIES!
Update: Clary emailed me the following clarification in response to the wrath of the Internet - "Pregnancy does last 40 weeks, which can either translated as more than 9 months or almost 10 months."