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Virtual Sex: How Online Games Changed Our Culture

Games like Second Life let you to live your fantasy as a pimp, prostitute or pirate, knight, dominatrix, or any other self-created design you see fit.
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt fromPorn and Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Cultureby Damon Brown, published byFeral House.

The camera zooms in on a perky young woman. She looks to be in her late twenties, perhaps early thirties, and she starts talking to you about her first date: how the restaurant had to kick them out because they talked until it closed, how she looked in his eyes and could tell he was the one for her, about that instant spark, you know, the spark you feel when you click -- connect -- with someone. The distant strains of Natalie Cole's "Everlasting Love" -- also used in the Diane Lane movie "Must Love Dogs" and other modern divorcee-looking-for-love films -- begin to swell in the background.

Her husband (see the ring flashing as he's gesturing?) is now talking to you about the same incident, but he has a different, complimentary interpretation. A grey-haired, honey-voiced old man begins talking to you. His face seems to take up the whole TV screen. Aren't you tired of dating, he asks. "Find your soul-mate." He tells you that eHarmony uses scientific data to match people together. There is a science, founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren implies, a science to chemistry, something his company eHarmony analyzes and gives to its subscribers.

The Pew Institute's first online dating survey, released in 2006, found that one out of every three people knew someone who belonged to an online dating service and more than one in four knew someone who has gone out with a person they met online. "Nearly overnight, it seemed, dozens of similar sites emerged," The Atlantic Monthlywrote the same year as the survey. "Online dating became almost de rigueur for busy singles looking for love." The Los Angeles-based eHarmony alone had nine million members.

Up the coast, California developers Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe were also convinced social technology was going to be the next big thing. They worked within a computer company -- eUniverse -- and began MySpace, the first mainstream multimedia blog. (A disputed history has MySpace culling its concepts from eUniverse CEO Brad Greenspan, a man who has called himself "the true founder of MySpace.")

After a five-minute setup on MySpace, you can type in your interests, post messages and music, and make new friends who, in turn, would provide links to their personal web pages. It would be a test of six degrees of separation, the concept that every single person knew every other person in the world through a maximum of six connected people. Every personal site is one-page deep, but can scroll down as much as someone could fill it up with new friends and content. The average MySpace site would have a small box of bio information (22, Los Angeles, CA, Sagittarius), an uploaded picture serving as background (usually a personal pic or a favorite band photo) and stacks of friend "testimonials" reminiscent of high school yearbooks ("You are the kewlist! Stay sweet!"). Wired News called it a "highly customizable amalgam of blogging, music sharing and social-discovery services, a typical page is a near perfect reflection of the chaos and passion of youth: a music-filled space, rudely splattered with photos and covered in barely-legal prose rendered in font colors that blend together and fade into the background." MySpace grew to have seventy million users, roughly one-fourth the population size of the United States.

Geriatric mogul Rupert Murdoch bought the site for $580 million. Within weeks of the Rupert Murdoch News Corporation purchase, ABC, CBS and NBC, influential papers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and other major news outlets began covering MySpace in earnest -- as a virtual smorgasbord for teen predators. Popular among kids, MySpace entries often gave detailed personal information, if not actual data on their location. It was like a diary open to the world. "This site," said the Connecticut Attorney General, "is a parent's worst nightmare."

MySpace was not the only site of its kind. Before MySpace was a popular networking website called Friendster, and, after MySpace, Facebook became the most discussed site. Launched in 2004 by student Mark Zuckerburg as a college networking website, Facebook grew into an older-skewing version of MySpace. Newsweek featured Zuckerburg on the cover. On the inside the feature story told what happened when Facebook had one of its rare maintenance shutdowns. "Over the course of those four hours I probably tried to get in five or more times. I'm addicted to Facebook," one person lamented. She was a 40-year-old mother of three.

As Facebook began, Linden Labs released the program Second Life. It was a 3D virtual world where you could create an avatar (a digital representation of yourself) and buy land with real money, mortgage a virtual home, get married, get drunk, make new friends, start a money-making business -- in other words, you could begin and live a new life. That was it. Second Life was a video game with no video game in it. The virtual world remained quiet until Wiredand other tech tastemakers began claiming Second Life could be "Web 2.0," the almost mythical multidimensional Internet that would take over the now dated World Wide Web. The New York Times, Time and others "discovered" the program in 2006. A woman, who's avatar name was Anshe Chung, became the first Second Life resident to become a millionaire in real life. (The value of the Second Life Linden dollar fluctuates like a real economy, but was roughly $300 Linden to every U.S. dollar in 2006.) She did it by buying up virtual real estate and flipping it for a higher price. Sony, Nike, and other companies created virtual stores with real products. Reuters opened up a Second Life branch. Several 2008 presidential hopefuls hopped on digital soapboxes to hold town meetings. By May 1st, 2007, Second Life had six million citizens (though critics argued that this figure was inflated since some people had multiple avatars).

Second Life visitors could actually modify the virtual world. Aside from a few restrictions, Linden Labs took a very hands-off approach to its universe. One of the first modifications was by visitor Kevin Alderman, known in-world as Stroker Serpentine. He created SexGen Platinum, a fourty-five dollar modification that gave an avatar realistic genitalia and the ability to have detailed virtual sex with a partner. He would later sue another Second Lifer for stealing and distributing the applet, making it the first known lawsuit over a stolen digital dick.

A popular website called SL Escorts listed and ranked avatar prostitutes based on user feedback, linking the virtual world concubines to their real life handlers for a potential Second Life meet and greet. "I love all sorts of sex play from the innocent school girl … to the sex slave (with or without torture)," read an ad for one leather clad escort. "… you can just IM [instant messenger] me and I'll be very happy to content to your deepest desires!" It was followed by this itemized listing (in Linden Lab dollars):

BLOWJOB

* L$350 with clothes

* L$500 shows tits

 

CYBER

* L$1,500 for half and hour

* L$500 for each additional 15 minutes

 

VOICE

* L$2,000 for 15 min SL voice

* L$3,000 for 30 min SL voice

 

The developing virtual world brought new sexual ethics to the forefront, and books like Regina Lynn's The Sexual Revolution 2.0, Audacia Ray's Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing In on Internet Sexploration and Tim Guest's Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds attempted to navigate what was fair in virtual love. "In the Bible it says something about thinking carnally about another woman is being unfaithful," Guest said at the time. "I don't think people nowadays would agree with that, and similarly, I think people who have online sex don't see it as cheating. It's morally okay, a pocket they can put those desires into where they won't threaten their real-life relationship."

 

***

It is a balmy Los Angeles day, and two bikini-clad women are picketing just off a major strip, shouting at any cars or people that pass. Their signs read "TOO NAUGHTY FOR E3." The models are from Naughty America, a multimedia porn conglomerate, and they are protesting their exclusion from the Electronic Entertainment Expo happening in the Los Angeles Convention Center behind them. The E3 organizers decided to ban so-called "booth babes," women provocatively dressed, often as video game characters, populating the various company booths. It was definitely a change of heart -- the predominantly male conference allowed Rockstar Games to bring bra-and-panty strippers a few years before. Contrary to the timing, Naughty America was not saying their promotional women were why it was kicked out of E3, but because of its video game, titled Naughty America: The Game. The online title would allow players to hook up with others around the world.

"Sex in an online game? It's about time," the press kit said. "Naughty America: The Game is the first of its kind: A massive multiplayer online world that allows players to do what they've always wanted to: be naughty." After establishing a cartoon-like online persona and doing mundane things like apartment furnishing, you can go hang out in the virtual city's downtown, uptown or beach. A widely shown screenshot has a buff guy and a cute young woman dancing at the local discothèque. A less circulated picture has a chiseled blond with a mullet taking a svelte, busty redhead from behind on his mauve bedsheets. His arms are at her hips, kind of like he's steering a boat with his wrists. In the corner is a meter that reads "sexy" to "freak." It is in curvy seventies cursive. "We were very disappointed to learn of E3's stance toward Naughty America: The Game," the company said later. "It's the next step in social networking and online matchmaking. It's certainly not intended for everyone, but then again neither are a number of the titles featured at the show." The press called the "exclusion" a stunt (it was learned after the announcement that the company just turned in its booth paperwork too late), but the change to a more conservative conference was real. The E3 organizers was responding to events from the previous year.

Rockstar Games announced its next game, Bully, in 2005, setting up a preview for retailers and the press at E3. Dozens of protesters picketed in front of Take-Two headquarters in Manhattan. "This game should be banned," Liz Carnell from Bullying Online (a British website supporting bullied students) said before the event. The protesters carried signs that said "Prosecute Rockstar Games; they are felons" and "Put the cuffs on Rockstar, not youth." "I'm extremely worried that kids will play it and then act out what they've seen in the classroom … " Carnell said.

After the protest, Rockstar Games quietly announced that Bully, originally slated for fall 2005, would be pushed back to April 2006. It arrived on the PlayStation 2 in October 2006. In what could be described as Grand Theft Auto Jr., Bully is an open-ended adventure at the gothic, repressive Bullworth Academy prep school. As Jimmy Hopkins, a short, freckled-faced teenager, you must navigate the various school cliques, such as the jocks, the nerds, and the preppies, and make allies to survive the school year. Grand Theft Auto's guns and baseball bats are replaced with itching powder and bag o' marbles. Knuckle sandwiches are complimented by headlocks and Indian burns. The point is to humiliate foes, which, in high school, is a fate worst than death. You can also make friends. A small set of options pops up when Jimmy passes someone on campus. You can give the person a friendly nod ("Hey, how's it going?!"), a put down ("Who are you lookin' at?!") or, if you are behind him or her, a very realistic-looking wedgie. Each character will respond accordingly. A positive response gives you the option to do a courting gesture, like giving a stolen box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers uprooted from the girls' dorm front lawn. A few more flirts add a final option symbolized by two big lips. The courted will usually say something coy ("So, I'm doing this science project, and, um, we're trying to figure out if kissing helps you live longer, so, um … ") and Jimmy, who seems to like being the aggressor, will grab and toss the person back, and give a long, dramatic kiss. Jimmy can do this with a girl or with a boy. The homosexual kisses did not get much media attention, especially compared to Rockstar's Hot Coffee the summer before. The early controversy over the violence, which Bully had very little, trumped any talks about intimacy, which Bully had in spades.

The Bully protest and the Hot Coffee fallout did not stop new, potentially controversial titles from appearing. "No fewer than six announced [online sex titles] were in development -- Spend the Night, Naughty America: The Game, Rapture Online, Heavenly Bodies, Red Light Center and 3 Feel," Brenda Brathwaite's Sex in Video Games said at the time. "Although each game had a slightly different feature set, all focused on sexual interactions between characters in the game to some degree or another." One of the most notable titles was actually in some form of public beta-testing for several years. Sociolotron is a massive, X-rated virtual world created by veteran game developer Patric Lagny. There are monsters to slay and treasure to find like Ultima Online and other adventures, but Sociolotron was made specifically for you to live your fantasy as a pimp, prostitute or pirate, knight, dominatrix or spy, or any other self-created design you see fit. You can then have sex with any of the hundreds of other role players on the virtual plain. If you have a desire that isn't included in the game -- and there are many included in the game -- you can ask the creator himself to code it in. It is all run by Lagny, like a mom-and-pop sex shop. He told the tech magazine Sync, "My intent was to fashion something the big companies, like Sony, wouldn't ever touch." Still, according to Lagny's data, female Sociolotron players outnumber the men almost two to one.

***

In 2006, authors Jon M. Gibson and Chris Carle collaborated on a line of calendars called Nerdcore. Shot by photographer Cherie Roberts, the first calendar features porn stars with video games. Miss December leans against the arcade machine of Williams' classic Defender, her long blonde tresses stopping just short of her ample breasts and her long legs -- actually, her whole body -- only covered from the calf down. She wears gym socks with gold and purple stripes. Miss November lays on her stomach across a queen-sized bed playing an old Nintendo GameBoy handheld (originally released in 1989). She twists her nude body just right so her untanned behind is in full camera view. The first edition was successful enough for Nerdcore to release a second calendar focused on superheroes. It had a launch party in a large Los Angeles comic book shop with an open bar, porn performers and blowup posters of the calendar. The tech channel G4TV and other international outlets covered the event. Masi Oka, a lead actor on the popular NBC fantasy show Heroes, came to the party.

The same year Evergreen Events held the first annual Sex in Video Games conference in San Francisco. "This unique conference will focus on the design, development, and technology of sex in video games from a national as well as international perspective," read the website. "In addition, this conference will also have a strong focus on business matchmaking and networking. During the conference's two day run, it will feature numerous lectures and keynotes, a machinima art show (erotic art and movies derived from video games) as well as panel discussions with leaders in video game and adult video game development." Panels included "Sex in Games: Where are We Now?," "Creating a Massively Multiplayer Online Erotic Game" and "Integrating International AO Success into the US Market". (AO stood for Adults Only.) According to the SiVG organizers, the original meeting place, the Nob Hill Masonic Center, suddenly refused to hold the conference. The venue was planned well in advance. At the last minute, the conference was moved to the Kensington Hotel. Attendees would get lost in the large building as the hoteliers did not allow the organizers to put up a sign for the conference in the lobby. MTV, Wired, and The Washington Post were able to find the event. There would be no conference in 2007.

A few months before the conference, co-organizer and Savannah College of Art & Design game design professor Brenda Brathwaite released Sex in Video Games. Part history lesson and part action plan, the textbook gave game designers perspective on how adult situations could improve their games. It was the first book on the topic released and is the most comprehensive listing of sex-related games available. For new developments, Brathwaite kept an online blog at www.igda.org/sex. In the book, Brathwaite seemed optimistic about the future of adult gaming. "While a majority of today's games seem to sport one extreme or the other -- hyper-sexualized environments, avatars or actions, or nothing at all -- games in the future will likely not be designed in such a way. Just as love scenes in movies are the norm and, with few exceptions, don't make headlines, so too will games find a comfortable medium."

One of the most critically acclaimed games at the time was God of War, a bloody, fast-paced action title based on Roman mythology. Early in the game the malevolent hero arises out of bed, leaving behind two topless women with which he presumably spent the night. While most players may have walked out of the bedroom and started the next game level, you actually have the option to come back to the bed. The women will let out an innocent giggle as the bald-headed warrior climbs in between the sheets. The camera slowly pans to a Roman vase sitting precariously on the edge of a nearby nightstand. The game shows you a series of buttons to press. Each successful hit will let out a breathless female gasp followed by a gruff hero grunt. The mini-game ends when the vase, shaken by the bed knocking, breaks on the floor. A 2007 sequel had a similar sequence in a medieval bathhouse. Both received a Mature rating, the equivalent of a movie R. The PlayStation 2 games were released by Sony, a company that, about 35 years earlier, lost the VCR war to VHS because Beta lacked porn.

Microsoft also took risks with its Mature-rated XBox 360 title Mass Effect, a game that was banned in Singapore before it was even released. (The country would later lift the ban, perhaps because of pressure from the multimedia giant.) Built like a dynamic sci-fi novel, Mass Effect allows you to create a space military character from scratch, visit different solar systems and explore hundreds of possible storylines and outcomes. Each decision you make sends you on a different path.

The developers released early video footage of the game to the press. "I see the sadness behind your eyes," a female alien with well-braided cornrows and sensitive eyes says to you. "It tells a story that makes me want to weep. Pain and loss. But it drives you! Makes you strong. You never hide your strength, either. It serves you well, terrifies your foes. Few will dare to stand against you. This may be who you are, but this is not who you will become. It only forms the basis for your future greatness. Remember these words when doubt descends, Commander." Your character, a tough blonde with close-cropped hair, stutters over her words. The alien touches her face. "Close your eyes and relax, Commander." The game closes in on their faces, the Commander standing in front of the alien while she makes an expression of subtle ecstasy. The scene ends with a close-up of the alien's blue arm, thrown against the bedpost in a fit of passion and then sensuously brought down, as if gone limp. Mass Effect was released on November 20, 2007. Aside from the Singapore ban, the game did not bring any major protests or political speeches, nor were any hidden sex games or secret naked scenes revealed later. There were no million-dollar recalls nor any lawsuits from concerned parents.

Three weeks after the launch, however, Microsoft did make an official announcement: Mass Effect had already sold more than a million copies.

Copyright 2008 Feral House.

Click here for a copy of Porn and Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture. 

Damon Brown writes about sex, technology, music and video games for Playboy, New York Post and Family Circle, and is the tech columnist for AARP Online and PlanetOut.
 
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