So the other night I was blowing up some internet tanks and surfing gaming blogs during the 45-second wait times it takes to load into new matches after my own tank gets blown up. And there on Terra Nova I stumbled across a sex-related post that really made me stop and marvel:

Where Are All The Sex Games?

Some of the post is about the worthy topic of sex-education games (like this shooter with an STD message) but I was just sort of snoozing through a skim-read until I got to this part, which really woke me up:

There’s rather a dearth of recreational, digital sex games, a fact that surprises me given the proclivity of clever porn mongers who hawk every kind of sex ware imaginable. Have throughout history, using any available technology. It’s well established, for instance, that early photography and film thrived on sexual innovations. And we certainly spent a lot of time discussing the ins and outs of cybersex back in the day, when everything digital was a novelty. Are we jaded? Or recession economics?

Well, it seems like a business opportunity to me. They appear to sell plenty of books and board games in those novelty sex shops. People could certainly use some variety in their sex lives. Yet the ecosystem somehow manages to eschew innovation, just like the video game industry. Microsoft, for instance, is blocking sexual uses of their Kinect device, citing ‘unintended puposes’ (imagine a mash-up of a Kinect device and teledildonics – long distance love, FTW!). I did find A-Chat , but it seems like a graphics enhanced chat room app, and that’s boring, too… I suppose there’s the seedy underbelly that is Second Life’s sex subculture, but it seems, well, seedy. And not terribly educational. But if people are into it, great. Let’s just have some other options.

It is rather remarkable, when you stop and think. Why isn’t there an adult-themed cyber fun park that’s at least as large (and profitable) as World Of Warcraft? Why don’t we in the English-speaking world have a thriving sexual-games output to rival the Japanese?

I have some ideas about this, but first, it’s probably worth dipping into the shallow waters of my knowledge about the sex game options readily accessible to your average North American:

  • Of course there’s Second Life. It’s not a sex game per se, but it’s a big and well-established free-wheeling virtual space, has an in-game economy, and allows an enormous degree of user customization of objects and spaces in the world. Accordingly (and this is by reputation, I’ve never logged into Second Life) it features an enormous amount of sexual material, as you would expect. Just Google “Second Life sex” to get a hint of the sexual diversity that flourishes in that environment.
  • There’s a paid space called the Red Light Center that’s said to be pretty wild. I’ve never looked deeply into it, because in the screen shots I’ve seen, the female avatars compare unfavorably in appearance to the female wood elves in original Everquest, circa 1998. If I’m going to cybersex somebody’s avatar, I want it to be sexy-looking. (Yes, the Everquest wood elves were hot, for the time and the available tech. But 1998 is an internet eternity ago. I expect better now.
  • There’s Sociolotron, another paid adults-only service that’s got a sort of “glorified cyberchat” reputation, along with some actual monster-bashing and game content. Speaking from a position of ignorance, this one seems to be showing its MUDdy roots…
  • Trending away from the online social space toward lonely stand-alone clients on your PC, there is the family of products like 3D Kink from ThriXXX, which I have described before as “like better paper dolls for grownups”. This genre is typically visually rich but low on “game factor”; I remember a title for the early Mac in the 1980s that was called “Virtual Valerie” and involved manipulating an onscreen vibrator against a greyscale line-art posed naked woman until she made some noises and started shaking. Some progress has been made since then, especially on the artwork and customization side, with better costumes, posing, and settings. But in gameplay terms, I’ve yet to see one of these that was terribly engaging. Obviously the way to improve these is to get them onto the network and plug other gaming humans into the response loop, but so far the sites that can do that haven’t attempted to match the visually-lush qualities of these local-client electronic dollies.

I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff out there I haven’t seen, and I do invite readers to share in the comments if they know of any other noteworthy sex games. But I’m also confident there isn’t anything out there that even approaches a scale that could be called “mass-market”, and it’s a worthy question: why not?

I can think of a few contributing factors. “Uncanny valley” is a big one … we react well to cartoonish avatars and (maybe) to avatars that are hyper-realistic, but avatars that reach for realism and fall short? We process those as “creepy” and that’s usually an erotic dampener. (Certainly that’s a big contributor to my own lack of interest in the existing virtual worlds where sexual content is welcome.)

Another question is, how much are these worlds impacted by the Greater Internet Fuckwad problem? You can’t plausibly make an online adult playground without anonymity, but with anonymity comes an ocean of dicks, trolls, and creeps, all of whom feel unconstrained from demonstrating their worst and most colorful traits. It’s community poison, and the problem is too vast and varied for human moderation to be much of a solution. Some sort of clever community policing mechanic — as yet not invented so far as I know — would seem to be required.

Finally, the Terra Nova blog post focused to a much greater extent than I have here on the potential value of gamification in the field of sex education. I see the theoretical potential there, but it’s virtually impossible in a commercial sense to do anything involving legal minors and sexual information, no matter how tame. Too many people seem to go all explodey-head when you provide young people with access to sexual information; there are respectable non-profits that can survive that backlash, but I’ve yet to hear of a commercial enterprise with the ability (or courage!) to surf those dangerous waters. Worse yet, young people expect their applications to be networked; but if you add online interaction into any game environment that also requires anonymity, you’re back to the “dicks, trolls, and creeps” problem, this time with added opportunity for fearmongering. (“ZOMG, our kids are hanging out in an online space with TEH SEXXES and maybe PREDDATURZ!”)

So, that’s my answer to the missing sex games mystery: one part uncanny valley (which should go away in time as we get better at this stuff) and about four parts “how can you make a product that is pointless without anonymity but vulnerable to destruction (especially destruction of its reputation) by anonymous internet fuckwads?”

Packed deeply into the fuckwad problem, though, is the recognition that big feature-rich cyberspaces are expensive to create. If you’ve got the commercial resources to create one of these, you may find it’s safer to do something else with it (like a fantasy RPG) than to create an adult-content space that (if you fail to control the fuckwads) could destroy your corporate reputation and/or become a PR nightmare. But let me be clear: the game space itself might readily contain a thriving happy community that self-polices the fuckwads to an extent sufficient to keep the space thriving and happy, and yet it could still be destroyed (in the commercial sense) by the presence of fuckwads on the margins of the product, if those fuckwads are doing something that attracts lots of media scaremongering and knickertwisting.

So, even as we think “corps have all the money and are rightly scared to spend it on this” we shouldn’t extrapolate from there to “we’ll never see an adult playground like this”. We live in the open-source century, and big expensive-in-resources data/software artifacts are increasingly springing up like forests. We’re also learning (see “BitTorrent”) to distribute activities that are disapproved of by more dominant cultural forces (moralists with guns). So it’s easy to imagine a highly sexualized future adult online avatar space made without corporate money and running in a distributed or semi-distributed fashion that’s very difficult to suppress. That sort of project grows (if it does) very slowly, so don’t be holding your breath — but all the same, don’t be surprised if five or ten years from now, you’re reading breathless media articles about a sort of darknet Second Life where the users are complaining about virtual sharking by implacable panty-raiding fuckwads.

Similar Sex Blogging: