I didn't know what to say. Had I been caught masturbating, watching someone masturbate or both? Who was I, and who should feel ashamed, Janet or me? I wondered for a moment if it was possible to lock doors before realizing it didn't matter. He was in. He had already seen.
"Playing," I said. Half conscious of trying to sound like a girl.
"Let me help you," he said. What followed is uncomfortable to remember.
The first thing Phil showed me was the rape switch. It's not actually called that - which is why I couldn't find it - but it does make it possible or impossible for someone to touch you. After you switch it off, allowing touching, anything can happen.
"You want to be careful turning that off," he said, then proceeded to demonstrate why.
Switching off the "touch" switch is the only kind of consent there is in Sociolotron. If you leave it off, you're fair game. If you turn it off for someone in particular, you're fair game to him. The game assumes you're an adult. The game assumes you know what you're doing when you partner up with someone. The game assumes you're smart enough to stay out of trouble or tough enough to deal with the repercussions. Either that, or it just doesn't care. I wondered how closely this mirrors real life.
I began remembering scenes from a succession of cold, dark nights in Texas, huddled in the back seat of a Honda, entreating my high school girlfriend to turn off her own touch switch. Phil began making love to me.
The actions of our avatars didn't quite sync with the descriptions scrolling across the screen, but it was clear enough what was happening. I hadn't selected any options or participated in any way, but I was suddenly - to read the descriptions - an active participant in a virtual sex act.
Phil instructed me how to participate, and I attempted shifting positions and performing actions from the available menus - like PULL > HAIR - but all I ended up doing was making things more complicated. The text descriptions no longer matched the animations at all, and after a minute or two of fumbling, we were standing still in front of each other, not doing anything.
I apologized for my clumsiness, and Phil, in what I assume would have been a husky, gentle voice, suggested no apologies were necessary. Just imagining it made my skin crawl. He said something about everyone having a first time, and I suddenly didn't want to play anymore. Real, imagined or both, I felt myself crossing personal boundaries I wasn't comfortable crossing, and I knew, in that instant, I'd gotten what I came for.
I made an excuse and disengaged from Phil's virtual embrace. Opened the car door, in other words, and asked to be taken home. I logged out of the game, looked over my shoulder and shuddered, remembering what I'd almost done, ashamed for how far I allowed it to go and fearful of what engaging in that experiment at all might say about me.
There is no barrier between real and virtual in Sociolotron - perhaps in any game. To participate is to be an active participant, and even for a journalist there are some boundaries too uncomfortable to cross.
I wasn't ready for Sociolotron, may never be ready for it. I'd thought that my status as journalist would impose a barrier between me and the world I was investigating. I thought the fact it was a virtual world would make the acts I engaged in less real, less impactful. I thought I could play in Sociolotron for a while and not be affected by what I'd done or was done to me. I was wrong.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.