The comparison between pornography and videogames isn't a random one. Plenty of sexual content walks the fine line between the thought-provoking and vulgar. It begs the question: Is there a difference between in-game sex and pornography? That, of course, depends on how we define porn. The most obvious definition, the dictionary definition, points out its blatant sexual energy and its ability to arouse. Yet, as keynote speaker Adam Singer pointed out at the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival this past August, all successful art has an element of the erotic, and the power to arouse. Certainly, plenty of sex games include so much shameless nudity and kinky pretense that they seem to overstep the "element of the erotic" and enter the world of straight porn. But where can you draw the line? Can graphic sex never be artistic? We can accept the necessity of nudity when we see it in art. We can accept the necessity of sex when we see it in romance.
What can pornography possibly have that makes it so different? Why do we label pornography those things which, in other contexts, are normal parts of life?
The answer is this: What really differentiates porn from other representations of sex is that it's innately one-sided. It lacks an interactive dialectic. Consider a somewhat old-fashioned scenario. A man goes to a video store. There, he buys a tape promising "Hot Lesbian Action." He takes the tapes home, sticks it in his VCR, and watches it. It arouses him. This has been, so to speak, a totally masturbatory encounter. That's to say, no one else has been involved but him. Though our lesbian-lover has had a sexual experience, no other subjective being has experienced it with him. The object he purchased has affected him; he has affected no one. Actual sex necessitates two subjects, two real people engaged in a dialogue - who, for better or for worse, influence one another. Porn, on the other hand, is literally an objectification. It literally negates the existence of a second active subject. It singularizes sex. It makes desire a closed circuit.
When videogames enter the equation, however, something totally new comes to the table: interactivity.
Of course, sometimes sexual content in games is non-playable, like the purchasable strip tease in Indigo Prophecy. This sort of material faces the same dilemma as run-of-the-mill pornography: namely, can you rectify the objectification in porn by creating a meaningful dialogue between the work and the viewer - or is the sexuality gratuitous, and therefore artistically useless?
Introducing playable sex material into the mix, however, really makes things interesting. Why? Because interactive sex shatters the mold of pornography; it creates a dialogue. Consider once more our friend who trekked all the way to the store for his tape. It's still pleasure he's after, but now he has the internet. Instead of watching porn, he plays a simple simulator game. In this game, he's able to manipulate an animated woman, to unclothe her, touch her, and eventually bring her to orgasm. At first, such a game seems like a blatant candidate for the porn bin. As before, there's only one actual human subject. Only one person is having a good time. Only one person is playing. So, there is again an objectification - perhaps even more so this time, since the female objects of desire who were previously shielded by the unchangeable thing-hood of a pre-recorded tape, can now, through manipulation and subservience, be fully turned into objects.
Unlike before, though, there is a dialectic here, a certain give and take. The man loads the game, and he clicks. In response, the girl's underwear is removed. In response, he becomes more aroused. In response, he clicks again, so that the girl moves the arm that covered her breasts. In response, he becomes even more aroused, inciting him to use his mouse to stimulate her sexually. This dialogue could go on indefinitely. Or, at least, until one of them - the real life man or the virtual woman - reaches climax. And since the goal of the game is to make the girl orgasm, she has even more authoritative agency; her fulfillment stops the game.