The Home Invasion

The Home Invasion
Sex and Interactivity

Bonnie Ruberg | 29 Nov 2005 11:02
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So, is this game pornographic, or isn't it? It offers subjectivity, but that subjectivity is preprogrammed. Does sex need a dialogue of emotion, not just action, to raise it above the level of porn?

Some games complicate the sexual dynamic even further by turning interactivity on its head and directly affecting you. Most do this through peripherals - items like the Trans Vibrator, or any number of specially-designed videogame sex toys - which impact you physically depending on how you play the game. They react to you; you react to them. Again, there's a cycle. As always though, it's a cycle with only one real subject who can feel pleasure. It's a dialogue with yourself. In this light, even the most interactive sexual content is just a complicated, disassociated form of masturbation. Really, all games face these questions of dialogue and one-sided interactivity, whether or not they offer traditional sexual content. Developers often respond in similar ways, with less controversial, reverse-interactive peripherals - like controllers with rumble packs. Perhaps not surprisingly, such controllers are frequently converted into - or at least joked about as - outright sex toys.

As if the issue weren't confusing enough with one-player sex games, the implications go haywire when sexual interactivity involved more than one person. When MMOG players engage in sex, for example, they really are forming a human dialogue. There are at least two people involved, even if they are mediated by computer screens. So, are these interactions wholly non-pornographic?

Everyone experiences sex differently. For sure, many MMOG sex participants are engaging in emotionally meaningful sexual encounters. Yet it seems that - even when the sex is between two people who are equally involved in real life - there persists something of the pornographic. There is still a divide breeching the dialogue, leaving us, when all is said and done, alone with ourselves.

Online sex, in any form, allows both subjects to remain, to a certain extent, emotionally and physically separate. Even as developers strive to make online sex as realistic as possible, the fact remains: It's not real. That is not to say that online sex is "good" or "bad," or "better" or "worse" than real life sex. It fills a different purpose. Nor is the title of "pornography" meant as a negative one. Pornography fills a specific, legitimate human need, one we rarely confront with our heads held high.

If our interest in sex in games is so normal, why does it illicit so much shock and titillation? Perhaps it's because sexual interactivity treads on the toes of our accepted understanding of both sexuality and game. It shows us how each defies the boundaries of the other. As a society, we've tried to mask the power of sex by compartmentalizing it, by telling it what it can and cannot be. In truth, we have done the same for videogames, whose true power to reflect and reveal the human condition is overwhelming in its enormity.

In knocking down these restraints, sexual games have both excited us and caught us off our guard. They let loose the floodgates of unease that comes in the wake of classification's dismissal. They unearth the profound anxiety that lies at the heart of our technological age.

Bonnie Ruberg is a video game journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, and Slashdot Games.

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