Where Is Sex?
Sex is everywhere. It’s on our TV sets; it’s in our art; it’s on our minds. Sometimes, it’s even in our bedrooms. This fascination with sex – which goes far beyond its reproductive uses – is part of what makes us human. Wherever we go, sex is bound to follow. So, while the act itself may be a physical one, sex has had no trouble adapting to the challenges of our newest frontiers, non-physical worlds.
Sex does not only need a “where,” though, it needs a “who.” As individuals, we may have romping on the brain, but since sex is innately an exchange, it’s much easier to spot when it involves more than one person. Sex needs a social environment, somewhere two people can meet and go about their business.
The internet, of course, has no shortage of social environments. After all, what is the internet but a (arguably sexual) conjunction of people? From chat rooms to full-blown virtual worlds, there are countless ways and places to interact with other users. Whether these environments have been constructed to encourage fun, friendships or just simple fooling around, sex has and will pop up. It’s a symptom of every community, however small, however tasteful.
Let’s Get Specific
If you give a mouse a cookie … well, we know how that one ends. It seems sex, too, is inevitable, given a few minor variables. In games like Second Life, a place of theoretically infinite possibility, sex has become mainstay of in-world culture. True, detailed attention to character design and decent graphics gave SL‘s sex life an initial boost, but pose balls, kinky boots and clickable nipples don’t come from thin air. Players are actively working to make their sex better.
Other online games are much less welcoming to in-game sex. Worlds like Habbo regulate acceptable content, and make cybering an obstacle course where sex has to evolve to survive. It begins to change its shape, its values, its language. Yet, it remains strangely reminiscent of real life. For example, in Habbo, physical items (furniture, to be specific) are the incentive for sex, goofy words like “bobba” are used instead of “intercourse,” and on-screen avatars stare awkwardly ahead during the act.
Quid Pro Quo
Just because sex can spring up anywhere doesn’t mean videogames make getting it on an easy task. Game mechanics are always improving, but, by a similar token, they’ll always fall short. The same thing goes for graphics. Unless pixelation is what gets you hot – and to each his own – virtual nudity usually can’t compete with the real thing. Not to mention the fact that most games aren’t equipped with naked skins or “have sex with” commands. Sure, you can dance your pseudo-sultry night elf dance, but for the most part, the logistics just aren’t there.
At the same time, it’s possible to argue online videogames do have some inherently sexy qualities. Virtual worlds are based on human interaction and offer relatively easy, anonymous communication, which encourages sexual openness. Plus, all games, whether visually stunning or visually nonexistent, provide fluid intercourse (both sexual and otherwise) through chat. Interactive visualizations may be on the up-and-up, but good old-fashioned sex talk is just as popular, convenient and stimulating as ever.
Still, virtual sex is a challenge. Collaborating successfully on an act that’s both attractive and effective in a wholly intangible environment takes real skill: the right words, the right timing, the right imagination. Not to mention the difficulties in finding an equally skillful partner. But these challenges are what make virtual sex arousing and ultimately fun. After all, if great sex were easy, would it be great?
A Garden of Weeds
When it comes to getting hot and heavy, we human beings are resourceful. In turn, virtual sex can be found even where it’s least expected, where it’s least likely to survive. It flourishes like weeds – popping up between the cracks of cyber society in both rough and temperate climates, forming a sort of leafy background to the more acceptable blossoms of online interaction. Out of the spotlight, sex becomes sexier in the shadows.
But all of that may be changing this year, with the release of a flood of MMOEGs – massively multiplayer online erotic games – ranging from the cartoon-esque Naughty America, to the teledildonics-based 3Feelonline. These worlds are designed for sex. Their graphics, their game mechanics; all are set up to optimize the sexual experience. They’re moving sex from the background to the foreground, out of the shadows and into the light.
These MMOEGs are both reacting to, and taking part in, an upswing of interest in adult videogames. While they’re catering to a wide-spread love of sex, they’re also testing new territory, and they may be walking a delicate line. When sex is no longer a challenge or a taboo, will it still pique our interest? Will these games satiate or spoil our sexual hunger?
Sociolotron and Second Life, two already-released MMOGs where sex is king, have both proven themselves capable of keeping players interested and aroused. This may be due in part to the feelings of transgression they promote. Here, fetishes thrive. Vanilla sex is merely a starting point for the creation of new dark spots on the map of sexuality.
When sex is a given – when, for the first time, it is actually the established, open, accepted basis for society – what will grow up in the cracks? What other element of human interaction will take root in the shadows behind well-lit sex? Perhaps the answer is simply more sex: Communities of fetish, like those found in Second Life. Or, maybe we will move away from sex altogether.
In Sociolotron, for example, power struggles and gang rule lie beneath the surface of a seemingly sex-centered virtual London. Second Life players, too, take time out of their active social lives to involve themselves in local politics. But the largest current that undercuts such worlds – one that runs even deeper, perhaps, than sex – is economy. Like sex, an exchange system is bound to evolve in all but the simplest of societies.
It may be, though, that sex and economics have more in common than we might think. Sex can be used for economic motives or economics for sexual ones. Both are ways to intermediate between people. Both represent the networking of people through a medium of intercourse. Both create a web, connecting players through their past interactions. Both create a common exchange value, and a common language of exchange.
All of which begs the question: Is there such thing as a basic human function? Does sex pop up in all our virtual worlds because it is, at our core, our primary purpose? Or is money – the need to trade, to claim value – what’s at our center? Perhaps it’s neither sex nor money, but what they both stand in for, namely connecting with other people.
Only time will tell what’s in store for the future of MMOEGs. But, whatever comes after sex, one thing’s for certain: People won’t be doing it alone.
Bonnie Ruberg is a videogame 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 Wired.com, The A. V. Club, and Gamasutra.