Male turkeys are not known for their ability to choose the best sexual partners. In fact, studies have shown they kind of suck.

In the 1960s, researchers from the Pennsylvania State University discovered they could easily trick male turkeys into mating with the stuffed dummy of a female turkey. The unsuspecting birds would perform their courtship displays and then try to copulate with the phony female. More surprisingly, and somewhat pathetically, the males performed the same behavior even as the researchers disassembled the dummy. It got to the point where if the researchers held up a fake female head on a stick, the males would still try to hump the spot of air where the nonexistent female’s backside should have been.

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Male turkeys getting turned on by fake females sounds silly, but what about men getting turned on by fake women – say, female videogame characters? Through pornographic fan art, nude mods and a growing adult gaming industry, videogame characters have now become sexual beings. Men are indeed attracted to fake women, so does that mean we’re more like our turkey brethren than expected?

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The picture shows a naked, brown-haired girl with purple goggles raised up onto her head. She’s down on all fours on top of a judge’s desk. At her rear, another nude woman is about to penetrate her with a light blue dildo. The text beneath the JPEG identifies the pair as Ema and Lana Skye, sisters who appear in the Phoenix Wright series of games.

That image comes from the website of Sephyroth, a 21-year-old California artist who draws hentai, a style of pornographic art that draws inspiration from anime and manga. Sephyroth, who declined to provide his real name, draws his own characters and, like many hentai artists, also frequently sketches characters from comics, cartoons and videogames.

“The biggest misconception about me is that just because I draw [hentai], people think I’m some sort of crazy pervert,” Sephyroth says in an email interview. “For me, hentai is the same as any other kind of art. I don’t care for whatever acts are being portrayed in the images as much as how pleasing the image looks, and admiring the kinds of techniques the artists used to make the image.”

Inspired by artists he met online when he was 13, Sephyroth now attends art school in San Francisco and hopes to create concept art for games and movies in the future.

Like many of the artists who frequent hentai forums and image sharing sites, Sephyroth often takes requests from fans who desire to see a particular character performing explicit acts. Pictures on his request page include one of Kairi and Tifa from Kingdom Hearts playing strip poker, Ashley Graham of Resident Evil 4 chained to a wall with much of her clothing torn, and Amy of Soul Calibur III masturbating.

“Even though the characters are fictional,” Sephyroth says, “people will find them attractive. I believe some people take it a step further and seek out pornography of them because they enjoy the fantasy of it. It’s the same as if a person is attracted to someone they know in real life. They will probably have secret fantasies of that person, and while they may never get together with that person, it is always nice to dream.”

He adds, “I’d assume most people look at hentai for the same reason they look at porn: to get a quick boner.”

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“Pornography, in a sense, is an industry that relies on how easy it is to trigger male arousal, and males like to have it triggered,” says Professor Catherine Salmon, the Director of the Evolutionary Psychology and Human Sexuality Laboratory at the University of Redlands in California.

She knows the story of the turkey experiment. It’s a common one told in textbooks on evolutionary psychology, a field that examines human behavioral patterns as the outcome of natural selection. “Whenever I tell stories like that or think about animals doing that, I think it is like guys and porn,” Salmon says. “It’s an instinctive reaction to a naked female.”

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In terms of sexual arousal, humans can’t tell the difference between a real person and a picture of one because we never evolved that way. Evolution takes millions of years, and primitive men would never have encountered the problem of whether they should find Lara Croft hot or not. “One phrase that people have used in the past is to say that we have a stone-age brain in a modern world,” Salmon says.

“If you think historically, there was a time when the only source of stimulus would have been actual people. … In an ancestral world, that fondness for looking at images or seeing beautiful women or being aroused by that would have led to sex with other people, whereas in the modern world, that might not actually be the outcome of that. But it’s a psychological sort of motivation that makes men look at porn.”

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Online, the 35-year-old German man calls himself Smaz. He, too, does not wish to be identified by his real name, though he says all of his friends and family know what he does.

Smaz makes patches for PC games that remove the clothing from female characters or replace the clothing textures with flesh and genitals. He started in 2004 and says he’s made more than 20 nude patches for games like Neverwinter Nights 2, Oblivion, FlatOut and The Sims 2. His patch for Fable makes the breasts of female NPCs visible. In his patch for Jade Empire, you can see female avatars’ vaginas up their skirts. He also added detailed genitals to the characters of Battle Raper, a Japanese 3-D fighter where the female combatants’ clothes fall off when struck.

Smaz started by stripping down a female ninja avatar he had created for Unreal Tournament at a friend’s request. When the nude modding site he frequented closed down last year, Smaz stopped working on nude patches. They were taking up too much of his time.

“For a single mod like Oni or Painkiller, I needed two hours. Bigger mods like Dungeon Siege or SWAT 4 needed three weeks to complete,” he says in an email interview. Some games require fan-made tools to extract textures from the game’s data, which Smaz says is often harder than creating the textures themselves.

“Nude modding is a challenge for me, nothing else,” he says, adding he’s not trying to get a sexual reaction. “I need both hands to play the games.”

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Sex Station 7 is a first-person shooter that tasks the player with liberating a colony of captured and mostly naked genetically engineered females. It was made by Los Angeles-based developer SomaVision, which has recently started creating adult games based in traditional genres to go along with their line of online sex simulators like 3D Plaything and SomaDoll.

“When you tell people what you do for a profession, most don’t even believe you,” says Public Relations Director Mike Huxley.

Formed in 1998 by Richard Hastings, a member of the art team for the first Medal of Honor game, SomaVision’s latest title, Digamour, weds RPG concepts like character customization and item upgrades to a story where players earn money in a futuristic environment to unlock new sexual positions for their avatar.

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With revenue improving every year, Huxley says business at SomaVision is great. Players are mostly males aged 18 to 28 who play videogames and already enjoy sexual entertainment like hentai. He says the limits of traditional pornography are why he thinks people turn to adult gaming. “It’s the same reason why people would prefer to play a videogame rather than go to a movie. By being interactive and by being involved, they feel like they have an added level of control over the action, over the events that are occurring. … They’re wanting to go beyond a passive, voyeuristic experience.”

SomaVision’s game engine can accommodate the Wii’s motion controls, and they’ve talked to Microsoft about distributing games through Xbox Live, but so far Huxley says the company hasn’t had any luck getting past console manufacturers’ “restrictive” rules. For the future, SomaVision are in talks with a manufacturer to incorporate sex toys with USB interfaces into their games.

Interactive pornography has also entered the world of MMOGs with Red Light Center, a 3-D adult social-networking world. Full of nightclubs, X-rated theaters and adult boutiques, the game is a hybrid of Second Life, MySpace and an online dating service. Users customize their avatars, then wander through an environment based on Amsterdam’s famous red light district to meet other players. Players can access web profiles for users by clicking on their avatars. You can chat, dance or shop. And you can have sex.

Players who pay a monthly fee for VIP membership can have virtual intercourse with other players or NPCs of either gender by going into private areas like bedrooms, a backroom in a night club or a BDSM dungeon. Sex is displayed in detail. Avatars strip down and then players begin selecting positions from a menu. At the end, a player can click on the “cum” button to orgasm.

“Typically, what we find is people are drawn into the site because … they can engage in real, hardcore adult activities,” says Brian Shuster, who runs Red Light Center and its parent site, Utherverse.com, from Vancouver with a staff of 50. “Within a few days, they stay around because they actually make friends. They develop bonds. They find that it’s a very socializing experience.” Many users have virtual weddings with their Red Light Center avatars, and some have taken their vows in the real world, too.

Along with his late partner, Shuster came up with the idea six years ago after he began playing MMORPGs. Having started out running online advertising, hosting and adult entertainment businesses the move was natural to Shuster, who says his ultimate goal is to build a 3-D way to browse the internet. He says two million users from around the globe have registered with the site, and he expects that number to grow to eight million by next year.

“We’re not really a pornographic videogame,” he says. “From our perspective, we are a real representation of life, and life includes a whole range of things, but one of the very important things that it includes is when a relationship gets to the point when you want to take it to the next level as a physical component. And we would be remiss, I mean we just wouldn’t be a proper emulation of life . . . if we didn’t permit and if we didn’t really encourage and spend a lot of attention on what is a hugely important part of real relationships.

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“That’s not pornography,” Shuster says. “That’s life.”

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For Catherine Salmon, the idea of pornography generated by a computer or based on fictional characters isn’t really different from other kinds of pornography.

“I mean, obviously you’re not going to have a relationship with the woman,” she says, ” but it’s a sort of fantasy and a sexual arousal that comes from looking at the images or imagining them doing certain things that is rewarding in terms of arousal and interest for males. The guy who watches the Jenna Jameson porno movie isn’t going to have sex with her, either.”

In turkey terms, just because his partner doesn’t really exist doesn’t stop him from doing something that feels good and comes naturally. Whether that makes the male turkey a bird to be ridiculed or emulated is up to individuals to decide. Perhaps the most important question for humans, though, is one that Salmon asks and answers:

“Do I think a guy is going to turn down sex with a real girl to have sex with a videogame girl? I think probably not.”

After researching this article, Chris LaVigne will never be able to look at Princess Peach the same way again.

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