All my clothes were brown. All clothes start brown. When you learn how to change their color, you can make them whatever color you want, but when you’re new – when they’re new – your clothes are brown.
I was in the world of Sociolotron for one reason: I wanted to explore everything the game had to offer. I wanted to live in a world where people act out sexual fantasies as easily as you and I buy a cup of coffee. I wanted to see what it was like to be virtually raped. I wanted to know how it felt to do the raping. I wanted to explore the most violent, sexual and deviant virtual world going. I wanted to know how the other half plays.
I decided I’d start with a female character. Half of them are played by men anyway, and if I was going to be looking at a human-shaped avatar for any length of time, I wanted it to be hot; which is why so many men play women. I also wanted to see how easy it is to be taken advantage of in Sociolotron. Call it a grand social experiment. Call it the education of an ignorant white male. Call it whatever you want. I thought it was journalism, and I thought it would be easy.
My character turned out more attractive than I thought she would. I named her Janet. She had long, blonde hair and a generous figure. In some clothes, her breasts looked enormous; in others, merely large. Sociolotron‘s graphics aren’t stupendous, but they’re defined enough to make a fair pass at realism. This was my first surprise. I’d assumed from screenshots that the toy-like nature of the little people on the screen would be a repellant to emotional attachment. Not so. My chick was hot. Entrenched firmly outside the uncanny valley, she was just alien enough to appear reassuring, just human enough to evoke … something.
I started to care for Janet almost immediately. Not sexually, exactly. I felt like her guardian. I didn’t identify with her, per se, but I was playing her as if playing a character in any other game. I was controlling her. I wanted her to succeed. I wanted her to be safe. I wanted her to win – whatever that meant. I was suddenly glad for the “newbie” distinction, which makes it difficult to be abused. It was like being wrapped in a warm security blanket. After playing with my little doll for a while, dressing her up in different clothes, tweaking her attributes, I suddenly felt unsure of my plan to subject her to the vilest torments imaginable. This is what it’s like to get sucked in.
Walking around Sociolotron as a newbie, I felt like a 19-year-old soon-to-be waitress/porn star/prostitute, fresh off the Greyhound to LA. I felt vulnerable. And I knew that newbie sticker was as much an advertisement as a blanket. I knew the people I passed were looking at me, my brown clothes, my attractive form and my “newbie” designation, and wondering how long it’d be before I’d be fair game; wondering if they could get me alone. I imagined the terror in Janet’s heart as she looked for somewhere safe to learn the ropes, and my own heart quickened.
I hurried through a series of empty-looking neighborhoods, wondering where to start my adventure and how I would go about doing that. I wasn’t even sure I understood the game’s controls. Moving and interacting with things seemed to happen just like in any other game, but Sociolotron has menu options that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t find certain controls I knew existed; the rape switch, for example. I needed a helping hand; I didn’t even know where to find that. My first thought, however, was to get out of the ugly, brown starter clothes.
I found a shopping terminal in a tavern of some sort and set about making my pixelated doll look a little prettier. I picked a plastic vest, a large skirt and a few other things. The skirt had a nasty habit of swinging wide open when I tried to sit, but otherwise I thought the effect was pleasant enough. I was not the only one.
“You look nice, Janet,” he said.
I thanked him. There were no introductions. That’s one difference between virtual worlds and the real one. Introductions aren’t technically necessary. Names float in the air above their avatars. I could see his name, and it was as meaningless there, in a virtual tavern in Sociolotron, as it would have been in a real bar. His name was Phil. It could have been anything.
Phil showed me how to change the color of my clothes. I made my vest a bright orange, the skirt purple. The vest was more flattering to my avatar than the shirt I started with. He told me so. I thanked him. Then I set about trying to find an interesting way to pose. There’s a menu screen for various sitting, standing and lying positions, and multiple variations of each posture. Exploring them, I started to get nervous again. My avatar was doing untoward things in a public place, and the skirt seemed to have a mind of its own.
“Skirts aren’t good for sitting,” said a woman, LadyLilac, standing next to me. She had been engaged in conversation with another woman named SexyAnimal. I didn’t think either of them had noticed me. I agreed with her assessment and chose a lying posture.
Perhaps in response, SexyAnimal removed her clothes entirely and squatted on the floor, penetrating herself with a large phallus. The description of her sex acts scrolled across the screen for everyone to read. It read like something pulled from an adult magazine. She and LadyLilac continued chatting. The conversation was fairly banal.
I decided to try the sitting posture again, but decided to change clothes so as not to flash the whole room in the process. I opened my inventory screen and changed from a skirt to pants, and suddenly I was naked. Another lesson learned: In Sociolotron, underwear is optional.
“All the woman here have shaved twats,” said SexyAnimal. Her friend laughed.
I sat down for a few minutes but got bored. I looked pretty sitting there, but the conversations in the room had trailed off. I wasn’t sure if this was significant or not, and I didn’t really have anything to say myself, seeing as I had no idea what I was doing. I would have been content to sit and listen, to learn by observation, but I’d learned all I needed to know about SexyAnimal’s genitalia, and everyone else, perhaps enthralled by her show, had nothing more to say. That’s when it occurred to me that the floor show may have rendered my fellow players speechless, which in a game means your hands are busy. I decided to explore another room.
So far I’d been “playing” Sociolotron for about an hour. I’d stumbled around a variety of outdoor environments that all looked the same, and the indoor scenes I’d explored weren’t any different. In almost every room I encountered there were various tables and workstations I didn’t know how to use, as well as the occasional sex altar, complete with restraints and, according to the in-game text, copious amounts of dried semen. The room I entered just off the main tavern room was like all the others.
I was alone, so I decided to experiment. I tried to figure out what to do with the work tables to no avail. Then I engaged the sex altar. As far as I could tell it was purely decorative. I attempted to sit or lie on it, but nothing happened. I always ended up sitting or lying near it, but never on it. I fumbled with the controls for several minutes, cycling through various positions so quickly I looked like a grotesque marionette attached to a ceiling fan. Then I discovered the “penetrate” command.
I was eventually able to replicate the actions I’d seen performed by SexyAnimal in the next room. Janet looked hotter doing it. I was strangely proud of this, and surprised at my pride, and not at all worried.
The game didn’t seem to mind that she was fully clothed. The descriptions of my actions included a number of things that weren’t technically possible. I wanted to see how much detail could be revealed, so I stripped my little doll bare and repeated the maneuver. It was disappointing in a sense, in that no real sexual detail was evident, but at the same time it was strangely arousing. It was like watching a pornographic movie shot with a home video camera with a busted auto focus. Or like watching the Playboy channel when you don’t pay for the Playboy channel. It was like making dolls fuck.
And suddenly, watching my avatar masturbate herself, it all made sense. Sociolotron is a roleplaying game. Of course there are the usual stats and professions and even combat, but it’s more than that; more than a regular game. Sociolotron is an outlet. It’s an escape into hyper reality. It’s pornography and a dating service in one convenient package. And all that’s required is an internet connection and a little imagination.
In Sociolotron, I was Janet, the pretty girl with long, blonde hair and an orange, plastic vest. That was the only identity I had. I was not tethered to my actual name, my actual identity or my self any more than I wanted to be. I was not restricted by the face under the mask. The mask was all there was, all there would be. I was free to be whatever – and do whatever – I dreamed. My actions would be Janet’s actions, transferred through the anonymity of the internet to my doppelganger, but motivated by my desires.
I thought of the reality behind every avatar I’d encountered, the person behind every keyboard, driving the characters to which I’d spoken, manipulating their dolls, manipulating themselves. I wondered why they were in Sociolotron and what they were getting out of it. I realized it isn’t all roleplay. Behind every other avatar is another person, more like me than I might care to admit, pulling his little doll’s strings for his own reasons.
Sociolotron is not unique in this respect; most online games allow this freedom. That’s the whole point. This is why they’re so addictive, so engaging. But Sociolotron isn’t most games. In most games your fantasy world evolves around a world of ghosts and goblins, orcs and elves, or space pirates and traders – perhaps even Star Wars action figures. In Sociolotron, your fantasy involves real, actual people with about a hundred different sexual positions and moves. It is, in effect, a fantasy sex simulator.
I decided to try a different position. I knelt Janet forward, with her elbows touching the ground and her ass in the air. She automatically repositioned her hands, reaching around her ass to continue pleasuring herself. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Then Phil walked in.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
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.