Hot Coffee was child’s play. The unlock-able sexual content hidden in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas may have caused the biggest videogame controversy of 2005, but the truth is that it was far from the most titillating or lascivious material to be found in games these days.

Single-player games have long made a habit of occasionally coloring outside the lines of “family entertainment,” but the “sex” that takes places in games like Leisure Suit Larry or Playboy: The Mansion barely scratches the surface of what crops up when more than one player at a time gets together in the virtual world.

Online sexual encounters, or “cybersex,” as it’s often known, have of course been taking place since before games hit the internet in a big way. As soon as there were chat rooms, there were people talking dirty in them – not as a way to harass each other (though that took place, as well), but because they got off on it. The cybersex that takes place today is no different, at a fundamental level. But the advances in network and graphics technology over the last 30 years mean the world of cybersex today is a much richer and more colorful one than ever before. And that’s putting it nicely.

According to Richard Bartle, who helped create the first virtual world, MUD1, in the late 1970s, it took cybersex a few years to really take off. Though the early text-based adventure worlds probably saw the occasional encounter, it was not until TinyMUD came along in 1989, Bartle says, that cybersex became a commonplace of virtual worlds, as it is today. TinyMUD was a text-based ancestor of Second Life, a virtual world with almost no “game” to it at all. Cybersex flourished there, and in its descendants. “Whether this was because the worlds or the players were more social, or because there wasn’t a great deal else to do in them, is a matter for conjecture,” Bartle writes in his book, Designing Virtual Worlds.

From there, it was off to the races, and though cybersex remained, for the most part, little more than dirty chat, it was only a few years before the text-based world of LambdaMOO saw an alarming instance of virtual rape, as journalist Julian Dibbell chronicles in his book, My Tiny Life. Though the rape happened only in text – via a “voodoo doll” plug-in that forced a character to perform actions that were not under its typist’s control – it was a harsh example of how “real” such virtual interactions could be.

In the nearly 15 years since then, sexual interactions in cyberspace have only gotten more vivid. Even game-worlds like World of Warcraft see more than their fair share. It’s not at all uncommon to hear reports of players happening upon an abandoned hut in Azeroth, only to be surprised by the nature of the chat that’s being emitted from within. Though what passes for endowment in WoW is sometimes surprising: In one cybersex chat log that made the rounds of the internet recently, one of the participants took great care to link each of his weapons and pieces of armor as he disrobed, so his partner would know exactly how uber he was.

And with the advent of player-created software add-ons for graphical MMOGs, cybersex took another quantum leap forward. What was surprising at first, though, was not how lewd the things players created were, but how tame was the fare they were willing to settle for. In The Sims Online, for instance, a piece of player-created software called the “Nude Skin Patch” simply made avatars appear naked if they were wearing certain items of clothing. (Needless to say, sales of these particular garments shot through the roof.) That, a simulated slow-dance and a few good lines of sex chat passed for the cyber equivalent of a roll in the hay – and did such a good impression of it, a number of TSO players were actually able to charge money for their services, according to reports.

As MMOGs have evolved, though, so has their player-created sexual content. Some things remain the same: World of Warcraft recently saw several enterprising players create nude skin patches after the fashion of those found in TSO, including the flagship “World of Porncraft.”

But where it’s actually possible for players to add their own content to the world, they have done so in spades.

Some of the most varied player-created sexual content can be found in the virtual world of Second Life. Because players are free to create their own appearance and living spaces from scratch, the world has become the perfect venue for people to play out elaborate fantasies. In Second Life, cybersex grew balls – quite literally. A range of elaborate genitals are available to apply to your avatar, and recent models such as the Xcite! line can even be “stimulated” by another player. (And once brought to “orgasm,” they aren’t good for much of anything for half an hour or so.)

With such high-tech sex on offer, Second Life has seen a number of dedicated sexual communities spring up, including a significant population that’s into bondage and domination. The more sexually minded among the “furry” population – people who like to dress up as animals, even in real life – have found Second Life to be the perfect place to make their fantasies more real.

One of the most interesting such communities are the Goreans, who use the virtual world to live out the science fiction community described in John Norman’s Gor novels, where women live as sexual slaves in a society of rigid rules and protocols. Many of those protocols have been imported to Second Life, and the Gorean community there publishes its own virtual newspaper and even holds classes on how to be a good slave or master.

Even X-rated movies are available for rental within Second Life – the same ones available at your local video rental store, mind you, not machinima pieces featuring avatars (though that’s available’ as well).

One of the more disturbing recent trends in Second Life cybersex has been known as “ageplay,” in which one of the avatars engaged in the encounter will have been created in the image of a child, though both typists are consenting adults (Second Life admits only those 18 and older). Though the practice caused much controversy on Second Life‘s forums and in the blogosphere, Linden Lab, the company behind the world, has acknowledged that there’s no action to be taken on its part, since the Supreme Court long ago ruled that no laws are broken where no children were actually involved in the creation of the content.

The fact is, it’s not at all surprising to find cybersex running rampant in virtual worlds. Sex is among the first uses for any new technology; the first dirty pictures were being shot almost as soon as the camera was invented. Though politicians may have their knickers in a twist over games’ sexual content, it’s only to be expected that virtual knickers would come off almost as soon as they appeared.

But real knickers are coming off now, too. Kyle Machulis, who goes by the name of qDot Bunnyhug in Second Life and runs MMOrgy.com, a web site devoted to all things cybersexual, recently demonstrated his prototype “teledildonics” line of sex toys that can be controlled from within virtual worlds or other videogames. Often attached to console controllers (one such device has come to be known as the “seXbox“), the sex toys are controlled by a user at one end of a network connection and enjoyed by a user at the other. To Machulis, such devices are not mere diversions, but can be used to bring people closer together who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to be in the same room together. Read more (if you dare) at Slashdong.org.

It may be that new technologies like teledildonics are moving cybersex out of the realm of the naughty and into the area of intimacy. Just as sex in the physical world can be an expression of love, not just lust, cybersex may be coming into its own as part of some relationships. In any case, it’s come a long way, baby. It certainly makes Hot Coffee look like a very tepid drink.

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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