Friday, October 28, 2005

Sex In The Online Games

"I'm on a perpetual hunt for a sex game targeting women," says Brenda Brathwaite, a game industry veteran and featured speaker at this week's Women's Game Conference in Austin, Texas.

She's not the only one.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is "where can I find good cybersex?" And one of my answers is games, with the caveat that you shouldn't join a MMPORG just for sex. Rather, games are places to meet other people who share at least one interest with you, and sometimes the relationships that arise lead to flirting and cybersex. Sometimes they don't.

Yet we're finally glimpsing games on the horizon that support relationship building and sexual interaction as part of the game play. What's more, these game developers recognize that a crucial part of attracting gamers is to appeal to all gamers -- not just the half of the population with penises.

"The Sims is hardly the 'No. 1 sex game,' but that game is all about relationship formation," Brenda says. "It's no surprise it's a huge hit with women."

What might surprise you is that Leisure Suit Larry's early adventures were also popular with women. "Larry is nonthreatening, he constantly fails and he's funny," she says. "Games that use sex and humor are fun and funny. Other (adult) games don't work so well right now."

Brenda, who just left her position as senior games designer at Cyberlore Studios, has been in the video-game industry for more than 20 years. She has worked on 21 published titles, including the Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series of role-playing games.

She was also the lead designer on Playboy: The Mansion and is currently the chairwoman and chief author of the International Game Developers Association's sex blog. She has become the guru of women and sex in games, speaking at conferences and colleges all over the country about this next level of game evolution.

"Erotic content for women is the fastest growing segment of the adult market," she says. "It stands to reason it's a growing segment in the gaming market as well."

It also stands to reason that if you want gamers to subscribe to an interactive sex game, you want to appeal to both men and women. In fact, if you can get women to sign on, the men will follow.

Two games scheduled to launch next year are taking this woman-friendly approach, although both companies are shy about describing exactly what the new games will entail.

Spend The Night will offer a graphically rich space where you can meet people, go on virtual dates and have cybersex. It might be the precursor to avatar-based online dating -- or at least, online screening of potential dates.

Naughty America (a working title) is so coy it doesn't have a website yet. It's a complete role-playing game in which you can choose whether to enter a "sex mode."

Both games recognize that they need to offer a variety of tools players can use to meet each other, develop relationships and interact sexually. And both are bending over backward to appeal to women.

Frankly, after these past few years away from chat, I'm considering resurrecting my old handle Aphrodite. If these games live up to their promises, they'll provide the community bonding and the permission to be overtly sexual that cybersex veterans remember from early BBSes and IRC rooms.

Brenda sees Façade as the pioneer that many of the adult game developers need to follow. "It's the most significant step in games in 20 years," she says.

Façade is the result of five years of collaboration between two game designers, Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas. I remember Andrew's name from his work on Dogz many years ago. He's an AI artist and assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and has been a programmer and AI engineer for more than 10 years.

Façade focuses on relationship development, emotional intensity and interactive storytelling, and the player drives the plot of the drama as it unfolds. It's free, and it's designed to "appeal to the adult, non-computer geek, movie-and-theater-going public" with an immersive experience you don't need weeks or months to complete.

Most games perpetuate the stereotype that men are visual and women aren't, so women must not be interested in adventure games, although they might kick ass at online scrabble. Yet 43 percent of gamers are women, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and they're not all out there spelling Q-words on the pink box.

Brenda has been speaking about sex in games for a while now. Earlier this year, she hosted the Sexuality in Games Roundtable at the 2005 Game Developers Conference.

"So far, the comments have all been positive," she says. "But on every panel I've been on about sex in games, there's an undercurrent of 'but how will we protect the women?' Like women wouldn't want to see it, or it's not okay for women. As if women don't have phenomenal sex drives on their own."

That's obviously not true. Just look at how many women enjoy cybersex in MMPORGs. Look at how many women have any kind of cybersex.

Brenda would like to see developers create a game where people can explore their sexuality -- especially those aspects they might not be able to try in their regular lives.

She envisions one where married couples can try new things together in a safe way, through the game intermediary, even if they're in the same room, and where players who don't know each other can interact sexually in a comfortable place.

She sees it as more than entertainment. "For years, sex therapy has been available, but many people aren't comfortable going into a room for facilitated sex therapy. Computer games can bring us that (comfortable place)."

Brenda applauds games that incorporate sex into the full experience of game play, citing God of War as an example. God of War includes an interactive sex game as part of the story arc. "It doesn't get tons of play, and it's not the central point," she says. "But it really adds to a great game."

Of course, gamers have long tried to make MMPORGs do things they were never meant to do. "As long as people have a chat interface, they can turn anything into a sex game," Brenda says.

America seems particularly uptight about sex in games. "In Germany, sex is not even mentioned in the rating system," she says. "I'd love to see a cultural shift -- and I doubt I'll see it in my lifetime -- where people are far more horrified by the rack of guns at Wal-Mart than they are by a nipple on TV."

See you next Friday,

Regina Lynn

Regina Lynn is the author of The Sexual Revolution 2.0, which will most likely be available in audio format next year.

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