The joystick of sex

From the prostitutes of "Grand Theft Auto" to cutting-edge teledildonics, sex has fueled the gaming industry, as the author of "Porn & Pong" explains.

Published October 6, 2008 10:36AM (EDT)

In 1972, our sexual landscape was forever changed by the release of two pop-culture legends: the skin flick "Deep Throat" and, months later, the arcade game "Pong." Since then, pornography has greatly influenced how sex and sexuality are explored in gaming, which in just three decades has ballooned into a $18.85 billion industry. From early '80s sleaze fests like "Leisure Suit Larry" to the porny moans of pneumatic "Tomb Raider" heroine Lara Croft to the teledildonics that are changing the way we have -- and think of -- sex, video games have evolved with an understanding that humans crave sexual interaction, whether with a virtual character or a fellow human with high-speed Internet.

It's this sexual history of video games that Damon Brown, who covers technology for Playboy, obsessively details in "Porn & Pong: How 'Grand Theft Auto,' 'Tomb Raider' and other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture." Approaching such topics as arm-length pixelated penises and breasts that deserve their own planetary orbit with a sense of humor, Brown explores how virtual sex has gone from the crude, joystick-controlled adult games on the Atari 2600 and text-only cybering in early-'90s AOL chat rooms to bumping uglies (fully customizable, by the way) in the virtual world "Second Life" and banging prostitutes in "Grand Theft Auto." He also examines how video vixens went from having bodies practically built out of Lego blocks to becoming ever more realistic -- at least, as much as porn-industry bodies can be called "realistic."

I recently spoke with Brown about these topics and more in Salon's San Francisco office.

How did the first pornographic video game come about?

The first mainstream pornographic game would be "Custer's Revenge," which came out in 1982 and was manufactured by a pornographic company that wanted to get a piece of the large Atari 2600 market. The game is based on General Custer who, of course, failed at Little Bighorn back in the 1800s. Part of the traditional history is that not only did General Custer fight against the Native Americans, but he also slept with quite a few of them, as did his soldiers. That was Custer's revenge for losing so badly.

In the game you move a naked General Custer across the screen, avoiding Native American arrows, toward a voluptuous Native American woman, who has her hands and legs tied to a cactus. Your job is to get to her, have sex and once you have enough orgasms or she has enough orgasms it starts over and you're back on the other side of the screen. You get to do it again, only there are more arrows coming. That was the whole game and it sold 80,000 copies at $50 a piece.

There was another one called "Strip Poker" that was for the Apple II. It was a poker game where you had this digital image of a fully clothed man or woman lying down and, as you beat them in rounds of poker, the screen would flash and they would take off another piece of clothing. There were six stages, so you went from fully clothed to bra and panties -- and in later editions completely nude.

"Leisure Suit Larry" was the first fully accepted sex-related game. It had a lovable character wearing a leisure suit. He came straight from the '70s. He was like the 40-year-old virgin, except much sleazier. He just wandered around a parody of Las Vegas trying to pick up women, and it sold about a million copies in the '80s.

"Leisure Suit Larry" was released in 1987, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Did the game acknowledge the anxiety of that time?

Al Lowe, the guy who created the game, wanted to take this older, classic character from the '70s into the hip '80s. It's a clash of culture. Imagine living in '77 and then going into deep freeze and coming out in '87. By that time we had herpes and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This character is in Las Vegas, he's trying to get laid, but things are totally different now, and he just doesn't get it.

How has sex online -- what we once so breathlessly termed "cybersex" -- evolved?

The idea of private chat rooms without an administrator blossomed with AOL in the '80s and '90s. All of a sudden two or more people could hang out and send [sexual] text messages to each other. As soon as two humans can interact with each other online they will try to do some type of sexual act. After "Ultima," one of the more popular multiplayer games, came out in1980, the creator Richard Garriott said, "We have no sexual function in this game, but as soon as two people got on that first day we had virtual sex!"

When did avatar sex -- where, instead of text-only "cybering," you can position your virtual character into every pose in the Kama Sutra with the simple click of a mouse -- come about in "Second Life"?

In the very beginning. Kevin Alderman -- his screen name is "Stroker Serpentine" -- created this tool that allowed characters to have realistic body parts -- penises, vaginas and … assholes. Most, if not all, of the sexually oriented stuff in "Second Life" is user-generated. There's plenty of anything you're into -- from prostitution to BDSM -- because it's user-generated.

Last year, real-life officials in Brussels opened an investigation into a "Second Life" rape. When did rape first show up in virtual worlds? Is there such a thing as rape when you're communicating with someone via text?

There is. As many criminologists say, rape isn't really about sex but power -- and words are pretty powerful. One of the things I write about is the first documented cyberspace rape in a text-only environment called LambdaMOO. A user found a loophole that allowed him to control the actions of other players. He could make one player hurt or have sex with another player and so on. The malicious user went rampant through the game universe, forcing players into sexual acts, and was repeatedly kicked off the game, but he always managed to come back under a different user name.

Your book talks about game designers studying "breast physics" -- or what one might call Newton's laws of mammaries. Is the aim to create a realistic bounce?

For some it is. Tomonobu Itagaki [the creator of the infamous fighting game "Dead or Alive"] dedicated years of his life to making sure the physics were correct on these triple H -- or whatever size they might be -- breasts. For some designers, it's about making sure they look good, but for Itagaki, it's making them looking realistic. I think he really likes the bounce aspect. [It's particularly noticeable] in the later versions, like "Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball." One reviewer said that one breast moving in one direction and the other moving in another direction actually made her seasick.

A couple of months ago, there was a big upset when a programming bug caused big-boobed female avatars in "Age of Conan" to suddenly shrink by several cup sizes. Many male players were upset that their identity within the game had been altered. It made me wonder whether some male players get a sexual charge not only from looking at virtual breasts but from having them as well.

That's actually a really good point. I think they're both true. There are several different reasons for picking someone of the opposite gender to represent you in a virtual world. There was a recent survey in which something like 40 percent of male players and 35 percent of female players actually tend to use the opposite sex as their avatar, as their virtual persona. For the women, they took on male personas because they got harassed less. For the men, they took on female personas because they felt they were actually treated better.

Going back to the breast shrinkage, I think there is a certain amount of curiosity and empowerment in becoming the opposite sex -- and especially an attractive version -- in this virtual world. It's an opportunity to explore these ideas in a safe environment. The average male probably would not want to admit that.

Speaking of large virtual breasts, what accounts for "Tomb Raider" heroine Lara Croft's enduring popularity? Obviously, voluptuous video vixens are a dime a dozen, so it can't just be her sex appeal, right?

Right. I think a big reason is that she was the first. Look at Ms. Pac Man and players' enduring love for her -- the average person has a certain mistiness for her. It's not a sexual thing. She was the first major female character, period. In 1996, a good 15 years after Ms. Pac Man, Lara Croft was the first character in a mainstream gaming forum to actually become a sex symbol. She is one of those few symbols that came from the video game world that actually translates to the real world. She is this digitized being made by a nerdy guy in his basement -- and all of a sudden millions of people wanted to have sex with her.

Let's not forget about the guys. What accounts for the broad spectrum of male protagonists in sexually oriented video games -- from the lovable loser in the "Leisure Suit Larry" series to thugs like Niko Bellic from "Grand Theft Auto"?

I think that comes from the people who design the games. As far as I know, most of the creators of these games are straight, most are white and a portion of them are Asian. [Game designers] want to have a protagonist the player can identify with and, on a different level, the designer himself can identify with. People identify with Larry, because everyone's been desperate and had those moments where they can't pick up anyone, or they want to be Niko Bellic, this awesome tough guy who can maintain five girlfriends across the city of New York.

Have video games targeted the gay market?

The first game to feature a lesbian couple came out in 2001. That was great, but it was also created, as far as I know, by a straight Asian male.

There are games that are purely about the sexual experience. Two years ago, Gamma Entertainment released a game for your cellphone that allowed you to have virtual sex. You can select a guy avatar and hook up with another guy avatar -- and they actually have explicit sex. So, with sex-oriented games you often have those situations where there is an option to hook up with [the same sex] -- but as far as the mainstream game environment? Not so much.

I actually dedicate a chapter in the book to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender game characters -- and even with all of my research, it was difficult to find those instances. There aren't really games that are actually geared to the GLBT community. I'm hoping that with this book and Web sites geared toward the queer community, like, there will be more discussion about that, as well as what's happening with women gamers and, for lack of a better word, senior gamers. I'm hoping the industry will consider having a gay protagonist in the next "Grant Theft Auto." Imagine that.

What did you make of those "Grand Theft Auto" online promos that showed game play in which the protagonist would sleep with and then kill a prostitute?

Rockstar [the company that created "GTA"] from its very beginning had a history of controversy, so it's not a big surprise. They like pushing buttons. The promo video is something you just sit and watch, but [in playing the game] you do not have to sleep with a prostitute or kill the prostitute. Those are two choices that you make with your joystick.

Teledildonics, sex toys that can be controlled by a computer, seem to represent the most complete fusion of porn and video games. Just how far do you think we'll take that?

I think it will go well beyond what you and I can discuss -- not because I don't want to discuss it, but because I don't think we can fathom where it's going to go. Our grandchildren are going to have amazing sex lives -- I can't think of a better way to say it. Connecting vibrators and other types of tools to the computer and getting pleasured by a professional or a long-distance lover is a brilliant idea. It will connect people in a much deeper way than the Internet or a webcam that's going 15 frames per second. As with any technology the biggest obstacle is price. From talking to people at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Vegas in January, I understand the basic idea is that teledildonics will take off in a mainstream way any moment now. I'd say within five years it's going to become standard equipment for a lot of people.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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