3 August, 2010
Did that title get your attention? :)
Tobold wrote about this topic, looking at why MMOs don't have more sexually-themed content. He points out that in the U.S., the porn industry is bigger than the MMO industry. So, why don't we dip their chocolate in our peanut butter and get two great tastes that taste great together?
Damn, just about any metaphor I might use is going to sound dirty, isn't it? Ah, well, let's take a look at the problems of translating sex to games and MMOs.
It's been done before
What most of you probably don't know is that I was actually an adviser on a porn-themed MMO that never saw the light of day back in 2006. A major pornography website wanted to branch into games, and a lawyer I know introduced them to me. They had chosen a web developer to develop the game and were having some troubles. I was supposed to see what was causing the delays and help them get back on track. I'll not go into details except to say it's not (entirely) my fault. But, it introduced a lot of the problems with translating porn into games.
I also wrote a review of Playboy: the Mansion for a game site. I actually played the game and took a look at what it offered and what it lacked. So, let's say I'm not exactly a prude when it comes to sex in my games. Like most guys, I have a healthy interest in games.
The idea of mixing online games and sex isn't new. Richard Bartle designed a sex-themed text MUD back in 2000. I've heard that Second Life has a thing or two relating to sex within it. And there are some sex themed games flying under the radar for years. (Note that they charge $15/month plus an item shop. You can also buy per week. I'm surprised they don't have an hourly rate...) It's just that there's been no big-name game with sex in it. Which makes sense... how many pornography companies are household names, besides a few big magazines?
"You want to put what in my what?!?"
And by that I mean put "sex" in "video games" you pervert.
The first problem is that games are still seen as something for children. Therefore, sex isn't seen as an appropriate topic for the media of computer games. To take a glimpse at what happened last time sexual themes were introduced to a "medium for children", do some research on the history of the animated movie Fritz the Cat. Even though the movie wasn't intended for children, one of the main problems people had was that it was a cartoon with sexual themes. The "X" rating for explicit content rubbed some people the wrong way, even though there had been other movies with explicit content.
We have the same problem here. Putting sex into a video game means that it's intended for children. "Think of the children!" the social conservatives will cry. Not that kids should be wasting their time playing those shooter games when it's a perfectly nice day outside anyway!
S-e-x in the U.S.A.
Now that we're done thinking about children in a completely innocent way, let's look at how sexuality is treated in the U.S. to really understand some of the core problems with trying to put pornography into an MMO. As Tobold points out, the U.S. is the biggest producer and consumer of pornography. This isn't because we have a healthy attitude toward sexuality or our open attitudes. In fact, it's mostly because of the exact opposite: most people feel sex is a shameful thing and should be hidden. As people joke, if a kid sees someone get blown away by gun violence on TV, that's fine; but a split second of Janet Jackson's nipple during the half-time show of the Super Bowl? HEADS MUST ROLL!
Sexuality just isn't something we discuss with others. For example, note that there are an estimated 71.5 million results for "talking about sex to your children" on Google; it's so awkward that a ton of sites are out there to help parents work up the nerve to discuss it with their kids. For most people in the U.S. the topics of sex, sexuality, and pornography are private. Of course, this comes with a healthy dose of hypocrisy, where we tolerate rather blatant sexual themes in our advertising. From jeans to alcohol commercials, we see very sexual images paraded before us and before children. But, it seems people are fine with this level of titillation, or if they don't like it they aren't upset enough to do much about it besides grumble to themselves.
Sexuality and Privacy
This attitude toward sex is one of the main reasons why an MMO wouldn't work, because many people in the U.S. don't want to share their sleazy pornographic ideas with others, especially not a rotating group of regulars you'd meet in a game. Insert your own joke about "soloing" here.
But, let's face it, an MMO about sex is going to be, uh, about sex. Let's add voice chat, video cameras, etc. I've heard rumors that people will expose themselves on the internet in front of strangers, so let's accept that this will be part of any sexually-themed MMO. So, what happens when someone's evening as "DANJUAN6969" gets posted up on YouTube for his boss to see? Or what about if embarrassing/incriminating photos get posted up on Facebook? Thought that drunken party pic was your worst fear? Wait until the co-workers find out about that diaper fetish.
Speaking of Facebook, why not add a social network to the sex MMO? Mix in a little dating site with your sex game! Yeah, don't laugh.... that was what the game I advised wanted to do. I raised concerns about privacy issues, but let's just say they were noted and not acted upon.
It's not good to be uncanny
Another big issue is what Tobold discusses in his article: the uncanny valley. This was one of Brenda Brathwaite's main points about why sex doesn't work in games; in her conference talks she has some hilarious slides showing what are intended to be romantic scenes, but with robotic, or even stiff (heh) zombie-like avatars in the screenshots. It's not sexy, alluring, or even arousing... it's just scary. It illustrates perfectly why a sex-themed game won't work too well, despite it seeming like a natural fit.
It's going to take big bucks to put the resources behind this type of game to make the characters look like actual people. Unfortunately, a big company with those types of resources are unlikely to touch such a project because...
I've got a reputation to protect!
In an industry where we're worried about moral obligations and the darker side of metrics-based design, sex is a touchy topic. I've made the joke before that my mother tells people that I'm a drug dealer because game development just isn't cool. Now imagine trying to tell your parents that you're not only a game developer, but also a pornographer. There's a reason why I don't advertise the fact that I worked on a sex-themed MMO, because it might color some people's perceptions of my quality as a game designer. I don't quite have the long history of successes that Brenda Brathwaite has in order to talk about sex in games quite so openly.
But, could you imagine a large company making a sex-themed game? Disney Interactive? Absolutely not. EA? Activision? Blizzard? Yet, this is the size of the resources that would be necessary to not fall into the uncanny valley. Without large resources, all we are going to get is games with frightening visuals. Mmm, hope you're a fan of robot zombie sex!
There's a reason...
So, there are plenty of reasons why a major sex-themed MMO hasn't been released yet. "Protecting" children, attitudes toward sex, privacy concerns, poor presentation, and professional reputations all conspire together to keep porn-themed games obscure. The reality is that we simply won't see a big porn-themed game anytime in the near future. But, you can still do a Google search for "blood elf porn" if you need to sate some unnatural sexual craving, just like Tobold did! ;)