Miércoles 28 de Junio de 2006, Ip nº 159

The irresistible rise of cybersex
Por Celeste Biever

CLAD in a PVC mini-dress, fishnet stockings and studded knee-high boots, Cheri Horton leads me through the corridors of her Gothic castle. We stop to chat for a few minutes about the architecture of the building, before she takes me to bed, undresses me, and we have sex.

The encounter took place in the online game Second Life, so the sex was not real, at least not in the physical sense. Within Second Life, people interact via animated 3D characters called avatars, created using software tools provided by the game. Gamers can write programs to give their characters unique hairstyles and outfits, as well as useful objects like boats and aircraft. They can also program their avatars to perform actions such as dancing and swimming. Now some gamers are using these programming tools to give their avatars genitalia and erotic outfits, and to have them engage in animated cybersex.

Those without the technical skills to write their own programs can also buy sexual positions and toys created by other gamers from shops inside the virtual world. Active communities have blossomed around a breathtaking range of fetishes, and there is a profitable sex industry: the world has its own red-light district, called Amsterdam, where players pose as "escorts" and charge for their services. In my encounter, the sex felt like watching a porn film, with the uncanny feeling that someone I hardly knew was watching with me.

"Simulated 3D sex is fun and erotic for me due in part to the fact that you can explore fantasies that may not always be as practical or possible in real life," says professional dominatrix Horton - or rather, Noche Kandora, the flesh-and-blood man who controls her. Some bisexual or homosexual members of Second Life have experimented with coming out in the game before trying it in real life, says Brenda Brathwaite, a professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Kandora also says that cybersex is a boon for long-distance couples who can use the game as a graphics-enabled version of phone sex.

Second Life may be throbbing with sexual activity, but it's not easy to enter the sex communities. To begin with, customising a beginner-level avatar into a sexual being is difficult and expensive: genitalia, outfits, more realistic skin and hair, and sexual moves all cost extra unless you can program them for yourself. "You have to be pretty savvy to create a realistic-looking avatar," says Kandora. "Not all users have the time, patience and talent for that."

And though you can buy or make the body, the clothes, the grooming and the know-how, you still have to find a willing partner. Second Life's sex rooms can be difficult to find without a guide, and even if you did stumble upon one, the community might not accept a stranger immediately. "It would be considered offensive to just show up," says Brathwaite. As a result, the sex communities within Second Life have remained relatively small.

But now, games developers are teaming up with the pornography industry to open up cybersex to the masses. The collaboration has led to the first generation of erotic multiplayer online games: Red Light Center, released in May, and Naughty America, due to be released this summer.

These games preserve the social aspect of Second Life, allowing people to interact with each other over the internet. But unlike Second Life, sex and flirtation are a central part of the games from the moment the user signs up. By making them sex-specific and pre-programming the characters with a set of sexual actions, their creators hope to appeal to a less tech-savvy audience that might not know how to find the sex rooms of Second Life or create an erotically capable character.

First a few cyberthrills...
The games will go beyond online sex, though. Naughty America will tie cybersex to online dating. Subscribers will be able to fill in a questionnaire when they begin to set them up with suitable people and they can use the game to have cybersex before meeting up in real life. The creators say this is a way to draw in people who might consider themselves as online daters rather than gamers.

In Red Light Center, in contrast, the sex stays inside the game. "We don't suggest that people meet in the real world," says Ray Schwartz, president of the game's Los Angeles-based developer Utherverse. "Ours is not a dating thing - it's an experience in and of itself." Schwartz believes people will go online when they are too tired to dress up and go out, or because they enjoy the safety of having casual sex without having to go home with someone. Indeed, the developers of both games think this safety aspect will appeal especially to women, traditionally an untapped market for the entertainment software industry.

But it is an open question whether the popularity of cybersex in Second Life means games devoted entirely to sex will catch on. "I am very dubious as to whether they will be successful," says Ren Reynolds, a UK-based virtual-world consultant and avid player of Second Life. "I have never met anyone in Second Life who has cybersex and does nothing else."

The new games have addressed this by allowing people to do more than simply have sex. In both, people will be able to watch movies, dance, visit art galleries and take jacuzzis. Red Light Center also allows people to shop for sex toys from home and to use their avatars to try on erotic lingerie that can then be ordered through the game to be delivered in the real world.

It seems unlikely, though, that the communities in these new games will be as creative as in Second Life. There, all the content is created by the users themselves, and they have formed rival tribes and political factions, protested against high taxes, and held workshops on such diverse topics as how to engineer airplanes or design clothes.

It is also possible that part of the enjoyment of having sex inside Second Life is that it is not an official part of the game. "If you give people the tools and the space specifically for these activities, does it encourage it or does it ruin it? Does it take away the mystique and the naughtiness?" asks Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, based in San Francisco.

Multiplying the obsessive passions of sex with those of game-play is an enticing challenge, though. "If you can get it right, you can make a fortune," says Reynolds.

From issue 2556 of New Scientist magazine, 15 June 2006, page 30
Fantasy or violation?
Cybersex between two consenting adults may be perfectly acceptable, but what happens when one side is not a willing participant?

In the virtual world of Second Life, it is possible to walk up to someone and rub a body part against them without their permission. Ren Reynolds, a virtual-world consultant and Second Life inhabitant who spoke on the ethics panel at the first Sex in Video Games Conference in San Francisco last week, says this is more likely to be "annoying" than a "violation".

Virtual rape should not pose a problem in the two new erotic games Naughty America and Red Light Center, as both partners must consent before the games will execute any sexual act.

In contrast, virtual rape is an active part of the virtual underworld of Sociolotron, developed by Patric Lagny in 2005. Although the idea sounds disturbing, users must consent to being "raped" before they sign up, so the act is more fantasy than violation. "Adults have a right to play with their own fantasies, which can be sexual and dark, as long as it doesn't give them the propensity to do that to other people," says Reynolds.

People have long argued whether committing crimes in games encourages the same behaviour in the real world. Although many argue that it must, this is very difficult to prove. Studies have concluded that people who play violent video games are more aggressive, but critics say this merely proves that violent people gravitate towards violent games. Some even argue the reverse - that allowing people to commit virtual crimes reduces the probability that they will transgress in the real world, because they have been able to vent their violent urges.

But psychologist Bruce Bartholow of the Univesity of Missouri, Columbia, says it is more likely to increase the likelihood that they will engage in violent activities again.

  15/06/2006. New Scientist Magazine.