Non-emergent sex in emergent technology

In this excerpt from his book The Erotic Engine, Patchen Barss talks about one part of the future of pornography and sex on the internet: video games.

Not all virtual environments take the approach of Second Life, which is to rely on emergent sex as an engine of change and creativity. Some virtual sex comes from games' creators rather than the users. Given how ubiquitous sex is in general-interest games, pornographic games intuitively strike one as a natural business opportunity. In reality, though, adult video games are the domain of a very few companies and individuals who are able to invest in an area where the track record is one of limited success (and some spectacular failures).

Video games earned a reputation as entertainment for kids and teenagers. Some people suggest that this association explains why an adult video game industry hasn't sprung up on the same scale as pornographic movies. This can't be the whole story, though. After all, other so-called kids' mediums had X-rated counterparts. Superhero comic books, for example, existed alongside "Tijuana Bibles"-illicitly sold pornographic comics, often featuring unauthorized depictions of celebrities.

Two other factors limit the number of video games made expressly for pornography. First, making a video game is not like making a movie. One guy with a camera can shoot a scene for a porn flick, but a video game demands time and expertise that is not nearly so cheap or common. Producing even a simple
game-even one as simple-minded as Custer's Revenge-requires a major investment. No one can churn out thirteen thousand video games every year the way "the other Hollywood" does with porn movies.

The second limitation brings us right back to the power of the word "you." The effect of being immersed in a video game is qualitatively different from any medium in which the consumer is just a spectator. You don't feel as though you're pushing a button on a controller-you feel like you're blowing up a tank. Translate that into sexuality, particularly acting out sexual fantasies, and you are playing with a power that few companies have been willing or able to harness. Although the explicitly erotic video game sector remains relatively small, it is still a driving force in the field.

One of the few success stories in the adult video game genre is Virtually Jenna. Developed by Thrixxx Technologies (slogan "Simulates what stimulates"), whose Vancouver-based operation is run by Brad Abrams, this game has the advantage of trading on one of the most famous names in pornography, Jenna Jameson. As the eponymous title suggests, the game involves a computer-generated version of Jameson, along with those of many of her "friends." Essentially, the game allows the user to be a porn-film director, setting up virtual scenarios and then playing them out. There are many options for different positions, toys, numbers of partners and so on.

"The challenge," Abrams said, "is that people's imaginations are so extensive that in our role-playing games, even when you do all the animations, create all the scenarios, create content, outfits, you can't match everybody's fantasy."

I asked him whether creating an erotica game had any unique technological demands. It turns out there are many-most centred on disguising the computer-generated aspect of the avatars. "If you take Quake or whatever other kind of [mainstream] game," Abrams said, "those engines are made for running around, shooting, explosions and all that kind of stuff. So when you get down to creating sex, they just don't work. You basically have a lot of different, subtle nuances that you want to try and create. For instance, in those games a character's face isn't really that important. Our eyes twitch and move and gleam and all this kind of stuff. They have a lot of life, because we're trying to create that intimacy. In traditional games, too, you're going to be using a lot of polygons for backgrounds and so your polygon budget is used differently. Our models are about six thousand polys, and so they are a lot higher definition."

Polygons are the basis for many modern video games. They are simple two-dimensional shapes (usually triangles) that are combined into three-dimensional objects like cubes and pyramids. These shapes are called polygonal wireframes, and they can be rotated, stretched and otherwise manipulated to create movement and animation. The more polygons devoted to an object, the more sophisticated and realistic it can become.

"We spend a lot of time on, I don't know what to call it, some kind of boob physics or whatever you want to call it," Abrams said with a laugh. "I have no idea what would be a great name for it, but basically our boobs bounce. There are so many little details that we go into to create a little bit of life in a character which are typically ignored most times in other games."

Do adult video games have no more to contribute to the medium than "jiggle physics" (as Brenda Brathwaite, the author of Sex in Videogames calls it)? Yes, actually. Though adult video games will not likely ever outstrip the graphics innovations of major mainstream game and animation studios, they are contributing more than just convincing pertness. Abrams believes that adult games can improve mainstream games simply by making it okay for sex to be part of the narrative.

"To me, sex and video games is the last frontier in storytelling, because it's been such taboo, because people think video games are for kids. But now the average age of video gamers is twenty-eight years old. In Mass Effect, they have a situation where there's an alien commander and a female commander and they're kind of getting all nice and cosy and it's a cut scene just as they are ready to kiss. And God of War had a scene where this warrior grabs a girl by her hair and shoves her head down into his crotch. Cut scene. You can see it's all there in the storytelling, but they just can't do shit.

"It's always been sort of a goal of mine to get mainstream traction," he said, though that wouldn't be simply in a bid to legitimize his own products. "More just to legitimize the fact that sex in video games and the storytelling experience is a valid part of the whole overall experience."

The battle over this taboo is not restricted to video games. Comic books, movies, television, all have faced public outcry because of sex and violence. A common refrain among those who work in adult industries, though, is that the protests always seem to be much more about sex than violence. Abrams has no patience for it.

"All these people just get out on their high horses and say, ‘Sex in video games: it's evil incarnate.' And I'm going, ‘Okay, well then how come people can go out and blow people's heads off and you can see the blood spatter on the screen and then it dribbles down the screen. It's ultra-realistic, ultra-violent.' And I'm going, ‘That's okay?' "

And, he adds, it's not as though the content of video games is in any way unique. "You read the Old Testament and you see whose cousin is marrying whose cousin and whose half-sister is having that kid, and the adultery and all that shit. Don't come down on video games for having anything new and original. It's all been done before in the Bible." Abrams's feelings carry on the centuries-old tradition of pornographers who are outraged by the hypocrisy they see in their puritanical critics.

But he doesn't expect pornography's technological influence to change people's attitudes. In fact, he says he is "pretty jaded" about the idea of pornographers as early adopters and pioneers of technology. When it comes to improvements in Internet infrastructure, he says that Thrixxx is more of a beneficiary than a driver. "I mean, right now the beauty of the Internet for us is that ten years ago you could have never done this," he said. "Even if the technology was advanced enough to create good sex sims back then, the distribution pipelines weren't in place. We don't need retailers right now; we don't need mainstream distribution. People can find us and buy it, download it and it's a done deal." He says adult producers are now leading the way in marketing and business models. "I think adult is one of the most pure forms of free enterprise I've ever seen. If you have something people want, if it's good enough, people will pay for it. If you don't have something that people want, they don't pay and you're done. The marketing, doing everything online, and payment processing: that is where adult is the strongest. Setting up the pipelines, adult is really strong and good at that." These may seem mundane aspects of communications, but without them, nothing else can develop. People tend to be nervous about giving out their credit card information online-doubly so when the product is taboo. One of the biggest challenges of e-commerce is making customers comfortable with a new way of paying.

"The adult side of the business has actually done a really good job of generating trust from the general consumer," Abrams said. Other people in the industry remain more optimistic about the adult world's capacity to continuing innovating on a technological front as well as a business front. Among those with a cheerier outlook is Jenna Jameson herself. She has heard the pessimistic chatter, but does not buy into it.

"We always hear that the adult technology lead is slowing down," she told me. "Not in my opinion, though, as every time I turn around, this industry is still at the forefront of the next new thing. I think we will continue to see the adult industry spearhead the development and use of technology." Jameson may have more reason to be optimistic than most. Not only is she one of the most successful, famous and rich X-rated stars of all time but she has also become an iconic entrepreneur whose brand has crossed over into mainstream culture. Her autobiography spent six weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and she has appeared on billboards in New York's Times Square promoting her website. Her brand includes a line of sex toys produced by Doc Johnson (a company founded by Reuben Sturman of peep-show notoriety) as well as ringtones ("moantones," actually), purses, guitars, perfume and more. She has done commercials for Adidas and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She has attained such celebrity that I was not allowed to contact her directly: my questions and her answers filtered through her handlers. Long before Jameson secured her place as a bona fide mainstream celebrity, the former stripper who graduated from softcore to hard-core, and from stills to film, was already pulling the technological levers that would catapult her to stardom. In those days, though, it was more about survival than getting ahead. "Being in the adult industry means always having to fight: fight with government, media, ISPs or other regulators in both public and private sectors," she said. "In order to survive and deliver what our customers wanted, while working with these restrictions, we had to be better, cleaner and smarter in being able to adapt and constantly look for new and intelligent ways to deliver new media."

Two-thirds of the way through her autobiography, Jameson has a single line about the porn world generally being ahead of the pack technologically. I wanted to know whether she was just repeating a truism, or whether this was something she had actually experienced working in the industry.

"I have seen this throughout my career, especially in the advances in streaming video. Big mainstream studios were always watching what us little adult companies were up to and a perfect example is shown in the adult world bringing video to the web before the rest," she said. "In my business, keeping ahead of the game in technology just made sense so we could satisfy our surfers and customers with new and exciting media. We started off with photos and stories, but to give customers a true experience, the next natural step was to provide video content. Once video was commonplace, the demand was to meet enhanced and higher-quality video requests, and so on." The demand for "more," "better" and "new" never abated. As the push moved beyond video toward more interactive media, the technological demands made by Jameson's fans began to feel more like personal demands.

"Fans never had a forum with which to interact with me before the Internet," she said. "And then, with my participation, they were able to email, chat, submit artwork and send mail directly to my computer in a way that was easier than ever before. They couldn't get enough. The more I made myself available, the more they asked. I had to learn to draw the line in order to keep my personal boundaries intact." In some ways, Jameson was becoming the highly commercialized version of Jennifer Ringley. As lucrative as it might have been, though, there was to be no JennaCam to replace the long since defunct JenniCam. "As I made myself more available on web chats, I had many member requests to install a 24/7 webcam into my bedroom," Jameson said. "That's an area where I had to draw the line."

With Thrixxx's Virtually Jenna, Jameson commercialized another piece of Internet technology that had until that point been a deeply personal aspect of many people's online experience: the avatar. I have described some of the ways people have developed intimate relationships with their own avatars and have built up infrastructures of sex, love and marriage with others through MUDs and modern virtual worlds. Jameson's avatar, though, commodified this intimacy in the form of a pornographic fantasy world in which you could buy, interact with and control the online version of a real person. (Of course, "real" is a tricky concept in this case, as the "real" Jenna Jameson, as with any porn star, is also mostly fantasy.) Given the personal relationship so many people have with their online presence, and Jameson's limits as to how much privacy she will give up, it seemed as though creating a virtual Jenna might be a bit too much for her. She said, though, that other projects have felt more intrusive. "When Doc Johnson approached me to create a full body mould of myself, it was exciting to be at the forefront of this type of interaction, but it took a little bit of getting used to knowing that someone was probably using a mould of my entire body for their pleasure," she said. "When it came around to creating my avatar for VirtuallyJenna.com, not only was it easier but it was exciting to be at the top of this new technology and a lot more fun to be able to make facial expressions and movements that would be linked to my image."

She said having a virtual version of herself feels "kinda like being cloned." In this, she has realized the dream of many a science fiction fan-creating a clone of one's self to do all the work, while the original human being sits back and reaps the rewards. Jenna Jameson confirmed to USMagazine.com in August 2007 that she was "done with porn forever." In one sense that's true-she does not have sex on camera any more. But her virtual counterpart continues to be the main player in thousands of user-generated sex scenes, and the resulting revenue helps feed the $30-million-per-year Club Jenna juggernaut. Usually when people think about having artificial entities to do humanity's work for us, it's in the context of robots, and it usually has to do with manufacturing or the military. But for entertainers-adult and mainstream-virtuality may be where the greatest threats and opportunities lie. Should it become the norm down the road that Hollywood celebrities maintain a virtual version of themselves to build their fan base or entertain the masses, there is a real chance that nobody will remember or acknowledge that this was another technological innovation first proved viable by the pornography industry.

This excerpt comes from The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google, by Patchen Barss (Doubleday). You can pick up a copy of the book via Amazon (it's out already in Canada, and comes out in the US tomorrow).