It's the oldest profession in the world, but even in the free and easy 21st century, prostitution is still something that makes a lot of people squirm. Makes them feel uncomfortable. Maybe games can change that.
How? An artist who goes by the name PÖMZ has an idea: combine games and prostitution, by drawing up a "brand" for a brothel that takes the accessibility and mechanics of video games and applies them to the act of paying a stranger for sex.
Despite providing what some would call a necessary service, there's still a very negative air about all things involved with paying for sex. There are assumptions that whats' being done is dirty, that it's immoral, that it exists outside the law and that there's an element of risk involved.
While that can still definitely be the case (user experience may vary!), prostitution is increasingly becoming a trade that, rather than be chased into the fringes of society, is being regulated, controlled and brought into the light. Many nations, states and territories around the world now go so far as to either decriminalise or even legalise the act.
It's a similar story for other ways of parting with money for sexual matters. Adult stores, despite growing more presentable and professional, can still be seen as intimidating and awkward, and the concept of paying for sex with someone you know (whether that be a partner or otherwise!) at a place like a couple's retreat is still something to be a little coy about.
There are, of course, exceptions. Amsterdam's famous red light district, for one. Another is Japan and its "Love Hotels", the most famous concentration of these being the "Love Hotel Hill" in Dogenzaka, which can be found in uber-trendy Shibuya, Tokyo.
Here, rather than exist as something tawdry, the coming together of sex, fun and business has created a concept that's proved wildly popular in Japan, as couples can rent wacky (some would say tacky) theme rooms by the hour for an experience that can make sex fun and enjoyable in more ways than is the norm.
It's these two things - the breaking down of traditional taboos and his wonder at the "theme park" feel of Love Hotels - that led French artist Romain Guichard (aka PÖMZ) to produce the "Happy Escort Studio", one of the most ingenious applications for video games I've ever seen.
A student of graphic design, art direction and visual concepts, PÖMZ was last year tasked with creating a very special project for his diploma. Something that would display his talents for not only design, but marketing and branding as well.
Being a child of the 80s, with all the love and adoration for video games that comes with it, he came upon the idea to combine gaming and prostitution. After all, games can be cute, but more importantly they're also associated with something that's not only fun, but accessible as well. Basically, everything prostitution could be, but is not.
Now, before we go any further, know this: The Happy Escort Studio is not a real thing. This is a model, her outfits supplied by a designer. This is just an idea, not an actual company. But it's a great idea.
The Happy Escort Studio project was designed to give a Dutch brothel a 21st-century makeover. "A prostitute needs to be able to communicate about her services in a professional, proper way", PÖMZ tells Kotaku. "Like a company would with a business card, a cool website or a catalogue".
To convey this point, the Happy Escort Studio would not use tired, predictable advertising and branding like "hot lips" or female silhouettes. It would have video games at the very heart of its operations, using them not only for a range of slick promotional material, but implementing them into a customer's experience with the prostitutes.
This wouldn't be achieved by simply having the ladies play video games with the clients. It would take some of gaming's most fundamental structures and qualities and applying them to their relationship with the lady in question.
There would be four "levels" to the Happy Escort Studio. Exactly as you'd find them in a role-playing game. Patrons progress through these levels as they frequent the brothel, part with their cash and grow in experience. Just like a role-playing game. And, just like a game, everyone must start at Level 1.
"Level 1 is the cheapest level", PÖMZ says. "If a man wants to discover more, get a taste for a few hours and try something just for fun. And if he wants to play one more time, he has to keep on paying.
"Through Levels 2 & 3, the customer will experiment first with purity, and then viciousness. Upon reaching Level 4, the player unlocks five-star services, like a first-class, beautiful woman you could take out for cocktails, exhibitions, etc. This would be a deeper relationship than the other levels, where you discover that behind the ‘silhouette' there is a real human being, with her own ideas and personality".
With all four "levels" unlocked, PÖMZ says that to go on and "win" the game, "the gamer has to find the best way to respect the prostitute and know how to make her feel even more beautiful". This "victory" is actually a small statement against games, where progress is generally associated with greater power and control for the self.
Were this a just game, you'd imagine that the player would simply start on Level 1 with a bit of watching, and move up to a blowjob, sex and then...whatever you'd want to do for Level 4.
But in the Happy Escort Studio, your progress up the levels has little to do with the sexual acts involved in the transaction. As you'd expect if you're paying for sex, even at Level 1, you can pay to, well, have sex. Instead, it's aimed at improving your relationship with a stranger, your awareness that you're "using" a real person and, ultimately, at making the prostitute a better person through their relationship with a respectful customer.
While the Happy Escort Studio exists only in fiction, it's definitely something PÖMZ would like to see brought over into the real world. "I would love it if prostitutes could do their job in a safe, clean place. Not just in Amsterdam, but all over the world, with social recognition, worker's rights and protection from the government.
"This is the oldest profession in the world, as they say, and it while it gives happiness to thousands of men (and women!) every day prostitutes are still treated like a piece of meat. That's why I'd like to see the Happy Escort Studio way of thinking applied to an escort agency, mixing fun, sexual pleasure and respect, all in the one place".
What makes the Happy Escort Studio so interesting is not its "shock" value (as really, considering the subject matter it's incredibly tame). It's how it takes the concept of "gamification" – one that's so hot right now – and runs it in a completely new direction.
Gamification as we know it today is generally a case of taking something mundane, like taking pictures or social networking, and, by adding some "gamey" elements, making it a little more fun. Brothels, while many things, are not mundane.
Instead of making sex fun (let's face it, sex doesn't need much help in that regard), games are able to accomplish something entirely different by pushing some of their more abstract qualities: they can make sex with a stranger for money seem not confronting and shameful, but playful and accessible.
It can also, in a way, impose a stricter set of rules around your experience with the prostitute. Instead of paying your money and "owning" her for an hour, you are participating in something with a larger structure, one that like games encourages repeat use through the withholding of content.
That's a big part of why people keep coming back to games, especially ones that are regularly updated. It could have the same effect on a brothel, making it as popular as sex and video games combined.
There are of course a number of important caveats to bear in mind for this idea. It's far from a universal approach, as for your less "reputable" organisations and individuals (and let's face it, that still constitutes the majority of prostitutes) it's simply not applicable, and to try something like this would either be pointless or even dangerous.
One could also argue that making something like prostitution a "game" creates a disarming and misleading image of the trade, for which many women – even in more reputable setups like those found in Amsterdam's red light district – their jobs can be the result of terrible things like sex trade trafficking or drug addiction.
For a consenting, professional studio, though, it's certainly a unique approach, one that can not only paint the oldest career in the world in an all-new light, but put video games in a place they've never even thought to venture, let alone dare.
Romain "PÖMZ" Guichard is a French graphic designer who currently lives and works in Taipei. He has two fat cats. You can check out some of his other work here.