Pay any attention to that irreverent, smiling spectre we call technology journalism and you'll probably know two things about Second Life. ONE: That it's very successful, and the millions of dollars it rakes in are shared with its dashing player entrepreneurs. TWO: That it's full of sex. You'll know this from the chocolate-box of articles ranging from I Was A Prostitute In Second Life to I Hired A Prostitute In Second Life to I Was Raped In Second Life to I Was A Rapist In Second Life. Wait, maybe not that last one. Wow. Must remember to pitch that to The Escapist.
Thing is, these two headlines have a habit of existing independently from one another. What I feel no-one's talking about is that if Second Life is even partially successful because of the sexual freedom it offers, that raises a fat question about the games industry as a whole. If you'll pardon the euphemism, I think there's a huge, important point this game is making, and it's waving it in our direction. Come over here and look at this, will you? [Needless to say, it's NSFW from this point.]
Let me start by re-iterating the facts. Creepily, nobody except developer Linden Labs knows quite how much sex makes up the economy of Second Life, and they're certainly not telling. All the rest of us can do is guess. If you're a journalist writing a sensationalist article, you'll probably guess pretty high. If you're a ponce who spends a lot of time in Second Life and considers it a fascinating medium and/or some kind of wondrous multicultural social tapestry, you might try and play the shagging down by guessing low.
We know that only 18% of the player-owned land in the game is flagged as 'mature' (which can, of course, simply refer to swearing, violence or references to alcohol), yet if you search through Second Life's locations manually the nude beaches, brothels and adult clubs clearly dwarf everywhere else in terms of player traffic. Likewise, it's underwear, sex beds, stiletto heels and beyond-revealing dresses that are always floating at the top of the Popular Items list.
(Sex beds (or sex sofas, jacuzzis, rugs and so on) being items of furniture which come with built in animations for the user. So, just as you might expect to be able to sit on your new sofa, some customers also have the relatively reasonable expectation that they'll also be able to have sex all over it. Go randomly exploring Second Life as a peeping tom and you'll find a sex bed in people's houses more often than not.)
The impression these facts leave is that SL is secretly a melting pot of hormones and bodily fluids, that it's Strictly Come Dancing except instead of dancing or holding up scores everybody's just fucking. But that's the thing. Go to the sluttiest locations you can find in SL and people will still mostly be talking or dancing. Fundamentally, for all its bell-ends and whistles Second Life only rarely amounts to more than a sprawling chat room. It is neither all about sex nor a divided land where people either consume either coffee or cock. The sex, all those animations, the sound packs full of squeaks and moans, the skanky clothes and variety of downloadable erections, they all exist to augment Second Life.
Case in point, when my friend and I were poking around SL on monday we stumbled across this charming pair:
My friend and I cordially introduced ourselves as Quinns Raymation and Snaps Tremor, chose to politely ignore their discourteous mention that we were on private land and promptly found ourselves rudely catapulted into space. Yet these two represent an important part of SL's romantic landscape. They were just on a date. Were they going to fuck later? Probably. But the sex they were going to have would only be one part of a bigger relationship that they were sharing.
This is the disconnect that I'm not sure many people understand about Second Life. Second Life's sex trade doesn't represent players creating pornography within the framework of the game. More often than not, it's simply another part of socialising that players want to simulate. Players will meet, chat, romance one another over however many days or minutes, and then have sex.
So! Now you guys are a little more aware of the situation, I'll move onto my point.
Let's take the facts I mentioned earlier and make the conservative estimate that 25-30% of every dollar spent in Second Life is spent on sex in some way or another, whether it's paying for an escort, a top that shows a bit of cleavage, a sex bed for your house or a new penis for your avatar. That's still a staggering figure. Here's another one: Kevin Alderman, an American who designs and sells sex aids in Second Life, claims to have made more than $1,000,000 US in revenue in the last five years. Why couldn't he have been Second Life's trophy millionaire instead of Anshe Chung?
My point, then, is that it's staggering the degree to which the games industry seems to be laughing these people off as a bunch of hilarious perverts. The money being spent on sex here is a grand shout out from the Second Life community, an orgasmic bellowing from the rooftops that shouldn't be ignored. It says two things: One, many gamers are tremendously unafraid of virtual sex and/or virtual romance. Two, they're willing to pay for it.
Let me phrase the question this prompts in its most dumbfounding form: Why is it the only people in the West making millions of dollars from videogame sex or simulated romance are amateurs working within someone else's game? Also, why are the developers of that game endeavouring to present a squeaky clean front end when the sexual content of their game is one of its biggest appeals?
I mean, Japan doesn't have this problem (preferring instead to have an entire stamp collection of other problems). For one minute let's put aside that tentacle-child-rape nightmare software situation of theirs we so love discussing over here, because the far bigger market in Japan is centred around more tame games of dating or titillation. Though singularly terrible, these games sell, and not just in their country of origin. Console jigglefest Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball sold more than twice in the USA what it did in Japan, which is to say in the States it sold 330,000 copies.
Why aren't we making games like that? There's simply something missing here. I actually feel slightly childish writing this, as if the moment it goes live the comments thread is going to fill with people pointing out the error in my logic. But no, something's definitely up. The West doesn't shy away from romantic novels, sexy TV shows or porn movies, and Second Life is a naked statement that we have no problem with digital eroticism. So why are we being trounced on the erotic videogame front?
I cannot have been the only person watching Lionhead's presentation of Milo and thinking to myself that while it was a blinding (albeit utterly scripted) vision of the future, in any self-respecting sci-fi novel we'd be flirting with some fawning glittergirl, not playing football with a 9 year old boy. The only obvious role I can imagine for Milo in a sci-fi novel is that of the simulation of a real-life Milo, the dead son of the protagonist detective.
Here's my prediction: In 15 years the idea that the Western videogames industry was once utterly barren of sex games will be a mad thought.
Then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing.