Thursday, November 27, 2008

Virtual Sex: How Online Games Changed Our Culture

By Damon Brown, Feral House. Posted November 27, 2008.

Games like Second Life let you to live your fantasy as a pimp, prostitute or pirate, knight, dominatrix, or any other self-created design you see fit.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Porn and Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture by Damon Brown, published by Feral House.

The camera zooms in on a perky young woman. She looks to be in her late twenties, perhaps early thirties, and she starts talking to you about her first date: how the restaurant had to kick them out because they talked until it closed, how she looked in his eyes and could tell he was the one for her, about that instant spark, you know, the spark you feel when you click -- connect -- with someone. The distant strains of Natalie Cole's "Everlasting Love" -- also used in the Diane Lane movie "Must Love Dogs" and other modern divorcee-looking-for-love films -- begin to swell in the background.

Her husband (see the ring flashing as he's gesturing?) is now talking to you about the same incident, but he has a different, complimentary interpretation. A grey-haired, honey-voiced old man begins talking to you. His face seems to take up the whole TV screen. Aren't you tired of dating, he asks. "Find your soul-mate." He tells you that eHarmony uses scientific data to match people together. There is a science, founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren implies, a science to chemistry, something his company eHarmony analyzes and gives to its subscribers.

The Pew Institute's first online dating survey, released in 2006, found that one out of every three people knew someone who belonged to an online dating service and more than one in four knew someone who has gone out with a person they met online. "Nearly overnight, it seemed, dozens of similar sites emerged," The Atlantic Monthly wrote the same year as the survey. "Online dating became almost de rigueur for busy singles looking for love." The Los Angeles-based eHarmony alone had nine million members.

Up the coast, California developers Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe were also convinced social technology was going to be the next big thing. They worked within a computer company -- eUniverse -- and began MySpace, the first mainstream multimedia blog. (A disputed history has MySpace culling its concepts from eUniverse CEO Brad Greenspan, a man who has called himself "the true founder of MySpace.")

After a five-minute setup on MySpace, you can type in your interests, post messages and music, and make new friends who, in turn, would provide links to their personal web pages. It would be a test of six degrees of separation, the concept that every single person knew every other person in the world through a maximum of six connected people. Every personal site is one-page deep, but can scroll down as much as someone could fill it up with new friends and content. The average MySpace site would have a small box of bio information (22, Los Angeles, CA, Sagittarius), an uploaded picture serving as background (usually a personal pic or a favorite band photo) and stacks of friend "testimonials" reminiscent of high school yearbooks ("You are the kewlist! Stay sweet!"). Wired News called it a "highly customizable amalgam of blogging, music sharing and social-discovery services, a typical page is a near perfect reflection of the chaos and passion of youth: a music-filled space, rudely splattered with photos and covered in barely-legal prose rendered in font colors that blend together and fade into the background." MySpace grew to have seventy million users, roughly one-fourth the population size of the United States.

Geriatric mogul Rupert Murdoch bought the site for $580 million. Within weeks of the Rupert Murdoch News Corporation purchase, ABC, CBS and NBC, influential papers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and other major news outlets began covering MySpace in earnest -- as a virtual smorgasbord for teen predators. Popular among kids, MySpace entries often gave detailed personal information, if not actual data on their location. It was like a diary open to the world. "This site," said the Connecticut Attorney General, "is a parent's worst nightmare."

MySpace was not the only site of its kind. Before MySpace was a popular networking website called Friendster, and, after MySpace, Facebook became the most discussed site. Launched in 2004 by student Mark Zuckerburg as a college networking website, Facebook grew into an older-skewing version of MySpace. Newsweek featured Zuckerburg on the cover. On the inside the feature story told what happened when Facebook had one of its rare maintenance shutdowns. "Over the course of those four hours I probably tried to get in five or more times. I'm addicted to Facebook," one person lamented. She was a 40-year-old mother of three.

As Facebook began, Linden Labs released the program Second Life. It was a 3D virtual world where you could create an avatar (a digital representation of yourself) and buy land with real money, mortgage a virtual home, get married, get drunk, make new friends, start a money-making business -- in other words, you could begin and live a new life. That was it. Second Life was a video game with no video game in it. The virtual world remained quiet until Wired and other tech tastemakers began claiming Second Life could be "Web 2.0," the almost mythical multidimensional Internet that would take over the now dated World Wide Web. The New York Times, Time and others "discovered" the program in 2006. A woman, who's avatar name was Anshe Chung, became the first Second Life resident to become a millionaire in real life. (The value of the Second Life Linden dollar fluctuates like a real economy, but was roughly $300 Linden to every U.S. dollar in 2006.) She did it by buying up virtual real estate and flipping it for a higher price. Sony, Nike, and other companies created virtual stores with real products. Reuters opened up a Second Life branch. Several 2008 presidential hopefuls hopped on digital soapboxes to hold town meetings. By May 1st, 2007, Second Life had six million citizens (though critics argued that this figure was inflated since some people had multiple avatars).


See more stories tagged with: sex, sexuality, virtual worlds, second life, video games

Damon Brown writes about sex, technology, music and video games for Playboy, New York Post and Family Circle, and is the tech columnist for AARP Online and PlanetOut.

No comments: