August 25, 2004

Playboy’s Girls of Gaming

by Scott Rettberg · , 8:05 pm

CNN is running a story on the upcoming October issue of Playboy, which will feature a photospread on the Women of Gaming — that is the virtual characters. Perhaps it won’t be too long before all of Playboy’s photospreads are CGI. The story also covers a slough of recent adults-only games, and discusses potential industry concerns that “female characters appearing topless could reinforce the outdated stereotype of gamers as shut-in losers who lack any sort of social skills.” It also notes, however that the gaming demographic is now generally older than it used to be, with the average gamer a crusty 29 years old, and the average game buyer 36 years old, making it a good match for Playboy’s (33 year-old median) demographic.

13 Responses to “Playboy’s Girls of Gaming”

  1. andrew Says:

    About a year ago in a comic book store in Chicago, I spent an hour ogling Digital Beauties, published by Taschen — a massive compendium of CGI images of nudes, I think 100% women, created by dozens of artists, probably 95+% male. I was stunned by the realism and quality of the images.

    Back when we were making Petz (6+ years ago at this point), which involved creating directly interactive heavy petting behaviors in which using a virtual hand you can touch, caress and stroke various body parts, using a variety of mouse motions, and even using optional tools (e.g., virtual brushes), we soon realized we could make millions if instead we made our writhing, twitching, purring characters human instead of canine or feline… But we concluded that our significant others would break up with us, our reputations would forever be attached to those projects, etc. etc. But it was truly a tough temptation to pass up — still is.

    Needless to say, the people who finally make (pardon my adjectives) a truly rich, deep and well-rounded interactive animated erotic experience, will make a killing. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened already.

  2. Jill Says:

    So Andrew, how does Virtual Girlfriend measure up to Petz? Here’s a capsule description.

    Mind you, they don’t appear to have managed to simulate a “a truly rich, deep and well-rounded interactive animated erotic experience” yet… sounds more like they’re simulating the full-blown capitalist-patriarcal version of relationships. If you want your virtual girlfriend to treat you well you have to buy her “flowers” – in real money, presumably accessible by SMS though. Buy me presents and I’ll have sex with you and be nice. Except I don’t think there’s supposed to be any sex.

    I’ll be interested to see whether the release of Virtual Boyfriend (scheduled for Feb 2005, according to the clipping linked above) will follow the same rules. If men traditionally pay with money and women with sex, then logically a woman owning a Virtual Boyfriend would strip for a web-enabled mobile phone video cam, upload it to the server and in return, her virtual boyfriend would send her real flowers.

    I think it’s just as well you did virtual petz and not girlfriends, Andrew.

  3. andrew Says:

    This particular instantiation of a Tamagotchi-style “virtual girlfriend”, from what we can tell by reading about it, is not a new gameplay design, besides the use of real money. Although developed by a company calling themselves Artificial Life, there seems to be little you can do to interact with your “girlfriend”; you click a few buttons to buy her stuff or whatever, and you receive some little mobile phone videos in return. Perhaps there’s some strategy to levelling her up, as it were, but as an experience it appears quite meager. It seems mostly a simplified version of the economics of a relationship (as you say, a capitalist-patriarchal one), none of the fun. (What’s sad is if guys actually enjoy causing an image of a girl to smile and flirt by merely pressing buttons and debiting their bank account.)

    Technically, it’s much easier to encode the simple rules of a capitalist-patriarchal relationship than the much messier and nuanced domain of emotion, personality, chemistry, etc. (Recall that even the current state-of-the-art of virtual people, the Sims 1, is slanted towards materialism and not emotion; success was achieved through a hill-climbing calculus of acquiring goods, keeping your stats within a certain range. We’ll soon see if the Sims 2 adds more complexity to that.) Furthermore, if the platform for your virtual lover is on a mobile phone, well, there’s not much more you can do than button-pushing gameplay. (I suppose it could give new meaning to “pushing your buttons”)

    In constrast, the experience we were envisioning, which would consist the product-pair Boyfriendz and Girlfriendz (just as we made the product-pair Dogz and Catz), would be about emotion, personality, and intimacy. Perhaps to work well, to minimize twistedness / creepiness / perversity, it would need to be a parody of a relationship, or at least a stylized version of one, not a realistic simulation — just as Dogz and Catz were cartoony, dramatized versions of real pets. The interface would allow players to interact directly, with language and gesture (crucial! and what would set it apart from anything built to date); there would be no button clicking, no slider bars, no explicit level or score. (Virtual) physical intimacy would be a part of it, as one component of an overall experience including meeting, getting to know each other, expression of feelings, needs and desires, dealing with the ups and downs of a relationship, feelings changing over time, etc.

    If done tastefully, avoiding the stimulus-response capitalist-patriarchal model of a relationship, instead focusing on emotion and intimacy, and if equally representing both men and women, do you find such a product problematic, offensive, misguided, silly? Is this something only a male mind would dream up?

    (I do in fact think are larger problematic issues here, and I’m curious to hear others’ opinions of them.)

  4. Ian Bogost Says:

    On the topic of the Sims and Playboy, you might be, uhm, interested to see Playsims an elaborate, ongoing effort to create Sims skins of Playboy models.

  5. andrew Says:

    A discussion rages on Slashdot Games. Here’s a comment that explains this Virtual Girlfriend in terms of Japanese culture, suggesting that the constrained style of gameplay of this product probably won’t be popular outside of Japan.

    Also worth referencing here — a old GTxA post, “Text Porn on Little Screens: an AI Sweet Spot?

  6. Jill Says:

    Whether I’d find it offensive? What an interesting question. Virtual Girlfriend is more silly than offensive. Your point, Andrew, about how much easier it is to simulate economic give and takes than emotions is good – I hadn’t thought clearly about that, I just went straight to complaining about stupid models for relationships. Part of what impressed me about Facade (which I want to play again, one time wasn’t enough!) was that it was much deeper than the facile materialism of The Sims – or the hit points of many role playing games.

    “real” or at least “realler” relationship?

    But whether I’d find it offensive? I think that would depend on how “real” it aimed at being. I’m pretty sure I’d feel jealous if my boyfriend had a virtual girlfriend of the attempted-realistic tamagotchi kind. Well, the current sort is silly enough I think ridicule would be a more likely reaction than jealousy, but if it were a better, more realistic model – yikes! What a freakish though.

    But you’re suggesting a parody or something stylised – something with a potential narrative in it, then, or if not exactly a narrative then something where the point is not simply to have a girlfriend/boyfriend? I suppose Online Caroline is a simplistic version of this, in a way – she’s a faintly weird “friend”, though there’s no AI in that relationship there is a pretense of it. That kind of narrativish thing could be pretty cool with real AI.

    Even if the idea were simply to simulate a girlfriend/boyfriend, I don’t think the concept is offensive in itself, exactly. Well, it would be easy to think of pretty offensive ways of doing it, but also many perfectly decent ways of doing it. I don’t think inflatable sex dolls, vibrators or dildos are offensive either.

  7. andrew Says:

    Jill spawns a new discussion on her blog, why are sex and computers conflated?

  8. michael Says:

    Andrew, I remember you talking about the PF Magic discussions regarding using the Petz tech for erotica gaming, but it always sounded like what you guys were considering was porn (as you say, twitching, purring characters) rather than a relationship game. I didn’t know PF Magic had been thinking about a full-on relationship game using language and so forth. Did you guys actually have a technology story for how you’d handle language (it certainly took us several years to get traction on this problem with Facade)? And for how you’d handle the longer term temporal development such an experience implies (the Petz tech was pretty much in-the-moment).

    I’d love to see a deep and sophisticated game that takes on love and desire. And not because I want a virtual girlfriend, nor because I want an interactive pornographic experience, but for the same reason that love stories and sophisticated erotica are engaging in non-interactive media. Like Hollywood movies and television, games are dominated by depictions of violence; any moves toward depicting sexual relationships are accompanied by wolf whistles and adolescent antics. I’m not opposed to adolescent antics or pornography on moral grounds. Rather, as an interactive media maker, I find porn just too easy; what could be easier than eliciting visceral audience response through depictions of sex? And porn focuses only on lust. Lust and desire are a part of relationships, but I want to see them incorporated in a more complex portrayal of the total relationship, where of course the player actually participates in the relationship. In Façade, we had a design for a love-story subplot, where the player could pursue a relationship with Trip and Grace. Unfortunately, this was one of many parts of our design that ended up being cut. And in this design, the love-story was just a subplot, not a fully developed experience including love, sex, desire, ennui, jealousy …

  9. andrew Says:

    Michael, true at PF.Magic we initially talked about something sexual (Orgasmz?) but in later discussions with fellow designer Adam Frank, informed by the ongoing progress on Facade, we brainstormed about the aforementioned, more fully-flushed out and less one-dimensional concepts.

    Jill, I’d imagine someone might find virtual boyfriends or girlfriends offensive for the same reasons some people found virtual pets offensive (I once encountered a very angry questioner at an Intelligent User Interfaces conference) — the implication that these are meant to be substitutes for the real thing, and meant to be superior because they are theoretically fully controllable to the whims of the user. While such products could be designed and framed that way, as you say, one doesn’t have to do it that way. And of course many people wouldn’t consider such a one-sided relationship as rewarding as the real thing. It makes no sense to choose someone else to be your friend; that busts the definition of friendship.

    On your blog you say (not directed at us, I know :-), “Men seem to love thinking of machines as somehow equivalent to or replacements for women … guys try to create digital beauties and virtual girlfriends.”

    It’s true, I’m sure some designers and players do in fact want the ultimately controllable and submissive sexual object. A version for women would probably sell a few units too. Following from this, the riches that would ensue for the creators of such products are another reason for considering creating such a thing.

    Just to be clear, as I and Michael described above, some of us are interested in all the weepy stuff too.

  10. Water Cooler Games Says:
    F*ck the Vote
    We had a lively discussion recently over on Grand Text Auto about representations of sex in gaming, and I now officially feel stupid for not thinking of a way to tie the topic into political games. Why, you ask? Because…

  11. andrew Says:

    Holy crap… check out the ongoing discussion at Water Cooler Games about how to beat a flash game called Orgasm Girl. It’s like something out of a sequel to Woody Allen’s Everything you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask.

    (hee hee, I said “woody”)

  12. Ian Bogost Says:

    Yeah, you should see our search term referral log. “beat orgasm girl “orgasm girl cheats” orgasm girl tips.” It’s amazing the tips some of them have.

    Michael and I were talking about the idea of procedural seduction and perversion the other week… it’s quite interesting to see how the players unpack how to seduce this virtual girl.

  13. andrew Says:

    Check out the first virtual beauty contest, Miss Digital World.

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