I, Avatar

Tom Hymes
I went up to San Francisco a while back to attend the inaugural Sex in Video Games Conference put on by Evergreen Events, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I'm not a rabid gamer, and I doubt I ever will be, but what I learned over those two days has convinced me that as a gamer or not, there is no escaping the gravitational, multidimensional pull of the virtual experiences that are being conceived and developed right now under the rubric of gaming. And the more I think about it, the more unavoidable it seems.

But first you have to forget about robots, those cold apparitions of the future. No matter what the artificial intelligence freaks portend or the media extol, robot culture always will seem one-dimensional next to the really cool vision of the future, the truly mind-expanding iteration of reality, where within a vast twilight zone of possibility, each of us will reinvent ourselves as "temporary manifestations or aspects of a continuing entity."

I'm talking avatars, naturally, those liquid, superhuman incarnations into which we pour not only the selves that we are but also the many/any selves we want to be. Avatars often are thought of as caricatures, as comedic or tragic alter egos through which we act out submerged needs, and that is a reasonable interpretation of a controlled visual representation of one's self. But believe me when I say that the magicians are creating far more inspired playing fields in which our imaginations will — hopefully — have free rein. But that doesn't begin to explain the approaching phenomenon.

The San Francisco conference focused, of course, on sex in "video games," but what the gamers — who outnumbered the performers — really wanted to talk about was the cutting edge of gaming technology, where the game (i.e. competition) seems far less important than the experience, and the attitude one brings is seen as necessary to appreciate the experience. The emotional approaches vary, of course, and the speakers on the panels — developers, gamers, marketers, philosophers, and yes, pornographers — all revealed intimate sides of themselves in the very act of defining their concept of the state of gaming (and sex), but there also was communal consensus of sorts that saw the virtual space as a place that must remain free.

There were groundbreaking adult entrepreneurs there as well, like "Virtually Jenna" and RedLightCenter.com, both of which meld gaming technology with adult-themed products in ingenious ways. Others will follow. But one seemingly irrevocable difference between the worlds of games and pornography was highlighted at the conference along with the cost of doing business.

The average budget for a massively multi-user game was estimated at $20 million, the average adult film budget at $40,000 or lower. Only a surefire hit would prompt adult players to pony up that kind of money, if they could. It is doubtful that these two industries will come together in any lasting or significant way. Still, it is certain that sexual activity will blossom in ever-fantastic organic and enriching virtual environments, driven by user desires and demands that prove the oft-stated dictum that whenever two real people come together in virtual worlds, sex sooner or later happens.

As with the real world, the virtual world will defy any but the most oppressive attempts to control it. The same battles we fight now will be fought there, but the stakes will be much higher, and we can expect that the mother of all culture wars will be fought not just with spells and lasers but in hand-to-hand combat among the avatars.