Video games

Sex and video games: Virtual reality erotica may be the Holy Grail

July 28, 2013 at 9:19 AM ET

A small company in Irvine, CA, has started working on what it claims to be "the world's first erotic virtual reality game" for the Oculus Rift.
Wicked Paradise
A small company in Irvine, CA, has started working on what it claims to be "the world's first erotic virtual reality game" for the Oculus Rift.

Video games stand apart from the rest of modern technology because of the medium's immunity to pornography. Perhaps it's because gamers — historically male teenagers and twentysomethings — just aren't into porn, right?

OK, that can't be it.

The more likely reason is that it's really, really hard to blend sex and video games in a convincing way. Sure, on TV's "30 Rock," fictional character Tracy Jordan dreamed up a game "where characters get weird with each other for golden points." But until recently, all that reality produced were Japanese dating sims, clumsy hook-ups in "Second Life" and silly bouncing cars in "Grand Theft Auto." Even Paul Trowe, the CEO of Replay Games — which recently rebooted the cheesy and borderline-offensive "Leisure Suit Larry" franchise — admitted to NBC News that the infamous game "isn't about sex; it's about the absence of sex."

"Heavy Rain" was considered groundbreaking for the quality of its voice-over and motion-capture work when it was released in 2010
Heavy Rain / Sony
"Heavy Rain" may have been visually groundbreaking when it was released in 2010, but the horrendously awkward sex scene is one of the main things that kept players from truly suspending disbelief.

Video game virtual sex has been on an upswing in recent years, with varying degrees of success. Character-driven games like "Dragon Age" and "Heavy Rain" created somber novelesque sex scenes with a photorealism never before rendered in polygons, but drew complaints that the illusion fell flat. Character movements are a bit inhuman, or worse, players are required to participate in goofy ways, like using a PS3's dual joysticks to unhook a virtual bra.

And that's the problem.

The closer developers get to "virtual sex," the greater the risk of falling into the uncanny valley — our natural revulsion to the not-quite human. (This divide is what makes "The Incredibles" more watchable than "Polar Express.") What will it take to bridge the valley? The latest virtual-reality goggles and full-body motion sensing a la Xbox Kinect, working in tandem, says Jeroen Van den Bosch, the latest entrepreneur to seek this Holy Grail.

Think 'wicked'
Belgium-born Van den Bosch runs a small startup in Irvine, Calif., and claims to have a working prototype of "the world's first erotic virtual reality adventure game."

Jeroen Van den Bosch, the founder of Wicked Paradise.
Wicked Paradise
Jeroen Van den Bosch, the founder of Wicked Paradise.

Exactly how players hook up in "Wicked Paradise" isn’t something Van den Bosch will detail during the development phase. But he claims his game will succeed where others have failed because the visual quality of computer-generated images (CGI) is finally able to make practically life-like characters.

Van den Bosch also has a not-so-secret weapon — a virtual reality (VR) gaming headset heralded as the first VR product that actually works. The Oculus Rift — high-tech goggles through which users see 3-D panoramic images that adjust in real time — promises "total immersion" for the player.

"So in real life when you're reaching out to grab that door handle" (or whatever else one might want to reach out and grab in an "erotic" game), "in virtual reality you can see yourself do exactly the same thing," Van den Bosch said.

"It's awesome," he says of his as-yet-unseen game.

Erotica or smut?
Just don’t call the game "pornography."

"Porn is making something that you watch; we're making something that you do,” Van den Bosch told NBC News.

Van den Bosch working with one of the motion-capture actresses for "Wicked Paradise." He told NBC News that his work on "Wicked Paradise" was inspired by recent games like "Heavy Rain" and "The Last of Us" that were praised for the quality of their motion-capture and voiceover work that helped create realistic and dynamic characters with which players could interact.
Road to VR
Van den Bosch working with one of the motion-capture actresses for "Wicked Paradise." He told NBC News that his work on "Wicked Paradise" was inspired by recent games like "Heavy Rain" and "The Last of Us" that were praised for the quality of their motion-capture and voiceover work that helped create realistic and dynamic characters with which players could interact.

“We have thousands of very well-designed shooter games that all cater to negative emotions — terror and fear," Van den Bosch said. "But we very rarely have any attempts to create positive emotions like passion, seduction, and love."

He’s not alone in this observation.

Modern game design hasn't exactly evolved to make different kinds of relationships and interactions with game characters possible, explained Belinda Van Sickle, the president and CEO of Women in Games International, which works to promote the inclusion and advancement of women in the games industry worldwide.

"The template game mechanic for so many games is just shooting things," Van Sickle told NBC News. "And that's just because: sex is not simple. Violence is simple!"

Van den Bosch, too, is critical of the game industry's double standard of inviting people to consume horrendously violent work while simultaneously abhorring anything that has the least bit to do with sex.

Nonetheless, news of "Wicked Paradise" has been met with sarcastic smirks if not outright disdain. "This is why we can't have nice things," BuzzFeed's game critic quipped in an article about "the horny dudes" who are "making a porno" for the Oculus Rift.

Like its science fiction counterpart "Mass Effect," "Dragon Age: Origins" drew fierce praise and condemnation alike for its frank depictions of sex and LGBT relationships.
BioWare
Like its science fiction counterpart "Mass Effect," "Dragon Age: Origins" drew fierce praise and condemnation alike for its frank depictions of sex and LGBT relationships. Despite breaking new ground, many gamers and even the game's own developers now admit that the blocky animations and Enya-esque soundtrack for the sex scenes made it hard to appreciate them for anything but their sheer camp value.

Rather than a “porno,” Van den Bosch prefers to compare “Wicked Paradise” to “Game of Thrones” — something that has says is "very sexually explicit but still has a great storyline."

Will it catch on?
Whether or not the eight-person team behind "Wicked Paradise" is truly a group of inspired artists or just a group of "horny dudes," Van Sickle told NBC News that she doubts the mainstream game industry will change its outlook about sex in video games any time soon.

Sickle said that since the Entertainment Software Rating Board's main purpose is to protect "the video game industry from becoming a target" of public criticism, she would be surprised if the organization starting relaxing its stringent standards around sexual material (compared to, say, violent content) any time soon.

"Leisure Suit Larry" was one of the first games to popularize the dating simulation/adventure game hybrid for American audiences. While the series has become synonymous with the salacious underbelly of video games, Paul Trowe, president of Replay Games, insists that "Leisure Suit Larry" is more about "the absence of sex" than anything explicit or raunchy. His company recently released "Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded," the latest installment in the series, to middling reviews.
Replay Games
"Leisure Suit Larry" was one of the first games to popularize the dating simulation/adventure game hybrid for American audiences. While the series has become synonymous with the salacious underbelly of video games, Paul Trowe, president of Replay Games, insists that "Leisure Suit Larry" is more about "the absence of sex" than anything explicit or raunchy. His company recently released "Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded," the latest installment in the series, to middling reviews.

The ESRB rating system maintains a powerful enough grip over many of the most lucrative parts of the industry that the vast majority of game developers making material like Van den Bosch's don't bother submitting games for a rating. Receiving an Adults-Only (AO) rating from the ESRB preemptively shuts it off from millions of players, since none of the major game consoles or video game retailers like Wal-Mart or Best Buy will allow AO-rated games anywhere near their customers.

As with the Internet, Van Sickle thinks that sexually explicit material in video games is an eventual inevitability — as long as hardware developers like Oculus VR keep their promise to not regulate content. And, well, that may not be such a bad thing after all.

"There's a market for adult video games, because adults play video games and adults like sex," Van Sickle said. "So I'd like it see to grow and become something above-ground, rather than what it is right now."

Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.

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