Sunday, August 28, 2011

This is what I wrote about the sims social before I stopped caring

The sims social is creepy. It’s another layer of simulacra past facebook itself, expressed in a little character who lives their “real life” inside a game inside your fake life on facebook inside of your real life. The sims series has always been kind of odd, being a virtual dollhouse simulator with simplified depictions of the minutiae of daily life. Your most obvious goal is simply to keep the sim alive in their early-oughts-era reality and culture. You could set other goals for yourself though, such as fantastic career choices and earning the highest amount of skill at a creative endeavor or simply bedding and wedding a mate and having children who later go on to grow up and move out and generally continue the inevitable and relentless march of time. I don’t need to describe it to you really, as it’s one of the best selling (possibly the bestselling, but I don’t feel like looking it up) games on the PC and is famous for being immensely popular with the sort of people who would not touch the typical gaming fare (monsters, dungeons, competition, all that).

It’s a game about REAL LIFE which is also one of Mr. Ghetto’s genres according to his myspace. Except, of course, it’s a gamified (now apparently a word. Thanks, bloggers) version of real life where doing the normal sort of things you do in real life fill up certain bars and cause your sim to become more satisfied, at least until those bars empty with the inevitable passage of time. Gamification is the next big trend in everything, if Kurzweilites are to be believed. Already we see a trend of increasing adoption of things like Fitocracy, and foursquare, both featuring rewards for otherwise mundane things performed separately from the software. The concept is that by attaching intangible rewards to certain actions, these actions can be encouraged. Hilariously, this is the principle that marketing has been operating under for the last hundred or so years. The Sim represents the perfectly gamified life, with a visual display detailing exactly what the sim wants or needs and how much. The result, which is an angle that many critics of gamification take, is that the sims live out their lives bouncing from need fulfillment to need fulfillment, with nary another thought in their heads than to fill the simplified and reductive bars.

But all that is a separate essay. I just wanted to talk about how weird it is to play characters in a game that are capable of forming romantic relationships with one another without respect to the players behind the game. Since the barrier to entry for being able to interact with another sim is to be friends with facebook, there has to already be some kind of acquaintance with the person whose sim your sim is interacting with. The interactions themselves can then lend themselves to some degree of awkwardness between the two of you. My sim shared a romantic kiss with my cousin’s sim, for example. It then asked if I wanted to date her, with of course a message asking her to confirm. Given that dating is entirely separate from relationship status on your facebook this leads to a lot of potentially weird “you’re cheating on my through a virtual character in a virtual space” problems down the line. I do want to praise the game for supporting homosexual relationships (even better, technically bisex cause you’re not really locked either way) but it does proscribe a pretty rigid definition of a relationship otherwise. My cousin (the hussy) ended up dating her female friend shortly after I declined to try dating her (kiss and run the fuck away, that’s me) and when I returned to suck face once more, I was stopped by another prompt suggesting that I suggest to her that she break up her relationship with her friend. Hilarious, but disappointingly rigid. I would much rather I could romance all the people I know at once, because that is not awkward at all. I understand there’s a bunch of other potential relationship types you can get into with people (saw “frenemy” on a list of requirements for an action somewhere. Totes gonna do that) so we’ll see how it goes. Seems the only way you can express any real affection (well, beside hugging) is through dating, though. So rigid.

Of course the game itself has all kinds of other problems. Food is free and limitless and always stocked. Your sim in the sims social can’t even get a job, it just spends all its time painting, cooking, musicing, or writing (or weeding. Mine is weeding) like some kind of awful trust fund hipster. Also alcohol and parties are off limits, though you can dance one on one with other people. Cohabitation is also out, but that’s okay because you live in a rent and mortgage free house. I’m sure a lot of people would tell me “It’s just a game, it’s not gonna be perfect” but I feel that’s missing the point. This isn’t just any game, this is a simulation of real life, except the simulation is not really of real life, but of an upper-middle-class suburban consumerist modern western idealized life. I’m not going to be as crass as to ask for a “living in a roach infested crackhouse with two kids and your dealer” mode, but I am going to challenge any even remote claims towards realism. This is of course now three games removed from the original concept of sims, developed by Maxis under Will Wright, a man known for creating relevant and fairly realistic (under certain theories, of course) simulations. It used to be back in the day Sid Meier and Will Wright were big names precisely for these sort of games, which sold pretty well and were emblematic of PC gaming as a whole. This is the era of Rollercoaster Tycoon and SimAnt and Civilization and SimEarth. What’s interesting about these games is that they almost completely collapsed as an economically viable genre with the advent of 3D gameplay. With the booming development cost and time, weird side projects like what the Sims was back in the day became liabilities for the companies that produced them. They wouldn’t sell because they catered to a relatively small audience to begin with. Costs outstripped potential revenue. The Sims is essentially a holdover from that era, an exception to the rule. After the Sims sold as amazingly as it did, EA bought out the developers, Maxis, and started putting the franchise through the modern product cycle concept (releasing a version for all potential platforms, cheaply producing new content for large profit margins, etc.) and essentially milked as much as it could out of The Sims. With the Sims 3, EA actually took Maxis entirely off the project (they went on to make Spore, and after that was out the door Wright left to start his own new company thing, currently producing a TV show call “Bar Karma,” which is about a bar at the end of the universe that helps people fix their karma.) and assigned a new team named “The Sims Studios” to create the game. They are responsible for the game I am currently playing.

SimCity doesn’t have much of a better story. SimCity 4 was the last real SimCity, and the last one produced by Maxis. The Sims was meant to be a spinoff that integrated with SimCity 4 (you could move your sims to your city! And then do very little with them. Booo.) but ended up vastly outselling SimCity 4. Later, EA, who now own the rights to SimCity, decided that the series was just in need of a reboot and not just a graphical update and extra features, so they put another developer (Ea is a publisher, first and foremost) whose name I don’t recall on a project to create “SimCity Societies” which was billed as “the first social engineering simulator.” It was complete shit. Actually, it shares a lot of similarities with “CityVille,” or CityVille’s true progenitor, “Social City.”

So has been the narrative for the recent history of the games industry. In the nineties and especially in the eighties, production costs for a video game were incredibly low, though sales didn’t start ramping up until the mid nineties. As time has gone on, the graphical quality and inherent complexity of these games has ballooned development costs to the point where companies will spend more than Film budgets creating their triple-A top billing, guaranteed sell titles. I understand that between advertising and development, Modern Warfare 2 cost over 200 million dollars. Of course they made over a Billion in revenue, so it was totally worth it for the studio. However even spending a fraction of that, say 20 million, to produce a game for a niche audience is not likely to bring back any real returns. The average video game sells between 50,000 and 200,000 copies. At $60 each, that’s only $3-$12 million in revenue. So the games industry ends up being ruthlessly egalitarian and endlessly creative in finding alternative revenue streams through things like downloadable content packs (which are often produced right alongside the game, so as to potentially net another $10-15 bucks off of people who buy the game.) and pre-order bonuses.

That’s all I really have to say.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sex Positivism

Hey gang. That’s what I’m putting here to pretend that everyone who reads this is part of an ephemeral associative group. Some fat albert shit up in this bid’ness.

Directly: I want to talk about something that is still pretty taboo (though becoming less so every day!). I want to talk about porn. It’s been on my mind lately. Yes. I said that. Specifically: I wanted to talk about the impact of pornography and sexually explicit materials on concepts of sexuality as a whole. To understand what I mean by this, and why it is relevant, you must understand that there are multiple websites that run software that allows the porn consumer to search just about any porn-related term to find pictures that feature that term. There is a passel of websites that stream porn videos in a format very similar to youtube. There are tens of thousands of huge 1+ Gigabyte torrents consisting entirely of porn. There’s an internet truism known as “rule 34” (it is actually the 34th rule on a list) that states simply “if it exists, there is porn of it.” There is a website devoted to colleting and categorizing that strange porn. And of course there are all the sites that actually charge money. For a lot of you, this is not news. You’ve been porning since your first orgasm, and given that you’re reading this on the internet, it is more than likely that you used the internet to go porning with. Despite the lack of novelty of the existence of these particular websites (some are almost a decade old), however, society continues to pretend that porn does not exist, especially to this scale. The Ur-narrative of the U.S. relegates porn to a shameful and deviant thing to produce a lot of television about. Fetishists and kinksters and queers and all that are indeed filed under deviant things the average American should stay away from/know little about/have maybe one queer friend who is a bit odd but secretly good under all that weirdness. You know what I mean. This is the story that we tell ourselves on a cultural scale, the story that appears in CSI and on “Weird Sex” and all that.

It is, of course, incredibly false. Everyone is horny all the time. Anyone who says otherwise is lying and worse, committing that sort of pernicious lie that helps construct a certain concept of reality in the liar’s head, thereby denying objective truth, not only from being real, but from actually existing. These little solipsistic rat bastards need their reality because the reality of humans as sexual beings rattles them out of their cage and makes them reel in disgust and regret and wonder “What the hell have I been missing?” Sex as a bad, deviant, unholy, profane thing is pretty deeply embedded into U.S. culture, so of course there’s an entire array of paraphilia for “demonic” beings or the corruption of otherwise holy or chaste people. There’s a “bimbofication” fetish that involves the transformation of demure, plain, sexless women into voluptuous slut-types. There’s a hypnosis fetish that does much the same. Porn doesn’t care because the human libido doesn’t care. Biologically we’re not nearly as interested in what society really thinks of what turns us on, we’re too busy being turned on.

Back to porn. In the modern era, finding porn (on the internet) is about as easy as (your mom) wildly mashing your keyboard into google image search. There has never been (quite literally) so free access to sex (images) in the history of mankind. For thousands upon thousands of years, we built up cultures that delineated rules for sex, certain places, certain times, certain methods being acceptable and all others taboo. We denied ourselves our “base” urges for sake of needing to spend at least some time in the day gathering food. Of course, in private and away from the cultural assumptions of sex, we had tons of it, willy-nilly, all the time, all places, all forms. All you really needed was consent, and not even that a lot of the time. But still, we grew up and existed socially in a sphere that constrained sex to a standard that wouldn’t offend those around you. It reflected itself in the types of sex we would have and the way in which we would go about finding a sex partner, and most importantly, in the fantasies that people privately kept.

The internet, though, is not constrained by any such rules. Existing socially on the internet is as easy and consequence-free as human interaction is ever likely to be. There are no hard rules for the internet. You can say whatever you like and the worst anyone can attempt to do to you is banish you from a community. And even that is easily circumvented. There are no qualms on the internet when it comes to discussing social topics of any level of controversy. The internet is well known for proliferating some of the more heinous opinions of people, indeed, but to take that disreputability and demarcate (okay, I’m just fucking around with the words now. Never be me, kids. You’ll get addicted to alliteration.) the whole of the internet as the source of these awful opinions and the creator of these terrible people is to ignore the reality that these opinions have always existed in the people who express them. The internet is simply the first time that the people involved have been able to connect with others of similar mindsets and share their awful-ness. The same is true of sex.

There are a vast number of paraphilia in the world, all of which probably existed long before the internet ever did. The majority of these paraphilia, though, remained completely underground, the only community for them existing in conventions of already-weird people, which led to mailing lists and perhaps maybe an artist or two producing content for these obscure fetishists. If you didn’t go to conventions or went to the wrong ones or whatever, you simply existed out of the loop, your favorite fantasies staying inside of your head. (Note, I’m not sure if this is true. I could be making that up, mostly piecing it together from really old giantess porn that seems to have been part of a mail-order collection. Feel free to correct me.) In modern times, finding such communities is just a google away, allowing you to meet and connect with people who share your crazy sex fantasies and share art and find new works and generally promote said fantasy. Even when that fantasy is completely deviant to the society in which you originate. (I sound like I’m talking about child porn, now, huh. Nah, there’s a lot more stuff out there. From absorption to zoophilia.)

This is fantastic. People like me and people of my generation(ish) are growing up in a world where the extant culture around you is subverted and trumped by the one promoted on the internet. The sheer volume of “dickgirl/futanari/newhalf” porn on the internet denies the concept of finding simply the male or the female form to be universally attractive for the opposite gender. It’s the principle that people are attracted to certain things rather than certain genders being demonstrated in action. It’s not much, because we do still live in a society that earnestly believes (at least in its false Ur-narrative) that only 3-10% of the population is gay and bisexuals are just “on the fence” (seriously that concept still confuses the fuck outta me) and that gender is immutable. But as objective reality continues to prove, the people living inside of the narrative do not themselves behave consistently to it. It’s just a matter of organizing these people together until the Ur-narrative shifts in the face of overwhelming majority. The unprecedented availability and variety of sexually explicit materials on the internet is a great first step toward that end.

Of course not everything is sunshine and roses and daisies and dandelions. A lot of these communities still face the problem of being unable to organize outside of the internet, leading to a lot of very lonely horny people, rather than a sexually compatible utopian cornucopia of copulation. (Seriously I need to be banned from writing) No matter how amazing or fantastic our online sex lives may be, no matter what freedom of expression of kinks exists virtually, we do still live in a reality, and a reality that is dominated by Ur-narratives that condemn the things we do on the internet. At best, it causes people to be at least a little shy about what they do on the internet. At worst, people develop practical schisms of their personality, using one as an acceptable public version of themselves and the other as the selves they are on the internet. As with any instance where society causes personality change, there’s quite a lot of guilt and shame involved, which can express itself in myriad ways. There’s a popular Japanese meme/joke/truism that “3D girls are pig disgusting,” abbreviated “3dpd” on this side of the pacific. It refers to the intense attachment that some form to idealized female drawn characters to the extent that they “reject” all real women as imperfect and thus unworthy of their attention. It’s a joke, in that the majority of people viewing drawn porn do not actually hold this opinion, but like all jokes, it’s important because it reveals the underlying concept of shame for viewing these images so often and sometimes to the exclusion of actual human contact.

Porn is still a villain here. Still racy and underground and taboo. We still live in a society that gets up in arms whenever women are included solely for sex appeal in movies and such. We still censor sexual images en masse, we still look down on women who dress “inappropriately,” we still aggressively de-eroticize images of male sexuality, or at the very least take great pains to ensure that it’s clearly aimed at female viewers and thus a heterosexual exchange. The only difference, though. Is that while we all do that publically and accept the status quo, we’re all furiously friggin’ and stroking to the most diverse expressions of human sexuality ever known to man. And that’s pretty cool. It’s only been ten years since this kind of thing became possible. Change will come, as it inevitably does.