LOVEGAME 5: PART ONE
In the fourth installment of this series we ended with a challenge, which was to strive for something better than a future in which people live out the fantasy of a perfect relationship with a machine that cannot truly reciprocate their love. In this, the final part of the series, we will take up the challenge and explore ways in which technology may be used to enhance love and sex. Inevitably, this will lead us to transhumanist speculations.
VIRTUAL SEX: NOT PERFECT BUT GOOD ENOUGH.
Before we get to that, though, I want to talk about the stage virtual love and sex is at now, and this will entail a recap of some of the facts uncovered by previous installments. One of the reasons for writing ‘Lovegame’ was to reply to the scepticism love in online worlds often faces. “Virtual dating is pointless” is a position held by plenty of people. Now, the argument “a fulfilling real life romantic relationship beats a purely virtual one” is not something I would question. But the argument that online worlds cannot provide opportunities for meaningful relationships definitely should be questioned. As far as answers go, it is hard to do better than the passage from ‘Coming Of Age In Second Life’ that I quoted in part 2:
‘You can be blind and be in love; the brain compensates fully for the lack of sensorial input. So the SL experience doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be good to a certain degree and from there on the brain takes over”.
What, then, does SL have that makes it good to a certain degree? As we saw in part 2, it can provide most of the reasons for being attracted to someone. Through interactions with avatars we can discover ‘desirable characteristics of the other’, ‘reciprocal liking’, ‘exclusiveness’, ‘mystery’ and ‘proximity’. Only the ‘histocompatibility complex’ is missing (for more details about these terms, see part 2). We also discovered, via experimental data (again, see part 2) that it is repeated exposure to someone, rather than their physical presence, that matters. In short, you have as much reason to be attracted to a person in SL as you would in any actual place.
SECOND LIFE VERSUS GRAND THEFT AUTO
I think relationships in SL are built around another crucial ingredient. You can ‘date’ in the videogame ‘Grand Theft Auto 4’ by logging on to a dating website and arranging to meet whoever takes your fancy. But, despite the fact that the initial reasons for attraction exist here, GTA4 ‘dates’ miss that crucial ingredients and so never arise above pure fantasy. Hiro Pendragon highlighted that essential element in a reply to part 4:
“The robot needs the ability to choose. Without choice, their emotions are meaningless”.
‘Dates’ in GTA4 have no free will because they are merely bots with pre-canned responses triggered by the appropriate action. The mechanics of the game limit the actions the player is permitted to make, and some of those actions are pre-determined to get the girl or boy to ‘desire’ you. Relationships in SL sometimes come down to a binary choice presented in a pop-up window. ‘Will you be my friend? (yes/no), ‘you have been offered a TP to the following location (accept/cancel)’, ‘do you give permission to animate your avatar? (yes/no)’. But I know I exercise free will when I choose to accept or decline such offers and I believe my partner also has free will. These pop-ups can represent stages in the evolution of a relationship from intitial encounter to mutual liking (‘be my friend’), to a desire for exclusiveness (an invitation to TP to a private sim) to a mutual desire for lovemaking (both agree to jump on that bed and use the sex balls). There is nothing pre-determined about any of this, no routines coded into SL that directs the actions of a bot into behaving as if it wants to give and receive intimacy. Instead, what we have is stages developing out of free choices, all occurring in a complex environment that is more appropriately labelled a ‘place’ rather than a game (for more on why SL is a place in a greater sense than GTA’s ‘Liberty City’, see my essay ‘The Ondreka Definition’). In ‘Life Is Not A Dating Site’, blogger Christopher Hutchinson shared this insightful comment from his real-life partner:
“What for me made SL a more telling and more honest platform than a traditional dating site, much closer to real life, was that I was able to observe how you interacted with others, you unaware that I was watching you and listening to you. That told me a lot about you, far more about you than I’d have learned from traditional Internet dating”.
The choices a person makes in SL are meaningful because the consequences persist and spread out like ripples on a pond until they affect not just the couple directly involved, but others who are part of their social network. For people sparsely connected to that network, the effects might be imperceptible, but nevertheless they are there. To say these evolving relationships are not real just because they occur within the context of an online world is to make the basic mistake of equating ‘virtual’ with ‘fictional’. But, everyone knows that saying “this conversation never happened because it took place within the auditory virtual reality of a telephone call” would be a very weak argument. Of course, not every relationship in SL is deeply meaningful and a lot of the sex that goes on there is done for a lark. But, then, plenty of RL sexual encounters are of a frivolous nature too. Acknowledging the existence of such cheap encounters does not negate the existence of genuinely meaningful relationships between couples, in SL or RL.
“WHEN I THINK ABOUT YOU, I TOUCH MYSELF”.
“Sex is not only a beautiful expression of love and affection but, for many people, the most meaningful one”, wrote sexologist Gloria G. Brame. Again, I would not question the assertion that great RL sex beats virtual sex hands down. But that is not quite the same thing as denying the belief that SL sex can be ’a beautiful expression of love and affection’. “The first Second Life kiss was awesome and special”, reckoned Phil Murdock, quoted in Wagner Au’s ’The Making Of SL’. Some might argue they never really kissed, but I disagree. If two people agree that something is synonymous with a kiss (think of those Xs that one may find under a beloved’s signature), to receive that something is to communicate the same message a kiss is intended to convey. I am not saying what Murdock and his sweetheart exchanged was exactly like a kiss, because lips brushing together is its own unique experience. But what they exchanged could have been as meaningful, emotionally-speaking.
In her book, ‘The Truth About Sex’, Gloria Brame highlighted the ‘fundamental building block of adult sexual performance’:
‘From a sexological point of view, the sexually healthiest person is the one who enjoys exploring his or her full potential for pleasure… If we were not raised to separate our pelvic region from the rest of our body, we would explore liberally, front and back, until we found exactly the right set of sensations that brought us the greatest level of sexual satisfaction’.
If you have an SL account, it is highly likely you were raised in a culture where sexual self-exploration is discouraged or even punished. Following the cultural taboos against masturbation, we treat individuals who touch themselves or employ sex aids while alone with a laptop as folks who deserve ridicule. We really aught to drop this sexually immature attitude and accept the weight of scientific evidence showing how perfectly normal and healthy it is to explore one’s own sensuality, provided it does not adversely affect other aspects of an individual’s life. In fact, such self-exploration is a vital first step in becoming an expert lover. Each and every body is unique and sensuality differs from person to person. Physical variations include different levels of skin sensitivity, how close veins may be to the surface, and how the nerves cluster in concentrations. According to Brame, “such normal physical variations contribute to differences in sensitivity and response; the same caress that feels fantastic to one person could feel painful to another and won’t feel like anything at all to a third”. We can see, then, that real-life sex may be unsatisfying or even unpleasant if your partner rubs you up the wrong way (so to speak). On the other hand, the physical side of SL sex involves being felt up by the one person who best knows how to exploit your body’s unique sweet spots- namely, yourself!
According to Brame, “some people miss out on wonderful sexual opportunities because they assume their partner will share their own definitions… don’t make assumptions: develop a common sexual language with your partner”. It really should come as no surprise to learn that the couples who have the most fulfilling sex lives are those who are most open and honest in telling and showing their partner what most turns them on. As a prelude to RL encounters, SL sex would likely serve to make any eventual physical encounter more special and intimate. After all, the main activity of SL sex involves a kind of co-authored erotic narrative in which both participants speaks or texts their turn-ons, adjusting every response to the descriptions provided by their partner. ‘Snow Hare’, the SL partner of Phil Murdock, explained, “before real life, I knew what he liked and enjoyed and vice versa. Since we were honest with each other and were very compatible, it was easy to know what to expect in real life”. Murdock agreed, saying, “it was almost like meeting an old friend and a lot of the nervousness of a first date wasn’t there. This medium definitely lets two people share their feelings and desires for one another, and that is a powerful thing in itself”.
So this couple have experienced lovemaking both in a virtual and a physical context and, while they are on record as saying RL sex is ‘obviously better’, it is clear that their virtual sex lives were erotic and meaningful too. On the other hand, in my experience it is people who never bothered to even try out SL sex who dismiss it as something devoid of fulfillment. I don’t think their opinions should count for much, frankly.