This is the conclusion of a two-part article. Part one is available here.
The first part of the article introduced Sociolotron and its unique game mechanics. The last half focuses on some of the dedicated gamers who make up the world of Sociolotron and an interview with Patric Lagny, who has developed the game almost single-handedly.We remind readers that this article contains frank and explicit discussion of adult and sexual themes.
|----------begin part two-----------------------|"I met a straight lady in The Sims Online..."
I met Roxanne (last name withheld) in the Twilight Tavern, or, I should say, I met her avatar, David Prescott, in a backroom of the bar. We sat on a pile of pillows and discussed the game, mostly out of character. Roxanne has played Sociolotron since late 2002, is 39 years old, and a self-described "butch" lesbian. She plays Sociolotron for six to eight hours each day, on average.
"I met a straight lady in The Sims Online and played with her until she found [Sociolotron] and we came here," Roxanne explains.
At that time, Roxanne lived with her RL girlfriend of five years in Florida. She met her present girlfriend, "Robin," in The Sims Online. "Robin" is a 52 year-old, previously heterosexual, divorcee. Roxanne explains that they felt limited by the gameplay possibilities (especially regarding sexual play) and the mixture of older and younger players. They found other Sims players who shared their interests, and when Sociolotron went into public beta just over two years ago, many of these Sims players moved to virtual London where they are free to act on their most intimate desires.
What ensued after the couple's move to Sociolotron was a drama of soap opera proportions: Playing a toon named John Fuckwell, Roxanne proceeded to woo and make every female toon she could find.
"Women just need to feel special," she explains, through her avatar, who sits on a couch in a long overcoat, looking like a buffed out Neo. "Even sex in the game gets boring if its just sex all the time-guys don't think of it as much as women and the fact I take the time to bring flowers or take them to a park and give them wine and food impresses women."
These shenanigans involved flings with old Sims Online consorts who had relocated to Sociolotron, in-game marriages and marriages for revenge, serious fights, and eventually Robin's toon killed Roxanne's toon. The two worked out their issues in RL as well as in-game, and now live together as a monogamous couple in Ohio as well as in-game. Roxanne has no problem finding reasons beyond random cybersex to play Sociolotron."I was always hoping somebody would make a game where anything goes..."
Sex is an important part of Sociolotron. In many cases, curiosity about the sexual aspects of the game is a draw for new players. The game's creator, Patric Lagny, who works as a programmer and developer in southern California, has built in some significant connections between sexual activities and gameplay mechanics.
"I was always hoping somebody would make a game where anything goes, but that's probably not possible for big companies who must report to their stockholders and the public, so I made it myself," Lagny explains.
Indeed, anything does go in Sociolotron, and because of this, the game is strictly regulated to adults over 21 years-old who register with a nominal fee charged to an active credit card. No fantasies involving children or people pretending to be children are allowed. Other than that, the gloves are, often quite literally, off.
Not only is prostitution a skill, but "urges" such as sado, maso and exhib might compel your toon to involuntary behaviors or outbursts. Likewise, moral uprightness is a quality that must be altered in order to achieve specific goals, such as becoming a demon overlord or a high priestess in the Cult of the Succubi.
For players like Roxanne, the boundaries between the game and RL are negotiated and permeable. Roxanne seems to have no trouble differentiating herself from her in-game characters, but, as she points out, "These are real people playing." Roxanne claims the players in Sociolotron are, overall, more trustworthy and upstanding than players of The Sims Online, but she still tends to only "trust" her RL partner and a select few whom she has had long-term contact with."There's no way he would do BDSM, so this takes the pressure off him."
Danni Wanned, who plays a demon named Aubrielle Shadows, is much more guarded about the boundary between her game life and the real world. A 30 year old, married woman from Missouri, Wanned plays Sociolotron for up to five hours a day, specifically because she enjoys the game and likes to indulge a fantasy life her husband is not interested in.
"There's no way he would do BDSM," Wanned says, "so this takes the pressure off him."
Wanned says she has developed some out-of-game friendships through Sociolotron. "But I would never let a romantic or sexual relationship develop from it," she explains.
Before playing Sociolotron, Wanned played text-based MUDs and MOOs, such as IgorMUD, which allows users to inhabit avatars in a virtual fantasy world with remarkable freedom and agency. She also played The Sims Online before coming to Sociolotron and knows many others who used to play the Sims:
"It was too G rated, plus you always had to worry about if you were messing with someone who was underage, which isn't a worry here," Wanned confirms.
Wanned is not alone in her fairly isolated approach to playing. Many players, it seems, are more interested in personal exploration than making new friends, although, perhaps surprisingly, most of the avatars I interviewed said they told their spouse or significant other about what they do in the game."Nobody in their right mind would hire a 60 year old male hooker in real life."
For 62 year old Jeff Zema, a married machinist from North Carolina, Sociolotron is partially about the sex, but much more about exploring his own personality. He found Sociolotron after playing Ultima games for many years as well as the occasional session on Combat Flight Sim 2. After 15 years in the military, he was not interested in RPGs that focus on fighting and killing, but on social games that encouraged people to engage in skill development and economic activities. In Sociolotron he has found an outlet for these interests, and has enjoyed exploring an alternate persona, manifest in his primary avatar, Ukikara.
When not playing Sociolotron, Zema and his wife keep busy with their African Grey parrots and regular real-world details. That is, when Zema isn't at work-he still pulls 10 hour shifts six days a week. His wife does not play, but is aware of what he does in the game.
"She's OK with it because I keep it there-as a game," he says. "I can explore some parts of human nature that no other game offers," Zema says, which is the primary reason why he plays.
"I have been a hooker, and a doctor-no other game allows that. And nobody in their right mind would hire a 60 year old male hooker in real life."
For Zema, the safety of the virtual world is key: "At my age it has given me a chance to be different than I am ... without the danger or expense of doing it in the real world."
I asked him if any of his toons were ever raped in Sociolotron.
"I never had that happen. I know-it's a surprise! But I did figure out that being a hooker is not something I would have liked to do in real life!""You know, he is making you an offer that is hard to refuse."
Virtual environments and games are known to offer simulations of all sorts intended to elicit feelings of freedom or omnipotence. In some way, the player must feel embodied in the virtual environment in order to truly enjoy the experience. That feeling of embodiment doesn't necessarily result from fancy graphics or control structures; rather, it is much more important for users to be able to intend, execute, and witness the effects of their individual actions on the world and other avatars. In this respect, Sociolotron is an excellent case.
John Smith, from Texas, is 53, divorced, and retired. He has had three heart attacks and two pulmonary embolisms. He is diabetic, suffers from kidney disease, and has a genetic blood disease known as THMFR. Generally limited in movement and freedom in his real life, Smith spends on average 10 hours each day playing Sociolotron. His avatar is Katsuma Toronaga, the leader of a powerful family within the game.
I meet with Smith in-game, in his family's headquarters, where his in-game slave, Sierra, pours us some virtual spirits. Sierra is played by Judy Benn, a 65 year old retired teacher from Arkansas. She is married, and her husband is aware that she plays. Both Benn and Smith are clear that their relationship does not extend beyond the game, and that they are not interested in relationships beyond Sociolotron's London.
"Sierra is my number four slave," Smith explains. "Sunshine, who is not here today, is number three."
Smith goes on to explain that the "family" consists of people who have shares in their tavern. Three real-life women play five different sex slave toons, and five other toons, male and female, are "associates" of the family, but not slaves.
He hands me a sample share in the company to examine, and I see how it facilitates dividing up the interests of the property. As he describes the economic activities and roles of the family members, the whole thing takes on a decidedly mafia-esque tone. Katsuma Toronaga, it seems, is something of a capo, like Tony Soprano except with magic. He mentions that he loves to "kick ass on 25 year olds."
I return the share to Katsuma.
"If I get top billing, then you can keep it," he says.
Sierra adds, "You know, he is making you an offer that is hard to refuse."
The family's attitude and Smith's strategic gameplay style illustrate the engagement users have with the less titillating aspects of Sociolotron. It's easy to get people interested in sex slaves and prostitutes, and Smith admits that when he first logged into Sociolotron he was a "complete horn-dog," but eventually the complexity of the social systems won him over."If a toon is running for office, then that toon shouldn't be seen on the train, fucking in public."
But Smith is not completely happy with these social systems. He has serious concerns about the judicial system, for example.
"There's no clemency. No retrial. Guilty until proven innocent," he explains. "Even if the real criminal stands up, and there is proof, there just isn't any provision for these issues to be solved. If the decision has been made, it stands."
To many gamers, this level of detail is not necessarily a good thing, but Sociolotron's denizens place a lot of importance on details like these. Roxanne, who plays several characters in addition to David Prescott, wishes others in Sociolotron who are elected to government and judicial positions would take the game more seriously and behave more ethically.
"If you hold office, you shouldn't let your friends off easy. It's a position of honor and it should be treated as such," she explains. "For example, I had a toon who was a judge and prosecutor, and I had a case come up against one of my [alternate characters]. I had to perform my duties as if it wasn't my other character."
Roxanne's views on the behavior of Sociolotron's leaders extends to issues with the social acceptability of public intercourse, for example: "If a toon is running for office, then that toon shouldn't be seen on the train, fucking in public."
Of course, Brat Stella, whose nude campaign poster is featured prominently in her newspaper, available at any public terminal in the game, feels differently about what is appropriate. There are many factions and attitudes in Sociolotron, which is part of what keeps people coming back. Players are invested in this world in a myriad of ways, and they dedicate themselves to it with a gusto rarely exhibited for real-world stations of analogous importance.If there is a real choice to do something good or bad, positive or negative, or somewhere in between, then there becomes a reason to choose one action over the other.
Lagny tells me stories of players who have become so devoted to characters that they have messaged and emailed him repeatedly, or called him on the phone, to restore a character who has been killed or deleted. "Even I can't do it," he says. Sociolotron is designed to be a world where actions have consequences. Rather than relying on a complex artificial intelligence or programming NPCs to react differently depending on a "reputation" ranking, Sociolotron's emotional resonance and interactive weight come from the fact that one can do anything at any time to anyone.
If there is a real choice to do something good or bad, positive or negative, or somewhere in between, then there becomes a reason to choose one action over the other. In typical RPGs the player might worry about the boss fight, which would follow a lengthy introductory sequence of threats and narrative set-up. But players would never worry about the player character (PC) walking towards them on the street, because in other RPGs there is no way for the oncoming PC to rape the player's avatar. When walking down a lonesome pathway in Sociolotron, upon passing a large fellow dressed for battle one does notice a moment of exhilaration and fear: This person could end my avatar's life. Likewise, the knowledge that one could dominate and have any other character, or just steal goods from houses and stores, in some way makes one feel more rewarded for not doing those things. It is an old axiom that we are bound to cooperation by the potential to do each other harm. And what weight do "good" or "evil" monikers have if there is not the potential to do either in the extreme?"A lot of times I was close to giving up because it was all becoming too much."
The moral and ethical complexity of the game, gained by simply opening the door for users to do the things they can do in everyday life, is compelling for many players, but generally not the crowd that is normally targeted by MMORPGs or the mainstream gaming audience. Sociolotron skews the statistics in nearly every way. Over 50% of its 2000 active users are female. All of them are over 21 (by default), and many are quite a bit older. In general, these users are often not "gamers" per se, or at least they would not self-identify as gamers, yet they spend more time in this world than most gamers spend playing all of the other games out there.
Lagny estimates that half of the current features in Sociolotron are heavily influenced by user-feedback. His unique position as an independent (as in, mainly just him) game developer has allowed him to work with his users to make the world more complex and satisfying. On more than one occasion, users referred to Lagny, or Player Dark as he's known in-game, as a "genius" and "brilliant."
"A lot of times I was close to giving up because it was all becoming too much," says Lagny, "But the players always build me up again with their love for the game, so I always felt I had an obligation not to let them down since they invested so much time and energy in helping Socio go forward.""When you say 'adult game' everybody thinks of strip poker or jigsaw puzzles."
Lagny would love to get more financial backing and technical support for the game, but he is convinced that no mainstream game company will touch Sociolotron.
"When you say 'adult game' everybody thinks of strip poker or jigsaw puzzles," complains Lagny, "I have written to one or two companies who supposedly invest in niche markets, but never even got an email back."
In the current conservative climate of game publishing, where sequels and established franchises reign supreme, it is very unlikely for the game to be picked up by any large publisher. While game development has progressed at an amazing rate, much of the increased game qualities have come by way of conventionalizing videogames to an extreme extent. Formal systems like commonly licensed game engines lend each game a set of similar qualities and capabilities, and games are often designed around these predetermined possibilities. A game like Sociolotron flouts any notion of mainstream conventions or burly game engines powering theatrical quality special effects.
The brilliance of Sociolotron is that it participates in the "old-fashioned" game development technique of making a game that is meaningful to the developer. This is a technique that has been relegated to the privileged rock stars of game development. Will Wright or Peter Molyneaux can make nearly any game they can dream up, but even these luminaries are limited by mainstream constraints. After all, with all the talk surround Molyneaux's upcoming game, The Movies, there's been no talk about whether one will be able to make hardcore pornography? Or even a Larry Clark movie? Odds are that won't be an option.
As game development costs and technical requirements continue to ramp up with another generation of home consoles and the continued evolution of PC power, it becomes less and less likely that games like Sociolotron will be made on any kind of mainstream scale. That means that this unique audience, for whom Sociolotron is just the thing to get them interested in a videogame, might go untapped by the mainstream industry, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, considering all the things that go on in Sociolotron, sometimes it might be nice to have a little privacy.
-------------------------------------------------------|Editors' Note: This article was researched and written between October 2004 and March 2005. Since writing, Sociolotron has released a final version which addresses some of the gameplay elements discussed in the article, including judicial/legal issues. Essentially, the game remains the same, but some differences may apply, and a new pricing scheme has been set in place. (The new scheme also requires players to verify their age with a credit card account.)