Porn and Pong: Videogame Sex Beyond Grand Theft Auto

A pop culturist’s longtime project connects the history of joysticks and pricks

Sex and video games have been bedfellows since the first days players wrapped their hands firmly around their joysticks. In fact, according to Damon Brown—journalist, pop culturist, and author of the upcoming Porn and Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture—tantalizing titles like these have been stirring up arousal and controversy for almost three decades. Using game designer Brenda Brathwaite’s 2006 textbook Sex in Video Games as a springboard into the digitally naughty, Porn and Pong takes an analytical approach that gets behind everything from horny heroes to pixilated D-cups.

Q: You mention on your website you’ve been working on Porn and Pong for more than five years. What’s so interesting about sex in games that it’s kept you busy all this time?

A: Well, how I got started with the book is I pitched some articles to major gaming publications. I had some good discussions with editors, but it was one of those things where people were like, ‘No, people don’t want to read about this”… So I started to research it on my own, and I realized there was a lot of history there. For instance, Leisure Suit Larry came out at the height of the awareness of the AIDS epidemic. I don’t see it as a coincidence that these two things came to prominence at the same time.

Q: Can you give us a little refresher on Leisure Suit Larry for those who might not remember it?

A: It was a phenomenal game because for a lot of people in our thirties, like myself, it was our first exposure to adult entertainment. In came out in 1987, published through Sierra Online, designed by this guy called Al Lowe who specialized in humor. Leisure Suit Larry is a guy who’s in a knock-off of Los Vegas, he’s well into his thirties, and his main thing is to get laid. He has a permanent erection. This came out in the 80’s, and he wears a leisure suit, which was really popular in the 70’s, so it was like this character was out of place. He was a throwback. This is a guy who wants to have sex with anything on the planet—and that’s like the main goal of the game, to hook up with the different women you come across. He’s obviously not from the generation that’s dealing with HIV, this crazy virus. It’s almost like a nostalgic look at the swinging 70’s.

Q: Was Leisure Suit Larry the first overtly sexual video game?

A: No, but I’d say it was the torchbearer, the first one that everyone knew about. There was a game call Softporn Adventure, and it was text-only. That came out in 1981 for the Apple II. Time Magazine actually did a review of it, back in October of that year. That blew my mind. They’re talking about a pornographic video game. Like I said, it was text-only, but it’s pretty raunchy. What was amazing is they took it as very mundane. They went ahead and said it was for adults, but remember this was before any type of regulations or ratings. In the following years we had controversy over much less mature and much less detailed content. One of the things that made it safe is you were looking at a green and black Apple II monitor. When you have the visual view of Lara Croft and her crazy large breasts or when you have a YouTube video of someone having sex in Grand Theft Auto, that’s different.


Q: But a lot happened between the time of the first Leisure Suit Larry and, say, Grand Theft Auto.

A: Sexuality didn’t come into Grand Theft Auto until GTA III in 2001 with the prostitutes, so you have a good 14, 15 years there. One of the things that happened in that time is that Japanese games started coming to America. In 1987, the same year Larry came out, the Nintendo became the number one household toy in America. With the Japanese influence we had a lot sexual games that came over as well. The Japanese view of sex and technology and video games is much different than ours. Then you also have the advent of Lara Croft. That was in ’96. Basically she was the first digital sex symbol. We have Ms. Pacman. We have Samus Aran from Metroid. But I think she was the first one red-blooded American males weren’t afraid to say, “She is hot!” You’re not going to see that with Ms. Pacman, because she doesn’t really have a body. I compare her to Pamela Anderson. People had Lara Croft on their bedroom walls. She was the first video game character on a mainstream level to create passion. There were actually people who were sexually attracted to this thing made out of polygons.

Q: Do you see any links between Lara Croft and mid-90’s culture the way you see links between Leisure Suit Larry and the AIDS epidemic?

A: Definitely. Around the time that Tomb Raider came out in ’96, the internet hit its tipping point. That’s when it started to become mainstream. With that of course came internet pornography.. If we look at that culture of being attracted to a digital image on your computer screen, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that was the same time Lara Croft hit her peak. As soon as she came out, she was everywhere… Before that, people weren’t ready to digitize their sexuality. They weren’t ready to put their sexual energy toward something that was cold and made up of bits and bites.

Q: So are games just affected by culture, like Leisure Suit Larry and Tomb Raider? Or, as the title of your book suggests, do they also change the culture around them?

A: My book is actually split between those two ideas. In the research I’ve done, I’ve found that Grand Theft Auto III was the turning point between games that were influenced by culture and games that influenced the culture. It all starts in summer of 1972. That’s when Pong came out, and that’s also the same summer that Deep Throat came out. So within weeks of each other, we have the birth of the modern videogame industry and the birth of the modern porn industry…. Ten, twenty years later we have Grand Theft Auto III, and we finally have a game that’s impacting the rest of the culture. A good measurement is the pop-culture references. So we have a Grand Theft Auto III episode of South Park, a Grand Theft Auto III episode of The Chapelle Show, a Grand Theft Auto III reference on Jay Leno.

Q: And what about what’s going on now in sex in games? Your book stops with Mass Effect, the Sci-Fi game that’s been somewhat controversial. Has that had a cultural impact?

A: I think the biggest thing right now in sex in games is that video games can be somewhat of a mature medium. What I found fascinating was that, aside from the Fox News hyperbole, which was based on a misquote on what was available in the game, no one else has said a peep about Mass Effect. If we compare that to the uproar around GTA III, the amount of hype and media and protests and anger, that’s nothing. This game comes out with an erotic scene between a woman and a lesbian alien, and the only complaint you hear about it is from Fox. That’s what’s amazing to me. As far as getting sexuality accepted in video games, I think that’s a huge step.

Porn and Pong is due this October from Feral House Press.

Previously in Click Me: Coming Out Cybersexy

Click Me runs regularly on villagevoice.com. Got a question about cybersex? Write to your friendly cyberhood sexpert Bonnie Ruberg to ask advice or to share stories about sex and the internet: bonnie [at] heroine-sheik [dot] com.

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