-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Last week, this column looked at the case of a marriage on the rocks because of Second Life, and wondered how well Aberrant Gamer’s favorite standby, “at the end of the day, it’s only a game,” holds up to a multiplayer environment. After all, the presence of real people, even if they’re just digital representations thereof, throws a monkey wrench into the closed world of immersive fantasy that single-player experiences provide.

The analogy can be taken beyond Second Life, fortunately, whose status as a “game” can be debated (Aberrant Gamer says “not”). I’ve often written here that personifying one’s character in a game is a choice, one the player is advised to make for the best relationship to the experience.

Most video games in general provide a forum whereby people can alternately attack or chat up digital avatars, but only in multiplayer games are those characters representations of other players – many of which may be personifying, caring for their characters just as much, if not more, as you do. For an example, check out Koinup, a new social network not for your real life, but for your virtual one – personal pages, diaries and photo albums revolving entirely around your avatar or MMO player character. Plenty of people spend more mental and emotional time, if not literal time, in Azeroth than they do in the real world.

Which makes a bit of sense, actually, given all the things there are to do in a game like WoW, and the relatively deep level of user engagement required to really be successful there. After spending so much time on a character, it’s only logical that one would extrapolate into more complex social relationships, even romantic ones. But what if there weren’t so much to do?

What if there were an MMO based only on one thing? What’s the world like in an MMO based entirely around sex? Wanna find out?

As editor of Worlds in Motion, which shares a parent with GameSetWatch in CMP’s Game Group, I regularly visit online games and virtual worlds to examine their economy, social structure, gameplay mechanic, business model and all of the other nuts-and-bolts from the inside in our Online World Atlas features. When Red Light Center came across my proverbial desk, I knew there was no way it could end up in the Atlas alongside Club Penguin, Nicktropolis and RuneScape. But I decided to go in-depth anyway. Plenty of people, due to their intense personalization of their MMO experience, have sexual thoughts about their online game of choice and its inhabitants. I was curious to spend some time in the world of those who’ve simply fast-forwarded to the good parts, so to speak.

Red Light Center is an “adult” MMO – it becomes apparent what sort of game it is immediately on visiting the website, where seamy techno music plays alongside a woman’s gyrating silhouette. One distinctly gets the same sort of crawly feeling that might be familiar to those who’ve accidentally stumbled across the less savory areas of Times Square and found themselves squinting in the glaring light of a sign flashing GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! The game runs in its own downloadable client, and it’s free to play – subscription is a fairly steep $20 a month.

To put it bluntly, in free mode, your avatar can’t get naked, which means he or she can’t have sex. Screenshots of the sex element scroll through in video on the site, superimposed with film of a girl smoking a hookah – because, apparently, smoking something out of a hookah is also very adult. Just so you know what you’re getting into, you know? Red Light Center also requires you to fill out a profile on some external Web social networking site, which by its red-splashed interface and banner ads makes sure you know that it, too, is very adult.

Click the screenshots to see full-size versions at your own risk.

Once I’d gotten set up to play, I entered the world, naming myself “ZoeyAnnCarter.” Customizing the avatar initially is not a requirement to entry, other than choosing gender, so I was a little unsettled to find myself spawning on top of several other characters, all of whom looked exactly like me. The initial palette and outfit for a girl character was rather sophisticated, in the “we’re shooting a boss-and-secretary porn movie” kind of way, though, so it wasn’t too bad that it wasn’t immediately apparent how to individualize myself.

Others had it figured out, though – and many, like the bald glasses man in the Union Jack T-shirt and tight plaid he-capris, or the guy dressed like Paul Revere, complete with big floppy hat, made me scratch my head a bit. Isn’t the idea here to be sexy? Obviously, the Revolutionary War is sexy to some people. Hey, I’m not here to judge.

Figuring that I might be able to become familiar with the controls just by trying ‘em out, and following my usual MMO modus operandi of “meet someone so I can ask them how I do this,” Zoey hit the dance floor. Once there, I was able to choose from a long list of dance moves. Some of them were blatantly pole-dancer, and others, like the “Bounce_Around,” just made me look stupid. When I tried “Kiss_the_Floor” and “Hip_Rotation,” though, Zoey began to attract a crowd. Mr. Union-Jack-and-Plaid – his name was “gyverdick,” by the way – came dancing over to compliment my dance moves. Putting aside a vaguely creepy glitch that periodically made Zoey’s eyes orange and hollow, and putting aside the fact that she still looked just like everyone else in the room, she did look pretty hot kissing the floor and gyrating around.

Interestingly, the room had live support – people with fancy enough outfits that they weren’t just free account drifters, and who would periodically, with the air of fatigue, shout the same instructions into the room, encouraging newbies to congregate for a tour or telling them just what I was waiting to hear – how to change clothes.

Brunette secretary-zombie Zoey soon gave way to a Zoey who looked, if not like me with her Barbie doll figure and perfect hair, at least tonally similar, and dressed in an outfit I wouldn’t mind, if I suddenly found myself in the middle of a bizarre sex world. Feeling more comfortable, I began to try mingling a little. The room was a conflagration of confused messages, mainly people calling out “hi” and asking “how do you…”, though LOL’s and “mm nice” were still plentiful on the dance floor.

“Gyverdick” was still following me around, periodically trying to start awkward conversation or resume dancing, bopping madly in place as I walked away. Hoping to throw him off the scent, I had Zoey take a seat alongside a decidedly hot blond chick with a beer in front of her.

Once seated, I had an entire suite of options become available – namely, whether to drink, and whether to become drunk or merely tipsy. Becoming drunk causes the screen to blur and results in your avatar stumbling about stiltedly, and being tipsy alters the body language more faintly. The rather disturbing implication seems to be that getting your character drunk will broadcast that status to others – a way of “asking for it”? It’s common knowledge, of course, that in clubs alcohol is a sexual lubricant, but I would have liked to have at least the option to hand out a business card or something.

After trying unsuccessfully to start a conversation with the hot blonde, I had to resign myself to crossing the dance floor again, avoiding Gyverdick as I went, though he obliviously called my name again and began to do something that looked like the mashed potato. I know that people in Red Light Center are here for one thing and one thing only, but looks are still important, aren’t they?

Wandering the streets of Red Light Center was like being in some sexual post-apocalypse. There were very few people outside the initial spawn point of the bar I’d just left, and while the streets were full of clubs, flashing signs, and actual photographic advertisements for real porn websites, I entered more than one of these places to find it completely deserted. Weirdly, the cowboy saloon played techno, the two-floor dance club played techno, the red-lit S&M bar played techno. The same song. I began to keep to the streets just for being sick of it.

Confused and repelled by the barrage of real photo ads – these were some hella ugly porn stars – I wandered around looking for signs of life and mistakenly stumbled into a rainbow-and-purple district that loudly proclaimed itself the male-on-male area. A man standing outside a club in nothing but a cowboy hat and pink chaps asked me in what I perceived would be a wry tone, “First time here?” I was beginning to feel despondent – perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to reject Gyverdick. After all, he was sociable, and never once did he say “hottttttttttttttttt”.

Retracing my steps, I stumbled across a gathering of people in the street. These were paying users, barely dressed and elitist, paying no mind to the lost little redhead stumbling about their streets. One guy was completely bare-butt naked, standing around having casual chat. I tried sitting with them, but in a repeat of my high school days, was ignored.

When “Peace_k” came up to me, I was so glad to connect with someone at last that I could overlook the awful fairisle sweater he’d paired with a tiny ponytail, glasses and tight slacks. His English wasn’t great, but it was comprehensible; he complimented Zoey’s outfit, and offered to take me around. He knew a good club, and since we couldn’t type and walk at the same time, it was a quick, quiet jaunt to a Taj Mahal-esque club with an outdoor garden of fountains and benches. With a blue, pink and gold sunset stained high in the sky, things were starting to look up for my adventures in the Red Light Center.

Until we went inside. Yep, the same techno song, and judging by the prolific nudity and let’s-call-‘em-unusual outfits, this was a hotbed of hardcore paying users. They seemed to find the dance scene passé, as their conversations revolved around whether, where and when to have sex with each other. They talked of sex with the same matter-of-fact boredom you might hear on a working girl’s cigarette break. And they seemed connected to their avatars, too – saying they were fatigued of dancing, for example, and sitting down. A naked blonde left with a man in leather pants.

Peace_k led me across the dance floor – alongside the adventurous folk in bondage gear, he looked like someone’s nerdy schoolteacher. It was a little embarrassing, actually – especially when he wanted to climb up on a platform overlooking the entire crowd and bust out some hip-thrusting, head-wrapping dance moves.

We danced for ten minutes – not a long time in the real world, but an arduous eternity to watch avatars gyrate to techno. Peace_k’s not-so-slick moves were occasionally interrupted by enthusiastic compliments of mine – for the sake of politesse and experimental curiosity, I reciprocated. But as time passed – and passed, and passed, it made me wonder what he was up to. I immediately switched from the Shake_That_Thing to the Hop_Hokey_Pokey, and sure enough, Peace_k returned to the keyboard and we left the club.

“Want to kiss me?” He asked. My first action in Red Light Center. Non-paying users can engage in some kissing and hugging, though they need a membership to go any further. We spent a few awkward seconds trying to get properly aligned – and then a very sinuous, uncomfortably intimate kiss began, profusions of hearts coming out of our heads. “Mm, that was sooooooo good,” Peace_k effused, and asked to do it again. To be fair, the close-contact embrace was blatantly titillating to watch – or might have been, had it not been dampened by Peace_k’s dorky look.

Had I been a paying member, this might have been the time when, awkwardly and unceremoniously, my new pal and I got down to our skivvies. Peace_k let me know in no uncertain how excited our virtual smooching was making him – but for him, the next step seemed to be to exchange the urls to our web-based Red Light District profiles. When I checked his out, I noticed it had his real name, a real photo, and info about his preferences, both sexual and mundane – and he seemed distressed that I had not provided that kind of info on myself. More than once, he pressed for AIM, MSN and even phone chat. His photo looked a lot like his in-world avatar; I got the heck outta Dodge.

Where along the line did Red Light Center stop being an MMO game and start being a vehicle to a real-world sexual relationship, albeit an indirect one? What if Peace_k had, by some terrific coincidence, been living a block away (and been my type)? If I’d been married or attached, when would the cheating have begun – the virtual kissing, the real-world info sharing, if we’d met up on MSN, chat or phone, or not until we met in person? Or had I strayed the minute I decided to live in the shoes of sexy vixen Zoey and use her to contact horny men?

Does it come down to the purpose of the world? What if we’d met in WoW, or Guild Wars, or Final Fantasy XI? Does the infidelity occur when we break character, or when we quit talking about the game and start talking about our real-life sex lives? These sort of issues can only be raised in multiplayer worlds – somehow it’s not the same as, say, having a full-fledged crush on Big Boss. I mean, uh, I don't know anyone who has a crush on Big Boss, nope. Anyway.

Perhaps it comes down to how I feel about the experience, what I choose to have it mean to me. Would it have been right for my boyfriend at the time to have been miffed about my visit to Red Light Center, when I found it so chuckle-inducing and generally repugnant? Which, overall, it was. I’ve found being alone in my FFXI Mog House sexier. While of course there’s something to be said for quick-and-dirty visual thrills, I think it comes down to something I’ve said in this column before: firstly, that sexuality, like other thoughts and feelings, is better in the context of character creation and development in a full-fledged game world. And secondly, it’s largely up to me to personalize the character and find ways make that character and his or her world personally valuable. Cutting to the chase just feels cheap, and as far as Red Light District is concerned, I’ll be happier if I never see it -- nor hear that techno song – again.

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]