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Sex, schmoozing and video games

The first-ever conference about the future of the adult-oriented video games industry kicks off in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO--If you were looking for the movers and shakers in the world of adult-oriented video games Thursday, most of them could be found here.

That's because about 150 of them--publishers, developers, programmers, writers and marketers--had gathered for the first-ever Sex in Video Games conference. The two-day affair kicked off Thursday with a series of panels, but the real work going on was networking and cementing the notion that the nascent industry can support its own conference.

To be sure, there's been sex in video games almost as long as there have been video games. That was one of the major points made during Thursday's morning keynote address by Brenda Brathwaite, chair of the International Game Developers Association's sex special interest group and a conference organizer.

Throughout Brathwaite's talk, in which she briefly discussed the history of sex in video games and then gave a comprehensive review of the previous year, the longtime game designer talked about the benefits of gathering a group of sex-positive people who agree that video games are a natural medium for sex-oriented material, and one that should be treated no differently from movies, books, comic books or any other medium in which adults choose to examine sex.

But because the conference is an opportunity for many in the industry to learn how to market their games in the post-"Hot Coffee" era--meaning after the 2005 scandal in which the popular game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" was discovered to contain hidden sexual content, despite its being rated for ages 17 and up rather than for adults only--many on hand were interested in talking about what it will take to get the growing number of adult-oriented games off the ground.

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Video: Sex, games and videotape
Adults-only game developers make their play at Sex in Videogames conference.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced Thursday it had reached a settlement with "Grand Theft Auto" publisher Take Two after a months-long investigation into the "Hot Coffee" scandal. Under the terms of the settlement, Take Two agreed to properly label its games in the future and not to hide age-inappropriate content.

"Our purpose (in being at the conference) is we think there needs to be a concerted effort by a lot of people in this industry to be a success," said Brad Abram, president of XStream3D, publisher of "Virtually Jenna," the game based on the life of porn star Jenna Jameson. The conference is "more about the networking (than about the content) and putting faces to names. There are still old-school ways of doing business that are appropriate for any industry."

Anthony Valterra, director of business development for Lamplighter Studios, which creates 3D assets for video games, agreed. He was at the conference to try to nail down deals with publishers, and on Thursday seemed to be succeeding.

"Even though right now a lot of the companies here are underfunded and underexperienced," Valterra said, "some of them have funding and we'd love to work for them."

He explained that he'd gotten at least two publishers on hand interested in his company's offerings.

Meanwhile, to Brathwaite, putting on the conference after nearly a year as head of the IGDA's sex special interest group was an exercise both in bringing the people together who are crucial to getting more mainstream acceptance for the industry and also in indulging her own curiosity.

"Every single panel is there because I wanted an answer" to a question, Brathwaite said in her morning talk.

Later, she told CNET that she had worked hard to ensure that the mix of conference attendees would stimulate progress for the industry.

"Everybody that I invited are here, all the representative groups," Brathwaite said. "Developers, publishers, players, First Amendment lawyers, designers, programmers and artists. I deliberately did not invite a panel of politicians."

And that was probably smart, given that many politicians have attacked the video games industry for making it too easy for children to encounter sexual material in spite of the industry's rating system, which decrees which age groups video games are appropriate for.

Growth on the horizon
All the games talked about at the conference Thursday were for adults only.

Some attendees felt that the adult video games industry is on the verge of significant growth, as long as its major players pay attention to what its potential customers want.

"I believe that for the multiplayer (adult-oriented) games to develop to their full potential, the publishers should be aware of (the experiences of the mainstream) of Internet users who have had cybersex or who are interested in sexual interaction," said Regina Lynn, an author and columnist who writes about sex, and in particular online sex. "So you'll have to reach out to that audience and know what their (desires are) because they might be resistant at first and you want their minds and their bodies to open up."

But Lynn, who is not a gamer by trade, nonetheless was encouraged by what she saw at the conference Thursday, especially when it came to serious discussion of how to make adult-oriented video games a reality.

"I'm really glad the dialogue has started," she said. "I believe this conference, in particular, has convened a diverse group of people who can learn from each other, and it legitimizes the interest and development and the fact that these (games) aren't just tossed out there. They're thought out and developed."

In any case, during a day in which attendees listened to panels on topics as varied as "Selling adult games," "Integrating the adult and game markets" and "What emergent sex can teach developers," it was notable that many here wanted to talk about what the industry has to learn in order to grow.

And that is the kind of levelheaded thinking that may well result in the kind of growth those in the industry would like to see.

"First we have to start educating the adult (public) that it's going to take time if we don't have the money," Abram told the audience. "So we have to grow organically. There's a lot of cross-pollination to be had."