Adult Entertainment Virtual Convention: Inside the World of Wank-Craft
The main virtual hall
Most conventions are pants-mandatory kinds of affairs -- even those of the adult nature. For the world's first virtual porn convention, however, I'm not wearing any (relax ... I'm in my PJs).
This past weekend, XBiz and Red Light Center hosted the Adult Entertainment Virtual Convention, porn's first online-exclusive gathering in a 3-D web environment called "Utherverse." If that all sounds a bit strange and complicated -- you don't even know the half of it.
Trying to explain the very nature of this whole thing requires more nerd references than I'm capable of conveying to a broad audience -- but here goes. Imagine if World of Warcraft wasn't all about wizards and war but instead sex and stimulation, and was designed by Neil Stephenson and William Gibson's bastard love child. Did I lose you? What if each porn website you visited was a little 3-D world and all of the people looking at it were in it with you, rubbing pixilated elbows (or crotches). That's pretty much it. Only, the Utherverse isn't all porn, per se. Or maybe it is. We'll get to that.
The writer on the virtual red carpet
I'm attending this conference in my PJs, but my avatar is dressed much like I would in a real-world situation like this -- tie, jeans and Chucks. But most attendees have exceeded my limited virtual world imagination by leaps and bounds. There are cats, leopards with wings, and dudes in digital Affliction t-shirts, also with wings. Like most conventions, there are booths, vendors, ads and people milling about aimlessly. Unlike most conventions, we're in this bizarre World of Wank-Craft, and some people are flying.
I get a chance to talk to Brian Shuster, the man behind this whole universe. With a background in cartooning and entrepreneurship on what he calls "the flat web" (i.e., what you're staring at right now), he was inspired to create the Vancouver-based Utherverse in 2002 based on observations of some early pre-WoW MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) adventures. "We found that these games became a flirtfest," he says. They were full of lonely dudes, but "one girl would show up and everyone would lose interest in whatever quest they were on...they'd want to show her around or help her," he says. So he and his partners created the Utherverse, which was just about social interaction, and more or less a competitor to the better-known virtual world, Second Life.
Inspired by a trip to Amsterdam, he added to the Utherverse a Red Light Center in 2006, a virtual adult world based on Amsterdam's Red Light District. In this little world, there are bordellos, bathhouses and even hookah bars, where subscribers can live out whatever fantasy they can conceive of, using self-styled digital avatars. "When you think about it, Facebook is so isolating," Shuster says. "Here, people are mentally stimulated in the same way as they are in real life interactions."
In this convention, at the outset, I personally do not feel as stimulated as I would at a real-life adult-con. Walking around with an avatar offers no real-world sounds and smells. The environment looks like a convention space -- hanging banners, exhibit tables and even a networking bar. Sure, it's overall easier to navigate, and I can do my laundry while my avatar does all the online mingling -- even when other avatars are just standing around publicly sucking face. But there's something missing. I can't put my virtual finger on it.
Maybe it's the lack of free food? I'm not sure how I feel about food at a porn convention anyhow -- although given the general sculpted-body fitness that most porn stars sport, I'm not so sure it will be the unhealthy slop I've seen at lesser, non-adult conventions.
Opening day sessions are all aimed at adult-industry insiders, as there are sessions on social media, law and virtual world monetization. Stephen Yagielowicz, senior editor at the adult industry publication XBiz, gives a rousing set of opening remarks, reminding attendees that the adult entertainment industry is full of some pretty erudite and well-reasoned freedom fighters. The biz generally concerns consenting adults interacting with other consenting adults, not some menacing Moloch out to corrupt your children. Even in the 3-D virtual world. Later, lighter topics include managing your twitter account, and making sure your twit-pics stay sexy as well as legal.
At this point, the 3-D world is actually kind of growing on me. I'm getting tons of chores done in real life, and my avatar's eyes don't reflexively glaze over, no matter how tired my real self gets of hearing the same lame body humor jokes. In the fake world, I have a giant digital badge that identifies me as a journalist, and quick work is made of introductions -- everyone's avatar is linked to their online Utherverse profile, eliminating at least half of all informational small talk. But I feel a little more awkward in this world than I am in reality, unable to rely on normal human facial expressions and body language.
For others, the virtual world makes interactions easier. Derek D, the Main Hall's DJ puts it succinctly, "My avatar's looking real sharp. In real life, I'm fat, hairy and I've got a small dick! In cyberspace, everybody's sexy!" he says as he spins tunes and invites attendees to interact with him at the booth.
Utherverse and Red Light Center are pretty easy to mock. Why don't these people just get out and meet real people in real life? Maybe get some real, actual sex? Isn't the Internet teeming with ways for real people to get really filthy?
Sure, but "Sigmilla," a 40-something woman and Utherverse member since 2008, offers some insight into the allure of an online world. "I joined it kinda by accident looking for other social sites, and I've been on here ever since," she says. "On here you can interact with people from around the world, something that doesn't always happen in real life," she continues. While most subscribers are from North America, there are plenty who aren't, and that instantaneous global reach draws in most of those users. "So it isn't all about sex?" I ask. "Well, yeah, that's part of it," she responds.