How Gamers are Shaping the Future of Porn

By Richard Wordsworth on at

“We’re in every country except four.” There is a pause. It sounds like Rebecca Bolen is looking at a map. “Yemen,” she says after a moment. Another pause. “It looks like we’re also not in Somalia. It looks like we’re not in… No, we are in South Sudan! We have two users in South Sudan!”

The other end of our Skype call sounds like the war room scene from a film, with stony-faced generals pushing plastic tanks around a world map with sticks. The reality is less sinister. Bolen is the marketing and PR manager for SugarDVD (NSFW), the American ‘Netflix of Porn’, which has been slowly expanding its empire through set-top-box, mobile and console streaming to almost every country on the planet.

“There are some countries where it’s illegal, but you can do it,” she says. “I’m not going to suggest [how], because it’s not our fault if anyone gets executed. But you can view us anywhere the ISP doesn’t block us.”

If this were a war, prudishness would be sitting forlornly at its desk, holding a whisky and a service pistol.

I first spoke to Bolen in December of last year, for another Kotaku article exploring the future of virtual reality porn. In the course of some particularly fastidious research, I’d heard whispers that SugarDVD was investigating the possibilities for a whole new type of adult experience built from the ground up for the Oculus Rift. I e-mailed, we spoke, and that - I thought - would be the end of it. But in the months after the interview, Bolen sent me a series of fascinating infographics (which you can see on this page) breaking down, bluntly, who was wanking to what on which console.

inforgraphicExcerpt of SugarDVD infographic. Full image here.

It was a revelation. I’d suspected that most people had, in moments of laptop-less desperation, squinted at something ungentlemanly on a tiddly phone screen, or laboriously searched for the same using their console’s virtual keyboard. But Bolen’s infographics told a different story: not only were people sneaking in cheeky peeps on basically anything with a screen, but there were enough people doing so that you could sort them by platform and paint a revealing picture of what each of those demographics looked like. Are you an Android user? Then you are statistically more likely to prefer Big Asses to Girl-on-Girl. You’re also kinkier than those Apple-toting ingenues browsing Big Boobed Amateurs on their iPhones. No point in arguing: this is now science.

But SugarDVD has also been collecting data on console gamers. The app, which is available for PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One and Wii U (as an HTML 5 web app - neither Microsoft nor Sony would tacitly endorse porn through their storefronts, and even being in the same room as an exposed nipple makes the Wii U literally catch fire), has seen enough use by gamers that SugarDVD has been able to break down the sort of porn you’re likely to enjoy according to whether you’re Team Chief or Team Drake.

“Xbox users are younger and they watch stereotypically younger categories,” says Bolen - which Eddie, one of the app’s programmers, then clarifies to mean, “College, All-Girl - kind of what people would consider the more ‘vanilla’ categories.”

“PlayStation users like more of a specialised experience,” he continues. “So that’s where you see more of the niche stuff, like Japanese, Redhead…”

“Well, technically Xbox [users] view Redhead more often,” Bolen jumps in. “The younger generation is definitely more interested in redheads while the older generation is more interested in blondes. And PlayStation users usually have more disposable income, from what we can tell… It’s that kind of customer that really, really knows what they want. Whereas Xbox users tend to browse a lot more, PlayStation users tend to go directly to what they want.”

The data SugarDVD collects on its demographics is extensive, at first bafflingly so (“in China, the head search term is usually ‘Japanese Wife’,” Bolen drops in, casually). What are all these gigabytes of porn predilections being collected for? Beyond the (very specialist) pub quiz knowledge that the Faroe Islands have a higher percentage of paying pornography consumers than the UK (at least through SugarDVD’s service), what’s the point of it?

infographicExcerpt of SugarDVD infographic. Full image here.

Well, one thing that Bolen and Eddie make very clear is it’s not about recording what you - in your living room, on your console - are watching. Your PS Eye is not recording you. Your Xbox is not listening for heavy breathing.

“It’s definitely not used for anything nefarious,” says Bolen. “[And] we have multiple, multiple high-profile security systems to keep our privacy intact... The last thing we ever want to be is some stereotypical porn company [where] people worry about pop-ups and ads and viruses and so on. I can understand why it would be a concern, but there’s never been any record of any kind of privacy leaks.”

Rather, SugarDVD uses metrics in the same way as its more mainstream cousins like Netflix: to decide what it buys from its producers. And while it doesn’t produce porn itself, that indirectly affects the sorts of porn many of those studios make (“We talk to them and say, ‘well, we’re not going to pay for that title, we’re not going to pay for this contract, we’re only going to pay for titles and contracts that have this content, this porn star, that are this long, this definition and this format,” Bolen says. “So, they definitely follow [those guidelines].”).

But its latest focus on gamers is particularly interesting. Console-friendly, censorship-skirting apps aside, SugarDVD is chasing the gamer dollar with some gusto: in 2012 the company had its own stand at E3, fronted partly by porn stars like Misti Dawn. It’s also been to PAX East and PAX Prime, and will be reappearing at E3 this summer, throwing events that it caters with free drinks and cupcakes.

“We make sure our events are completely…” Bolen pauses. “There’s no-one in a bikini. We’re not showing porn on the screens… We definitely don’t have any nudity at our events. People can ask [about us] and we have press kits and everything. It’s very, very professional.

“There is that preconceived notion that, ‘Oh, they’re a porn company, obviously they’re just going to show up and have big orgies at our event.’ I mean, I’ve seen video game companies that just have, you know, T&A [tits and ass] everywhere, and there’s not really anything wrong with that, it’s just that there is some judgement there, so that’s why we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

infoExcerpt of SugarDVD infographic. Full image here.

If your business is selling porn through streaming, then hitting up gaming events makes excellent sense. And that would be a compelling story in itself, were that were the end of SugarDVD’s ambitions. But naturally, there’s more to it than that. Because while gamers and porn make natural bedfellows, games that are themselves pornographic are a huge empty space in the industry - one on which SugarDVD has been keeping a close eye.

“We were looking at VR for a while,” says Bolen, when I ask if SugarDVD is planning to use the data it’s collected on gamers to pull a Netflix and create the House of Cards of gaming porn. “We went to VRLA [Virtual Reality Los Angeles], and we did a documentary with Vice, where they came over and watched us as we were scanning Alex Chance and Nina Elle for use in VR. We were looking into it, but it seems like the technology… is not quite there yet.

“Ideally, we [would want] to have a full-on game, something that was a custom experience where you could customise your character, customise the girl, customise the sex acts and the positions. We were even looking at the company Digital Domain, because they did the holograms for Tupac [This reference took me a few moments of Googling to understand - Bolen is talking about an astonishing holographic performance by the late rapper at the Coachella music festival in 2012, and sadly not about Tupac’s posthumous launch into the adult film industry].

“We were asking, ‘how can we get something that’s really realistic?’” she continues. “So while the technology [now] seems like it’s mostly just animated, and we [wouldn’t] really mind doing it so it looks like a video game, we’d prefer to do an immersive experience where [your partner] looks like a real-life person and not just an animated skin, you know? We really want to do something that looks like real life, not something that looks like it’s out of Dragon Age.

“I mean, Dragon Age’s graphics look pretty cool, but not exactly what we’re looking for.”

When I point out that Japan already has an adult games industry that doesn’t obviously suffer from a cartoon-y aesthetic, Eddie’s in agreement with Bolen that it’s not the direction for SugarDVD, or for ‘immersive’ porn in general.

“A lot of people these days, not just with adult content but with any kind of cinematic movie experience, they’re looking for ultra-realism,” he says. “They want higher definition, they want better sound. And to make a game [like that], it’s kind of like you’re taking a step back in terms of graphics and user experience… When you’re watching an adult movie, you want to feel like you’re there. So, when you see pixels, that kind of stuff snaps you out of the fantasy.”

“You see today in the games industry, [things like] Assassin’s Creed: Unity. [Ubisoft Montreal is] a big studio, it’s a big title, and [still] you have these major glitches where skin is disappearing, eyeballs are floating in the air, people are walking through walls… I think if that happens even once or twice in an [adult] film, it’s kind of enough to take people out of it.”

“The glitches in Red Dead Redemption were hilarious,” adds Bolen. “Can you imagine experiencing that in an adult space?”

As we’ve said before, the coupling of video games and porn is a funny business - the sort of thing that people like (we’ve seen the page views), but generally won’t admit that they like. Between that and the horrors of performers suddenly losing their eyeballs or being catapulted through the air by their horses (hey, we don’t judge), porn games’ underground nature doesn’t seem likely to change soon. But in the meantime, SugarDVD’s data mining algorithms will be patiently hoovering up gamers’ clicks and button presses, breaking them down and building them up into a bawdy blueprint for the future. And if you CTRL+T’d at any point reading this article to check out its website for yourself, it’s a future you’re a part of now, too.