A camera follows four navy seals as they wade stealthily into a city under siege. Three of the four are doing their job, wary, silent, guns drawn. The fourth, though, starts shooting in the air, jumping and running in circles, using up all his bullets. The camera cuts over from the fourth SEAL to reveal a delinquent gamer controlling his actions, hand clenched firmly on the shoot button, gazing distractedly out the window at a blond in a bikini.
This TV ad, put together by the marketing team for the game SOCOM 2: U.S. Navy SEALs, blatantly makes the point that the whole gaming thing is closely linked to masturbation.
The most obvious link is the joystick. You don't have to be a Freudian to find a phallic symbol in a product manufactured by Thrustmaster.
The exception to this pattern occurs when gamers pick an avatar and play with an online community. This gaming technique has precisely the same advantages as online dating or surfing for porn: emotional and physical needs can be met behind a veil of anonymity.
The joystick has evolved since Atari first introduced it in 1977. The most famous transition occurred in 1985, when game-pads to accompany the Nintendo Entertainment System were released. Then, as gaming emerged as a social activity, designers realized that jerking a joystick in a room full of your friends might be a bit embarrassing, which explains the introduction of a less suggestive game controller.
BMX XXX, one of the first games to include nudity, features video clips from a strip club in New York City. Or consider the much-maligned Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in which characters can sleep with prostitutes. For games like this, console manufacturers have created the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which hands out ratings on a voluntary basis so consumers can stay informed. The "K for Kids" and "M for Mature" tags are used all the time, but the brand new "AO for Adults Only" has yet to be applied.
"There are lots of pornographic games for the PC," says Dan Slivinski of Microplay Games on Queen West, "but they're never going to be mainstream because the programmers don't submit their games for rating with the ESRB."
The soft-core stuff is still very available. DOA: Extreme Beach Volleyball is a terrible game by traditional standards but still manages to lure players with its scantily clad women onscreen.
Gamers can watch the jiggling and giggling cartoon figures suntan and snorkel, and can even buy new bikinis for their favourites. A recent ad features a room full of 20-something men gazing at the screen as the buxom bunnies launch themselves though the sand.
"Play with a friend or by yourself," says the narrator as pillows are pulled across crotches.
This despite the fact that the first generation of gamers has clearly grown up.
"Today the average gamer is a 27-year-old white male," says Slivinski. "Ten years ago it was a 17-year-old white male. It's only natural that as players become interested in different things, their games reflect it."
But do they? The archaic phallic joystick has been replaced by the neutral, more sophisticated game pad. Similarly, game content and marketing strategies need to catch up with the demographic of the players, almost half of whom are now women. We need to encourage the blond in the SOCAM 2 ad to put on some clothes and try playing the game instead of serving as an object of the male gamers' gaze.
But don't expect game manufacturers to make these kinds of changes any time soon. They won't even talk about it, or as Bill Lynn, representative of Rockstar Games, the company that makes Grand Theft Auto, tells me on the phone from Oregon, "Rockstar doesn't usually contribute to stories like this."