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If s computer ownership had been limited to hobbyists who built and programmed their own machines, the s were reeling in a new world of potential, non-specialist users: small business owners, housewives, children. The possibilities were endless, and for many consumers, overwhelming. As an erotic episode, Softporn would leave much to the imagination. Softporn was a text-based adventure game, meaning it had no graphics. Softporn is set in a vague, 70s-infused urban dystopia entirely comprised of a bar, a casino, and a disco.
Computer games had escorted players into underground caves, realms of starry space, and sport fields of every kind since the s. Softporn was the creation of Massachusetts-based programmer Chuck Benton, an unlikely man to herald the erotic software revolution. He intended the game as satire, a self-amused catalog of the unique sufferings of his species—the embarrassment of buying a pack of condoms, or accidentally going home with someone who ties you up and steals your cash Benton claims parts of the game were drawn from his own experience, but has never fessed up to which parts.
The game was a silly thing, programmed and play-tested on the weekends, but Benton's guy friends took a liking to it and encouraged him to publish it. The water is bubbling up around her…. A guy really could fall in love with a girl like this. What is remarkable about Softporn isn't that it existed, but that it was commercially sold.
Erotic content had circulated freely on mainframes and minicomputers for decades, whether in the form of dirty joke generators or ASCII print outs of the Playboy bunny head. Raunchy code on a mainframe was available to any curious, specialist user poking around in the file systems. In contrast, microcomputers had an unforeseen potential for privacy, individual use, and personal ownership of code.
Eroticism in this context could be illicit and furtive. Softporn was the computational equivalent of a Penthouse stash. Such bottlenecks eventually inspired innovations like the Dirty Book , a black-market-style catalog of adult programs that was advertised in computer magazines—selling a pamphlet of porn software was considerably less objectionable than selling the software itself, it seems.
Williams was the year-old president and co-founder of On-Line Systems, a software company he and his wife Roberta had launched with the release of their graphical adventure game Mystery House Ken programmed the game but Roberta deed it, making her one of the first female computer game deers in the world. Since then, the Williamses had fostered an indomitable series of graphical adventure games and arcade copycats, long forgotten titles like The Wizard and the Princess and Missile Defense.
Ken, along with a handful of other late-twenties fast risers in the Apple II world, experienced their fame as an unstoppable ascent for the best and the brightest. In other words, Ken had both the self-importance and the naivety to put his well-respected company label on a sex game. The female models were all company employees: Diane Siegal, On-Line's production manager, holds a half-eaten apple in a coy pun on Wozniak's forbidden fruit; in the middle, Susan Davis, On-Line's bookkeeper and wife of programmer Bob Davis; and on the right was Roberta herself, looking as if she had all eternity to meet your gaze.
The photo itself was shot by Brian Wilkinson, an editor at the local newspaper who knew Ken as a guy around town, the kind of guy he might drink beers with. These sparse vignettes give dimension to a process, rather than the singular, famed result that crops up under a Google search. Afternoon fades to sunset fades to evening.
The women grow bored and irritated. An apple is slowly eaten over the course of the shoot. A backdrop is propped up, made from the round lids to the pool. At some point the Apple II was either brought in or taken out.
No one in that hot tub imagined Time magazine on the other end of the lens. There could be no better testament to just how small, insular, and utterly naive the early independent microcomputer software scene was, a corporate culture wrought from the volatile mixture of inexperience and exponential growth. The hot tub ad first ran in the September issue of Softalk , an Apple II enthusiast magazine that was a major advertising venue for On-Line Systems, and instantly became a lightning rod of controversy as instantly as anything could happen in the days of paperbound magazines and mailed letters.
Notably, the controversy was not just about Softporn. The earliest responses arrived in the November issue of Softalk. There are many [Apple] owners with children who read their issue of the magazine. Finding an ad like yours in the magazine must certainly put these parents off. It is bad enough that their children's television viewing hours are riddled with sexual themes and suggestions. Now can't even attempt to work with a computer—an essentially sexless tool—without being besieged with these unnecessary .
Opponents largely critiqued the from a social conservative position, suggesting the representations harmed children and did not reflect family values. To a lesser extent, the were opposed on the grounds of the feminist anti-pornography politics of the day. The argument was so extensive, Softalk whose own editor-in-chief was a woman, Margot Comstock even defended its editorial decision to run the , writing:. In general, it's been a pitiably small minority that have raised their voices to object to these .
In fact, more than three times as many persons have called with support for carrying those types of as have protested. But even more cogent is the point that nothing, not even the pure science of computer programming exists external to the society within which it functions. The dialogue around Softporn was perhaps the first time a cultural debate happened within a microcomputing and gaming community itself. In written responses to the ad, readers were sorting through just what they thought their industry should look like, but also questions that were far bigger than microcomputers or games: What is this technology for?
What is its potential? How will such images affect the people who see them? What is our responsibility to public good versus individual freedom? What Softporn proves, this most ridiculous, this most unfortunate, this so pitifully blank entry in the history of games, is that friction—between consumers, between industry and consumer, between industry and concerned public—is painful in its moment, but 35 years later only marks how we make new habits and strange technologies familiar.
Women were teaching computer literacy classes in the interstate outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. In the microcomputer and its allied industries were not already destined to become a space where women are violently harassed for discussing inequity, or simply pd to have no native interest in technology. Its future was not yet determined, and need not have played out the way it did. Sierra On-Line never sold another text adventure.
He started his own tech company in , and never made another game. It is a property that has aged poorly into the 21st century though, repeating the same predictable puns and juvenile obsessions. Benton never deed the game to last. In some sense, Softporn is least interesting as a game, and most interesting as a piece of social theater. While Softporn seemingly affirms every long-suffering trope gaming has to offer—its latent misogyny, its middling cultural stakes, its limp internal humor—it was also developed under shifting social and spatial constraints within an emerging populist computer culture.
Softporn flexed a predictable, uninspired muscle against disorienting technological and social circumstances that we long ago forgot were ever disorienting. No one much knew what to do with microcomputers when they lugged them into a garage, basement, or kitchen. Their uses were always equal parts technological utopia and domestic banality hence the early s fondness for digital recipe organizers. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe. Time Magazine.
October 5, Photo courtesy of Sierra Gamers. Softporn Screenshot. Courtesy www. Softporn advertisement, September Courtesy Softalk Apple Preservation Project. Unreleased images from Softporn cover photo shoot. Courtesy Brian Wilkinson. Ad for Interlude , Photo courtesy of Softalk Apple Preservation Project.Erotic text adventure games
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