We’ve all forgotten things. I’m a particular expert at it, especially when I’m stressed. This forms a special spiral of the absurd when I need to travel somewhere, because stressing about forgetting or losing things makes me more likely to forget or lose things. As a result, I’ve managed to end up on the opposite side of a country from my passport on at least three separate occasions.
Logically then, I should sympathise with the protagonists in the recent VR game Sexbot: Quality Assurance Simulator. But I’m just not. In it, humanity has been forced to flee the Earth, except in the rush they managed to accidentally leave behind all the women, which is quite the oversight.
This goes beyond the classic ‘how on earth did this get made?’ line of questioning for the developers, and into the ‘are you ok bud? I think we need to sit down and have a bit of a talk, don’t you?’ zone.
Having not played the game, I’m a little woolly on whether the femicidal oversight is explained as resulting from a full Handmaid’s Tale systematic exclusion of all women, or if it just didn’t occur to the developers that it’d be pretty hard to evacuate an entire populace without there being a huge number of women involved in orchestrating the entire thing… There’s a whole other article to be written about the troubling assumptions underlying this premise but, for now at least, let’s roll with it because these questions certainly aren’t answered in the trailers.
So, on the good spaceship ‘noh gurls allowd’ our male survivors are facing a crisis of companionship and turn to technology to solve their problem. The result being a plethora of female robots. This is starting to resemble that scene from Austin Powers, except, plot twist, the robots are programmed to only respond positively if the player treats them nicely. As a quality assurance operative the game urges you to “be gentle, sensitive and ensure the survival of the human race.”
In doing so this game attempts to step away from the precipice of purely misogynistic fantasy – sex robots in space – and instead seems to act as a form of social training. This isn’t an entirely new idea, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a commercially-released game.
Researchers working alongside the US military have explored using VR as a way of helping survivors of trauma by reliving experiences in a controlled environment. Other teams have looked to virtual reality as a tool for helping people with extreme social anxiety. Researchers at Oxford University developed a simulation of riding on a semi-crowded Underground train to help people suffering from paranoia. The common thread here being that exploring potentially emotionally difficult situations can be made easier when it’s in a controlled, low-stakes environment.
Sexbot: Quality Assurance Simulator is, in some ways, a logical extension of this kind of social training. Some users may find interacting with a VR character a lower-stakes option than interacting with real people and encouraging some behaviours (polite conversation, not staring at someone’s tits, accepting rejection gracefully) could potentially give that person more chance of having positive social experiences in the real world.
Of course this is politely side-stepping the fact that the game is heavily focused on sexual interactions rather than your more common dating simulators, which have been around in some form since at least the 1990s. At least there’s a strong focus on female sexual pleasure which, for a game that literally begins with the elimination of all women, is surprisingly progressive. The same voice that urges you to be gentle and sensitive also advises the player to do whatever it takes to arouse the bots.
However, while Sexbot: Quality Assurance Simulator appears to have at least some good intent, it still falls down on the issue of treating women as, on a base level, deterministic automata. Underlying a game that at a minimum encourages civil behaviour and a focus on female pleasure, lies the quiet assumption that if you do X a lot, Y will happen.
None of this is to say that treating robots like crap is necessarily a great thing either. But when it comes to violence against robots, (unlike violence against women and other marginalised people), there seems to be serious interest in the tech sector to find new ways of tackling the problem.
Numerous research groups are looking at how to optimize human-robot interactions to minimise resentment in cooperative workplaces – and some researchers are looking at getting an early start in acclimatising people to not being dicks to robots. Earlier this year, a research collaboration between Naver Labs, KAIST and Seoul National University presented its work on creating a robotic tortoise, Shelly, that is designed to interact with children. If the kids get a bit too excited and start, say, hitting the tortoise, Shelly is designed to retract its arms, legs and head and go into a robotic sulk.
Perhaps Sexbot: Quality Assurance Simulator is a little uncomfortable because the need for such social training seems to be closer to reality than we’d like to admit – and it’s not one tech is addressing. For now at least, that focus seems more on getting us to be nice to robots than it is on getting us to be nice to each other.