Game On

Can they show penetration? Dog Bites visits the Game Developers Conference to find out.

"You're sending a woman into a dungeon protecting her groin and breasts," marvels Brathwaite. A man in glasses reasons that chain-mail bikinis have magical properties. Brathwaite admits that she has designed a few of the outfits herself. In the rear, a woman announces she is working on a sex-positive erotic simulator, which causes every head in the room to turn, as one, toward the raven-haired designer. "The problem is poor design," she says. "There needs to be more choice. Women are simply presented as ready for sex."

The following day, we nod through a 9 a.m. lecture on Joseph Campbell, perhaps the 20th century's leading thinker on the power of myth and mythmaking, by game designer and novelist Bob Bates. Campbell is a god to developers, and Bates instructs them on the nuances of the hero's journey, the playbook for role-playing games. Create a believable myth and you've got yourself a steady flow of royalty checks. "The force of myth is irresistible," Bates says. "Games are myth-reinforcing activities. We need to believe we matter. Player and character become one through the magic of identification."

He's right. No other medium has quite this power. In gaming, youswing the sword that severs the head that topples the enemy, not an actor. You cause the bloody chaos, not Uma Thurman. It's this power that makes people nervous. No one wants kids simulating sex, and to Wal-Mart and most of America, games, even when stamped with an M rating, are still for kids.

On our way out, as we pass through the independent-games pavilion, our eye catches Jonathan Skinner, a slight, bearded man with a permanent smile standing next to what is clearly a labor of love: Steer Madness, a computer game starring a pacifist, vegan cow. Homemade signs adorn Skinner's booth; an indie-band soundtrack muffles nearby explosions. He offers the controller to wary passing groups, shrugs, and turns back to his bicycling cow, which "receives rabbits, delivers soymilk, protests fur, and changes advertisements." No sex, no violence. It's the only game we've seen with veggie dogs.

Skinner spent two years designing Steer Madness. In his version of "the crunch," the harrowing drive to complete a game, he lived off Visa and worked nonstop for six months. His game is up for a few awards at the Independent Games Festival, notably for the soundtrack. He agrees that his presence at this conference is odd. His game is sold in vegan stores and the PETA catalog.

Later that night at the awards show, applause erupts as the freewheeling steer appears on-screen. Everyone is slightly drunk, thanks to free booze at an earlier Booth Crawl. Steer Madness wins its category, Skinner's indie-band soundtrack scoring him an award for Innovation in Audio. He hustles to the stage, says a few inaudible words into a dead microphone, and the animal-activist genre is born, proof positive that in gaming, anything can, and eventually will, come to pass. (Michael Leaverton)

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