Software Pornography and How Computers Lost their Innocence

As part of its on-going series on digital culture in collaboration with scholars from the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing, the Atlantic has a fascinating piece on the first adult-themed computer software program. Softporn, for the Apple IIe was a text-based adventure story where you play a protagonist who is trying again and again to get laid. The game is a precursor to the Leisure Suit Larry series and the often bizarre and quite popular Japanese dating simulation genre.

The part of Laine Nooney’s article I found the most intriguing from the perspective of technoculture is the controversy over ads for the software title appearing in mainstream computer enthusiast magazines. After the ad featuring three topless women in a hottub (all affiliated with the software production company, incidentally) appeared in Softalk magazine, one letter-to-the-editor writer complained that now she would not be able to use the magazine’s tutorials in the computer courses she teaches, lest her students come across this inappropriate ad. “Women will never get out of the bedroom if this type of advertising is continued,” she contended in 1981, a time when the computer field was still not deeply culturally gendered as a masculine profession and the number of women pursuing degrees in computer science was still on the rise.

Nooney writes,

Under Softalk‘s pen, “the pure science of computer programming” was exposed for what it had always been: socially embedded, politically fraught, brittle in its appeal to scientific objectivity. The dialogue around Softporn was perhaps the first time a cultural debate happened within a microcomputing and gaming community itself. Unlike the moral panics that shadowed Custer’s Revenge or Death Race, Softalk’s letter-writers were both consumers and producers of the fledging microcomputer industry, advertisers who were also always its subscribers. 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?

Ultimately, the game’s advertising was dropped, but what the legacy of Softporn reveals is the critical moment when computers became recognized as not just a neutral, scientific tool, but a medium for cultural expression and meaning-making that could offer their users a new, procedural mode of both expression and the experience of getting inside of stories. As a window into microworlds, the computer was not only a new frontier for science but a potentially threatening space that could disrupt the social order.