Inspired by the marriage discussion, I decided to start a new thread tying the conversation to a roundtable that Kelly Rued ran at Indie MMOG on sex in MMOGs. One of the things Kelly brought up that I thought was really interesting was that it wasn't just about "intercourse" but also about intimacy. She cited mechanics such as cuddling and sitting in someone's lap as ways to create intimacy. Sex often takes place in a private chat window and doesn't necessarily have to be represented on the screen; people will "cyber" (a new term I learned!) in pretty much any circumstances. (I recently read a blog post about two naked avatars having a tryst in the tram tunnel in World of Warcraft.)
She also pointed out that Second Life is a kind of petri dish for looking at what people want, since everything is user-created. And while it's true that people make penises, sex animations and bondage paraphernalia, what is less talked about is all of the intimacy animations that people make: hugs, kisses, cuddles, lap-sitting, couples dancing, etc. Even in Uru, on a less romantic level, one player invented the "Ki hug", which was done by standing chest-to-chest with another avatar and looking at your Ki, a kind of wristwatch/PDA device. In this position, the avatars would appear to others to be hugging, although the view was obscured for those in the embrace due to the heads-up display of the Ki. In There, which has no touching, someone made a bed that basically had two seats embedded in it so avatars would look like they were under the covers.
The point of this is that people seem to like to have a range of ways of being physical which aren't necessarily sexual, or may be sexual but not necessarily sex. On the other hand, how do you protect players from unwanted intimacy? This was a big problem in The Sims Online. The first time it happened to me I wasn't familiar with the controls and when the permission box came up I accidentally granted a guy permission to kiss me. Anyone who's read Julian Dibbell's now infamous "A Rape in Cyberspace" (http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle.html) will know that it is relatively easy for avatars to "violate" each other. So in addition to mechanics of intimacy we also need to think about mechanics of consent. Second Life has a feature that asks your permission before animating you, but you really have no idea what the animation is going to be, and often sexual poses are couched in metaphorical terms like "relax."
I also think space has a role to play here. It seems like many games lack private and intimate space. In Lineage 1 you were able to rent a private room in an Inn. In Guild Wars, on the other hand, I frequenly see strip teases going on in the public square, and once saw to avatars pressed up against each other and dancing in a highly suggestive fashion. So we might also want to think about intimate spaces as well as mechanics.
In any case I think these trends bring us back to Roy Ascott's question from his famous essay "Is there love in the telematic embrace?" (1990) The answer seems to be, yes, of course! So as designers I think it is worth exploring the question: In what way do people want to connect, and what kind of specific game mechanics, affordances and spaces can we put in place to facilitate that? And how can we give people the freedom to have intimate and physical interactions while protecting them from unwanted intimacy?