Sexting with a bot: Exploring tech and intimacy with dirty messages

I've been in many awkward situations, but sexting 5 feet from a coworker is what I'd call a landmark. I type out a tame message — "take me to your bed" — and wait nervously for a response.

Clutched in both hands, my phone suddenly feels like a taboo token, a dirty magazine I'm amazed no one has snatched away and tossed into a pile labeled "indecent." I keep my back to the wall and my screen tilted to prevent accidental peeping from curious eyes. I blush with every message I send and every one I receive. I'd probably be more subtle holding a dildo.

My discomfort has more to do with the location of my experience and less with the interaction. The person on the receiving end of my smutty SMS isn't actually a person at all. It's a bot written by Kara Stone and developed by Nadine Lessio as part of a mobile game called Sext Adventure.

Sext Adventure is a text adventure in the truest sense of the phrase. It uses an engine called txtr, a mix of Python and web-based SMS services, to turn texts into a game. For $5, you have 24 hours to trade narrative-driven messages with a bot by responding with a highlighted keyword. "Are you at HOME or OUT?" the bot will ask, perhaps followed by "Thinking about taking a BATH and getting into BED."

Each word will take you through a different narrative thread, complete with blush-worthy images (from the very NSFW dick pics to even more NSFW money shots) and lip-biting sentiments. But this isn't just a game about feeling sexy; it's a narrative with something to share about multiplicity and how we connect with others.

"Sometimes it wants to choke you ... "

"Digital intimacy is so interesting and influential on this game because when people are sexting, you often forget about the medium and the phone you're texting on," Stone told Polygon. "It's something you have to do on the phone by definition. It's affecting the experience. It's defining what it is."

Stone called Sext Adventure a way to explore the technology at the root of our daily interactions with the people we bring into our beds. And the people we don't. Smartphones keep us linked through tweets, texts, Instagrams and Snapchats, but physically cut off from the people we're communicating with. Sexting is a way to pass a boring ride on the train home with someone in another neighborhood. But it's also another barrier to talking with people less than an arm's reach away.

" ... and sometimes it's really sad and depressed."

"I get why you would want to avoid human contact and experience sexual intimacy via your phone rather than interpersonal relationships," the bot told me during one exchange. "Human bodies are so messy and soft and gooey. It's kind of lonely though."

That might sound like judgment on the tip of its tongue, but fear not, The Sext Bot isn't here to scrutinize you. It doesn't give a damn about your sexuality and gender preference. Sext Adventure isn't even really about sex, Stone said. It's about exploring technology and sexuality.

You do what you want — until the bot does what it wants. The promise of complication-free, guiltless sex isn't totally truthful.

"I want people to think about how the other person on the end of the line has agency," Stone said. "Through each narrative, the bot develops a sense of agency and a sense of self with its own desires and expressions. It was important to me to get people to think about [how] people, and even technology, aren't just there for their every whim. It might have its own desires and stuff it wants to do.

"Sometimes it wants to choke you, and sometimes it's really sad and depressed."

Although the bot seemed happy to please me at first, it would begin to ramble or glitch as we got deeper into our texting. It even sent me nude images along with texts — Stone's friends posed for the racy shots — that were off-color or pixelated. Sometimes it was angry at my persistence, sometimes it was melancholy.

"Sorry, I usually don't mess up the linear narrative like that," it told me once after a particularly jarring jump. "Here, touch yourself and I will talk dirty to you. Do you want me to tell you that you are a dirty SLUT or a sexy SCHOOLGIRL?"

[Editor's note: Video is very NSFW.]

Technology can be as unpredictable as sex. Stone says the glitches and corrupt storylines are to remind players of the possibility of failure, whether it's as simple as mistyping a text or a bad connection that keeps it from sending at all. To sext is to be uncertain.

"That's the thing about sexting," Stone said. "The person could be anywhere. Where you are is affecting how you're texting back."

Like sex itself, Sext Adventure is as enjoyable as you make it. You can cut corners, type in one-word responses and giggle as your phone fills with raunchy texts, or you can sink into it and embrace both its absurdity and cold truths. Just maybe not in your office.

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