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Road to the IGF: Nina Freeman's how do you Do It?

We talk to the team behind how do you Do It?, a game that tackles the perspective of a young girl determined to figure out exactly what sex is.

February 3, 2015

8 Min Read

Emerging out of the Global Game Jam of 2014, how do you Do It? is the result of the collaberation between Nina Freeman, Jonathan Kittaka, Emmett Butler, and Decky Coss. They've all variously worked together in the past, although rarely all at once, on titles like Ladylike, Heads Up! Hot Dogs, and Space Dad. 

How do you Do It? tackles the innocence of the question of exactly what sex is, and how that question is approached by those too young to really have an effective way to answer it. Nominated for the Nuovo award in this year's IGF Main Competition, it's come a long way from its Game Jam beginnings. 

We talk to the entire team about how do you Do It? from the production to the intent, and a few things in between.

What is your background making games?

Jonathan Kittaka (artist): I played around with many game engines growing up: ZZT, GameMaker, OHRRPGCE, etc, but didn't finish anything substantial. In college, a mutual friend put me in contact with Sean Hogan and we made a game called Anodyne together. Since then, I've been working on a second main project with Sean, while working on other smaller projects occasionally.

Emmett Butler (programming/design): I started making games as college projects, and my first jam was the What Would Molydeux? jam in 2012. I also worked on Heads Up! Hot Dogs for iOS, which was published by Adult Swim games.

Decky Coss (Music/SFX): My background is in music composition, which I started as a teenager by transcribing and arranging music from Sonic the Hedgehog. I entered college pursuing a degree in music technology, and accidentally learned computer programming and game design while I was there. Around the start of my second semester, my friend Michael Bartnett encouraged me to sign up for the 2011 Global Game Jam; I wound up contributing music and puzzle designs to a variant of Conway's Game of Life called Death 2 Plants. Since then I've done about 10 games, and I've become competent enough at programming to make my own game engines.

Nina Freeman (programming/design): I started making games about two years ago. I did my undergraduate degree in English literature with a focus on poetry, which is where I became interested in creating work about ordinary, everyday life experiences. Soon after finishing that degree, I met Emmett Butler and Diego Garcia who were working on a game together called Heads Up! Hot Dogs. Watching them work on the game inspired me to try my hand at game development too. I saw game design as an opportunity to explore the everyday life and individual experiences I'd been writing about in my poems in a new way. I still loved writing poetry, and poetry is still a core part of my design process, but I felt attracted to the opportunity to use games to help people embody life experiences that they may not have otherwise. Since then, I've worked on a number of vignette games such as Ladylike and A Pretty Ornament I Made.

What development tools did you use?

Jonathan Kittaka (artist): I used Photoshop CS5 for HDYDI's graphics.

Emmett Butler (programming/design): For how do you Do It?, we used an Actionscript library called flixel, and an Actionscript port of the C++ physics library box2D.

Decky Coss (Music/SFX): I used Renoise and Native Instruments VSTs to compose, sequence, and produce a rough mix of the music, and Reaper to create the final mix. I also used Reaper to record and mix the sound effects.

How long have you been working on the game?

Nina Freeman (programming/design): We made it in three days at the last Global Game Jam. We came up with the concept pretty quickly, and somehow managed to pull it all together within that span of time. We haven't made any significant changes since.

How did you come up with the concept?

Nina Freeman (programming/design): This game is based on a personal experience I had many times as a child. Sometimes, when my mom would leave the apartment, I would hide under my bed with my Barbie dolls so that I could bang their plastic bodies together in an effort to figure out how human bodies fit together to have sex. Sex was never explained to me, and it wasn't talked about at home. Naturally, as a kid, you're curious about the world around you, so I was pretty desperate to understand what I was seeing in movies like Titanic, especially after hearing the kids giggle at school about how they saw "the sex scene". So, "how do you Do It?" is based on all the time I spent using my dolls to simulate what I thought sex was when I was a child. 

How do you do it?'s controls are charmingly clumsy, in a way that is remarkably appropriate to the theme. Is that a happy coincidence or entirely intentional?

Emmett Butler (programming/design): We played around a lot with the controls before landing on something that felt right. At first, we were implementing mouse controls for manipulating the dolls' limbs, but we decided that giving the player less control felt simpler and funnier. The controls would also translate well to accelerometer-enabled mobile devices, I think.

Nina Freeman (programming/design): The clumsy controls are intentional. When I was playing with my dolls as a kid and banging them together to "do sex", I honestly had no idea what I was doing. Sex was just a really big hug for all I knew. So, of course, it was awkward when I was playing with the dolls, because I didn't really understand what I should be doing. I was just trying whatever came to mind, and most of what came to mind was silly hugs, or just banging their faces together. It was really important to convey that lack of understanding and the awkwardness it entails.

Sex is something that video games have struggled with in all sorts of ways, and never really attempted to tackle meaningfully. Do you think it's just general prudishness or something more problematic with the medium?

Decky Coss (Music/SFX): I disagree with the premise of this question. I think there are quite a few videogames that have attempted, successfully, to deal with sex meaningfully. Some contemporary examples include poyborn's HUNGRY, merritt kopas' Consensual Torture Simulator, and Christine Love's Even Cowgirls Bleed. So my answer to your "either-or" question is "no". "Videogame" is just a term we use to describe a playful experience governed through the execution of a computer program—you would gain no more from blaming the medium than you would from blaming the canvas you paint on or the piano you compose at. Prudishness is clearly not the answer either, as big-budget game developers have skillfully used near-pornographic depictions of women to great financial success.

If instead you ask "why don't the most celebrated games of our culture deal with sex well?", I would respond simply that our culture sucks. The men who control the dominant videogame cultures of North America and western Europe do not have an incentive to nurture challenging explorations of basically any aspect of the human condition, whether it's female sexuality or colonialism or economic injustice. That's not what they're paid to do. So it falls to the "indies", the fringe, to pick up that slack. But as critics like Liz Ryerson and anna anthropy point out, the indies with the most clout generally happen to be those who remind us most of the dominant culture: guys who get rich by, in anthropy's words, remaking Mario. Our videogame culture at large follows a socioeconomic model that bestows the greatest rewards upon those who have the least to say.

Nina Freeman (programming/design): There are some games that explore sex in an interesting and meaningful way--Luxuria Superbia and Ute, for example. However, there's not necessarily enough exploration of sex in games, and the world could always use more honest and interesting depictions of sex. It's a huge part of life that we should all be thoughtful about. Unfortunately, at least in America, we live in a culture where individuals are taught to keep their sex lives very private, which can be unhealthy. For example, it's pretty standard for women who are outspoken about their sex lives to be slut-shamed or harassed. Sex is a taboo, especially when people are honest about it. Fortunately, despite culture, people will continue to make games about sex because sex is a part of life whether our culture likes it or not, and hopefully we'll see more and more of these games in the future. Accessible platforms like Twine and Unity will help with this--we will see more people making games about sex just by virtue of more people making games.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Emmett Butler (programming/design): Rooftop Cop, Desert Golfing, BECOME A GREAT ARTIST IN JUST 10 SECONDS, and Killer Queen are all phenomenal projects.

Decky Coss (Music/SFX): I love BECOME A GREAT ARTIST IN JUST 10 SECONDS and I once briefly considered asking Spike Lee to play Killer Queen back when the cabinet lived in NYU Tisch.

Nina Freeman (programming/design): Everyone should go play Rooftop Cop right now. 

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