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But is it hot? Design challenges for sex in games

A panel at Different Games convened designers working on expressing intimacy, sexuality and diversity in games to talk about ways to confront common design challenges, and evolve the role sex plays in games.

Leigh Alexander

April 14, 2014

12 Min Read

Sex is such a crucial part of the human experience, but few mainstream games have successfully addressed it. A panel at Different Games convened designers working on expressing intimacy, sexuality and diversity in games to talk about ways to confront common design challenges, subvert expectations and evolve the role sex plays in games. Independent designer Merritt Kopas recently attended a feminist porn convention, and came back full of ideas about games. She's learned that using games to teach alternative sexuality can be incredibly subversive -- but can they be hot? "We've seen this huge boom of accessible game creation tools, and obviously for me, and for a lot of people Twine is the most important of those, because it's so radically accessible," Kopas says, "writing is a far more accessible skill than coding." "The really interesting thing about putting accessible tools into people's hands is it turns out a lot of the things they make are about fucking," Kopas points out. These games can deal with unusual fantasies, speculative fiction, kink, trans sexuality and other themes mainstream games haven't touched. "I see a really valuable role for games in talking about sex," she says, suggesting people approach games with lowered defenses and are more open to ideas they encounter in an interactive context. Kopas' Twine game Positive Space is about a sex act called muffing ("if anyone asks what you learned this weekend at Different Games, you can say 'I learned a new sex act'"). It involves penetrating the inguinal canals, and Kopas decided making a game about it might be a way to teach others about something they might not be familiar with. Positive Space interweaves personal narrative with excerpts from a zine that defined the term. And even though commenters on blogs and Twitter were initially confused by the concept, they were curious enough to try the game -- and learned things about their bodies. "Because it was in the form of a game, they accessed it," she says. Even cis men who would have never been exposed to a zine about trans women's sexuality had the opportunity to experience something new in this way.

"The really interesting thing about putting accessible tools into people's hands is it turns out a lot of the things they make are about fucking."

She was happy to see such a wide range of people interested in engaging with a game about a consensual kink relationship. In fact, Kopas says, "The level of engagement from games writers was actually way more honest than a lot of feminist blogs. I think there's a lot of potential for games in expanding people's imaginations." The challenge is that while it may now be easy to make games about sex: "It's hard to make a game that's hot," she says. Part of this, she believes, is down to the fact ideas about games are bound up in the concepts of winning, achieving and completing. "Interestingly, those ideas are really in parallel with dominant ideas about sexuality: It follows a predictable script, the goal is orgasm, it ends at that point and you move on," she says. "Those are both really boring ways of thinking about play, and when we talk about sex in games, we're talking about play. So the challenge there is to get around that mechanistic approach." "This is the 'shady flash portal' approach -- y'know, click the mouse repeatedly, and then oh, you came, you won," she says. Then there's the 'BioWare School of Sexuality,' where you romance a partner and then you get to have sex with them at the climax of the game. But at that point, the player is only watching; the player puts the controller down. "It seems like a cop-out to step away at that point," she says. "And I see why they do it: Because it's hard." Text can be a powerful alternative approach to sex in games, she says. Text circumvents some of the problems with body physics or uncanny valley in games, where characters generally aren't designed for fluid, natural physicality when they collide. Sometimes you can do more without implementing a bodied character: Tale of Tales' Luxuria Superbia sends players careening down a tunnel and touching it, and asks them to pleasure a mobile device through touch. "It's a game about sex that doesn't have hyperrealistic images of bodies," she says. Kopas' explicit goal is to be public with her work, and to bring sexuality into the public sphere by fostering dialogue. "Could we piggyback on Foursquare to gamify public sex?" She poses. The 'what you do in your own home is private' thing has long been a defensive strategy to hide a diversity of sexuality from public view, but publicity is important, she says. In both sex and games, mainstream industries have "domesticated and commoditized play," she reflects. "In both cases, those are huge structures that have tried to package play into a form they can control and market. There is a feminist porn awards; there are people making films that model explicit consent and include a wide range of bodies, and are really weird and amazing, and there are people doing that in games. I think there's room for some really interesting work across those fields. If we want to talk about how we can make games that are hot, that are about sex but engage people politically and communally, there's room for some fertile collaboration there." During college, longtime game developer Naomi Clark was influenced by zines and comic books, particularly Ariel Schrag's personal stories. The last one she found was 11 years ago in 2003, called "Sinful Cynthia," a choose-your-own adventure comic that, as a game designer, excited Clark especially. sex 1.jpgShe and Ariel began porting the zine to Twine -- a "pornographic romp [that's] queer, but in a polymorphic and omnisexual way," she describes. "What if we were all characters who starred in a super-skeevy porn adventure? It's a story where you turn to a certain page and see a hunky guy called Rod Manly coming down the street, and you can choose to have sex with him immediately on the street, but if you do, then a car decapitates him." "I'm a little apprehensive of what this artifact from years ago means if I put it on the internet," she says. "But I think there's an interesting risk, that someone could read this randomly on the internet... one of the side benefits of the fact we're now talking about all sorts of experiences as being games is that retroactively, this choose-your-own-adventure zine becomes a game. It was important to me, so I'm porting it." Her game Sex-Mix is a non-digital game "designed to be played while you're having sex, and designed to make the sex you're having more difficult and probably worse". Players are "eliminated" if they laugh at songs their partners have planned for, make a grossed-out face, or disengage from sex completely. "People have won it and claimed to enjoy it," she says. "In a way I see it as a sort of anti-social act on my part." To her, it was a commentary provoked by overflowing sex positivity in queer communities at the turn of the millennium that didn't extend to every body or every sex practice. "But the game still seems to be fun, and two of my earliest playtesters went on to get gay married to each other," she says. In college her sister worked at the neighborhood video store, and the pair immediately pounced on anime imports. One of these turned out to be Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, one of the earliest films to popularly combine tentacles and sex. Yet Clark, who has a Japanese heritage, became sick of hearing people endlessly associate "tentacle rape" with some inherent part of Japanese culture. The controversial, ultimately failed Tentacle Bento Kickstarter was "pretty transparently encouraging players to take on the role of rapists," she says. Kickstarter fortunately canceled the game amid some outcry ("it got horrifyingly over-funded, to no one's surprise"). But Clark wondered if the subject matter could be handled differently. Why did people with tentacles or alternative genitals have to be consigned to the role of nonconsensual monsters? "What if we had to rediscover practices of consent in the context of sex with radically different beings?" Clark poses. "We can talk about consent techniques via language, but I want something harder -- can you consent without words, through a system?" What if alien encounters reconfigured bodies and desires? When No Quarter commissioned Clark to do a game, she decided to explore this idea, researching non-trivial collaboration in card games, and talking to artists who might want to draw cute but horrifying tentacle friends. She wants to explore inherited desires, body parts and communication without words, through a game that is about consent and collaboration. Journalist, author and live action roleplay expert Lizzie Stark believes LARP is a great medium for storytelling, but developing sex and romance within LARP games is an ongoing challenge. "It's interesting to me that in LARP, historically in the US, we've told way more stories about violence and power than love and sex," she says. "Love represents the real world we live in, it widens the number of playable plotlines, and it provides for an intense experience." It's sad to expect players are more likely to get killed in a LARP than have a sexual experience for their characters, but there are some game design challenges for sex in live action roleplay. Some people fear "bleed", the lack of emotional barrier between feelings in the game and storyline with the player's emotions outside their character. People become afraid of becoming genuinely romantically attached should they play a love relationship in a LARP.

"Love represents the real world we live in, it widens the number of playable plotlines, and it provides for an intense experience."

Nordic LARPers mitigate bleed through "workshops and debriefs," which help create an emotional safe place, and they use rituals to bring people in and out of a game: it can be something as simple as a song that plays at the beginning and end of the game, or a ritual of laying a piece of clothing from your character on the ground to say goodbye to it at the end of the game. Experienced LARPers are used to managing crushes, a natural byproduct of play sessions. Sometimes players whose characters are in a relationship make plans for unsexy meetups to help reinforce boundaries. There are also safe words that let players notify one another where their boundaries are should it become necessary, and co-players provide support. Players can actually have sex in some LARP scenes to represent their characters' interactions, but there are clear problems with that -- what about minors, what about existing relationships, or what if your character falls for someone they're not physically attracted to? Could bullying become an issue? People have also acted out sex with their clothes on, or talked one another verbally through what happens in a sex scene, but developing other 'mechanics' for LARP that indicate sex is an interesting design challenge. In some LARP scenes you can feed someone fruit, brush their hair or give massages in order to communicate sex. A particularly interesting method was established in an Ursula LeGuin-oriented LARP: characters played morning people and evening people, instead of men and women. They were differentiated by the colors they wore, and marriages took place among four people instead of two. Players were allowed to touch body "zones" instead of body parts (arms, hands and shoulders), and characters can use eye contact and breath to communicate. It's useful for game organizers to make rules about player boundaries and for players to negotiate. It doesn't pre-script active or passive roles, is gender-neutral, and preserves an individual sense of space, and is flexible and able to represent many different types of emotions. And it can also be hot, Stark says -- in workshops she's run she has been surprised at how intense the mechanics felt. Before she began making games, designer and Code Liberation co-founder Nina Freeman was studying poetry in her undergrad, and began to evolve into studying and writing erotic poetry. "A lot of poets, such as Emily Dickinson, wrote a lot of erotic poetry, which you may not know," she notes. "It's amazing to see the wide variety of people and identites that are writing erotic poetry both in the past and present, and it's powerful to see what kinds of different sexual experiences they're having." Kenneth Koch says one way to talk about inspiration is that "'it is something that makes poets feel they have to write, that they must 'say something' and that poetry is the only way to say it'... how could people not try to say what so much needs to be said?'" quotes Freeman, who believes Koch's words apply to games as well as poetry. She has done her own personal poetry about sex, and is now making games: "I make them in much the same way I would write poetry. I think of my own life quite a bit, and how I can express myself through games." Her latest title, How Do You Do It, is about growing up as a child in a house where sex wasn't discussed. "When you were a kid, you were definitely thinking about sex, and wondering what it was," she says. "I'm interested in ordinary, everyday personal vignettes." In How Do You Do It, a 12 year old girl is left alone with her dolls, and tries to join their jointed bodies together in the brief time she has before her mother returns home from an errand, using keyboard inputs that emphasize the awkwardness of the dolls' plasticky body physics. Since making the game she's talked to people from a wide variety of backgrounds who had similar experiences of figuring out bodies and playing with dolls. "It's interesting to think about how [Barbie] dolls are sexualized, but the kids playing with them don't really understand why that is," Freeman says. Her work prefers to focus on character-driven narratives rather than the "voyeurism" -- watching the sex happen -- that takes place in commercial games that have experimented with adult content. "I'm interested in thinking about how we can build characters who have meaningful sex, and also different kinds of sex," Freeman says. "Let's make games about what sex means to us, and how our experiences of sex are personal and unique. Making thoughtful games about sex is really important."

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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