The Heartbeat Symposium: Exploring love, sex, and intimacy in games

The Blushbox Collective's Katie Stegs chats about The Heartbeat Symposium, a 3-day event that seeks to bring devs together to explore (through game jams and talks) intimacy, love, and sex in games.

"I've always been interested in telling stories about connection - to land, to a person, to a thing, even to a point in time," says Katie Stegs of The Blushbox Collective, a group promoting the exploration of intimacy, love, and sex in games. 

"Exploring connection is the focus of so many areas of creativity - especially film, art, and music - but much less so video games. Why is that, I ask myself."

Games possess a unique power to place the player into a different headspace, having them become the role of another for a time. There is a special power to empathize in this, tasking the player with feeling what that other person is going through as they go through their actions and live out their lives. Like a form of acting, the player becomes this other avatar and exists as them for a time, and in this action they are brought into intimate connection with the thoughts and feelings that come from living these lives.

This unique ability to live and empathize with, moreso than books or movies or other forms of passive media, can make the player truly feel what the characters are going through. Stegs' work with The Blushbox Collective, as well as their annual Heartbeat Symposium - a three-day event where they seek to bring developers together for days of game jams and speakers from various disciplines working in love and intimacy - looks to capture and explore that connection.

"Sex, romance, love, these are universal desires for everyone. Games can also allow us to play, observe and process some pretty complicated issues."

"I think there is something powerful about the prospective opportunities you have in video games," says Stegs. "You can play with how inside the character a player is - give them agency and put them in the shoes of someone different from themselves. There's so much opportunity to capture the nuance, silliness, fun, excitement, and heartbreak through games, and I want to explore how more games could contain those moments."

Love & games

Games, through their ability to connect a person to another life, may have been underutilized for years in placing players in more realistic, emotional experiences, but that has begun to change.

Still, why explore these kinds of connections? "Because hello, it's fun!" Stegs says. "Sex, romance, love, these are universal desires for everyone. Games can also allow us to play, observe and process some pretty complicated issues, or partake in light-hearted fantasy for fun. It's such a diverse topic that there are many reasons to explore it."


"Games in particular are an interesting way to explore these topics because you can engage more senses than reading or film; you can see, you can hear, you can feel and touch and in some cases, with alt controllers, you can also taste," Stegs continues. "That's a bit more senses being engaged than with music, art, or film. How can we manipulate these senses to create a new experience for these stories? That's what I want to know."

It's a largely untapped part of what games are uniquely capable of, and for Stegs, something that offers some interesting opportunities to explore our emotions in and feelings on challenging issues in a space outside of the self. They allow for a safe self-reflection on actions we might not otherwise experience or be afraid to experience, allowing us to learn about ourselves through these shared digital experiences.

Stegs has explored these themes in games before as well. "My own work often focuses on nostalgia in a lighthearted way. The Blushbox Collective is my side project, so I generally don't make these games for commercial purposes. I see it more like drawing or painting as a hobby. So, having said that, I've worked on a range of games from the casual, Pudding Boyfriend, a game about dating foodboys (croissant boyfriend was my fave) to other games such as ASL."


"ASL is a 3D walking simulator about exploring a world inspired by my memory of 90s internet sites. I've imagined the sites I used to frequent such as Neopets, MSN messenger, Hotmail, Yahoo, and others as real physical spaces," says Stegs. "In the game, you can explore and flirt with or interact with the creatures or people in those environments. I've also been working on Nic Cage Himulator- a game where you've accidentally guessed Nic Cage's Hotmail address and you're going back and forth on the phone with your friend, Becky, about what to say to him. It's a coming-of-age story which explores teenage development."

These works, while appearing light and fun, explore important aspects of life growing up, dating, friendships, and connections, all with disarming stories that can encourage players to feel something about their own thoughts on these subjects without necessarily meaning to. Their charming nature gets the player to open up within themselves, or feel free to explore more serious feelings even if the context is light.

"With Blushbox we've worked on IncorpoREAL Romance Revival Center, a game about dating dead people, 'find the love of your life, even if theirs is over' which explores power and control as well as themes of digital online persona and generally dystopian future ideas," says Stegs. "Currently I'm working on Woblets (working title) with a friend of mine, which is what I'm calling an interactive sculpture toy. It's like a Mr Potato Head game but all the parts are fleshy genitally type things. You can create your own strange sculpture which will react to things like shaking and prodding. It generally just flops around. Think of a plumbus, it's a bit like that."

Intimacy, love, and sex can often be treated as incredibly serious subjects, which can make players uncomfortable in opening up their feelings about them. Looking at these subjects from different angles, be they lighter or humorous, or through a fiction that lets the player explore the subject from a different angle, can allow an openness in the self that allows them to explore their feelings in ways that feel safe. Stegs' work aims to utilize these tools to help players open up about their feelings a bit more, using the framework of these games to feel in ways they might not feel comfortable doing otherwise.


Romantic difficulties

Games, in allowing players to live out other lives and control their fates, words, and deeds, seem like a natural place to explore intimacy, but this isn't often the case, from Stegs' own observations. Not everyone is comfortable exploring these topics through their games, and for various reasons.

"What makes it so difficult to explore the messiness of human love through a video game format?" Stegs asks. "Is it that we just haven't been trying? Is it that it's too difficult with the technology we have available? All these questions were running through my head and I'd been having conversations about this with a few of my developer friends."

Preconceived perceptions of what games can be and do also harms their ability to explore intimacy. "Also fear, because people are afraid to be associated with projects that deal with sex in the games industry," she continues. "It's strange because most other creative industries wouldn't bat an eyelash, but because games have this perception that they for kids, people put their arms up in the air when they present adult themes."


There have been other challenges that have made the exploration of sex and love in games difficult as well. "The biggest challenge to exploring these themes are ignorance and fear," says Stegs. "A lack of research in the nuance of characters and environments, and stereotypes and bad writing are rife in the sex games category."

Exploring character, especially when it comes to love, sex, and intimacy, requires a grasp of writing and character creation. It requires a deft hand when it comes to telling their stories and creating believable moments and feelings between them. It can be a challenge to tell these kinds of stories from a purely skill-based perspective, and also require an honesty from the writer that can be daunting.

With this need for a deft hand and high skill comes a fear of what will happen should the developer get those things wrong.

"Fear also stops people from trying and failing because the repercussions of failure can be so damning- you can be kicked out of a community and blacklisted for trying something that people perceive as derogatory, sexist, racist etc," she continues. "It's a minefield. Like any creative field it's important that we practice our art and have places that are safe for us to try, fail and learn from our mistakes."

It can be difficult to experiment in this field without possibly making insensitive mistakes, or fouling up the game with stereotypes or other poor writing mistakes. To avoid these, developers need room to goof up without it feeling like a career-ending mistake. This requires help and encouragement from players and other developers, which would be what lead Stegs' work in bringing developers together to encourage each other in the creation of these games.


The Heartbeat Symposium

Shared experiences, hopeful advice, and an actual connection with other developers doing the work seemed like a powerful way to help creators explore intimacy with comfort and help. As such, The Blushbox Collective's work would lead to the creation of the Heartbeat Symposium, a gathering of developers designed to further work in interactive experiences in love and sex.

"Heartbeat Symposium is a 3-day event focused on love, sex and romance in games. It's held in a different place each year. The first one was held in Byron Bay Australia. The aim is to get developers and creatives out of the traditional game making spaces and use the environment as both a source of inspiration and a framework for creativity," says Stegs.

It's been designed as a comforting space for developers to experiment in, as well as receive advice from other developers, psychologists, actresses, writers, and other creative individuals, sharing their knowledge of love and sex in games and beyond. Through this, the event looks to improve the works developers are creating, as well as provide them with a place where they can explore intimate themes with their peers.

"I think Heartbeat provides education about pitfalls, cross collaboration from other industries (our speakers are not just game developers, but also psychologists, sex workers, artists, performers and more), and also a space to practice and get guidance. It's important that developers and creative have a community to check in with and create with so we're not just doing this in isolation. The more diverse a community can be, I think the better educated we get," Stegs continues.


Through this diversity, Stegs hopes that developers will be able to see their topic from all manner of angles and backgrounds, helping move away from painful stereotypes and into a well-thought-out exploration of love and sex.

With events like The Heartbeat Symposium and other initiatives around the world, development of intimacy in games has seemed to be steadily improving. "I actually think it's going great! We've come so far in the last 5 years in including these topics in both mainstream games and in independent titles. I think we've got a lot of work to do building tension between characters and removing some problematic trends, but I do think we're out there making a massive effort, so go games industry!" says Stegs.

"I think that we could improve it by collaborating more with other industries," says Stegs. "The screen industry is becoming rapidly more interested in video games, and there are a lot of great script and dialogue writers out there who could help us in the games industry a lot. Also, it would be good to work with film and television makers who have mastered camera angles to create a meaningful gaze from the player or viewer to the object of attention. We could learn a lot from that. I'd also like to see more support from the industry in creating and talking about these topics at conferences and online, more of those spaces to practice that I mentioned earlier."

All of these things are exactly what Stegs and The Heartbeat Symposium are working towards - more creatives from other industries contributing helpful tips, and more places for developers to experiment and hone their craft without fear. In doing this, The Blushbox Collective and Stegs hope to continue the positive trends they've seen in the industry, continuing to help developers unlock the ability games have to help players explore intimacy, love, and sex in meaningful ways.

This story originally appeared on Gamasutra sister site

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