(Courtesy of Robert Yang)
Sex is a hot topic in video games these days.
If you haven’t played a video game since R.C. Pro-AM on the NES, that might sound weird to say, but it comes up a lot here in Brooklyn, where one of the main technology hubs is the NYU Game Center, a space where loads of makers are working on games that aren’t just about violence, puzzles or racing, but deal with real human themes.
Then of course there’s the whole #GamerGate controversy, which heavily revolves around sex, gender, objectification and sexualization in video games.
"What if sex was something you do, rather than something you get?"
Brooklyn game makers have recently been speaking their minds about sex and human relationships with the games they make. We wrote not long ago about a game jam focused on sex and relationships, and now the NYU-Poly Game Innovation Lab and Babycastles have organized a talk with Parsons and Poly professor Robert Yang, who just did a game about spanking in BDSM as a way to simulate and explore consent in a single-player game that’s also a work of art.
Yang opened his talk with a critique of sex in games right now. In more adult games, where characters do end up having sex, it’s treated as a reward for correct behavior or solving a puzzle of some kind. As Yang puts it, “Sex is kind of a pathfinding problem where we’re trying to navigate this space from point A to point B.” The problem here, Yang says, is that it treats sex as a strategic problem, which he sees as unhelpful and dangerous.
Yang then cites a couple games like “Realistic Kissing Simulator” and “Consentacle” that more helpfully depict consent in sex. One of the key questions here, he says, is “What if sex was something you do, rather than something you get?”
Yang makes a compelling case that technology is a great tool to make people think about consent in real life. First of all, in multiplayer games, consent is key. You have to agree to play with someone and you have to agree to abide by the rules of the game. Such as, for example, not yanking their controller from their hand at a key moment. (Unless, of course, you are playing B.U.T.T.O.N.)
What about consent in single-player games? How does technology give consent? And what can playing with consent mechanics in such a game illuminate about human consent?
This becomes the crux of both Yang’s talk and the game he came to demo. If a piece of software tries to survive on your device against a user’s will, it’s called “malware.” Technology should not, we think, have the ability to consent to exist. It’s an assumption we don’t even think about.
"It's really hard to code what consent and arousal looks like."
Which isn’t exactly to say that’s wrong, but pointing it out is a way of exploring assumptions that humans may actually be bringing to their sex lives, also without thinking about them. So Yang built a game about something pretty intense, one where you simulate abusing a male who has consented to that abuse, but there are limits, and that’s the key.
Here are a few key points about why technology and consent are two topics that are thought-provoking to juxtapose, as Yang has with this game:
- “Meaningful relationships are never completely painless,” he says in the talk. And yet, what do technologists strive for? Frictionlessness is a big thing. The perfect news site would be the site you just looked at and showed you exactly the story you wanted and you didn’t have to even read it. You just knew everything in a story as soon as you looked at it. Totally frictionless. Hurt Me Plenty is not frictionless, though, by design.
- Gamifying consent. BDSM and kink turn out to be good cultures to gamify, because consent is critical in those communities. When a partner violates consent, it doesn’t just hurt the two people involved, it undermines everyone in it.
- The game is built for the LEAP Motion controller, which uses two infrared cameras to track hand movements. This allows Yang to make the player feel as if he or she is really spanking. That said, Yang says during the Q&A that if technology became even more real, such as holographic projection, it wouldn’t be the same game.
- The meaning of gesture. Over the course of game play, three different kinds of gestures will be used: handshaking, during the consent phase; and spanking and caressing, in the after care, where you show your virtual partner that everything is good, even after coming through an intense experience together. This last element was especially tricky for him. How do you show tenderness in a game? The closest parallel he could give was that of the “cut man” function in the game, Fight Night, from EA Sports.
- Physics. Yang talks about how he spent a lot of time on butt physics. Gamers like to talk about “boob physics,” how breasts look during game play. Yang thought it was interesting to explore a parallel for males. That said, he says that he gets a bit playful here and doesn’t go for strict realism.
- Emotional code. Where he wanted to be realistic, though, was simulating arousal as it pertains to pain. Enjoyment, fear and the other emotions that come into play in BDSM. “It’s really hard to code what consent and arousal looks like,” he says, so he drew from theories of pain discussed in those communities, such as soft limits and hard limits.
The limits are where it gets heavy.
The game has a safeword for the submissive. As you spank him (it’s always the same guy, for every player, though his rules vary in the negotiation process), he gives you feedback as you go. If you go too far, he’ll stop. If you violate his safeword, he’ll express fear later and the game will actually shut you out for a defined set of time. If you really push it, you might not be able to play again — for up to twenty days.
In other words, the game withholds consent.
Yang demos this in his talk. You can also see it in the beginning of this video from YouTube superstar PewDiePie, which Yang links to in his blog post above.
If you want to see what happens when you respect the boundaries the game sets, you’re going to have to play it yourself.