Saturday, December 27, 2014

Notes on sex, consent, and intimacy in games and tech

This is adapted from the talk I gave at NYU Poly about my free spanking game Hurt Me Plenty. It kind of "spoils" it a little, if you care about that sort of thing, so I recommend you play it before reading this post... Or watch Pewdiepie play it, I guess.

You can imagine Hurt Me Plenty with its realistic representational graphics as a critique of the sex in contemporary Western video games with similar graphics, such as in Bioware RPG games (Mass Effects, Dragon Ages) which regularly feature "romance" storylines that climax in a cutscene of two virtual dolls glaring at each other for a few seconds, with cold unfeeling eyes devoid of human warmth, before tastefully fading to black. (My game hides your partner's face as much as possible.)

These kinds of representations are dangerous more for their structural properties: players understand these romances as puzzles to be solved where sex is the reward -- and the idea that sex is a puzzle reward feeds directly into a pick-up artist (PUA) culture built on manipulation and perceived entitlement to bodies. This is essentially the "kindness coins" critique, that the logic of training players to expect sex, based on a series of so-called strategic actions, is super gross and perpetuates damaging ways of thinking about relationships.

Instead, sex must be more than a node, it should be simulated as a complex system in itself. Sex must not be some sort of reward or foregone conclusion. What if we represented sex in games as an on-going process? What if we actually did sex?

Several games have explored this already:

Realistic Kissing Simulator prefaces any kissing with a "consent" phase, a structure that I've borrowed for my own game. Consensual Torture Simulator deeply explores kink and pain in a very raw and personal way. Encyclopedia Fuckme and the Case of the Vanishing Entree represents a dom-sub relationship as a chaotic action-packed erotically-charged struggle. Consentacle formalizes the pacing of sex, requiring players to synchronize a shared economy of foreplay and release. All of these games imagine sex as a process, sex as something you do over time rather than something you "obtain" for an instant.

Sex requires some sort of intimacy, and intimacy requires trust, and trust requires consent. How can we meaningfully simulate or model such consent and negotiation in games?

Multiplayer games often get this for free, by virtue of being multiplayer. The only thing you cannot play with is someone that does not want to play; consent to some sort of magic circle and contract of sportsmanship is vital to any multiplayer game.

But what about single player video games? Software has no rights in itself, human users can always turn off a machine or delete a program. There is an inherent power dynamic that prevents software from ever meaningfully negotiating with humans... when you "trade" with an AI player in Civilization, you do it with the understanding that it is programmed to value certain things over others, and this value can be exploited. An AI cannot quit playing, nor protest when you begin reloading savegames to achieve optimal outcomes. If technology does manage to resist the user, it is classified as a defect or DRM or as malware.

Technology is supposed to be a tool, the most useful tool ever imagined. Powerful but seamless, complex but easy, robust but painless.

This is the huge paradox: technology is supposed to be painless, yet our relationship with technology is incredibly dysfunctional and abusive. We are coerced into signing EULAs, false forms of consent designed to protect tech vendors instead of users; we cannot re-negotiate these terms with tech, and if we want to, then Facebook insists that we mail them a letter, like, written on paper, to voice our complaint. Apple deletes music without telling you, then forces you to download the newest U2 album onto your device.

Meaningful relationships are never completely painless. Consensus does not simply happen in a second. It all takes effort. Perhaps a more meaningful relationship with technology would not focus on ease, but rather awkwardness, discomfort, pain, and friction.

In Hurt Me Plenty, I cannot make the player's real-life hand sting nor can I simulate the "real" complex feeling of consensually inflicting pain on someone. To compensate, I emphasized a different sense of feel -- the materiality of the video game itself as a piece of software that exercises its only inalienable right as a digital process. If you mistreat this AI agent, it will render itself inoperable and refuse to play with you for a period of time, ranging from 2-20 days.

These types of "energy cooldown timer" mechanics are often built into free-to-play games to emphasize grind and frustration and extract real money from the player. Here, I use a similar dynamic to try to extract respect and consideration. Hardcore gamer types might see this as a consumer rights issue, that I am depriving them of the right to use their possession -- however, I believe that argument carries no weight when the game is freely distributed as an artwork instead of an entertainment commodity.

(Plus, I think of my implementation as a compromise with a gamer's consumer-king mentality. The game should, ideally, refuse to play with you ever again, when you violate negotiated boundaries. As it stands now, it will always "forgive" you after a while.)

This game is best played in public settings, where the occasional player will "go crazy" and violate boundaries, thus locking out the game for any future players / onlookers at the event. It manifests one reason for the divide between BDSM and kink communities, where kink focuses on sex as a matter of social justice and human rights. Abuse doesn't just hurt an individual, it also hurts a community and makes it less safe of a place. The same can be said of any community, especially a community of players.

One of my big design failures in Hurt Me Plenty is the third portion, the "aftercare" stage where the user must caress the AI partner's shoulder to read feedback on their performance. How exactly do you represent a caress? How do you design for tenderness? I was inspired a bit by the "cutman" mechanic in Fight Night boxing games, where the player must treat cuts and bruises on the fighter's face in-between rounds -- but here, the metaphor was really concrete and medical, the player literally applies a cold iron to a swollen cheek. Should my players apply cold packs to sore butts? What does such a cold pack look like, and can I make that feel soothing? Is this anything like what real-life spank players actually do?

Instead, I went for an abstract approach: the screen flashes white and zooms-in slightly and you hear a sort of "fuzzy bump" sound. It's a very subtle form of feedback that is supposed to feel "tender" but I don't really think it was too successful, and it suggests some really interesting directions for future research in "tender interactions."

How do we make games about caring, beyond a pet-management metaphor? How do we make games about intimacy between caring partners? What does intimacy feel like, and how can games help us reflect on our experiences of intimacy?

Hurt Me Plenty's "sister game", currently called Cheek to Cheek, will hopefully try to address some of that somehow.