S.EXE: Merritt Kopas On Porn, Pain, And Power

By Cara Ellison on May 23rd, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

This week’s S.EXE entry is an interview with a person who speaks and writes regularly about sex in games and who has made games about relationships along the way. I first became aware of the multimedia artist & game designer Merritt Kopas through her shrewd skewering of games on the website Nightmare Mode, for which I was also writing at the time. The website has since passed away into cyberspace heaven, the archives of which are here, but Merritt has grown as a designer and game theorist in an inspiring way since we went down our separate paths, making games such as Lim, Consensual Torture Simulator, and Positive Space.

She started up the curation site Forest Ambassador [disclosure, my sex game Sacrilege also appears on this site] to “showcase a wide range of accessible, free games for nontraditional audiences”. She now speaks regularly on the intersection of bodies, sex, and violence at game conferences, and recently spoke at the Feminist Porn Conference about sex in games. Paolo Pedercini says of Merritt Kopas: “as mutant practitioner-theorist, [she] managed to contaminate the living gaming discourse, emerging as a powerful and yet nuanced voice in the indie movement”. I asked her about her work and outlook.

RPS: What is the state of sex in games?

It sucks, but it’s getting better. A few years ago people were lauding Bioware for including gay sex scenes in their games but it always disappointed me that the onset of the sexual content in games like Mass Effect was precisely the moment at which the player put down the controller. There was maybe this sense that somehow actually incorporating sex into play in any means more involved than as a cutscene would be too scandalous, or perhaps too difficult.

And I think it is a hard thing to do! The problem with incorporating sex into games is that to me, good sex is not mechanistic — it doesn’t always follow predictable paths towards established goals. It’s very playful, exploratory. Which is actually not a very popular view of sex or videogames.

There’s this quote from this psychologist Leonore Tiefer that I really love, where she describes orgasm as a very American means of thinking about sex, because it’s a quantifiable, discrete indicator of sexual ‘success.’ She actually uses the word ‘score’, which of course makes me think of games. And for me dominant understandings of sexuality are actually very much in line with dominant understandings of games and play: we believe that both must have win conditions, that they follow predictable patterns, and so forth.

(The natural result of this convergence is the flash porn game, where the player completes a series of mechanical tasks almost always culminating in a male ejaculation. Which might be funny a few times, but is pretty boring and gross!)

If you look at the games that have sparked the most outrage from entrenched ‘games culture’ over the past few years, it’s often those that refuse the logic of completion and mastery in favour of exploration or nondirected fucking around. And if you look at the kinds of sex that have been disqualified as unreal or insufficient (to say nothing of the kinds of sex that have been openly vilified) it’s often those where penetration or orgasm does not occur, where there isn’t the opportunity to keep the kind of ‘score’ Tiefer is talking about.

And I think even if you’re steeped in these ideas about games and sex, you can recognize the grossness of crudely translating sex into a rhythm minigame (unless you worked on God of War, I guess), which is probably why Bioware titles don’t have playable sex scenes. But they instead fall back on this cutscene model, which I think is kind of a safe copout that doesn’t actually explore the possibilities of the medium.

Things are changing, but like pretty much every other kind of change in videogames aside from endless technical refinements, it’s not happening in the mainstream. More people are experimenting with games about sexuality, and most exciting to me, more people are trying to make games that are actually hot. I mean, Luxuria Superbia took the Nuovo award at the IGF this year, which is pretty excellent!

I still see a hesitation to make games about sex, though. In a sense it’s strange because we’re basically inured to the most senseless, brutal violence in games, but any sexual content makes a lot of people squirm. Which isn’t unique to games, to be sure, but there is a sense I think that making a game about sex, making an erotic game, is still riskier than, say, making a film or writing a story about it.

But hey, if you’re a dev or a studio and want to incorporate sex into your game in an interesting way, get in touch and I’m sure we can work something out.

RPS: Tell us a little about the work you do in games, and what you aim to do when you make things that address the relationships between people.

Most of my work is very modest: I’m aiming to document, in fictionalized forms, relationships and modes of being sexual that are underrepresented and marginalized. So in something like Consensual Torture Simulator, I wanted to show a loving relationship where pain and power is part of it. And I wanted it to be sweet and playful and hot, too, because I’m not interested in making media that’s overly didactic or solemn. If I’m making a game about sex I want to engage the player, to make them feel something.

Anyway, I say this is a modest goal because I don’t believe that sexuality is inherently revolutionary. I don’t think anyone can claim, post-Foucault, that sexuality in general is repressed and that anyone who writes on sexuality in the mode that I do is by default speaking what cannot be said. Sex is everywhere! We’re encouraged to speak about it constantly.

Of course, the kinds of sex we’re encouraged to have and speak of are circumscribed. So I do believe it is important, for instance, to depict consensual, loving relationships that play with power, or trans people cherishing each other’s bodies. And there is tremendous value in producing media that is validating, that tells people who have been convinced otherwise, ‘your desires are real and they are not shameful or wrong and actually a lot of other people share them.’

This is a real thing games can do! I began to come to terms with my own relationship to pain and power, amidst much shame, through anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuckme. So this is why I make games like Consensual Torture Simulator and positive space, why I believe so strongly in things like my lover Tobi Hill-Meyer‘s Doing it Ourselves porn project, why I’ve done porn myself. And when someone tells me that my work in games has helped them safely explore some facet of themselves and their relationships, or has made them feel less alone in their experience, that’s probably one of the best feelings in the world.

And in my experience games have this wonderful disarming quality that persuasive nonfiction writing or literature doesn’t always have. Like, I can make a game about an almost unheard-of sex act, or about a D/s relationship, and people are going to play it because it’s a game, because they feel some level of comfort in navigating that kind of media. So there’s the potential there to reach people who might not even realize, beforehand, that a game about sex or kink or something your body could do that you didn’t know about might be useful to them.

But I constantly ask myself: is this enough? Could I be pushing harder? I fall into spells of crude Marxism, I wonder what games about kink and gay sex are doing for global queer struggles, and so I’m thinking lately more about ways that games might foster more public forms of sexuality, rather than just work on an individual level. So I’m starting to think about installations, ARGs, multiplayer games, things like that.

RPS: Given that games can enable two or more player control, aren’t games in a unique place for the exploration of relationships between people? Why do we not often see sexuality addressed through these means?

One reason is that, like I said earlier, we’re very wrapped up in this notion of games as essentially competitive, and that’s perhaps even more the case with two-player games. You can maybe make the argument that meaningful cooperation is more difficult to make interesting in a game than playful competition. But for that reason alone it’s hard to think about a game about sex that’s playable by two people.

One way out of this is by playing with structures in kink, where there’s maybe more of a precedent for a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’ that participants have agreed to beforehand. Another way is to make things more cooperative. One of the first games I ever made was a two-player text game called Brace, where the players sat next to one another and weren’t allowed to communicate except through the game. That was an attempt to make a two-player local game about intimacy, though not about sex exactly. I haven’t seen much of this kind of work since then but it’s an interesting avenue to think about, and I could certainly see a game like this being potentially very hot, if it was designed properly.

RPS: What do you think are important games about sexuality or relationships?

Basically I am totally uninterested in photorealism and I’m actively repelled by the prospect of games people applying their fetish for it to sexual content. Right now I see two main ways that people are bringing sex into digital games and exploring it in ways that other media can’t as easily.

First, games that move in the direction of abstraction and away from representationalism. For me Luxuria Superbia is a really good example, and I’d also go ahead and include Slave of God, mostly because it’s one of the most compelling games I’ve ever played and the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience with a videogame. Oh, and Soundself, when played in a dark room and with multiple people. I’d call all of these games erotic, but they’re not necessarily about fucking. I don’t know anyone who’s jerked off to Luxuria Superbia. Which isn’t an indictment of it, it’s just to say that it’s got a different goal than a more explicit kind of porn game.

Second, text-based games. As the Twine boom of the last couple of years has shown, text has a lot of advantages when it comes to sex, the most important being that if you’re a good writer you can engage the reader/player in a collaborative imagined space. Plus, no uncanny valley. Some of the best games about sex and relationships I’ve played are text-based: ohnoproblems’ SABBAT, Lydia Neon’s Reset, sexartpolitics’ Negotiation (which has maybe the best build-up and ending of a game about sex in recent memory), your own Sacrilege, and of course, anna anthropy‘s work. I think if we’re talking about games made with the goal of getting the player off, text is the way to go. For me at least, it’s way easier to get sexually invested in a textual narrative (especially because of the convention of using the second-person “you”) than in a visual one.

The only mainstream game I’ve played in recent memory that did sex in a surprising way is Saints Row IV. I really love that game mainly because of the way it does relationships and sex and subverts the whole Bioware model of relationship quests with sex as the reward. I’m writing an essay right now on dating in games and SRIV is one of my big examples.

Oh also I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem and it’s maybe the most bald example of heterosexual reproductive futurity in a game that I’ve ever seen? I hate the way that it encourages you to pair off all of your characters into straight marriages and have them make future baby soldiers for you. But I still played it for dozens of hours because I am terrible and really wanted those adorable future babies. I partly blame [writer of online games zine ZEAL] Aevee Bee for this.

RPS: Are you working on something right now that is relevant to this? What are your aims with it? Is it more or less difficult to make a game about relationships when mainstream games don’t really approach the subject?

I joked at Different Games about making an ARG to encourage public sex, but I’ve actually become totally enamored with the idea. Gamification is bullshit at best and evil at worst, but I can’t shake the image of a foursquare-style check-in system that would encourage dykes, specifically, to have sex outside of their homes. This gets back to my desire to use games to bolster broader queer struggles. Because it’s great to make a game that someone jerks off to, but if you can make a game that encourages people to fuck and to push back against the shaming of non-normative sex? That would be really something.

…I’m also working on a bunch of games, mostly text-based, about sex, relationships and power. CTS was actually pretty easy because the player took on the role of a top, which is usually seen as a more active role. So now I’m thinking about how to make games about the experience of bottoming, which is something folks like Christine Love are working on too.

So for instance, I’m working on a game that pushes the player to do some slightly embarrassing or difficult things, but then rewards them for it. For me, that’s one of the most important features of a good kink scene as a sub: you push yourself, you prove yourself, and that feels really great! And it’s in contrast to the thing games seem to love doing lately, where they require you to do something morally dubious in order to progress then shame you for it. That’s boring game design and a bad model for consent and play, because it doesn’t help the player grow or stretch themselves.

And lastly in a sense SPACE/OFF, this game I’ve been working on with anna anthropy for the last few months, is about relationships too. On the surface it’s a pretty straightforward space battle game, but it’s about a breakup between these two characters, who have gotten into this big fight about it. And when we were designing it, I didn’t want to have any simple means of attacking the other player. So all of your weapons have the potential to come back and hurt you too, if you’re not careful. I’m not sure if people will pick up on it when they play it but to me it feels a lot like a heated argument between people who care a lot about each other.

RPS: Thanks for your time, Merritt.

You can find out more about Merritt’s work here, and you can support her work here.

Read the previous S.EXE columns here. See you in two more weeks!

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78 Comments »

  1. Michael Fogg says:

    I’ve read some thoroughly convincing feminist opinions holding that BDSM is an expression of patriarchy and therefore goes hand in hand with nasty exploitation and humiliation. But I guess being ‘sex positive’ is a much more marketable position these days.

    • Afred says:

      Do you have a link/reference for this? I would tend to argue that BDSM, because of it’s contractual and consensual aspect plus the fact that it’s quite linked to other more queer-identified sexuality (a lot of porn studios producing BDSM videos also produced gay/lesbian/trans porn for example) isn’t really seen as a an “expression of patriarchy”, although I have heard what I think is a more interesting argument, that it could be perceived as sublimation of power structures, so then of patriarchy too etc..

      Either way, nice interview and really cool column

      • gattsuru says:

        You can find individual feminists on almost every side of major discussion, but the Feminist Porn Wars and Feminist Sex Wars were (and to a lesser extent, remain) actually a pretty big thing — Griffen in particular wrote specifically sadomasochism, and Dworkin’s Intercourse covers it as well. The more robust stuff seems to descend from MacKinnon, who had significant legislative success.

        I don’t find the general case very persuasive, both for your reasons and because I’ve got a nontrivial preference for gay porn.

      • steviebops says:

        Well, ‘feminist opinion’ is just that, opinion, does it need to be referenced?

        • Chris D says:

          Saying “Here’s my opinion” doesn’t need to be backed up, although you’re probably going to want to if you want to convince anyone else that you’re opinion is worth listening to.

          Saying “Here’s (group X’s) opinion” isn’t actually an opinion, it’s a claim to be a fact about someone elses opinion and therefore needs to be backed up. Otherwise it’s just a straw man/woman argument.

          • steviebops says:

            Fair enough, Michael Fogg, your post is ruled inadmissable.

    • pepperfez says:

      Like everything, and especially everything sexual, there’s good BDSM and bad BDSM. There are certainly varieties that are just an exaggeration of existing (bad) gender norms, and surely many of the dudes watching bondage porn aren’t getting off on the models’ personal liberation through performance, but making explicit (and consensual) the power relations that always exist in sexual interactions seems pretty in line with the feminist project.

      • JRHaggs says:

        Interesting, too, here that we’re assuming the female must be the sub.

        Oscar Wilde blahblah sex blahblah power.

        The assertion of, and, as (more?) importantly, the relinquishing of power is fucking huge in a mature sexual relationship.

        I assert that the reason The Blowjob is so coveted among men is that it is an explicit relinquishing of sexual power and control. That’s not how we [had "they"] frame it rhetorically though. Machismo demands that we pretend it is an act of subservience. But, anyone who can get a woman off with their mouth knows, the real power lies with the one giving head, not the one receiving it. And it is incredibly empowering. And on the other end, conscious acknowledgement of the transfer of control only adds to the beauty of the experience.

        Says I, anyway.

        • pepperfez says:

          Yeah, I was assuming a female sub in any sort of patriarchy-reinforcing BDSM because otherwise, obviously at least something is happening to challenge the sexual status quo.

        • P.Funk says:

          When I go down on a girl for 45 minutes or something its not because I’m relinquishing power and being subservient to her sexual liberation, its because I’m a giver and I like seeing her get off. Sometimes I find the typical dissection of sexual acts with respect to gender norms and power relationships to be on its own very normative. Its like once someone gets into this mode of thought surrounding sex and gender politics its like you need to frame it that way.

          Maybe someone who wants to go on about the subconscious can pipe in, but to me sometimes a little head is just a little head.

          Women obviously however have more obvious power issues with respect to blowjobs owing to the enduring patriarchal norms which persist, but I don’t think that we need to focus entirely on the power dynamic 100% of the time when dealing with men giving head to women, if said men are in fact well balanced and lacking is most traits endemic to misogyny.

          • Martel says:

            45 minutes? You might be doing something wrong :)

          • disconnect says:

            Or something very very right.

          • Geebs says:

            Or maybe just have a broken hyphen key :-D

          • MartinWisse says:

            Well yeah, on an individual level these sort of feminist/sociological/marxist/etc analyses always break down because there’s always more going on and besides, that’s not the level which such an analysis operates on in the first place.

          • P.Funk says:

            No, I was in serial production mode, if you follow my meaning.

        • gwathdring says:

          @P.Funk: I think the person you’re replying to is saying precisely the opposite. That is, that oral sex is PERCEIVED as a power fantasy, but in terms of sexual dynamics it can be rather the opposite.

          Of course, even this is sort of a, in my view, needless simplification. We don’t need to see oral sex as either a relinquishment or an acquirement of sexual power. Because that really varies from person to person. I think part of the problem here is that we’re applying our own anecdotal normalization to something that is far more than usually subjective which makes that sense of normal accordingly more useless.

          Is it a power trip to have someone pleasure you with their mouth while you kick back and enjoy it? Sure can be. Is it a power trip to control someone’s sexual pleasure relatively remotely as one does while giving oral sex? Sure can be. I really don’t understand why EITHER of those perspectives could be said to be less accurate or why anyone would have any interest in saying such.

          • P.Funk says:

            Re-reading what he was saying I’m pretty sure that he’s saying that oral is more about power transfer to the giver than the receiver or suggesting that it isn’t exclusively about that. I’m not sure exactly if thats what he meant but it comes off alot like saying the giver is the one in the power role or something.

            My point is that I’m not trying to make any normative statement, more resisting normatives in favour of the nuances of individual perspective. As I said, sometimes a blowjob is just a blowjob. Does it have to incur a particular presumption of power dynamics?

            My own experience with my various sexual relationships is that I have no normative metric for oral sex other than my own responses, which are themselves significantly varied.

    • P.Funk says:

      I try to be sex positive and not let my own prejudices interfere with a reasonable perspective on modern sex, but the one girl I know who is most hardcore into BDSM is ridiculously fucked up and gets off on being beaten til she’s nearly comatose and has her zen moment when the dom picks her up, carries her to the bathroom and treats her open wounds. To her this is the purest form of intimacy, when she is so hurt she can’t even think and someone else is caring for her, even though its the same someone who just beat the crap out of her.

      She has enormous daddy issues, has Borderline Personality Disorder, and to top it off is a rape survivor and her sexual proclivities/psychological problems all stem from those mentioned experiences/causes.

      Its hard to really think the most extreme end of BDSM is healthy when that person is your main introduction to it.

      PS. Don’t even date BPDs. Girlfriends from hell.

      • Ironclad says:

        funk, that sounds like it violates 1 and probably 2 of the principles for safe bdsm play (those being safe, sane & consensual) – bdsm is not about causing lasting harm to a body (the safe part) and partners must be in a healthy state of mind (sane). This experience seems to have violated those principles and is frowned upon.

    • gwathdring says:

      Nevermind that women can be Doms too? Christ.

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  2. Wulfram says:

    Bioware romances aren’t “quests with sex as reward”. If they were, Dragon Age romances wouldn’t tend to continue after sex.

    • steviebops says:

      There was the quest in ME3 with Jessica Chobot’s character, it is just sex, and you can even kick her off the ship immediately afterward.

      Harsh stuff.

    • gwathdring says:

      I think people are unreasonable tough on Bioware. Not because Bioware does everything great–I have plenty of issues with their games and the way they handle relationships. But I also found a lot of good fiction and interesting character dynamics in the same places other people saw “PRESS BUTTON TO HAVE SEX” which makes me feel like at least *part* of the cheapening of Bioware relationships comes from the audience’s relationship with the game.

      Game design is an imperfect thing; we can accuse the game of failing to allow us to suspend our disbelief of course but when we say a game is cheap or unreal or cold-hearted on the merits of it being overly straightforward or mechanical we are only having half of the conversation that games ought to evoke. We’re not meeting games, inherently mechanical, half-way and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

      Again, I could criticize Bioware’s handling of relationships too, but I find myself not sharing many of the criticisms that are put forth most vocally. For example you can look at Dragon Age’s gift-giving at it’s most superficial level–give people stuff and they fuck you–or you can look at it more critically. I’d still argue it doesn’t work, but consider: the gifts are often not explicitly suggested to you requiring you to listen to the character and think about what they want, what makes them happy. Some of the character specific proclivities are not even indirectly mentioned–to guess them you have to make logical leaps about how that character feels about their life and their world; again I’m not arguing that it works, I’m arguing that it can be seen to fail to work on a much more interesting level than everyone gives it credit for–the gift-giving can be seen as a mechanical manifestation of listening, of going out of your way to do something that has no quest associated with it other than to ameliorate yourself to the other person by making them happy. It doesn’t entirely work and the developers may well not have seen it that way either, but it’s one of many things I would point out as to why I think Bioware gets too hard a time about all this.

      In my play of Mass Effect, Liara and Shepard were not lovers. They were friends. More than that, soul-mates who did not share kisses or sexual favors. At the end of the game, she led Shepard into her mind that they could have a few quiet moments together and that Shepard could share the intimacy of her very thoughts and memories. The act and the dialog indicated to me what I’ve already said–a deep sort of bond typically associated with romance, but here without it. Now you could argue that it was a convenient way to smooth everything out or make her the “default” romance option and so forth and that’s all worth discussing from a design standpoint; but one of the experiences it creates–that many of the relationships in Mass Effect create–is that of a variety of different deep bonds between these characters. Friendships in different shapes and sizes. It is a game about characters that connect with one another often in touching ways. I agree it could have handled sex in so many much more interesting ways, and it should have at bare minimum allowed different romantic outcomes to match the different kinds of relationships it’s “romances” represented. But I don’t there’s something inherently wrong with the one way in which is does approach sex; rather it is incongruous in a very specific way with specific aspects of the specific relationships presented in the game.

      Ack. I’m tired and I need to leave now, so I’m sorry if this is over-long and if it nonetheless sounds incomplete.

      • F33bs says:

        Great comment. To be honest these pieces by Ellison read more like an excuse to hear about her feminist friends than an exercise in actually examining sex in games from any seriously considered intellectual perspective.

        In any case, the problem, as you have basically shown, is that if you approach any issue only accepting that one point of view is the default one, you run the risk of not having the full conversation about the issue. Mass Effect is a great example of this, as it is commonly asserted by feminist writers that every woman is just an excuse for a sex scene and that Bioware somehow did everything wrong in conveying human relationships. In my experience as well as yours, Mass Effect was about the deep connection that beings can have with another. Because you and I, unlike those writers, don’t see the entire gaming world as being made up solely of adolescents who want to gawk at a digitized boob. We are capable of seeing the nuance that these writers clamor over each other to champion but fail to understand. Fetishizing sex at the expense of ignoring the obvious depth of the storyline is pretty poor form, I’d say.

        But it becomes easy when you’re one of those writers to pidgeonhole every gamer as that type of gamer, even when the diversity of experience is obviously so broad, because it makes it easier to generalize things for the sake of your argument. Unfortunately that does nothing to further the actual discussion of sex and relationships in games, which is advancing as mediocre as ever. Everything is so much more indie, though! That’s good, I guess!

    • toxic avenger says:

      I mean, if finding enough silly, non-useful items to gift to a potential suitor and gaming the conversation system aren’t “quests with a sex reward,” I’m really not sure what would be constituted as such. Sure, there is a continuation of the “relationship” afterwards, I guess, through the option to simply talk to them, but the whole situation seems so far removed from reality, specifically speaking, emotionally reality, to be taken seriously. At least that’s my opinion.

      • Wulfram says:

        The gifts were a silly feature, but they weren’t really a romance mechanic. They were just as much about stopping Zevran from trying to kill you, or whatever.

        If you approach the conversations as a tedious chore to “game” your way through, with the badly animated underwear sex scenes as the only worthwhile or rewarding part, then you can see the romances as a “quest with sex reward”. But approached that way, basically anything can be dismissed. I don’t think it’s how they’re intended to be consumed.

  3. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I have little to add apart from this video of SexCrime by the Eurythmics

  4. stringerdell says:

    “as mutant practitioner-theorist, [she] managed to contaminate the living gaming discourse, emerging as a powerful and yet nuanced voice in the indie movement”

    possibly the most pretentious thing I’ve read on this site.

    • pepperfez says:

      Man, when I first read that, I read “mutant” as some kind of unexplained riff on Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, and I was with you, but after reading it again I think it’s a basically straightforward sentence and I maybe want to play Alien vs. Predator.

      • The Random One says:

        No, that’s Paolo Pedercini of molleindustria. Assume the most obscure references possible.

        • pepperfez says:

          I…I maybe want to play Alien vs. Pedercini?

          Maybe I do.

          • Josh W says:

            The alien just wants to capture people and farm them for facehuggers, but instead to get access to the people it has to open their personal quarters by answering personal questions about their preferences correctly. Does the alien start to develop empathy for the people it is capturing, but still suppress it’s misgivings to the end of the game and still capture all the humans? Or does it come to some strange compromise with them?

            On another note, does anyone else find it weird that the alien games are mostly about just trying to kill humans? You’ve got this species with an inherently social and parasitic reproductive cycle, why aren’t there games about capturing humans secretly without giving away your nest location or running out of food yourself?

    • Tukuturi says:

      It’s not just pretentious, it also shows a basic misunderstanding of what those words mean. There is no practice without theory, and there is no theory without practice. Call it praxis if you must (and/or if you need to identify yourself with some mode of neomarxist thinking through your vocabulary), but don’t just make [doohickeys] up like “mutant practitioner theorist.” It makes you sound like an uneducated [nice person] trying to act like an academic.

      Edited for early morning profanity. Sorry.

      • pepperfez says:

        Sure there’s no practice without theory, but there are certainly practitioners who aren’t theorists. A lot of people are making games without working through the ideas behind them and a smaller number are thinking and writing about games theory without making games. It can be worth pointing out someone with an equal commitment to both sides.

        • Tukuturi says:

          I would argue that those who claim an atheoretical approach or simply refuse to actively engage theoretical discourse are still working within and through their work externally influencing the relevant body of theory. I can see your point though, that the a conscious and active commitment to theoretical engagement is different than the above and a positive thing worth pointing out. My comment, I think, came off as less humorous and more acerbic than I intended. I haven’t had my coffee.

  5. floogles says:

    The most memorable sex-in-a-game for me has always been Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EafNYw7US4U#t=226

    It was interactive, which I thought was awesome. I distinctly remember telling a friend about this, and they thought it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard of. I tried to equate it to sex scenes as movies=passive games=active but they could not entertain the thought.

    It was then I knew that this issue of sex in games and interactive erotica was going to be something really fascinating to watch.

    Sadly, it hasn’t really come that far yet, but articles like this add to the depth of thinking about it. Instead of saying sex is good or bad, it thinks a little about how we frame sex itself in games (eg. the point about orgasm-focus). This is a similar question to the ongoing crisis is gaming about how to make a game without violence being the core mechanic.

    Thanks for the interview.

    • The Random One says:

      I played the gimped US version, but I find that scene disturbing in context. There is no reason for those two people to fall in love and have sex other than that they are the male lead and female lead. (Also, as Cracked pointed out, the male lead is DEAD when that sex scene happens and has been demonstrably shown to have no body heat. And it happens during a supernatural freak winter. It’d be like fucking an icicle.)

      Actually, one of the things that bothered me the most about Farenheit (more even than the tonal shift in the second half) is how the relationship between the male lead and his ex is not explained. There’s none of the awkwardness that’d follow a breakup, and whatever caused them to break up is never brought up. Their relationship is identical to the divorced parents that exist to get back together in a kids’ movie.

      • floogles says:

        Yeah I totally agree about the scene with Carla that you’re talking about – it bothered me a lot, made me angry. Actually the whole ending of that game was ridiculous, but didn’t ruin an otherwise awesome experience.

        But I meant the earlier (optional) scene where he has sex with his ex-girlfriend – that’s what’s in the video. It’s interactive too. If you manage to get it to the sex, it does make sense why they get there (at least from Lucas’ perspective).

      • steviebops says:

        Don’t they start at it in a pretty grotty location too?

  6. GamerDad says:

    “(The natural result of this convergence is the flash porn game, where the player completes a series of mechanical tasks almost always culminating in a male ejaculation. Which might be funny a few times, but is pretty boring and gross!)”

    But semen leads to the creation of life. Her game is about inflicting pain on people and enjoying sadism.
    Semen made wonderful you!
    Hurting people… hurts people. Kinda gross. To make things worse, it’s okay because the person you are whipping in this game “wants it”.

    I think it’s time I just accept the fact that my views are outdated.

    • rhubarb says:

      I don’t think it’s male orgasms in general that she’s describing as boring and gross, just those flash porn games. Which invariably are boring and gross.

      • GamerDad says:

        The flash games are silly and bizarre to me. I found it strange that this game about physically and sexually abusing a person is presented as something more progressive.

        • P.Funk says:

          Its because being sex positive about consensually hurting people while denigrating typical male fetishism is the vogue thing to do these days.

          • pepperfez says:

            It’s more that denigrating porny cliches makes for more interesting work. For a variety of reasons those cliches are often of the het-male fetish variety, but the problem with them is that they’re boring rather than whose fantasies they are.

          • Geebs says:

            Doesn’t the range of cliches depend on the particular medium through which an individual’s preferred smut is delivered though? I mean, Greek shipping magnates are really big in some demographics. I guess therefore you might consider that people have a blind spot for whatever works for them and a tendency to overestimate the amount of stuff they find distasteful. I don’t think it’s too contentious to suggest that must be a pretty common human trait, or how else do you explain the Daily Mail’s continued existence?

          • toxic avenger says:

            That’s a pretty cynical take on it. The reason, as I’m very certain you are aware of, one is accepted and the other is not, is BDSM relies on mutual consent, whereas typical heteronormative fetishes usually are not only degrading to the person performing or embodying such fetishes, but more often then not, set a precedent in non-sexual reality where women are seen as an embodiment of the object of male sexual desire. But certainly that isn’t ALWAYS the case. There isn’t enough space here to begin differentiating what’s socially acceptable and what’s downright hurtful. Like I said before, I suspect you are playing dumb, not to really know the difference.

    • Josh W says:

      This is the really nice side of “heterosexual futurity”, where ejaculation means “And maybe we get a baby too!”.

      So loads of different kinds of pleasure can get all tied up in the same moment.

      Course, not everyone is in a position to say “we’re having sex because it’s fun, we like each other and we are expressing a relationship that will lead to a baby we totally know we will be able to look after and enjoy together for the rest of it’s childhood”.

      It seems to me that most sex games will dive into the first part, into the moment by moment experience of sex, because games are an interactive experience, just as writing tends to focus on the symbolism of sex, it’s patterns of expectation and imagination and memory and stuff, and also it’s obsessive side, because you’re sitting there actually imagining sex along a guided unchangeable track.

      I can imagine a sex game that focused purely on making babies with people, without any experiential element, and it would probably some kind of really weird personality test MMO thing.

      • GamerDad says:

        I’m afraid I don’t know what heterosexual futurity means. I dropped out of University. I just find it disturbing to see a game about sexual and physical torture presented as less offensive.
        I felt the same way about that game that had the spider women who captured the slaves to rape them. I forget the name. There was a screen that said “All power transfers are consensual.” I remember being offended by that too because it was like “See, it’s okay now they want to be enslaved and tied up or whatever.”
        To me, that’s not a step forward. It’s a step down the stairs into the nightmare cellar.

  7. Chicago Ted says:

    I stick mainly to Japanese stuff when I want ero-games. Western stuff tends to fall far behind in everything except really text heavy/only may-as-well-be-erotic-literature stuff

    • Zelnick says:

      Indeed. The “West” certainly has some catching up to do when it comes to erotic video games in both technical and stylistic degrees. I wish they both were trying to push more interactive dialogue in these types of games(actually I want this from all video games), but that requires more effort than most are willing to apply; not to mention the fact that this wouldn’t allow for voiced dialogue, a long “required” feature to many peoples’ standard.

      Also, I wish Japan embraced real-time 3D more when it comes to eroge. I love me some well drawn 2D static images and animated ones but my passion lies firmly in 3D graphics; and with first-person VR technology about to go mainstream like never before, I foresee a boom in first-person erotic simulators.

    • Chaz says:

      Oddly when it comes to real porn, the Japanese still pixelate out the genitalia. This in a country where you can buy used school girl’s panties from a vending machine. So decadent and yet still so repressed.

  8. satan says:

    interview ariane barnes (http://arianeb.com/) next!

    • SirMonkeyWrench says:

      Seconded. Strangely fascinating writings from them.

  9. The Random One says:

    Great interview. Merritt is super smart and it’s great to see the spotlight being shone on her. Any sex conversation without her contribuition is, to me, entirely *puts on shades* without merit.

  10. geldonyetich says:

    “Consensual Torture Simulator?” Sounds like a good unofficial title of all the bad games I chose to buy.

    • rhubarb says:

      I’ve seen games in general described as consensual torture, particularly hard games. The designer gives you a challenge. They punish or humiliate you when you fail, with lost lives or progress and big messages saying “You Died”. Then, when you push yourself and succeed, they reward you with stories, praise and new challenges.

      See also Mighty Jill Off.

  11. Philopoemen says:

    My issue with sex in games, games about sex, sex sex sex, is that however I was brought up, my personal opinion now is that sex is a private loving act between two adults, whether they be gay, straight or otherwise, who have an emotional connection. At least that’s the ideal.

    These games about sex, sex n games etc etc seem to reduce it to the physical, and put it on display. It loses the intimacy, and it loses the connection.

    A great example of this is Always Sometimes Monsters; where your sexual acts have no impact on the overall storyline (which is basically you being a creepy stalker who can’t let go), and only serve as amusement, juvenile gratification.

    • Geebs says:

      I think filming-yourself-doing-it to make a political statement has never been terribly effective because a) there’s this implicit assumption that you’re young and cool and doing it in a New Way, which stopped being true about 10,000 years ago and b) frankly, everybody just looks like they’re trying to do long division.

      OTOH I think games have more power in terms of letting people know that the thing they want to do is OK, in a way that a few minutes of watching other people mash their genitals together doesn’t

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Yeah. For anyone who’s past adolescence, sex as such isn’t that interesting, is it? It’s a thing, it’s fun, whatever. Relationships remain hugely complicated, but sex is just sex. If you’re focusing on the physical act, there’s not much there.

      • Focksbot says:

        Man, of all the things to get jaded by …

        Well, I still find sex pretty complex and fascinating and worth exploring, thanks.

      • P.Funk says:

        Not much there other than it being the source of the oldest profession in the world and the market demand that creates so much ongoing misogynistic problems for women all over the world.

        If the act itself weren’t that big of a deal you wouldn’t see them selling eastern European girls into sex slavery.

        • F33bs says:

          You’re obviously missing the point of what they’re saying.

  12. Chaz says:

    I think the thing about sex in games is that it needs to have a sense of place and there just aren’t many games being made where I think it would have one.

    Books have a similar problem. I like reading sci-fi and with modern titles I often find that there is a sex scene jammed in them some where, usually quite jarring and at odds with the rest of the book. As if the publisher has turned round to the author and said “Oh by the way you need to put a sex scene in there because..” And so you often find these rather awkwardly written sex scenes pop out of no where in the middle of these sci-fi epics. Do I really expect or want to read a detailed bump and grind scene in the middle of a sci-fi saga. Not really. Peter Hamilton’s novels always seem to include one or two in each book, and far from being sexy, they just feel a bit embarrassing.

    On the other hand, if I was reading a book with rip roaring Machiavellian style politicking and sexual power play. Then yeah I’d expect a fair bit sex in my read. It would feel right, it would have a sense of place.

    Sex in games likewise needs to have a proper place. I can’t think of many types of main stream game that would be conducive of creating the right environment for sexual play. RPG’s are the obvious choice and there have been some crude attempts at it in that genre. The Witcher games and the Mass Effect series being the prime examples. The dialogue in the lead into the sex scenes is generally pretty risable though, usually boiling down to “Hi what’s a nice boy/girl like you doing in this part of the space ship? Fancy coming back to my place later?”

    Then yeah, getting past all that, how would you implement the “mechanics” of a sexual encounter in a game to a mouse and keyboard or joypad anyway? FPS style willy waving, Mount and Blade style pork sword fighting. And what of female protagonists, a golf swing style jack off gauge?

    Do we even need sex in mainstream games anyway? Surely sex would be better served in in its own dedicated games. You’d have a much broader scope of possibilities then. A good interactive masturbation game would surely sell by the bucket load. Webcam sex is pretty popular, so I hear, so why not design a game around it?

    • Jeroen D Stout says:

      I am happy you mention Hamilton. His sex scenes have someone put me off writing sex because what-ever manners he has of engaging me with sci-fi, he does not have it with sex. Likewise, I think you need a certain type of writing style (romantic, probably) from the start and not shy any personal things. If you suddenly lunge into it from ‘chaste talk’ and go full-on ‘she held him at the brim of orgasm’ (because that is what sci-fi women do) it just feels unrelated.

      I think one problem (one which certainly is prohibitive to me) is that most game websites are in the hands of prudish corporations (Valve, Google, Apple, Sony) who would rather display corpses than orgasms; and without ‘main street’ distribution you can only peddle your games from some back alley: and then where? Make marketing on porn hub?..

      I do one hope to one day to effectively make such a game, make it bonnie and lush. But I never know who would sell (or, indeed, even talk about) it.

      • Chaz says:

        I think many of those big companies are prudish because they’d fear a right wing media backlash if they were to host or publish a sexually explicit game. Certainly were the right wing press to get wind of it, I think you’d find yourself being demonised in short order.

        • Jeroen D Stout says:

          And a great shame that is, sex is a very nice subject that hardly gets the attention it deserves. Though I suppose violence in games is not frequently treated with any real interest either.

    • The Random One says:

      Oh man, thanks for bringing that up. I’m a lot more bothered by how sex keeps creeping up in books than by how violence keeps creeping up in videogames, even though the latter is a lot more damaging (in several meanings of the word).

      • Chaz says:

        It only bothers me because it usually seems that they’re only thrown in there as part of a box ticking exercise and not because the story led up to that moment.

        I don’t think violence is portrayed in games very well either. Whether you’re chipping away at health bars in an RPG or blasting away at a shooting gallery in an FPS, it’s still being done with the same emotional detachment of popping down waves of targets in a game of Space Invaders. Most shoot-outs in games still feel like a scene from a James Bond movie. Mowing down waves of inconsequential bad guys and feeling nothing even when they fall screaming from a balcony you’ve just blasted them off. After such slaughter even taking down the main villains just feels like another meaningless blip. To borrow a line from Once Upon a Time in the West, “when you’ve killed four, it’s easy to make it five.” If we were to feel the shock of violence in games, perhaps less would be more.

        So when taking lives in a game means nothing, then I think the chance of including any kind of meaningful sex scenes is pretty damn slim. Certainly not when crow-barred into that type of action game anyway.

  13. amateurviking says:

    What an excellent interview!

  14. Carlos Danger says:

    If it is a simulator what is the reason for keeping the facade of it being consensual. Don’t be shy let your freak flag fly, it will make it safer for the rest of us.

    • RobF says:

      Because it’s not a facade and consent is really important? I don’t even know why I’m having to type that.

    • tormos says:

      because people who are into BDSM aren’t automatically rapists and might actually be human beings? Nah, that’s probably not it, you should be shitty to them a little more instead

  15. Shieldmaiden says:

    To me, good sex is part of a meaningful relationship. Sure, the random hook-up thing is fun for a while, but it doesn’t hold much attraction to me. The wonderful line “Sex without emotional commitment is just tag-team masturbation and I’m tired of collecting scalps” from Bruce Bethke’s Headcrash comes to mind.

    The problem is that games aren’t even good at depicting relationships, any relationships, even in games with rigidly linear narratives and little player agency. One of my favourite things about the Saints Row games is that they depict genuine, believable friendships. If that is still noteworthy, if so few games get that right, even when they’re at the “cut up movie with fighting bits in between” of game narrative, then decent depictions of sex in games are a long way off. Especially in anything other than experimental indie titles that are entirely about sex.

  16. rock_paper_shotgun says:

    Disagree with her about whether or not games should pursue photorealistic sex. Personally I prefer sex with a real human being :D If developers really want to go that route there are definitely customers willing to buy. Believe it or not, selling things is what makes producers tend to want to make things :P

    The most disappointing type of pseudo-academic is the kind that acts like they know best about what should be happening in their area of supposed expertise. Anybody who acts like playing a game is actually making the player grow or stretch in a meaningful way that goes beyond strategy, memorization, or eye hand coordination is kidding themselves. Until games hit that pinnacle of photo-realistic, highly immersive gameplay, you cannot honestly act as if the gaming experience endows the actual player with an expanded set of real life experiences. If her thoughts on that were remotely real, I could say that all of the violence I have enacted in gaming has made me an excellent killer. It hasn’t. If somebody wants to go out and get beat up for a sexual thrill, real life is the only place that will have a meaningful impact on them.

  17. waltC says:

    She now speaks regularly on the intersection of bodies, sex, and violence at game conferences, and recently spoke at the Feminist Porn Conference about sex in games.

    That’s just really sad in a way. Sex in games is a pretty ridiculous topic, prone to exaggeration and building mountains out of molehills. Sex in games is laughable–it’s not interesting, it’s not titillating, it’s like watching cartoon-sex with Popeye and Olive Oil in the extremely rare instances when I ever see it–it’s just boring, that’s all. It’s not even believable and to me really distracts from good games–the word is “gratuitous.” Like it is in the Witcher, for instance. But even that’s making sex in games far more weighty a subject than it is. Maybe she knows of some “porn games” I’ve never heard of (I can’t imagine anything more boring)–all I know is that I haven’t heard of them, never played them, and have no interest in them at all. And I’m as “red-blooded” a male as it is possible to be, I guess…;)

    As far as innuendo is concerned, what’s wrong with understatement? Boys will be boys and girls will be girls and “unisex” is some poor soul’s fictional construct. The Internet at large is awash with “real porn” (oxymoron) for those depraved souls that want it (the real thing is incredibly better), and porn degrades *everyone* in it, not just women. Looking for pornographic sex in games is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I didn’t even like Leisure Suit Larry–cartoon sex, again. Ugh. That’s not sex, that’s stupid. Sort of like the Three Stooges (who I do actually like a lot), games like Leisure Suit Larry are so dumb they are at rare moments uproariously funny. But titillating? Not on your life…!…;) Degrading to women? Only if you don’t look at the men in the game. And myopia is part of the problem here, isn’t it? Seeing only the women in these rare instances.

    Cara needs to look elsewhere for her material, if crusading is her bag, imo. Heaven knows there’s not much in computer games to complain about.

    • The Random One says:

      OK, your post is a tad long, so let me try to summarize it:

      1) Speaking about sex in games is sad because sex in games is always gratuitous. You haven’t played the games mentioned here but you’ve played some completely different ones which you’re certain have shown you every possible way of approaching this subject in this medium.
      2) Unisex is a fictional construct, which is why there are different cars for males and females.
      3) “Real porn” is an oxymoron because the idea of people becoming aroused by fictional situations is as stupid as people crying because a fictional character has died.
      4) People who look at porn are sad because anyone capable of opening an URL is obviously able and wiling to go outside, at which point they’ll easily find someone to have sex with.
      5) You are a representative of Heaven, which is how you know for a fact there’s nothing to complain about in computer games.

      Did I get that right?