The best PC games ever The best PC games of 2018 so far Best graphics cards 2018 Best free games Rainbow Six Siege operators guide Monster Hunter: World guide

77

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

Positive Space

Featured post

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!

Tagged with , , , , .

If you click our links to online stores and make a purchase we may receive a few pennies. Find more information here.

Who am I?

Cara Ellison

Contributor

Senior Scottish Correspondent, often known as the Notorious C A E, though mostly by her mum

More by me

Support RPS and get an ad-free site, extra articles, and free stuff! Tell me more
Please enable Javascript to view comments.

Comments are now closed. Go have a lie down, Internet.

Latest videos