We have sex on our phones. We have sex with our webcams. We have sex with only images and sex with nothing but walls of text. We fuck people we never smell, never suck. Digital sex is as everyday as physical sex, and what better art form to capture that than the most interactive kind: a video game?
Next week I’m giving a seminar on sex and video games at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, CA. I figured it would be downright irresponsible of me to talk about digital sex in only an analogue venue. Part of the reason I am giving the talk at all is because there are dozens of discourse-worthy video games about sex, but very few talks or articles that collect very many in one place. So, if you’ll consent to the rest of this article, allow me to coat your eyeballs with infodata quicker than you can say GoogleBingDuckDuckGo.
The mainstream video game industry, replete as it is with violence simulators and power fantasies, is a shrinking violet when it comes to honestly portraying intercourse. Sex is treated like a Fabergé egg, a delicate treasure with incalculable value but no other purpose than to look nice on a shelf and point out to friends. In the God of War series, sex is a reward mechanic that churns out points in exchange for quickly mashing buttons. But you never see the sex, you just hear it! In Bioware games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, sex has often been the final outcome of long and winding dialogue trees of conversations, flirtations, intimations. You are asked to really invest time in the object of your affection. Your affair builds up to and revolves around a grand reward: a single cutscene. A cutscene of two awkward polygonal character models shimmying up and down each other for a minute and, boom, that relationship is mostly done. As if sex were the endpoint of a committed romantic relationship, rather than just one more moment in a long line of moments. As if sex were a slot you fingered quarters into until you got the present you wanted.
The triple-A, multi-billion dollar side of the games industry is not simply a meat grinder; it’s also very afraid to take chances. There are exceptions. A seemingly generic bang-bang-stab-stab mafia game called The Darkness contains one of the most intimate scenes in video games. Two lovers sitting on a couch watching To Kill A Mockingbird, which plays in its entirety while Jenny snuggles up next to Jackie and falls asleep. There is no sex in this scene, yet this scene is all about sex. Warm bodies, a sense of safety, passion and the mundane, all swirling together.
That kind of earnestness and fragility requires people to leave a fearsome amount of blood on the page. It requires the game developer to be honest with themselves and their own sexual experiences. Risk takers like that are far more common in the indie game scene. Such as Luxuria Superbia, a touchscreen game where you run your fingers along the inside of a colorful flower tunnel. WINK. It’s a rare game that is about giving something (pleasure) rather than taking something (lives, for example). If you try to finish a level too quickly, the level will end before the climax and you have to start over. The player is taught patience, rather than the belief that if they finish faster the reward will be somehow greater. Luxuria Superbia is sex for fun and for its own sake, not some holy relic that you must incessantly struggle uphill for.
Consensual Torture Simulator is a text-based game about a conversation between two partners. One wants the other to hurt them until they cry. Starting from there you employ various forms of pain while listening to your partner’s replies and adjusting your behavior and intensity accordingly. Trust is huge here; it’s everything. It’s intimidating in a powerful and unexpected way. Rather than unrealistic computer projections mashing together with little to no meaningful user input, you have all the control; nay, the responsibility. It was terrifying and gratifying when I realized that games could serve functions other than escapism. That they could inform responsibilities I have in the real world. Costs and consequences hand-in-hand with the rewards.
Hurt Me Plenty, a game in a similar vein, begins with a handshake and ends with your partner telling you how they felt, rather than feeding the user a spreadsheet of cold statistics.
Many games also help us unpack our respectability politics, helping us connect with each other by reminding us that we’re not alone. Groin Gravitators is about David Bowie and developer Peter Molyneux trying to hug without each other’s privates touching. It sounds silly and it is silly, it doesn’t need to take itself seriously to say something of value. The game is also incredibly challenging, however, making you wonder whether it’s worth it to worry so much about how close you hold your buddies. Slave of God brings the player face to face with the majesty and horror of a rave party, the struggle to connect with people in the neon cacophony, and how much better it can be to just let go and dance.
How Do You Do It? focuses on a young girl trying to understand sex with only her dolls. She uses the brief window of time her mom is out of the house to mash them together as as a way of articulating her sexuality. When I mentioned this game to one of my partners, they were at first uncomfortable. A game about a child trying to understand sex? Isn’t that a bit… squicky? It is that very discomfort an interactive medium can help us dispel. Many of us had this same experience growing up, but at some point we heard that it was shameful and wrong. That thinking impairs our comfort with our body and our own sexual development. Giving us tools, like games, helps us connect our childhood with our adulthood and engage in honest discussion with our own children about their bodies.
As more and more sex happens via technology, we’ll have to come to terms with how much of our lives online is preserved and leaves a trail. How will that affect our ability to express ourselves sexually, when it will be so much easier for people to find? Do we invent increasingly private ways to circumvent that (such as the auto-deleting Snapchat)? Or do we become more honest with each other’s bodies and needs, walking hand-in-hand in a kumbaya-like openness? In either case, we need to know what we really want, and video games are one path to that knowledge.
Morgan McCormick (@translabyrinth) is a writer, model, actress, plus a poly kinky queer trans-type human from the South. She has appeared on Amazon’s Transparent, is a regularly invited speaker at Penny Arcade Expo, and contributes to Autostraddle and A-Camp. She gives hugs and back rubs to, like, everyone (with consent).
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