Dispatch from Arse Elektronika – Some Things Games Can Learn from Sex & Tech

(This post will be talking about sex, and there will be writing about about some sex acts. Consider all links NSFW if your work doesn’t appreciate you looking at sexual content.)

 

This past weekend, I went to the annual sex and tech conference in San Francisco, Arse Elektronika. This was actually the first conference I spoke at back in 2012 when it was specifically about play and games, and I got to come again this year to see what new projects people thinking and crafting about sex were up to. This conference tends to attract a cross-section of toy makers and academics interested in sex topics, but also nets in software people and artists.

What’s interesting for me about this group of people who convene over sex and tech is how similar and different the mood is to my experience in video games. The demographics are about the same, with maybe the ratio of women you’d see at an indie games event, so higher than the industry but not as much as men. But there is an unspoken understanding  of non-judgment that I see in the kink community in SF that makes it easier for people to bend outside of gender norms for the most part. If anything, a lot of baggage around heteronormativity and monogamy is left behind, but technocentrism and the centering of hegemonic masculinity’s relationship with sex still exists. An interesting site of reference if you want to see the dynamics where fluid sexuality is a thing and how men, and sometimes others, relate to each other in a context they don’t really get to outside of these situations. So I wanted to share with you all my thoughts on some of the presentations and how they relate to our realm of play.

The keynote of the conference was by Varka, the cofounder of Bad Dragon. I finally had an answer for where all these fantastical dildos I kept seeing on tumblr came from. This was one of the many talks during the conference that would speak to bridging the gap of DIY toy making from those with a lot of money to the public. Bad Dragon toys are, in a sense, a certain evolution of fanfiction. The company pretty directly serves the furry community or others who fantasize about anthropomorphized animals or aliens, and seeing that those sorts of beings don’t really exist, sex toy creation works to bring an aspect of that fantasy into reality. I’ve always wondered what the fanfiction of games would be, and this seems to tap into that concept. More precisely, the imaginations of furries has shaped play objects so new interactions can be had with them. Most sex toys resemble, ultimately, the binary genitals of humans and imply convention usage. And while the dildo of a dragon still fits there, it opens the possibility of textures and features we wouldn’t normally have on our toys. My guess is that eventually, we will have play objects that expand our range of actions during sex, or even outside or adjacent to it. While we do have modding for digital games, I think this line of thinking expands how we can see player subversion of the craft of the game through DIY objects.

Probably the most fascinating bits of research to be presented was by Kuang-Yi Ku, a bioartist and dentist who showed conceptual work on modifying the mouth for more specialized use for fellatio, taking notes from gay men’s culture and history. There were three stages of this: the first was a textured retainer a person could wear that would still feel like the roof of the mouth by using a person’s skin cells to coat it. The next was using surgery typically used for people with jaw-displacement, like an extreme overbite if I remember correctly, to elongate the amount of space inside the mouth to fit a phallus. The last was called ‘Bird Beak Clone,’ extending the previous surgery out more so the person had more room in their mouth, and in effect their mouth and jaw looked more like a bird’s beak. Kuang-Yi said the Castro Clone, a term for how gay men in the 70s, and feasibly today, wore a certain kind of outfit in the Castro district of San Francisco to signal to other men that they were gay and looking for sex. What made this so applicable to me is the culture surrounding body modification or even just appearance overall. Bodies are often overlooked in play, and that, technically, the body is also a play object that sets up certain kinds of interactions with other objects. Where are the games inspired by the dynamics of cruising? Or games where interpreting bodies and appearances is the main aspect of play? Kuang-Yi’s project gets at more what I consider play, which is observation of aspects in life that mediate behavior and perception.

Back to play objects and dicks, Dr. Kristen Stubbs presented a collaboration work with Jimmie P. Rogers on DIY, more accessible genital molds that produce rather realistic results. Like, a super realistic dildo of Jimmie’s penis. It was so idiosyncratic that when it was passed to me to look at, I kind of wanted to, like, put it in my mouth? My gut instinct was that I had a hard dick in my hands, so I must do something with it? I also just looked at the details and felt weirdly compelled to know what Jimmie’s face looked like and what kind of person he was. I felt really confused about all the social rules that surrounded having a dildo of a person’s penis that I didn’t know. One of the questions from the audience was about the implications of a sort of gential library that people could set permissions and allow others to loan out molds and toys of their genitals. I couldn’t help but imagine how that would change contemporary courting rituals and the general structure of intimacy in society. Would it become customary to order someone’s vulva before seeing the real thing? What would be the social mores of what you do with that? Especially incorporating that into your own sex life? It somehow avoid the uncanny valley but is still slightly unnerving. Another example of how objects can project interactions that shape culture.

The last thing I want to share is a performance by Maggie Mayhem, which appropriated the stations of the cross from Catholicism to talk about working conditions of sex workers throughout the technological ebb and flow of pornography. For those unfamiliar, the stations of the cross is a sort of educational procession, going through different moments of Jesus’ crucifiction, highly ritualistic and meant to impart to the people participating the suffering that lead up to his death and soon rebirth. I’ve been reading a lot about ritual and this struck me as particularly poignant. The stations of the cross is a type of narrative that other content could be substituted in to give similar feeling; there are a lot of complex feelings around pornography, its detractors, technology, and sex workers that all somehow have to be respected and looked at critically at the same time. We were playing within the realm of a memorial that is part education, part mourning. We recited back the prayers, and as they went on, they weighed on you more. We left with the little booklets to eventually do services of our own. I could imagine more ritual making like this, especially sending people out to practice it outside of the main experience. I will be writing more on ritual soon, so stay tuned for that!

I think a lot can be learned on the more critical and artistic ends of sex when it comes to play. I mean, sex is literally a kind of play, yet we don’t hear it come up too often at our conferences, and games culture at large seems pretty awkward at handling the subject. I think there’s a lot of ways thought and research in topics surrounding sex can help influence game design and how we think of play, especially in the physical space. I’m actually writing this just before flying off to LA to go to IndieCade, so I will be back soon with some writing for that!

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