Content Note: This article will be talking about kink and philosophy surrounding it, and no graphic depictions or descriptions of sex. I should note that kink culture, politics, and activities are outside of this piece, but they are worth interrogating.
On a fairly regular basis, about once or twice a month, I get emails from journalists or researchers who want to talk to me about ‘empathy games.’ Scare quotes are theirs, but I’m pretty skeptical of it as a term and how/where it is deployed. Empathy games as a construction creates a conversation that is construed as new and unexplored while at the same time while providing an excuse for the rest of games to not be concerned since they are different genre. It reinforces games as something special while justifying them as mindless entertainment that profits off of troubled aspects of culture.
This is one manifestation of “the dark side” of games’ technodeterminism that Heather Chaplin picks up on in her addendum to Eric Zimmerman’s Ludic Manifesto. The kind of games and design philosophies that are valued project to people navigating through systems and problem solving for the games’ sake; there is actually little about the ludo aspect of this sort of future, rather, obsession with game objects. If there is something that isn’t widespread in design and practice, it’s the use of play to connect to life or to self-reflect. We are often entertained and gain some meaning through that, and that’s a nice by-product that games often use to propagate industry. The play that is used for the purpose of reflection and connection, however, is greatly undervalued and under supported by the main institutions of video games.
Using the concerns of an unempathic future of games, Steve Wilcox finds that play is actually an exercise to understanding contexts, and that act of understanding is empathy. The current attitude with games is often player with systems of rules, and the value that arrives from that is a sort of systems thinking, to see cause and effect, to mentally bend problems as far as possible in order to see how this system works and to use it for their own devices. So, sure, we might be able to turn things into systems for people to game, and you can map a genome or something. The problem, and most of the serious games/games for change sector can tell you this, is getting people to care about the subject to which a system of placed on top of. People are playing the match 3 for recycling because they want to play a match 3, and the moment they don’t want to play a match 3 anymore, they are done with the experience. No real context is provided for people to create a connection and care.
This reminds me in particular about anna anthropy’s talk at Different Games’ inaugural event, “how to make games about being a dominatrix” and her mantra of CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. She uses similar language, about how mainstream games are empathically challenged, using imagery of social issues as a top layer that is dressing for gaming a system. anna provides the comparison between Mighty Bomb Jack and her own Mighty Jill Off, that while the games are similar in their systems, the latter brings a context that allows the player to create a connection outside just gaming the rules. And this particular context is the kinky dynamic between a domme and her submissive.
Kink isn’t just a topical analogy, like for masocore games, it’s a good framework to challenge these contextless play experiences by reimagining the positions of the designer, player, and play, and what that means. The comparison between kink and games design isn’t that large of a leap, and anna talked about that as well at the Queerness and Games Conference a couple months after Different Games. I recommend you read through the transcript in full because she covers all the bases, but short and crude: dommes can stand in for the game design role as the person who is crafting an experience for the other, and that other being the submissive acquiesces control after negotiating with the domme the rules of the play session which acts both as the magic circle and systems of play. As she says in her talk, this sort of play is often transformative, it can be a safe place to explore not only yourself through rules and systems, but life and culture itself. In particular, I want to continue on the implications of the dominant being someone who receives submission, and the comparison of a designer being someone who receives play.
If we understand play as the exercising of empathy through engaging contexts, and kink as a type of play design that deeply confronts life contexts, then kink practices stand as a stronger model for engaging people with meaningful play than the overly instrumentalized and decontextualized outlook on games propagated by contemporary game design. Instead of games as objects to manipulate, kink shows bodies and minds in co-dependent situational contexts based completely on the participants’ relationship with the very real contexts of life. Play doesn’t need systems or rules to exist and be meaningful, it needs honest engagement with context. Mainstream games completely dodge dealing with reality and don’t allow people to actually experience the material being presented with. In contrast, see my games EAT and Mission. They aren’t encouraging people to figure out its juicy elegant systems to find the meaning of life; in actuality, most people look at them, get what it’s trying to say, and never want to play them. This is because we haven’t gotten used to the idea of play as confronting contexts, as empathy. They are painful games to play, but that is the only way to engage with the contexts being examined there. As kink shows, there isn’t pleasure without trial, without going through consensual pain.
And this is really important to me: the technophilia of games stymies this outlook on design. The ludic century isn’t one of play, but of VIDEO GAMES. Video games are preoccupied with tech progressivism and late capitalistic practices that bank on ripping the sutures between reality and play. WE ARE ALWAYS PLAYING. WE ARE ALWAYS IN CONTEXTS. CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. Game design rarely uses the contexts and play of real life when trying to depict meaningful content. Valued video games are not challenging the construction and deployment of social systems to where people actually engage with and understand their place in it all. Games for social impact aren’t dropping players into safe spaces to experience the raw contexts of the material they wish to communicate. Video games whitewash the conversation of play through devaluing all other types of games and promoting its instrumentalizing methods of relation. Despite trying to take The Gender Issue seriously, what valued video games are honestly confronting players with the construction of gender and how it plays out in our society?
There is an experience arch of kink play that I think games of all kinds can reference to restitch their relationship to actual life contexts. I should say that I encourage you to explore the philosophies of kink more on your own to draw parallels, because this is a very personal and intimate practice, and what I’m describing isn’t necessarily a standard, rather, my own observations.
Consent: What separates kinky and vanilla sex for me is the active recognition of consent. Because of how our (I’m speaking as an American) culture works, we aren’t really supposed to talk about sex, rather, hop into a dark space with each other and hope for the best that the other knows what they’re doing. Consent is the process where you find out exactly what each other wants before you play, and acknowledgement of what you definitely don’t want to happen. What is consented to could typically be seen as mean, out of place, or degrading, but consent is its own context that allows play to be both affective and expressive. Video games tend to obfuscate the effect they will have on the player because of a perceived importance of content and entertainment value. If everyone knew exactly everything about the game and how it works, it would interfere with the typical model of selling games, where PR hypes up products and players go in trusting they will have a good experience. This does not allow for the cycle of wielding and receiving play between designer/game and player. We only have instrumentalized fun in mainstream games because context is hard to sell.
Scene: Just because there is consent doesn’t mean play is completely predicted, rather, the domme and sub have the same goals and will have their own ways of getting there. It is in the scene that the power dynamic is established and life contexts are introduced to play. This recognition is important as it mixes our culturally imbued traits with a certain relationship with power. A relationship between a non-cis multiracial dominant woman and a white cis submissive man carries powerful symbolic weight into play. The scene allows the players to be flooded with cultural contexts through kinky play, engaging with hyperbolized contexts through play. The power dynamic allows player get to that place where faux-egalitarianism in mainstream society cannot. They play these roles to deeply feel these contexts on their bodies, and through that, practice empathy. Typically valued games don’t take players deep into cultural contexts like this. The magic circles they draw are rarely for safe experimentation of real life contexts.
Aftercare: Play on this level is psychologically trying and a debriefing back into reality is needed for complete contextualization. The players were brought down to intense places commonly need reminders after play that they are a good, loved people no matter where the scene went within its consensual bounds. This allows all parties to clearly see the context of play juxtaposed against the context of their lives. Partners see themselves in the scene as a part of the whole identity, and aftercare aims to ease that transition process. It creates a moment for reflection and integration. It allows a person to complicate their views, complicate their identity. Mainstream games rarely afford us a debrief because they assume traversing in and out of play is simple. Leaving is as easy as turning off the TV, because you aren’t meant to feel much more besides bemusement or an evening’s worth of thoughts. These games don’t expect you to be transformed or touched by anything other than superficial storytelling devices.
All kinds of play can take place in contexts that mean something to us. Empathy isn’t just in the domain of queer art games, rather, it is endemic to play. It is this self-inflicted rupture between reality and play that blocks mainstream discourse from actively engaging in meaningful play outside of entertainment. Designers are far too complicit with instrumental play and its inability to make people are about the world when it’s not attached to the game. Technology and capital play too far of a deterministic role in how we talk and think about games and its existence in culture. I say we take a step back and recognize how we are engaging if life’s contexts with our own bodies and selves, how we gender, how we race, how we class, and elevate that kind of play when we look to create and critique games ourselves.
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