Play Like Everyone is Watching – Some Lessons from Running My Own Play Party

(Content note: this article discusses kink and sex in general, but doesn’t have any explicit descriptions or depictions of sex)

 

Sweaterdresses, sushirritos, drinking game jams, I have a habit to smoosh a lot of my interests together. I blame it on my suburban survivalist nature, passing up smaller opportunities of separate, smaller things to fill up my needs and for the perfect, mega item that is some powerful chimera of a swiss army knife, never what I actually expect but somehow compelled to accept it is what I need. I have a pretty scattershot array of involvements and skills when it comes to games; writing critique, consulting, designing, tweeting, organizing events. There are times I feel a little lost, not knowing exactly where this hodgepodge is going to take me. I wouldn’t call myself a generalist, or only somewhat good at many things, rather just not interested enough to overspecialize in one particular thing at the determent of others, though that does seem inevitable when looking at the kinds of experience jobs want. But what exactly would combine my skills and other interests into one big project instead of feeling like I’m running between activities with non-transferable credentials?

Finding Inspiration

Two things, first, more recently, I’ve come to identify with works from Jennifer Rubell, a performance artist who often blends together participation, food, and a love/hate relationship with masculinity (mildly NSFW). She started out how I wanted to, writing food criticism and eventually sliding into performance, exploring and stretching the relationship between society and food. I found this pleasing because of the few conundrums of an artist’s life I was feeling: I prefer producing work mostly myself, but dislike handing down a Product for the Masses to enjoy; I feel my best interacting with others, but don’t want that to be a producer-customer relationship; and though play is shaping up more and more to be my chosen method of expression, I’m rarely inspired by games. I feel a resistance to performance art in games, especially outside of museums, and a pressure to digitize or get lost. What I really like about her work, and something I find intrinsic to play, is this lovely tension between the absurd and real, instead of the usual unreal. By breaking reality, you see its truth, or at least, your truth, brought to a place where little makes sense that tasks you to reconstruct yourself back into something whole afterwards. The unreal sits snug within reality, the norm, cognizant that what you are doing doesn’t really mean a lot, especially outside of the experience. You can put it down and move away, and remain largely unaffected.

Before that, I organized and ran my first kinky play party on my own. I helped create policies for one before, and I was both shocked and not surprised at all about how the game design part of my brain took over to structure this event. It is a play party after all. It wasn’t simply a make-sure-no-dies type deal, though that is obviously important, but a big experiment in interaction design. People at play parties are largely autonomous and spontaneous; you don’t know exactly what anyone wants to or will do, yet they require some form of structure so they aren’t just standing around awkwardly by the St. Andrew’s cross. Having people socialize and eventually play together is a more involved process than many of the games I’ve played and helped design because of the inherently vulnerable nature of kink, an emotional vulnerability more than it is a sexual one per se. I’ve written before on some challenges to conventional game design using kink practices as a lens, and how I’d like to go through some of the things I noticed fully running this party, keeping in mind of the blending of interests with participating that I would like to crib from Jennifer’s work.

Protocol as Social Norms

More than once, I’ve heard kinky people described as people who like rules. You wouldn’t hard-pressed to find a game designer describing gamers in a similar way. But it’s something more specific than just rules when it comes to kink, a more codified term being protocol, which takes us to a place less about restriction and more about culture. Protocol are conditionals, molding behavior to create a specific kind of relation between all who are following them. I find when creating protocol, especially for a group of people, you are creating a culture. These sorts of rules are not just things to obey, they are cultural norms, and there is meaning in following and subverting them. A shared way of acting creates a community, and I’ve grown to seeing events like shared experiences as a temporary community. I find that protocol is often left implicit and largely undesigned in play experiences and is probably why games tend to elicit similar feelings and create similar communities. I’ve never witnessed ‘culture fit’ at a company before, but it definitely worked itself out very quickly at the event, with people who didn’t really jive with the protocol pushed to the edges and leaving. While that sounds harsh, communities are intentional creations that explicitly include and exclude certain qualities. The trick is making sure you’re very intentional in all that you decide to exclude, and being okay with the fallout.

As I started to imagine play experiences more involved with social engagement, protocol in a kink context made for a more useful lens than rules in a games one. When thinking about a community I wanted to create, I tried to draft customs that would gesture towards a certain mindset. The party I designed for had a particular focus on a long-standing problem: for a play event centered around the experiences of women, how do we facilitate respectful interaction while cognizant of how men are socialized to treat them and not making men out to feel like they are inherently unsalvageable creeps? Along with the knowledge that people of all genders can violate others’ boundaries, I created a community sanctioned method of approaching other people that was unobtrusive and could easily be seen as and left at politeness. I shouldn’t be, but I was surprised with how something so simple changed the atmosphere of the event from ones I’ve been to in the past. Longer conversations were encouraged, so the people just cruising, moving from person to person, were very obvious and felt so themselves. Protocol don’t stand on their own like rules may, they require contrast between the person’s life and the current context at hand.

The Weaker the “Magic Circle,” the More Affective the Experience

The existence of a magic circle in which games reside is a fundamental concept in game design theory. It marks a separation of the play experience from reality, where players suspend the rules of life and adopt the ones of the game. It is typically seen as porous, where things from reality can affect the game and games change reality. This demarcation gives permission for people to do things they wouldn’t normally do in life and is manipulated to immerse players as deep into the game as they can go. Through my work and eventually hosting parties, I’ve found that the existence of a strong magic circle creates instrumental relationships between players and play objects, where people and things exist only to advance them towards their goals. In the context of a play party, this renders others as pleasure and catharsis dispensers, strengthened by parties’ privacy policies and the general clandestine positioning of these sorts of events. Much like how people can turn into unflattering versions of themselves when interacting under an internet persona, play parties can have too much of an ‘underworld’ feeling where people can display unflattering aspects of themselves because much is made to separate this space from the outside world. When planning the event, I didn’t require typical dungeon garb, play typical club music at typical club music volumes, and made the event more than just finding a partner for sexual activities. Instead, there were party games, emphasized social areas, and a distinct encouragement to not feel obligated to have sex. I started to see more group conversations over vulnerable topics, a general melting away of awkwardness, and, well, silliness. I could see people being people instead of just Mistress and pet, not allowing themselves to be reduced to their traditional ‘purpose’ at play parties, which often contained in them non-consensual power dynamics embedded by society at large.

Because there was an active effort to weaken the border between play and reality, there was a synthesis between people’s’ real life experiences and the structured one they were having then. I see this strongly in Jennfier’s work, and in social-engagement performance art in general, where there is a thin line between the absurd or fantastical and reality so they create a strong contrast to one another, encouraging participants to reflect on their lives when viewed through a structured lens. Stronger separations allow players to compartmentalize their experiences into ‘just a game’ rationales instead of consciously integrating it into themselves. When many think of kink, they imagine someone in all leather and latex beating up bound naked people. And while you won’t be hard pressed to find that, it’s mostly a stand-by of an older sex club culture, where the only way to do these sorts of things without being completely burned out of your life was to compartmentalize the experience into few settings. As people get older and as newer ones arrive in a more sex-positive society, kink starts to look more and more like people doing typical things, just with a power dynamic unbeknownst to onlookers. All of life is embedded with this kinky context, understanding power dynamics, achieving explicit consent for every interaction with a person’s autonomy, these concepts explode outside of just some freaky sex to how we all relate to each other as humans, and in turn, you can see some pretty mundane-on-the-surface but hot-on-the-inside kinky play.

 

I’m only beginning on a path to organizing these sorts of events, and there are some high concept ideas that would take some time winning people over to try out. But so far I’ve been successful, leaning far into psychological play and stressing relational awareness. I’m fascinated by vulnerability as a theme and find myself working backwards from traditional kinky events to something along the lines of Jennifer’s work. In fact, the next one I am planning will be set in the context of a wine tasting, creating a legit wine lineup with the opportunities for power dynamics between people to be explored and exploited. But if someone looked in the window, they wouldn’t see anything too strange, at least, nothing I couldn’t get away with by calling it ‘art.’

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