a perspective on unpaid emotional labor of queer acceptance – An Arse Elektronika Talk

This past weekend I went to Arse Elektronika, a sex and tech conference in San Francisco that has talks from many different perspectives on whatever lies at the intersection of sex and tech. I wanted to share the transcript of my talk since I put a lot into it and it’s about a highly personal subject that I think needs more people reading it. So before you read it below, know a couple of things: I divulge a lot about my sex life, for a reason, and if that would make you uncomfortable you probably should skip this one; given that, this might be NSFW, though nothing graphic is written or shown; and I will be talking a lot about transphobia and cissexism, so please take care of yourself before reading this if you need to. Thanks for reading!

Hello everyone! I’m Mattie Brice, and my main trades are in writing media criticism on interactive experiences and designing what have been avant-garde games for the past few years. But today, I want to focus on a concern from my other area of work, social justice and organizing, that has been on my mind lately, about everyday activism. As you can tell from the title of my talk, I suffer from having a humanities degree, and set out to present this topic in such a way. You could totally tell I was going to whip out Foucault, get some charts, and toss in an obligatory nod to communism. But you know, I started to realize that there was no need for specific evidence for my case, or at least, when it comes down to it, you’re going to have to take my word for it either way. So I decided to speak straight from my personal experience; I’m not every woman, nor every trans person, nor every transwoman. I don’t promise that my experience is statistically relevant enough to be generalized in any manner. So I hope you don’t generalize this, and accept that my story exists because we live in a world that allows it to, and that stands for something, no matter how singular it is. Instead of intricately made slides and long bibliographies, I’m just going to talk at you, and I just want you to listen, absorb, and respond. Because, you know, people don’t do that enough. I’m going to leave some time for questions hopefully, so keep that in mind as I talk. Also, I’m going to be talking about stuff centering around transphobia, so please take care of yourself if you’re in a vulnerable place and feel free to excuse yourself, I won’t be at all offended. So here we go!

Good news! We now have gay marriage in America! Yay! Go us! When I first heard the news, a part of me was like, “Finally,” but the other, sociologist part of me was curious: people have been fighting for this for a long time, and it takes more than just straight-up legislative and judicial persistence to get something like this passed. Society had to change enough for attitudes to sway, for something like homosexuality to finally be seen as American, or at least, not in conflict with American values any longer. Basically, gayness became normal enough. While there will be unpleasant sentiments about gay people marrying for a while, eventually it’s going to be commonplace enough to not comment upon it. Soon, if the only laws that discriminate against a person is their ability to get married, their lives will become mainstream, or even conservative, according to people who see marriage acknowledged by law as an inherently regressive institution (like myself). This might seem unfair, and it is a little. I do think people should enjoy what every other citizen gets to, and it’s not anyone’s fault they were brought up in a society that values marriage.

Thankfully, we’re all discerning people here, and can hold the good with the bad and know things are complicated. If you followed conversations around gay marriage, especially the efforts put in by the Human Rights Campaign, you will know that it isn’t without criticisms. A lot of queer people who have more pressing concerns than marriage legalization felt marginalized by all the effort and focus funneled into gay marriage, particularly women who are transgender and aren’t white. It’s documented and commented upon how often gay rights activists would cut out or ignore lobbying for the advocacy of those in the community, you know, all the letters after the LG but often forgotten or literally left out for convenience. The reason? Those kinds of queer people are too weird, they aren’t legible like the HRC who are known for being predominantly gay WASP dudes who just want to have kids, a house, and some wealth like ‘normal people.’ In the past year there has been a lot of bad blood between the more visible LGBT groups and advocates who aren’t white or cisgender, often neither. Take San Francisco’s Pride parade committee, who allowed Facebook to participate in the festival despite having their real-name policy that routinely shuts down the accounts of trans people, sex workers, and victims of abuse. So basically, gay cis people are now looking like the oppressors, if they haven’t already.

But the whole story isn’t just gay people fighting to be normal. There are also straight people who are becoming degrees of, well, un-straight I guess. If you look at diversity stats at some tech companies, you’ll see numbers of people who, anonymously, identify as something other than heterosexual at matching or higher ratios than are reflected in the US census. One could attribute that to many companies being in liberal areas of the country, but if that were true, we’d see similar increases with other identities. For some time now, being out and not straight increases your chance of being unemployed, homeless, and without traditional support networks that could propel you into fields like tech. So I don’t think there’s just an increasing tide of people who went through life not identifying as straight, rather that as queerness fought for visibility and acceptance, those who never really considered or pursued it until recently are now further identifying with not being totally straight. We can see this in the rise of terms like ‘heteroflexible,’ which became a selectable identifier on OkCupid the same time queer and trans did (think on that).

I’m sure it would warm all of our hearts if we thought that advocacy was the main reason that more straight people started to show colors and eventually contribute to a social environment that would usher in queer acceptance. However, I think a more traditional factor pioneered this movement, that is, porn and general sexual curiosity. Clandestine cruising for sex always surrounded both the internet and queerness, so with the two rising in visibility and more opportunities to make such arrangements became available, the rate at which people realized something was deviant about them shot way up. This is a good time to remind people that what I’m going to be talking about is purely from my personal experience, but I choose to speak it because I believe there is some wider truth to it. I will be focusing on myself, who for convenience’s sake will identify as a transwoman, and cisgender men who are predominately white and pass as heterosexual but have some sort of relationship to queerness. I’m sure there are other factors and stories to what I’m talking about made by other women and queer people, but those stories aren’t mine, and I can’t speak to them as earnestly as I can with my own.

So, I’m a queer-identified trans lady with radical politics who primarily has sex with men. I know I’m pretty hot, cool, a great conversationalist, have awesome selfie-game, currently on-watch as shameless thirstbait in many queer circles. But I have the most difficult time getting laid despite all these great qualities, which really fucked with my ego for the longest time. There is no easy way for a lady like me to find a decent guy to go at it with at any reasonable frequency. A large part of this is very few spaces facilitate transwomen meeting men in enough places and contexts to get connections going on, purely sexual or otherwise. Clubs and events that do, they cater towards men and their typically shitty preconceptions of who they think transwomen are and how they should be treated. Ultimately, I haven’t found many events that don’t explicitly free me from guys approaching me in a way they consume their porn, most likely made by other dudes who have very narrow and exploitative visions of transwomen. Meaning, men are often overtly gross and assume I’m a sex worker, also having shitty attitudes and preconceptions on how sex workers should be treated.

“But what about queer events Mattie?” some of you may be thinking. If not, I’ve been asked that before by well-meaning people very often. The answer has a way of being simple and complex at the same time: queer events that look to include transpeople, especially sex-positive- and kink-related events, don’t attract, or they explicitly exclude, men, especially cisgender men, even if they identify as queer. This severely cuts down the chance that I will meet a man I’m interested in enough to fuck in a space that has radical politics in place to respect me. Now, some of you might be thinking “They shouldn’t be excluding people!” and others will be like “We need spaces away from dudes to feel safe.” Both are well-intended, but one-dimensional when it comes to my predicament. First, we definitely need spaces where queer people can convene and not be hassled by those who have privilege over them, because let me tell you, nothing is more of a killjoy than having to deal with a blundering cis dude when you’re wanting to fuck. But more importantly, am I not a queer woman? Are my needs all of a sudden inconvenient? Am I just not the right kind of queer to have a space welcoming of who I am in my totality?

“Okay Mattie” you say, “What about sex-positive and kink spaces where there’s lots of men? Surely in a place like San Francisco you’d be swamped with ass.” Oh, you kind and gentle soul. The long and short of it is, those spaces are predominantly cissexist and heterosexist, meaning, I’m allowed to attend, but only on the sidelines. The thing is, despite how enlightened sex pervs think they all are, men in sex-positive and kinky communities aren’t too different in attitudes from general society when it comes to who and how they fuck. Here in San Francisco, many events say they are ‘pansexual,’ but really what you most often get are ‘heteroflexible’ couples, where heteroflexible means the woman partner plays with other girls and the guys aren’t afraid to compliment another man on his apparel. Of course, me being trans violates this because cis dudes still read me as something other than woman, and ostensibly treat me like a gay guy, saying things like “I’m not wired for that.” I even had a guy who, after we planned out completely non-sexual play, freaked out on me and called off our scene when he realized I was trans. As an aside, I’m sure I know many good people who identify as heteroflexible, just giving you a heads-up on how heteroflexible people most typically influence my sex life.

So, where does that leave me to find sex? Yes, our best friend, the internet. Since sites that resemble offline spaces I’ve just described are just as unfriendly to me, I’ve made a really tenuous home on Craigslist. The sucky part about this is Craigslist is treated like a garbage dump, the last place you want to go to for anything. It has a shitty reputation that gives it a self-fulfilling prophecy, where there are fuckboys as far as the eye can see, and not nary a hopeful blip of respectable man flesh. I can’t readily admit to cruising on the good CL because it’s honestly embarrassing, people look down on me for it, or assume I must have something horrifically wrong with me, and wheel into sexual disease shaming. But the fact of the matter is, almost all of my sexual encounters have been through that site, most with guys who really don’t treat women with respect, but every once in awhile, I get a gem I try to hold on to. My chances are really slim, but they are greater than all of my time going to events and participating in sex-positive and kink-friendly communities. Simmer on that for a bit.

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m divulging my sad sex prospects and methods. Well, as anyone interested in internet culture could tell you, weird yet amazing things can happen online that just don’t manifest as strongly in purely offline situations. In fact, there is extensive documentation on self-identified straight men doing things that may look pretty queer from the outside. Take Jane Ward’s work, centered around how men are having sex with other men, but are, like, totally not gay. I could make an entire talk on just my interest and issues with this stuff, but to make it quick, one of her earlier papers centered around str8 men who wanted to have sex with other str8 men on Craigslist. Anyone who’s been on a site where men cruise other men will be familiar with this, but it’s particularly prevalent in places, like Craigslist, that aren’t directly marketed towards queer people. To me this is pretty queer, though these men make it explicit they don’t identify that way. The same attitude exists for men who are seeking transwomen to have sex or experiment with, such as being “100% straight” and wanting “totally passable” women.

I knew I was going to have to deal with some bullshit to have an existent sex life at all. What I didn’t expect was the amount of post-coital therapy I would be doing over the years. For the vast majority of my hookups, men would break down, sometimes in tears, about how he was confused about his sexuality and all the internalized shame he had about what he just enjoyed. Putting aside that these men undermine my womanhood, and really personhood overall, by saying things like that, I had to learn how to navigate these waters in fear that he could turn violent if handled improperly (which is a very real concern to have). Though this still happens to me, and I actually kind of hate it when it’s with someone who has no emotional investment in me, it’s pretty hilarious thinking about a radical activist who got educated in critical theory surrounding gender and sexuality trying to handhold a man’s fragile ego just so he could get out of her damn house. Or potentially worse, I’d end up more involved with a guy and deal with a constantly hot-cold switching of emotions, who goes from completely present and into it to totally distant and scared he was going to be made a pariah if anyone ever found out we fucked or held hands or some shit.

For better or for worse, I became an educator to these men, probably the only queer or trans person they had met and/or had sex with up until then. Through my time hooking up with men online, I’ve introduced many to basic concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality that they wouldn’t seek out of themselves. I’ve taught many safer sex practices and, in general, more kinds of sex practices deftly. I’ve introduced many, many men to ideas of informed consent and better communication tactics with their sexual partners. There are many of them that I linked to sex-positive and kink groups that had other men who they could relate to and feel supported by. Even though we might have not played together much or even more than once, I know I have done my part to push men into queerer and more radical practices since they don’t seek out that education themselves. It doesn’t sound right that the burden is being put on me when it should be put on them, and that’s totally true. However, as I’ve said before, there’s little support for people like me and there aren’t many radical spaces available or inviting for men to be exposed to this stuff, so I can either do it or be even more miserable than I already am. There’s little choice for me.

The sad part about all this is that, when it comes down to it, many of these men can’t stand the shame and potential pain that would come with having an open and healthy sexual relationship with a transwoman. It’s selfish and pitiful, but it’s also the case; there’s no amount of words that will sway someone when they get to that conclusion, rather, it takes lived experiences to lessen the fear until it’s manageable enough for them to surmount. A cis dude respecting a trans lady like a cis woman is one of the rarest occurrences on this planet. Unfortunately, that’s not often with me, but every once in awhile a man arrives at my doorstep already having gone through that experience, and I thank my other trans sisters out there fighting the good fight and fucking these men to their senses so they are over their bullshit by the time they get to me. And thinking of it that way, I feel like it’s my duty to do the same for them. Just think of it, transwomen, fucking guys, hoping that one gets fucked enough to eventually get his shit together and be decent already. If that’s not work for the better good, I don’t know what is.

There’s a big catch to all this, of course: is this even really queer? Some of you may groan at hearing that, but it’s for real, I get this question from queer people and even other transwomen. I’ve regularly been shunned or incidentally left out of events, social gatherings, and support systems because I am not ‘queer enough,’ or at all, for some people. Obsentibly, my romantic life reads as heterosexual, since when it’s convenient, people will reduce those involved to simply ‘a woman and a man having sex,’ and therefore, not really a part of the queer narrative. Queer spaces actively resist anything that smells of heteronormativity and don’t move to encompass people who are queer, yet have aspects of their lives that might look that way despite striving against it. Simply put, as many people forget, being queer isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you decide to call yourself. Queer is a political statement, and isn’t just about who you fuck, it’s about how you relate to and act against normativity. It might be tough to include every single person who calls themselves queer, but that’s the duty of a space if it wants to call itself that. I think it’s sad that queer advocates are more concerned about how to keep cis guys out of queer spaces than inviting someone like me in.

“But those guys are basically closeted, and leave you out to dry!” some concerned people might be pleading. “How is it fair that guys who are hiding who they are and using you should benefit from queer social cachet?” Believe me, I totally empathize with this sentiment. It is really frustrating to not be able to find many guys who are willing to be out there with me in public, to not feel humiliated that others might see me as ‘unpassable’ and therefore direct homophobia at us. It’s further frustrating when this person is privileged and leans on his power in queer communities to sleep with or sway whomever he wants while you’re left at the bottom. But being closeted doesn’t make you any less queer, or completely free of hate and violence related to heterosexism. Being out is one of the touchstones of gay normalization that was turned into a hammer that sees everyone as a nail. Announce yourself! Be proud! Show your colors! This is a good time to note that as the visibility of women who aren’t cis nor white has gone up, so have their murders. Seeing that LGBT organizations have yet to catch up to serving their trans communities, I don’t really find much stock in equating people to their public personas.

To deny my experiences as queer robs me of existence, space, and the kind of action I can afford to integrate into my life. By simply walking outside, I face a ridiculous amount of threat and risk to my well-being, and that’s before I even attempt to have sex with anyone. Communities have built-in safeguards and practices against those who would harm their community members; kinky and queer communities have socials and parties of varying exclusivity so reputations and vetting are within reach, as are people who can watch your back or be your safe-call when something goes awry. If radical spaces leave me out while straight spaces don’t accommodate me, that means I have to date exclusively at the whim of internet moralities, often meeting people by myself and out of contexts that could be used for my safety. Then ~all of a sudden~ the presence of transwomen who fuck men are providence of companies who control the media, and especially porn, that is the majority of cultural reference people, even some queers, come in contact with of someone like me. Transwomen rarely even get to fuck men in so-called feminist and queer porn, and of course, it’s the same excuses of not knowing enough people who would perform. Is that a problem with transwomen, or with queer spaces? The result is that my experience and visibility on my terms is erased.

Ultimately, being left out of all these spaces is forcing me, and imploring others, to do this emotional and sexual labor for cis men. We rarely get to do it how we want it, and on our own terms, rather, only the ways ashamed heterosexuality allows. Without community structures, without support networks, without visibility, without affirmed existence, we are compelled to make do and deal with fragile cis masculinity in the gutters between everyone else’s celebratory debauchery. If I want to celebrate, a word, which, I have a bunch of issues with, particularly for this context, I have to build the whole thing up myself. I’m based here in the [San Francisco Bay Area], and the only play party I’ve been to that had queer politics and cis men attending who knew they’d be in shit for treating transwomen differently was an event I myself ran. You think it wouldn’t be so hard to do, and you’re right, it’s actually very fucking simple! But this is a sort of theme in my career: I didn’t see any writing on trans issues in games, so I wrote it myself; I never saw a game that featured a lead character who looked like me, so I made it myself. And while I do feel accomplished, I would much rather all of this be the norm, and have other people take credit just so I could cruise and love in acceptable amounts of turmoil like everyone else.

As I come down to the end of this, I can’t let my lovely men completely off the hook. Despite being victims in this scenario, men are also the source of all the bullshit that plagues them. So I want to start of my conversation to men with this: destigmatizing sex and love with transwomen begins and ends with men. You shouldn’t have to sleep with us in order to finally come to terms with the fact that we should be treated like human beings. Whenever you’re talking about women in general, you should be including transwomen as well, unless you make the distinction on purpose; of course, you might start to notice that you always qualify your attractions to only cis women, and it’s going to make you look like an ass: good, it should. Unlike what cultural narratives have taught you, you are not ‘wired for vagina,’ as one guy once said straight to my face. You don’t need to be prompted with some codeword to share with other men that transwomen are attractive and should be treated with respect, because all other men are assuming you feel like we’re gross and worthless. Even if your life is settled in a certain way where you won’t ever be intimate with a transwoman, you never know who in your life is suffering and will have their entire life changed because you validated who they are. It sounds grand and exaggerated but it’s the real truth.

Men, both those who do and do not sleep with transwomen, are riding in to queer acceptance on transwomen’s backs. This is evident from the first glass thrown at Stonewall to the emotional labor worked behind closed doors. Transwomen, especially those who aren’t white, have the burden of moving society forward because they continue to be ones most at risk. It’s because of those who have no choice but to be brave and strong that one day you will come to peace with yourself. And believe me, it’s tiring, and on my weaker days, I’m extremely bitter about it. However, you have to come to terms with this, as uncomfortable as it may be, and find a way to bridge the gap. You will likely feel a lot of guilt, but know it isn’t me who is making you feel guilty, it’s your conscience telling you something is fucked up. Guilt isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it’s there to notify you that you really need to get yourself together and take a higher path. It’s never too late to recognize your place in a power dynamic and do something about it. Remember that!

Furthermore, you need to pick up your end of the slack, and create safe middle grounds for you to be around transwomen and other queer people. If you run events, have explicit policies that validate and protect transwomen. If you’re a creator, keep trans people in mind and use them in your narratives when talking about what you do. If you perform, request more of a presence from willing transwomen and be sure their labor is valued. Whatever way you impact and inhabit the world, there is some conscious way that you can make it more welcoming to people like me, you just have to do the work and educate yourself. And don’t rely on queer spaces being made for you first, make your own, recruit your friends that are more into the scene to make these meeting grounds inviting. There is absolutely no need for “not all men” type grumbling in this process, because the onus is on you to display through active effort that you’re not a jerk wanting validation for every little thing you do when you’re rarely ever asked to be decent to those you have power over. The point is that you have a lot to get over and prove, and it’s going to discourage you at first, but you really have a responsibility for all that you’ve coasted on all this time.

And here’s the shameless self-promotion: I already made a very long list of what I think the contemporary man should be aware of when unpacking toxic masculinity, and respecting the people in their lives that they have power over. Here’s the thing, all this talk about social justice and queer acceptance seem huge and out of your control and influence, but they’re not! Instead of framing it as you needing to solve all of the world’s oppressions, focus on the day-to-day attitudes and interactions that build up over time into a power dynamic. The most important thing you can do, starting today, starting now, is salvaging the relationships you currently have and learning to respect those people in a way that doesn’t serve shitty masculinist values. All of the things I’ve written about are super achievable, and are mostly about training yourself into a state of mind that values growth and communication. You are not going to be perfect tomorrow, and neither am I. The difference is, my quality of life is affected by how men value and treat me, and not as prominently the other way around. So, for my sake, and for everyone who is trans, please take this chance and honor the work we’ve done for you all this time. Thank you!

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More Than a Beard: How Hot Ryu Turns Thirst Into Critique

If there is one particularly awkward conversation in media critique, I would give the award to discussion surrounding the sexual interests of women, and tangentially, anyone attracted to men. Codified on the ‘obviously bad’ platform of media activism, the objectification and sexualization of women calls into question the pervasiveness of pandering to men’s interests by emphasizing sexual dimorphism based on men being powerful and women being their objects of pleasure. Besides the arguments of this outright not existing or doesn’t matter, the focus on sexualization brought up other inquiries: Can men be sexualized? Should men be sexualized? How exactly do we handle the sexy in our media? As straight women and queer people of all stripes became more visible and part of conversations in games, amorous and sexual interests that veer from the typically televised began to seep in, sometimes turning straight men into subjects to be looked at and allowing others the agency to look and express interest. But what is it that a critic or artist could learn about media and sexuality from the increased visibility of marginalized people? Like a burly angel sent down from on high, “Hot Ryu” shows that not only do people in games want attractive depictions of men, but that men need more thirst-inducing depictions of themselves to battle the toxic masculinity produced by the media, typically by other men.

It might be a little befuddling why there is such a big deal being made out of Hot Ryu. Ultimately, the only difference between him and any other depiction of Ryu is a beard, and sure some people like facial hair on a guy, but why the daddy cat calls and particular interest? So far, the pervasive conversation on sexualization in the media is very narrow in what aspects of a person could be considered sexual and therefore exaggerated to be a main point of focus for viewers. This focus is in line with men’s socialization, that body parts made to be covered up and only hinted at or revealed during intercourse are what can flag as sexual. However this isn’t the whole story, particularly since how men believe they are sexualized in the media, having muscular chests and arms, are not taboo to reveal in public. Because men often control the depiction of their gender in the media, they are looking for other men to identify with their characters, and men are not socialized with the expectation to be looked at sexually. Instead, they are depicted with a physical relationship with power, and men subconsciously expect other people to be attracted to that power. The hiccup is everyone isn’t necessarily attracted to the power men depict for themselves, rather traits that signal what kind of person they are especially as it relates to amorous and sexual activities. Coming from an American-centered industry, the beard, then, evokes qualities surrounding lumbersexuality, a fashion trend of ironic, exaggerated rugged masculinity that often centers around having a beard. It’s important to point this out because the main qualities of lumbersexuals are irony and reference, awareness that straight masculinity is crumbling under its own weight yet refuses to move and save itself. Despite Ryu being a Japanese character in a Japanese game, he can be co-opted into this particularly white American trend by simply being viewed by English-speaking audiences with American-influenced sensibilities, aided by the anime and Japanese video game convention of mukokuseki, or depicting Japanese characters as non-ethic-yet-vaguely-white. While bara conventions surely can be read into Hot Ryu, the lumbersexual is a prevalent mode he’s being interpreted by English-speaking communities accustomed to white-centered beauty. Hot Ryu doesn’t have to be actually white to exist in this context, and can co-exist with completely different reactions from other cultures, like Japan’s, whatever they may be.

Hot Ryu sparked a combination of this ironic masculinity with amorous interest despite what seems to be just a simple addition given the prevalence of grizzled white men in video games. Timing and broader familiarity with feminist analysis plays a part in this. Fighting games are notorious for sexulized depictions of women characters, and with Mika returning to Street Fighter, discussion was back around talking about unnecessary fanservice in an industry that should know better by now. Then out comes Hot Ryu, looking burlier than ever, in a way prepped to be looked at sexually much how the women are. Except it doesn’t work the same, rather, it’s absurd that just a beard would completely change how you see someone. But when beards are tightly wound in lumbersexual discourse, one is inclined to both roll their eyes yet lust after the wearer at the same time. When Hot Ryu became a meme and trend on social media, it wasn’t simply because he was hot to look at, but because his new beard entered him into ironic masculinity. The memes juxtaposed his hypermasculine persona, now moved into commentary because of the beard, against fan imagining of a sensitive and caring boyfriend, a trope contemporary men struggle with and parody through methods like lumbersexuality. Along with a sub-designation of Hot Ryu being Daddy Ryu, evoking the lumbersexual allowed those who like men to extrapolate fantasies in public through the irony men set up for themselves. Because there is a general lack of sexual flagging by straight guys in the media, people who like men outsourced that flagging to other symbols to engage with. Like wearing a red hanky in your right back pocket means you want to get fisted, having a quintessential lumberjack beard might mean you’re struggling with contemporary masculinity by making it a caricature. This means that the basic, yet uncommon, act of making men a subject, not object, of attraction is in itself a kind of critique.

So how does Hot Ryu change the sexualization conversation? Just on the (his) face, we see a reversal of standards on what constitutes something as sexy for consumption, namely complicating the power vs attractive object binary based on men’s socialized and marketed tastes. Instead we see audiences imbue agency through a knowing consumption, making a character a sexualized subject instead of object. The distinction is important, like the difference between retaining agency through choosing objectification, being the objectified subject, and being perceived as inherently an object for use. This creates a basis of critique of masculinity that isn’t solely on straight, cisgender men’s terms, as they resist being objectified through identifying with power and interpreting how they could be consumed through that lens instead of what actually is the case. Most importantly, this appropriation allows alternative visions of masculinity that are uncommon in media dominated by men depicting themselves but will likely relate to men through less exploitative ways as we continue to imagine future masculinities independent of oppressive power structures. The beard isn’t the end-goal, as it is wrapped in a lot of regressive politics, but when looking at strategies to challenge contemporary masculinity, we can cite these sorts of reactions and conversations for men on the ground level to reassess what men in power tell them masculinity is, and how masculinity functions in the everyday lives of those they affect.

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Passing and Self-Identification: Managing the Power and Visibility of the Closet

I remember the first time it happened. Diffused lighting on beige walls, windows covered by black patterned fabric, everything in my room was low: mattress on the ground, coffee table for a desk, books spread along the floor in irregular stacks. His head was in my lap, my fingers going through his hair, both of us quiet as we listened to my roommate, my best friend, come home and eventually go to her room. When it seemed like she was settled, he would resume telling me his problems: he was straight, sure of it, and wanted to be true to himself, but how would the world understand? He cried, and I listened. I was struck by the irony of it, a man who passes as straight, perceives himself as straight, yet struggling with the implied queerness of intimacy with me, visibly queer and receiving daily abuses, including the one resting in my lap with the basic notion that I am degrading his self-image. As this happened more frequently, with multiple men, the only men who, in their view, risked intimacy with me, I realized this was something that would always be a part of my life, watching men who live in bubbles unable to meet on my level because of perceived social risks of being with me.

When I first read this piece on queer tourism (not to be confused with literal queer tourism), I empathized with the frustration and anger behind much of the sentiment. 100% of my intimacies were with people able to move through spaces without the constant, overt threats that encroach on my life, yet their discomforts often took center stage since they were living a multiplicity of lives, while I, in a really callous phrasing, am living in an expected amount of pain. There is a reason, however, that the article is written as an unpopular opinion by an anonymous writer, predicting it reads as biphobia and essentially dictating how a person should identify. This article upset a lot of people, particularly bisexual women, and only did some of the work to show how self-aware the author was about her effect on others. She needed to vent and nuance lost itself expressing a real frustration. Though the article caused anger and pain, I’m glad it exists because it exposes a pressing contradiction in social justice movements that deserves further discussion.

What is at stake here? This piece reveals a tension between passing, particularly as straight, while taking up space in queer communities. The author describes a line between cashing in on the social cachet that comes with being queer while playing it safe enough to receive the benefits passing as straight provides. Does this actually exist? Yes, though it most often comes out as shaming women instead of addressing how we are all socially conditioned and how that affects marginalized groups of people. What we’re seeing is a real dissonance between centering politics around public self-identification and the material effects of oppression. Action on social media creates a one-to-one connection between identification and oppression, yet passing creates a loophole in this reasoning by showing a murkier picture, that it isn’t essential to present as a minoritized person to suffer and need support from community. Because continued efforts to increase the acceptance of queer identities, and underlining the fluidity of such, are working, we are seeing queerness normalizing, or at least, the LBGT is becoming normal. Advocates like to proselytize with spectrum imagery of sexuality like the Kinsey scale, but it looks like they don’t know what to do with the people who are 1s and 2s, who are effectively not straight, yet, it seems, not queer enough for the benefits that comes with being in a queer community.

Tension with passing isn’t new, and in much of online conversion, it is equated with privilege. Passing in this context means you benefit from people assuming you are on the top part of the hierarchy while being quite the contrary. It’s often used to talk about passing as white or cisgender, but it is also wrapped up in sexuality since LGBT activism took on more of a Harvey Milk influence and stressed coming out and visibility. Now that we’re at a tipping point for queer rights, we have people like the xoJane author who views strategically staying the closet to be an act of cowardice. In my experience, it is frequent pattern that those who are or pass as dominant identities within marginalized communities tend to take up the more space and wield more power, which is why you have queer policing coming into stronger focus lately. What this requires is better conversations on how to handle power and visibility, not necessarily shaming people for being in the closet. It’s another form of oppression olympics, saying people who are visibly queer have it worse than those who remain closeted. Is it worse to receive heat for who you are than to live in secrecy? The contexts we live in make that decision complicated, or even give us surprising answers. For instance, what is the power relationship between an out queer person in a place with anti-discrimination protections telling someone who could lose support they need to come out? We all might perceive different kinds of pain differently, but it’s still pain. I also can’t cut out people from my life who aren’t completely out or unable to face the pain that will come with being out as queer in some way; to do so would rob me of pretty much every chance of intimacy available to me. While my impatience is quick with someone doing anything to avoid what looks to me a papercut when I constantly have my arm broken, I can’t fault them for the impulse to protect themselves, because, yes, any oppression is wrong. I need a praxis that involves these men into my life, because I don’t have a choice, and neither do many other people.

I don’t think many people were ready for the messiness of queerness as a political identity. In effect, most people involved in the LGBT are fighting to be ‘normal,’ to be treated exactly as straight people are and to have those two groups live harmoniously with their owned houses, 2.5 children, and laberdoodle. Yet the pervasive adoption of queerness instead of LGBT is completely at odds with that vision, instead trying to move beyond straight vs gay, where straightness inherently contains queerness by the very virtue of defining them against each other. Heteronormativity is prevalent in LGBT communities, with straight- and cis-passing people being valued as inherently more attractive and sought-after. Queerness can’t hold a straight vs gay paradigm, but it will definitely let you get off to it. And, frankly, queerness isn’t just about who you’re attracted to and how much; am I not queer because my sex life’s track record is with men? Can he not be queer because I identify as a woman? You can see the binary nature of queer policing in the treatment of trans people, who are assumed to have lived as one gender and received all of its privileges and then transitioned into another gender to then suffer oppression, or vice versa. While this is some trans people’s experiences, people like me didn’t always pass as cisgender, and even when I came to identify as non-cis, quickly received debilitating shame from the messages society gave me about who I was. It isn’t clear cut in my having x amount of privileges and then losing them, where x is the privileges all men have. This conflict implies we need to move beyond public self-identification as a method of determining who is and isn’t worth advocating for and move to addressing material problems brought on by oppression.

Having the ability to speak of our experiences without being forced to represent groups of people goes both ways. Not only can this fight tokenism and whitewashing, this also allows people who don’t feel like they need the conversation centered around them to speak without taking visibility and power from those who need it. My public identity and how I know myself are different, because I’m human and therefore messy, while identity politics presents itself as neat and organized. To the public I’m effectively a transwoman, and that is the closest term to what I feel that people will understand. I avoid using the word trans for myself because I don’t think it represents me, and sometimes with woman as well. I am Palestinian and Native American by blood, but because I am disconnected enough from what those groups face, I don’t publicly identify as that and don’t assume the group identity that comes with it. I assume queer and multi-racial black because those are political identities I want to publicly challenge. That’s not the full extent of who I am, and I don’t think anyone needs to fully, publicly identify as anything to have their oppressions fought and their experience spoken. Social justice conversations need to get better at handling more human forms of identification and being instead of the stock characters that activists are forced to assume to represent platonic ideals of the marginalized.

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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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OkEthics – A Look at Social Experience Design Through Dating Apps

For anyone who’s followed me on social media, it’s no secret that I’m often sifting through dating websites and bemoaning how weirdly necessary yet awful their existance seems to be. Like many people, I have a hard time finding people who strike me as interesting that message back, and have seen sites like OkCupid try many strange experiments to try and get people to actually get together. I remember seeing my most recent long-term partner on there before we dated and for one reason or another, maybe I didn’t like his camera angle or I used too many exclamation marks in my self-summary, we passed each other by. Yet when we met in person, we went on for 2 years! How does something like that happen? Along with the much more recent Tinder, I was very methodical, sent messages to everyone I found attractive that was based on our mutual interests or interesting bits, yet in all the time I was on there, I met very few people.

After reading some research OkCupid did that found users were ultimately superficial and based >90% of their decision to interact on looks alone, I decided to do my own experiment. I started up two profiles at once, one that had my pictures and another that had picture of a white- and cis-passing woman with identical text. To say the least, my ego was in check that month. While the fake profile got a lot more attention, I realized that because I left them there to be interacted with and didn’t reach out to anyone, these profiles mostly attracted people I didn’t really find attractive or didn’t put effort into their profiles and messages.

Along the same time of this, I started to notice a trend on how many heterosexual men (at least, probably other people of other identities do this too) went through matches on Tinder. I would notice matches of mine unmatching before we even got to talk, which most likely means they went through and matched with everyone, and sorted out their matches from there. At the same time, I noticed that guys were more likely to message me if I swiped right (indicating interest) first, basically being notified of our match right as he swipes right. Both OkCupid and Tinder pause the swiping process and it usually gives more incentive to message right then, is my guess.

That’s when it started to dawn on me: the design of matching in these dating apps is like some weird fucked up Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Think of it this way: the bargaining chip here is vulnerability and effort. If everyone acted the way the designers and humanity would hope, it would mean that people would generally not game the system, and put equal effort in approaching each other. But there’s both the fear of rejection and the window-shopping mentality that these apps unintentionally (or not?) encourage, where people will try to optimize their experience to have the least effort wasted for the greatest gain. The options are:

*Initiate contact with a high chance of being ignored or having an unsuccessful experience

*Wait for someone to approach you with a low chance of receiving anything interesting

*Use a low-effort way to encourage someone to initiate contact with mixed results.

As you can see, the stereotypical option is the third one, because it makes sense; it only puts in an amount of effort that your ego can take if it is ignored. Its optimization also banks on people being the first kind of user while also managing to attract some of the second kind. If everyone used the third strategy, it wouldn’t work. Much like (non-iterative) prisoner’s dilemma, the best result for you is by exploiting the other player. This isn’t necessarily saying humans are awful, rather that the technology encourages this behavior. As the OkCupid research shows, when profile pictures turned off, many people stopped using it, but the users who did interacted and enjoyed each other a lot more on dates than with pictures on. I’m guessing they didn’t go through with it because they realized their users are so superficial they’d lose out on money, even if they actually got people to do what the site was meant to do.

Still feeling burned from my last experiment, I decided to put this into practice. With the advent of Tinder, OkCupid changed their quickmatch to be exactly the same. So, I restarted my profiles and just starting swiping right on every guy. At first I would look, but eventually I relegated this activity for when I went to the bathroom, not even really seeing who I was matching with, just swiping right as fast as I could. These apps were definitely not meant to be used this way; Tinder consistently froze and shut down, especially if I received a lot of matches before I booted it up, and both apps would have the pictures of profiles stick to random parts of the screen. I’m pretty sure I’ve swiped right on people who know me and I’ll never realize it, and the process does make me feel slightly scummy, but not too much. Every day now I hit a blank screen on available guys.

Results? A lot more interesting messages and dates. I’ve been on more dates in the time I’ve used this method than the years and years I’ve used OkCupid. Now, this is probably still a remarkably low number seeing I don’t fit into traditional beauty standards, and I imagine there’s something gendered at work. The strongest factor is the most obvious, that I canvassed through a large amount of people, regardless of any factor besides that they identified as a man who likes women and were within 5 miles of my position at one point or another, and this gave more people a chance to interact with me. The folly or things like OkCupid is that they don’t really have a strong enough system down to link together people who will most likely date. For instance, let’s say the people who came up first in your quickmatch were the most likely to respond back to you, or actually go out on a date, or be someone you like, then it would make more sense to spend more effort on those profiles. Instead, if you go through every profile that comes across your plate, there are many ones much more suited for you that are waiting randomly in the queue. Neither OkCupid or Tinder have a good way of signalling where to spend your energy, so you go by the only thing that’s as close to an assurance that you can get: looks. Of course, there’s the messaging aspect of things, but that’s covered more on dating advice columns and are rather variant (hint: don’t just say ‘hi’), and this doesn’t necessarily mean I have a higher rate of successful dates. In order to figure that out though, I have to have a sizable amount of them first. Just try not to mention that you do this, I had a date who asked me directly about how I used OkCupid, and he didn’t like how the sausage was made despite our fun date.

I find this interesting because systems like these are all over in our lives, manipulating subtly how we interact with one another. I think about conferences with advocacy/women’s tracks and how there are rarely ever any white men attending them. Or how showcases or exhibits don’t have many works by people of marginalized identities. Or how we never really hear much about actual effects of serious games or games for social impact. Or any social aspect of any mainstream video game with regards to abuse. Or the ultimate feeling of disconnection on social media. Mostly because these systems are designed in a manner to bring out the Machiavellian in everyone. Experience designers are mega-focused on quantified systems to bring about abstract experiences, and while technically that does happen, it’s turned social interaction into a bunch of trending metrics instead of human connection.

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Play and Be Real About It – What Games Could Learn From Kink

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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You Want To Make a Boyfriend – You Just Don’t Know it Yet

There is an app taking the world by storm. It’s hot in Japan, it’s free, it’s Boyfriend Maker.

Indeed, this is an unusual game to talk about on The Border House, because it does play up and exploit heteronormative stereotypes and conventions. This game seems to target pre-adolescent girls with the usual crap media tells them about relationships: care only about the emotional stuff, be obsessed with fashion, and whatever you do HAVE LOTS OF PINK.

But let’s hold on for a second. I know through much of my own writing, and just my personal wants, that there is a huge exclusion of feminine-assigned activities in gaming. Video games are dominated by themes and activities we often see in young boys’ games- guns, scorekeeping, showing aggression and physical prowess. Something we don’t see are what we think of as little girls’ games, like playing house or the kinds of make believe that practice social bonds. None of these things are actually just for boys or girls, it’s what society enculturates us to do, and sexism shows where these skills show up again in life. This doesn’t make the actual activities and topics of fashion and relationships bad, even with a lot of pink, just that we only expect women to be into that sort of thing.

I believe Boyfriend Maker is opening a gaming audience used to shooting and slashing to… just talking! It is an app for your iStuff, soon coming to Androids, that lets you customize an avatar of someone who will presumably be your boyfriend, and then puts you in a chat with them. Once you name each other, you are free to converse with him about anything you wish. After a few lines of dialogue, you are bound to notice something… strange about your boyfriend. I’m not exactly sure how he decides what to say back to you, but very often it results in a very awkward and humorous interaction. It is almost like an actual human- reacts predictably enough to follow the rules of conversation, but has many quirks and unexpected reactions to surprise you.

Isn’t this how relationships work in reality? We become invested in our partners enough that they offer a sense of stability through their familiarity, but often remind us they are an independent person that has their own motivations and idiosyncrasies. This isn’t something afforded to us often in games: BioWare games are the ones praised most often for their in-game relationships, but in the end, they are more predictable than erratic since you know there are ‘correct’ choices that have them act a certain way. In Boyfriend Maker, there is no ‘correct.’ The object of the game is to just talk, and you gain money and points by keeping the conversation alive. The only way to do better is to pay for more points, and that just opens up aesthetic customization options. The absence of the optimal path is a rare occurance for video games, and my hunch is because that sort of play is mostly found games like house. It distills a certain aspect of The Sims many of us have grown to love, the same aspect that often has it cast as ‘non-game.’ Boyfriend Maker is broaching a need maybe we didn’t think we had: an actual, intimate connection with a game.

Slowing down, I don’t think that people are actually falling in love with their made-to-order boyfriends (all who look like Justin Bieber, at that). Frankly, it’s the curiosity, and maybe a want, to play the role of the emotionally inquisitive partner to a boyfriend who tries to navigate that gendered field of landmines. You just want to know what he’s thinking and he just wants to impress you. When do we ever get to play in that space? Boyfriend Maker puts the player in full-on interpretation mode, trying to decipher the weird things their boyfriend is saying. We often have this as a puzzle to be solved in games, but not something for itself, or maybe as personal reflection.

There is something interesting going on with performing gender here as well. This game has been a hit with many of my friends who are heterosexual men, who I think are particularly enjoying acting in the space of interrogating the boyfriend that maybe they were always on the other side of. In a sense, saying “my boyfriend” in this sense has become something completely abstracted; rather, it’s someone we’re apparently enamored with but says gibberish in order to impress us. Seeing that there is no real dating in this game, it’s just presumed that this boyfriend is already intimate with the player, and is basically a pocket partner to chat with when we want. And while I don’t think Boyfriend Maker has anything perfect, it opens up the topic for questioning, especially when it comes to maybe making games for empathy of certain gender roles.

What decides the things your boyfriend says back to you remains a mystery to me; there are many theories about it aggregating from others’ responses, but I haven’t seen any notes on it from the developers. However, there is something undoubtedly queer amiss- in many reactions from my acquaintances and seeing fan postings of Boyfriend Maker, the boyfriend will surprise you by subverting your expectations of their sexuality, their gender, and their perception of your identity. This is probably the result of randomness instead of some progressive message, but it furthers the idea of ‘the boyfriend’ being this archetype we interact with. Unfortunately, there are some lines your boyfriend can say that reinforce typical sexist attitudes, but they are amongst so much absurdity that it is difficult to take it seriously.

Ultimately, I see Boyfriend Maker as a reaction to hentai sims made for heterosexual men, creating a game that women would supposedly enjoy, that is in turn co-opted by players for subversive play. And because the gender expectations they plan to exploit are actually underserved in games, they struck something interesting that could be used for future game ideas. Dare I say, this game is in the line of greats such as Facade and Prom Week, games that feature social interaction mechanics as the main source of interaction. Boyfriend Maker is obviously silly and not the best quality, however it possibly provides us with a clue on what we want from games that is largely absent. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to introduce my pocket boyfriend to my real one.

(Don’t have an iPhone or iPad? Here’s a tumblr with screenshots of [NSFW] humorous things the boyfriend has said: http://boyfriendmaker.tumblr.com/ Be warned that, naturally, people are wanting to engage in some crude and sometimes sexist conversation with the boyfriend, but often there’s just some zany, interesting things that deserve to be seen!)

Second Date – Ikezawa Hanako, a Trans* Narrative

(Trigger Warning for trans* transition experiences)

Katawa Shoujo doesn’t make anything easy. Every positive has a caveat, each charming thoughtful moment its headdesk. Last time, I talked about how Hanako’s path exemplified the sexual exotification of disability in the game, mostly through giving the player a main character without a superficially notable disability. Upon a first glance, there seemed to be little application for this analysis outside of criticizing pandering to men’s interests in visual novels, however, my personal connection to Hanako provided me with something else. I saw her do something that triggered a muscle memory from my past: She covers her face.

This is emblematic for the teenage stage of life where you think everyone is always watching you. Appearances matter, especially how you dress, your hair, your face. Imagine having that double fold and outside of high school; that was me. Growing into a transgender identity isn’t a quick and magical process many people imagine, rather, it’s a very long and awkward transition. A transition with the destination constantly changing. One of the most painful experiences is claiming an identity that others don’t see or believe. Without the aid of fashion tips and makeup, people in my day-to-day life wouldn’t see me as a woman, and I lived that for a long time. One of the things I did was cover my face. I liked scarves, straightened my hair and grew out long bangs, tried to make a posture where I hid my jaw line with my hand seem natural. I felt awkward, and looking at Hanako, I now know everyone else knew I was awkward, despite my efforts.

Then there was the social anxiety, some that stays with me today. Whenever someone approached me and looked at my face, all I could think of was how they were staring at my trans-ness. It made me feel ugly. I felt ugly when people stumbled to identify me, I felt ugly whenever a guy would forcibly call me “dude” and make sure there was a yard between us. Hanako was the Id I battled with, wanting someone like Lily who didn’t notice what was transgender about me, who was sensitive to when I need to leave social gatherings, that I needed extra steps to feel comfortable. Society does two things to people like Hanako: shames and sexualizes them. Hanako’s path is a story of someone who survives both, however, she can only overcome the shame inside the bounds of Katawa Shoujo. It’s the same with being transgender, as one can ignore, hide, or embrace what distinguishes them from a cisgender identity, but it others will allow it to rule their interactions. People will interact with trans* people in accordance to essentialized notions of sexual orientation and relegate trans* bodies to sexual fetishism. Which, in turn, exotifies being transgender in the manner Katawa Shoujo does to disability.

I both criticize and empathize with Hanako’s decision to share her disability in a sexualized setting and ‘giving into’ sex with Hisao to gauge his interest. In my experience, when being transgender is the elephant in the relationship, sex is typically the answer. To parallel Hisao and Hanako’s relationship, an inexperienced cisgender partner will seek to answer questions about the transgender person’s body and their sexual chemistry with an identity they haven’t slept with before. Sex can often happen quickly, and will usually determine whether the cisgender partner will continue the relationship. Hanako needed to know what Hisao was there for, and sex was more about Hisao figuring out his feelings rather than their mutual satisfaction. The unfortunate truth is Hanako and transgender people know they are often viewed only through what makes them exotic, and once it becomes familiar, interest fades. What is lamentable is how oblivious Hisao is to this, and how players can excise their empathy for his situation without being aware of their contribution to the systemic oppression of those exotified.

The developers probably didn’t plan Hanako to be an exploration of the exotic or trans* issues. I also don’t claim to represent every single person with a trans* identity. It also isn’t a suggestion that players or anyone participating in visual novel culture are rapists or otherwise condemnable people. Katawa Shoujo, however, normalizes the exotic and makes it palatable to more hegemonic identities; it’s easier to explore feelings surrounding dating someone with a disability or transgender identity when they are a video game character bent to satisfy the player. It only serves hegemonic gamer identity, but future iterations of games aiming to explore the diverse range of relationships possible would benefit from looking at the ground Katawa Shoujo covered.

Ikezawa Hanako, the Otaku Exotic

You’re a male student who has the pick of five high school girls with disabilities to date and sleep with. Yes, Katawa Shoujo has a sensationalist premise promising for something to go horribly wrong. The main character, Nakai Hisao, transfers to a private school that accommodates students with disabilities and health issues that require the need of an around the clock medical staff. As he wrestles with his disability and how that involves his identity, attractive girls with their own problems whom he can romance complicate things further. One of the story paths Hisao can take is to involve himself with Ikezawa Hanako, a burn victim with scars covering half her body, and crippling social anxiety as a result. There is a case for Hanako being the standard romance, or the one made in mind of the audience that would play this game, despite having the most unconventional look of all the romances.

With its sexual connotation, the scars exotify Hanako. Without them, she would be a very typical Japanese schoolgirl who is extremely shy, tries to cook, hides in the library… Would anything be interesting about Hanako if it wasn’t for her accident? The mental side of her disability is actually emphasized traits of what we think of woman nerds: dislikes social interaction except with those who earn her affection, hypersensitive to her preferences of where they can go, and enjoying anything that makes them a relative shut-in. All wrapped in traditional Japanese beauty and given scarring to make her unique. Many of the other girls have personality quirks that involve their disability but don’t rely on it to make them unique. Hanako, on the other hand, enables the typical men’s fantasy traits; by rousing Hisao’s white knight tendencies and being an extreme stereotype of a geek or nerd, she is the most palatable choice for the typical consumer visual novels and dating sims. Having this social anxiety forces the player to invest their own protective tendencies, but in a way that won’t backlash at them. In a way, the player won’t feel their own social ineptitude or inability to read people to be a hindrance because Hanako is such an extreme case.

The conclusion of her storyline is pretty telling; you can only get the perfect run through if you respect her independence and allow her to start doing things on her own without Hisao hovering over her. Because this is a fantasy, her new stake in autonomy happens right at the end of the game, so the player doesn’t have to experience a complicated relationship. Instead, Hanako provided the chase and the emotions of caretaking and resolved her character arc without disrupting these feelings. So when players look back at their time with Hanako, they will remember holding a glass figurine rather than the first step to being a woman she makes at the end of the game. It is a strange convention of these high school dating sims to end the game when the relationship officially starts, which is typically after a sex scene. Because players will remember the dutiful, quiet Hanako that provided sex because she wanted to be close, and not the potentially threatening social and secure Hanako that happens after the story’s end.

Werner Herzog, the Power Fantasy

A current struggle in the gaming community is a call for more common and better-realized depictions of minority characters, from women to people of color to the LGBT. We still wrestle with questions on what would be different about games if minorities populated more casts and, eventually, what a game with only minorities would look like. Absolute Obedience attempts at this, giving the player two gay men as a main characters, both secret agents who do strange espionage-esque work in what seems to be post-World War II Germany. They are each given a unique set of assignments to complete (that the player is graded on) that typically include seducing the target, all who are men. It’s a meld between typical dating sims and visual novels, where you have a roster of romantic interests to pursue, but there are few choices and the main appeal lies in the narration. If you choose agent Louise Hardwich, you can pick up a mission that has you seducing the heir to a mafia family, Werner Herzog, renown as arrogant, hyper-masculine playboy. Louise’s client is a famous female prostitute Werner frequents, who frames this mission as a prank to undo the hyperbolic manly image Werner shows off.

It’s easy to write this off as a stereotype; gay men are over-sexed deviants who pine for straight guys to give them at once chance to switch teams. However, we need to look at the intended audience Absolute Obedience. While this game is categorized as a Boy Love (BL) or yaoi game, these are ultimately under the otome genre, which are games aimed specifically at heterosexual women. Looking to the history of fanfiction, which is arguably the progenitor of visual novels, yaoi and slash were centered around a community of straight women, not gay men. Louise’s pursuit to “turn” Werner is a sublimation of straight women’s desire for men that cannot happen between heterosexual couples. We can see themes of power, equity, ambiguity, and identity, all issues related to gender politics women have gone through, and which some argue straight men haven’t yet. Absolute Obedience misses the mark on depicting admirable gay male protagonists by serving an audience rarely pandered to in games. The player can see this in Werner’s gendered behavior in the game; while he is extremely affectionate and giving to all the prostitutes he sleeps with (while also advocating against human trafficking), he only sees men as intelligent and capable business partners and worth respecting. Even though he’s straight when Louise meets him, the woman player needs to take the role of a man to explore his character.

Louise approaches his objective to bed Werner by playing his ego against him, a familiar trope from advice columns for women that adopts a calculating mentality to tear a man down from his self-ordained pedestal. The choices you need to get an ‘A’ rating tell you clearly that you must never submit to Werner, never allow him to understand what’s on Louise’s mind and never give him the chance to be dominant. Werner eventually slips, referring to Louise as beautiful and talking to him as if to a woman, while mentally respecting the personality attributes he associates with men. When Louise eventually gets Werner to a bedroom, the scene takes on ambiguous rape qualities that are commonly found in pornography, where one participant starts out unwilling and eventually begins to enjoy what’s going on. Unaware that he would be bottoming (being penetrated) for Louise, Werner begins to struggle (oh, did I forget to mention that Louise carries around a whip with him at all times?) against what he perceived as humiliation, as his masculine persona avoided being treated like a woman at all costs. Even though this is a sexually explicit scene, it’s the action of feminizing a heterosexual man that’s erotic. As women’s gender is allowed more flexibility in expression of masculine traits, society still doesn’t allow men that same ambiguity and other men are typically the ones to bully each other into acting “like a man.” This scene is a forbidden fruit of sorts, revealing the aspect straight men try their hardest to avoid expressing and setting it up as sexually satisfying for straight women.

Making the correct choices, Louise’s cold and manipulative exterior eventually gives way to Werner, and starts to fall in love. There are many times Werner will try to flip the roles back to what they are “supposed” to be, but this results in a low score for the mission. It’s not until he accepts his new, ambiguous identity and performs with skill bottoming during sex that Louise realizes he’s grown affectionate for him. The true ending depicts a scene where Werner leaves behind a group of women escorting him to an upper-class party to join Louise instead, the first instance Werner shows affection for another man in public. This follows the erotic arc of queering a heterosexual man’s sexual identity, by an open announcement of his taboo lover. Werner serves as an example as a latent sexual tension surrounding straight men in relation to their sexuality to other identities, as well as revealing the politics of depicting male homosexuality for a audience of women.

Tsukuba Muneshige, the Meta-Samurai

Dating sims defy a lot of logic. Describing them to someone who’s never heard of them would paint them as a game aimed for girls; relationship focused, sappy, a social simulator. But as every other genre and the medium of video games itself, the main demographic consists of men while women are associated with a sub-genre. Yo-Jin-Bo is an otome game, a genre visual novels and dating sims made for women to play, or at least have a female playable character. From what I can tell, these are what the gaming industry thinks women want in a dating sim as they continue to apply conventions based on a male demographic. Tuskuba Muneshige fits that bill, blending tropes of “the nice guy” and “the stalwart protector” in a typical shoujo anime motif. Your character, Sayori, is a typical high school girl who finds a magical artifact that transports her to a feudal Japan-like world, caught in a life-threatening situation and ends up guarded by an Unwanted Harem of attractive men. All of these men vie for her affection and vow with their lives to protect her; every girl’s dream, right?

Except this isn’t just an attempt to create a game, or genre, for women’s wish fulfillment, but also men’s. I chose Muneshige mostly because I felt sorry for him. He was the guy in the movies passed over because he wasn’t as exciting, or enough of a jerk. Always waiting for the main woman to come to her senses and realize she’s been in love with him the entire time. I wanted to reward that, and maybe even appreciate a little of that myself. In most dating sims, you learn to like your chosen object of affection because you spend your time and actions pleasing them, or trying to figure out how to get them to like you more. The choices of how to manage your day, what to buy, what to say, create an emotional investment that the player expects a return on. However, Yo-Jin-Bo doesn’t have this mechanic; rather, the choices and variants seem to rest mostly on whom to end up with, not how. This creates a one-sided dynamic where the player doesn’t learn to like their romance options, but the characters develop and pursue their relationship with Sayori. Muneshige’s persistence on protecting the player and controlling his sexual drive (making note of it instead of keeping it to himself) reflects the “white knight” mentality that “should” be valued in reality. Instead of learning that he has this type of personality and whether you like him, the question becomes can you reject him, knowing you shouldn’t. Sayori’s thoughts turn to what some do and don’t deserve rather than figuring out her own feelings, making the game a strange reverse otome. Since the player character doesn’t really change throughout the story, the focus is on the men’s intentions, leaving room for men players to identify more with the game than women.

Yo-Jin-Bo also accommodates men by breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect. It’s constantly reminding you that this is a game, and not to take it too seriously. All of the romance options are well aware they are in a dating sim and struggle to be with the player in the end. Each character has their own way of doing so, and Muneshige’s is telling terrible puns on subject matter that exists in contemporary reality and doesn’t exist in his world. This is what contrasts this character with the others; he’s absorbed in pleasing Sayori despite how bad he is at it while the other men call on erotic tropes from anime fandom to interact with the player. The game also enjoys putting the male characters into yaoi-tropey situations, and Muneshige is one of the few that plays up this sort of fan-service for women. His scene is purely comical and innocent in its result; it portrays him as sensitive, open-minded, and willing to please while evoking the awkwardness in trying to appear attractive to your love interest. This changes in group settings, where the respectful boy-next-door joins in on gawking and begging for varying degrees of sexual interaction. Whenever the game starts to get romantic, the tone breaks and releases the tension where heterosexual men might feel uncomfortable playing.

This game isn’t obviously marketed to men or as something of universal experience, but the predominate presence of men in visual novel and dating sim culture only allows an otome game to go so far. Yo-Jin-Bo is a hyperbole of a very small genre; there are many games where the same tropes are subtle and easy to miss if you’re not analyzing it. Maybe this game hints at changing the structure in an attempt to figure out what women want in a dating sim? On the other hand, perhaps it’s a serendipitous product that shifts the agency and game away from the player in favor of the suitors? Either way, this prompts an exploration as to how dating in games would differ for women, or if the current method is appropriate for all genders.

Arianna Bell-Essai, the Teacher’s Vixen

Ah, dating a minor. Your student even! The beauty and tragedy of visual novels is the chance to engage in relationships you wouldn’t have considered, or don’t have access to. Dangerous territory doesn’t begin to describe the experience available to us that maybe we shouldn’t, like Arianna. When you first meet her, she seems so… unremarkable. Not the prettiest, or smartest, but nice enough. Drop her in a setting where you’re her teacher who can watch all of her private interactions, and she becomes anxiety incarnate. You see, Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story takes place in the near future, where students interact on Amie, a Facebook-like social service, where the main character, Mr. John Rook, can view the private messages between his students. Mr. Rook watches Arianna gush over him in private, spinning dreams about a romance everyone knows is a bad idea.

The rational thing to do would be to turn her down, and it’s pretty easy. It’s almost as if the game expects you to reject her advances. I felt kinda bad, but she fades into the scenery and is that secret you wish you never knew. However, it’s when you choose to date Arianna that you learn something about her, and yourself. Let’s not lie to ourselves, we’re gamers; if a choice exists, we’re going to play it. And that’s what a good game would encourage. I wanted to know, well, what would happen if I did date her. Will I be reprimanded? Is this just for naughty pictures at the end? Am I a horrible human being?

For now, yes, and I should feel terrible. I squirmed giving into the morbid curiosity of what it’s like to date a teenaged student of mine. If I didn’t feel like a complete creep, the game’s message would be lost on me. Mr. Rook is similar to Vincent from Catherine, but handled a lot more deftly. Both are immature and emphasize traits appropriated by their gender role in society. However, you learn Rook is a flawed character by actively looking through his students’ personal lives and not concentrating on his job. I couldn’t relate to Rook when he felt aroused by Arianna, and I was glad the game wasn’t forcing me to do so.

You know whom I do relate to? Arianna.

I was Arianna once. So “my” relationship with her had a particular insight. It was strange to be on the other end of the situation, to read the thoughts of the teacher instead of the student. The trope paints characters like Arianna as the predator, the seductress that grips at a man’s weakness so that he can’t control himself. Mr. Rook shows us that convention teaches us that the young, nubile vixen is the one in control, and men are hapless victims to the forbidden fruit of their sex drives. No – that’s not the whole story. I was young and unprofessional, and like Arianna, naïve enough to think I could accomplish anything I tried hard at, clandestine relationships with my superiors included. Relationships like these are romanticized, right? I thought I had to search out the older, more mature types, that I was beyond the boys my age. I thought of my teachers the same way I thought about Trowa Barton and Seifer; I was lonely and wanted to chase a fantasy. So did Arianna. She felt inexperienced, alone, and left out with most of her classmates dating each other.

This doesn’t amount to Arianna being a manipulative sex kitten, but a young, immature girl. And it takes an immature adult to date someone where there’s a conflict of interest. These teacher-student relationships show there is still a fascination with “deflowering” a girl, both in reality and in games. The game’s title says it all; it isn’t the player’s story, or Rook’s story, but students’. Both Rook and I treated them like objects to interact with, to game. He did whatever made his life the most interesting, and I assumed invading their privacy would clue me in on their intentions. Arianna fooled us both at the end when she used Amie as a part of her fantasy.

Don’t take it personally, babe… doesn’t exotify Rook’s romance with Arianna, but it does make it incredibly uncomfortable and dissonant so the player feels like something wrong is happening. While you feel better ignoring her, the story receives an added layer of depth if you explore Arianna’s character. You’ll feel like crap doing it, but few games give you morally ambiguous situations to navigate and duly punish your character for their questionable actions.

Derek Nevine, The Anti-Gamer

Derek Nevine is the star. Best player on the basketball team, hottest guy on campus, and even has the coolest theme music! We all know someone like Derek, that guy who effortlessly has the world revolve around him and gets what he wants. Even though he was just event triggers and art on my screen, I still felt a little intimidated by him. I was skeptical when he resorted to flattery so quickly and asked me out. Or asked the protagonist, Merui; it’s difficult to guess whose emotions are really involved in the romantic parts of visual novels. However, there is one thing that is clear from the design of the game:

You’re supposed to hate him.

He’s supposed to awaken those awkward feelings of inferiority and ineptitude gamers feel from those socially successful in high school, or any environment we’re forced to be social in. Merui’s other potential lovers sneer at him and his reputation, warning you of his false appearances and playboy attitude. Gaining his affection reinforces the stereotype of hyperbolized femininity: you must buy Merui the sexy outfits at the store, ignore her studies in favor of watching TV and going to the mall, and make Merui play hard to get to retain his interest. The real sting comes at the end when you find out he’s Alistair, a jerk who trolls Merui in the MMO all the characters play. He’s the title character, and the only reason there’s a story to play. He gets to be a gamer AND the popular guy at school? Something doesn’t feel right!

While it’s unsettling to see someone like him is a gamer too, it makes sense that he’s representative of the kind of people we don’t like online. I wasn’t surprised when the bonus scene revealed he was the least liked datable character in fan polls. If the player didn’t get Merui’s stats just right and played a perfect game to get Derek’s special ending, he reveals his trick and dumps them. This is unlike the other characters who have been looking out for Merui, trying to protect her the entire game and will date her indefinitely. She is punished for pursing the popular guy and ignoring the advances of her fellow nerds.

Confession time: Derek was my favorite.

Yes, yes, he’s a total ass and I should have known better, but that’s what I like about his character. He felt the most human because he was the most complicated. Unlike the other characters, he doesn’t force Merui to drudge through his baggage or suffer through insults until he sees the light and falls in love. What the player might not catch when romancing Derek is how he actually listens to Merui: when Merui wants to pay for her own ice cream, she damn well does. She tells him to stop acting like the white knight, because she can walk on her own feet, thanks. There is an equity that is missing in the other relationships. My experience with Derek made me feel that is was okay to indulge in stereotypically feminine activities, that splurging my lunch money on a hot dress doesn’t make me a bad person, and it doesn’t make him a bad person either.

While I found the process of attaining his affections extremely problematic, they also existed in lesser degrees for the other boys. All the guys preferred you to wear certain clothes, Derek just happened to like the typical expensive and sexy ones. On a game design level, all of your love interests are rather similar, and this informs our interpretation of Merui’s romantic situation. After making the right choices, you find out that Derek uses games as an escape as well. His problems seem trite to the underdog characters, but so real to him that he needs games to vent. Just like everyone else. Merui’s predicament with attracting these guys reflects women gamers’ tightrope act of managing their presence in the gaming community. Women who appear to spend too much time on their appearance and stereotypically feminine activities are shamed unless they are doing it in a geek-appropriate manner. Dress as nice as you are smart. Act as a defenseless damsel as much as you shoot zombies.

What interests me the most is how easy it is to miss this. It’s doesn’t feel good at all to win Derek’s affection, especially when you know he’s Alistair. The gamer in me to see all the possible endings defied what felt right by going through Derek’s romance, but his “perfect” ending really tied things into perspective. Besides the gag-worthy amount of sap inherent to visual novels, these simulated relationships teach us something about ourselves. Dating sim games for men far outnumber the ones for women, offering rare glimpses of our side of the affair. Even rarer is the honesty from an experience of a woman gamer, and Re: Alistair++ provides a starting point for that conversation.

On Men’s Sexualization in Video Games

Sexuality in games is a contentious topic. Few see video games as open or mature enough to express ideas and create experiences concerning sexuality for players to explore. It’s also rarely pleasant to talk about the topic, usually any arguments settle on the accusation of games as serving as wish fulfillment for heterosexual men and the more vocal of said demographic replying with a “So what?” What’s often overlooked is the possibility of the sexualization of men, as if it’s not an option.

My title is misleading; games don’t usually sexualize men. As frequently suggested when discussing the Male Gaze theory in film studies and neatly tied into relevancy for our purposes by Kate Cox in “The Gamer’s Gaze,” men are not sexualized in most media (“The Gamer Gaze, part 1”, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 20 June 2011). Because there is a large presence of the heterosexual man’s identity in the development process and in gaming’s audience, the perceived “neutral” vision of game design takes on the influence of the socially appropriate interests specific to straight men. The lack of men’s sexualization is a product of the average straight guy’s impulse to avoid appearing or feeling gay. Men have a fig leaf of sorts when it comes to camera work and character design, while women get more attention and exposure. What sexual bits we do see are “safe” for heterosexual men to view without feeling like they’re watching something “gay,” such as muscular arms or exposed torsos. A common counter-argument concerns the issue of men’s impossible body image in games, which is definitely important, but mostly a different discussion to tackle. The aesthetic of muscles denote strength, agency, and power for the assumed male player to relate to, while emphasis on T&A when viewing women only serves as fan-service. Both rely on problematic ideals, but there is still a power relation present in this representation that favors men.

There are a couple of games that are often cited as examples of sexualizing men, namely Masaya’s Cho Aniki and Namco Bandai Games’s Muscle March. Both games have muscular men in barely any clothing, often viewed in risqué, homoerotic poses. While sexualization is afoot in these titles, these games don’t violate the Gamer Gaze because the men presented in the games are also presented through a completely absurd aesthetic. The design of the game creates a silly context that the player doesn’t take seriously; instead, they laugh at the men and see the nudity as off-the-wall humor. These games don’t give the player room to fantasize or a roving eye to admire the characters’ bodies.

What we consider sexual body parts and how we cover or expose them in media helps us figure out how to depict sexualized men. Women’s breasts are seen as sexual in many cultures (to varying degrees), and along with that, come laws forbidding women from exposing them in public. If men’s chests and arms evoked the same kind of sexual focus, they would find themselves in a similar situation. We should note, however, that it is legal and often expected that women partially expose their breasts despite their sexual connotation, effectively always leaving themselves on display. This is the launching point for women’s sexualization in general media by emphasizing what is illegal/improper to show in public without crossing a line. Because the only area that is taboo on men is below the belt, men’s chests and arms don’t threaten anyone’s sexuality. Sexualizing men would involve drawing focus and emphasis to their goods in a manner similar to how we currently do with women: by featuring them in low-rise pants and underwear, tight jeans to emphasis their bulge and butt shape, etc. Because it violates the prevailing Male Gaze ingrained in all of us, this can seem like an uncomfortable idea. However, media geared towards gay men already uses and exploits this technique. Because men’s sexualization primarily appears in a homoerotic context, it’s not surprise why it’s relatively absent in games.

While clothing is a large part of women’s sexualization in games, the camera plays a role by directing the player’s attention to their bodies. Cox provides a video of Madison’s shower scene in Heavy Rain, in which the camera “checks her out” by gliding up and down to view the different angles of her body. Compare this scene to an earlier one when a fellow protagonist, Ethan, takes a shower as well. This scene is shorter, and the movement is more about avoiding looking at him directly than checking him out. The camera provides a few glimpses of his chest and backside, but you feel that you’re watching something that you shouldn’t be rather than experiencing any form of interest or arousal. Examples like these link the cinematography of games (and arguably all media) to pornography, a genre that the distilled Male Gaze calls home. The player crosses into something pornographic when watching Madison but into something awkward when seeing Ethan. However, the further away (and more aware) that a player is from the straight male identity, the more clearly these moments stand out. Because pornography typically has straight male consumption in mind, its politics leak into games by highlighting how they look at women and other men in porn. We would have to look to pornography made for women and gay men and apply how the camera looks at the performers for a holistic approach to sexualizing characters.

There is resistance to sexualizing anyone, but the true issue lies in who sexualized characters are for and how often this happens. In essence, recognizing how we sexualize people equips us with tools to even out the playing field, creating more women who aren’t on screen for a man’s viewing pleasure and allowing players to enjoy the male figure every once in a while. Coupled with an awareness of body image politics and encouraging more character models that stray from Aphrodite and the Adonis, video games can become a more egalitarian medium for expression.

The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

(Spoiler warning for the Dragon Age series)

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown. However, once revealed, they receive skepticism, whether they are good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age II shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics. Whereas the multi-racial cyborg negotiates between multiple races, the transgender cyborg balances their transgender identity with a ‘recognized’ one of their society, usually as a woman or man.

The Good Mage

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age II’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them?

Dragon Age II’s Passing Narratives

The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people. Anders’ struggle with Justice describes how these minorities fair in the current social climate in reality, fearing the persecution of those who don’t understand him while controlling his deserved anger from being destructive. No one has answers for Anders’ problems other than to be a good, patient mage, and eventually society might change to make things better. This frustration builds in a culture for which there is no outlet for his feelings, much like predicament of multi-racial and transgender people finding little comfort in their allies while performing saint-like behavior around the oppressors. Anders’ story shows that society will not change quickly enough for the Mixed/Trans Cyborg, and instead, a cataclysmic change to the oppressive structure must occur. Merrill has even more hybridity to her identity; she is a Dalish who lives in the city, alienated from her clan, humans, and city elves while also marginalized for her blood magic. Her tense dialogue with Anders reveals the need for a pluralistic look on their issues, as Anders is quick to criticize Merrill despite their similar paths. Dragon Age II tells a tragic story of the Mixed/Trans Cyborg that tries to hold onto their roots while developing their borderless identity: instead of eliminating an overarching institution, Merrill can only be free once the bond with family that holds her back is destroyed.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

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