Better Sexual Politics Through Noselicking: A report from Different Games

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Realistic Kissing Simulator (2013) James Andrews and Loren Schmidt

Dueling tongues protrude from simplified profiles. They worm through swinging-door lips, taking an unpredictable course as they collide; they push upwards and into a nose, flopping limply past the chin, or prodding one of the eyes, forcing it to blink. Sometimes, a lucky tongue finds its way to its counterpart's mouth, but that’s not really the goal.

This is the Realistic Kissing Simulator (2013, James Andrews and Loren Schmidt), which was impossible to miss at this year's Different Games Conference at NYU Poly’s MAGNET Center. Between talks, a small crowd gathered to snicker at the game, but its sexual politics are anything but a joke. Following a brief intro, one player asks, "Would you like to kiss me?" If the other player responds "Yes," the game begins. If they answer "No," the profiles slide awkwardly away from each other and the game ends. The game can be seen as a response to the genre of largely hentai-inspired sex sims, with a few key differences: it eschews visual "realism" for silkscreen-style graphics, it lacks a goal or winner, and both parties must explicitly give (or refuse) consent.

Realistic Kissing Simulator set the tone for Different Games, where talks, panels, and workshops outlined issues relevant to social justice in gaming. Topics ranged from defining punk videogames, to consent in sex games, to what it means to queer a game. The speakers included some of gaming's most vocal social justice advocates, some of whom had developed games which were shown in the conference's arcade. Games showcased at DG interrogated not only standards of inclusivity and diversity, but also conventions of storytelling and play in mainstream gaming and how they might facilitate a wider range of subjectivities.

Another popular game at the conference was Perfect Woman, an Xbox Kinect game by Peter Lu and Lea Schoenfelder. In Perfect Woman, the player physically enacts absurd female archetypes by contorting their body into poses outlined on-screen. The life trajectory of the character depends on the players ability to conform to the stereotypes. Perfect Woman's humorous and experimental form of play fits its message. As the player aligns their limbs into unnatural poses for absurdly specific roles such as "child street gang leader," "MIT professor giving a TED Talk," and "whale hunter," the concept of confining women to gender-specific roles begins to feel as ridiculous as twisting your left leg sideways to mimic an avatar.

Nestled in the "Kink Corner" of the arcade was Porpentine's Love Is Zero. The Twine game begins by establishing the player as an "extremely hot" vampire babe living on the moon and attending an all-girls tennis school where "the competition is fierce and our mood rings are monitored." Players alternate between "Bully," "Study," and "Play Tennis." Each unique sequence culminates with a modifier-heavy question defining the character: 

One ending of Love is Zero (2014)

Through language alone, this ending builds a character whose level of brutality, insecurity, and narcissism varies with each play-through--a refreshing departure from the predominantly two-dimensional women featured in mainstream titles. The hardened attitudes of these "Blood Babes" embody the approach often required by female gamers who vocalize discontent with the industry.

While various waves of feminism have infiltrated the art world in many ways, gaming culture is experiencing its first large-scale social justice revolution. The male-dominated gaming industry keeps up a constant low roar of hostility toward female, queer, trans, and minority gamers. Its misogyny is particularly visible, with objectifying female characters, pathetic Bechdel test results in gaming's most successful franchise, and multiple incidents of online violence aimed at women in gaming. The underlying sexism that has dominated gaming culture since at least the early 90s is what Different Games and the surrounding community of activists aims to dismantle. Through social media and political indie titles like those shown at DG, gaming's social justice advocates are chipping away at patriarchal norms enforced by mainstream video game narratives. With continued effort, these ideas of inclusivity and diversity will transcend their current niche status and infiltrate mainstream videogame culture.