Content warning: this article contains discussions of BDSM
We all know that video games often have a rather dicey relationship with sex. Either it’s treated as a joke, presented 100% for the male gaze, or so awkward you kinda wish it hadn’t been there in the first place. Even games that are praised for their handling of sex and romance still fall victim to the issue of the “sex as reward” mechanic games still don’t seem to know how to move away from.
Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect franchises are often praised (and rightfully so) for representing a variety of sexualities and romance choices, as well as making sure those romances are with well rounded and interesting characters. However, by virtue of taking place in a game, those romances are still presented as a problem to be mastered. Make the right conversation choices and give the right gifts in the right order in order to ‘win’ the affections of your target. A saucy love scene is your reward for solving this romance puzzle.
Sadly, this simplistic formula helps to reinforce the idea for many young people that sex is their due recompense for lavishing time and attention on another person. And yet, how else are we meant to present this complex interaction between people in a game?
Easier, however-although seldom explored-is the question of consent.
Unlike romance, consent will always be subject to clear rules that need to be followed. Manage to elicit a “yes” from your partner? Congratulations! You have consent. Get a no? Fine, go check out another castle.
Merrit Kopas’ Consensual Torture Simulator is a Twine game that has the player take on the role of the dominant in a healthy, consensual, BDSM relationship. The game begins by laying out how this relationship is fulfilling to both parties as they engage in “a series of expeditions mapping out the overlays and points of intersection of the territories of your desires.”
There is a clear sense of respect between you and your submissive, and the abuse you engage in is plainly presented as something your partner asks for, not something you choose to inflict on them against their will. Your submissive partner even acknowledges the toll that this type of play can take on the dominant party, recognizing the human behind the act.
The game is incredibly sexy, but somehow never explicit. The intimacy being explored is different, but also more honest and open than most video game relationships. There are no penalties as such for going too far. Instead, the game will intervene if you try to continue after achieving the desired result and simply limit your options to ‘rest’ or ‘stop’.
The game acts then as a sort of manual for how to properly engage in BDSM, but with only proper conduct demonstrated.
This is in sharp contrast to Robert Yang’s Hurt Me Plenty, which actually locks the player out of the game if they overstep their partner’s boundaries. Like Consensual Torture Simulator, Hurt Me Plenty has the player physically striking a submissive character within the bounds of a negotiated BDSM play scene. However, if the player ignores their partner’s well being and continues to strike them after they’ve uttered their safe word, the game admonishes you for your irresponsibility and a timer appears to countdown the days (or weeks) until you are allowed to play again.
Originally conceived of as a motion control game, it is surprisingly easy to overdo it in Hurt Me Plenty, but that doesn’t make your partner’s distress any less upsetting. The one thing both games have in common, other than clearly setting out rules for consent, is their inclusion of aftercare as an integral part of the BDSM experience.
Those not familiar with the nuances of BDSM might assume that it just involves abusing another person in the context of sexual pleasure, but both Hurt Me Plenty and Consensual Torture Simulator both end their sessions (regardless of the outcome) with soothing your partner and talking to them to sort out their feelings.
You know, the stuff that 50 Shades of Grey left out.
While both of the games I’m discussing explore consent specifically in a BDSM context, there are definitely lessons to be gleaned about the way consent is handled in contemporary society. Sex, or play time, isn’t a reward in these games. It is a game in and of itself, where listening to your partner is essential for you both to ‘win.’
While getting to the sex part in video games can still be tricky, there is at least one aspect of sexual intimacy that games can mimic pretty well. Consent exists on a binary, and games are good at that.