Recently, I curated an exhibit at Brooklyn's Babycastles arcade, currently housed in a Williamsburg show space where indie games are on display in hand-made cabinets, alongside a lineup of bands.
I picked sexual games; even what some would call deviant games.
I wanted people to understand something very special about games' power of expression, even if I had to push their comfort zones to do it.
I chose two games from renowned indie designer Anna Anthropy. She sought to articulate the gruelling and emotional nature of BDSM relationships through the cruel old-school arcade dynamics and bondage themes of Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars and Mighty Jill Off. I picked Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, a fascinating narrative-driven title about a fetishistic serial killer; I selected Hey, Baby, a game designed as a statement against street harassment, a game which fulfils the fantasy of women literally armed against sexual predators.
Finally, I chose a Japanese sex game about gender-bending, called Yin Yang: X-Change Alternative. I thought that it'd be interesting to include a game that featured graphic sex among the rest of the exhibit's pieces. Much to my surprise and joy, it was popular among curious attendees.
Instead of passing by the arcade cabinets on their way to watch the bands, guests to Babycastles demonstrated a fascinating willingness to ask questions about and try all the games. They were wildly enthusiastic and demonstrative. I gave so many tours my voice went hoarse, and I felt a strange and bizarre sort of pride that folks who were quite literally your average man and woman from off the street were curious and excited to see what kinds of statements games could make about identity, relationships and sexuality.
Babycastles: Bad Bitches, as I titled the exhibit (named after the Kreayshawn track â€˜Gucci Gucci') wasn't meant to be especially heavy or deep. What I most wanted to do was invite mainstream players to participate in the conjunction of silly, strange and deeply personal that games that deal with issues of gender, sex and subculture can create. I was pleasantly surprised with how receptive the exhibit's audience was.
Some of the earliest writing I ever did on games was in this little column at GameSetWatch I called "The Aberrant Gamer" In it, I aimed to focus on all the little bits of undiscovered deviance I saw in games that, to my mind, no one seemed to notice. At the time I consumed all kinds of games blogs voraciously, but most things I read focused on things I didn't need to be told and that I had never really longed to be told.
You've had that feeling, haven't you? Lots of times, don't you read reviews of games you've already played just to see if they agree with you? Sometimes, don't you read game articles just to identify yourself in them? And that's fun and all, but here's the thing. For a long time in my teens, my favourite thing about video games — the weirder and more obscure the better — was that there were so many rare, precious off moments, like when the sisters in Fatal Frame 2 look just a little bit too comfortable with each other, or when Silent Hill 2's convoluted symbolism pointed to male sexual frustration and resentment. And no one was writing about that.
It's not that I was a huge deviant or anything; no more than teen girls generally are, especially those of us who were growing up alongside the internet. Today's teens are desensitised as a rule, and they will never know what it felt like to "log on" to the din of a garbled, hissing modem-dial and have an entirely unfamiliar world of images and cultures open up like a foreign country, ready for the visiting.
Nowadays, the web can still surprise you. There are people who have taken escapism to an extreme. There are people who have devoted themselves rather intimately to the fictions of The Legend of Zelda, Harry Potter, Pokemon, and Final Fantasy VII. You wouldn't think there was much to chew on there as far as "sexual deviance", but people've unearthed it, invented it alchemically, prized and archived it (the fruits of their labors are not hard to find online, if you're feeling adventurous).
Even if you're not into that kind of thing yourself, it's a little bit fascinating, isn't it? What is it that people find within these simplistic worlds to get aroused by, to fall in love with and to fetishise? It's strange to us, yet perfectly natural to fans of those subterranean channels.
The idea that video games in particular lend themselves to unusual cultural sideroads has fascinated me since I was young, almost from the time I figured out what fanfiction was. Some of that sensation of foreign encounter, of unfamiliar curiosity, could have been chalked up to the cultural divide between (at the time dominant) Japanese versus Western games: We faced symbolism with odd archetypal yet unfamiliar roots, the sort of things that led pretty twins to hug a little too tight or that meant upskirt shots were par for the course even in the most serious of scenes.
Piqued, I wanted articles that weren't about gameplay features, but that analysed subtext; I wanted writers to say, "hey, maybe I'm not sure what this means, but this is strange, isn't it? Why does this game look like this, why does it feel like this?"
Unable to find others with theories about, for example, the female protagonist in Haunting Ground, I just started writing those kinds of things myself. I wouldn't even claim I wrote all that well at the time. If I found an audience, it was probably because I'd wildly underestimated the volume of folks who were poking around in offbeat video games, recognising the same archetypes, wondering the same things I wondered.
If I'd been a man, perhaps the Aberrant Gamer column wouldn't have been so successful. Maybe if I hadn't been a young woman, people might have called me a creepster, might have wondered why I spent so much time exploring games' ability to build jungle gyms for niche subcultures, to build bridges from the underbelly of one culture to another. Might have wondered why I'd go to the trouble of seeking out and installing the "UnDress" patch on the child-raising sim Princess Maker 2. Would they have?
I don't have answers to those questions, even years later. But I know that the column was enormously successful. Called out of hiding, hundreds of people mailed me, visited my blog, shared my curiosity about games' ability to explore sexuality, identity, all of mankind's kept secrets. And we still love these kinds of things: to grab a recent example, Atlus' Catherine is the cause of much anticipation, drums up much hope and curiosity among you, only on the promise of prettily-presented adult sexual complexity.
Among "us", I should say, because we don't lose that appetite for weirdness. We're interested in sexuality. We want more of it, because with psychological and social complexity comes the promise of adulthood, of maturity, of something more substantial than those incomprehensible clues we've been chewing all along.
Maybe interactive entertainment has an ability you and I don't have: To articulate strange things, deviant things, the moth's-wing flutters of our secrets, our sexuality, our emotions. Maybe we notice strangeness, and we want to hear somebody else say it, we want to hear somebody else explain it, because the game has done so well at touching parts of us that we don't have words for.
I've since realised something: What I wanted, in those times, when I was digging around for those flavours of the unfamiliar that I called "aberrant," was proof that video games could speak to human identity, all the private spectral shades thereof. I hoped that they could help us glimpse compelling inner worlds of others through psychology, sociology, inter-relationships, sexuality. That's why I wrote that column back then.
And games about romance and sexual identity — the less-familiar the better — are still so appealing to me. Maybe even more so. If sex and death are the two constants of human life, then given how many games we have exploring murder and death, I want to see them evaluating all kinds of avenues for sexual expression, too.
The Bad Bitches exhibit runs for the next few weeks at Babycastles' 285 Kent location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (official info here). Hopefully you can come check it out. And if you can't, next time you notice unusual subtext in the games you love, rest assured: You have friends who are trying to find ways to talk about it. By being interactive — a conversation between creator and player, a dance between expression and interaction — video games can communicate primal things about human identity that no other medium can.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.