Difficult Video Games Are Like A Certain Kind Of Sex

It's possible that my first sexual relationship began just like yours. I met someone cute and we started talking on instant messenger, where we exchanged an embarrassing number of kissy face emoticons. We held hands at the high school football game, followed by a fumbling attempt at making out underneath the bleachers.

But this next part might be where our stories diverge: Her parents leave the house and we steal away to her attic bedroom. We're finally alone. What's next? I discover that she has secreted away a shoebox in the corner of her closet, something special that she's been saving for this occasion. She carefully uncovers it while I stare eagerly over her shoulder.

Inside is a motley collection of leather straps ripped off of purses, jackets and shoes. Stripping her clothes off, she explains to me precisely how she wants me to use them. Put this one here and this one there. Connect this one to that one. Pull. Harder. She wants it to hurt.

My introduction to masochism was sudden and brutal, much like pain itself. But it also became a feature of my sex life ever since, whether I'm the one getting spanked or the one literally pulling the strings.

Over the last decade, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how my penchant for masochism intersects with my gaming habits. But in order to start talking about masochism and gaming, we need to think more deeply about the terminology often used in these kinds of conversations.


When we call ourselves "masochists" for enjoying games like Super Meat Boy and Trials Evolution, we're not telling the whole truth. It would be more correct to say that we're "switches," which is BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) lingo for individuals who can shift between sadistic and masochistic roles, between being the top and the bottom, or between being the domme and the sub.

Because games are interactive systems that require our input, we are simultaneously sadists and masochists when we play a "masocore" game like Super Meat Boy (masocore, as in, masochistic "genre", if there was such a thing.) We don't just sit on the couch passively while Team Meat punishes us; we actively press the buttons that deliver the shock. In BDSM language, Team Meat may have manufactured the harness, but we are the ones who strap ourselves in.

Team Meat may have manufactured the harness, but we are the ones who strap ourselves in.

"Masochism" describes a complex phenomenon but, in our discussion of uncompromisingly difficult games like VVVVVV or Demon's Souls, we use the term loosely and only define it informally, if at all. For example, in Brendan Caldwell's survey of masocore platformers, it's not clear what he means by "masochism" apart from some vague sense of enjoying frustration. Each of the game designers he interviews offer their own, equally nebulous definitions of the term.

When we talk about masochism, we're implicitly talking about Freud. In Sigmund Freud's theory of sexuality, the libido — our energy for everything from life and work to sex — is inherently aggressive. Sadism, or "the desire to inflict pain upon the sexual object," is not some bizarre sexual perversion, it's a fairly "common" exaggeration of this natural sexual aggressiveness.

When we take a special delight in hunting down the same inexperienced Halo player over and over again, we're being good sadists.

Masochism, on the other hand, is the "reverse" of sadism. More precisely it is "sadism turned round upon the subject's own ego," or sense of self. Because Freud sees human sexuality as a contrast "between activity and passivity," he understands masochism as the passive form of sadism, less its opposite than its complement.

Sadism and masochism are two sides of the same coin. For Freud, masochists are just sadists who want to inflict pain on themselves but let someone else do the work for them. They want to sit back and enjoy the pain.

But video games blur the distinction between activity and passivity, between sadism and masochism. A game like Super Meat Boy is a system that is totally inert until we pick up the controller and press start. As soon as we do, we become the motors of our own masochism.

The interactivity of the video game medium becomes the vehicle through which we turn our sadism against ourselves. Because we subject ourselves to the pain, we're both sadists and masochists simultaneously.

Because we subject ourselves to the pain, we're both sadists and masochists simultaneously.

Although we might curse the seeming sadism of the developers as our Meat Boys land time after time in the same pile of salt, we are the sadists every time we try again and the masochists every time we enjoy the numbing grind of perpetual failure.

Team Meat created the game, sure, but they aren't coming into our homes armed with whips to force us to play. Whatever pleasure Team Meat may take in the thought of our failure, our own sadism turned inward is what keeps us coming back to the same nigh impossible stages.

It shouldn't be surprising that "masocore" games require us to be sadists as well. As early as 1905, Freud observed that sadism and masochism "are habitually found to occur together in the same individual." What is surprising is that video games provide a unique platform for both sadism and masochism to be expressed at once.

Video games allow us, "switches" that we are, to be active and passive simultaneously, to be the agents of our own pleasurable pain. Echoing Thomas Jefferson's famous statement that "we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists", those of us who play "masocore" games are all sadists, all masochists, all at once.


It's 5.30am and my partner sleepily wanders into the TV room. I have just one achievement left in Trials HD: "Marathon". The description reads: "Complete the Ultimate Endurance tournament without any faults." 20 tracks. Zero faults. I can't fall off the bike once.

At 3am, I had faulted on the 19th and penultimate track. It was devastating but I quickly transmuted my devastation into a determination to complete the tournament before allowing myself to sleep.

As she registers what I'm doing — what I'm still doing — my partner's posture stiffens. She's irate but also deeply concerned. I haven't moved since she went to bed and now she has to leave for work in 30 minutes. She storms out of the room to get ready.

I sit there and pathetically keep playing. I hate myself. I hate myself for letting this stupid achievement create friction in my relationship. I hate myself for not being good enough at the game. I hate the controller. I hate my sweaty hands. I hate the game. I hate the people who made it.

At 6.15am on December 7, 2010, I manoeuvre my bike over the final obstacle of the final track. I feel terrible and hollow as I cross the finish line. I haven't slept or eaten in twelve hours. The apartment is quiet and my partner is gone.

But as "Achievement Unlocked" flashes on the screen, I feel strangely sick and satisfied all at once.

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, an ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University, writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She has contributed to The Border House and is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

Picture: Shutterstock


    What you're describing is probably more like OCD than sexual compulsion. You've turned video games from something challenging and fun into an obsessive grind. Video games are supposed to be fun, I think you're playing them wrong.

      I think you'll find that video games are in many ways like art & as such are what they're supposed to be is meant to be open to interpretation between what the developer intends to convey versus what is received by the consumer.

    I have a lot of difficulty in accepting the conclusion drawn in this article. Games are a challenge to overcome, not pleasure derived from the application of pain in and of itself. The pleasure comes from beating the game, not beating ourselves against it.

    I repeatedly play Binding of Isaac despite the fact that after 18 hours I've only come up against Mom twice and have failed to defeat her both times. The game itself is about suffering and fear and pain and about perseverance in the face of these things. I suppose you could say that I edge closer and closer to some kind of "release", perhaps the third time I meet Mom I'll finally defeat her and can bask in the joy of doing so. The main thing that keeps me going playthrough after playthrough is that each room, each level, can be viewed as a series of microchallenges that I have beaten. I certainly don't enjoy losing over and over.

    Maybe I don't understand masochism and sadism well enough to draw the parallel between them and a difficult video game, but Samantha's example re: Trials Evolution reads more like a dogged persistence in the face of self-loathing. She said herself that the accomplishment was hollow because of the friction it caused between herself and her partner. I've had experiences like that. Sometimes I hate a game experience so much that I beat it just because I can, then I throw down my controller in disgust it the game and myself.

    I think if you told a BDSM couple that their relationship could be equated to some kind of self-loathing experienced from spending 12 hours playing a really difficult video game, they'd be pretty offended.

    "No you're wrong, *this* is what all games are and how they are to be appreciated and you are wrong!" - 99% of comments that will be posted on this story.

      While I see your point, I don't believe Samantha's own argument meets up with her conclusion. I generally respect your opinion, would you care to share your thoughts?

    Because what we need is an article linking sex to video games. Fantastic.

    How about a non-sexual reading of masochism? That's much more valid here.

      Exactly. Freud linked all human actions to sex. Might be nice to see sex discussed as just a part of human experience, instead of life's penultimate.

        Freud isn't exactly looked upon kindly these days within much of the psychology community, specifically in regards to just how much emphasis the guy put on how sex is linked to human actions. I agree with your sentiment, but bleh appealing to Freud always gets me :P

        PS: I have no idea why it says my name is Freud in the above 0_O

    Personally I don't see games in this way at all.
    But hey to each their own right? Games are made to be enjoyed, regardless of how you enjoy them.

    I suspect I'm taking my life in my hands wandering into this comments section, but...

    I don't know about this article. It seems a stretch. I've always used the term 'masochist' in a very tongue-in-cheek way when referring to games, never actually as a serious comparison.

    While admittedly, I know very little about BDSM, I don't think it's worthwhile to bundle all games (or all gamers who play a certain game) together and assume the experience is the same.

    For my part, I think just because something is difficult and requires perseverance, that is insufficient to automatically equate it with masochism. The link between pleasure and pain is not the same as the link between effort and reward.

    Because why stop at games? Are we masochists because we work? Because we persevere with anything that seems difficult? Is a baby learning to walk therefore a masochist?

    You don't necessarily take joy in the struggle, but rather its outcome (not necessarily victory).

    Also, I take issue with this quote from a definitional perspective

    Because we subject ourselves to the pain, we’re both sadists and masochists simultaneously.

    Because it assumes that all BDSM behaviour is non-consentual, which is obviously ridiculous.

      I don't understand why you think it makes that assumption. It even begins with a statement alluding to consent; "we subject ourselves".

    As much as I can appreciate the parallels you draw, I have to disagree on a personal level to some of the comments you've made. I, personally, play Demon Souls to challenge me, to push me. The sense of frustration isn't where I take enjoyment from the game. It's the feeling of empowerment as I overcome the challenges. I suspect that most people play hard games not because they like being punished, but rather because they enjoy overcoming challenges

    Thanks for reminding me that Video Games are more accessible to me in my long-term relationship than actual sex. Argh.

    Yeah, I understand and am a part of that world.... but I could not disagree more with this attempt to tie it into gaming.

    Last edited 06/02/13 1:01 pm

    Perhaps to yourself and other masochists hard videogames are enjoyable because of the frustration, but I think most people don't feel that way. When the game is difficult you become stressed, with stress comes the adrenaline rush and euphoria from "winning". Without difficulty there is no "win" and therefore no payoff, the greater the difficulty the greater the final payoff.

    This article makes me realise just how conservative I am.

    It's tricky to say. Yeah, it's easy to draw parallels between the two, but I don't think you'd be able to scrounge up enough proof for basic correlation between the two, let alone causation. I do find a strong cross-over between nerdy folk and kinksters, myself included, but as a masochist and a gamer, I don't know if it's the same. It's a similar feeling though

    One of overcoming yourself, of besting the world. Maybe it's more that we, as masochists get this kind of masochistic pleasure out of it, but other hardcore gamers would find pleasure from it in a different way?

    Sigh, so accordingly a Marathon Runner just into masochism to too? I mean they run through pain, derive pleasure from the pursuit, but oh wait, the outcome is actually there goal, not the pleasure of pain. The painful parts of games don't give me pleasure, they frustrate me and the pleasure always, like 100% comes from finally beating that which annoyed me. A Submissive doesn't get pleasure from finally being released, at least she won't unless I say she can.

      And even IF a marathon runner does unconsciously get pleasure from pain. What makes that combination of feelings immediately sexual just because it can be mirrored in BDSM?

        Although, Big Arn did say that getting pumped was better than cumming... ;)

          Ha! I remember seeing that years ago on a documentary or something. Man Arni was so massive when he was Mr Universe.

    It would have been an interesting article if it weren't for the attempt to paint us all with the same brush. Sure, we can break every single aspect of life down into a binary state of we are either submitting to someone/something else or dominating them. That's life. Even your existence itself is denying someone else that life, which might give you a sense of pleasure until you think about how someone else might actually be laughing at you because your life sucks and then you feel pain and might enjoy that feeling of being tormented.

    Everything is both masochistic and sadistic at once, it just depends on how you interpret it. Sometimes though, a cigar is just a cigar. Unless you're playing games, then it's probably a gun.

    Ninja Gaiden on Master Ninja gets me off.

    Wasn't Freud disproven decades ago as projectional therapist who put his own problems onto his patients? Especially considering everyone's problem was an obsession with sex.

    It's an interesting read but ultimately I place the challenge not for the pain but for a sense of victory in winning. For example I play Halo on Heroic why? Because it feels like I've fought hard. When I played with a friend in Co-Op we had it on Legendary with the Iron Skull on.
    Except for the Trench Run, leading edge mechanics meant the guy slightly behind got crushed when the doors closed and no check points made it impossible
    Because the difficulty felt right, and we hate playing the mode where people just charge in because they'll respawn. Infact the final act in the game being a QTE kind of took a lot of tension and joy away from it for me.

    I hate QTE with a passion I honestly would have preferred it to be a cut scene.

    While I can see how somebody can enjoy the Masochistic difficulty of a game I don't think all of us do it, we have different reasons some of us don't like easy mode because it's too easy. I also think people still see Sadistic and Masochistic tendencies as something wrong and not something they want to admit to having.

    Edit: Perhaps I'm mis-interrupting this, but like a lot of you I got a message that we like hard games because we must be somewhat Masochistic.

    Last edited 07/02/13 3:29 am

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