We Played The Award-Winning Game Boy Game About Sex Work And Shame

We Played The Award-Winning Game Boy Game About Sex Work And Shame

Content Warning: Discussions of rape, negative experiences with sex work

A girl walks into a convenience store, and the game tells her that she can buy any snacks that she wants. I put pizza, coffee, and potato chips into her shopping bag. When she goes up to the counter, the cashier tells her: “That will be 15 micro-rapes, please.”

He Fucked The Girl Out of Me is a video game about sex work and trauma. It has won awards from gaming juries and been displayed in art exhibitions. It also caused its creator to be ostracised from her own communities. The developer described the game as “utterly unsuitable for mainstream audiences.” Which meant that I absolutely had to play it.

The game follows the fictional story of a trans college student who struggles to afford estrogen, which isn’t universally covered by the Affordable Care Act. She meets a girl named Sally, who introduces her to “sugaring” herself to older men. She starts out going to clubs with these wealthy men, and eventually performs sexual acts with them. He Fucked The Girl Out of Me details both the chronology of these events and the psychological state of the protagonist.

The in-game trigger warnings put me into fight-or-flight mode within the first five seconds of booting up the game. It lists: “Nonconsensual sex, dubious consent, date rape, sissification kink, transphobia, dead naming, gender dysphoria, age gap, abuse, and suicidal ideation.” He Fucked the Girl Out of Me is a Game Boy game with pixel graphics, but I prepared myself for intense imagery and cruel dialogue from awful people.

What I encountered instead: A slow death caused by all the ways in which American society fails its most vulnerable. He Fucked The Girl Out of Me is terrifying because of its mundanity. There are choices, but they all seem to lead to the same outcomes. There isn’t a singular villain in the story, nor is there a singular moment when the protagonist becomes persona non grata. Whether people are making judgemental comments about sex work or demonstrating a lack of care towards what she wants, the titular character experiences death from a thousand cuts. She doesn’t actually die, and the game is heavily fictionalized. But there were times when I felt so awful that I couldn’t recognise the experience as anything but death.

When I calmed down, I marveled at what the developer had created: A pixelated death simulator that killed me without causing my virtual avatar to actually die. 10/10, would recommend this game to other traumatized queers I know.

So when I met Taylor McCue over a Zoom call, I had to ask why she chose to portray her experiences in a video game. She brought up the convenience store scene. It was meant to show the player how sex work had fundamentally altered her relationship with money.

“Could [the story] happen in any other media?” McCue asked. “If that were through a third person’s perspective, it wouldn’t have had the same impact as being a player.” She wanted her audience to experience being “forced into that situation,” rather than being an unaffected observer. And it’s precisely that loss of control that makes the game so controversial.

The game is housed on a Game Boy emulator rather than a physical cartridge. I asked McCue why she chose to make a game for such an old console. The reason was pragmatic, rather than creative. “I originally was going to do it in Unity [engine], but I was having too much trouble with my ability to think while experiencing emotions or dissociation,” she said. “I needed something that you could do while intellectually incapacitated. I’d already made a Game Boy game a couple of times before, and so it was sort of second nature to me.”

He Fucked the Girl Out of Me has not found universal acceptance among the gaming community. One of McCue’s peers had accused her of making “a machine that inflicts your trauma on a lot of people to make yourself feel better about your trauma.” She didn’t find acceptance in the Game Boy development community either. She was told: “We can’t include you in anything because we have to protect the mental health of our more vulnerable people… so we’re not going to talk about it or acknowledge it.”

Personally, I think these people would have benefitted from playing the game that they were criticising. Not being able to speak openly about her traumatic experiences is what caused the protagonist to suffer so deeply in the first place. McCue told Kotaku that most people’s experiences were indifferent or positive. But she didn’t blame people who found the project to be off-putting, or excluded her for making it.

Screenshot: Taylor McCue
Screenshot: Taylor McCue

“I did make a machine that inflicts my trauma on a lot of people. And in some ways, it probably would have been kinder to not make a ton of people be exposed to trauma, because I do know that trauma can be passed through, like vicariously, and I am a bad person for needing that to be ok,” said McCue. Her words are firm, and she’s not asking to be absolved. “But that’s what I chose to do. And I’m willing to be that bad person. Because otherwise the shame of keeping it in would have killed me.” Despite the creator’s own feelings about the game, He Fucked The Girl Out of Me has won multiple awards and nominations for its intimate storytelling. Most notably, it has been nominated for the Nuovo Award at the Independent Games Festival, which is the Sundance of video games. This award recognises “esoteric” games that are even more unconventional than most indie games.

McCue clarified that the game is about personal trauma, and not intended to be a political statement. “I’m a little nervous about criticising sex work. Especially because there’s a lot of adult game developers who get a lot of shit,” she said. “That would be shooting down a group that’s already prosecuted.” Similar sentiments are echoed in the opening act of the game itself. Some queer people find empowerment in sex work; McCue did not. But she’s conscious of how whorephobia might cause audiences to champion her narrative over the experiences of other sex workers.

Not everyone will be able to play a game about rape. I barely made it all the way through, and that’s ok. A friend once said, “art that kills one person can be capable of saving another.” And He Fucked The Girl Out of Me deserves to save as many people as it can. Maybe its cruel edge is just what someone needs.

Regardless of the divided responses, He Fucked The Girl Out of Me was only possible because of the support structures of the queer game development community. The game was funded by the Queer Games Bundle, which bundled 500 games for $US60 ($AU87). All of the proceeds went directly to queer creators, and McCue was one of many beneficiaries.

“I don’t think 10 years ago, somebody like me would have gotten to go to [the award ceremony for Independent Games Festival] but like, the fact is, I’m not the only queer person who’s going to be in that room,” said McCue. “There’s a new cohort of queer artists who are slowly turning into a movement of game developers.”

You can play the game for free here.

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