Article Thumbnail

The Renegade Game Designer Who Aims to Challenge the Industry’s Attitudes Toward Sex

I have an admission to make that I hope doesn’t compromise my credibility as a dispenser of wisdom: I play video games.

For those who are blissfully unaware, the most popular video game in the world at the moment is Fortnite, a game in which a hundred players are dropped into a fixed region and have to scrounge whatever weapons and equipment they can in the hopes of being the last person standing at the end of the match. Fortnite is so popular, in fact, that Drake plays it. A couple of weeks ago, his appearance on a popular streamer’s Twitch channel broke the record for a non-tournament stream — more than 635,000 people were tuned in to watch the Boy himself take down his virtual foes.

Twitch — a platform where users can stream games and watch others play them — is increasingly important to games developers. In the past, a favorable review by a respected outlet was a key to success. Now, streamers and YouTubers can make or break a game by giving it exposure to millions of fans or letting it languish in obscurity. But Twitch isn’t a total free-for-all. The platform routinely bans games from its service. Most of them because of sex; some of them because of extreme violence; and a few of them because of both (for instance, The Maiden Rape Assault: Violent Semen Inferno).

One man, however, holds the distinction of having not one, not two, but three games banned by Twitch. The first, Cobra Club, is an interrogation of surveillance culture framed as a game about taking dick pics. The second, Rinse and Repeat, is about showering with hunks. And the third, Radiator 2, features a man languidly sucking a popsicle — hardly up there with other banned fare like Battle Rape and Suck My Dick Or Die!

The renegade in question is Robert Yang, a 29-year-old game developer from Orange County, who’s lived in New York since 2012. Yang’s work is interesting because it’s both beautiful and complex as well as frequently at the center of the industry’s confused and tortured relationship with sex. (It’s much, much, much more comfortable with violence; after all, the quintessential modern video game is a first-person shooter.)

Online retail platforms like Steam have even banned games with consensual sexual content — e.g., one developer had to cover up all the nudity in her game with ugly Christmas sweaters before the platform finally allowed the uncensored version to be sold. At the same time, titillating content is rampant in modern games — it’s only when developers want to take sex seriously that people seemingly have a problem with it. And Yang’s work does just that, exploring consent, intimacy and sexual subcultures while using the same tools employed by big-budget studios to create visually stunning works that, were it not for their explicit gay content, might be indistinguishable from a blockbuster title like Assassin’s Creed.

Last month, I spoke with Yang (who is also a prolific writer, speaker, designer and assistant arts professor at NYU’s Game Center) via email about his work and the broader cultural context it lives in. You can find that conversation below; most of his games, on the other hand, can be found here at pay-what-you-want rates on PCs and Macs.

To start things off, what do contemporary videogames have to say about men?
Hmm. Well, a whole generation of gamers and game designers are raising children, prompting a whole wave of dad games like The Novelist, Heavy Rain, The Last Of Us, Papo & Yo, That Dragon, Cancer, Dream Daddy, and nominally also BioShock, Dishonored, Horizon Zero Dawn, the new God of War reboot, etc. The moms in these games are usually conveniently dead, aloof or otherwise banished to an alternate dimension, prompting the father to finally Become a Real Man.

I bring it up because I think the game industry’s anti-sex stance means we never figured out the equivalent of teenage sex comedy games — so game masculinity jumped from a love of cruel mindless violence to a stilted masculinity about being a Cool Dad who raises their daughter to be a Cool Girl, which is totally unearned, right? Video games cannot continue to repress this whole “sexual anxiety” part of masculinity and growing up. Fuck that shit! You don’t get to reconcile with feminism until you actually put the work in.

Can you talk more about the industry’s anti-sex stance and that sexual anxiety? People seem to get even more nervous about sex in games than they do about violence, which by now is more or less unquestioned.
It’s a bigger problem than just games, right? Cindy Gallop argues that tech capitalism infrastructure like payment processors, email services, web-hosting companies, etc. systematically walls off pornography from the public sphere of the internet. The result is that pornography is never normalized, and thus, it has to escalate into a big spectacle while also paying performers less money for their labor. This kind of porn is often fun and great, but maybe there can be another space for a more everyday sort of porn and erotica — and perhaps we have to fight for such a space as part of the project of sex positivity.

Radiator 2'

So take those existing barriers, and amplify it with the video game industry’s fixation on man-children: Men as children who deserve all your attention and concern, but who must also be “protected” as children. In the U.S., that means censoring sex — especially non-normative sex. In the game industry, that means quietly banning my gay games from Twitch by secret trial, while approving of big-budget games like The Witcher 3, which features main quests about murdered women and their mutilated bodies.

The game industry’s stance is that sex (and especially sexual violence) is okay as long as your game uses it solely for titillation, and never because it cares about the issue. That’s really fucked up. They specifically ban games like mine that are about consent, intimacy and sexual cultures — unless, of course, I add 40 hours of gun combat to it.

You got around that ban with The Tearoom in a pretty interesting way — it’s basically a cottaging simulator except with guns in place of dicks. Because who could object to that? What’s fascinating to me about your work, though, is that your games look similar to the big-budget titles you mentioned. You’re using similar tools and aesthetics for completely different ends. How did you decide to work in that mode?
Yeah, Twitch hasn’t banned The Tearoom yet. (If they do, I can claim victory for making guns so gay that the game industry banned them.) But I was watching someone play it the other day, and all their viewers in the chat channel kept thinking it was banned even when it wasn’t. That’s the chilling effect of secret bans right there. It’s like they don’t even have to ban my work anymore, they just have to intimidate people into over-policing themselves. I wonder why all the free-speech gamers aren’t rallying to my defense?

‘The Tearoom’

As for the second part of your question, I had imagined making my games’ graphics look like big-budget commercial video games would afford me some sort of protection under capitalism, you know? But maybe that’s why they’re dangerous: That’s their main provocation — it short-circuits most gamers’ theories of who deserves a big-budget game with gratuitous production values.

Only normative games are supposed to look expensive, and marginalized politics are supposed to have nothing. I mean, I don’t mean to put down games with punk aesthetics or less visual polish. I’m just trying to make a specific kind of impact here, and this was the particular artistic strategy I decided to use. Like, what if I used this dense overproduced commercial style for good instead of evil?

And that good is the stuff you mentioned before — consent, intimacy and sexual cultures — right? How did you start to work on games with these themes in the context of an industry where so many of the resources and tools available are oriented toward building experiences about shooting?
In junior high, I used to make these fan mods for shooter games: More monsters to shoot in more military bases, and so on. I had to learn how the technology works and demonstrate that I could work in the industry style and aesthetic. I got good enough at it that I was going to go work in the game industry after college.

But then I had my first love/first heartbreak with a dude, and I desperately wanted to make sense of those feelings. I started reading more gay history and gay fiction. I even watched gay German soap operas. But in video-game land, there were basically zero video games about gay men to help me process my experience. This vital part of my life felt totally cut off from the other part of my life. So in a very conscious way, I decided I had to make the games I wish I had, in the way that I knew how.

‘Rinse and Repeat’

Your games about gay men generally focus on sex like BDSM and semi-public, anonymous encounters. Obviously, these themes are objectionable to the straight world, but have you ever gotten pushback from other gay people about the kinds of representations you’re creating? And generally, how would you reply to criticism along those lines?
One criticism is that my games’ depictions of gay sexuality often center on young, muscular cis white men, which is a difficult cultural problem. Countless gay culture touchstones like Tom of Finland, Kenneth Anger, Giovanni’s Room and/or most of commercial gay porn, focus singularly on this type of person. My games come from Western gay culture, which means they end up carrying the same baggage.

It takes work to undo this dependency, to imagine a new shape to gay culture and sexuality. But at the same time, I feel like I still have to deal with these annoying basic-ass problems relating to games’ culture. Like with the BDSM game [Hurt Me Plenty], I specifically chose a muscular white guy. I didn’t want to make a game that would let some gross YouTubers inflict pain on black men and laugh about it. YouTube culture is already so racist and homophobic, you know? I don’t know of any other artform where you basically can’t trust huge swaths of your audience like this.

I’ve also met some queer artists who reacted really negatively to my work — that my imagery has been done before, and that I’m barely saying anything new. I understand that point-of-view if you come from outside of games. Like in fine art, Robert Mapplethorpe, Félix González-Torres and countless others have been around for many decades. Compared to that standard, I don’t blame people for thinking my work is boring. I’ve only been doing these sex games for a few years. I still have a lot to learn. One queer arts professor basically asked me why I was making “baby art” (i.e., video games) for “babies” (i.e., gamers)!

I didn’t have a real answer for her at the time, but years later, I’d now argue that this type of criticism ignores how video-game culture is like 50 years behind the rest of art. I feel like postmodernist politics in games is only happening now, and it’s only happening because of the work of countless independent game designers and artists who think we can still maybe salvage a genuine creative culture from this hyper-consumerist wasteland of a medium.

A better world is definitely possible, but we also have to settle in for the long haul — or else we’ll burn out.