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how to make games about being a dominatrix

so i was invited to speak at the first-ever different games conference in brooklyn, april 26th and 27th (at the “nyu-poly” campus, WHICH FELT ODDLY APPROPRIATE). let me tell you, first of all, some cool things they did. shortly before the conference i emailed them, concerned about their security policy which required folks to wear badges carrying the names on their government id cards (for a lot of trans people, not the names they go by). probably nyu campus policy. they immediately responded by negotiating with security to have their own printed badges, bearing the conference attendee’s chosen name, count as security passes. also, they converted two bathrooms into gender-neutral bathrooms. see: it’s not hard to make your conference more welcoming to trans people.

the other thing that i really liked about the conference was its use of the word “difference” as a really inclusive, intersectional term, encompassing race, gender, ability, queerness. it made me think about the language i use, how i frame my own work. what also made me think: i realized during different games that no one’s really talking about class and how it affects people’s access to game development tools, and what tools. (fer example: lots of underprivileged queer folks use twine because it’s free and because they never had the opportunity to go to tech school and learn to code.) different games is an academic conference, mostly attended by academics – it’s not really surprising that the class conversation doesn’t come up there, or at similar conferences.

what did i actually say at different games? i was on a panel with robert yang, mattie brice and haitham ennasr, some of my favorite geniuses. we each gave a short talk and then we took questions. my talk was called “how to make games about being a dominatrix.” instead of slides, i had my slut illustrate my talk live using transparencies and an overhead projector. i didn’t let her look at my speech ahead of time. people seemed to like it, though the projector burnt out close to the end. you can watch all four talks and the panel here – that’s another cool thing about different games, they recorded all the talks and put them online for free. anyway, have a transcript of my talk:

as people who spend a lot of time making and discussing games, we talk a lot about the rules of games – we develop a mechanical understanding of them. and rightly so, because we create play by designing rules. tetris’ whole trajectory comes from the rule that only complete lines are eliminated from the screen – mistakes and imperfections remain, making it harder to create complete lines.

the ways that the rules of tetris interact to create a meaningfully stressful experience are fascinating and beautiful, as true an expression of art as anything you’d find hanging in a gallery.

but as a queer game designer i find that most of my work isn’t motivated strictly by a pure abstract desire to play with the form. most of the time, my games are motivated by imperatives to represent aspects of my identity, or to provide criticism, or to interrogate politics.

so i’m going to talk about context: the ways in which we frame our rules and communicate them to the player.

here is the first thing to know about context:

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

in 2009 i made a game called MIGHTY JILL OFF. the protagonist of mighty jill off is submissive in a latex suit who jumps really high, and has to jump all the way up a tall tower in order to prove herself to her queen, the recipient of her devotion and lust.

if you’ve played mighty jill off, and if you’ve also played a nintendo game called MIGHTY BOMB JACK, you may have observed that they play exactly the same. the bomb jack games are about outmaneuvering enemies using elaborate in-air acrobatics. jack can stop jumping on a dime, giving him perfect control of the height of his jump. he can hover in mid-air, giving him greater horizontal mobility during a jump. the player can hold UP or DOWN when initiating a jump, controlling the parabola of his jump.

i was really fascinated by these games for a while. when i made mighty jill off, i stole the entire vocabulary of rules for in-air motion from bomb jack. the mid-air break, the hovering – i didn’t keep the holding up and down because it didn’t seem necessary.

so we have two games whose most important rules – the rules from which the play comes – are identical. do we have two identical games?

we don’t. mighty jill off is about the relationship between a submissive masochist and her domme. what i’m talking about, though, isn’t a superficial reskinning: mighty jill off is informed by my person experience, it’s based on my relationship with my collared submissive.

that experience provides a context for the play: the difficulty of a game like that, the trust the player puts in the designer to adequately prepare her for any given challenge, the need to push her limits without breaking them, the player’s desire to prove herself to the game by meeting the game’s expectations for her – these things resonate with my own experience as a domme and a top.

mighty jill off is a game that communicates ideas that mighty bomb jack does not. it does contain a set of rules which interact with one another in ways that are interesting and meaningful to the player, but it frames those rules and their interactions in a way that relates (and encourages the player to relate) to my personal experience.

that’s important in the face of the games culture that brought us bioshock infinite. bioshock is a game that forces you to watch images of racialized violence – there’s a part where you watch a man of color pecked to death by crows, begging for his life. and then a minute later you gain a power-up that lets you have crows peck people to death.

bioshock infinite is an EMPATHY-CHALLENGED game. the culture of videogames is an EMPATHY-CHALLENGED culture. videogames needs stories of racism from people who experience it, not bioshock infinite.

context is everything. in 2011 i made a game called TRANSGRESSION that is essentially a “find the hidden object” game. but what you’re trying to find is a woman who has a penis at michigan womyn’s music festival. this game would be trivial without the context. (and let me add as a disclaimer that i really like where’s waldo books.) but the entire purpose of TRANSGRESSION is to illustrate the absurdity of michfest’s “womyn-born womyn” policy by reducing it to as simple and transparent a system as possible.

do you see what i’m saying? context is a tool we can use for visibility, representation, empathy and satire. as marginalized people, the contexts of our lives are political.

as creators and critics, we have every right to investigate and to play with the friction of rules bouncing off each other, to explore in the abstract the dynamics and systems that the interaction of those rules creates. but as people whose social existence is driven by dynamics and whose lives involve struggle with systems of oppression that are invisible to the privileged, we have a unique opportunity to give our dynamics and systems contexts that are informed by our lived experiences.

in march i made a game called TRIAD. it’s a puzzle game about sliding weird-shaped tiles around to try and fit them in a limited space. but the space is a bed, and the weird-shaped tiles are three people who are trying to sleep together successfully. this is one of the fundamental problems i’ve encountered as someone who is poly – someone who has multiple partners.

the sliding tile puzzle is an old game, but it’s the context, again, that creates a meaning for players that doesn’t exist in games with similar puzzles. i’m not saying that i don’t believe in games as places for abstract mechanical exploration. i just can’t afford it.

to refuse to take a political stance is itself a political stance – it’s to stand with the status quo. and the status quo of videogames is alienating, is racist, is misogynist, promotes rape culture. it is important to me that my games exist in visible opposition to that. and a conversation about games, a criticism of games that is purely mechanical, that erases context, erases my identity.

as a trans woman, i exist in a society that is continuously trying to erase my identity. context, in my games, is the voice through which i speak my name.

context is everything.

(photo via charismaphone.)

3 comments

  1. HideyHoe wrote:

    Thank you for putting this up- it made me think about games I never considered ‘political’ before-

    A couple of examples are the 4X genre, which I’m a big fan of (I find games where management of resources and complexities are a key feature appealing) and I never considered these games to really ‘say’ anything meaningful- though looking at it now, they obviously have varying attitudes towards issues like war, genocide, supremacy and political power, depending on the game in question.

    Even looking at the old sonic games which I liked, out of context these are just a very, very generic platformer, but with certain elements adjusted to encourage fast playthroughs and general lack of caution- the early ones certainly have a very strong enviromentalist vibe- which (in part being introduced to these games when very young) I never really thought about before.

    5/9/2013 at 1:23 am | permalink
  2. Jeanne wrote:

    Such a good speech, and such a 100% necessary speech, and so applicable to a million conversations going on about art forms that are not games

    5/14/2013 at 1:27 am | permalink
  3. I’m currently working on a long-form analysis piece of how Mighty Jill Off conveys meaning (context and game ideas). Your point on the teacher/student–or in this case master/dom—relationship between the player and the game designer resonates with what I’ve been writing. Something else that I find interesting about Mighty Jill Off is how the jump/float mechanic is also analogous to this relationship. Jill’s jump is high enough that by the time she reaches the apex, the player is likely to have loosened their press of the button, yet it’s often at this time, right when the player’s guard is down, that they have to rapid press the button again to have Jill float from the tallest height. So, given that jump is the primary mechanic, most of the interactions in the game (everything bar walking) are tied back to the master/dom relationship. This makes the theme more cohesive.

    -DP

    5/15/2013 at 6:36 pm | permalink

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