One of (I think) the frontiers of video games or digital fiction is the representation of sex and sexuality. We have this really interesting space where – you know, gaming is still stereotypically gendered as a male activity (even though women make up around half of the gaming community), and that obviously bleeds through into how sex and sexuality are depicted. I’m cursed forever by the image of Harley Quinn in the 2015 Arkham Knight DLC ‘A Matter of Family’. At the same time, the burgeoning indie community gives rise to queer and alternate points of view, as in Robert Yang’s terrifyingly good The Tearoom (a game about police surveillance and anxious gay sex in public bathrooms in the 1960s). There are also obviously other popular examples of indie games focusing on queer characters, such as Gone Home or Dream Daddy or whatever else – the whole thing feels indicative of a broader trend in society. It feels like a microcosm of our broader trajectory – that this monolith of exclusive male-oriented heterosexuality is slowly but surely becoming more diverse.
The other thing that’s so interesting about sexuality in a digital form is how it interferes with our pre-established categories of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’. So often when we conceptualise the difference between physical and virtual realms, the physical is described as ’embodied’ – where our actual bodies are – and the virtual as ‘disembodied’. Electric sex blurs those lines, exploring sexual bodies in a virtual form. It takes something rooted in the essence of our physicality and translates it into the digital realm. It’s transgressive and fascinating and I think part of a broader aesthetic movement reconceiving what it means to be human. We touched on this a couple weeks back, with Plug & Play – there was a whole thing in that game about how sex is like plugs.
There was also – we didn’t talk about this the other week, but there’s a really particular example of this idea in that game’s final scene. There are two hands moving towards each other on the screen, echoing the game’s opening sequence, and one hand pulls a finger off the other. The finger comes away with a plug socket at its base, showing again the extent to which we are transformed into electric people. The finger is then plugged into a light socket, standing erect – and when you push the button the lights switch off and the finger droops down, having lost its charge. The parallel with male genitalia I don’t think needs to be explained – but note again that electricity is positioned as the juice that gets everything going. We are electric people, Plug & Play says, complete with replaceable, detachable parts and electric sexuality.
This week I want to talk about another game dealing with electric sex – Luxuria Superbia. This 2013 game comes to us from Tale of Tales, a game-making duo responsible for titles like The Path and Sunset. Luxuria is a game about female pleasure, about touch and patience. You have a flower, which you need to fill with colour by touching little buds that form on the petals. As you touch more buds, the petals fill further – but you don’t want to fill the whole flower with colour. It’s a metaphor for orgasm, so filling the flower entirely ends the level with a burst of white light. You’re rather meant to tease the flower over time, getting it close to full and then allowing the colour to seep back down. It’s a game about edging, in that sense. As you build up momentum over time, the colours and sounds intensify, and everything gets faster. A ripple runs down the ridges of the flower, almost denoting a sharp intake of breath.
Even at first glance, we can see that this game subtly changes some of the key concepts we bring to play. Often play is about efficiency, about getting from A to B as quickly and directly as possible. Those sorts of games can become an exercise in optimization, an arid mathematical puzzle eschewing any sort of athleticism or technique in favour of the skillset you might bring to a Sudoku. It’s the sort of thing parodied in that ProZD sketch, a far cry from the flow state found in reaction-based games or shooters or even in real sports. Against that model of efficiency and haste, Luxuria offers a model of play as patience, as a deliberate, conscious lingering. The metaphor of sex I think is illustrative – everybody knows how to get to the finish line, but nobody’s hurrying to get there. The concept of play as an optimized highway to completion is replaced by the concept of play as a garden, as a space of mutual existence, cohabited by choice rather than for any strategic need.
And I think that’s quite cool – it’s interesting to see a game push at our understanding of play like that. Maybe it’s just me, but I spend so much of my life on logistics and improving workflows and production lines, and – it’s just nice to enjoy a game for its own sake, to have play as a space you can relax into, without all of this work-as-play baggage. It’s just so much the conceptual opposite of a game like Rover Mechanic Simulator, which we talked about last year (Rover Mechanic Simulator: Work and Play). It’s refreshing.
And there are also the broader implications for our understanding of the boundaries between virtual and physical realms. Luxuria is arguably a game best played on a tablet – it’s not a game for clicking, it’s a game for your fingers. It’s responsive to your touch, to your physical contact with the very tangible screen. You can play gently or firmly, scraping your fingers across the screen or lifting from one place to another. Luxuria shows us the physicality of the digital form, implicating our touch in the digital erotic. It prods at our understanding of the boundary between physical and virtual, asking us to replicate gestures that we might already use in our everyday lives. It translates those movements into the context of gameplay, into a context of video games and points and completing levels, making sex into a game. The pendulum swings in both directions: sex serves to reshape our understanding of play, while the structure and form of the game blur the boundaries between physical and virtual intimacy. Aren’t we in some sense, it says, already cyborg lovers?