A talk I gave on May 2nd, 2017, for Beta Public: Hotbed Edition.
Through Beta Public I’ve been putting video games and performance together other for four years now, and seeing the two beside each other, talking to each other, has fundamentally changed how I process things.
When I consume something – this can be a novel or a sculpture or a movie, but for now let’s just focus on games and live art – I break it down into three columns, and these columns are kind of lifted from the thinking of game design.
One column is Content – that is, what a thing contains. In really basic terms – say, if we’re applying these frames to a production of a play – you could say this is the script.
Another column is Mechanics – how a thing works. If we’re thinking about productions of plays, this might be where the actors and directors come in.
And the other column is Aesthetics – how a thing looks or feels. If we’re thinking about productions, this might be the ‘design.’
[By the way, I’d like to stress the absolute lack of rigour here in breaking things down into these elements. Obviously a script functions aesthetically, obviously a production contains content not sourced from the script, and obviously a design works mechanically. Just roll with it.]
How these three columns play with/contradict/support/overlap with each other determines, I believe, the overall effect of the work. The more elegant and thoughtful the interactions between columns, the richer and more lasting the work. I also think this theory makes for quite an interesting lens through which to look at the subject of this talk:
a very tongue-in-cheek hastily researched history of sex in performance and video games.
Let’s start at the beginning (ish).
The chap at the top of this blog is Oedipus, he’s in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex and he’s just found out he’s fucked his mum. Now the play isn’t ‘about’ sex, but it’s absolutely driven by it – you could say one of the main mechanics of Oedipus (and many ancient tragedies) is how the world of the play relates to sex, and what laws and expectations exist around it. What acts and attitudes get punished?
See! Hundreds of years later, Shakespeare is doing it in Romeo and Juliet – the world of Verona, and its attitude to sex between two people of different tribes, causes the tragedy. Although here Shakespeare also writes an aesthetic of romance – all juicy language and sexy metaphors. And we’re transported a bit further, I would argue, by the interaction of mechanics and aesthetics here.
We all got a bit tired of sex and death after the Puritan times, so we started using sex as the main mechanic of comedies instead!
This is one of those plays, a ‘restoration comedy’ – he probably fancies her but shouldn’t, it’s all going to go wrong but there’ll be some kind of loophole and everybody laughs!
Things got quite weird in the 60s and 70s.
This is a ‘psychosexual happening’ by American artist Paul McCarthy. There’s definitely something aesthetically sexual going on here – mess, fluids – and it certainly involves sexual mechanics, because all those dolls go up his bum!
Then we calmed down a bit. Attitudes to sex became a bit looser, and so became less of a driving mechanic, and more a piece of simple content.
Here’s Patrick Marber’s play Closer, which features a lot of people talking about fucking but really they’re talking about other things if you know what I mean.
But video games!
This is Custer’s Revenge, widely regarded as the Oedipus of sex-themed video games – that’s General Custer, dodging arrows in order to rape a Native American captive. Arrows are the mechanic. Racism the aesthetic. Sex is the bad joke, the content.
Now we arrive at Leisure Suit Larry – in which the mechanic of ‘seducing’ is introduced. This is pure nonsense, of course – the mechanic at work here is of puzzle-solving.
But the endgame ‘reward’ is kind of sexual, aesthetically speaking, so we’re at least moving in a direction, even if it’s a kind of basely titillating one.
The mechanics and content of Leisure Suit Larry still exist today in the popular Mass Effect series, though dressed up slightly differently, and with loads more aliens to fuck. Like this one:
And this one:
But not this one:
There’s not much more to it than that. The aesthetics are glossier, but the mechanics of ‘seduction’/‘intimacy’ are fundamentally the same. (And why can’t I fuck that alien??)
Grand Theft Auto San Andreas’ ‘hot coffee’ mini game, on the other hand, which was removed from release, takes the dating simulator to its logical conclusion with the introduction of an actual ‘love-making’ mechanic.
It’s very rudimentary, and quite horrible to witness, but it’s an important milestone in mechanically dealing with sex.
As we move closer to the present day, things get more interesting across the board, mechanically speaking.
Ontroerend Goed’s piece Internal gave five audience members ‘dates’ with its performers, then broke down the mechanics of desire and attraction in a harrowing group therapy session afterwards.
We had been fooled by the aesthetics and content of the date into expressing or feeling genuine intimacy.
Sort of like the real-life Leisure Suit Larry.
Luxuria Superbia is a touchscreen game that deals in the mechanics of touch, tempo, rhythm and restraint to really create feelings of pleasure:
Fingle does a similar thing, though it spreads into social mechanics too, and focuses on playful touch and negotiation:
All a lot more exciting than this, hmm?
But then this looks an awful lot like this –
– which is a still from Joe Hill-Gibbins’ Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. This production did a brilliant job of mixing the aesthetics of the sex industry with the mechanics of ancient psychosexual tragedies – all this layered onto the Shakespearen play most heavy on sexual content!
And so now this doesn’t seem quite so empty, does it?
The inflated-looking figures (content), the lifeless button-mashing (mechanic), the washed-out surface grimness (aesthetic)…if we squint at ‘hot coffee’ hard enough, we might actually enter an active site in which we reevaluate our capitalistic, acquisitive attitudes towards sex. (But probably not.)
This brings us to another live form that, I think, engages across all three columns: the queer cabaret scene.
Often full of explicit content, and drenched in an aesthetic that questions gender and arouses desire, these performances are also often staged in spaces where the acquisition of sex and the expression of desire are core mechanics.
And because of the mainstreaming of these rich, queer performance practices, as well as non-heteronormative cultures, we get restoration comedies that look like this:
And Leisure Suit Larrys that look like this:
And we also get adjustable dong mechanics!
And we get Robert Yang’s Rinse and Repeat:
and Cobra Club:
and Hurt Me Plenty:
which all use homoerotic content and the aesthetics of 90s muscle porn to look at the mechanics of consent and community.
And we get Chris Goode’s ensemble of Ponyboys, who, through a series of games that are innocent and erotic, create a universe of permission and danger that comes close to truly reflecting what sex and desire is, and can be.
And Roxana Cade’s Sister, which uses the aesthetics and mechanics and content of sex work to interrogate the aesthetics and mechanics and content of sex work, in a conversation between Sisters.
And remember Paul McCarthy?
Here’s Looking For Paul, by Dutch company Wunderbaum, who read out a bunch of emails interrogating the prostituting nature of art commissioning (as well as their fake mutual sexual attractions) before reenacting a whole Paul McCarthy performance, ketchup, insertion and all.
And while we’re revisiting old forms
Here’s Benedict Cumberbatch, wondering along with all of us whether he wants to fuck his mum more than he wants to fuck lovely Ophelia. Now these plays have lasted so long, and seen so many new productions, because we’re able to connect with the underlying, quite often sexual, psychology of the characters. Can we really do this with games? Is a developer thinking the same as a playwright? Can the player ever be read with the same psychological depth as Oedipus, as Hamlet, as Antigone or Lady Macbeth?
I wonder if, by looking at the mechanics, aesthetics and content of games in even the most cursory manner, we might see something reflective of the fundamental psychology of both developer and player. For example, an irresistible desire for reproduction?
The performance of intense and repeated rhythmical inputs?
And, always, at the end, a systemic and sensory overload that represents both death and, in the promise of a new game, renewal?
But who knows, maybe it’s just sex in performance and video games.