Designer Merritt Kopas has a problem with violent games, but not in the way you expect. It's not as if they're too violent
or "too edgy," she says, but rather the opposite: weightless and gimmicky, most of these portrayals exclude the player. The purpose and impact of the violence on its perpetrator is never addressed.
Since the release of Lim
, her visually-abstract game about negotiating the consequences of nonconformity, Kopas has created an innovative series of games about bodies, boundaries and feelings. Her work has a gentleness and candor that makes complicated things -- like how to talk to your mother about your identity
, or non-heteronormative ways to have sex
-- feel accessible.
Her work is personal, but to call them "personal games" is slightly misleading: Kopas, who has a sociology background, is on the forefront of a community of independent creators using games not only to express themselves, but to use their personal experiences to ask bigger questions about how we experience the world -- and, crucially, the role game design can play in that goal.
One of her most recent games, Consensual Torture Simulator
, has proved an interesting challenge for the game community, and for commentators outside of it. "It was deliberately made as a comment on violence in games, and a comment on the ways that violence is portrayed as 'edgy,'" she says.
In Consensual Torture Simulator
, a text-only game, the player takes the role of a person physically "topping" her romantic partner in a kink relationship scene. Both partners have decided the goal of the interaction is to make the submissive partner -- the recipient of the violence -- cry. There's scratching, flogging and caning; periodically the player needs to rest, as much to comfort her partner as to recover herself.
The essential element of this game is that it's clearly established both partners have wholly consented to the interaction; these are characters who express affection and provide release for one another through physical violence, within previously-discussed limits and with a "safe word" the recipient can use to end the scene at any time.
For Kopas, there are several things that make Consensual Torture Simulator
's violence unique: Of primary importance among these is the element of consent.
"It's kind of hard to be 'edgy' when you've been doing it for so long."
Dozens of video games have attempted to mature or redress their traditionally-violent themes by setting themselves up to "force" players to analyze the import of their actions: The now almost-universal scene where the game gives you a gun, a morally-ambiguous target, and a "choice" that is rarely much of a choice. Commit this "terrible" act in order to continue with this game! Or don't, bypassing it entirely and making it even more irrelevant.
"These games are making you do things to progress, by definition -- you haven't 'agreed' to do them," Kopas points out. "This is something a lot of people were talking about when Spec Ops: The Line
came out, or similar games where you have to shoot someone, you have
to do this thing, and you haven't made a meaningful choice."
Grand Theft Auto V
's torture scene requires the player -- at the behest of the "FIB" -- to apply pliers, hammers, waterboarding and other gruesome instruments against a person allegedly keeping information about insurgents. The purpose of demanding the player complete the upsetting scene seems intended to comprise a meaningful critique about torture, and more widely, about American tactics at war.
But can one intentionally "edgy" scene in a game that trades in decades-old physical cynicism really do that, anyway? The character of Trevor, who performs the torture, is defined throughout the game as a moral black hole that lets the player do anything they want in the game world without consequences, so does his willingness to perform torture have any real emotional weight?
"Games like GTA
are really, still in 2013, selling themselves on the basis of their appeal to a certain kind of person," Kopas suggets. "It's kind of hard to be 'edgy' when you've been doing it for so long."
Upon hearing of the scene, she had an idea: "I was thinking, well, something really edgy would be hitting someone who wants you to hit them, in a context where you want to do that."
Kopas also wanted to challenge a narrative she's sometimes seen in portrayals of kink in culture: One where the person who's topping is "there as a dispenser of something, or is a machine," just the catalyst for the submissive partner's great revelation at their hands.
It was important to her, with the game, to challenge players to manage their own stamina, physical and emotional response as they interact with their partner. Both characters need breaks from what is often an intense, complicated, adrenaline-fueled experience that requires a great deal of trust, communication and patience.
"Violence in games is weightless,"
This feels revelatory as a concept, alongside other violent power fantasies, where players rarely needs to manage the personal consequences, physically or emotionally, of their choices. "Violence in games is weightless," says Kopas. "It's described as 'hyper-realistic,' but it's really very light -- bodies are puppets that jerk around on ragdoll strings, and the weight of actually inflicting harm on someone isn't realized."
"Some people might say that's a good thing," she continues, "but I'm not totally sure that it is. I think the false realism [creates] an aesthetic of violence that doesn't really deal with the intensity of committing or experiencing it. You could argue that people don't want to experience trauma, or don't want to experience bodies as having needs or demands in games because they're playing for escape."
But not all games are about escape: "I think there's a lot we can explore in terms of that," she says, "things most games, even the ones that would describe themselves as hyper-realistic, aren't doing."
A surprising thing about the game's reception, for Kopas, has been that video game websites have been more willing to understand and be open to both the rhetoric and the reality of what she's wanted to express with the intimate game. Consensual Torture Simulator
also received prominent coverage on feminist-identified news site Jezebel, where commenters were horrified at the idea of a game based on "beating up a woman" -- despite the fact one would generally expect a deeper understanding and higher sense of value placed on kink and consent in feminist spaces.
One useful way Kopas has heard consent described is that one can inflict pain on their partner in a consensual setting, and with communication and care, the recipient will be fine the next day; that's not the case with abuse. "The context in which actions are taken is really important to me," she says.
After releasing most of her work for free, Kopas decided to place Consensual Torture Simulator
for sale on Gumroad for $2, just as her colleague (and partner) Anna Anthropy recently did with a choose-your-own adventure story
. Kopas says she was inspired to make games upon discovering Anthropy's manifesto-of-sorts, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which calls for people from all walks of life to take advantage of free or low-cost, simple tools to start expressing themselves through games.
Kopas, Anthropy and other individual game makers have widely begun experimenting with monetizing their creations; their work is often cited as necessary or influential, but free games haven't earned them a living. Consensual Torture Simulator
"did pretty well" on sale, leading Kopas to think about continuing to work sustainably in games.
She aims to continue trying to sell small projects. She has little in common with the "Indie Game: The Movie" vision of the independent scene, and is excluded from many conversations by the fact she doesn't have a programming background. And her work generally eschews notions of skill and mastery, which to her seem important to most game makers, even other indies.
I ask Kopas whether maybe people who are deeply interested in games may be more able to relate to kink relationships, which are about scene-setting, communication, mutual negotiations, and rules, often in ways that seem similar to video games.
"I'm not someone who in personal relationships is approaching things in that way, but I think for me, the broader parallels between games and kink is that both of them, at their best, can allow for exploration and re-definition of symbols and meanings; they can be useful and transformative," she says.
"So when I am making a game, I guess I'm trying to allow for some of that -- to allow for exploration of something the player hasn't thought about before, and some kind of subsequent perspective."