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Penis problems: Designing the erotic user-interface of It is as if you were making love

by Pippin Barr on 06/18/18 10:10:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


My user-interface sex game It is as if you were making love has reached a point where I’ve been able to actually show it to other people and ask them what they think. It has a opening sequence (starting the software from a faux desktop, looking at the splash screen), a core gameplay loop (moving the slider according to instructions), and a closing sequence (computational orgasm, shutdown). It all works and does, essentially, what I’d envisaged from pretty much the beginning of the project.

The basic concept behind the game revolves around a near-ish future in which people no longer want to engage in physical intimacy with other people and, in fact, are creeped out by even having sex with other humans via technical intermediaries. Because people still value the experience of giving erotic pleasure, however, this software (It is as if you were making love) has been developed to provide an outlet: it is software that allows you to simulate giving pleasure to someone (or something).

Showing a game to other people, however, pulls you out of your tunnel vision of what you’re making and forces you to acknowledge that your work can have meanings and affects that don’t fit in with how you experience it. As such, when I showed the game to my parents, I was pushed into really reencountering my own game to a large extent. (My parents are almost always my first testing group for every game I’ve made - they’re an excellent combination of computer literature, non-game-literate, and connoisseurs of contemporary art.)

After they played, I got very helpful usability points from them both (particularly around the dexterity involved in moving the slider quickly), but most importantly I got my mother’s understanding of the game as a woman. And specifically, she reported that from her perspective that game felt like being in service to a male, rather than my goal of the game feeling like giving pleasure to a more ambiguous entity.

It was important to hear this, because somewhere in my heart I knew this was going to be an issue with the game: one of the main starting points for It is as if you were making love is the (very NSFW) flash game Sepe’s Cumshot. The awkward erotic charge I feel when playing that game is a big part of what I wanted to chase with my game, but with classic user-interface elements instead of a 3D muscleman. But of course a game with that kind of providence is going to be pretty oriented toward a specific understanding of pleasure, bodies and “sexual input”.

It stings especially because it’s exactly the same problem I ended up having with Hot Coffee (a sex game using the metaphor of coffee-making): it’s what I guess I would characterise as a male sexuality, reflecting the game it satirised (the Hot Coffee Modof Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). But, while I allowed myself to just feel a bit guilty with Hot Coffee, for this new game I really don’t want to let this cis-gender-male-dominant angle stand, so I need to work on it.

There are two key areas that I see as being integral to detuning this issue in It is as if you were making love: the slider itself and the framing of the player’s roleplaying.

First of all, the slider is pretty darn penis-y in the configuration I’ve got here: it’s a vertical (erect) element and you interact with it by sliding the handle/knob up and down repeatedly. A key reason I went with the slider is that it’s the key classical user-interface element that allows for continuous, real-time interaction. A scroll bar does this too, of course, but a scroll bar is just a kind of slider. Other user-interface elements tend to be discrete on/off kinds of interactions, from checkboxes to radio buttons to drop-down menus. I feel like continuous, real-time motion is kind of central to the idea of making the interaction erotic, it’s more analog and serves as a better analog to the kinds of motions we often make in sex.

So I feel like I’m ‘stuck’ with the slider in terms of the input it enables, and because it’s one of only a small set of classical elements possible (both in terms of what jQuery UI offers me, and in terms of what figures in most people’s understanding of what counts as a ‘typical’ interface). As such, I need to detune the slider itself. My current design move is two-fold. First, I’m rotating the slider to be horizontal so that it’s less immediately reminiscent of an erect penis. It’s surprising to me how much this helps when I try the horizontal prototype, perhaps also in part because horizontal sliders might be more common in user-interface and thus read more immediately as “just typical UI” rather than being atypical enough to immediately suggest other readings.

The second ‘fix’ is to alter the numbering on the slider. The vertical slider was numbered from 0 to 10, with 0 at the bottom and 10 at the top. That means the slider has not only an axis, but also a kind of direction - it has a ‘base’ and a ‘tip’ that make it all the more suggestive of a penis. By shifting the labels to run from -5 (far left) to 0 (centre) to 5 (far right), the horizontal slider is implied to be symmetrical rather that pointing in a specific direction, properties that are perhaps a better fit with a vagina (see also: Luxuria Superbia), or at least a more ambiguous sensual input. (Believe me, I never thought I would be doing close readings of classical user-interface elements as genitalia/erogenous zones, but here we are.) So the hope here is not that slider becomes ‘more of a vagina than a penis’ but rather that it evokes genitalia/intimate body parts in a way that isn’t heavily aligned with a specific corresponding human anatomy.

The other big challenge ahead, which I’ve done much less to actually deal with as yet, is to think about how the game frames the player’s relationship to play. As above, my vision is that the game exists in a speculative future - as such the real player (in our present reality) roleplays as a person from that speculative future. Further, the game presents as software that is meant to have been created to allow people to experience the erotic charge of giving sexual pleasure without involving other humans. As such, the real play (in our present reality) roleplays as a person who has that in mind (or at least is interested in that experience). Conveying all this is very difficult and is hugely the work of the ‘about’ text I include as an option at the beginning of the game.

My first ‘solid’ draft of this text focuses heavily on using the same tone as the text for It is as if you were doing work, which makes sense, but which has, I think, led it to be a combination neutrality and irony about the state of the speculative future the game comes from. In the context of ‘making love’, though, or at least of erotic pleasure, that kind of tone probably ends up reading as vaguely hostile and definitely as a buzz-kill. So there’s a need to find a voice for that text that both communicates the speculative proposition of the game, but doesn’t immediately set the player in a vaguely combative or bleak relationship to the interface. (And, after all, the fictional writers of the about text wouldn’t want that anyway - it’s one thing to try to evoke a level of cynical ‘robot emotional intelligence’, as I think of the text as being written by AIs, but it can go too far.)

Beyond the introductory text, there’s a bunch of language in the game itself that the interface uses to express its erotic pleasure in reaction to the player’s interactions. Right now it’s pretty much placeholder ‘sex talk’ like ‘mmmmmm’ and ‘that’s feels good’, etc., so there’s work to be done there too. Of course, I want the voice to not read as male here too, which shouldn’t be too difficult I hope, but more importantly it needs to continue the invitation to an erotic experience throughout, needs to help keep that alive. I suspect that the most obvious kind of text, which I have now, isn’t going to cut it for that either. At present I don’t really have a strong direction for this text beyond figuring I’ll rewrite it and see what happens.

So, that’s the state of affairs right now with It is as if you were making love and its “penis problem”. Ultimately, I think it’s a fascinating problem to have, to get down to the level of specific interface elements and specific rotations of interface elements in talking about erotic interaction. It really pushes my buttons.

(Big thanks to Rilla Khaled, Jess Rowan Marcotte, and Jim and Mary Barr for discussions around this writing and the overall project.)

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