Games as Erotica

Randy Smith has an interesting and reflective post about his game design practice over at the Edge website called “In Search of Meaning“. I especially enjoy his opening salvo about porn and erotica:

The difference between pornography and erotica is how much it’s pure stimulation and diversion versus how much the baser appeals have to make room for some higher purpose. Also, if it’s black-and-white, it’s erotica.

He doesn’t take the porn/erotica metaphor any further explicitly (ha!), but instead talks about how he tries to create meaningful work. Reading what he says, it’s clear that Smith is very conscientious about it and, in the article, focuses in on the idea of knowing what you’re making inside out. So if you’re making a game about Mars, you research the shit out of Mars. If you’re making a game about a family, you work out all the interconnections and relationships and so on. This, he says, will lead you toward consistency, one of the key ways of generating meaning in games.

The other two he cites are passion and authenticity, though he doesn’t have so much to say about them in this particular piece. Once again, though, he connects them with this idea of research and throwing yourself into the subject of your game design as being central to good creation. Central to making it all meaningful. All of of which I can more or less agree with – I identify with the need to plan everything out and really know “what’s going on”, particularly from a narrative standpoint.

At the same time, I feel like the porn/erotica metaphor can shed some additional light here. Randy Smith suggests that a key difference with erotica is that it involves a “higher purpose”, rather than just stimulation. Well, my erotica credentials are pretty threadbare, but I’m not so sure. I think that something erotica definitely trades in is ambiguity, and I think that’s something missing from the discussion in “In Search of Meaning”.

A big part of what’s sexy (and thus I suppose, in the erotic context, meaningful) is ambiguity. Unlike porn which eagerly gives you everything, erotica holds back, doesn’t show the whole story, hints at certain things, conceals others. It’s this ambiguous story told (by a black and white photograph, say) that is so evocative. Obviously enough, what it does is invite the viewer to add a layer of their own meaning making – without the image providing all the answers, you have to do some of the work. And doing that work is a big part of the pleasure, the meaning.

It seems like we could say something similar about games if we’re using the metaphor. Plenty of games are pornographic in style, as Smith intimates. They’re all stimulation all the time, you know exactly what you’re getting. They’re literally explicit. As such, they tend to be very exciting, but a lot of the time when they’re over you don’t necessarily feel like you personally achieved much of anything – the work was, in a way, being done for you, even while you, you know, fiddled with your buttons.

So then “erotic games” (we’re still being metaphor, remember!) would be those that champion ambiguity in design. They’d hold meaning back in order to trigger the meaning making faculties of the player. And we do see this, of course. Take Limbo‘s weird and threatening world – why is it like that? Who are the mean other people? Why the giant spider? And it’s in black and white! I personally doubt that somewhere in the Playdead studios there’s a big map of what all of Limbo means. Rather, I like to think that they specifically leveraged that ambiguity in order to create a more meaningful experience.

My point then is that I like the porn/erotica metaphor, I think it’s actually quite worthwhile in this context, but I feel like Randy Smith didn’t quite follow it all the way. I’m all for really well-researched and thought through games, but I don’t think that’s the only, or even necessarily the best, road to meaning in games. At the very least, the “erotic path” of ambiguity seems like an important direction in a video game world so very filled with pornographic play (metaphorical!).

When it comes to games, I’d rather see a pale, moonlit ankle than a floodlit ass.

6 December 2010
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