Bodies that Matter: an interview with Robert Yang

When videogames push sex into the neatly sealed-off corner of dialogue choices followed by cutscenes, queer sex is rarely allowed to occupy more than a tiny fraction of this tiny fraction. It’s a visibility issue that Robert Yang has worked hard to counteract through his own impressive portfolio of games: Hurt Me Plenty, Succulent, Stick Shift, Cobra Club and Rinse and Repeat all center on gay sex, but instead of detailing the dramatic lives of the fictional characters engaging in it, these games focus on the social and political context in which it takes place.

Yang does this by not only layering his games with references – tapping into familiar visual motifs, cultural tropes or contemporary discussions – but by making these ties very clear to his audience. Each of his games comes with its own artist’s statement, and Yang often speaks about their inspirations and technical aspects in even greater detail on his blog or while giving talks at conferences and festivals.

After one such talk at A MAZE Berlin, I had the chance to ask him why he provides so much secondary reading. He told me:“I write about my games because I strongly believe process is part of the art. This isn’t a new or unique trend, this is happening all over the world in many fields: Were the chickens cage-free? Were your clothes made in a factory that pays a living wage? Do the rare earth minerals in your electronics come from child labor? Games are partly objects, and all objects have to be designed and made, with all the biases and flaws of their creators.”

Providing insight into the process of making games is a noble goal, especially since the rise of crowdfunding offers players ever greater access to developers, who often find themselves confronted with outrage born from unrealistic expectations. Developers who summarize their intent clearly are taking first steps to prevent misunderstandings. More importantly, perhaps, Yang’s messaging allows him to reach even those who don’t play his games themselves.

Writing about game development as a form of cultural work, Yang has made the argument that games no longer have to be consumed directly in order to appreciate their contribution to the medium. We may have no time or interest to play a particular game ourselves, but can still experience it vicariously through Let’s Plays and articles like this one. In his words, as long as a game simply exists, it enables us to think and talk about it. By writing these companion pieces,

Yang provides an easy way to enter the public conversation, while making sure that his themes and politics are not left out of it.

Hurt Me Plenty

Hurt Me Plenty

Even his games themselves make sure to never let you fully escape reality. Hurt Me Plenty is a game about spanking a dude, but it’s also about pushing back against the sex-as-reward structures of many other games, allowing its main character  to set his own boundaries and locking you out of playing if you overstep them. Succulent shows a hunk suggestively eating a popsicle, but this idealized vision of white gayness will also devour you by the end of the game. Players of Stick Shift may be interrupted from petting their car when they get pulled over, and the chance of this happening is based on the rate of police misconduct reported in a 2013 survey on violence against LGBT communities.

In all of these games, reality is given a way of sneaking up on you, breaking your expectations and potentially spoiling your fun. These twists give the impression of bringing back in the hard truths, negative consequences and cultural baggage that games normally leave at the door. In truth, it’s a little more complicated than that. As a rhetorical device, setting up these reveals requires choosing to exclude other aspects of reality first. In fact, until their final surprise drops, many of Yang’s games have a utopian quality to them. Cobra Club disconnects dick pic trading from beauty standards and body shaming. Rinse and Repeat divorces locker rooms from the fear of homophobic assaults.

These exclusions pave the way for the games’ intended statements. Although this setup could be seen as presenting an idealized view of the world, Yang is understandably skeptical of making his games too bleak: “There’s already a lot of games with sexual violence and intimidation. It’s very popular in AAA to use those images to seem edgy. So in my games, I want to try to imagine the closest thing to a fantasy, before breaking that fantasy. In Cobra Club, the realities of government mass surveillance destroy a utopian dick pic community. In Rinse and Repeat, a fear of commitment scares the game away. I want to try to be honest, whatever that means.”

Rinse and Repeat

Rinse and Repeat

While a lot of games have fallen into the trap of presenting their jaded, cynical or downright pessimistic views as somehow more truthful and authentic than other positions, Yang’s brand of honesty is decidedly more upbeat. If the divide between the grimdark realism of simulating splatter and the goofy realism of programming cheek physics – both kinds of cheek physics – shows anything, it’s that honesty is a subjective term: “A lot of emotions are about how objectively small stakes (e.g. getting rejected by 1 person out of 8 billion on earth, who cares?) can still feel like very big stakes, and that’s sad and beautiful all at once. Maybe it’s about appreciating disappointment, maybe it’s just acknowledging that it’s OK to feel bad sometimes. It’s OK to be not OK.”

Given such a heartwarming message, it’s absurd how many people get hung up on the fact that a game chooses to sexualize male bodies for once. Beyond individual Let’s Players performing discomfort with the idea for their teenage audiences, Twitch itself has now banned every game discussed here from being streamed on their platform, making Yang one of the most banned developers on their site. Curiously, Hurt Me Plenty, Succulent and Stick Shift were only added to the list after their recent re-release. How the same games can meet Twitch’s standards one moment and be rejected the next, no one knows, but it does not instill a lot of faith in their policies.

Stick Shift

Stick Shift

Bans like these might confirm the games’ subversive potential, but ultimately reveal a double standard:  “In the short-term it’s fun to be banned, but in the long-term it seriously affects my ability to reach my audience. These content bans are arbitrary: games with plentiful nudity and sexual content like The Witcher 3 are allowed because they are large commercial productions. It’s very frustrating to focus on issues of consent and safety in my games, and try hard to be more than pornography, only for Twitch to treat my work exactly the same as a rape simulator game.”

It’s clear that these bans pose a pointless obstacle, but less clear what path they are obstructing. Although there are other developers making vignette games – Nina Freeman even covers similar issues of intimacy – none of them have been at it long enough to set expectations for how this kind of career should go. What does success look like to Yang? “In the long-term, I want to be part of this larger shift in what games mean to society. Instead of a culture that’s policed by men who methodically buy and consume games, what if games can be something that people make and share regardless of commercial value? Governments and communities could fund games as a public benefit, a form of expression that’s intrinsically valuable to share and learn. I think this change is slowly happening in games culture, but I’d be happy if I could speed up the process by one percent.”

It may still be a while until public funding for games takes off, but luckily Yang has plenty of ideas for how to pass the time. At the moment, he is working on a city simulator dealing with the effects urban planner Robert Moses had on New York, with a stealth game and a bar game on the back burner: “Stealth game is on hold until Unity 5.4 ships with some of its lighting system changes. The bar game is also on hold because I need to figure out client/server networking, and I think I’m going to try to make a smaller game first to practice that. That smaller project is currently a Go AI that will take off its clothes as you get better at Go, a gay strip-Go game.”

Similar to Stick Shift, it’s bringing the erotic subtext of mundane interactions out in the open, and of course there’s a lot more to it than you would think: “It’s about empathizing with a videogame. The AI simulates thousands and thousands of random games, over and over, which most people would think is very cold and mathematical – until you realize that it’s imagining all these infinite parallel universes spent with you. This game is dreaming lifetimes with its player. That’s almost kind of romantic.”

Perhaps that is the defining characteristic of Yang’s work in the end: finding the hidden beauty of everyday things, and then wrapping that beauty into a gloriously gay package. Little by little, his extensive library of small and openly political games is pushing the medium forward and turning the industry into a better place.