Intersexionality and the Undie Game

Harrer cover image

Sabine Harrer is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies, University of Tampere (FI). Their research focuses on cultural videogames criticism, HCI and intersectionality, and creation-based knowledge making. Author of the book Games and Bereavement (transcript, 2018), Sabine has taught widely on game production and design, cultural media studies and English studies at the University of Vienna, IT University Copenhagen, and BTK Berlin. Sabine is a member of the Copenhagen Game Collective, with whom they create experimental games and social installation experiences. Their game-related projects can be played at enibolas.itch.io. bio-blogFollow Sabine on TwitterFollow CPH Game Collective on Twitter

Fun. When game designers and scholars talk about it, we tend to treat it as the singular, universal product of all successful gameplay scenarios. What’s fun and what isn’t, however, arises from our situated experience as embodied, gendered beings situated within a specific cultural context. In this essay – half game post-mortem, half academic poem – I explore what fun might mean by drawing on queer subjectivity. I call this lens “intersexionality,” invoking Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) notion of intersectionality to describe queer gameplay experiences beyond game industry standards. My case study in this essay is the Undie Game, which I co-designed in 2018 with members of the Copenhagen Game Collective. It is a short, wearable game for two players, which uses two standard mouse controllers inside various panties to facilitate an intimate gaming experience. In this essay, I touch on three “intersexional” design features in the Undie Game: The clicktoris, the tongue, and the pubic spectacle. These features address different materialities of the game and speculate about its potentials for queer play.

As the paragraph above indicates, this essay uses “punographic” language, by which I mean intentionally clumsy, silly expressions. In my experience, the threat of discrimination tends to push marginalised scholars and makers into a corner of intellectual hyper-performance. It clutters our syntax, it bloats our bibliography, eats our readers alive. My intention here is to go in the opposite direction for once, straying from my trodden path of cluttered lingo. Instead, I seek refuge in ridiculous nomenclature and bad jokes. Paradoxically, I find, humour can be an appropriate approach to complex issues around social justice. To give two examples, in an upcoming research paper on queer computer-human interaction, Katta Spiel, Pinas Barlaa, and Os Keyes hunt down “gender bugs” in binary-gendered technology. Using visual humour, they file a number of “bug reports” in the “cistem” of technological development (Spiel et al., 2019). The second example is Robin DiAngelo’s (2018) anti-racist work, which similarly uses humour as a way of allowing white people to release some tension around their white fragility. In this essay, silly humour is supposed to serve the function of subjectivity and vulnerability: It constructs a personal tone, and hopefully fa-silly-tates a state of collective cringiness which makes space for queer enjoyment.

Intersexionality

Intersexionality is the obviously more silly cousin of intersectionality, a concept coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) in the much more serious context of how different modes of oppression and discrimination interact. In Crenshaw’s original discussion, intersectionality is used as a metaphor to describe the specific kinds of discrimination that black women experience in the legal system because they are both black and women. Historically, there had been few attempts in Western discourse to describe the cumulative effect of racism and sexism in the lives of women of colour. This linguistic failure highlights our society’s investment in a system which privileges the most visible of oppressed groups (such as white women and black men), thereby rendering black women’s experiences invisible. Crenshaw crafted a powerful concept which made this erasure visible and paved the way for critical intervention. Her term has since been used to tackle various experiences, including positively coded phenomena such as happiness (Ahmed, 2010), popular culture (McClintock, 2013), and play (Marcotte, 2018).

While the term “intersexionality” is intended to highlight the personal, intimate nature of this essay, I am acutely aware of my personal limitations within this discourse. As a white European game maker and scholar, I have been socialized into and privileged by a system which is deeply invested in sustaining the invisibility of whiteness. My intention with intersexionality is not to silence race, but to focus on honing the potential of intersectionality in regard to experiences I can talk about: queer game design and play. In this context, I’d like to invoke three aspects of intersectionality: the fact that multiple modes of oppression that target various identities can exist simultaneously, that “objective” or “universal” expressions of creativity usually refer to white cis-male hegemony, and that the power of words – like the term intersectionality itself – can open up new spaces for intervention.

Just as intersectionality challenges the assumed “objectivity” or “singularity” of experience, my use of the word intersexionality highlights the personal and intimate intention of my discussion. When it comes to using words, I believe that puns are helpful here, as they can be used as linguistic glitter thrown into the face of objectivity claims. Cringing at bad puns, I feel, is a way of crafting a space for ourselves and seeking comfort in the experience of queer failure (e.g. Halberstam, 2011) – the voluntary failure to exist in a system which oppresses us and our loved ones. Unfortunately, as intersectionality demonstrates, oppression can take many forms, and sometimes it manifests in game spaces – especially mainstream or conventional game culture – as well (Dovey & Kennedy, 2007).

The Undie Game

It was a breezy spring night in Copenhagen when I first said out loud that I was thinking of designing a game in which mouse controllers were put into players’ underwear. In other words, it was a normal Copenhagen Game Collective meeting. A quick internet search suggested that no game maker had ever seen and acknowledged the conspicuous similarity between mouse controllers and the human vulva. Making the Undie Game was therefore not an option; it was mandatory.

From the beginning, it was fairly clear how the physical interaction part of the game should work. We’d simply slip two conventional mouse controllers into two customised pairs of panties, make players put them over their regular clothes, and encourage them to cooperatively navigate a game object on screen. We designed different panty versions, including the more femme-presenting model, boy trunks, and a DIY strap-on. Once fixed inside the panties, we quickly noticed that this setup changed the affordances of mouse-play from what we knew about conventional setups in gamer culture.

Figure 1. The Undie Game controller setup.

Figure 1. The Undie Game controller setup.

First, the relocation of the mouse from the gaming desk onto the player’s body changes the direction of player agency from outwards towards inwards focus. Within gamer culture, the mouse is presented as a high-precision point and click instrument, especially in sales discourses where it is sold with hyper-masculine product names such as “Razer DeathAdder Elite,” “HyperX Pulsefire Surge,” and “Creative Sound BlasterX Siege M04.” These heavily gendered monikers suggest that mice are still marketed to a cis-male gamer demography, reinforcing a persistent stereotype that associates violence and weaponry with masculinity (Messner, 1990; Dovey & Kennedy, 2007). Another prime example for this discourse is in e-sports, where equipment fact sheets link the mouse to a successful gamer persona. On the website prosettings.net, Counter-Strike pro-gamer Oleksandr Kostyliev proudly poses next to a particularly expensive high-end model called “Zowie FK1+ Divina Edition.” Like his username “s1mple,” the mouse settings are shiny high-tech aspects of his persona, simultaneously reinforcing both gaming skill and hypermasculinity.

The panty-mouse controller challenges these white-male owned assumptions about the mouse by taking it from the desk to a place where it becomes more vulnerable, the crotch. Suddenly, clicking becomes daring, awkward, and perhaps physically stimulating. Needless to say, it becomes an interaction which requires social negotiation and consent. Removed from its conventional solitarily spot on a silicone patch next to a cold HD screen, the mouse controller becomes an intimate part of the player body.

Secondly, reframing the mouse as part of the player affects the way it can be interacted with. Between the legs, the mouse buttons disappear while the mouse wheel becomes more prominent. In fact, it is the hardware feature now most prominently protruding from the body; most accessible to the players’ fingers. This highlights the affordance of mouse wheel user experience (UX), an opportunity we realised in one of the earliest design sessions, where we also discovered the clicktoris.

The clicktoris

The clicktoris is made up of two parts which essentially impact how the Undie Game player-character is controlled. The first part of the clicktoris, the clit wheel, comes as no surprise. As the most bulging bit of the mouse, it can be softly scrolled in a back-and-forward motion. Each player touches their own scroll wheel simultaneously in order to collectively drive game action forward. This means that the movements need to be coordinated, ideally through verbal communication. The clit wheel is immensely responsive to touch once it has been stimulated.

This is where the second, more hidden part of the clicktoris comes in. Few people realize that the two mouse buttons adjacent to the clit wheel actually belong to the clicktoris. Those buttons need to be held down in order to even initiate a gameplay session. The players are educated about these anatomic hardware basics at the beginning of each session through a hands-on step-by-step tutorial.

After both players have learned how to hold down the mouse buttons, a third finger is introduced to work the clit wheel proper. Now the real work begins. In the ensuing two-minute long cooperative gameplay session, the players use a three-digit clit wheel technique of their choice to move the highly responsive tongue on screen.

The tongue

While the opportunity to softly rummage around in one’s pants during play festivals would have been reason enough to make the Undie Game, we decided to mediate human-computer interaction through a digital character, the tongue. When the game starts, the players are introduced to “your tongue,” a single 3D object they have to collectively navigate on screen, using their clicktorides. There are three features which characterise the tongue as an intersexional being. First, it is impossible to identify the tongue’s gender or race conclusively, since skin and lipstick tones change across play sessions. Although the tongue’s appearance is fluid, this changing appearance cannot be influenced by players. During the tutorial sequence, they are presented with a perfectly complete, procedurally generated combination of skin and lipstick colors, as well as the instruction to lick “good stuff” off the screen and avoid licking “bad stuff.”

Second, this characterises the tongue as a non-human pleasure organ with kinks, preferences, and anxieties. What is good stuff? What is bad stuff? No-one knows until the tongue has tasted a splash. The tongue lurks inside, and stretches from a moist, digitally animated mouth hole. Shader technology has been optimized to emphasise the wet look of the entire organ, which some players perceived as a monstrous version of Pac-Man. The tongue provokes associations, but ultimately remains a stranger. It is flashy, fleshy, and vulnerable, but defies characterisation. This, to me, is mirroring the inter-player dynamics. As game designers, we imposed a silly artificial imperative: Lick all the good stuff. The tongue, then, is a parody of hegemonic principles of “fun.” Can you rub your clicktoris more efficiently than the previous players? Can you lick more stuff and beat the high score (currently at 12 points)? Materialising these questions through a messy digital tongue highlights the absurdity of quantified gameplay experience. The tongue, in its fleshy longing for more “stuff,” does not see any points. In fact, the tongue has no eyes.

Figure 2. The tongue.

Figure 2. The tongue.

Third, this leaves the players in a position where they need to find out who they are and who they can be in relation to the tongue. Each of them controls one axis of movement, but which one is it? By softly stimulating the clicktoris, the players first find out what axis they control and later orchestrate their movements to lead the tongue towards desired splashes. Abrupt or coarse movements can be destructive, causing the tongue to slide towards an unintended side of the screen. In an early showcase of the game, we saw tragic situations of unsuccessful edging; the tongue got stuck at one side of the screen, never to be centred again. While these situations are side effects of technical errors, we realized they opened avenues for different kinds and discourses of pleasure. During desperate edgeplay, few players give up hope, instead manically rubbing their clicktoris, cheered on by a small crowd of benevolent bystanders.

Pubic mouseturbation

The Undie Game has been explicitly designed as an installation game for public spaces, where curious onlookers might enjoy the view of two players gaming their crotches. In the case of the Undie Game, this involves pubic mouseturbation – the consensual, mutual enjoyment of digital crotch play. By now, however, the engagement of a voyeuristic game audience is a proud Copenhagen Game Collective tradition.

In the Dark Room Sex Game (2008), two players swing conventional Wiimote controllers in response to rhythmic audio cues in an effort to reach a mutual digital orgasm. The explicit moaning sounds combined with the lack of screens and other visual distractions leave players as well as audiences in an awkward position. Where should they look? Is eye contact okay?

In the LARP-inspired multiplayer orgy Lovebirds (2014), we equipped nine players with giant bejeweled conductive beak masks and made them figure out the mechanics of electronic beaking. In this setting, we also decided to frame the audience as “pornithological” voyeurs, invited to cheer and sing along with the bird-players.

What these games have in common is that they break with established assumptions about gaming spaces in that they hijack public space for intimate physical interactions. They do so not simply by using sex, but by developing a silly intersexional articulation of hardware, social norms, and play. It is silly, to say the least, to suggest that Wiimote controllers have orgasms, or that birds have sex by rubbing their beaks against each other. It is simultaneously politically effective to highlight the sex-toyish appearance of game technology, and playfully exploit these associations. In pubic mouseturbation rituals, too, a discourse of silliness radically questions what appropriate interactions with gaming technology can or should look like.

Figure 3. Mouseturbation at play.

Figure 3. Mouseturbation at play.

Conclusive remarks

I suggest that the intersexion of bodies, gaming hardware, and intimate connotations can break with traditionally oppressive white-male owned expectations about fun. Intersexionality harnesses silliness to mock hegemonic gaming conventions, but also to add new words to our vocabulary of play. By using punographic terms like clicktoris and pubic mouseturbation, my intention was to fa-silly-tate a discussion on how the Undie Game seeks to win back technology and gaming spaces for queer pleasure. Intersexionality is supposed to remind us that play experience is multifaceted, subjective, and ready to be transformed. It allows queer game designers to craft ambiguous characters, vulnerable interactions, and to hijack spaces not originally intended for us.

References

Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Dark Room Sex Game. (2008). Copenhagen Game Collective.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dovey, J., & Kennedy, H. W. (2007). From margin to center: Biographies of technicity and the construction of hegemonic games culture. In J. P. Williams & J. H. Smith (Eds.), The players’ realm: Studies on the culture of video games and gaming. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.

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Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum. (140), pp.139-167.

Lovebirds. (2014). Copenhagen Game Collective.

Halberstam, J. (2011) The queer art of failure. Durham: Duke University Press.

Marcotte, J. (2018). Queering control(lers) through reflective game design practices. Game Studies 18(3).

McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial leather: Race, gender and sexuality in the colonial conquest. London: Routledge.

Messner, M. (1990). When bodies are weapons: Masculinity and violence in Sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sports 25(3), 203-220.

Spiel, K., Barlas, P., & Keyes, O. (Forthcoming 2019). Patching gender: Non-binary utopias in HCI” Alt.Chi conference paper.