Merritt Kopas is a multimedia artist and game-designer. Her work includes LIM, HUGPUNX and Consensual Torture Simulator. She also curates free, accessible games at her online project forest ambassador.
FPS Essays co-editor Meghan Blythe Adams spoke to Merritt Kopas during a break at the 2014 Feminist Porn Conference, at which Kopas was a presenter. Here is Part II of the interview. You can read Part I here.
FPS: I had a couple of questions about [Consensual Torture Simulator]. Why did you decide to have the player inhabit the role of the top?
Merritt Kopas: The main reason…I’ve seen a few games about being a sub or bottom. Actually, Anna’s game Encyclopedia Fuckme was my introduction to kink. I think that’s a much harder thing to do – making a game about being a sub or a bottom is a more difficult task. So maybe the easy answer is that I was taking the easiest route. But when I make a decision to make a game, I usually want there to be a reason for that because I don’t see my games as my only route for producing or reading ideas. I saw a really strong connection between the ways that some of the tops in my life have described that experience, being one of control and a multitude of possibilities that they are free to explore with this other person. I thought that lent itself really well with presenting the player with all these options and allowing them to choose between them.
Also, the other thing was that I had been inspired – which is a strange way to describe it – by Grand Theft Auto, which I haven’t played. I’m one of those people who [critique] games without playing them – the worst kind of person. That really widely discussed torture scene is meant to be some kind of criticism – a really shallow, safe criticism of American use of torture. The only reason it’s included because they think it’s edgy or dangerous, but it isn’t. In games that kind of violence isn’t dangerous because it’s omnipresent and unreal. I was thinking what would be really edgy would be to depict a consensual scene.
One of the reasons I went from the top side is because I wanted to show that hurting someone or inflicting violence on someone is work. And it’s a strange way to talk about it, but bodies aren’t inexhaustible. There’s a trope that floats around in kink circles—the top as this indefatigable machine, that’s the way that tops are eroticized a lot of the time—and it’s kind of gross because it leads to this interchangeability of people. They’re just dispensers. I wanted to undercut or erode it, which is why there is this mechanic (which is maybe a little over-dramatized to fit into the constraints of the game) by which the player-character tires at different rates depending on what they are doing. They have to take care of themselves, too. That was really important to me to portray.
FPS: I thought that was a really fantastic part of the game. But something else I wanted to ask you, I found the title of Consensual Torture Simulator kind of fascinating. Why did you choose that particular combination of words?
MK: [laughs] Yeah, Consensual is obvious, but why Torture, why Simulator? The Torture part was really a reaction to GTA. It was really a pointed attempt to take that word and use it for something else. Some people have said there’s no such thing as consensual torture. I could have called it Consensual Impact Play Simulator, but it’s not quite as catchy.
The Simulator part I kind of struggled with because the game is not a simulation. Some parts of that experience I tried to be faithful to and others are totally overlooked. Near the release of the game, it was something I was thinking about a lot. I thought, is this really a simulator? Will it influence people’s expectations? But I kind of like the dissonance. We use the word simulation for a pretty wide range of games. Often those games that we talk about simulating incredibly realistic violence are not realistic at all – rag dolls and bodies that disappear. Over the top, absurd violence.
I think for that reason I stuck with it. It’s interesting to apply that to a text-based game that’s more interested in the poetics of the situation than in narrating a precise [story]. There are no visible stats or numbers, though unfortunately there has to be numbers running in the background.
FPS: What about the erotic potential of video games? It’s something you’ve obviously explored – CTS and PS are very sexy games, which can be incredibly hard to do. And the average depiction of sexuality in games is brutally unsexy. Are you interested exploring the ability of games to engage and titillate in a positive way?
MK: Definitely. The main challenge I see in doing that that is that digital play is so thoroughly associated with certain ideas of aggression, of goals, of wins or losses that these things have become almost synonymous with games to the point that over the past few years when we’ve seen more and more works that don’t heed those ideas, they are disqualified from that label.
So, including sex in a game, people have taken usually one of two tacks, and both have a lot of problems. One way is to make it a mini-game. In God of War, this big action-fantasy franchise, there’s a sex mini-game, I think in the first installment where the main characters gets onto this bed with two women and the camera pans across so you don’t actually see the bed, but you see this urn on a rickety table. It’s a rhythm mini-game, so you hit buttons in sequence. You hear sounds from the bed and the urn shakes and if you win, the urn falls off and smashes and wow, what a great metaphor. It’s this deeply unsexy, mechanistic view of sex which happens to line up quite well with mainstream ideas of sex. This idea of a linear journey from maybe foreplay, to a heterosexual, cissexual couple and the man inserts his penis into the woman’s vagina, climaxes and you win. So our ideas about digital games and our ideas about sex as a culture happen to line up really well in that respect, but that’s very uninteresting to me.
The other option that people sometimes do is to step away from play and have it be a cut-scene. Bioware games are really big on this. That’s when the player puts down the controller and watches a movie. Those are unsatisfying answers to me.
I think the trick is that it’s very hard to include literal depictions of eroticism and of sex. CTS has the advantage of being text, so I don’t have to worry about the uncanny valley and how the characters are going to interface. There are technical challenges, too. The way that those technologies have evolved, which is political. It’s harder to animate a hug than a punch. I think that’s part of it. The media idea is that we can have really great graphics and having people fucking and it’ll be really hot, but it’s harder than you’d think. I think there’s a lot of potential in text and games that depict non-literal sex.
There is a game called Luxuria Superbia made by Tale of Tales, which won an IGF award, which I was really happy about because it’s a game about sex. It’s a mobile game, and I think it’s on Steam too, where you’re travelling down this very vaginal tunnel, and sort of stroking it, and it talks to you. It’s made by a woman, and it’s this very interesting experiment in making an erotic game that doesn’t depict human bodies. That’s really exciting to me and I think it’s promising that we’re seeing [games] that explore that route.
FPS: What do you think of the current state of games criticism?
MK: The honest answer is that I don’t read a lot of games criticism. I know a lot of critics—a lot of my best friends are games critics! [Laughs] There are a few writers whose work I admire and value, but there’s just so much of it and it’s hard for me to keep up. There are a few people doing really interesting things that I try to follow: Cara Ellison has a column called S.EXE at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is maybe the only column at a major games site about sex in games, and she’s a fabulous writer. And the work that Aevee Bee is doing with ZEAL, which is a project aimed at doing focused criticism of—I think the language she used was “Triple B”—games that were not quite mainstream successes; I think that kind of archeology is interesting as well. But I don’t read a ton of it, so I’m probably not the best person to ask.
FPS: Do you consider the kind of curation work that you do [at forest ambassador] as a kind of criticism in itself?
MK: I don’t see myself as belonging to or having a deep investment in the kinds of conversations that happen between critics and between journalists. There is a conference called Critical Proximity at GDC this year and I think it’s great that it happened, but it’s not the kind of thing I would attend, maybe because as someone who is making this kind of stuff I just can’t stand to talk about it a lot. [Laughs] I don’t see forest ambassador as participating in those kinds of conversations. If people draw it in, that’s fine. I feel like I’m off doing my own thing and if it’s useful for people, that’s fantastic.
I started doing a kind of zine for forest ambassador called woodland secrets. I’ve been trying very hard to remind people constantly that this is not a games publication, but it’s kind of a weird personal diary about my engagements with these things. That’s been working out pretty well.
FPS: So, I guess as a closing question, how is SPACE/OFF going?
MK: It’s almost done. I have such a complicated relationship to that game because it’s far more traditional than anything I’ve made in terms of the sphere of games and I have a lot of anxiety about that because people have certain expectations. It’s off-brand. It came from this place of Anna and I playing games together and really enjoying Star Control 2, and wanting something based on that. So it’s meant to be a fun thing for two people to play with, but it doesn’t have a lot to say about bodies or sex. It’s a bit about relationships, but it was mostly a weird experiment or personal challenge to see “Could I make something like that if I wanted to?” It’s not something I’d want to do all the time.
FPS: Is there anything you’re working on in the future?
MK: Yes. I have a bunch of things coming. Aside from SPACE/OFF, I’m doing another collaboration with comic artist Michael DeForge, who is this amazing comics maker and designer. He’s worked on Adventure Time and a lot of other stuff. He’s never made a game before, so that’s really exciting to me. It’s called Snake Factory and it’s also one of those things outside my normal realm, but I’m pretty excited about it.
I’m also working on a few smaller projects. I’m working on one in RPGMaker about street harassment. I’m only using stock assets, so it’s in a fantasy setting but it’s about street harassment and takes the tropes of the RPG genre and random encounters and uses those to try to tell a story about street harassment. I’m also working on a smaller Twine piece about disassociation during sex. In both those cases, those are both games about topics that if I’m going to make a game about them, I want there to be a good reason for that aside from just telling people who might not know that these things exist, because that’s not a good enough reason for me. So I want to include some kind of concrete or emotional support.
In the game about street harassment, the street harassment part is actually relatively small. The other part is having conversations between different characters talking about the experience and talking about support, and taking on the perspectives of different characters to encourage this sense of empathy for the self, which we often extend to other people, but are incapable of doing for ourselves. In the case of the game about disassociation, I want to talk about ways that people can deal with that, that people can stay present, stay embodied.
FPS: Awesome. I think we’ll stop there.