TW: This article contains discussion of violent sexual acts and mental health issues.
When I was a kid I was shown how to run my fingers through a flame without getting burned. It’s something I still like to do for fun, though I recall more than one occasion when the habit caused people in my company to grimace. But the light stinging sensation feels good, like the feeling of a fistful of my hair pulled back, forcing my back upright.
It’s probably meaningful that I learned to love videogames around the same time that I learned to love the way my body perceives pain. I have a relatively high tolerance of both, which I guess is really saying something, because in most aspects of my life I have meager rations of patience. I don’t like having my time wasted.
I barely need to draw the fairly well-trodden intersection between games and kink, games and intimacy, games and negotiated terms of both active and passive parties. Surely, much has been written on the subject. Though there’s valuable reading out there, the mainstream discourse usually falls into the patterns Susan Sontag described in her 1967 piece, “The Pornographic Imagination.” Sontag indicts the contemporary critical analysis of porn for its preoccupation with psychoanalytical and sociological explanations for sexual deviancy, rather than considering pornography as another artistic mode of human expression.
Sontag bases a formal framework for pornography pretty much entirely on literature, investigating works like the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Pauline Réage’s The Story of O and Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. For Sontag, pornography is characterized by the “energy and absolutism” of its erotic goals, meaning that the characters express sexual feelings in extremis, but are emotionally flat in every other regard. Only the goal of sexual satisfaction matters. Of course, I’m not too concerned with how perfectly Sontag’s framework maps onto games, and in fact I suggest you go read the critic in her own words before we return to her. Instead, I’d like to consider this one, innocent little formal property of games that reveals the pornographic imagination in the medium: temporality.
The specific uses of timing in pornographic games influence aesthetic presentation of the pornography, and the experience of interacting with it. The way time is shortened or prolonged in games, the way events are paced out, are like running fingers through fire. Short and ecstatic is warm, but long and focused burns. The delay hurts more, and the gratification—the release—is better for it.
I’ll admit that games aren’t exceptional for playing with tempo or pace. Music is obviously composed within time signatures to help create a certain mood. Film plays with things like chronology and cause-and-effect through the ordering of frames, as does literature with things like tense. Even static art, like photography, relates to concepts like infinity and decontextualization of space and time. (And in all these cases, I know, I’m being reductive.) So, I think it’s better to ask, how are pornographic games using temporality to illustrate delayed gratification?
Soha El-Sabaawi’s Twine game, reProgram, departs in a few ways from Sontag’s model, but I think it still fundamentally qualifies as a BDSM porn game. The protagonist, a woman who calls herself “pet”, is anything but emotionally flat. She’s trapped in a “tower,” which seems very much like a psychiatric facility, complete with meditation and creativity rooms. And a physical release room, where pet likes to watch hardcore porn while brutalizing herself with sex toys. The rooms are accessible via an elevator, represented by four numbered buttons. When you begin, only buttons four to three are available, with the first floor “closed for renovations,” only unlocking after the player has experienced the first three.
Room number four, the top button listed, is the physical release room. Here, after some quick exposition detailing the protagonist’s anxiety and PTSD related to a history of abuse, I’m led almost directly into an explicitly sexual situation. Sontag’s absolutism, in that all things eventually converge on an erotic context, is present, but it’d be facile to argue that the sex represented in reProgram is purely derived from lust or fetishism without also dealing with some ancillary themes. The physical release of masturbation is at the forefront, but its placement at the top of the “tower” suggests that, maybe, there’s more to pet’s psychosexual makeup—that there are levels of meaning beneath pet’s fetishes for violence, humiliation and ownership, and that understanding them takes a certain degree of patience.
In both the meditation and creativity rooms, pet finds herself introspecting either through yoga or through creative writing, all while a self-deprecating shadow self distracts her from her efforts in self-improvement. Both of these activities require focus, practice and a deference to the passage of time in order to render positive results. Pet can’t expect to be cured from a single short story, a single exercise session. Their fruits are delayed, even uncertain, but pet commits herself to the processes of achieving them. We, as players, commit ourselves to playing through this process with her in wait of a withheld consummation found when we finally unlock, or rather, reconstruct, the first floor.
Of course, this proposition of sexual fetish as a formative, psychological construction is rooted in Freud. As Samantha Allen points out, much of our language regarding BDSM is derived from Freudian psychoanalysis:
“When we talk about masochism, we’re implicitly talking about Freud. In Sigmund Freud’s theory of sexuality, the libido—our energy for everything from life and work to sex—is inherently aggressive. Sadism, or ‘the desire to inflict pain upon the sexual object,’ is not some bizarre sexual perversion, it’s a fairly ‘common’ exaggeration of this natural sexual aggressiveness.
When we take a special delight in hunting down the same inexperienced Halo player over and over again, we’re being good sadists.
Masochism, on the other hand, is the ‘reverse’ of sadism. More precisely it is ‘sadism turned round upon the subject’s own ego,’ or sense of self. Because Freud sees human sexuality as a contrast ‘between activity and passivity,’ he understands masochism as the passive form of sadism, less its opposite than its complement.”
To heed Sontag’s warning and avoid pathologizing reProgram, I can at least observe that pet is a masochist, and that much of her masochistic release and fulfillment is superimposed atop a narrative of mental healing. The final scene,then, is rough and perhaps even off-putting to some, but for pet—and for the player—it’s the gratification that comes after a long build-up. The game itself withholds release, a sense of satisfaction, until it is satisfied with you. It’s a short game, but the way tempo is kept and managed (by delimiting access to scenes and deliberately encouraging a specific chronology of events) makes it a slow burn. reProgram builds and frustrates an expectation, until, finally, you’re allowed to cum.
I think the formal constraints of Twine’s linking passages lend themselves well to a tightly controlled pace. Because passages are (typically) viewed consecutively, it’s really easy for a designer to keep a handle on what’s seen and what isn’t. (Compare that to, say, a sandbox environment). If a designer wanted to design an experience that was short and ecstatic—a fit of fucking—events could occur very close together. If the designer, by contrast, wanted to draw things out painfully, to linger and press on a subject, to build anticipation, events could easily be timed to occur much further apart, with more passages holding the player back.
Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator, another Twine game, is about hurting someone who’s asking to be hurt. Your virtual girlfriend wants to be beaten and humiliated so badly that she cries. She gives you a safeword in case things become unbearable, but the game also gives the player significant control of the pace. You get to decide when to slap, scratch, spank, punch and cane your lover. You get to decide when to take a break. And you get to decide when to stop.
This vests the player with a significant authority, making them the dom(me), but that also comes with the responsibility of paying attention to your lover’s needs, wants and sensitivities—on top of paying attention to the demands of your own body. This is an interesting exercise in patience for someone like me, who identifies much more with masochism and submission (I have a little more in common with reProgram’s pet). In Consensual Torture Simulator, each act can be repeated—you can spank again, and again—until it’s exhausted and you must move onto something else. This cooldown, so to speak, on how many times you can repeat an act at a time, isn’t set by the sub or the dom(me). It’s set by the game (and by extension, Kopas).
It means, in practical terms, that you can’t do the same act a bunch of times and forces you to diversify so things don’t get too monotonous. It serves as pace control, obviously, but in performing one task it has a side-effect: the limited repetition builds up tension, so that when I return to the main menu, I’m anticipating what the status of my lover or myself will be depending on how much I prolonged a specific act. Will she be sobbing? Will she be begging? Will my arms be tired? Will she say the safeword?
She actually never did, no matter how I modulated my moves. It might sound sick but I was trying, eventually, to get her to crack. Instead of deciding when to stop, I was trying to sate her completely, but this imagined lover had a lot more stamina in her asscheeks than my avatar did in her tired arms. I think, partially, I may have been experiencing the game somewhat vicariously through the lover—much like how Allen describes masochism as sadism doubled back on itself. I was trying to achieve a certain gratification that the game wouldn’t let me achieve, (possibly because I’m just not a very patient domme and gave up too soon), and the strain caused by that was intense and frustrating and exhausting not for the lover but for me. It was little licks of flame that added up to an intensity of feeling but a withholding of ultimate release.
Sontag identifies in the pornography she examines a tendency toward ritualistic self-destructiveness. She argues that the constraints of capitalist society fail to “provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness.” Porn, then, in its “absolute” single-mindedness, in its extremity of feeling or sensation and in its transgression of taboo, allows people to explore something potentially primordial, or beyond rational thought, within themselves. If personality, and the inhibitions involved in keeping an outward persona, are constructed, porn allows for the carnal breakdown of those things into a more animal being. I suspect that much of our sexual interest is acquired like an appetite, and that the constructed self—often in accordance with dominant cultural ideology—is definitely mutable but not wholly inescapable through porn or any other expressive mode. That being said, I’ve no doubt that porn hyperfocuses on certain truths about the pornographer’s and voyeur’s sexualities on personal, political and universal levels.
But perhaps some things are primordial, and I think a natural response to rhythm and tempo might be one of them. It might be tempting to draw a relationship between this style of controlled timing with a flow state, which affects us on a subconscious level. The way that reProgram and Consensual Torture Simulator and other games—not necessarily all made in Twine—elicit erotic tension through temporality necessarily demonstrates a voluntary submission to someone else’s control. The timing, like a dance, is part of what allows us to transgress into that erotic ritual. In the same piece, Allen writes of instrumentally difficult games like Super Meat Boy,
“The interactivity of the video game medium becomes the vehicle through which we turn our sadism against ourselves. Because we subject ourselves to the pain, we’re both sadists and masochists simultaneously.”
I lack the discipline in myself, often, to endure frustration. But in a negotiated scenario, I allow my patience to be tested, my wants to be prolonged, my satisfaction to be delayed, according to someone else’s clock. I learn to wait, and I enjoy the burn.