This is an “answer” to Jordan Erica Webber and Laura Kate Dale’s series of letters published on IndieHaven and Godiva Gamers discussing the game called Hugatron (website and Tumblr). I am not affiliated with Hugatron in any way.
Dear Jordan and Laura
Thank you for sharing an insightful email conversation about your experiences watching a group of people playing Hugatron. Hugatron is a simple game where two random players are paired up and have to hug each other in an awkward way until one gives up and resign. Laura most strongly describes her discomfort early in your conversation:
Honestly, I was sat watching this group of men, being egged on and encouraged to make each other uncomfortable with physical contact and just felt really uneasy about the whole concept. Something about a supposedly social game that required players to make each other feel uncomfortable, then not complain about that discomfort for fear of losing just felt like it had some uncomfortable implications for social settings that may contain multiple genders/ sexual orientations/ levels of comfort with personal space etc.
While I’m not the developer of Hugatron, and I might not agree with all their game design decisions (more on that later) – I have for many years made games which explored the space of making people uncomfortable especially in relation to gender, sexuality and comfort with personal space. Your conversation really gave me a perspective on my work, but it also made me wanting to engage in a dialog with you because I find these types games interesting and relevant.
In 2008 I and a group of other game designers created a game called Dark Room Sex Game. The game is a no graphics, multiplayer erotic rhythm game. In Dark Room Sex Game the player works with his or her partner to find a mutual rhythm, and then speeds up gradually until climax. Players use Wiimotes to control the game and the only feedback is moans from each player’s random character. I think Dark Room Sex Game works best at public events, the fact that players doesn’t have visual feedback they can laugh or be repulsed at together makes the game much more awkward. You can’t stop creating mental images hearing intense sexnoises but you also carefully have to coordinate the rhythm with your partner, looking at them directly.
In 2010 we created a game called Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now (B.U.T.T.O.N.). In B.U.T.T.O.N. players pushed, grabbed and wrestled each other in order to push their or the other players buttons. The game even features an optional adult mode which “forces” players to touch each other on inappropriate body parts and include stripping rules.
Right now I work on a game called Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party. Spin the Bottle is an adaptation of the classical teenage game of same name, but we have replaced kissing with challenges that makes the selected pair touch each other, do embarrassing stuff or get awkwardly close. One challenge instructs the pair to blindfold one player who then has to find a Wiimote hidden right behind the other player sitting on the floor, unintentional (?) body contact might occur.
Many other game developers whom I respect a lot are exploring the same space as I do:
Amani and Patrick from the Collective worked together with Lena Mechtchanova, Giacomo Neri on Magnerize Me. A “body twister” dancing game where two players pairs up two random body parts and dance to the rhythm of the music.
Doug Wilson and Nils Deneken created Johan Sebastian Joust a game where you move around in slowmotion with Move controllers in your hand and try to push each other.
Adriaan de Jongh Bojan Endrovski made Fingle, a game where two player’s hands gets awkwardly close to each others.
Anna Antrophy made Chicanery as she describes as “An excuse to hurt your friends.”
What rules are we playing by?
I can imagine situations where any of these games made you or other people uncomfortable. Laura’s description of her fear of Hugatron’s “Straight Jacket” mode, made an impact on me because it could easily be applied to the game play of B.U.T.T.O.N.:
That I’d be struggling to get out of the hug and that if I fail to escape my restrainer, likely a man stronger than myself, then I “lose”. What kind of message is that? That you fail to escape the man restraining you and the result is “oh well, you lose, let’s carry on and pretend that didn’t happen”. It’s an unsettling situation to think of myself in, one that would bring tough memories to mind and one I’d rather not risk encountering in a game.
I know this subject is sensitive to you, but I think you are missing an important aspect here. Game rules don’t exist in a vacuum they are always situated in a social context. The fact that neither Hugatron nor B.U.T.T.O.N. specifies exactly where the line is drawn means this line has to be negotiated between the players. If you observe a group of players play B.U.T.T.O.N. you will see a constant shift of body contact, physicality and personal space invasion depending on whether the playgroup is same gender, same age, same sexuality or mixed. Sane people care about other people and don’t want to hurt them. I would argue that playing dangerous games like B.U.T.T.O.N. in diverse playgroups is a powerful way of forcing players to be aware of and re-evaluate the social rules they follow when touching strangers. I think that what these games ultimately teach you is that you cannot look up these rules for physical contact anywhere; you constantly have to negotiate them with whom you are interacting with, both very directly but also as a part of a larger social context. Is that a message you find problematic, would you rather have some very clear rules for when body contact is OK and when it is not? – if so, who are defining them?
I called B.U.T.T.O.N. dangerous, and I want to explain that a bit further. I would argue that all the games I have mentioned – B.U.T.T.O.N, Dark Room Sex Game and Spin the Bottle – are to some extend dangerous. They can and probably have made people feel hurt or have given them a bad experience. I am sorry when that happens and I am sorry for your experience watching Hugatron. On the other hand, I feel like I need to paraphrase the pro-gun movement’s argument: games doesn’t hurt people, people hurt people. It is up to the players to create safe play situations where no one, not even spectators, gets hurt.
My co-designer of B.U.T.T.O.N. and Dark Room Sex Game, Douglas Wilson, has written much more thoughtfully on issues of social rules, cheating and togetherness in relation to games and I would highly recommend his work:
Risk, danger, and “bad surprises” are all part and parcel of playing and gaming. Yes, playing well together can only happen if we feel safe within the game, but the definition of “safety” depends on the specific community of players: “We’ve constructed other things – such as the conventions of the play community, and the rules of the games we play – not to keep us from bad surprises but rather to help us maintain the balance, no matter what happens. That’s the safety we’re talking about” (DeKoven, The Well-Played Game). In other words, we should not rely on technologies or rules to keep us safe, because “safety” is located, first and foremost, in the community of people playing.
So did the players of Hugatron at EToo fail to create a safe space for all of you, spectators and participators, to play with and challenge each other’s social borders in? To some extent, but from my reading of your description of the events, I also feel sad that they never got a chance to understand that someone felt uncomfortable. Some of the sensitivity and understanding of other player’s personal space that I believe the game should foster was lost because you didn’t play with them; yet I understand why you didn’t.
Is there something wrong with Hugatron?
As I have written above, I believe that any of the games I have created might have given you the same feelings as Hugatron did. When that is said I can’t stop wondering if some design choices creates safer play spaces than other design choices for this type of games?
One striking difference between embarrassment and discomfort in Hugatron compared to Dark Room Sex Game, B.U.T.T.O.N., and Spin the Bottle, is that Hugatron treats discomfort as the lose condition. In Dark Room Sex Game, B.U.T.T.O.N., and Spin the Bottle, discomfort is always experienced together. Yes, the game rules might ask you to do something you don’t feel comfortable doing, but other players are there to feel your discomfort and either build up trust to transcend it together or overrule the game and simply don’t follow the rules. Yes it is not a big difference, Spin the Bottle has a challenge where the players have to hug each other and jump at the same time. Both players are under pressure because they want to earn a point, and the collaborative nature introduces peer-pressure. Yet I feel there is a different nature between that and targeting each other’s personal spheres to make them lose.
On the other hand, I’m still not sure there is something wrong with Hugatron. Many highly interesting pieces explore really dark territories. Ida Toft, who is a member of the collective puts it this way:
…from a feminist point of view I understand that can be problematic, enforcing some problematic aspects of our society, and creating experiences that can evoke uncomfortable memories from many women (and men). But in my view games can exactly do that, point fingers at issues in our society, makes us mock it, laugh at it and play with it, teach us about it, maybe make us make up our minds or let us find our ways around it. And quite importantly you can step out at any time and no one is forced to play!
Hope this gives you some perspective as much as your writing gave me.