With all these headwinds, the obvious question is why make affection games, or integrate affection into games at all. There’s no guarantee they are going to sell. There is no guarantee they are even going to work.
But asking that question is a bit like asking why anyone paints, when we now have photographs. Or asking why we tell new stories, when we already have great stories. We should make affection games, because we haven’t made enough.
If that’s not a compelling reason, think more broadly about the economic pressures of any contemporary entertainment industry. If an industry doesn’t grow, or show steady growth, it becomes a less attractive investment. Any company that isn’t growing, might be perceived as dying. If there’s nowhere else to go, then there’s no reason to be a part of its future.
Affection games offer an opportunity to fill that space between a boyhood soldier fantasy and being an adult who fights to protect their family every day. It’s the difference between winning the mate of your dreams because you bought a great new shirt and enjoying a lifetime of romance with the person of your dreams. As evidenced in several chapters in this book, it’s an opportunity to widen the demographic audience of games. It’s an opportunity to appeal across genders and gender identities. It’s an opportunity for the medium to mature.
Affection games are a new future for games. They’re one that better mates the human experience with the game experience. Quite literally, and figuratively. While there is a history of sex, and arguably, love-making in games, that history is largely vulgar, awkward, and often offensive. Or it is provided like a 1940s film, hinted at in the ever-too-common kiss in frame, followed by a slow pan away from the couple leaving the audience to imagine the love-making off-camera. By analogy, in terms of making-love in games, the industry floats between the dark alleys of red light districts few people would dare admit frequenting and sophomoric allusion.
In my years of writing, I’ve emphasized one of the great cultural contradictions in particularly North American views of sex and violence. We tolerate violence, which abounds in games, and abhor sexual content (Grace 2011). Censorship, for example, will allow depicted murder of many, but not the single exposure of a partially naked human body. Violence is mainstream, and sexual content is pushed to the edges.
But in nature, the opposite is true. Humans, like most of the animal world, needs one to keep going and the other is unnecessary for its survival. Humanity survives through its biology of reproduction, not through its violence against itself. If people stopped reproducing (a.k.a., having sex) humanity would end. If humanity stopped killing each other, humanity would go on just fine. Violence is not a natural necessity, save for the historical necessity of hunting animals for food. Reproduction is a long-term survival strategy.
In real life human-human interactions of affection and love are more common than gestures of violence. The average person gives more affection in a month, then they do violence. They hug, kiss, serve, and more in honoring their love of others than they do stab, shoot, or violate. In a given lifetime, people are more likely to carry love in their heart than a military weapon in their hands. If play is practice, practicing affection and love is likely of more value than the strategies of war and simulation that dominate many play situations.
So why then do we choose to make so many experiences of humancomputer interaction about violence? Some might argue it’s vicarious living through Active worlds. It’s about experiencing a world unfamiliar— about creating experiences only dreamed of. This may be true for a distinct population of players, but contemporary play belies this assumption.
Consider, for example, the walking simulators and other games that offer the mundane. Farm simulators, for example, may be the mundane experience of farmers, but the exotic experience of an urban dweller or child too young to do such work. So too, the reader of a romantic novel may indulge the mundane happenings of their Active characters.
Moreover, anyone who has been in love likely recognizes that it is anything but mundane. So too, not everyone gets as much affection as they want. Just as not everyone gets to drive as fast as they want or lead an army of magical beings. Games can offer an other, and that other is entirely personally relative.
And then there’s love-making. If you consider games to be a kind of wish fulfillment. Love-making is perhaps a more common wish than violence. It’s hopeful that more people are dreaming of a great time in bed, then a great time murdering others. It seems more likely that healthy people are dreaming of being loved by millions, not hated by the millions of virtual families they destroyed in a murdering rampage. If power fantasies are sated through violence to virtual characters, then it seems other fantasy can be too. If we accept the premise that games are about wish fulfillment, are there not people who wish to be loved?
Perhaps the reality is that we, as a game design community, struggle to bring the medium up Maslow’s pyramid of behavior motivation (1958). We are not exploring love, because we, or our players, or the industry, or the media around them, hold the gaming medium to the lowest common denominators. In doing so, games are held in the kind of impoverished simulation of staying alive, eliminating obstacles, and collecting the most basic needs. In short, players are bound to versions of survival horrors, whether they are starving sharks always looking to grow (Ubisoft 2016), rising criminals aiming to surmount the criminal underworld (Rockstar 2013), or fighting to live in any of the post-apocalyptic worlds.
Noah Falstein (2004) offered a view of game design that emphasized the notation of natural “funativity.” He claimed that part of fun is derived from practicing the basic things that humans need, like hunting and collecting. How then does love and affection fit into this natural funativity? Is practicing love and affection part of living out fantasies or is it part of survival?
If games are about vicarious living, then why so much focus on the worst situations? The worst of humanity? Is there really an innate human desire to be the last person standing? Is there really some deep-seated need to destroy everyone and everything around us? Or, is it perhaps that we are still struggling against the tyranny of convention and affirmative design? That games are stuck in the loop of cloning past success with incremental innovation? That games were born from a tradition where love, in all its forms, was not a focus?