On the Origin and Definition of Digital Affection Games
Lindsay D. Grace
Understanding the origin of affection games and defining them is more an exercise in interpretation than history. One of the fundamental dilemmas in understanding affection games is not only determining what constitutes an affection game, but also in following their reporting, archiving, and tracking. In short, there is no ultimate guide to affection games in academic literature. There isn’t a cannon of play, nor is there a clear record of what games were played, when they were played, and who played them in the context of affection games. This is of course a product of the games themselves. If affection game history begins with the first physical kisses in games, or the first historical hugging play, few of the players were likely to recognize the significance of such play. More likely, even fewer were eager to report it.
To offer some standard for defining affection games in the digital space I have formerly defined affection games as requiring one of the four fundamental affection verbs (Grace 2013) as the means to accomplishing the primary goal in the game:
This outline and definition are useful in describing the subset of digital affection games in the casual and mobile space but does not appropriately support the wider range of affection available in games. It is a way to understanding “affection” as an operation that is often, but not entirely, embodied in digital representation. It is a simplified definition useful in describing the simplified representations of affection common to the most basic affection games.
However, it fails to support the wider range of games involving affection. This is because it is about the embodied expression of affection, but not the intent of affection. In the case of parental affection for example, it is true that a parent may kiss or hug their child, but parental affection involves more than that. Parental affection might involve doing something for a child or giving a gift. So too, the acts of expressing interest or appreciation for someone involves much more than flirting, kissing, and hugging them. For this reason, its useful to think of the wider range of affections that are likely to express themselves in games. These include:
The truth is that affection can quickly involve an extraordinarily wide set of actions, especially when ascribed to a variety of situations. Dying, as in the sacrifice a parent might make to help their child survive, can become an act of affection. While this is all true, the fundamental dilemma is how to turn this complexity into something easily discerned. Much like attempting to write a reductive, analytical description of love, defining what constitutes an affection game can quickly become awkward and ill-fitting.
This is why it’s useful to discern between affection games and affection in games. To keep things simple, an affection game is a game whose primary intent is not earning affections, but instead the expression of those affections as the primary activity of the game. If games are about goals, obstacles, and obstructions (Grace 2019), then an affection game prescribes affection as the solution to those problems. Reductively, that has commonly been flirting, kissing, and making love. That doesn’t mean there isn’t space for more, just as game verbs like “rewind time” were novel before their implementation.
The easiest way to understand this is to the consider some of the most common affection games in the analog space. Spin the Bottle, has two game verbs, “spin” and “kiss.” The player spins the bottle, it points to two people in the circle, and they kiss. This is an affection game. The act of kissing is a dominant action in the game.
A game in which players are afforded the ability to kiss isn’t an affection game, unless the kissing is the way the problem in the game is solved. So, if a fighting game rewards players with a kiss, that game isn’t an affection game unless those kisses somehow resolve the main conflict in the game. This particularly definition is dissatisfying to some. Admittedly, it narrows the universe of “affection games,” versus “games with affection.” But that’s okay, as sometimes to understand something it’s important to winnow it down to its smallest set to examine its pieces.
Herein is the problem with widening the definition of affection games. If “supporting,” for example, is considered an affection verb, then suddenly many, many, many games become affection games. Every game in which the player is supporting the success of a player character or nonplayer character, could be interpreted as supporting the needs of that character. If the player helps a non-player character by completing a mission, is that truly an act of affection, an errand, or a job? If “caring for,” without the context of an affection framing conflict is added to the definition, then nearly every game is an affection game.
In reality, it’s likely the best games of the future will offer many game verbs, of which the affection verbs are only a part. Just as there might be some kissing in action films, or some fighting in a romance novel, the verbs are part of a complete formula. Their genre remains the same, action and romance respectively, despite the addition of some affection.
This definition is probably most disconcerting to individuals who want to place dating simulations in the domain of affection games. This definition doesn’t preclude dating simulations from being categorized as affection games. It also doesn’t place all dating simulations in the category of affection games. Instead it does what any functional pragmatic definition does, it provides a line that allows for clarity while still accepting exceptions to the rule.
There are other ways to define affection games. One could choose to use a content-specific approach, which might bias toward including any game in which affection is dominant as an affection game. The fundamental problem there is that content in games and other media does not define the genre or type. Games in the Grand Theft Auto franchise (2013) have lots of car content, but they’d never be confused with other car-content-focused games like car racing simulations.
A critical inquiry into affection itself complicates the understanding of affection verbs. Not all sex is performed out of affection. Not all kisses have affection linked meaning or intent. The reality is that in studying and designing affection in games, there needs to be some line drawn to understand the difference between affection and all other play that orbits it. To do so, some careful, but necessary simplifications are made in the hopes that the work of understanding affection games can move forward. As the following section illuminates, the headwinds to understanding affection games are already fairly substantial. In a headwind it’s often easier to move a narrow subject forward, than to head through it with a wide and amorphous one. Focusing affection games narrowly, then recognizing that it’s understanding supports wider development and inclusion helps move the entire practice forward.
Ultimately for clarity, it’s somewhat useful to widen the scope of affection games to include all games for which the central conflict of the game is resolved through the repeated execution of an affection game verb. This means that when Mario seeks the princess in Super Mario Bros. (1985), he is not involved in an affection game because he’s running and jumping his way through the conflict. But, in a dating simulation, where the player must repeatedly flirt with the subject of their affections to remain in the game—that’s an affection game. If Spin the Bottle is played without kissing, it ceases to be an affection game.