UNDERSTANDING AFFECTION GAMES
One of the earliest modern catalogs of affection games comes from a small paper published by the world-renowned researcher, Brian Sutton-Smith. Sutton-Smith’s paper, “The Kissing Games of Adolescents in Ohio” (1959) offers a list of twenty-two kissing games his study group of high schoolers and college students admitted to playing in the 1950s. The specifics of these games are outlined in the paper but include contemporary carry-overs like Spin the Bottle. The work is a fascinating peek into the affection play of a 1950s United States before the liberal 1960s.
What’s perhaps even more interesting than the content of the paper is its significance in research literature. It is one Sutton-Smith’s least cited works. When compared to any of his seven books, its mere twenty-nine citations (as of the writing of this book) make it one of the least cited of his writings by a wide margin. It’s also worth noting that Sutton-Smith never published another study of kissing or affection games again.
Affection games are not merely an under-researched space, it is somewhat of what a dark horse topic. There are many ways to speculate the why. Studying what children do behind closed doors, as Sutton-Smith had done, can be discomforting research potentially colliding with privacy and minor protection laws. It might read as frivolous, in much the way the study of games was once considered (and to some remains) an unnecessary line of inquiry. For some areas of affection games, they have become taboo topics, relegated to a kind of red-light district of research.
Yet understanding affection play, and the smaller subset of affection games, offers opportunities to interpret emerging problems in general society. The affection games Sutton-Smith researched were part of the development of those player’s understanding of human-human relationships. They were part of how such players learned about their bodies and about courtship. In a world where population decline effects many industrial nations including the United States (Livingston and Cohn 2012) and Japan (Tsuya 2015) an understanding of courtship and its origins can be useful. As family roles, responsibilities, and gender dynamics shift—affection becomes an important element to understand. With these shifts, come changes in courting rituals, in identity, and responsibility, that call for affection play research.
Likewise understanding affection games seems increasingly important as the world in which people operates changes. The expression of affection is complicated by the growth of autism spectrum diagnosis, which may affect affection experiences (Shana and Byers 2016). Evidence indicates that work with computer meditated interactions can aid children with autism spectrum disorders (Stanton et al. 2008). Others have investigated programs aimed at improving affection expression between parents and children with autism (Cullen and Barlow 2002). The increase in cross-cultural collaborations changes the ways in which people express affection between individuals. The evolution toward recognizing wider gender and sexual identities changes the meaning and previous norms of affection play.
In short, understanding affection games helps capture changing elements of society, offering opportunities to understand origins and view effects.
For these reasons, the best historical understanding of affection games is really a product of a few non-game disciplines. Anthropologists have done some of the work of game studies researchers and historians, by taking note of courtship rituals. Informally, courting rituals include the games people play to express interest, typically romantic or with the intent of marriage. From an anthropological perspective these activities may involve games, but as with the writing of this book, anthropologists who did this work weren’t necessarily looking at these activities as games explicitly—at least in terms of design.
The activities of courtship, and their associated play, are part of the many activities the contemporary world might simply describe as dating. In reality, dating itself is an evolving set of cultural standards that involve much more than the date event itself. Courtship includes the lead in and lead out. Its research asks questions about how cues are communicating for everything from intent and interest to rejection. For a further understanding of courtship, reading From Front Porch to Back Seat (Bailey 1989) and Courtship (Cate and Lloyd 1992) for an American perspective is a good orienting start. More recently, Coming of Age in South and Southeast Asia (Manderson et al. 2002) outlines a Southeast Asian perspective.
Case studies provide an opportunity to see theory in practice. They demonstrate how the ideas of affection play resolve into practice. Generally real-world case studies in affection games fall into two categories—evolved games and designed games. Evolved games are the games that develop less out of the specific intention of a game designer and more out of the innate interests or behaviors of the players. In design terms they are a kind of participatory design, without a distinct designer present, or where the designer is the psychological and cultural constraints or influences that shape the play. They are what turns bobbing for apples or chew the string, into a kissing game. They are what turns seven minutes in a dark closet into an opportunity to explore sexuality, or an opportunity to reject it. Evolved games also include the individual instincts that turn playing with dolls (Gl-Joe, Barbie, or Street Fighter II characters) into a romantic or affectionate escapade.
On the other end of the spectrum are designed games. These are the games produced with the explicit intention of creating affection play. They are intentioned designs, informed by explicit design decisions. In the digital space, some pronounced examples are games like:
The first three of these examples are not only affection games, but embodied affection games. They involve controllers that function in the physical world as part of the affection game. There is much potential in this space, which extends far beyond the red-light elements of teledil-donics (Liberati 2017) toward the potential for affection to deliver new types of play.
More mundane examples of affections games are listed on websites like GirlsGoGames.com, which offers more than sixty games in its kissing category (https://www.girlsgogames.com/games/kissing) and nineteen in its flirting category. These same types of games are offered in mobile game spaces like Google Play and to a lesser degree, Apple’s iOS App store. More tangentially they also, arguably, include games like Unicorn Makeout Mania (SoftwareSoft 2013), a game in which players compete to have two unicorns kiss aggressively. It’s part kissing game, part fighting game, so it’s interpretation as an affection game is complicated.
While Sutton-Smith’s work (1959) illuminates affection games in its era, it is by no means the only collection of such case studies. My prior writing on affection games provides case studies in the casual and mobile games space (Grace 2015). It’s also useful to read reflections like Game Love (Enevold and MacCallum-Stewart 2014) and Digital Love: Romance and Sexuality in Games (McDonald 2017) to understand the wider context of these case studies.
But the aforementioned case studies are largely focused on affection games, not affection in games. For case studies in affection in games, the most prolific genre is role playing. While it may seem obvious that role playing games offer affection (it’s role play after all), it’s important to note that part of the motivation for incorporating affection in role play games is not only to solidify the fiction of another world, but to increase the diversity of audience. The case studies on Dragon Age contained in this book help illuminate how this is done.
Other case studies in this book help showcase the most recent and significant uses of affection in games. Combining historical case studies with contemporary case studies helps a designer and researcher chart the trajectories of such play. It can be useful in understanding where affection games are likely to go next, as well as recognizing potential design gaps offer opportunity for new play.