A scene from 1973’s The Mack:
Pretty Tony and Goldie are embroiled in a high-stakes game of dice. China Doll emerges.
She slinks across the room, heads turn and jaws drop. Approaching Goldie, she indicates that she wants to be with him. “I choose you,” she whispers. Pretty Tony, China Doll’s love interest until that point, orders her back to him. Goldie intercedes. “Your girl wants to be with me,” he says, “you know the rules of the game.”
The language of games has long described courtship. One can “spit game,” “have game,” even become a “player.” The origin of this linguistic linkage is hazy. The Mack is the first known usage in popular culture, but Urban Dictionary—perhaps the most appropriate vernacular archive—traces it back to the 1960s, if not earlier.
Of course, games of courtship are not exclusively modern. We see it in Pride and Prejudice; we see it in Back to the Future’s Marty McFly. Then there are the videogames: The Sims franchise has allowed its characters to procreate for decades; Grand Theft Auto includes the eminent possibility of forced sexual encounters with prostitutes.
These virtual experiences have emerged as the subject of public debate ad nauseam—for their violence, their sexism, their indulgence. Yet the recent rise of Hentai—or “dating”—games has caused a marked divergence in the way sex is portrayed within games. Hentai games do away with the aerial, third person depictions of sex acts in favor of immersive, first person experiences.
This rupture forces us to reconsider the debate entirely: This is no longer about sex within a game, but rather sex as a game.
Sex with real people is unpredictable, and comes with the ever-present possibility of rejection. Pornography, like sex in GTA, is an experience of instant gratification. There is no pursuit, consent, or challenge. This recent trend is gaming seems to chart a strange middle ground, embodied best by two specific technologies. The first is Dating Ariane, a web game that approximates American Hentai.
Dating Ariane focuses its brand of gamification on seduction. Faced with a blind date, users attempt to navigate a series of dichotomies to seduce Ariane. A number of options are presented on the screen, and the user clicks to choose between options A (go to the amusement park) and B (talk about art history), never losing sight of the implicit intention: getting laid. Eventually, upon stringing together enough correct choices, the player will break through the maze, chancing upon the algorithm. Winning takes the form of having sex with her digital rendering, and a 10/10 high score.
This is a hilarious approximation of the female psyche. The games are fiercely geared toward male heteronormativity, in line with predecessors such as GTA. While the player in Ariane remains gender ambiguous (the long fingernails and hairless arms are dazzlingly androgynous), the gaze of the first person character seems unmistakably male.
The gaming experience constitutes more than a simple sexual release that could be accommodated by pornography, and its danger extends beyond just the objectification of Ariane (and female sexuality by proxy). This is a much more specific and perhaps insidious phenomenon, one in which we are algorthmizicizing sexual activity.
Take, for our second example, a new app called Spreadsheets.
Spreadsheets tailors its gamification towards actual sexual conduct. Open Spreadsheets and place it on the bed during sex: Spreadsheets will monitor your performance using your phone’s accelerometer and microphone. It then rewards you with points based on duration, number of thrusts, maximum volume, frequency of act, etc. Winning takes on a slightly different form here, as fervent users and horndogs are “thrust” up a public leaderboard for their continued efforts.
Spreadsheets operates in much the same way. By rewarding users for “improvement” based on increased thrust, volume, frequency, it reduces the act of sex to an algorithm as well. This algorithm educates in a slightly different form, as users are taught that higher scores in each of these categories can appropriately quantify better sex. Good sex=higher volume, bad sex=slower pace: I have all these points to prove it. All sexual beings are expected to maintain unanimity surrounding this fact.
This algorithmic approach to sex allows for only one type of correct flirtation, only one type of correct sexual experience. It essentializes a carnal, personal, and ultimately human interaction to an incredible flatness, while homogenizing a realm of desire that is truly variable. The algorithmicization of sex serves as a particularly intriguing manifestation of a broader technologization of society. And while it seems obvious that this, technology’s attempt to simulate and accommodate human sexuality, is grossly insufficient, it has quite a bit of appeal. Ariane enthusiasts have taken the liberty of making her a number of Facebook fan pages.
The gamification of social activity is relatively novel, but it has yielded some scholarship in recent years. David Golumbia, of Virginia Commonwealth University, presented a paper titled “Game of Drones” in late 2012, a sociological consideration of the effects of the rise of gaming.
In his paper, Golumbia takes to task Jane McGonigal, an academic and outspoken advocate of increased gamification. McGonigal thinks that increased quality of life is inextricably linked to more gaming, that a game developer will be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by 2023, and that games will make people happier. Golumbia thinks this argument is deeply flawed, asserting that gaming has only served to alienate and sadden the populace. They approximate the two poles of academic consideration surrounding games.
Criticizing McGonigal’s exaltation of games, Golubmia points to an app called SuperBetter. SuperBetter is supposed to increase quality of life by rewarding users for accomplishing life’s most mundane tasks. The app often tells the user to “hug yourself,” citing “studies that show touch improves mood and health.” While this is commonly accepted as fact, Golumbia levies a wise criticism: “it is the touch of other people that is understood to improve our mood and health.”
There is a grave danger in the conflation of simulation and physical stimulation, one that is only amplified when sex is thrown in the mix. To assume that simulation of sex can do a reasonable job filling in for stimulation caused by sex and sexual encounter leads us to the type of paradoxical thinking forwarded by McGonigal. While games are capable of providing convenient schedules of reinforcement, there is no way to sufficiently substantiate the absence of physical and tactile involvement. Games become inimical once we assume that they can ably accommodate all bodily human needs and desires.
While this argument between golumbia and McGonigal is a theoretical one, there is empirical evidence beginning to surface. By all accounts, Japan is the most technologized nation on earth, a feature borne out particularly with its youth. Hentai is wildly popular, with an innumerable stockpile of games and apps in the same vein as Dating Ariane and Spreadsheets. Because of this prolonged and ubiquitous technological exposure Japan has become a de facto test case for the workings of the technologized world.
A recent report from the Guardian found that 45 percent of Japanese women age 16-24 “found no interest in or despised sexual contact.” That number was just over 25 percent for Japanese men of the same age. Some of these people are referred to as hikikomori (shut-ins), young people who have no interest in venturing beyond the walls of their respective bedrooms. Many “flinch when you touch them,” having developed a total aversion to all things tactile and interpersonal. Others, such as a 30-year-old man detailed in the article, “can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers.” While gamification is certainly not the single factor contributing to this trend, the fact that a huge swath of youth sexuality has morphed itself into a nonsensual, game-based orientation is particularly striking. This influx of mass computerization has at the very least played a role in reducing human sexuality to a mechanistic operation.
Really, though, it’s more than that. Consider:
Friday night, 1:15 AM: “U up?”
1:26 AM: “kinda. sup?”
1:26 AM: “a little tipsy. lol. wanna chill”
1:29 AM: “just lmk i’m nearby.”
1:34 AM: “yeah come chill.”
Does this look familiar? For this generation (“millenials,” as it were), sexual activity is completely unimaginable without the mediation of our technologies. The feigned nonchalance, the strategic time delay in response, the linguistic codes. The Japanese case is extreme, to be sure, but it is important to be honest about how deeply ingrained the algothircization of courtship has become.
This is one unit in a system of tropes perhaps as programmed and technologically reductive as dating Ariane. With Ariane, there are ferris wheels and corndogs and even paintings; Spreadsheets rewards real physical contact. Still, it’s hard not to feel, in the era of the algorithm, that a series of rightand left-clicks has come to define our journey towards the bedroom.
ALEX SAMMON B’15 got Ariane and her friend naked in the Jacuzzi.