Buttonmasher is Douglas Heaven 's monthly column about video games, and how the way we play is changing.
My fingers move in slow circles, gently at first. Chunky pink and red pixels flush under my touch. The music builds.
I’ve never done this on a bus before. As I stroke the screen of my phone I’m hyper aware of the people to my left and the woman behind me.
I get a rhythm going, learning what makes the ambient sounds swell and soar – and avoiding the rushed, rough strokes that bring everything to a halt. The beat kicks in, the colours pulse. I’m masturbating my phone.
Advertisement.
La Petite Mort is a game made by Andrea Hasselager and Patrick Jarnfelt, the pair behind two-person Danish studio Lovable Hat Cult. Last month Apple banned the game from its app store. "We were told the game contained excessively objectionable and crude content," says Jarnfelt. "But what’s crude? It’s just abstract pixels. Just the idea of touching a sexual organ was a problem."
Jarnfelt and Hasselager are at the centre of a growing community of developers who are making games that explore issues around sex and sexuality. They help run the annual Lyst conference, where developers meet to discuss and show off games such as Breakup – a VR experience in which you endlessly repeat the last few moments of a relationship – and Pocket Jockey – in which players make other players’ phones vibrate.
The third Lyst event took place in Hamar, Norway, last weekend. "The community is growing, we’re getting more and more participants," says Hasselager. "Love, romance and sex are some of the most natural human emotions but they are portrayed so badly in games," she says.
Pixelated porn.
La Petite Mort is not the pair’s first game about sex. In 2008 the pair were co-creators of Dark Room Sex Game , in which two players swing Wii remotes back and forth in an escalating rhythm to reach a musical climax. "You had to look each in the eye and communicate through body language," says Jarnfelt.
The idea for La Petite Mort came to Jarnfelt when he was playing around with cellular automata– abstract models that can simulate complex systems, such as living things, just by following a simple set of rules. Jarnfelt got his automata to respond to touch – and immediately saw the erotic potential.
To make the game’s graphics Jarnfelt and Hasselager filmed the genitals of actual women, then pixelated the footage to such a degree that it is almost unrecognisable. "We’ve had people play through the game without realising what they were touching," says Hasselager.
People play the game quite differently. When Jarnfelt tested it with a group of male friends, they all looked over the player’s shoulder. They were checking out each other’s technique, he says. "It became almost competitive."
Others prefer to go off and sit by themselves. "The images are in your head," says Hasselager. "But this is why it can become embarrassing to watch somebody else."
Risky business.
New York-based developer Robert Yang has also explored intimacy – and the awkwardness that often goes with it – in dozens of games. Yang makes games about gay men that are often tongue in cheek and funny, but they address serious issues.
Where mainstream games include sex at all, it is often presented as part of the game’s story as a reward or a goal for the player. But Yang presents intimacy as a process in itself, one that is inherently risky. "What if you tell someone you love them, and they reject you? Or what if you want to have sex, but you’re terrible at it?"
"When we think of sex as a process laden with tension, rather than a conclusion, it suddenly opens up a lot of emotional language in games," he says.
Hurt Me Plenty/Robert Yang.
Yang explores important themes that few others do, says writer and game designer Cara Ellison, "but he’s paid a huge price for it."
Like Jarnfelt and Hasselager, Yang has had his games banned from certain online distribution services. He cannot sell his work through Steam, the largest online games store and he is not allowed to use the payment processing service PayPal.
Such companies have a relatively conservative policy about what they deem pornographic. There is a line that defines what forms of sexual content companies permit developers to include in games, but it’s blurry, he says. "And they can shift the line without warning. Even asking for donations puts me in danger of getting banned from PayPal."
Grown-up games.
We have a problem with prudishness when it comes to games, says Ellison. Sexual content is more common in films and on TV than ever and books like Fifty Shades of Grey are mainstream bestsellers, yet attitudes about sexual content in games have not caught up.
Many people still think games are for kids, says Jarnfelt. "It’s an antiquated view, but it has stuck in people’s minds and the rules have formed around it."
Ellison feels similarly. She also thinks many people are still uneasy about games because of their interactive element. "People are slightly suspicious of that still, they think it’s much more influential to play a sex scene than merely watch one."
But that’s ridiculous, she says. There is more to interactivity than pressing buttons to move hips, she says. In Yang’s game Hurt Me Plenty , for example, a player is locked out if they violate their partner’s trust. "It’s perfect for understanding exactly how important consideration of another body is," says Ellison.
"There are lots of games coming out pushing the boundaries," says Jarnfelt. "They’re not getting widely released but they’re getting made and that’s the first step."
Games are obsessed with violence because players find it entertaining. But we also like sex, says Yang. "I suspect that sex is the only other cultural force in the universe that is sufficiently weird, scary, funny and sad to dethrone violence as the default interactive experience."
Hasslager has a similar view. "It would not be obvious for me to make a game about war because I’ve never been in a war," she says.

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