I’ve fallen a bit behind in my Masterclass program because I was writing a mega article about sex tech. It turns out that it’s pretty hard to learn one new thing a week while trying to do other things at the same time — who’d have thought???
In any case, I sped through Will Wright’s Masterclass on Game Design and Theory and had a lot of fun doing so, which was surprising because I actually don’t play computer games. I used to play Tetris, if that counts, and Solitaire on my big old Windows desktop as a teenager. Oh, and Space Invaders on my cousin’s computer during the summer holidays. But that’s about the extent of it. I only did this Masterclass because I knew a bunch of people would be interested in it. However, the fact that I don’t play games turned out to be just fine — and maybe even an advantage.
Wright finds ideas for games everywhere; the world around him, books, interdisciplinary fields. He does not conceive of them in relation to other games. His life simulation game The Sims was very much influenced by Christoper Alexander’s work in architecture. SimEarth, a game in which the player develops a planet, was based on James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and the idea that all living and non-living components on the planet develop and work together as a single integrated system. Edward O. Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Ants was the inspiration behind SimAnt.
You can take almost anything and turn it into a fascinating interactive experience. — Will Wright
I felt a real affinity with the way Wright follows his curiosity. The reason he works as a game designer is so he can delve into different topics and worlds, which is why I became a writer. It’s an opportunity for lifelong learning. Obviously, though, the things that fascinate him, like how an ant colony or a city functions, don’t really do it for me. But I decided to take him up on his fundamental premise that anything could be turned into a game. And since I had just delved into the world of sex tech and women’s sexual pleasure, I decided to centre my game around vulvas.
I think every designer is going to find their own palette of inspiration, their own direction, their own kind of voice. — Will Wright
There are so many different kinds of vulvas and yet, we are only really exposed to one kind in text books, mainstream porn and popular culture. The one that’s all tucked away and neat, and doesn’t scare patriarchy with too much wildness. But we should celebrate diversity in vulvas and sexuality, including those of trans and non-binary people. Not only do we have a gender orgasm gap, but so little attention has been given to female anatomy that we put a man on the moon before we developed a full picture of the clitoris.
So my idea for a game is centred around female pleasure and anatomy to help redress the balance. Players will build a 3D sexual organ, using an array of different components — labia majora, labia minora, clitoris — and then use different techniques to bring that vulva to orgasm. Because every vulva, like every person, is unique, each one will require a different combination of moves to keep its aura and pleasure levels in bloom. And since orgasms are different for different people too, each organ’s climax will be expressed differently too.
After a long and in-depth research stage, Wright recommends prototyping fast and often. Prototyping can take many forms, from quick drawings, to making simple versions, to iteration with programmers, engineers, art and sound directors. As the game develops, prototyping becomes more granular. Finally, the game is tested on bigger and bigger groups of users. According to Wright, the difference between making a really good mediocre game and a hit is pushing the idea further and further with prototyping, iteration and tuning.
Obviously, I didn’t have a team of engineers and designers to work with, and a prolonged amount of time in which to iterate my idea. But I did draw out my version of the game, and thought about how it would look and feel. Artist and medical visualiser Alakina Mann, who runs workshops about the anatomy of pleasure, would be my number one choice of art director and collaborator on this.
Game v. Story
As a writer, things like world-building, pulling people in, engaging their emotions, and anticipating the journey of the reader, or gamer, are all part of my skillset. I take a bunch of information about a topic, such as sex tech, or an idea, and shape it into a story to make it graspable to a wider audience. I feel that fiction storytelling is more impactful than non-fiction, because it engages the reader’s emotions and imagination more. Game is a step beyond that. By making a subject interactive, it makes it even more graspable and has far more potential to influence and impact an individual’s perspective. Great!
“No game designer ever went wrong by overestimating the narcissism of their players.” — Will Wright.
Games are player-centred and based on agency, which gives them a different emotional palette from, say, books or films. It really helped me to think of my game design in terms of this unique palette of emotions, such as pride (when an organ blooms with full pleasure), guilt (the effect of non-consensual or violent moves), teamwork (the ability to share tools, techniques, and insights between players), and accomplishment (making a particularly unique or artful organ). The effect of the player’s actions should ignite emotional reactions that teach good sexual values and encourage a delightful exploration of pleasure.
I think that really good stories can generate play, and really good play can generate stories. — Will Wright
For Wright, the best games are not zero-sum games, but ones that give the player the most amount of freedom to be creative, tell stories and decide on their own win-state. You can see this in The Sims, where players can create avatars and determine what they do and how they go about their simulated lives. Some people who played this game were just interested in telling stories, or making things for the game that other players could use — for them, that was the win state. However the game is still based on a fundamental structure that imparts certain values. In the game system, players can decide if they want to pursue material success or social success. And the optimum path is achieving a balance between these things.
My game would be based on celebrating diversity in sexuality and the value of enthusiastic consent. Within this structure, the game would encourage creativity in the making of the sexual organs and in the erotic play of stimulating them. It would also enable storytelling by having an erotica element where users can write, record and share stories around the vulvas or the orgasms. One path of success could be longevity — seeing one organ develop and maintaining its pleasure and health, by monitoring levels of bacteria, through different stages, childbirth, menopause etc., another win state could be achieving as many orgasms as possible. Another could be making tools to help other players, such as designing sex toys or sexy recordings. Another could be becoming a valued part of the erotica storytelling community.
I was able to further develop my game concept by thinking of it in terms of language. Wright refers to game language in basically the same terms as sentence structure; nouns, verbs and adjectives. In this sense, a game is built in a similar way to how stories are built. For example, imagine you start playing a game and an angry (adjective) turtle (noun) punches (verb) you. This teaches you that turtles are bad in this game world, and if you encounter another one, you (noun) should run (verb) fast (adjective). What nouns, verbs and adjectives would my game be built on?
Nouns: vulva, hand, finger, tongue, vibrator, dildo, butt plug, song…
Verbs: whisper, speak, stroke, tap, push, blow, tickle, hug, kiss, flick, pinch, lick, press, play…
Adjectives: fast, slow, gentle, hard, soft. wet…
Starting to think in these terms helped me expand the idea of my game landscape.
Loops of Failure
Most of the time, in any game, a player is failing. Games are designed around loops of failure, so you start with simple tasks like figuring out how to walk, pick up a weapon, shoot, and your cycles of learning gradually ramp up. Failure should be interesting and understandable in order to keep players engaged. If a game is too easy, the player will lose interest; if it’s too hard, the player becomes frustrated. The key to good game design is hitting that sweet spot at the edge of the player’s abilities. This also enables a flow state.
Applying this principle to the design of my potential game means that the player would start out learning basic principles, from creating anatomically possible organ to the fact that clitoral simulation is the key to most orgasms. From there, they would have to perform more complex combinations of moves to create and maintain orgasmic results.
A sexual, or sensual experience, when good, creates a natural flow state, because it has a build and requires presence. I’d like to make the game as sensual as possible, with pulsing colours and sounds, maybe with generative music, that’s somehow biomimetic in nature, to enable a flow state.
Pitching and Questions
Wright’s first and foremost piece of advice is to pitch the feeling of a game. The Sims is based on the feeling of playing with a dollhouse — something that has never been mentioned in any marketing materials for obvious reasons but when you look at it in this light, it’s obvious.
The feeling of my game would be based on those long hot summers, lying in the field, the smell of freshly cut grass, playing with flowers, secret talks in the woods about about sex, and delight in discovery and sexuality.
His second tip is to change your pitch depending on who you’re talking to. For example, if I were pitching to an executive, I might focus more on the financial potential of the game. That we could monetise through partnerships with sex toy shops or sex tech companies who could advertise their products for players to use, or maybe players could buy vibrators and other pleasure devices to help them in the game.
Pitching will give rise to questions, which you should anticipate. Some questions I’m still pondering about this game concept include: Is the focus on vulvas objectifying or empowering? Is the game too orgasm-centred? How to make it less genital centred and incorporate other erogenous zones? What to name it? Orgasmic? The Orgasm Game? Mind the Gap? Is it primarily an app for mobile and tablet, or other platforms?
So there’s still much to think about. Probably about a year’s worth of work to make this into a game!
For a quick summary of Will Wright’s rules for Game Design, check out my latest instagram post.
Next up I’ll be learning Modern Italian Cooking with Massimo Bottura — follow me so you don’t miss it.