Kiss and Tell is Waypoint's column, written by Kate Gray, examining the depiction of love and romance, sex and intimacy in video games, across its many and varied forms.
Millennials are bound together by many things: enough debt to keep us from ever owning property, a deep cynicism concerning just about everything, and the fact that we know what cybersex is. Some of us are of the exact age that we didn't grow up with the internet, but instead went through puberty while trying to navigate its shady mazes, wallpapered with porn pop-ups and dick-enlargement spam, bombarded with sex before we really knew what it was.
And I—like many others of my generation—found myself exploring my awkward, uncomfortable sexual awakening through the candy-colored windows of instant messaging.
Luckily—or unluckily—for me, one of the recurring themes in game developer Nina Freeman's work is this exact scenario, so I can play through an approximation of my puberty years. On the one hand, you've got your close friends, popping up in chat windows to ask about "Matt" or "Owen" or whatever the Boy Flavor of the Day happened to be, in-between petty fights about something stupid. On the other, you've got a little box where all your teenage hopes and dreams lie as you try to say exactly the right words to make this boy fall madly in love with you. You're still convinced, at that point, that this is how it works.
In Freeman's Cibele, you think that it has worked. You are convinced that a boy asking you to send sexy photos of yourself means that he wants you, you, only you, that he has waded through a sea of beautiful women just for the hope of seeing the curve of your waist, a curve that feels alien to you but must seem normal to him, as he hasn't seen you grow and stretch and morph from a soft, pudgy child into some approximation of "woman" that fits like an oversized coat. "You'll grow into it."
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In Cibele, you are left heartbroken. He does not want you, he wants a woman of any sort, a puzzle piece that completes whatever it is he's looking for, but not a permanent one. His puberty, his maturation, is about finding out what women—as a whole—are like, but it's a journey that's about him, not you. He wants to know what sex is like. It could have been you, or anyone.
I think back to the boys who, like in Freeman's newest game, Lost Memories Dot Net, casually asked if I'd be their girlfriend over MSN, before we'd ever even met—an idea that feels weird to me now, but not then. There was a frisson of excitement, of suddenly feeling wanted, of not particularly caring who the boy was, but just that they wanted me. Me! Awkward, gangly, uncomfortable-in-her-own-skin me! Everything I'd seen up until that point in movies and magazines implied that someone wanting you was the ultimate goal, that self-actualization (or at the very least, self-esteem) could be found through the eyes of another.
It isn't difficult to see what happened next, as Freeman's IM-based game then has this mystery guy ask for pictures. Ah, I think to myself now, in that same way that you get a sudden realzsation that there was a reference to sex in a Disney film that you didn't pick up on until you were 25. They didn't care about you, they just wanted to see naked girls. Right. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
Freeman's games explore that weird liminal space of being neither a girl, nor a woman; of knowing (vaguely) what sex is but not having had it. In How Do You Do It, you—a young girl—smashes two naked dolls against each other, trying to figure out the titular question while wondering out-loud about things like that scene in Titanic. Why are they hugging lying down?
Though puberty brings much of its own awareness, we still find ourselves asking questions. What is sex? How do I make someone do it to me? If I am a 17-year-old virgin, will I be alone forever? It's only now, looking back, that I see all the politics, the marionette strings, the staging of desire. Like in Cibele, there were boys who pretended to love us to get sex. Like in Lost Memories Dot Net, there were boys who pretended to want us to get nudes. And like in How Do You Do It, we were all just wondering how exactly it worked, and why exactly we wanted it so badly.
We ended up performing this mating ritual that we only half-understood, like the prisoners in Plato's cave, trying to figure things out by watching the flickering shadows of people on a wall.
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The fact that Nina Freeman is exploring her awkward-yet-horribly-familiar teenage sexual awakening is a fantastic and important thing, because it opens the door for other people to share their experiences, too. The dominant viewpoint in media is not only male, but also overwhelmingly adult. To see the viewpoint of a confused, horny, pubescent young woman reminds us that we didn't all spring out of the womb with a fully-formed idea of sex and sexuality.
But more importantly, it highlights a huge gap in how we educate young people about sex. It's okay to be scared and confused and angry and horny, even after you've gone past the teenage years. If we had a few more honest, uncomfortable representations like Freeman's, perhaps teens wouldn't have to grow up like we did, desperately trying to figure out what sex is and how to get it, stumbling into dangerous and unsafe situations with predatory boys and men because we're walking forwards in the dark.
Sex education should, of course, be more extant and useful, but kids will probably always learn the bulk of what they end up knowing on the playground—and just imagine if games could prepare them better, and give them a torch of knowledge to light their way. Read more Kiss and Tell columns here.