Frank Lantz: Tonight I am extremely excited to welcome Robert Yang. He is the newest member of the full-time faculty here at the NYU Game Center. And that is especially exciting. I have followed Robert's work, as a game designer and also as a critic and writer, as a scholar and speaker and thinker, and someone who has been teaching game design for many years now both at Parsons and for us here as an adjunct, and has on his blog and on his YouTube series, demonstrated I think some of the keenest and most insightful analysis of games and how they work and how they're put together, about game aesthetics, and game culture, and game meaning. And also about teaching, about what it means to make games. To wrestle with the creative problems of game design and how they relate to a person's life. And as an artist and as a creator, Robert's work has just gotten stronger and more successful. And over the past couple of years, he's had a series of really remarkable games about gay sex and queer identity, but also about a kind of intervention into game culture about sort of reappropriating the tools and materials and aesthetics of conventional 3D games and channeling them toward something truly idiosyncratic and personal and weird and individual. I think he is one of the talented and smartest people working in video games in 2017. And I am very excited that he is my colleague now, here at the NYY Game Center, and I'm excited to welcome him here to the NYU Lecture Series. So, Robert Yang.

Robert Yang: Hi, I’m Robert. So, first I’d like to thank the artist for this poster. His name’s James Harvey. He’s a real­ly phe­nom­e­nal artist. Super hap­py that he was able to draw this poster for me. Also thanks to Charles Pratt for art direct­ing this poster for me.

Okay. So this talk is called Gay Science.” It’s going to be about thir­ty, forty min­utes long—hopefully more on the side of thir­ty. And obvi­ous­ly this talk is about video games. So, let’s begin.

…with a brief con­tent warn­ing. I’m going to be talk­ing about gay cul­ture. I’m also going to be talk­ing about sex at some point in this talk. And there will be sug­ges­tive images. And one slide specif­i­cal­ly will have lit­er­al­ly like a hun­dred fast-moving penis­es. And if any of that sounds objec­tion­able to you that’s okay. I’m like half-serious here. Like, feel free to avert your eyes if you can’t take it, or like leave. It’s fine. I’m real­ly okay with it.

So first, Act 1,

There’s some­thing about Friederich

Silhouette of Friedrich Nietzche with graphics from the Asteroids video game visible in the brain region

It is 1882, and Friederich Nietzsche’s migraines are only get­ting worse. Not only that, but Nietzsche is also vom­it­ing every­where. When he isn’t vom­it­ing, he also has a lot of diar­rhea. And when he does­n’t have a lot of diar­rhea he’s also los­ing his sight. And he’s been sick for so long, for such a long time, that he can’t even remem­ber the last time he was able to sleep. For Nietzsche, life is basi­cal­ly just nev­erend­ing mis­ery.

Oh. And he also pro­posed mar­riage to his best friend’s girl­friend, over there on the left, twice. And he also got reject­ed, twice. I mean, she’s actu­al­ly real­ly inter­est­ing in her own right. Her name’s Lou Salomé. She was basi­cal­ly kind of a genius in her own time, and became on the first psy­cho­an­a­lysts of her time as well. But she will nev­er feel the same way about Nietzsche, who she sees more as like this men­tor and not real­ly as a roman­tic part­ner.

So they basi­cal­ly had this big argu­ment, this big fight about every­thing, and Nietzsche kind of los­es both his best friend and her as friends. They kin­da have this big falling out. And those are kind of his last few friends in the world, kind of. So he’s also just like a real­ly kind of lone­ly guy, too.

Why is Nietzsche’s life full of so much pain and suf­fer­ing? Why does­n’t he have any friends? Maybe he’s kind of an ass­hole? No, that can’t be, right? So you know, if the prob­lem isn’t with him, the prob­lem has to be like with the world, right? What can he do about it?

Well, that’s when Nietzsche just goes gay—completely, com­plete­ly gay. And by gay I mean one of Nietzsche’s ear­ly books, The Gay Science, first pub­lished in 1882, where he basi­cal­ly describes the core of his phi­los­o­phy. Keep in mind back in 1882 gay” does­n’t real­ly mean like…gay for the same gen­der or any­thing. Gay means more like a lit­tle too hap­py” or exces­sive­ly joy­ful.” When he says sci­ence” he also means it more in the Shakespearean sense of sci­ence. Not just biol­o­gy or physics, but here sci­ence (“sci­ence”) refers to any dis­ci­pline or phi­los­o­phy focused on seek­ing truth. So, some trans­la­tors actu­al­ly trans­late this title not as gay sci­ence but as joy­ful wis­dom.” But this talk is called Gay Science” so ignore those peo­ple. They’re wrong. It’s def­i­nite­ly called Gay Science,” this book and this talk.

And in this book called Gay Science, Nietzsche says a bunch of stuff, includ­ing the famous dec­la­ra­tion, God is dead and we have killed him.” But I’m not here to talk about that stuff. I’m here to talk about a sort of thought exper­i­ment he pro­pos­es in this book as a way for you to kin­da test how good your life is. So I encour­age you all to take this test with me. It’s kind of called the idea of this like eter­nal recur­rence, or eter­nal return.

2. Eternal return”

Nietzsche asks us to imag­ine, what if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneli­est lone­li­ness (“Steal” means like sneak into your room, right, not like steal.) and say to you [Adopts a hoarse voice for the demon’s quotes], This life as you now live it, and have lived in the past—you will have to live once more, and innu­mer­able times more.” Or maybe he’s like Batman. Maybe the demon’s Batman. There will be noth­ing new in it. Every pain, every joy, every thought and sigh will have to return to you.”

And Nietzsche asks, if you had to relive your life over and over and over exact­ly as you lived it, would you not throw your­self down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” Or curse the Batman who spoke thus? Or, have you once expe­ri­enced such a tremen­dous moment in your life that you would answer, You are a god and nev­er have I heard any­thing more divine.’ ”

So. If you had to relive the same life over and over, would that be a bless­ing or a curse? You can recall the myth of Sisyphus, who is forced to push a boul­der up a moun­tain only for the boul­der to roll back down each time. Sisyphus was cursed to repeat this point­less task over and over, for­ev­er. The gods decid­ed the worst pun­ish­ment pos­si­ble was a nev­erend­ing, very repet­i­tive life of mean­ing­less work.

But the French exis­ten­tial­ist Albert Camus famous­ly argued, how­ev­er, that Sisyphus gets the last laugh here. When Sisyphus learns to accept his pun­ish­ment, when he’s like push­ing up that rock and he’s like, Man, I real­ly like how this rock feels today,” right, he’s get­ting the last laugh. Because he’s kind of find­ing mean­ing intrin­si­cal­ly in his pain and suf­fer­ing. Albert Camus argues that we must imag­ine Sisyphus hap­py.” So he learns to love his life, love his fate, and life is worth liv­ing even when life just sucks so much.

Bill Murray as a newscaster in the movie Groundhog Day

Or for a more recent point of ref­er­ence, you can look at the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray is a cyn­i­cal, sar­cas­tic ass­hole TV news­cast­er guy. And he’s cursed to relive the same day over and over for many years. And spoil­er alert, if you haven’t watched this movie— You know, just like close your ears maybe and don’t read my lips, either. At first, Bill Murray’s char­ac­ter lives this real­ly great, hedo­nis­tic life where he can do what­ev­er he wants with­out any con­se­quences, and he thinks it’s just so great.

But as the absur­di­ty of reliv­ing Groundhog Day over, and over, and over slow­ly drains his life of all mean­ing, he actu­al­ly ends up com­mit­ting suicide…and then wakes up the next day. He can’t even kill him­self at this point.

So final­ly, after ten years of reliv­ing the same day over and over and over— And I actu­al­ly read in the orig­i­nal script he was meant to relive the same day for ten thou­sand years. But that was maybe too depress­ing for American audi­ences? So they decide to cut that—that’s not Hollywood enough.

But he final­ly breaks that curse, only when he learns to final­ly love oth­er peo­ple uncon­di­tion­al­ly. Which is kind of too warm and fuzzy for Nietzsche, actu­al­ly. If you know a lit­tle bit about Nietzsche, you might know that one com­mon cri­tique of Nietzsche is that he’s kind of self­ish and nar­cis­sis­tic. And he always kind of push­es peo­ple away. He insists that dis­tance between peo­ple is real­ly impor­tant. And maybe that’s why a lot of teenagers are drawn to him, and teenagers often go through like, Nietzsche phas­es. But all of us in this room have total­ly out­grown our Nietzsche phas­es, I’m sure.

Like if a demon asks you, and just you, Would you want to relive the same life over and over?” does­n’t that also mean every­one else in your ter­ri­ble life has to relive your ter­ri­ble life with you? Like, why’s that your deci­sion to make? Think about your friends, think about your fam­i­ly, who would also be for­ev­er cursed to put up with your annoy­ing shit for all of eter­ni­ty, right? How can you pos­si­bly inflict that upon them by tak­ing this thought exper­i­ment, right? That would be awful.

But also remem­ber that Nietzsche wants us to imag­ine lay­ing awake at 3:00 AM in the depths of our loneli­est lone­li­ness (his words) dis­con­nect­ed and alien­at­ed from every­one else. Does that sound kind of famil­iar? Sounds a lit­tle bit like Nietzsche’s life, right? I kind of feel like when Nietzsche asks whether life is worth liv­ing he’s des­per­ate­ly try­ing to reas­sure him­self, too, right? Like he should stay liv­ing as well. And in his own life­time Nietzsche was actu­al­ly this walk­ing like indiepoca­lypse. He only sold a few hun­dred copies of his books in his life­time. And he was basi­cal­ly— He died think­ing he was kind of ignored, but he was still kin­da defi­ant about it. Was there a way for even Nietzsche to love his ter­ri­ble fail­ure of a life any­way?

And I’m kind of inspired by this, how Nietzsche’s life sucked so bad he invent­ed his own phi­los­o­phy to explain why he should sur­vive. It’s as if phi­los­o­phy isn’t just ran­dom stuff that you read for school. Philosophy isn’t just ran­dom stuff that Charles Pratt makes you read, right? Philosophy is actu­al­ly this real­ly deeply per­son­al thing, maybe. A vital tool to help you sur­vive.

3. Toward a gay sci­ence of video games

So, now I want to talk about video games a lit­tle bit, final­ly.

But before that a lit­tle bit more about Nietzsche. After he died, Nietzsche became one of the most pop­u­lar philoso­phers ever. There’s actu­al­ly been this long tra­di­tion of thinkers always appro­pri­ate Nietzsche for their own pur­pos­es. Anarchists tried to appro­pri­ate him. Early Zionists. And famous­ly the Nazis appro­pri­at­ed Nietzsche’s phi­los­o­phy. Even though Nietzsche would’ve been very anti-Nazi if he was alive dur­ing that time. He would have hat­ed anti­semitism and he reject­ed German nation­al­ism, actu­al­ly.

We can kind of read Nietzsche today, and we do because part­ly a lot of French left wing thinkers in the 1950s like Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida worked hard to reha­bil­i­tate him and scrub all that fas­cism off of him. I’d kin­da like to join that tra­di­tion of steal­ing Nietzsche’s the­o­ries and apply­ing them in a new way. And I also think with the rise of neo-fascism and Nazism today in the world, we may have to defend Nietzsche from the Nazis yet again.

So my way of defend­ing Nietzsche maybe is I kin­da want to put the gay” back into gay sci­ence a lit­tle bit. And I want to use video games to do it.

Scholars have actu­al­ly argued over whether Nietzsche was gay or not. Like I read a lot of Wikipedia about this. He wrote a lot about the impor­tance of desire, and pas­sion, and sex­u­al­i­ty. But odd­ly enough he nev­er real­ly wrote about his own sex­u­al­i­ty or desire. There’s like a ran­dom sto­ry about how he wrote a let­ter to a class­mate and told his class­mate his lips were kiss­able. And he basi­cal­ly nev­er mar­ried. There’s that one failed romance but he bare­ly showed inter­est in women. But maybe that’s just because he was a misog­y­nist. I don’t know. It’s real­ly hard to know where he kin­da stands on this.

But I think I’m going to stand with one of Nietzsche’s most author­i­ta­tive, most impor­tant trans­la­tors, Walter Kaufmann, who trans­lat­ed the author­i­ta­tive ver­sion of The Gay Science. And Walter Kaufmann argues in 1974 when he’s trans­lat­ing, that you have to use the word gay” in trans­lat­ing The Gay Science, because the German word fröh­lich,” that does­n’t just mean like, cheer­ful­ness or joy—or it can’t be, the way Nietzsche uses it. It has to be more than just being hap­py. It has to be a lit­tle bit sub­ver­sive. It has to be a lit­tle bit too hap­py. It has to be a lit­tle bit…gay, right.

And New York City I feel like is arguably get­ting a lit­tle bit less gay every day. I mean if you’re straight you might not real­ly notice it. But a lot of gay and queer peo­ple around New York City are kin­da always in this weird apoc­a­lyp­tic mood. Like, forty or fifty years ago, New York City was arguably much gay­er. Gay bars, gay bath­hous­es, gay book­stores, gay porn the­aters, were every­where. And now they’re gone, and a lot of these peo­ple say, Oh, New York is like so over,” right.

And for exam­ple Times Square specif­i­cal­ly. This is a pic­ture from near Times Square in the 80s. Times Square used to be a seedy red light dis­trict, home to many mar­gin­al­ized queer peo­ple of col­or. Because they weren’t real­ly allowed to be any­where else. But then Mayor Giuliani chased them all out and sold every­thing to Disney. Like lit­er­al­ly. Read the Wikipedia on it. And Times Square you know, it used to be some­where that no self-respecting” New Yorker would vis­it. And now it’s still some­where that no self-respecting” New Yorker would vis­it, right. But you have to ask who real­ly ben­e­fits from the new Times Square.”

Also, you might think that Giuliani was kind of on to some­thing. It turned out the best way to destroy and dis­place gay com­mu­ni­ties was through cap­i­tal­ism. There used to be more than eighty gay bars across New York City. But after sev­er­al waves of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, now there may be fifty gay bars. And maybe only four les­bian bars. And actu­al­ly in San Francisco, there are actu­al­ly zero les­bian bars there now. San Francisco. This was the last les­bian bar in San Francisco, The Lexington Club, and I think it closed last year.

San Francisco is sup­posed to be one of the gayest cities in the world, yet the les­bian com­mu­ni­ty there has few­er and few­er spaces. Gay peo­ple used to joke that gay bars were like gay church, where they func­tion like these cru­cial com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tions and you vis­it every Sunday and so on. And you go there to see your friends. But now these places are van­ish­ing. So I’m also kind of think­ing about gay geo­gra­phies and gay places and how gay cul­ture will sur­vive in the future.

And I promise I’m going to talk about video games soon. Let me just talk about medieval poet­ry for a sec­ond, though. Like, what’s inter­est­ing is that this kind of gay his­to­ry of van­ish­ing and dis­ap­pear­ance kind of par­al­lels the medieval sense of the word gay sci­ence.” Back then the term gay sci­ence” referred to lyri­cal poet­ry of these peo­ple called trou­ba­dours, which are like bards or some­thing in the 1100s and 1200s. But in the 1300s, no one was doing that stuff any­more. So they lit­er­al­ly start­ed and estab­lished all these com­pe­ti­tions and acad­e­mies ded­i­cat­ed to gay sci­ence” to encour­age a revival of that form. So it kin­da makes me won­der how we can kin­da do that now. How can we imag­ine new gay worlds, or gay acad­e­mies, or gay sci­ence. How does that exist today?

So, video games are sup­pos­ed­ly the medi­um of the 21st cen­tu­ry. Video games are sup­pos­ed­ly real­ly good at depict­ing and sim­u­lat­ing worlds, and the sen­sa­tion of inhab­it­ing them. Ian Bogost calls this tran­sit,” right, this beau­ti­ful feel­ing of being in a place.

How do we make gay worlds in video games? Well, I can tell you how not to make a gay world. You should not rely on the AAA game indus­try to pity you and leave you some table scraps. I’m tired of being 0.1% of a world, right. Why isn’t Dragon Age 100% gay sex, right? Get rid of all that bor­ing craft­ing or what­ev­er. Who needs that, right?

So, I think a bet­ter exam­ple of gay­ness in AAA video games is Overwatch, a game where… It’s about like a bunch of ran­dom peo­ple shoot­ing each oth­er in the future—it’s…whatever. But the devel­op­er, Blizzard Entertainment, intend­ed to make one offi­cial­ly gay char­ac­ter.” And that was going to be their one very gen­er­ous (Oh, thank you, Blizzard!) ges­ture towards diver­si­ty and inclu­siv­i­ty.

But then, all of Tumblr rose up. And through their sheer force of will… If you Google any Overwatch char­ac­ter names, makes you have Safe Search on, because they were doing lots of gay, kinky shit on Google Image search.

And it’s through this sheer force of will, through this sheer force of their horni­ness, you know. It warms my heart how Overwatch has been trans­formed into this game where clear­ly every­one is gay in this game. And even Blizzard can’t change that now, right. Blizzard just has to like be awk­ward about it.

And you know, it’s not per­fect. But I do think it’s a bet­ter exam­ple of what I think I’d want from a gay sci­ence in some kind of main­stream game cul­ture. It’s not gen­er­ous­ly bestowed upon us by the grace of the beau­ti­ful game indus­try, right. Instead it is kind of this defi­ant hap­pi­ness, this sub­ver­sive kind of per­for­mance of plea­sure. Like every­one takes joy in how gay every­one in Overwatch is. And you know, we all just col­lec­tive­ly wield­ed pow­er, and we weren’t hap­py with .1% of a gay game, or 1% of a gay game. We were only hap­py with 100% of a gay game, of a gay world, and we took it.

4. Gay sci­ence as seduc­tion of the game indus­try

But why stop at Overwatch? Try to lis­ten to your pas­sion, you know, the desire deep inside you. The gay per­son deep inside—even straight peo­ple some­times. We seduced Overwatch. Maybe we should just seduce the rest of the game indus­try as well.

Does any­one know what that means, by the way? To like, seduce some­thing? Like raise your hand if you’ve seduced some­one before. Eric Zimmerman, put your hand down. I don’t… Really? Okay, maybe. Maybe, right?

Closeup of a woman's mouth wearing red lipstick, about to bite into a strawberry

Okay, but seri­ous­ly. It’s okay if you did­n’t raise your hand, because maybe seduc­tion is defined by its ambi­gu­i­ty. Like if you’re too obvi­ous, if you come on too strong, it might be a lit­tle bit cute and fun­ny but it’s not like seduc­tive,” right?

A different photo a woman's mouth wearing red lipstick, about to bite into a strawberry

Or maybe you know, she just real­ly likes eat­ing straw­ber­ries, right? Like you nev­er real­ly know. Like, Oh, is that straw­ber­ry real­ly good? I guess they’re in sea­son. Oh wait, is she look­ing at me?” Right? You know, you nev­er real­ly know. Are you read­ing too much into it?

A urinal and three open stalls in a public bathroom

So, I’d like to bring up bath­rooms. Is a bath­room seduc­tive in the same way? Well, maybe not by itself, no. But you know, with a lit­tle bit of gay sci­ence, you can trans­form a bath­room into what’s called a tea­room, a place for men to anony­mous­ly pop in for a quick sex­u­al encounter with anoth­er man.

Two mostly-naked male go-go dancers superimposed on the previous image of a bathroom

It’s kind of as if this gay world or gay sci­ence or gay dimension—whatever you want to call it—it’s kin­da like this alter­nate dimen­sion, or par­al­lel uni­verse that exists in plain sight, maybe. It’s like when two dudes exchange a wink and a nod, and then that con­sent, that I see you” kind of thing, that con­sent trans­forms the bath­room into a tea­room.

And then if a bystander hap­pens to walk in who does­n’t want to play at all, the tea­room instan­ta­neous­ly col­laps­es back into a reg­u­lar bath­room, with no one the wis­er. And through­out his­to­ry some­times like Republican sen­a­tors have not been very good at this game. And they kin­da just mess it up and cause a rip in this gay space­time con­tin­u­um, when every­one can see the tea­room for what it is. But most of the time it works. And I think these real­i­ties kin­da eas­i­ly coex­ist with­out many com­plaints.

The bathroom again, this time superimposed with men in underwear and Pikachu masks, and a hand holding a cell phone playing Pokemon Go

I also think it’s kind of fun­ny how straight peo­ple are real­ly excit­ed about aug­ment­ed real­i­ty now because in a sense, gay peo­ple invent­ed aug­ment­ed real­i­ty. We project tea­rooms onto the bath­rooms, right. We’ve been play­ing Pokémon GO for hun­dreds of years. Why are you so late to the par­ty? We’ve been tak­ing over gyms. We’ve been show­ing our Pikachus to each oth­er, right? And the real genius of the tea­room is maybe that straight peo­ple are kind of build­ing us new ones every day.

Much of what we know about tea­rooms is actu­al­ly from this real­ly famous book called Tearoom Trade. I high­ly rec­om­mend you read it if you’re inter­est­ed in this stuff. It was pub­lished by a soci­ol­o­gist named Laud Humphreys—I’m just going to call him Humphreys. Humphreys vis­it­ed tea­rooms, he metic­u­lous­ly took notes about what peo­ple did, and con­tro­ver­sial­ly he then fol­lowed some men home and inter­viewed them.

But what he found out was that a lot of the men who vis­it­ed tea­rooms did­n’t iden­ti­fy as gay. Many of them were straight, and they actu­al­ly lived straight lives. They just liked hav­ing sex with men some­times. So you know, maybe in 2017 they’d iden­ti­fy more as like het­eroflex­i­ble or bisex­u­al or some­thing. But if you think gay” as like this umbrel­la term, this still kin­da belongs under this umbrel­la of gay cul­ture” because straight cul­ture sure as hell does not want this.

And Humphreys was also real­ly inter­est­ed in kind of the mechan­ics of how these spaces work, too, in like the game­play of this. Like he even uses the word games” specif­i­cal­ly in this book. He talks about play­ers, he talks about strate­gies. His word for the mag­ic cir­cle was inter­ac­tion mem­brane.” Which sounds real­ly cool to me. That actu­al­ly sounds cool­er than mag­ic cir­cle, I don’t know. And we might define a tea­room not just as this par­tic­u­lar place, but it’s also kind of this place in time. It’s also like a sys­tem of log­ic in itself.


So I actu­al­ly made a game about this.

[The next sev­er­al para­graphs, through “…and it’s game over,” are spo­ken while the game trail­er is play­ing.]

It’s called The Tearoom, and it’s the most advanced his­tor­i­cal bath­room sim­u­la­tor in the his­to­ry of video games. It’s part of my attempt to do gay sci­ence to forge new gay geo­gra­phies in video games.

It’s set in Mansfield, Ohio, which by the way did­n’t have a sin­gle gay bar from 2004 to 2014, I found out on Wikipedia. And it’s worth not­ing that tea­rooms are espe­cial­ly com­mon in more rur­al areas where there’s not an estab­lished gay com­mu­ni­ty or any­thing.

So in a sense tea­rooms are kind of log­i­cal. People have needs. Tearooms are com­mon­place. They’re free. They’re near­by. You oper­ate with an expec­ta­tion of pri­va­cy. Why would­n’t you have sex in a bath­room? It’s a no-brainer, right?

So in this game you hear a car roll up. And you’re look­ing around. And what I real­ly want­ed to focus in this game is kind of your gaze. When you look at this guy, he looks back at you, and he notices you look­ing at him. And then some­times you’re sup­posed to not look at him at all, right. Because that’s how flirt­ing works. I real­ize most of you don’t know how flirt­ing works. You got­ta you know, give and take, give and take. And if he’s not into it, he won’t look at you and he’ll just walk out and it’ll be okay.

By the way you have infi­nite urine in this game, an indus­try first.

And when you make enough eye con­tact with him, the con­tract is sealed, con­sent is estab­lished… Or maybe not, maybe you have to flush a lit­tle bit. I worked real­ly hard on this flush­ing sim­u­la­tion, by the way.

And then he final­ly comes over. And notice his penis is a gun. Because the video game police are actu­al­ly con­stant­ly ban­ning my video games. So I thought, I can’t have penis­es in my game, the only way I can get around this to put in the only thing video games will nev­er ban, which is guns.

And you can see he got caught by this under­cov­er cop, and now that play­er los­es all their progress and it’s game over.

A side-by-side comparison of the layouts of the Tearoom game setting and one of Humphreys' sketches

I actu­al­ly based the lay­out of this vir­tu­al bath­room on Humphreys’ actu­al draw­ings from his field reports. And here you can see I kind of try to repeat this same kind of struc­ture. There’s a sink in the low­er left. There’s a win­dow the on the left side, there’s a door at the bot­tom. And real­ly impor­tant, there’s three uri­nals in a row. Unsuspecting bystanders in bath­rooms often like that there’s three uri­nals because that means they can leave the mid­dle uri­nal unoc­cu­pied, there­fore main­tain­ing their het­ero mas­culin­i­ty or what­ev­er. Because we would­n’t want to pee too close to each oth­er, right.

But tea­room play­ers also like it because that actu­al­ly gives them the dis­tance and space and time to nego­ti­ate. If you were just pee­ing next to each oth­er, it would actu­al­ly be real­ly hard to seal a con­trac­tor or do any nego­ti­at­ing of con­sent there. That ambi­gu­i­ty, that gray space, is real­ly impor­tant for seduc­tion.

And this is a map of the men’s bath­room actu­al­ly on this floor, in 2 Metrotech, eighth floor, one minute behind you. This is con­verse­ly not a good tea­room. There’s too many entrances. Your line of sight when you enter this bath­room actu­al­ly sweeps over the entire room with very lit­tle warn­ing. Notice that there’s not three uri­nals in a row. Instead they did this real­ly awk­ward thing— And vis­it, by the way, that bath­room and you’ll see what I’m talk­ing about. I num­bered the uri­nals in this map. Number 1 uri­nal is like next to sink. So some­one will be wash­ing their hands, and you’ll be like pee­ing next to them and you like, share a moment or some­thing. I don’t… It’s just real­ly weird. And then uri­nals 2 and 3 are down there. But that’s not three, uri­nals, right. That’s two uri­nals. So that’s not enough gray area for seduc­tion to take place.

And it’s just real­ly dif­fi­cult, I think, to find any­where to have sex in this bath­room. It’s a real­ly bad design flaw. Frank, where were you on this? I feel like the one place you could maybe have sex in this bath­room is maybe that orange spot right there. Because at least you’re shield­ed from that left exit, and maybe in the right exit if you hear some­one open­ing the door fast enough you can zip up or some­thing. I don’t know. It’s just not a very good bath­room.

And I feel like that’s not a coin­ci­dence, that this bath­room is both bad for sex and just both bad in gen­er­al. Like it’s just unpleas­ant to be in there. And if you vis­it it after this talk you’ll see what I mean, I think. To have sex in this bath­room I think would be to bless it. And I refuse to bless this bath­room. I can’t wait to move into the new build­ing and see that bath­room.

Image: Mitch Alexander, ter­raced­cot­tages

But some bath­rooms are actu­al­ly real­ly great for cruis­ing. It’s as if they were tailor-made for cruis­ing. They’re super evoca­tive. Like if you look at this pho­to, there’s this pho­to­graph by an artist name Mitch Alexander as part of this project to doc­u­ment an aes­thet­ic of tea­rooms.” Or cot­tages, as they’re called in the UK. And I feel like if I vis­it­ed this bath­room in real life, I would be just total­ly clue­less, right. I would not have noticed any­thing.

But when Mitch pho­tographs it like this, and it’s just a lit­tle bit dark on the left side and there’s some­thing around the cor­ner— Hm, I won­der if there’s gay sex around that cor­ner, right? It’s sud­den­ly become so much more mys­te­ri­ous and evoca­tive and seduc­tive, even. It’s like I’ve tuned myself into this new fre­quen­cy sud­den­ly, where I’m notic­ing new things that I nev­er noticed before. And I think when we notice these new aspects of our world, we can cre­ate new worlds with­in that.

But you also kin­da just need to think beyond phys­i­cal archi­tec­ture. Over here on the left is the Panopticon. Are peo­ple famil­iar with the Panopticon? It’s kind of this the­o­ret­i­cal philo­soph­i­cal prison, or dream prison I guess, where pris­on­ers nev­er real­ly know when they’re being watched and thus they always reg­u­late their behav­ior. That was the whole idea of it. But actu­al­ly the idea of a panop­ti­con is total­ly obso­lete. You know, you don’t real­ly need to build pris­ons if you can already put cam­eras and sur­veil­lance every­where, and you can make the entire world into a prison any­way.

So over there on the right you can see some beau­ti­ful sur­veil­lance soft­ware being designed by the fine folks at IBM, which I’m sure will be sold to every friend­ly gov­ern­ment around the world.

Once you rec­og­nize the sys­tem of con­trol you can begin sub­vert­ing it. Walls and win­dows are just metaphors. When I talk about lev­el design and archi­tec­ture and stuff, I want to try to apply that same log­ic and analy­sis to the struc­ture of soci­ety itself and have the metaphor­i­cal equiv­a­lent of gay sex in the struc­ture of soci­ety itself. Whatever that would be I don’t even know.

So a while ago I made a game called Cobra Club. It’s a dick pic pho­to stu­dio game, where you’re in a bath­room. And I guess I real­ly like bath­rooms. I’ve made mul­ti­ple games about bath­rooms. And in this game you kind of play with all these dif­fer­ent slid­ers, and play with all these Instagram fil­ters and make your own fun lit­tle dick pics. And I think you can total­ly locate some of the art of this game with­in the first-hand expe­ri­ence of play­ing this game. But to me a lot of the art and mean­ing of this game also has noth­ing to do with real­ly play­ing the game. A lot of the art and mean­ing of this game has to do with how the game actu­al­ly secret­ly leaks all your dick pics that you make in this game to a pub­lic data­base with­out your knowl­edge or con­sent.

And then this is what it looks like. And then the game is like, By the way, I’ve been steal­ing all your dick pics and I’m send­ing them to the NSA. Hi.” And it looks like this. This is how sur­veil­lance and sys­tems of con­trol work. Once you know that com­plete strangers or gov­ern­ment offi­cials might be look­ing at your dick pic, you’ll prob­a­bly mak­ing them a lit­tle bit nicer at least, right? Put a lit­tle bit more time into them.

To this day, the Cobra Club data­base now has over 75,000 dick pics. That is 75,000 more dick pics that me and thou­sands of play­ers have lov­ing­ly brought into this world and uploaded to the Internet. And there’s still more every day. And thanks to our mon­u­men­tal efforts I’d like to think there’s at least .001% more pornog­ra­phy on the Internet. Thank you. Thank you all.

So, when I make my sex games I kind of want them to extend out­side that mag­ic cir­cle, go through—pen­e­trate that inter­ac­tion mem­brane, if you will—and touch this larg­er sys­tem that kind of sur­rounds us all and informs our lives. Because I think that’s where sex and seduc­tion go, you know. Like oh, are they inter­est­ed in me? Every rela­tion­ship has to have that talk where you’re like, So what are we?” right? Like you need to elim­i­nate the ambi­gu­i­ty in the rela­tion­ship in order for seduc­tion to end and for you to go on with your life.

5. Eternal games as seduc­tion

So, I kind of want to end this talk with the idea of an eter­nal game. So if you remem­ber that whole thing about the eter­nal return and eter­nal recur­rence, that thought exper­i­ment about reliv­ing the same life over and over. As game design­ers, we get to live in our own spe­cial hell when we take that test, right. If you’re reliv­ing the same life as a game design­er, that means you’re remak­ing the same games over and over and over. So I guess this is also kind of about what game would you glad­ly remake over and over and over?

I’ve actu­al­ly been doing this a lot late­ly. I’m kind of obsessed with this idea of remakes and remas­ters. I’m cur­rent­ly in the mid­dle of the third remas­ter of my game Radiator 2. And I’m just enjoy­ing it so much I think I’m just going to keep remas­ter­ing it, like for­ev­er. I think every year or two, I’ll just update it and change the graph­ics up a lit­tle bit. What if you remas­tered a game five times, or a hun­dred times, right? Or a thou­sand, a mil­lion times, right? How would that change the mean­ing of your game and its sig­nif­i­cance to your life?

But if you’re going to take such a long view of things, such an eter­nal view of things, I think you also have to think big­ger than that. Like my games I think aren’t just about tak­ing dick pics in bath­rooms, or hav­ing sex in bath­rooms. If you zoom out a lit­tle bit more, I think my games rep­re­sent one bath­room in an ocean of many oth­er bath­rooms. It’s all vir­tu­al. All the walls, all the win­dows, are metaphors. The bath­room is a metaphor, right.

Screenshot of the Steam game store, superimposed with images of the previous male go-go dancers

Instead, I want to not just cruise for sex in a bath­room. I want to cruise for sex in the entire video game indus­try. Let’s have gay sex in the Steam dash­board, right. What would that look like?

So I think gay sci­ence is about kind of find­ing these mar­gins of the game indus­try. And then you fill that up with gay sex until it envelops the game indus­try com­plete­ly, just like Overwatch or some­thing. So despite all our pain and suf­fer­ing you know, we have to keep liv­ing, we have to keep sur­viv­ing, we have to keep cre­at­ing, we have to keep world­ing new worlds. We have to find every hid­den alcove, every seclud­ed ori­fice of the video game indus­try and do all kinds of gay shit in it. To me this is poet­ry. To me this is gay sci­ence.

So why stop at cruis­ing just in my games, right? Like, the next time you’re dri­ving around in Mario Kart you know, maybe on like Rainbow Road or some­thing, take a pit stop with your friends and honk off each oth­er. Why not? Or you know, the next time you boot up PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, run over to the bunker and hide in the cor­ner, and then tap your shoes twice and lis­ten for some­one to respond. And you might be in for a pleas­ant sur­prise, right?

I don’t want just one video game about hav­ing gay sex in bath­rooms because real­ly, I think all video games can be about hav­ing gay sex in bath­rooms. The entire Steam cat­a­log can be your bath­room. And it often is, right?

And when you do this, I’d real­ly like it if you just let me know. Because I’d real­ly love to hear all about it. First, I will lis­ten atten­tive­ly to you. To every nasty, sor­did, juicy lit­tle detail you have to offer. And then with due rev­er­ence, I will lean over to you and whis­per, You are a god. And nev­er have I heard any­thing more divine.” Thank you.

Frank Lantz: That was beautiful.

Robert Yang: Oh, thank you.

Lantz: And we're going to open it up to questions from the audience. But first I get to ask a few questions. That's my prerogative. And I'm going to start by asking… I'm going to shift gears a little bit. Like in Stick Shift. And…

Yang: I got it.

Lantz: Thank you. And ask a little bit about your process as a creator. You started out… Like there's a thing when you showed that scene from The Tearoom, it is a first-person game. And that's a big part of what makes that game work I think, right, is that experiential kind of like…that being inside of this space and being…really embodied in the experience of it.

Yang: Mm hm.

Lantz: And you started out modding 3D games. It's always been an important part— Like, I guess my question is how important is that first-person perspective to you? You started out making basically Source engine mods, modding Half Life. And you're now working in Unity I think, primarily, is that right? [Yang nods] And you know, how key is that to your ideas and your work, that first-person-perspective?

Yang: I think it's really key because for some reason I think just the first-person perspective brings this weird like, immediacy to it. Like you're there, and if you duck behind a wall, you now can't see anything because you ducked behind a wall, right. So I feel like when you are first playing in a first-person game, suddenly your place in the world matters so much more, and you're so much more aware of how you fit into the world.

So I think that's why— Or at least that's like the nice, beautiful, poetic answer maybe I'd offer to that. Really I think I also just really liked violence for a long time—

Lantz: Really.

Yang: —and I really liked shooting people in the face. But then, I realized we should shoot people in the face in a totally different way, right. And then I felt like violence is kind of this trope that we lean on way too hard in video games. It's important to explore violence and think about violence. But to lean on that as the default crutch or interaction, it's just kind of lazy I think. And then I thought what's the only force that's nasty enough to repel violence in video games? And gay sex was that answer.

Lantz: Is there… Has there… Do you miss those Source engine days? I mean there's a certain quality to the look and feel of Half Life and games that were built on that engine. And Unity has its own kind of aesthetic overall look. Do you miss those days? Do you miss making Half Life stuff?

Yang: Um… No, I mean I like having money now, so it's okay. But…

Lantz: How do you make money? Do you charge money for your games?

Yang: No. They're actually [crosstalk]

Lantz: Where's the money coming from?

Yang: Oh. I think you.

Lantz: Oh.

Yang: I think you, actually.

Lantz: Yes.

Yang: I think.

Lantz: I did— Yes, I pay you to teach.

Yang: Yes.

Lantz: But I would have done that if you would have continued making Source engine mods.

Yang: Right.

Lantz: I guess… No, I guess not. I guess yeah. Your ability, like your… I guess it's true. I see the connection. I see how it all adds up.

So is that it? You just followed the money? You just like, "Oh, this is what the world wants, is Unity."

Yang: That's why we all get into video games, right? To be really rich, right? Now, I think I do miss those days a little bit. Because that was when I easily fit in with straight people a lot. And now, when I started making all this gay sex stuff, now people are like, "Oh yeah, you're that promising level designer that suddenly went off the rails and made all this gay sex stuff. How are you?" And then it's like oh hey, I'm fine. How's your mother?, right. So it's kind of like, I think I miss that kinda more for the community a little bit. Like a sense that we were all kinda speaking this similar language, and kind of working with the same tiny problems that no one else cares about but are really important to us for some reason. And that kind of fellowship was really helpful in my growth as a developer, I think.

Lantz: Your games get streamed a lot on YouTube.

Yang: Right.

Lantz: And I think my understanding is that you have a bit of a contentious, or ambiguous relationship to streamers, right. In some ways, I mean you appreciate the exposure. (We know you like being exposed.) But on the other hand, you… Is it hot in here? On the other hand I think you…from what I've heard you talk about you're not crazy about the way that your work is framed often, as just like sort of… You know, first of all it's sort of free content for for people who are just exploiting it for that purpose. But then also kind of treated as a parody or a joke when it's not intended always like that. I don't know, what are your thoughts on the people who stream your work?

Yang: Yeah, so my relationship with YouTube is kind of weird, because a lot of YouTubers like playing my games, and I like it when other people enjoy playing my games. But you know, as any game developer can tell you, when you make a game and someone else plays it, they might not play it the way you think they should play it, right. So I make games that in my mind celebrate gay culture and queer theory and all this stuff. But in the hands of a homophobic YouTuber who's like a shock jockey who wants to deal in scandal and stuff, they play my games and weaponize them into weapons of homophobia and stuff.

I actually try really hard not to watch YouTubers play my game, because it's really upsetting to me sometimes how I feel like I'm complicit in them broadcasting homophobic messages to their audience. It kind of becomes this way for them to point to gay sex and it becomes this two minutes hate thing for them where they can spit and growl at it and laugh at how disgusting it is. When really the joke was more "Isn't sex and bodies weird? Isn't it fun how sex can be like this or like this?" That was kinda more when I was going for, but unfortunately video games have players. I look forward to the day when video games do not need players at all. When I can just have an AI just play my game and no humans are involved.

Lantz: Okay, let me see if I can make an argument—

Yang: Unless it's homophobic AI, that would be bad.

Lantz: Let me see if I can—

Yang: Facebook's making it right now.

Lantz: I'm going to muster a defense for this hypothetical streamer that you're describing, whose growling and spitting. Maybe this person is like…as hateful as it is, maybe this is the way that this person has gay sex, right. You know what I'm saying? Like you know, they would not be playing your game and streaming it if there weren't something there that they were drawn to, right? They're not ignoring it, right. They're playing it and they're playing it in public, right. And this public performance of growling and spitting, is their response. You know what I'm saying? Like that is in and of itself pretty gay, isn't it?


Yang: Do you— Have you like, met gay people? I just feel like if I want someone to growl and hiss at me for who I am, I'll just like walk outside or something, right. I don't know. I want more of a substantial reaction from a YouTuber. If they are going to do that, they should be really smart about their homophobia or something, right?—No, I wouldn't want that either.

Lantz: Yeah. I don't know. Here's how I'm getting to this place. There's a sense— I'm trying to figure this— There's an interesting puzzle at the heart of your talk and your work, and the more I think about it the more confusing—the more dizzy I get. Which is that there's this relationship to video games… Like you were talking about how there are fewer and fewer lesbian bars in San Francisco. Which is…weird, right?

Yang: Zero. Zero.

Lantz: But it's not because there are less lesbian people, I don't think. Or it's not because lesbian culture is less accepted. Maybe it's partly because gay and lesbian and queer culture is more accepted, right. It's more mainstream. There's less of a sense in which there needs to be an explicit kind of separate culture, because it is more and more mainstream and it's more and more accepted and it's more and more understood as being part of the spectrum of human life and culture and no longer this forbidden, underground thing. And so in some ways it's what success looks like, right. In some ways it's a good thing. But in some ways it's… As you pointed out, there's a tragic loss to it as well.

And I sometimes think about that in terms of video games in general. Sometimes I think about what video games used to be before there was even a hint of respectability. When it was just…they were considered gutter culture, you know. As something that it was obvious on the surface of it that they were for children and degenerates, for pre-adolescent, twisted male psyches. That there was nothing serious or important or culturally significant about them…

Yang: You run a games program, though. You know that, right?

Lantz: Yeah. But do you remember when games had this status? It's true, right? And that's less and less the case, right? More and more, I think there was a sense in which people who got into video games, who saw something more to them, recognized that they had the capacity to be rich and expressive meaningful culture in the same way that music and film and these other things could be. And were excited about the idea that they could rise in their status and be accepted alongside these other cultural forms.

But, as that happens, in the same way that one might miss the quality of being marginal, right, for its character, for its power, there is a sense in which sometimes I worry about that for video games in general. And I don't know if I'm over interpreting what you're saying, but there is a sense in which video games were always queer culture in that sense, right. In the sense that they were marginal, they were not considered mainstream, that they were considered the other, they were something for people who were not normal, who were not accepted, who were not… You know what I mean?

And…I don't know, is that… Does that fit into that picture the that you're painting of the gay science of video games? The fact that they were maybe always gay? Because in your work, you're pointing out the way which video games are the mainstream. But if you step back a little bit, in the same way that you're pulling back the camera to see the bigger picture, there's a sense in which video games were always already gay.

Yang: I don't think that's what I'm saying.

I mean, maybe I've confused myself. Maybe I didn't have a point to begin with.

Lantz: Yeah. But do you see what I mean?

Yang: Yeah. I think you're wrong, I think.

Lantz: Really? So if video games were straight…

Yang: Okay okay, let me—

Lantz: Back when they were like—

Yang: Let me start like five minutes ago.

Lantz: Okay.

Yang: Like, I think… You were talking about lesbian bars, right.

Lantz: Yeah.

Yang: And the issue of disappearing lesbian bars… There's a lot of debate about why exactly they're disappearing. Is it disappearing because we don't need lesbian bars anymore? Well, talk to lesbians and they'll disagree with that—they want lesbian bars. So why are they disappearing? Is it because rent is going up really high in San Francisco? Is it because women are paid less than men on average, so they have less money to rent and go to bars and spend money in disposable income and stuff? So—

Lantz: But that was also the case back when they were thriving.

Yang: I mean, it was cheaper, though, I think. I think it was a very different climate back then. So, to that extent I think it's really weird to argue that video games were always gay, because I think a lot of gay people would be like, "No, they didn't feel that way then. And they still don't really feel that way now," as I've argued.

Lantz: I mean yeah, maybe I'm pushing too hard to make this move. But I think it's similar to the move you made at the very end when you talked about how in a way, sex is gay, right. Like not just gay sex is gay, but like…

Yang: Okay, I'll take it.

Lantz: Right? You know what I'm saying? Like there's something queer about sex, right?

Yang: Okay, yeah.

Lantz: When you think of the role sex occupies in culture, it is this thing on the margins. It's this thing that's hidden. It has a weird transgressive power. It's not part of our normal daily experience. And yet it is…it is normal. It is natural. It is powerful and it's beautiful. Um… Uh. Yeah. Right? So that's kind of what you're saying? Have I got that part right?

Yang: Let's just say yeah.

Lantz: Okay.

Yang: I think.

Lantz: That's the sense in which I think of… My interpretation of your message is that video games are the gay science, right? That that's…right?

Yang: Well, maybe not yet. [crosstalk] Not yet.

Lantz: They could be.

Yang: But they could be. I think that's kind of what I'm saying.

Lantz: But they…but they can't be, Robert, don't you see. Because if… [Yang and audience laughing] Hear me out. Hear me out. Because if they were, right, if they were, there would still be a need for… There's always a need for the other, right. The power of that perspective, of the queer perspective, is not in the particular identity, right. But it is in the… There is always a perspective which is outside of the frame of what is considered normal and accepted. So if you were successful at transforming the video game industry and making it fully gay from top to bottom in this way that you're picturing, wouldn't just make it straight? Like wouldn't that— Do you see what I'm saying? Wouldn't that make…

Yang: Always want to bring it back to straight people.

Lantz: Well, I mean. Do you see what I'm saying?

Yang: So I feel like… Don't take it super literally, right. Like when I say Overwatch is completely gay… No, of course not, right. It's actually built and owned by 300 straight dudes living in Southern California, right. That's what Overwatch kind of is as well. So when we articulate a demand that everyone in Overwatch is gay, or replace every game on Steam with gay sex, right. When you do that, that's articulating more like this radical agenda that may never be fulfilled—

Lantz: Right.

Yang: It's not supposed to be a practical agenda.

Lantz: Right.

Yang: It's supposed to be a queer agenda—

Lantz: Right.

Yang: —where it's just supposed to get people upset and angry and change things.

Lantz: Right.

Yang: I think. At least that's my view.

Lantz: Yeah. This is how I'm interpreting what you're saying. Like, Nietzsche's larger point is that you cannot construct values within in a value system, right. If you're inside of Christianity, you cannot then really understand— You can't construct a morality withinside a morality. And yet we're all in this position of having to construct morality for ourselves and each other, right. We have to come up with values for how to live our lives, and beliefs and behaviors, ways of living, that we believe are correct and true. You can't do that if you're already inside of one of those systems, right.

Yang: Well, we killed God.

Lantz: Right. Killing God was the escape.

Yang: Let's get rid of all the other stuff, too.

Lantz: Yes. Yes. And, yeah. And so I guess… Yeah, I guess this is an endless process, right. Does it end somewhere? It doesn't end when oh, this is fine, now we have the correct amount of gayness in video games or in the world, but rather it's just this ongoing process of always being able to escape from the existing framework of what is considered normal, standard, accepted. And in order to discover what is possible, what is true for us, now, at this given moment versus what is imposed on us as being normal or…

Yang: Yeah, there'll never be this moment where everybody'll be like, "Okay, gay rights won! Let's all go home now," right. I mean, that's what some people want to happen, and that kinda sucks right now. But it is this idea that like, we're always heading toward some horizon, toward some rainbow over there. And we'll never reach it, but it is important that we keep going towards there, right.

And I think that plays into this idea of like eternal return, right. The struggle isn't going to end. Your life will be full of pain and suffering, forever. But it'll also be full of art, and beauty, and things to distract you from pain and suffering temporarily. And that's what makes kind of life worth living in the end, right.

Lantz: And I do realize that what I'm doing is maybe a little bit in danger of being an appropriation—an attempt to appropriate, like the sort of straight— Because I want… You know what I mean? I to claim some…

Yang: You want to be gay.

Lantz: I want to be gay, is what I'm saying. [audience laughs] What I want is to claim for like, queer— You know this idea of like…the power of queerness, to have nothing to do with sexual preference, right. To say it's not about what genitals you have or which genitals you like to rub up against. But is rather a desire to look beyond what is imposed on you as normal or accepted or standard, and to be seeking, always, other possibilities in order to create for yourself these values. And to say that yes, we can do that regardless of our sexual preference.

Then I realize yeah, that's a weird move. Because you know, as a supposedly straight dude, to be wanting to be able to claim that maybe I should just be like oh yeah, that's fine. I don't need to own that too, you know what I mean? So… Let me ask a couple more questions, [audience laughs] and then we'll put it up to the audience.

[Checking notes:] All sex is queer sex, yes we covered that.

I'm going to say…one more question, which is you wrote recently a very funny and insightful piece about how you don't always need to play video games in order to understand them and interpret them. And one of the things I liked about this was that in some ways it's the opposite of what video game intellectuals have often said, which is like, "You'll never understand video games if you're just watching them over the shoulder of a player," like they're essentially about interactivity. Until you understand what it means to be inside of a video game making choices and taking actions and experiencing that, then you're just looking at it as a cartoon.

But then you made this point and it's like I realized oh yeah, it's really true. Especially now. So to what degree do you think people need to play your games in order to understand them? Can I watch a video of you game and get most of it, or do you think people really do need to play them?

Yang: Yeah, this is one reason why I always put out artist statements with my games. Because it's actually really great if you don't play my games. And it's great if you don't watch them, either, because that means PewDiePie gets less ad revenue, right.

So again, I think games are beyond just this commodity or product you consume. There's culture that we're swimming in all the time. And when you consume a game there's so many different ways to consume a game, right. You can watch someone else play it. You can talk about it. You can talk to someone else about and lie about having played it. Which is what I do all the time, right? Like, I think that's kind of the common sense every day relationship we have with games. And I just feel like we should be more honest about it?

Like if I'm playing Call of Duty, and my mom is watching me play Call of Duty and she's like…"That looks stupid." Does she understand Call of Duty? I would argue yeah, maybe she does, right? How can you argue she doesn't, right?

We put such a focus on depth and stuff in gameplay, and that's certainly important. But I think there's also another dimension of like cultural depth that video games are still in baby aesthetics land, and we still haven't figured out how not to be embarrassing.

Lantz: It does seem like one of the things that's happened in video games is that in the past couple of years video games have gone through some of the same stuff that happened in film like during the 70s, right. This awareness of the influence of videology on formal qualities and aesthetics qualities, of how film works as culture. And the importance of identity and how identity is expressed through film, stuff like that. And sort of video games just recently went through a similar set of realizations all of a sudden. But it was like an atom bomb had gone off at Toys R Us, you know what I mean? Things like—

Yang: Toys R Us doesn't exist anymore. Do you know they went bankrupt?

Lantz: Because of the atom bomb.

Yang: The video game atom bomb, okay.

Lantz: And you know, we saw this incredible, weird, reactionary backlash. You had Gamergate, and there was this… It was as if people had just never…had never like, left their bedroom, right. They'd never recognize that in the past fifty, sixty, a hundred years, what was happening in culture. How worried should we be about that that? Is that a normal thing? Is that just a process that culture goes through? Or is there something special about video games that caused them to have this reaction?

Yang: So, I think this kinda reminds me of what you were saying earlier when you wished you could detach gay and queer identify from sexuality and gender and all that stuff. Because if you're going to argue that games were always queer because misfits, all misfits are queer, then you also have to include Gamergate, who are misfits in that queer umbrella. Which is really disturbing to people already under the queer umbrella. They're like, "No, don't come under this umbrella…"

Lantz: That's what the video game folks said. That's what the video game folks said.

Yang: You're going to slash this umbrella to pieces. Please don't do this.

Lantz: That's what they said, Robert, right?

Yang: Okay… But we're gonna like die from it. Or we get death threats over it and stuff, too. Right? Like it kind of takes… I don't know how much you've been harassed on the Internet. I'm sure you've seen your share. But when you get hate mail or like Nazi death threats on Steam or something, it kinda sucks. And then you're like… Okay, you are not my queer ally misfit fellow gamer, you're this weird hostile force that's trying to destroy me.

So my reaction to a lot of that is to kind of… I think that's why I don't trust players anymore. That's why I wish people wouldn't play my games anymore. Like, I think in the end I kinda had to draw a lot of boundaries and pull myself back from that, or else I would get destroyed I think by that, if I let video games consume so much of my identity and had so much of that depend on video games.

Lantz: Yeah. Wow. Alright, let's open it up to the audience, shall we? Are there questions out there? Yes.

Audience 1: Is there any other people that are kinda like disrupting or subverting those kind of social or cultural norms through video games that you would like the highlight? Other people that—either your colleagues or just people that you look up to or that you like their work?

Yang: Yeah. I really love Christine Love. If you're not familiar with Christine Love's work, she makes grand like, Korean sci-fi space opera like murder dramas that are just really, really intense. And then they're also very much about intimacy between women.

Some people ask me why I don't put women in my games, and sometimes those people are like straight men who wanna like honk off to my games about having sex with straight women. But I don't do that because I think people who are immersed in that identity are already doing it, and I'd rather highlight them than try to mime or perform as them a little bit. So, Christine Love's really great.

I really like Kitty Horrorshow, if you know Kitty Horrorshow. I'm actually commissioning her for No Quarter. Come out in a month, November 3. But Kitty Horrowshow, she does really great games that play with like the materiality of it. She's making these really creepy horror games about like capitalism destroying us and these hollowed out cathedrals. And then it looks like in 90s CG or PlayStation 1 games, almost, in this really deliberate but like haunting and affecting way. And I feel like that's pushing a lot of boundaries as to video game aesthetics. Like how should games look and operate? I'm always impressed by her work a lot, too.

Lantz: Yes.

Audience 2: I'm just curious if you're willing to share what inspired you to go from as you said, promising level designer, to the person who makes—

Yang: Why did I throw my life away? Oh my God. I ask myself that every day. Well, what really happened was I graduated with a degree in English, which is super useful. And then I decided well, maybe I'll just— Because I was modding a lot at the time, making all these levels. So I thought maybe I'll just go join the video game industry and make some murder simulators or something.

So then I went to GDC and I got an interview with Valve somehow. And Valve back then made games and stuff. They were great. And back then I sat down with Valve and I showed them my weird gay divorce simulator mod. And then Robin Walker totally played it and went through it and was like, "Oh yeah, okay. This is really smart, really well-designed stuff. But it's kind of too weird. Like, if you were to work on Half Life 3, we don't know where gay divorce fits into Half Life 3."

And I was like, "Oh really?"

But he was like, "Really."

And then I was basically kinda told I was a little bit too weird to fit in the industry. So he was like, "Why don't you make some normal levels where you like shoot monsters and stuff?"

So I was kind of faced with this choice, right. I could either go in the game industry and make normal stuff, or I could go to art school in New York City and just be even more gay or something, right? And that's what I chose, and here I am now.

Lantz: Yay!

Yang: Don't follow my footsteps. I don't— No, don't do what I did. Take the job at Valve. You do it.

Audience 3: I was really happy to hear you talk about flirtation and seduction. I think anybody who's played with your library can see those mechanics kinda getting more and more integrated, more and more complex. And obviously more and more fun. And I think most video games, those mechanics are either circumstantial or inadvertent. Also very fun. I'm wondering how moving forward you plan on developing those kind of mechanics. And in a fantasy world, where would you take that?

Yang: Oh God. I think a lot of my approach to making intimacy or like flirting in games came from that slide about Dragon Age, where I noticed like, Dragon Age is known for gay sex, and they spend like five seconds on gay sex. So if I just spend ten seconds on gay sex that's already two times better than Dragon Age, right?

So I was thinking like, well I can just keep making these short games. All my games are pretty short to play, by the way. So even if it's just two minutes, that's already…like, a lot can happen in those two minutes. So in terms of how to do intimacy in that, and seduction, I think I compress a lot of stuff. My games I think are hopefully…dense in a certain respect? Where there's a lot of stuff happening, and then after two or three minutes you're like, "Woo, what happened?" and then you say I gotta smoke a cigarette or something, right.

[From audience:] Two minutes!

Right? A lot can happen in two minutes, hopefully. I don't know.

Audience 4: My question to you is, when you want to think about a game or when you think about a game's mechanics and you want to explain the game through play—no dialogue, anything like that—what is the inspiration when you think of your [inaudible]?

Lantz: Yeah, inspirations for level design in games.

Yang: Oh. In level design.

Lantz: Still something you're well-known for, although your own games don't have big levels typically. But you're known as kind of a real insightful critic of level design.

Yang: I've kind of— Like, if you're talking about how other video game levels affect these sex games, I would say they're not— Other video games aren't really the big influence for the level design of my recent games. Like really, I think of every game I make almost as like a music video now, kind of. And I just watch a lot of music videos. Like I waste a lot of my time on YouTube just watching music videos a lot.

But in terms of level design, I'm just really… I think my favorite level maybe is a level called The Cradle in a game called Thief 3. And Thief 3, if you were to play it maybe just get Thief 3 and then down a save game that lets you go The Cradle, because the rest of Thief 3 is like, okay. But The Cradle's really really good. Because it's this abandoned monastery that turned into an orphanage, that turned into like a mental asylum. Which leans on really lazy tropes about mental illness. But at the time, I was totally unaware of those problematic elements and I was like, "Oh wow, this really dense, ingenious…" Because there's just… Like in that level… No, I don't want to spoil it for you. But it plays with the rest of the mechanics in the game in a way that no other level does in that game. So I think I really like levels that are just very different from the rest of the game and that stand out like that. I don't know, does that answer your question?

Lantz: That's a good answer, I think.

Yang: Is that good enough? Sorry.

Lantz: I think it is.

Audience 5: I thought it was really interesting to find out that you had an English degree. I noticed your games have a lot of tactile and visual communication. Are you not interested in the verbal, or is that something you plan on exploring? Like dialogue?

Yang: Yeah, some of my games have a little bit of dialogue. But I usually stay away from it just because that means I have to like sit down with a voice actor and record all that stuff, to get to the production value I want, to like mock AAA production value. So it's like really…narrative is expensive sometimes. Especially in the way that I want to practice it. So I think I'm avoiding it kind of, for a little bit.

But one day when I do have infinite resources or some like, [to Lantz] delicious NYU grant money or something? Like, my most favorite novel of all time is Mrs. Dalloway. And my goal in life, in 2023 when Mrs. Dalloway goes public domain, is to adapt the crap out of that novel and make this really weird experimental, weird AAA with all this voice acting and crap like game that's just super dense and and lyrical and captures the style of that novel.

But for now, I'm also kind of practical and thinking I can't do that right now. I'll just have gay sex instead.

Lantz: Well, with that I think we're going to wrap it up. We have No Quarter, right? You mentioned No Quarter. So, No Quarter is an annual exhibit of games that the Game Center commissions. Robert, you've been curating No Quarter for the past few years. So when is that happening and where can people go check it out?

Yang: It's happening on November 3rd in Bushwick. So you know, mark your calendars. And we have a really great lineup this year. We have Auriea Harvey, she's half of Tale of Tales. They famously quit video games, until they got a call from Robert Yang…

Lantz: Yeah.

Yang: We also have Kitty Horrorshow, as is I talked about before. She's making a really cool piece that's really creepy and unsettling, but like in the good way. We also have Pietro Righi Riva, and he's half of an Italian design group called Santa Ragione. And they made a game called Mirrormoon as well as Wheels of Aurelia and all this other stuff. They make really cool stuff, and he's making a game for us as well. And then we also have Droqen. Droqen you may know, he made Starseed Pilgrim. And Droqen's making another game for us.

Lantz: And how do people get on— Do they have to RSVP? They go to…?

Yang: Oh, right.

Lantz: Yeah, they go to the Game Center web site—

Yang:, the poster'll probably come up, and then you click on that.

Lantz: November 3rd. Where do people go to get your games? Steam?

Yang: Yeah, you can go on Steam—

Lantz: Type "gay sex" into Steam and you—

Yang: Just search "Robert Yang gay sex" and you'll get all my games.

Lantz: And your latest one is The Tearoom, but you have like half a dozen games on there. So check them out. You're the best. Thank you Robert.

Yang: Thank you.

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