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: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: game​cen​ter​.nyu​.edu, 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.

Further Reference

Event announce­ment