The millennials are all right, and so are their sex games
The sneering condescension and pearl-clutching panic about young people's relationship to sex and technology willfully misses the fruits of an impressive creative movement.
Condescension drips off the opening screen of Millennial Swipe Sim 2015, a game that purports to simulate the "thrilling world of app-based dating." Much like Tinder, it presents you with photos of potential suitors—albeit pixelated ones—and asks you to swipe right or left to indicate if you're interested.
"But watch out," it warns. "Stop swiping and you might get too bored to live. This is how people meet now!" The contempt is palpable.
You're given a "boredom meter"—which indicates your painfully short attention span—and you're instructed to swipe furiously to stave off your apathy. Inevitably, you fail, and the punchline appears: a gravestone that reads HERE LIES A MILLENNIAL.
Congratulations, young person: you're so shallow that it has literally killed you.
Taking shots at millennials is nothing new. It's become a pretty popular sport in the media, where people born between the mid-1980s to the early 2000s are frequently dismissed en masse as shallow, over-entitled, narcissistic, immature, and fickle. They have been referred to as both "the worst generation" and "the dumbest generation"; even the mere word "millennial" is often deployed as an indictment, oozing with the sort of disdain that an earlier generation once reserved for hippies.
A recent Vanity Fair article put an impressive amount of torque into its hand-wringing about the casual hookups, conquest-seeking and general sluttiness of millennials on Tinder, dubbing it an "unprecedented phenomenon" that it compared, with no apparent irony, to the melting of the polar ice caps and the Sixth Extinction of the Earth.
Forget about the fact these sorts of criticisms about millennials are often leveled by members of the generation that inspired the term "free love," or that online dating is not the exclusive boneyard of the promiscuous (a 2013 Pew Research survey showed that 11 percent of marriages and long-term partnerships that started in the last ten years began online). The pearl-clutching about Tinder ultimately amounts to the same moral panic about declining social values that every generation has leveled at the perceived moral inferiority of the next since time immemorial.
The flaws so often attributed to millennials are, of course, hardly unique to them. As cartoonist Matt Bors wrote in his excellent "Can We Stop Worrying About Millennials Yet" comic, "the supposed problems with millennials are things that people have been worrying about since forever."
Don't get me wrong; online dating is a dystopian hellscape. But the world of dating has always been full of casual hookups, conquest-seekers, harassment, superficial judgments and bad decisions, whether you're meeting people in bars, at parties, or on apps. Tinder undoubtedly makes hookups more accessible, more codified and (perhaps most damningly) more visible. But please: Let's not pretend that any of this is truly new or that millennials are uniquely shallow, rutting animals because their mating dance has slightly different and more digital steps.
But if you're interested in exploring the reality of modern dating in ways that go beyond reductive stereotypes and punchlines, you're in luck! Millennials themselves have been making games for years that talk about their relationships and sex lives in interesting and nuanced ways.
While many of them deal with the same universal concerns that have thrilled and plagued lovers for all time—finding connection, fearing rejection—they delve into more contemporary issues of sex and intimacy as well: definitions of consent, fluid notions of gender and sexual identity, and yes, how technology influences the way that people connect.
The ones that do it best tend to be small, independent games—often made with easy-to-learn tools like Twine—that focus directly on romance and sex, and allow individual voices and personal experiences to shine through. Mainstream gaming, by contrast, rarely focuses on romance and sex, except to provide heterosexual male-oriented visual titillation or create motivation for heroes. When they do simulate intimacy, it often takes the form of reductive mini-games where physical affection is unlocked by simply pushing the right series of buttons in the right order—a strategy that is rarely applicable in real life, regardless of what pick-up artists insist.
If anything, it's probably more accurate to view Tinder as the ultimate mainstream game about dating, with all the flaws that implies, and critique the ways that it too can engender superficial interactions, or frame intimacy in oversimplified ways, rather than simply mocking its userbase at large.
Millennials have certainly done their share of criticizing Tinder, not only in articles like this tongue-in-cheek game review of Tinder, but in games themselves. One of the sharpest rebukes to the idea of gamified sex is Kindness Coins, where you play as a woman on the receiving end of a paint-by-numbers attempt at seduction. In the end, your "nice guy" suitor demands to know why you're not interested, even though he seemingly chose all the right actions and dialogue responses. Your reply is succinct:
Similarly, the text game Click Click Click by Increpare subverts the neat dialogue trees that scaffold so many simulated romances. You're presented with a series of statements, presumably made by a lover, and have to choose how to respond. This is harder than it sounds, since your dialogue options are nothing but complex, nonsensical equations. Choose one, and you'll receive another response. Did you say the right thing? The wrong thing? Is this just not working out? It's impossible to tell, perhaps because there's no way to reduce the joys and frustrations of interacting with a real romantic partner to a simple equation.
The actual complexity and confusion of negotiating romance is a common subject of independent games made about dating. Some, like Ultimate Flirt-Off and The Moment Is Gone, focus on the awkwardness and anxiety of appropriately showing interest to potential partner, while others explore the emptiness that can calcify around casual hookups or the uncertainty that can persist long into established relationships.
One of the most important and contentious issues currently surrounding sex and dating is consent—or rather, the widespread ignorance about how to define it and practice it. While debates continues to rage in courtrooms and school across the country, a number of independent games have tackled the issue head on and created interactive ways to model expressing and respecting boundaries.
Super Consent by Merritt Kopas both models and celebrates the idea of affirmative consent by asking the player if they want to do something—and recognizing anything less than "yes!" as insufficient to proceed. In Tune takes it a step further by asking players to practice the framework for consent in physical space, by donning "consent bracelets" that activate with skin-to-skin contact and explicitly discussing whether they're comfortable imitating a series of increasingly intimate poses with their partner.
The darker side of sex and dating makes its way into personal games as well, including the terrifying prevalence of rape, harassment and assault. The Day the Laughter Stopped; is particularly harrowing, a text game where the player steps into the shoes of a young woman who is sexually assaulted. It evokes the powerlessness of the experience by offering choices like "run away"—but selecting them will not stop your attacker. Harassment and assault also take center stage in several games by Nina Freeman, including A Dating Sim and Freshman Year.
And of course, there are games that deal directly with the digital contours of modern dating; Freeman's upcoming project, Cibele, is about falling in love and sleeping with a boy she met through an online role-playing game.
Sexting, another oft-criticized horseman of the millennial online sex apocalypse, is the subject of one of my favorite games about online dating, Cobra Club (NSFW). The entire experience takes place in the reflection of a bathroom mirror, where you can customize the penis of your avatar and then send pictures of your creation to (fake) men on a (fake) gay dating site. It's a fascinating and oddly joyful experience, not only because every photo exchange is preceded by an explicit request—consent!—and because the responses to your own penis pictures are so rapturous.
While I never thought I'd say the words "I love this game about sending dick pics," I do, and here we are. For many women, receiving dick pics is an unpleasant experience in large part because it is often an unsolicited one. But experiencing it as a joyful, consensual act—and as someone sending dick pics of my own—reframed it for me entirely, in a way that felt new and freeing.
And that's the exactly sort of thing that makes these games by millennial creators so valuable: rather than glib punchlines or generational contempt, they offer honesty, horror and hope that illuminate the contours of contemporary dating in far more important ways. They allow people to not only capture their diverse personal experiences with sex and dating, but to reimagine the way that they experience intimacy—and invite others to reimagine it too.
Because this is how people meet now: online and offline, for casual relationships and committed relationships and everything in between, in ways that are complicated and impossible to pin down or sum up in anything less than as many points of view as we can get. How very lucky we are to live in a time where more and more, that's exactly what we're getting. It's a lot of things, but it's never boring.
The following is an excerpt from my new book, The PrEP Diaries: A Safe(r) Sex Memoir, now available from Lethe Press. The book chronicles the before-and-after of using Truvada PrEP, a recent breakthrough in HIV prevention that has prompted a new sexual revolution–except that most individuals have no idea it exists. Through sex positivity, explicit openness, and fun, I hope to make many more people aware that PrEP is an option for them in not just preventing HIV but having a better, braver sex life.
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