Last weekend marked the third annual Playground, a sex-positive conference covering topics from sexuality and relationships to gender politics and sexual health. I sat on a panel titled “Kink and Pop Culture” – moderated by Natalie Zina Walschots – alongside literary author Stacey May Fowles, musician Jairus Khan, fashion researcher Jenna Danchuk, and game developer Julian Spillane, where we discussed the intersection of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism), kink sexuality and the popular culture we consume.
Most of the discussion revolved around the negative representation of kink sexuality in popular culture. Those who practice it are seen as mentally troubled, abused, or sociopathic. In reality, kink and BDSM itself can be celebrated as an orientation where the prominent themes are love and protection, and not seedy or malicious aspects of human sexuality.
I had originally planned to discuss the lack of representation of kink in mainstream games, but through research and discussion I discovered that while there is some, those representations are problematic at best.
For example, the popular survival horror series Silent Hill features monsters that represent the main characters’ troubled psyche, and many of these monsters are symbols of sexual repression. A recurring monster named the Lying Figure appears to be trapped in a straightjacket fused to its body, which has effeminate legs and buttocks and erotically writhes around. Another monster, Siam, is a combination of a man and woman fused together in black straps to symbolize an internal power struggle. Both of these monsters, amongst others in Silent Hill, feature stereotypical characteristics found in kink culture: being tied down, confined into skin-tight textures, and represent forms of sexual dominance or repression.
In Japanese games, there are several examples of dating sims that feature young women tied up with the option to dominate parts of their bodies with hands or fetish gear. In these simulators, consent is usually unclear, and the reactions of the submissive character are more reflective of discomfort than pleasure, which promotes a titillating male power fantasy rather than an agreeing relationship between a Dominant and submissive that relies on consent and safety. Other examples of BDSM found in popular games include running around in latex gimp masks in the Saints Row franchise, portraying kink as comedic relief, or placing the visual of the gimp in an extremely obscure space such as Killer 7, portraying kink as bizarre.
There are steps taken to make BDSM and kink culture more approachable and better represented in indie games, though. Games designed by Anna Anthropy include the exploration of a Dom/sub relationship, and recently Merritt Kopas released a Twine titled Consensual Torture Simulator which she describes as, “A compact text game about hurting someone who wants it.” The game is truly beautiful, as it includes the most essential parts of kink culture that are rarely represented in most popular culture: safewords, consent, and thorough aftercare.
Through these games, we can begin to understand kink sexuality as an orientation rather than a monstrosity or type of comedic relief. It is a type of sexuality that intimately ties people together to form a relationship based on trust and emotional security, rather than a mere perversion reserved for the serial killers depicted on television crime dramas. In creating spaces where different types of sexualities and relationships are celebrated rather than isolated, we can help games become more inclusive as a medium.