Most video games are, at best, adolescent when it comes to sex. As feminist commentators like Anita Sarkeesian (whom I wrote about in June 2013) have ably documented, sex in games is mostly presented in a Neanderthalic manner: It’s all hapless, scantily clad women and square-jawed men saving the day. While things have improved since the days of Mario rescuing the princess, even today women in video games tend to be objects, either as cannon fodder or prizes at the end of the quest.
Maybe that’s part of the reason I find “how do you Do It,” a little browser game made by developers Emmett Butler and Nina Freeman for the Global Game Jam in January, so intriguing. It’s a depiction of sex that is, by definition, honest and awkward — and in a way foreign to most games. (You can play it at www.ninasays.so/howdoyou
doit, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so at work.)
It takes just a minute or two (immature sex joke goes here). You’re shown a scene of a suburban mom, pocketbook on her shoulder and car keys in hand, about to leave on an errand, while her daughter stands nearby. The mom leaves, and, after making sure the car is indeed pulling away, the girl heads to a toy chest and pulls out a male and female doll, both sans clothes.
Here’s the only part that’s actually interactive: You control the girl’s hands and use them to rotate the dolls and mash them together. As you do, she watches, eyes wide and mouth agape, and thought bubbles reveal the confusing, dangerous stuff going through her head. She’s apparently just seen the famous vintage-automobile sex scene in “Titanic” and has no idea what to make of it. “I don’t hug mommy like that,” she thinks. Then, a bit later: “There’s a lot about hugging I don’t understand.” It’s clear, though, that she understands something potent and forbidding is afoot.
The sequence ends when her mom comes home, and the girl is either caught in the act or successfully hides the dolls (this may depend on how close the dolls are to each other when time runs out). Then, you get your score, a sentence reading: “You might have done sex 138 times . . . ?,” with the number depending on the maneuvers you pulled off.
The game is actually quite childlike and innocent — all the doll-mashing is a futile, confused gesture, given that the girl has no idea what she’s doing and the dolls, although naked, don’t have the proper, um, equipment for any actual simulation of the act. But still, there’s something weirdly powerful about the experience. Part of it is that body-slamming two dolls feels just plain weird. But part of it is that you’re doing so as a little girl. You’re not just play-acting childlike naivete, but doing so as a child working out these issues for herself.
One of the mental tics I’ve developed whenever I play an interesting game — and I think it’s a useful one — is to ask myself, “How would other media express this?” In the case of “how do you Do It,” it’s hard to imagine it as anything but a video game. A short story or film covering the same territory, but without the interactive bit, would feel much more inert. They wouldn’t generate the same sort of feeling of complicity, of guilt over something that the player knows is totally natural and, ultimately, harmless. That’s the tension that makes “how you Do It” so effective, and I’m curious how it would feel if adapted to a fuller story and game.
Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.