A Trip Down Ovary Lane: Covert Sexual Advertising in Steam’s “Casual” Games

Chocolate advertisements and copy writing are some of the most hilarious and cringe-worthy erotica this side of a Bill Clinton/Jabba the Hutt slash fic. In an attempt to sell their product to undersexed mid-state housewives with barely-suppressed “native” barbarian fantasies, chocolate ads read like the rough draft scribblings of a Showtime script writer as he huffs across his own masturbatory finish line. Check out this chestnut:

 “Crunchy bits of golden, caramelized honey mingle with deep dark chocolate, like secret lovers meeting on a warm summer night. Sweet and decadent, the HoneyComb bar will charm you…one nibble at a time.”

 Holy shit, did I just buy a candy bar or softcore interracial porn?

Of course the primary goal of all advertising is to associate a product with an abstract idea or feeling in the mind of a consumer. If this means that a product made for and primarily marketed to women does so by appealing to certain repressed sexual desires, then it’s no worse than Axe not-so-subtly suggesting their products turn men into mind-control sex-gods.

What I didn’t realize was that an advertising paradigm used to sell candy could also be used to sell casual game titles, to what I imagine is largely the same audience. While explaining to my fiance the “Sparkle Ponies” phenomenon (google it), I randomly clicked on a suggested title at the bottom of the page, thinking I’d be ironic and funny and have a quick five-minute laugh. Little did I realize what my blasé, unknowing stab at hipster humor would uncover: a pitch-black rabbit hole of seething sexual frustration, lust and yes, even violence masquerading as a clutch of innocuous match-three games and hidden object titles. It was like watching Mulholland Drive but with more vegetables and horses.

I’ve returned from that dark corner of Steam with four of the creepiest, weirdest and most sexually frustrated titles the Steam casual market has to offer, each with its own attendant “titillosity” rating, which is a completely made-up metric of how much each game grossed me the fuck out. Read on at your own risk, with an understanding that you can never unlearn this knowledge: once you know that casual video games and m&ms appeal to roughly the same group of perpetually horny, 30-something overweight secretaries, there’s no going back.

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Now Playing: Home

Sometimes a game has a story to tell you. Other times the story of a game is a narrative of player actions, a comedic tragedy of errors. And sometimes, games are the stories we tell each other, and tell ourselves.

Home is such a game, an (auto)biography of murder and lost identity set in a stranger’s house. Over the game’s hour-long running time, you won’t so much as piece together a murder mystery as create one, through both action and your preconceptions of what the story should be. Home is a game that belies its simple mechanics as a point-and-click adventure, making the levers in the narrative machine the player’s own confusion and interpretation of oblique symbols. Home does something new in game narrative, and it does it in spectacular fashion.

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Geek Culture: Where Originality Goes to Die

Here’s a pop quiz: What do “geek culture” and heavy metal have in common? How about video games and 70’s exploitation cinema? Brand loyalty and The cult of Elvis Presley?

It’s a trick question of course: all of these things are actually one and the same, in terms of operation. These are, lacking a better term, “scenes”, and while the passwords, dress codes and technical jargon may differ depending on whether you listen to Napalm Death or watch Naruto, what remains constant is a certain regressive and reactionary behavior in the scene’s tenants.

The Japanese have a much more eloquent word for this kind of person: They call them “otaku”. Though there are certain colloquial associations between otaku and anime/manga subculture, the word literally translates to “another’s house.” An otaku is an obsessive fan of something, and in this case the “house” refers to the accumulation of the data, knowledge and physical objects related to his obsession. The translation also recognizes the strangeness of the otaku’s obsession to the outside observer, and how to the outsider this person’s “house” will never be home. For the otaku, real criticism of his obsession is impossible. Objectivity will never be obtained, nor is it particularly desired. People outside the otaku’s scene are regarded with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Video games have always been a “scene”. This type of personality has always existed at the core of gaming culture. And for video games to move forward in any real way, that culture has to die.

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Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3: When a Game Isn’t a Game

So there’s a couple of games out there that seem to be pretty popular: Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3. You may have heard of them; in fact you probably have. In further fact, you are probably nauseous with the sound of the bleating of both games’ fan bases attempting to drown the other out in a tidal wave of nerd fury powerful enough to fuel a thousand white-hot angry suns.

I’ve read journalists complain about comparisons between the two games but considering how anticipated both of them were, especially in D3’s case, and what a backlash Blizzard has experienced for some of its design decisions, it seems silly to not expect comparisons. In fact this article was originally going to be an essay of comparisons, because when you sit the games side-by-side, the differences in design are subtle but complex. As I played Torchlight 2 more and more, however, it occurred to me that something deeper was going on here: the differences in design of two games that on the surface looked and played exactly the same aren’t nearly as profound as the decisions behind those designs. Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3 aren’t just similar-yet-different takes on the same genre – they’re metaphors for two mutually exclusive ideas about how games should be designed at all.

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Rape, Video Games and the Lost Power of Image

When Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix debuted their trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider game at E3, it contained a scene which implied that Lara Croft might have become the victim of sexual assault had she not shot her assailant in the face a few seconds later. The internet predictably imploded.

This was originally going to be an essay picking apart all that nonsense, but over the course of several discussions with my fiance my answers began to pose more questions. It’s easy enough to see why all the (mostly feigned, I imagine) outrage over Tomb Raider is silly; it’s much harder to imagine why a group of people that fought tooth and nail to keep Grand Theft Auto 3 out of the hands of government regulation would write entire articles on why Crystal Dynamics should be ashamed for daring to suggest that rape is a thing that women sometimes go through.

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Gaming is Dead; Long Live Video Games!

Can't die dead enough

My brother came over to visit a few days ago, and in the middle of the conversation we were having (which, as I remember it, had nothing to do with games at the time) he blurted out “You know what video games I’m excited about? None of them!”

“None of them?”

He shook his head. “Not a single one.”

What’s depressing about this exchange is that earlier that very day I gave a rather heated reply to a guy posting in a friend’s thread on Facebook (note that this guy is not on my friends list, and for that I am thoroughly embarrassed) asserting that there are “no more great games.” And by God he meant it. I posted under him, subtly implying that he surely couldn’t believe that there were no great games – just less of them. He wouldn’t hear of it. He truly believed that there are no great games anymore.

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Aetolia: A Retrospective Pt. 2

This is the second half of a two-part essay examining ways in which games can reveal things about their players – sometimes even things that players hide from themselves. If you haven’t yet read it, start with part one, which can be found here, before reading further.

There are times in our lives when we can’t imagine being anywhere else, any thing else, than what and where we are in the moment. And then one day we wake up and find ourselves altered, and look back on that earlier time in wonder at the thought that we could never change.

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