Here it is then, the second part of our massive interview with Naomi Clark, creator of human-on-alien intimacy simulator Consentacle, a card game she was demo’ing at Indiecade 2015. If you haven’t already, you can read the first half of the interview here. Done? Great. Now here’s more Naomi Clark. This half touches on discomfort, punk and (as always) the end of the world.
The Existential Gamer: You joked about wanting to strap a player to an Oculus that would broadcast their image back to themselves. Do you find self-awareness and self-consciousness an important part of your work?
Naomi Clark: That wasn’t totally a joke, I do plan to do that. It will be difficult to deliver that experience with a card game, but it will be in the rules, and probably I’ll try to create a demo for that. I think self-awareness and self-reflection are a pretty essential part of practically any game. I think that’s a mental space that games excel at working in. I think it’s as important as creating an awareness of rhythm in music. Someone listens to a piece of music and they’re aware of the rhythm, the tempo and how it relates to their own heartbeat and the way that their body is moving. I think that the space of mental self-reflection about what you’re doing, who you are, what your goals are, what you can and can’t do, that whole mental circuitry is the gaming equivalent of rhythmic awareness.
That doesn’t mean that games are all about being able to choose and have goals and win, it’s at a deeper level than that. Actually being able to connect your mind back to itself somehow, and reflect on what you’re doing and see yourself doing something… I think it’s such a fundamental ingredient. How that vanishes and re-appears, like you don’t even notice the tempo of the music you’re listening to after a while, you’re just kind of moving with it, you’re in it, you’re flowing with it. The same dropping in and out of your awareness thing happens with games, and it’s vital to the experience of playing.
TEG: That’s really interesting. In fact you just made me think of how this generation, more than with mirrors, are now very aware of their own image being broadcast to someone else through webcams. I mean that’s really a very unique experience, you’re both looking at your image and aware of the other person’s gaze on it. What’s your own personal history with self-consciousness, self-awareness and discomfort, which you also mentioned as a big point of interest?
NC: It relates to the stuff we were talking about earlier with sexuality, and perceiving things off at an angle… that’s a huge part of why I feel like the most accessible point for me, and for a lot of people, to thinking about sex, talking about sex, maybe having sex, is to regard it as this deeply weird, awkward experience. Maybe to the point where it’s kind of hilarious, or it’s so awkward and weird that you approach it through something like role-play, where you’re just pretending to be someone completely different, and you have the dual awareness of you as yourself and you performing as a different kind of persona, and that both makes it accessible and creates the flavor of the experience. That’s also really close, I think, to how a lot of people are embodied or perform in games, which is super interesting to me of course, as a game designer.
Yeah, I think discomfort, or ‘disjuncture’ maybe is a word that’s closer to it, is an essential part of that. Although for me it’s really tied up with queerness and the discomfort of being in a world that wasn’t really made for you, I also think it’s a universal thing. There are very few people of whom you could say this world was totally made and designed for them, so everyone has access to that on some level, to the alienation and disjuncture, and the fact that the way that our society has organically been constructed is not really great for anyone in one way or another. So it’s a universal experience I think, and it’s something that’s really vital to tap into rather than to gloss over. I think I’m just more interested in experiences that draw that out, rather than trying to smooth it over, seal it off or make it like, ‘Hey, everything’s really great right now!’
It’s not like I’m against really fun, happy, upbeat music, or music that just gets you into this ecstasy headspace where everything is smooth and shiny and awesome, I’m just less interested in it personally. That goes for games too.
TEG: I found that a really fascinating idea, of finding fertile territory in the exploration of the moment of discomfort itself, or disjuncture as you said. Do you find popular culture is increasingly or decreasingly willing to go there, and why?
NC: I guess if I had to say, I’d say that there’s a little bit of divergence—and maybe there’s always a bit of divergence. Some people are interested in one direction, and some in the other. I think the whole idea of ‘pop’ for me is about what happens when we really try to join the seams, smooth things over, create something that has a beauty because it feels a little bit flawless. But the cool thing about pop art, pop music, all varieties of pop, is that that kind of bends back on itself, and you have this awareness of, “this isn’t real, this is missing the flaws that make me human.” And so then it becomes weird in its own way, and that’s super interesting.
I don’t know… I feel like there’s market pressures operating in the creation of culture, and this leads water to flow into its lowest point, whatever’s going to make money in the easiest way for the most people with the least amount of complication, and that just naturally leads into boring, predictable territory. And if you’re trying to make money, you want it to be predictable. So I think there’s always going to be pressure in that direction, but thankfully because creators have to create, and we have all of these experiences with disjuncture, there’s always going to be stuff pushing against it in one way or another too. I’m just happy that we continually find slightly new and different ways of pushing against that, because business, and to some extent pop businesses, try to recuperate those breaks. They’re like, ‘Oh, let’s turn punk into something that’s really powerful and easy to reproduce.’ That’s the most famous example. But I think that’ll probably continue to happen.
I mean who knows, I look forward to seeing what the recuperated, safe, friendly versions of games about intimacy are. Whoever knows how many years from now. We have some of those already, right? You have really weird representations of relationships in games like Grand Theft Auto, where it’s just all about going and living out some fantasy of being a player and having sex, doing kinky sex stuff because the Housers and Rockstar just really want to make something that was edgy and transgressive and pushed people’s buttons. And now we have the safe version of that, which is the dating simulations in Mass Effect, where all of the super weird stuff that you would find in Japanese dating sims, or the frat boy edginess of Grand Theft Auto is all smoothed off, but they’re the most boring games about relationships ever, that have ever been made, amazingly.
That’s in part why I love the work that Robert [Yang] does, because he’s aggressively avoiding that. He’s like, ‘I’m gonna push your buttons, there’s gonna be naked penises, all the stuff that’s really hard to just recuperate for business purposes.’ There’s something beautiful and noble about that. But it’s also a cold war, or a war between criminals and the cops, right? You’re trying to stay ahead of them, and they’re trying to figure out how to make it safe, and I think it’s just fun to watch and be a part of.
TEG: Very cool. So what piece of content would you say has made you the most uncomfortable, and what did you learn from it?
NC: What piece of content? I mean, my mind instantly goes to like, coprophilia porn, I guess? I mean, you asked me the question. It’s like, then you can’t not think of pink elephants. It’s those images that are just seared into your brain. I mean, that’s kind of boring because I think everybody knows, there’s those shock sites on the internet that are designed for that purpose. If I had to think about a more artistically created piece of content, probably the most disturbing would be… it’s probably still ero guro manga, which are very different from hentai. Hentai content is created for sexual gratification, and artists distinguish it from regular ero because it’s sort of niche content, it’s not mainstream sexuality – it’s sometimes not heterosexual, or it’s fetish in some way. But ero guro is something completely different. It’s created to make you really uncomfortable and upset, with some kind of sexual or body horror content. That stuff, to me, is really effective, maybe because I also encountered it as an adolescent and found myself completely, permanently disturbed by it.
Probably the worst one that I ever saw, in terms of being disturbing, was a story about a girl who had a disease where more and more of her body starting becoming covered with holes. Like she would just have holes growing through her arms, and her torso, and her head. It’s a kind of body horror that you see a number of artists still playing around with, this idea of ‘What if people’s anatomy is deconstructed in some sort of geometric way?’ But this particular story, which I found in an ero guro collection, also added a sexual dimension to that, which I think is implied by a lot of the art. But it’s basically that she became addicted to having more of these holes throughout her body, and not just to having them penetrated, which maybe would be the most obvious thing, but also just the experience of having holes, and feeling her body deformed, was erotic. Eventually she just ended up becoming a pile of holes, which was deeply horrifying, becoming an absence and kind of falling into the contours of this misogynistic idea of woman as a void or absence that’s waiting to be filled up. That’s definitely the most disturbing piece of content.
TEG: On a totally other note, what game have you played the most in your life?
NC: That’s a tough question. Hmmm… You know, it might be World of Warcraft. Just because that game takes up so much time. But I’ve played a lot of games that are quicker to play, but still have that same structure of returning to it over and over again. The kind of game that I call ‘games of labor’. The main thing that drives them forward is how much time you invest in them. So those games are structured to be the games that you spend the most time playing. I made those kind of games for a while, so I certainly had some other games like Castleville, by Zynga, that I put just a lot of days into playing over the course of multiple years. But I think probably in terms of pure minutes spent logged into a game, it’d probably be World of Warcraft. I kind of wish I had a better answer for that, or a more interesting one.
TEG: No! I always find that fascinating, what the actual answer is.
NC: Yeah, it would definitely be one of those labor games, where I think the entire point is that you’re spending a lot of time playing it. But I find that experience valuable in and of itself, because your brain is being pushed into this thing that you’re trying to grapple with, figure out how it fits into your life, how it’s structuring your habits, then eventually you depart that, and that departure is an interesting experience in and of itself. It’s kind of like going cold turkey off of a drug or something, right? Except better than that, because all the chemical aspects of that make it horrible for people with withdrawal. I actually think the process of stopping playing a game can be kind of a valuable experience in and of itself, to see how the game has left you, right?
TEG: There’s a certain amount of grief processing and learning to let go that has to happen.
NC: Right, and it’s related to that question of self-reflection too. Because you then see, ‘Oh, this is why I was playing that game. This is why I kept playing that game even though I didn’t really want to any more. And now I see I actually don’t want that thing any more, and I’m able to kind of remove it from my body and my mind, and it leaves an absence behind that the self eventually grows back into.’ I actually enjoying doing this with games, and I think that’s true of a lot of players. People don’t really talk about it, but letting something take up space in you and then having it go away… only to have something else grow in its place. It’s kind of cool, it’s like an agricultural process in your brain.
TEG: I love that. I’ve experienced that so many times. I’m like addicted to games of labor, so it’s a really interesting way of talking about that. OK, totally different topic: when do you think the world’s going to end, and how?
NC: Um… Yeah… I think my favorite theory about this is that it will end some time in the next 20 or 30 years, due to a quantum physics experiment. I think that idea’s too romantic to resist. I don’t know how likely it is, but the idea that you could be doing a science experiment and it would cause some sort of quantum collapse that would lead to the entire universe disappearing… some sort of black hole that would fall to the center of the earth and suck everything in, you know… they find some particle that turns out to be incredibly bad in some way or another. It’s just such beautiful hubris of knowledge, that’s really how we should die. That’s way cooler than a lot of these other scenarios, and it really just happens, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re like, ‘Oh, whoops!’ It’s better to just break something and have the pieces of it go everywhere and have it be unrecoverable, than to watch it slide into slow decline, which I think is more of my fear. I think I’d rather have it end as the catastrophic, unexpected result of a physics experiment.
TEG: I love that. OK, what’s the game you’re the most embarrassed to say you enjoy?
NC: Oooh… Desert Golfing.
TEG: Perfect! You brought up punk earlier, and I wanted to ask you about the punk spirit, and destruction as a mode of creation in general. How meaningful do you find that is to your creative process, and how do you integrate something that by its essence is an opposition force—or a destructive process—into creation?
NC: I think that probably shows up more in the way I talk about games than in my creative process. Because I am often starting with some theoretical question that I find really interesting. ‘What are the gaps here? What are we not thinking about? What stupid assumptions have we made that might not be true? What experiments result from that?’ I’m probably showing that my parents are a molecular biologist and a social scientist, so maybe I have some of that in me, just from thinking ‘That would be interesting, if we decided not to do this normal thing in the game, and we did something completely different instead.’
And I’m always really excited when people do that, and it’s not really a destructive punk process, right? It’s really the process of any kind of science, which I think would be a good image for science if it was perceived as really punk, ‘cause in some ways it is. It’s like, ‘Wait a second! Screw that idea about, you know, time and space, or about whether you have to be able to win a game, or whatever.’ They don’t usually talk about it that way in science because of the kind of respectability that they have, and I think that we’re more liable to talk about it in that way in games because it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m punk!’ You can sort of represent yourself as a punk artist. But I’m not really. I think I’m too enamored with existing ideas and their potential to expand. It probably means I’m not really willing to tear stuff down. If anything it’s a weakness on my part that I want to synthesize old ideas with new ideas, and be like, ‘Oh, we could have an expanded, unified theory of something.’ Even though I know that a lot of theory is just wanky bullshit, it’s too fun for me to ignore, and more fun than just being like, ‘Yeah, fuck that! Screw that!’ ‘Cause I just don’t think I have the personality for that to be a useful creative starting point for me.
TEG: What’s next for Consentacle?
NC: I’m hoping to bring Consentacle to Kickstarter by the end of this year, and have a way that people can actually get their own copy, which I think is the main thing I would be using Kickstarter for. Like a lot of tabletop/board/card games, I’d be using Kickstarter as a way for people to preorder a game, and thereby fund the actual printing and production of the game materials. So nothing really fancy, not tonnes of reward levels or stretch goals, or anything like that. I want people to be able to get copies, I’m hoping to be able to have multiple levels, so you could have a very cheap print ‘n’ play version. I really just want the game to go out there into the world. I anticipate that it’s always going to be somewhat of a niche product, because it’s a card game about sex with aliens, and it doesn’t even work that well as porn. But I’m fine with it having modest success. I feel like it’s my duty to just make sure that everyone who really wants a copy can get one.