Indi-e-mail is a new feature here on Indie Haven where our editors discuss issues in the Indie scene with editors at other publications, aiming to get a better understanding of the issues at hand. We’ll email back and forth, collect our thoughts and see what conclusions we can collectively come to on a game, a news item, a review or a topic of interest. The aim is to see where we can agree, where we disagree and get a better sense of a topic than we might perhaps have from a single writers perspective.

Our first Indi-e-mail feature revolves around a game I saw at EToo last week called Hugatron (website and Tumblr). The general idea of the game is that a wheel is spun to select various aspects of a hug, then two real players have to maintain that hug for as long as possible. Rather than writing a traditional preview of the game, I felt that it would be more appropriate to discuss the game with Jordan Erica Webber, a freelance writer and presenter with a particular interest in video games, based on our mutual discomfort surrounding the game. She writes for multiple magazines and websites and is a presenter on Family Gamer TV. You can find her at her personal website JordanWebber.com or read her musings on video games and gender at Godiva Gamers, where this series of emails will also appear.

                                                                                                                                    

Hi Laura,

How are you? It was so great to meet up with you at EToo last week. I wouldn’t want to speak for you, but I personally had a mostly positive experience at the event. I met a whole bunch of people I really admire, and got to play some cool and interesting games. But one game that has stuck in my mind for different reasons is one that we didn’t even technically see at the event itself. Do you remember when we were sitting in that pub waiting to be let back into the Loading Bar, and a couple of guys whipped out a laptop and started playing a real-world game called Hugatron, which basically has people hugging in a variety of ways for as long as possible?

I don’t know about you, but I just sat there staring at these two guys hugging and thinking, “Oh, God, are they going to try and make us all join in?” We were all there for an industry event after all, and this was a group made up of developers and members of the press. But while I’m happy for someone to try to (gently, politely) push a Vita in my hand and show me a game about haunted houses, I dreaded the thought of one of these guys even asking if I wanted to try this game out, let alone if they had gone further and tried to peer pressure me into it.

They didn’t, of course. But the brief thought of playing along was enough to make me feel uncomfortable for a good while after that. I remember saying to Leigh Alexander that this was the kind of game that someone with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome probably wouldn’t want to play, but that actually wasn’t the first thing to come to mind when I saw these guys start hugging each other. My first thought was that I couldn’t play a game in which I hugged men who weren’t my partner. I perhaps wouldn’t have felt as bad hugging a woman, but the gender ratio was – typically – in the favour of the men and so chance would not have been on my side.

Anyway, from the chat we had on the day I know that you also felt a little uncomfortable at the idea of playing this game. Was that for similar reasons to mine? How did you feel when these guys got this game out and started playing it in the middle of the pub? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Jors

                                                                                                                                    

Hi Jordan

I’m great thanks. I also had, for the most part, a really enjoyable time at EToo (there was a minor incident with a threatening phone call, but that’s another topic for another day). There was a huge amount of really interesting software on show and I had some great conversations with both devs and journos across the four days, but I agree Hugatron did stand out to me. It’s probably the only game that was shown at the event I didn’t feel like rushing to write a preview on, it just felt a little weird.

Honestly, I was sat watching this group of men, being egged on and encouraged to make each other uncomfortable with physical contact and just felt really uneasy about the whole concept. Something about a supposedly social game that required players to make each other feel uncomfortable, then not complain about that discomfort for fear of losing just felt like it had some uncomfortable implications for social settings that may contain multiple genders/ sexual orientations/ levels of comfort with personal space etc.

Little bit of side info, I have a diagnosis of Aspergers syndrome myself, so I can speak of the game in that sense. I was uncomfortable enough just being at EToo. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great event and I really enjoyed my time there, but the constant noise and lack of personal space was a constant drain on me for the bulk of my time at the event. The thing is, I could walk outside at any time and get some fresh air without that being a problem, nobody was going to call me a spoilsport or rank me as having lost some kind of competitive event for avoiding social situations that made me uncomfortable. Hugatron however, put me in a room where I feared I might be peer pressured or expected to play this game. A situation where I felt I’d be letting people down if I refused to demo their game without explaining why. A situation where I might be forced into a social situation that would make me incredibly uncomfortable, which would ultimately predispose me to losing the game I was playing.

In terms of the selection of people to hug, that was also a really uncomfortable factor for me. As one of the few women in a largely male room, I was looking around with the knowledge that if I played the game, I’d likely be forced to hug a man I barely knew or had only met that day. Rather than the “getting to know each other” experience I imagine the devs had in mind, I was personally worried about having to hug someone I barely knew as intimately as the game encouraged. It was also a bit weird thinking about hugging someone who was not my partner in the ways the game suggested (at one point it was demanding the players cup each other in ways that made each other uncomfortable so they could win), which really didn’t rest well with me. I wouldn’t like the thought of my girlfriend playing this for example and cupping a man in a way he disliked.

Again I’d have probably felt better hugging one of the women in the room, but that may be because we’d all spent a few hours chatting about sexualisation in the industry while getting to know each other and I was fairly confident in your perspectives on things.

It’s weird how many aspects of this game bothered me when it was initially being shown off. One of the first things that came to my mind was the whole “Gay Chicken” vibe with the game. It was primarily being demoed by the guys and there was this definite theme going on that, in order to make the other person uncomfortable enough to break the hug and win, you had to introduce same-sex sexual tension, which I felt like carried some implications regarding homosexuality being a funny or improper state of being. Not inherently the game’s fault maybe, but it was a definite vibe watching a group of men laugh at the fact they were uncomfortable having they faces too close together etc.

What do you think of all this? Do you agree? Disagree?

Hope you’re well

Laura

                                                                                                                                     

Hi Laura,

I’m glad that you’re sorting things out as far as that threatening phone call is concerned. I don’t want to start talking about it if you’d rather not, but I do think it’s worth pointing out to anyone who might think we’re overreacting about this Hugatron thing that you could well have ended up playing this game with that person. You could have ended up hugging someone who for some reason had such a problem with you that it made them try to stop you from going back to the event or even the city. I don’t know who they were so I don’t know if they were in the pub at the time, but a lot of people from the event ended up there. Maybe they would have refused to play. Or maybe you would have only found out they had an issue with you later. But I know I wouldn’t want to play a game that demands physical intimacy and then find out later that one of the relative strangers in the group was a secret misogynist or had some other reason to hate me. Do you know what I mean?

Maybe in a perfect world we would all be so loving towards each other that none of these concerns would have to arise, and we could just hug each other all day long. Hugatron wouldn’t exist in that world, because it revolves around the idea that this level of physical intimacy is unnatural, at least with people who are not romantic partners or even close friends.

I like the definition of ‘games’ as unnecessary obstacles that we choose to tackle, and in the case of Hugatron this unnecessary obstacle is the player’s discomfort. Some other games certainly have similar obstacles, and I’m thinking of some in the horror genre in particular, but at least those not in the real world have that level of abstraction. Some other games that take place in a real-world social context might make people feel uncomfortable, but I’d argue that it’s not to the same degree. If your friends suggest you all play SingStar together, you might well get nervous at the thought of singing in front of people, and maybe you’ll get called a spoilsport if you refuse. But there’s a substantial difference between stage fright and the anxiety that the prospect of sustained physical contact with a stranger can produce, especially in women.

A large percentage of women have experienced sexual harassment, some of which will have included unwanted physical contact. A woman who has been groped on the tube probably won’t want to play a game in which one of the randomly selected rules is – and I quote – “cup any(!) part of your opponent’s body, and maintain that contact!” A woman who has had male “friends” physically restrain her against her will probably won’t think it very fun to play the “straight jacket” rule in which “one player must escape from the other’s hug as quick as they can!”. Did these thoughts cross your mind? I only properly considered this later when I was reading the rule variations, which makes me think that the creators probably didn’t think about the implications either.

I also get the impression that this game is generally envisioned as something for a group of guy friends to play. The Tumblr that accompanies the game, for instance, features very few photos of women playing compared to the vast numbers of photos of men. I’m glad you mentioned Gay Chicken, because when I brought it up on the day I got the feeling the guys playing didn’t understand what I meant. But watching these two men hugging brought me straight back to college, and watching male friends try to gross each other out by touching each other sexually until one – the “loser” – decided it had gone too far.

I get the feeling some of my friends at college played Gay Chicken to explore their sexualities, which is totally fine. But when played in a public place it might exclude onlookers, especially those who perhaps haven’t come out as gay or bisexual or come to terms with how they feel about their sexuality. Gay Chicken gives the impression of making fun of the notion of being gay. These Chicken games – like that in which kids dare each other to dart across busy roads at the risk of getting hit by an oncoming vehicle – are based on forcing players to do something dangerous, the loser being the coward who opts out. But homosexuality is not dangerous, and it’s not fair to portray it as such.

So I got a similar vibe here with Hugatron. You’re supposed to play the game to the sound of “hilariously inappropriate romantic pop songs”, so I don’t think I’m stretching when I say the point is to suggest at romance – usually between two men – for the sake of making the players uncomfortable and the onlookers laugh. Is that what you were thinking, too? And if you don’t mind me asking, as someone who doesn’t identify as heterosexual did you find that implicit suggestion offensive? I felt excluded as a woman, but I’m heterosexual so don’t feel equipped to say whether the game excludes those of other sexualities too.

Hope you’re feeling better today,

Jors

                                                                                                                                     

Hi Jordan

Feeling much better today, a few days at home tends to sort most things.

I definitely found the Gay Chicken vibe of the game uncomfortable when watching it played in person. In terms of describing it as offensive, it wasn’t until later I sat down and really thought about what was going on in the situation that it really hit me what the implications of the game meant. I don’t think it was intended to ever cause offence, but I do personally feel offended by it. Not only do games like this encourage the idea that homosexuality is something you should fear on some level (love your comparison to horror games by the way), they also cause some issues when the game is played between mixed gender/ sexuality pairs. I’m assuming most of the guys there were probably straight (statistically speaking, chances are high) and I’m gay. If I had to play Hugatron with one of them, the discomfort in the hug would be purely one sided, the straight male far less uncomfortable than the gay female (me). It just comes with some implications that don’t sit well with me personally. Without a doubt it felt like my being gay meant I wasn’t experiencing the game the way the designers had anticipated and that I was inherently at a disadvantage under their expected ruleset.

I find it interesting that you mention the game being marketed as for a primarily male crowd. I’d not looked at much of the online marketing images and looking now I can totally see what you mean. Maybe they’re aware they want the game pitched more towards men? Should that possibly be more clear in it’s branding? I don’t know how to think about that, just because then you just switch it to a slightly different game with the same homophobic implications.

I completely see your point regarding me and my unwanted caller incident. The fact I got a call later that day from a man threatening me if I came back to London, a member of the press at EToo that day, it just goes to show that being expected to preview this game in the setting provided where you have no idea what the people you’re playing with are like does put you at risk of having to hug people you’d rather not hug. Sure, people are unlikely to do anything then and there, but it’s unsettling to think I in theory could have had to try and escape the hugging embrace of someone who would later that day take my business card out, call me and make threats at me over the phone. I was able to handle that phone call, but if I’d also had the memory of being restrained into a hug I was trying to escape by that man then I don’t know if I could have put the phone call behind me the way I did and come back to the show the rest of that week.

This bring me back around to your point about it being a potential trigger, and I can speak to that effect. As someone who’s been the victim of unwanted physical contact in the past (an event where I was unable to prevent unwanted physical contact from a man, with sexual implications), watching Mike Bithell play the “cup any(!) part of your opponent’s body, and maintain that contact!” version of the game did make me feel uncomfortable. I know we didn’t see it in action, but the thought of the “Straight Jacket” mode personally terrifies me, there’s nothing I’d find more upsetting than being put into a hug I couldn’t escape from and the thought that just asking them to let me go if I was uncomfortable wouldn’t work. That I’d be struggling to get out of the hug and that if I fail to escape my restrainer, likely a man stronger than myself, then I “lose”. What kind of message is that? That you fail to escape the man restraining you and the result is “oh well, you lose, let’s carry on and pretend that didn’t happen”. It’s an unsettling situation to think of myself in, one that would bring tough memories to mind and one I’d rather not risk encountering in a game. I didn’t know about the “Straight Jacket” variation until I went on the game’s website and looked into other modes, but the cupping mode made me uncomfortable on the day.

The “Pillow Mode”, which encourages resting your face on the other person like you were going to sleep on them, certainly backs up the idea of romantic tension being implied, as well as in many ways integral to the core of the intended experience.

At this point I’m really not sure what else to say, just talking about the game and the experiences it brought to mind has been tough enough, the thought of playing the game genuinely does worry me. I’m just really glad I was deep enough in conversation with you and a few others that I wasn’t preyed on as a target for the game.

I’ll try and think of more to say on this game soon, but for now this is the best I can do. It made me think about experiences I dislike thinking about, it could have forced me to hug my harasser in that situation and I just dislike the idea of playing the game in the type of setting it was shown in. Things would be different with close friends or my partner, or if it was with a group of people I knew well enough to explain my dislike of certain modes or scenarios to, but certainly not with near strangers.

What do you think, anything you’d add?

Laura

                                                                                                                                     

Hi Laura,

I think we’ve covered our key concerns, and I don’t want to stretch this on for too long or you can bet nobody will read it. I do think it’s important that we point out that we’re not attacking the creators of this game, because someone will undoubtedly think that we’re being unfair. As far as I could tell, those we met on the day were lovely people, and didn’t try to force us to play, though the possibility that they might in that scenario was enough to make me feel anxious. But I’m sure that they didn’t intend to make a game that makes people feel like this. In fact, they probably had wonderful intentions to make people act friendlier to one another and to challenge the rigid social norms that we have, especially in this country.

However, it is important that the creators know how their game might make some people feel, so that they can predict and potentially prevent that kind of response from others. It’s entirely possible that they’ll say that anyone who might feel excluded by the game is just not in their target audience, but the question of whether games should try to be all-inclusive is a discussion for another day. Hopefully, the creators will recognise our concerns and be willing to talk about them. Maybe you’ll even let them use your site as a platform to respond?

Anyway, I think I’ve yammered on for long enough. I’m glad we got the chance to have this chat, and I hope it gets people talking about the game.

See you soon,

Jors

About The Author

Founding Member

Laura’s gaming journey began in the 90′s when she was given a SNES by her older brother with Mario paint. From that day video games were all she thought about day or night, be it playing them, designing them, discussing them or writing about them. Why does she want to write about indie games? Because indie devs are awesome and she wants to be their new best friend by telling them how terrible their games are. That’s how it works right? Twitter: @LauraKBuzz Email: Laurak@indiehaven.com

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  • Greg

    This is really interesting! Thank you for the even-keeled discussion that you guys put up on here. It`s funny to think of how many games and ideas come with the best of intentions, but because of a slightly constrained point of view, miss out on the implications they set upon others who are not within the scope of their vision. This seems to happen in all industries, to some extent, but in gaming, we still have the large issue where the prevalent, white, hetro-male`s desires and wants are considered over pretty much all other groups, including white, hetero, women. Maybe this is just because of economic concerns (probably not; what was it, 50 percent? – of gamers are now female), but either way, it would be nice that other-wise smart, kind, and innovative developers (like the makers of the Hugatron), consider the far reaching ramifications of their game design.

    But eh, baby steps? At least new voices are coming out. Perhaps this will not be a issue in 10 years (one can dream, eh?)

  • Patrick

    Very interesting correspondence. Did you guys see http://www.copenhagengamecollective.org/2013/07/08/3871/