Hot and Bothered

Remember New Games Journalism? Those initial moments of revelation, the refreshing breaks from traditional videogame coverage, the eventual spiral-down into seeming self-indulgence? In its better forms, New Games Journalism is still alive and kicking. But enthusiasm around the supposed nouvelle vague has died down considerably over the past year, giving us all some time to cool our jets and reflect.

Whether you’ve come to love it or hate it, the fact remains: New Games Journalism certainly made a splash. Why did it strike such a chord with the gaming community? Maybe because we needed a jump-start to help us break away from the stale, standardized forms of game writing that permeated the media. Or, maybe we simply enjoyed an excuse to hear ourselves rant. Either way, the idea was picked up across the reporting spectrum; it was heralded as the way of the future.

There are those among us who were glad to see the fervor pass. Still, the concepts at the basis of New Games Journalism have entered our collective gamer consciousness, and, for better or worse, that can’t be undone. We’ve come to accept that our responses to games, not just the content of the games themselves, are what determine meaningful play experiences. A worthwhile game that doesn’t affect us may not be worthwhile after all.

It’s this sort of thinking that’s sparked our recent interest in emotional response, in personal narratives, in questions like, “Can a Game Make You Cry?” We want to share our side of the story. No longer satisfied with knowing how we can interact with a game, we want to know how a game will interact with us. Newly empowered, we’ve turned the spotlight on a type of reverse interactivity. Our real-world reactions become linked with our actions in-game, and vice versa. A whole new dichotomy – or at least our awareness of one – has been born.

How can we react to a game? Through laughter, through frustration, even through tears. Skeptics may say videogames aren’t deep enough to inspire real emotion. Insensitive gamers may claim crying over Final Fantasy is just lame. But, for the most part, these responses are acceptable, respectable, even normal. Happy, angry, sad. They tell us how a game makes us feel; they show us, and others, how deeply we’ve connected with the game.

These, however, are not the only possible responses. When playing a game, be it Zelda, Perfect Dark or Number Munchers, we also respond on a bodily level. And while a catalogue of our purely emotional responses is well and good – and important in its own right – we can’t overlook the physical side to our play. We may be part of an increasingly digital age, where even the most body-centric pastimes can be enacted online, but we still can’t be separated from our real-life incarnations or their reactions to our actions on-screen.

How can we react to a game with our bodies? I can’t speak for anyone else, but then again, I don’t have to. After all, this is an article about New Games Journalism. Who better to put on the dissecting table than me?

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To tell you the truth, Halo 2 makes me nauseous. I’ve played through a hundred odd “slayer matches” in the last year, and I still can’t adjust my mind – or my fragile stomach, apparently – to the controls. Super Smash Brothers Melee makes my palms sweat. I know, no matter how hard I try, I will never beat that level-nine Mr. Game and Watch. Mentally, I’ve come to accept that. My hands, however, are still desperately convinced otherwise. And Super Mario 64… Let’s not even start on the creepy carousel music that made me jump so far out of my skin I refused to ever go back into Big Boo’s Haunt.

These are just examples, perhaps not particularly riveting ones, but different all the same from what you’ll normally find in a videogame review, even one written using New Games Journalism. Why are physical reactions excluded from our consideration of a game’s merits? Because they’re peripheral to the gameplay experience? Because they’re messy? Maybe because, as gamers who are often less than proud of our bodies, we don’t want to attract attention to them. Or simply because, as virtual citizens, we want to believe we exist above our physical selves.

And what if a game gets you aroused?

Not a sex game, a sexy game, or even sex in a game. Just a game. What if it affects you, sexually? Talk about a topic not broached in reviews. Discussing sexual responses is even less popular than mentioning sweaty palms or queasy tummies. Sex may be a delicate and highly personal subject, but we always love to hear other people’s secrets, so that shouldn’t stop us. What seems to get in the way, instead, is that sexual arousal crosses the borders between emotional and physical reaction. We don’t know how to classify it, so we don’t want to be responsible for it.

Still, sexual arousal is itself a valid form of response. Does a game incite attraction? Repulsion? Whole reviews could be written about the sexual effects of a totally “non-sexual” game. Would they go over well with the general public? Of course not. But what would make them any more or less valid than pieces that record other types of human response?

I would like to humbly propose, if I may, a new New Games Journalism, one that will perhaps never catch on with anything near the ferocity of the old, but which never the less deserves its place – a New Game Journalism based on the sensual as well as the emotional. Let’s call it a Sexual New Games Journalism, where sexuality comes to stand for our sensual relation with our environment, and specifically with games. And let’s consider, if even just for a little while, what our brave new world is still missing.

Bonnie Ruberg is a sex and games writer, a MMOG researcher and an all around fun-loving dork. Check her out at Heroine Sheik.

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