We Made a Game About Porn


By Joe Cox

SOMEWHERE ON MAIN STREET, EN ROUTE TO THE TREASURE MOUNTAIN INN (Park City, Utah), I’m taking an Uber with my brother, James Earl Cox III, to the DIY-film mecca, Slamdance. We are showcasing a game at Slamdance (Jan. 20-26), the nuevo-indie sibling to Sundance: “By Filmmakers, For Filmmakers.”

Our game has me repeating a question: Why aren’t more video games used for social discourse?

Main Street, Park City (Photo by Chris Denzel)

Our corner of Slamdance will be, for some attendees, a retro experience of childhood.  With its bulky computer equipment and era-appropriate accessories, the 8x8 “room” will be set in the 1990s, the age of a budding Internet – and Internet pornography.

Our game is named for the grave warning preceding many adult-only websites:  You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter.

Players find themselves in a late twentieth century family computer room, and discover an opportunity to re-enact a digital coming-of-age:  innocent exploration of adult content, but don’t get caught. Abstracted images and ASCII symbols emulate porn sites. Audiences experience not titillation, but fear and confusion.  As much a horror game as Resident Evil, You Must be 18 or Older to Enter evokes tangible fears.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (release date, Jan. 24) wisely brings everything back to what first defined the series:  survival horror.  – Games Radar, best upcoming games of 2017

The game is displayed alongside: Bad News, a procedurally generated murder mystery that combines digital and physical interactiony; 3VR (THREE ² x 3P2:VR), a reflection on organic and digital structures; Natural History, a curated 360-degree tour of a natural history museum; Manifold Garden, an exploratory fractal-based puzzle game; and Infinit-o, a conceptual representation of the life and impact of three generations of female artists. Slamdance embraces the other: they curate a space filled with films and interactive experiences that push the envelope of their respective mediums, showcasing the works that propel an art form forward.

When pitching You Must be 18 or Older to Enter to audiences, I tend to tread lightly on the integral porn aspect of the experience. A game about trawling the Web for porn is informed, and called into question, by a modern, delineated remix of the “nude versus naked” dispute. According to this classic argument, “nude” is acceptable and “naked” is taboo. In networked culture, two things separate sexual art from pornographic materials: distribution platform and creator intention.

The ASCII art style serves two purposes: It furthers the narrative; images are distorted to emulate missing contextual information for a player in the role of an underage Internet surfer. And it blurs the boundaries between sexual images and emphasizes the stigma around sexuality. The subject matter alone is enough to cause unease.

“Violent war games are more accepted than sexuality,” says my brother James.  “We’re fine if a friend walks in on us playing gruesome combat, but are queasy about love games.  Internet moans shouldn’t be more alarming than digital gunshots.”

You must be 18 or Older Installation at Slamdance DIG (Digital, Interactive, and Games)

Games, likely due to their reputations of violence and degree of influence on youth, are often characterized as malicious or potentially harmful. Sexuality in video games, therefore, is either rendered very lightly and without bite, or extremely heavily and without nuance. Digital violence is rendered in almost every way imaginable, and is made to seem almost tame next to digital sexuality. This leaves very little room for games to explore complex, nuanced discussions of sexuality – and perhaps too much room for broad, reductive depictions of sex to flourish.

James and I hope that games like You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter enable exploration of sexuality in more multifaceted, thought-provoking ways without being declared taboo or awkward. By turning these taboos into talking points, we can create art that examines societal motivations.

About the Author

Joe Cox is an Honors Tutorial senior at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication, School of Media Arts & Studies. You Must be 18 or Older to Enter was created by Joe Cox and his brother James Earl Cox III; sounds and music by Julie Buchanan.  It won Media Choice Award at IndieCade 2016, the international festival of independent games in October and received an Honorable Mention from the Independent Games Festival 2017. Contact Joe on Twitter @joecawks.