Difficult Video Games Are Like a Certain Kind of SexS

It's possible that my first sexual relationship began just like yours. I met someone cute and we started talking on instant messenger, where we exchanged an embarrassing number of kissy face emoticons. We held hands at the high school football game, followed by a fumbling attempt at making out underneath the bleachers.

But this next part might be where our stories diverge: her parents leave the house and we steal away to her attic bedroom. We're finally alone. What's next? I discover that she has secreted away a shoebox in the corner of her closet, something special that she's been saving for this occasion. She carefully uncovers it while I stare eagerly over her shoulder.

Inside is a motley collection of leather straps ripped off of purses, jackets and shoes. Stripping her clothes off, she explains to me precisely how she wants me to use them. Put this one here and this one there. Connect this one to that one. Pull. Harder. She wants it to hurt.

My introduction to masochism was sudden and brutal, much like pain itself. But it also became a feature of my sex life ever since, whether I'm the one getting spanked or the one literally pulling the strings.

Over the last decade, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how my penchant for masochism intersects with my gaming habits. But in order to start talking about masochism and gaming, we need to think more deeply about the terminology often used in these kinds of conversations.

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When we call ourselves "masochists" for enjoying games like Super Meat Boy and Trials Evolution, we're not telling the whole truth. It would be more correct to say that we're "switches," which is BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) lingo for individuals who can shift between sadistic and masochistic roles, between being the top and the bottom, or between being the domme and the sub.

Because games are interactive systems that require our input, we are simultaneously sadists and masochists when we play a "masocore" game like Super Meat Boy (masocore, as in, masochistic "genre," if there was such a thing.) We don't just sit on the couch passively while Team Meat punishes us; we actively press the buttons that deliver the shock. In BDSM language, Team Meat may have manufactured the harness, but we are the ones who strap ourselves in.

Team Meat may have manufactured the harness, but we are the ones who strap ourselves in.

"Masochism" describes a complex phenomenon but, in our discussion of uncompromisingly difficult games like VVVVVV or Demon's Souls, we use the term loosely and only define it informally, if at all. For example, in Brendan Caldwell's survey of masocore platformers, it's not clear what he means by "masochism" apart from some vague sense of enjoying frustration. Each of the game designers he interviews offer their own, equally nebulous definitions of the term.

When we talk about masochism, we're implicitly talking about Freud. In Sigmund Freud's theory of sexuality, the libido—our energy for everything from life and work to sex—is inherently aggressive. Sadism, or "the desire to inflict pain upon the sexual object," is not some bizarre sexual perversion, it's a fairly "common" exaggeration of this natural sexual aggressiveness.

When we take a special delight in hunting down the same inexperienced Halo player over and over again, we're being good sadists.

Masochism, on the other hand, is the "reverse" of sadism. More precisely it is "sadism turned round upon the subject's own ego," or sense of self. Because Freud sees human sexuality as a contrast "between activity and passivity," he understands masochism as the passive form of sadism, less its opposite than its complement.

Difficult Video Games Are Like a Certain Kind of SexS

Sadism and masochism are two sides of the same coin. For Freud, masochists are just sadists who want to inflict pain on themselves but let someone else do the work for them. They want to sit back and enjoy the pain.

But video games blur the distinction between activity and passivity, between sadism and masochism. A game like Super Meat Boy is a system that is totally inert until we pick up the controller and press start. As soon as we do, we become the motors of our own masochism.

The interactivity of the video game medium becomes the vehicle through which we turn our sadism against ourselves. Because we subject ourselves to the pain, we're both sadists and masochists simultaneously.

Because we subject ourselves to the pain, we're both sadists and masochists simultaneously.

Although we might curse the seeming sadism of the developers as our Meat Boys land time after time in the same pile of salt, we are the sadists every time we try again and the masochists every time we enjoy the numbing grind of perpetual failure.

Team Meat created the game, sure, but they aren't coming into our homes armed with whips to force us to play. Whatever pleasure Team Meat may take in the thought of our failure, our own sadism turned inward is what keeps us coming back to the same nigh impossible stages.

It shouldn't be surprising that "masocore" games require us to be sadists as well. As early as 1905, Freud observed that sadism and masochism "are habitually found to occur together in the same individual." What is surprising is that video games provide a unique platform for both sadism and masochism to be expressed at once.

Video games allow us, "switches" that we are, to be active and passive simultaneously, to be the agents of our own pleasurable pain. Echoing Thomas Jefferson's famous statement that "we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," those of us who play "masocore" games are all sadists, all masochists, all at once.

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It's 5:30 AM and my partner sleepily wanders into the TV room. I have just one achievement left in Trials HD: "Marathon." The description reads: "Complete the Ultimate Endurance tournament without any faults." Twenty tracks. Zero faults. I can't fall off the bike once.

At 3 AM, I had faulted on the 19th and penultimate track. It was devastating but I quickly transmuted my devastation into a determination to complete the tournament before allowing myself to sleep.

Difficult Video Games Are Like a Certain Kind of SexS

As she registers what I'm doing—-what I'm still doing—my partner's posture stiffens. She's irate but also deeply concerned. I haven't moved since she went to bed and now she has to leave for work in thirty minutes. She storms out of the room to get ready.

I sit there and, pathetically, I keep playing. I hate myself. I hate myself for letting this stupid achievement create friction in my relationship. I hate myself for not being good enough at the game. I hate the controller. I hate my sweaty hands. I hate the game. I hate the people who made it.

At 6:15 AM on December 7th, 2010, I maneuver my bike over the final obstacle of the final track. I feel terrible and hollow as I cross the finish line. I haven't slept or eaten in twelve hours. The apartment is quiet and my partner is gone.

But as "Achievement Unlocked" flashes on the screen, I feel strangely sick and satisfied all at once.

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, an ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She has contributed to The Border House and is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

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