On November 6, 2012 a profoundly simple game called Curiosity was officially launched on iPhones, inviting people to chisel away at a massive cube composed of millions of blocks.
Players from around the world started poking at the cube. There was a stupendous prize inside that would take players, working in unison, ages to unlock. Presumably to alleviate boredom, Curiosity gamers tried to make their mark, by chipping out the shape of some letters or a simple picture.
According to an official time stamp on Twitter, in the wee hours of November 5, some players had actually already downloaded into the game. They were cracking blocks. And on day -1, what did they etch into that massive blank block?
Why are people doing this? Oh, this called for investigative report, of course! This article, which is all about the results of that investigation, is, obviously, NSFW...
Who isn't familiar with this irrepressible urge to draw a penis in a game? Or, hell, to draw one anywhere?
Not that I've done it. Maybe you haven't either.
But, in gaming, as in so many other areas of life that provide a canvas for expression, drawing penises is nearly an automatic thing. Why do people do this? Are they acting out? Are they testing the limits—as gamers in particular are wont to do—of what they can technically get away with? Of what they can pull off in a system that may not be designed for them to do such a thing?
We don't talk about it much, other than to giggle or smirk or just shake our head. If you look around, though, you'll see this stuff everywhere.
Look, if you think a game will allow it, you can assume someone's drawn a penis in it.
The new SimCity, for example.
Minecraft (45 blocks long, 27 high, and 13 blocks wide)
Call of Duty
Skyrim (From gamer Papidamelo's "XXL Penis Flaccid Cut and Uncut Nude Male" mod, downloaded about 6,000 times since its creation in February 2012 and the rare example in these mods of a male modder suggesting they're adding a penis to a game because they find them attractive "Not everyone playing skyrim is str8," he's written on mod message board.)
Scribblenauts (Well, ok, not really… but they tried.)
Even if you think it's not possible to draw a penis in a game, people have done it.
Grand Theft Auto IV? Penis-bike.
Battlefield 3? Gamer Oli Gill drew this one with virtual C4.
Why is this?
For the last six months I've not come up with a good answer. I've been asking. I've asked game designers. I've asked gamers. I've asked scientists. I haven't been investigating this constantly. There are, truth be told, better things a reporter can do with their time than to keep asking why people seem to love drawing dicks.
Nevertheless, I did inquire. A bunch.
"There are many different possible explanatory frameworks for considering this question: Freudian, Marxist, Feminist, Deconstructionist, Evolutionary-Psychologist, Existentialist, etc," game designer and head of New York University's game studies program, Frank Lantz, told me last fall when I began to interrogate the matter.
"You might as well use the question ‘Why do people draw dongs?' as a proxy for ‘Why are we here?' 'What is the good life?' ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?' or any other Big Philosophical Question."
We probably all have good guesses, right? People draw penises because they think it'll shock people or because it's one of society's few visual taboos and because they're not that hard to draw.
I live in New York City, and if you keep your eyes open for them, as I have, you'll spot penis graffiti all over the place.
Around the corner from the office.
On the C-train.
It's part of our culture.
In the 2007 movie Superbad Jonah Hill's character confesses that he spent his childhood drawing pictures of penises.
Or go all the way back to the oldest petroglyph ever discovered on Earth. We're talking about the oldest rock carving by a person anywhere. Carved, scientists say, supposedly about 10,000 years ago.
Here's a sketch that illustrates the carving's elements, via our friends at io9.
As prepared as you may be to see someone draw a penis in any and every game, it can still be jarring to see, say, Sonic the Hedgehog replaced with one.
But of course you can:
The creator of this bit of outsider art is a YouTube user named Daku Neko, who makes a lot of mods that replace characters with, well, not always penises. You've seen Sonic replaced with a penis. Daku Neko also replaced Sonic with the Wind Waker version of Zelda hero Link… and with the Pokemon Lucario. Each of those videos is about a 50th as popular as the Sonic-as-penis one.
I recently reached out to Daku Neko to find out why he does this stuff. No response yet, though my message to him may simply not have reached his residence. According to Skype contact info, he resides in "fuckville." He'd announced the mod on YouTube with the line: "FUCKING PENISES EVERYWHERE." So much for making that the headline of this piece.
UPDATE: I heard from Daku Neko, who writes: "Why did i make a penis mod for Sonic Generations? BECAUSE I'M BAT-SHIT INSANE!"
That question of "why would you do this" is often met with a "why not"? But it also seems to act almost as a universal challenge, as if we as a society have agreed that there's one thing that is potentially creatable in any game and that everyone has a shot at making it. And that something is, it seems, a penis.
That's the message I feel I'm getting from gamer "illegalmonkey", who posted a helpful video on YouTube showing how to make a penis in the character editor of fighting game Soul Calibur V.
"Why make this video you ask?" Illegalmonkey asked of illegalmonkey in the description below the video. "Why, to showcase the character creation tool in Soul Calibur 5 of course!! And c'mon, let's face it. If Namco didn't want us to make shit like this they wouldn't have given us the tools to do so, so exactly!"
He's by no means the only creator of penises in Minecraft. Still, it seems, that he got some flak for making them and felt the need to offer the following defense below his video: "Just because I made a penis in minecraft it doesn't mean I'm gay. I have been dating the same girl for almost 3 years now. As for me not 'having a life', Minecraft is a hobby of mine. I want to make minecraft videos for a living, so I need to put my time and effort into it. I already have a fulltime job, and go to college. I would call that a life. I built this for the sake of having the title of "first functional minecraft penis" built. I obviously don't need this, and there is no purpose for it. I just seen it as a fun challenge. Subscribe if you want to see more."
Minecraft may be today's premiere video game for drawing penises, but before that game there was Spore. The ambitious evolution simulator included a malleable creature creator that enabled people to make adorable or horrifying creatures in virtually any shape that you'd normally be able to mush clay into.
The creature creator was released before the game, which means that before there was Spore there were already Spore penises.
"I do know that I was very pleasantly surprised by the awesome creatures the Something Awful forums produced when we released the creature editor ahead of the game," game designer Chris Hecker, who helped make Spore told me last year. Here's a batch of those creations. "They were incredibly creative, and sure, there were a few dongs, but for the most part the creatures were amazing and intricate and thoughtful, even the Sporn ones!"
An example of a Spore "dong."
Something Awful users didn't have the monopoly on Spore penises.
There are plenty:
Here's a how-to.
And there's this one which more than 400,000 people have looked at on YouTube:
"I do think the "push the boundaries" instinct is important to how games work for people, too," Hecker said, but he doubts that gamers are any more drawn to drawing penises than, say, kids who scribble on school binders or people who are sitting in bathroom stalls with a writing instrument at hand.
The late game designer Jeff Freeman noticed all this dick-drawing and coined a wonderful phrase: "Time to cock," or, "The amount of time it takes a player to use player-created-content tools to create a penis. Measured in microseconds."
Freeman's phrase is funny. It's also perfect, because it encapsulates the sense of gamers racing to draw these penises within contraints seemingly not made to permit this action. That they do draw them isn't just a marvel of misbehavior but often a milestone of ingenuity.
The online "urban dictionary" traces the "time to cock" notion back to the late-90's massively multiplayer online game Ultima Online. Supposedly someone realized that you could take fish in the game and lay them on the ground in a pattern for others to see. The pattern they chose was a penis.
"Every time we've given people the ability to arrange things of their own-bread, ships-inevitably people want to leave a mark that people recognize," Ultima's lead creator Richard Garriott recently told me when he recently visited our offices in New York. That mark they leave, he said, is "not just something like ‘Killroy was here,' but something that was purposefully shocking or affronting. And if you're going to draw a purposefully affronting and shocking thing, a stick and balls is a pretty good easy basis to create a reaction."
Like Hecker and others in gaming, Garriott doesn't think this tendency to draw penises is unique to gamers. He also doesn't think it always has to be shocking. In come cultures, it's not.
"People's proclivity when brought into a new world to want to mark their new territory most commonly with things with a phallic nature, I actually do think this is something that transcends games," he said. He cited primitive art and its three common variations: beautifully symmetric objects made with skill, such as spear tips; images of big-breasted women or phalluses.
The globe-trotting game developer told me that he and his wife recently made a trip to the nation of Bhutan, country that had been isolated from Western culture for a long time. He recalled them attending a fertility ritual. "It is interesting to note that in all of the country of Bhutan, this is the decoration," he added, handing me a color print-out of the following:
"This is what we found all over the doors of people's houses…
"Painted on the sides of buildings…"
"All through downtown areas is the cult of the ejaculating phallus. No one was shy about it. It wasn't considered obscene in any shape or form. It is clearly something that is universal that transcends games."
I sought scientific expertise to find out why people do this stuff. The response I got from psychiatrists and psychologists amounted to "good question" and "I've never seen a study about it."
Author Tom Hickman's book "God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis" ("a blow-by-blow account") is full of fascinating and uproarious details that even explain where words like "dick" and "cock" come from, but it too fails to fully explain this obsession.
"I am not sure I know the answer to your question but have some suggestions," the bio-psychologist Nigel Barber recently told me over e-mail.
He rattled off some ideas, which I do think help. "Male genitals are covered in most societies even if people wear no other clothes," he offered, "Implication is that genital display is potentially rude or offensive."
And in the animal kingdom? "In squirrel monkeys and other species, the erect penis is part of an aggressive threat display. Mandrills also said to have automimicry of genitals in facial display according to early German ethologist Wolfgang Wickler. Possibly applies to humans?"
Jesse Bering, author of "Why is the Penis Shaped like That?" gamely tossed around some ideas: "First, I'd be willing to bet that nearly all such phallic graffiti were by male hands. I can't imagine girls/women scribbling naughty images of penises to the extent that boys/men seem preoccupied with doing so. If one wants to get a bit Freudian, perhaps it's a way of making public what one isn't allowed to show in public otherwise, a sort of symbolic "unzipping" which may bring some catharsis. It's exhibitionism but not quite exhibitionism, if you catch my drift."
"My first instinct is say that the dick joke never goes out of style — especially for adolescent males," Nando Pelusi told me. He is a contributing editor at Psychology Today and a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavior therapy was willing to take a swing at this too.
"Pubertal male primates show their genitalia only after status has been achieved through either brute strength or brains," he said. "In fact genitalia get attacked directly by male primates defending their territory from intruders, because the penis is the locus of competition. Status, for humans and other primates, means access to mates, a very competitive thing."
"In an anonymous context, like most graffiti in the modern world, a drawing of a dick is a proximate way of signaling in a manner that is not easily ignored something that most males wouldn't do publicly (at least from an evolutionarily relevant point of view) because it would get called out or punished."
"Usually, penises get covered or sheathed, otherwise males tend to feel very self-conscious; I think that shame evolved as adaptation to social forces that had real consequences for most of human history where punishment and group cohesion could mean life or death, especially for males establishing their status, so graffiti is usually done secretly and anonymously. Few people are indifferent to an erect penis, because it is either a challenge, or come-on, or declaration of status. Males do most graffiti, and pubertal males are most interested in their newfound obsessions; anything relating to status, making your mark — sometimes literally."
"Males compete for females, and the erect penis is a flag that gets unfurled only when you're very confident — unless it's done with a crayon late at night (what we might call the "pussy's" way out)."
As much as gamers draw penises in games; game developers, officially, don't. We may see breasts a fair amount in games. But penises? It's shocking and rare when a developer puts one in there on purpose.
Nevertheless, everyone's got a good anecdote about penis-drawing in games. Since I started telling some colleagues I was looking into this, they'd regularly send me screenshots and videos of the new penises in new games. Developers would always have a laugh about this, too, even though, yes, companies responsibly try to make sure that penis content isn't shown to innocent eyes.
Here's a final anecdote for you, from Jeremiah Slaczka, creative director at 5TH Cell, where, among other games, they created a kid-friendly DS adventure called Drawn to Life. The game let players draw their own lead character and parts of the game world.
"We did a promotion for Drawn to Life, a flash contest where you use the same drawing tool that's in the DS game to make a hero character," he told me a few months ago. "We'd then include that character in the final game as a template you could choose if you wanted. This is a contest, you have to draw something, then fill out an entry form then submit it to us."
"One third of the submissions were penis characters of varying artistic quality."
"Not only did they draw it—have a laugh and then close the window—they had to fill out a form and then know they'd have to submit the work and their info (probably fake) to win a contest which they knew they'd never win. "
"It's THAT compelling."
"It's pushing boundries in its simplest form, like ‘I know I'm not supposed to, but since nothing is stopping me I will. In grade school we did it on paper. [As adults] we don't, because there's no rule stopping us. But inside a game, there is. They know. They want to break the rule."
The original headline for this story was: "The Irrepressible Ingenuity Of People Who Draw Dicks In Video Games"