Robert Yang is a writer, artist and games developer from New Zealand. For MIF21, Yang premieres We Dwell In Possibility, a new game created in collaboration with illustrator Eleanor Davis and musician aya, which is the latest instalment in MIF’s Virtual Factory series. Alim Kheraj meets him.
Robert Yang’s games have always tried to mess with the player. ‘The most important aspect of working with games as this artistic, cultural medium is the audience that you can reach,’ Yang says. ‘Normally, you really can't reach this 18-24 straight male audience. But with games, you’re basically beaming directly into their brain. So I kind of make games to fuck with that audience a bit.’
He’s not joking. Undoubtedly, some unsuspecting players will look at the high-quality textures and expert rendering of his work and assume they fit into a familiar video game canon. But once they start playing their minds will be blown. In Stick Shift, players take control of a gear stick, stroking it in order to bring a car to climax. With 2017’s The Tearoom, you’re transported to a public toilet in 1960s Ohio in a humorous but thought-provoking history of cruising, sexual surveillance and prosecution. Cobra Club, a character generator in which you design the perfect penis, is a commentary on dick pics, hook up apps and selfie culture, while Hurt Me Plenty explores BDSM and consent, and male shower simulator Rinse and Repeat touches on competitive machismo and the importance of anticipation in sex.
‘There’s a whole debate that happens in gamer culture about whether games are political or not. Obviously, my games are explicitly political, but I'm trying to argue that all games contain some form of politics, contrary to what a commercialist practice of games might suggest, where they're considered apolitical,’ Yang says. ‘I'm also interested in how games affect our lives. A lot of straight people might ask why it's important to have gay people in video games. But if you're growing up and your primary form of art and culture is video games then it's super important. Whatever media you're consuming bleeds into your life and helps you make sense of your life.’
Yang has continued along this sexual and political seam with his latest game, We Dwell In Possibility, commissioned by MIF as part of Virtual Factory, a digital series launched in anticipation of The Factory, a new real-world arts and culture space being built in Manchester. However, unlike his previous work, We Dwell In Possibility has forgone the 3D PC-gaming graphics and instead centres around a smartphone browser compatible 2D aesthetic. ‘I've wanted to make mobile games forever,’ Yang explains. ‘But Google and Apple have strangleholds on their app stores over what apps are allowed. So the browser is the loophole that, somehow, Google and Apple haven't closed off from everyone's phones.’
Similarly to his previous games, We Dwell In Possibility is a simulator, although one more in the vein of SimCity or The Sims. From an arial perspective, players take control of a garden which is slowly populated by ‘peeps’, simulated AI people who move around the world alone or in crowds. The peeps, which the player can direct but not entirely control, bring and plant objects such as trees, coffee, soundsystems, shops, police stations, statues, tents and colossal butt plugs into the environment, with the player left to decide what stays and goes.
Over the course of about 10 minutes, players see how the behaviour and identities of the peeps respond to the environment around them. For example, by allowing the peeps to place police stations, statues and shops, the player may start to notice that peeps start sporting Union Jack hats and removing more controversial items like butt plug obelisks. Or if a player’s garden is purely queer, they may see peeps removing statues and rainbow flags might appear. As Yang puts it, ‘The player improvises a virtual heaven or hell, or more likely something both at once.’
Yang says he was inspired by a crowd simulation game called Kids, created by Mario von Rickenbach and Michael Frei. However, he felt that the game world was devoid of politics and too structured: ‘I wanted something that was loose and messy and chaotic,’ he explains. Not having experience in 2D animation himself, Yang collaborated on the visuals with cartoonist and illustrator Eleanor Davis, an experience that was not only rewarding and fun but also helped stave off feelings of isolation during the pandemic.
We Dwell In Possibility is very much about ‘bodies, politics and sex’, although Yang describes the game as a ‘virtualisation’ of these topics. ‘I feel like virtual is a really complicated word that we use all the time without thinking about its meaning,’ he says. ‘I use it to mean digital all the time, but the word virtual actually has this complicated history in what it means. Does it mean potential? Does it mean fake and deceptive? Does virtual mean that something can be many different things instead of just one thing?’
This virtuality extends to everything from the lack of total control the player has over what items the peeps bring into the world to the bodies of the peeps themselves, whose gender, sexuality and body type is randomly generated in a deliberate attempt to displace normative ideas of sex and gender, and push against the body fascism often found in video games. This fluidity, Yang suggests, mimics society. ‘It's someone sharing their control of a space with other people, trying to collaborate to think about what the world should look like,’ he adds. ‘In the game, sometimes you'll place something and someone will come along and move it. Why are they moving it? Well, it gives the simulation a personality.’
This kinetic element of the game also highlights a dialogue that both the peeps and the player are engaged in with their environment. What is a garden or park, after all, but a conversation between humanity and the ecosystems of the natural world? But there’s a political question about the form and function of public spaces, too. Like The Tearoom, Yang was interested in the history of cruising among men who have sex with men and the relationship between queerness and public space.
‘Why can't the purpose of a park be to be a place for men to have sex with each other?’ Yang asks. ‘We can do that and also protect children. We can also do that and maintain that other people can use the park in these other ways. Why aren't the needs of this part of the community and population also considered? Why aren't they just as valid or just as part of the public as these other things?’
This argument can be seen running through conversations about what are the ‘appropriate’ displays of queerness in public spaces, as exemplified by recent debate about whether kink should be allowed at Pride parades. ‘You could argue that this game is also a kind of pride parade simulation,’ Yang says. ‘The peeps are technically just marching across the screen constantly, so it could be a Pride parade, and you're considering what should be allowed there. To an extent, our survival depends on that: whether society approves of our sexuality or gender identity. That's a public issue, so of course we should be invested in these issues surrounding public space and how it’s used.’
'Discussions around activism, politics, the politics of statutes and the politics of the internet don't have to be terrible. They can be pleasurable.'
But We Dwell In Possibility is not didactic about its politics, something Yang says is clear from the balanced nature of Davis’s illustrations, which neither condemn nor condone the player’s choices. Rather, the game asks players to interrogate not only the game world they’re immersed in but the world around them, too. It also asks the player to consider pleasure.
‘On a basic level, the peeps have a lot of possibilities for pleasure. They can dance, they can eat something delicious, they can make out with each other, they can enjoy their surroundings,’ Yang says. ‘But I think it’s also just pleasurable to tinker and play around with this world. I think that speaks to a queer politics and how that treats activism. Discussions around activism, politics, the politics of statutes and the politics of the internet don't have to be terrible. They can be pleasurable. Saving the world and figuring out how to fix everything can be great. It can be orgasmic if we want it to, we just have to want that enough. I'm trying to imagine pleasure as something that's not selfish or apolitical but rather something that can be tied to politics and seeing a better world for ourselves.’
Alim Kheraj the author of Queer London and is a journalist based in London.