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Article, Knife Sisters

Bridging the Gap – Steam and 18+ Content

June 26, 2019 • By

This is a post in the series “When your Wholesome, Queer Game is Seen as Very Controversial” in which I’m circling around questions such as: How are we supposed to discuss topics like consent and sexuality with young people, if those topics are banned from almost every platform and hidden behind 18+ walls?

I’m using the process of publishing our dark, emotional, and erotic visual novel Knife Sisters as a starting point for this discussion.

One of the Last Taboos

Sex seems to be one of the last taboos in our society, which leads to us trying to separate it as much as possible from everyday life. (Some might argue that that is not the case anymore, that we are sexually liberated, and that sex is everywhere… and there might be some truth in that. But if you dig a little deeper, what we see around us is rather about living up to sexual ideals and following norms, than actual depictions of or discussions about sex.) When it comes to content, this separation leads to a big divide between the content that is considered ‘natural and safe’, and that which is sexually explicit (and somehow considered harmful). Due to being pushed towards the edge, outside of the norm, the sexual content tends to become more extreme in its expression (think mainstream porn).

A picture of Vicki and Leo kissing

In between those two poles, a large dead space appears. This space could have been populated with less extreme/explicit content that still includes sex as a topic, but since society (platforms, legislators, funding bodies etc.) will try to push the content into either one of the two poles, the space between gets abandoned.

Publishing an Erotic Game on Steam

I have this firm belief that this division is harmful, both for consumers and creators who want to experience and explore sex as a topic – and therefore I was happy when Valve in June 2018 announced they were going to open up the Steam platform to 18+ games. Because, without distribution, the content dies.

In the statement, Valve said that “we’ve decided that the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.”

The challenge is that this problem is not simply about whether or not the Steam Store should contain games with adult or violent content. Instead, it’s about whether the Store contains games within an entire range of controversial topics – politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on. /…/ The harsh reality of this space, that lies at the root of our dilemma, is that there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad. – Erik Johnson, Valve

So, they concluded that the user would now decide whether they wanted to see sexual och violent content or not. (How they’d handle all the other topics they mentioned above is unclear.) Therefore, a Mature Content Survey as well as a Mature Content Description was added for each developer to fill out, to determine how their content would be filtered out, as well as described for users, when approved by Valve. In September, the first Adult Only game was released on the Steam Store.

That was the same month we published the Steam Store page for Knife Sisters, and filled out the Mature Content Survey ourselves. The process was easy, but pretty arbitrary, since it consisted of very few guidelines. And with few guidelines, there will always be ambiguity.

We interpreted the brief guidelines as that Knife Sisters would fall into the category Adult Only since it “contains sexual content that is explicit or graphic”. Explicit is the word that made us choose to tick this box – there are very few graphic depictions of sex in Knife Sisters, but there are explicit descriptions in writing. With no guidelines, it’s impossible to say exactly where Valve intended to draw the line.

Adult Only means Invisible

Being marked as Adult Only means that Knife Sisters will only be shown to people who are logged in (to prove they are over 18), and that have ticked a special box in their settings. What this actually means is that the game will get very low visibility. For many people, it will be as if the game doesn’t exist on the store at all, since the checkbox for viewing adult content is unticked by default. If you leave it that way, and search for the game, the game doesn’t show up in the search results at all.

Don’t forget to tick the box…

Otherwise you won’t see Knife Sisters – only the game’s soundtrack!

When a user who is not logged in tries to visit the store page for an Adult Only game, they will see an error page, with a small text saying that you have to log in to see the content.

ERROR – You’re not 18!

I guess that many users will never really understand that those content settings are there, if this process is not given a little more thought, design-wise.

Steam is Doing the Right Thing – But in the Wrong Way

When Valve decided to allow 18+ content on the Steam Store and give the user the power to decide which content to view, I applauded their decision. I was happy that our game could be published there – because there are many platforms where it can not be sold at all. But they are doing it in a way that makes me feel they aren’t really standing up for their decision.

In Sweden, we have a saying that goes a bit like “to wear both braces and a belt”, which means that you’re taking so many precautions it starts to become ridiculous. To me, it seems like that’s what Valve is doing: They’re trying so hard not to offend anyone, that it comes across as cowardice.


Shying Away from Responsibility

Relying too much on the users as moderators can become problematic, if that means you’re shying away from responsibility – by simply handing it over to the users. Saying that we “allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling” is not enough (especially if you’re not going to stand by it); something that was proven when the publishing of Rape Day was debated. If Steam would’ve had a clearer content policy, and clearer guidelines, they wouldn’t have had to use a statement as lame as saying that “‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam“. (In my opinion, they could even have used their own trolling argument and said that “Rape Day seems to be made just to stir up controversy and test our limits, something we regard as trolling and that is not permitted on Steam”, but they didn’t… With a clearer content policy, they wouldn’t have needed to, either.)

I still think Valve has made the right decision to allow 18+ content on Steam, but there is a lot to be done to get it right. They need to evaluate the whole process of letting users become their own content moderators, as well as how well that is communicated. Functionality-wise, I think that when a user searches for an 18+ game by name, that game should be shown in the search results, but marked. When a user tries to view the Store page without the right permissions, they should see a stripped down version, prompting them to log in/change their settings, and not an error page. In the case when the content is not permitted, the same stripped version could be all you see.

Bridging the Gap

Allowing 18+ games onto Steam could be a step in the right direction toward bridging the gap between “regular” and “extreme” content when it comes to sex, and could open up possibilities for creators who wants to explore topics outside of the norm. But this needs to be more thought-through and based upon clearer values and guidelines. Otherwise, the risk is we’ll just keep repeating our old, boring, stereotypical ways of viewing the world.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Steam though, because they’re one of few platforms where we can actually publish Knife Sisters. Since the big war on internet sex started, fewer and fewer platforms online allow any references to sex at all. I do think Steam has chosen a better path than many others, but I hope their standpoint and guidelines will be clearer in the future.

Article, Knife Sisters

When Your Wholesome, Queer Game is Seen as Very Controversial – a Blog Series

May 15, 2019 • By

On the 24th of April we released our dark, emotional, and erotic visual novel Knife Sisters on Steam and In a series of posts, I will look into what happens when you approach the commercial markets with a game that explicitly aims to explore sex, power and consent.

Knife Sisters is set in a contemporary world, populated with believable characters, progressive values, and proudly represents people of different genders and sexualities. Players can explore emotions, consent, power and dependency in a safe setting, and test their own boundaries regarding sex, relationships, kinks and BDSM, to see what they are comfortable with, and not. The game contains erotic scenes, which aim to entice and arouse the players. Depending on their preferences, that might happen or not. (Read this review in Checkpoint to get the perspective from someone who enjoyed the game but wasn’t all that comfortable with the erotic/BDSM scenes.)

I have been part of the indie game scene for quite some time now, working in the games industry since 2006. During this time, an enormous shift has taken place in the discourse around games, that has encouraged me a lot. We have been discussing how games can be made more diverse, both in their content and mechanics, and how they can address experiences and topics outside of the norm. We have seen a movement of queer and autobiographical games, and events such as Lyst, Heartbeat and QGCon (among others) bringing up the topics of romance, love, queerness and sex in games.

But what happens when you take the plunge and actually approach the commercial markets with such a game?

The fact that I’m from Sweden, where we have a rather liberal view on sex, surely affected my views and expectations on this. I could never have imagined how the game would be seen from the outside. I have previously written novels and short stories that explores sex and sexuality in a similar manner, sometimes targeting teenagers and young adults, and that has never been questioned in any way. So I was rather taken aback when I, during the Kickstarter campaign for Knife Sisters, realized how differently a (predominantly text-based) game would be received, compared to written fiction, and how hard it would be to get exposure for the project. I wrote a little about that here.

Knife Sisters was always an experimental venture, and apart from the resulting game itself, one aspect of the project has become to explore boundaries in the outside world, to see how our society measures up to its alleged goals of inclusion, diversity and acceptance.

During this blog series I will make comparisons to see how sex as a topic is handled in different media. I will look into questions around how we are supposed to discuss consent and sexuality with young people, when those topics are banned from online platforms and hidden behind 18+ walls. I’ll comment on stores such as Steam and the age rating process by PEGI. I’ll also look into the fear of the unknown, and  how people might want to distance themselves from topics that could result in shaming from others. I haven’t decided on everything yet, so let’s see where this leads!

In the next post I will look into Steam, and the divide between “adult content” and “regular content”. Stay tuned!

Article, Knife Sisters

5 tips for doing a Kickstarter campaign

February 19, 2019 • By

In november 2018 I did a Kickstarter campaign for the visual novel I’m working on, Knife Sisters. This was in part an impulse move, which I will get back to, and it was instigated by meeting a representative from Kickstarter at IndieCade in L.A. in October, who told me he thought the project could do well there. But it was also because I had the idea of doing a printed tarot deck for the game, and for that I would need some more funding. Those two things made me decide to give it a go.

The tarot cards of my dreams

To be able to keep the deadline of releasing the game in spring 2019, I soon understood I had to do the campaign pretty much straight away. The tarot cards would be part of the game, and I needed time to implement them, after a potentially successful campaign. Doing a campaign in December wasn’t an option, and in January it would be too late, so I decided to go in November.

The campaign was launched on October 30, just about 2.5 weeks from when I decided to do it. This, my friends, was not a well thought through decision.

The campaign was successful, but not until the very last days, and it brought me a lot of headaches, stomach-aches and also many surprises. Below I’ll go through what I learned, and what I think is important to know and do before launching a campaign. Some of these things I managed to do well, some not that well, and some of them I didn’t do at all, but wish I had.

0. Don’t do a campaign on impulse

So, there, I said it. Just don’t do it! Crowdfunding campaigns are too complex to be done on impulse. You’ll see why below.

1. Do your research

And then I really, really mean: DO YOUR RESEARCH! I didn’t do enough. Partly because I had been part of two successful campaigns previously, so I thought I already had some insight into the workings of Kickstarter. But those campaigns were for other types of projects, and they were done in 2012 and 2015 – and since then, a lot has changed.

I did look into some campaigns for other visual novels before starting my own, but I didn’t do it enough. I did the mistake of looking mainly at successful campaigns, when I should have been (also) looking at those who didn’t succeed. If I had done that, I would have known to set my funding goal a little lower. Here are some interesting statistics about visual novels on Kickstarter, and here are some about games in general. The lesson learned is that it’s important to know the difference between different kinds of projects.

A list of crowdfunding campaigns to be found in the group Visual Novels on Steam

I’m not a forum person, but I should have forced myself to become active in the forums surrounding VN:s before starting the campaign, because just hanging out there made me learn a lot about campaigns for this specific medium. I started taking part in them only after I’d already launched – and at that point it was too late to change anything.

2. Plan as much as possible ahead

This I knew from having taken part in campaigns before. When doing the campaign for Words of Oz, me and my then business partner planned almost all of the content for the updates ahead, and I repeated that process for this campaign. I planned to update every third day, and this worked out well. I was generally pleased with the campaign page and everything around it – here I think my experiences from previous campaigns paid off.

The reason to plan updates, as well as all the other marketing and communication content and actions, in advance is that when the campaign launches, you will be completely absorbed by just doing everything (for example writing messages to everyone you know), and then doing creative things, such as creating interesting content, can be overwhelming.

3. Market in advance

With only 2.5 weeks between decision and realization, I had no time to market the campaign in advance. This was a mistake, and showed that I relied too much upon how Kickstarter had been working in the past. In 2012, pretty much the golden age of crowdfunding, you could do a campaign without marketing it in advance. You could also do a campaign without already having an audience. This is much harder today, and from what I know now, I wouldn’t recommend it. You need to have at least 2-3 months to market the project and the campaign beforehand.

If I would have done that, the hurdles I ran into while trying to market the campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (read more about that here) wouldn’t have come as a surprise. I did only try to buy ads for the campaign when the campaign had already started, and it turned out to be impossible, since the game includes adult content. This kind of game needs to be marketed differently, something I had too little knowledge about. Not being able to buy ads on social media I think affected the outreach of the project quite a bit, and if I had taken that into consideration, I might have lowered the funding goal.

Ad banned from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook: You said the word kinky!!!

I should also have contacted the press beforehand, trying to make sure to get some coverage. I put too little time into communicating with the press, both before and during the campaign, relying too much on social media, which I in the end couldn’t use as I’d expected.

4. Test your rewards

One thing I worked really hard on before launching was the rewards and the whole look and feel of the campaign. I was happy with the content, and we had some really nice rewards, especially the physical tarot deck, but they proved to be too expensive. People told me afterwards that they really wanted the tarot deck, but couldn’t afford it. I should have asked for feedback on the reward tiers before launching. Once again, this can’t be done if you’re in too much stress to launch, which I obviously was.

5. Don’t do it alone

Last, but not least: team up with someone that can help out with some of the actions that have to be done during the campaign. It’s very stressful to do all of it by yourself, especially if the campaign is not working out as intended. Share the work and the worries with someone, not least if it’s your first campaign. I did have help with some tasks, such as shooting the video, and I definitely had some good support from team members and people in my network, but if I’d go again, I’d try to share the workload even more.

Looking back, I still don’t regret doing it.

In the end, the campaign succeeded, despite me making some mistakes. The project has definitely benefited from everything that happened, and I learned many things that will be valuable when the game launches. The project reached new people and got some well-needed attention. But if I would do it again, I’d do a lot of things differently … and I’m not sure I ever will, because of how stressful it is.

But if I do, I won’t do it on impulse.

(Please, please, please brain, listen carefully now: don’t do it on impulse!)


Playing with Power – BDSM in Games

October 15, 2018 • By

How are BDSM and power dynamics represented in games, and what can that teach us about love, life and games?

In this blog post I’m exploring what BDSM and games have in common, and how BDSM and power dynamics are represented in indie games. It’s based on the talk “Explicit Power Dynamics – BDSM in Games”, that I’ve given at Lyst Summit 2017, and at QGCon and IndieCade 2018. A video recording of the talk from QGCon can be found here.

BDSM is about playing with power dynamics

BDSM is an umbrella term for a number of sexual or erotic practices. The abbreviation stands for Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism. It’s often also grouped together with fetish culture, from the outside often characterized by fetishized materials and clothing, such as latex and PVC, uniforms, and bondage-like harnesses, but what which can be so much more than that.

Within the subgroups of BDSM there are an almost infinite number of expressions that BDSM can take, all having something to do with playing with power dynamics. There is shibari, japanese bondage, edge play, involving for example blood and other body fluids, there is role-playing, for example age play and pet play. For the uninitiated, some of these practices can seem a bit scary, but for those practising them, they are considered positive and are often empowering for the individual.

BDSM is still outside of the norm. For a long time it was considered a mental illness, but the last couple of years this view has changed a bit. BDSM has become part of popular culture, for example through the book series 50 Shades of Grey by EL James and the feature films based on the series.

Flavors of BDSM is kind of a common ingredient in manga and anime, especially in boys’ love, and in anime ships – fan works in which fans pair up characters from anime, manga and games. And lately we have seen fetish expressions take a place within fashion. In fashion-based subcultures such as pastel goth, no-one raises an eyebrow if someone wears a harness or a choker, especially not if it’s pink. BDSM has also become part of some games, for example Ladykiller in a Bind (2016) by Christine Love, where it’s an integral part of the narrative. This is also a game I’m heavily inspired by in my own game creation.

Ladykiller in a Bind by Christine Love

Why is BDSM interesting from a games perspective?

BDSM actually has quite a lot in common with games. When I’m asked to speak about what games are, I often state that games require clear boundaries, clear rules, and clear feedback, among other things. These requirements are also part of the play of BDSM. Because make no mistake: BDSM is play, albeit sexual play – and play has as you might imagine a lot in common with games.

In Homo Ludens (1938) the philosopher Johan Huizinga defines play as:

… a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life’.”

That definition rather does apply to games – but it also applies to BDSM. In BDSM the rules are essential. Consent and communication is crucial. The power dynamics are visible, and clearly laid out for everyone involved. The players of BDSM often have specific roles, and within a play session a number of (often beforehand negotiated) actions can take place. All players join voluntarily and have the power to cancel actions they are not comfortable with, and break the play at any time – sometimes through the use of safe words, and sometimes through participants checking in a lot with each other. But this is of course a matter of communication, and as everyone knows, the art of communication can be a tricky one.

Can power dynamics in relationships be explored through games?

Games are interactive and as an interactive medium, a game’s primary expression lies within its mechanisms, and how those are designed to evoke reactions and feelings within the player. Avery Alder, a game designer from Canada, who designs storygames and table-top role playing games, held the, for me, eye-opening talk ”Imagining Ourselves: Queer Mechanics and Queer Games” at Proud & Nerdy, Malmö Pride, a couple of years ago. A video recording of this talk can be found here.

Alder said that:

Games aren’t slideshows. Games are systems. Systems aren’t objective or neutral. Games present us with the designers’ biases. All mechanics reinforce worldviews & politics. We’ve been playing straight games!”

What I think Alder means is that it is important that we, as game creators, take responsibility for what we present in our games, both topic- and character-wise, but even more so, in the mechanics of the games. Because the game mechanics are the real heart of the game – it’s essence, so to speak. One way of taking responsibility for the games’ essence is through introducing norm-challenging game mechanics. Alder presented in the talk six possibilities for queering games, with concepts such as The fruitful Void and Character Non-monogamy.

Explicit Power Dynamics

Another of the mechanisms that Avery introduced is Explicit Power Dynamics. Explicit power dynamics is about making power structures visible, and to let the players explore or even change them. Power dynamics are often taboo – since talking about power might make people request change … and that makes them even more taboo to play around with. Through making power dynamics visible, we can become aware of how they function, we can process them and learn about how they play out in our relationships – and thus we can also start to challenge them – if we want to.

In Robert Yang’s game about consent, boundaries and BDSM, Hurt me plenty (2014) you get to spank a guy who is standing on all four on the floor. He does like spanking, but he, as every human being, has his boundaries – and you better respect them. But as a player, you have the power to do whatever you like. You can spank him harder than he enjoys, but it won’t go unnoticed. If you surpass the receiver’s boundaries, the game will end and you might even be banned from playing for a while.

Hurt me Plenty by Robert Yang

When playing, I did this, and the feeling of violating another person’s borders was uncomfortable, a physical feeling of cringe, and I felt disgust towards my own actions. Without saying aloud what I would take away from this game, it got to me, simply through my own actions and how they made me feel.

Somewhat similar but very different is the Consensual Torture Simulator by Merritt Kopas (2008). It’s a completely text based game which let’s the player explore how to take on the wish from their girlfriend to be spanked until she falls into tears. It’s a soft-paced game that let’s the player think about how to set up a session and also how and when to end it. Just as in Hurt me plenty, the player is in control over the situation and has quite a lot of power towards the receiver.

Consensual Torture Simulator by Merritt Kopas

Another game that uses the mechanism Explicit Power Dynamics is the tabletop role-playing game Hot Guys Making Out (2013), by Ben Lehman, which Alder also uses as an example in her talk. This game centers around the forbidden passion between two main characters, Gonsalvo and Honoré, who have very different traits. Gonsalvo is very shy and timid, and has a hard time getting his emotions through. Honoré is the opposite. He is decisive, always taking action, and succeeding with what he takes on. In the game, you play one of the characters, and you use regular playing cards to perform actions. Every time Gonsalvo gets to play a card, he gets to tell about his emotions, and express his inner monologue, but he cannot take any actions (except for the special case when a heart is played). For Honoré, the opposite takes place. He only gets to perform actions, and can never explain or talk about his feelings, except as well, when a heart is played.

Hot Guys Making Out by Ben Lehman

This game is not about BDSM per se, but I think it might be the most clear example on how you could work with power dynamics as a game mechanic, letting power differences between the characters be conveyed through mechanisms. Since the power dynamics are so uneven in the setting, it’s also very easy to introduce BDSM play into the game, if you’d like that.

The games that want to be disobeyed

Since games have rules and give players instructions, and players most often voluntarily comply, one might argue that games are inherently dominant and players submissive. In her 2016 Kill Screen article The videogames that want to be disobeyed, Elise Favis exemplifies games that give contradicting instructions, or where players need to decide for themselves which “orders” from the game to obey and not.

One example of that is Tale of Tales The Path (2009), in which at the beginning the player is supposed to go Grandmother’s house and explicitly told not to stray from the path. If you do as the game tells you, the game will end in minutes. It’s first when you do stray from the path, you get to experience more of the game’s narrative.

Another example that Favis brings up is the indie platformer Loved (2010) by Alexander Ocias, in which the game’s narrator gives players rather arbitrary orders, which they can disobey if they want to. The narrator responds to player choices by praising them or harshly dismissing them.

Loved by Alexander Ocias

Favis writes that:

Loved’s confrontational mechanics of obedience and disobedience resemble dominant/submissive BDSM power dynamics and sexual practices. It places you in the shoes of a submissive by putting you under the spell of the narrator’s dominance. Even if you disobey, there’s an impression that you are nonetheless being led by the narrator’s leash.”

The games that challenge obedience gives another mechanical approach to working with power in games. By being self-aware of their mechanisms, they force the player to become aware of those too – and as Favis concludes, thus invites the player to set aside their comfortable routines.

The game and the player

The relationship between the player and the game is by extension also a relationship between the player and the game’s creator. As the one in charge of what the game will demand of players, I as a creator will be part of a negotiation. Putting (negotiated) power exchange and sometimes even violence upfront sometimes poses questions about fiction versus reality, and the players’ own limits.

One of the large advantages with fiction is that we can experience things in ways we otherwise wouldn’t, and therefore the boundaries within fiction can (and should) be a bit freer than in everyday life. In the end, that is one of the main points of play: getting the possibility to perform actions you wouldn’t normally do … to get to explore who you are, when you take a step out of the box. But that of course comes with the risk of players getting uncomfortable. And that is why we most often use content warnings and give players the opportunity to opt out. But even when given a choice to do or don’t, players might transgress their own boundaries, since deciphering and understanding one’s own limits can be very hard.

That said, I don’t think that feeling uncomfortable is necessarily bad when playing games. It might even be the goal, as in Hurt me plenty – you are supposed to feel uncomfortable violating the other person’s boundaries. The power is put in your hands, and you should use your agency wisely.

So, what can all this teach us about love and life?

Something that both playing games and practising BDSM can do for us human beings is offering the opportunity to try out new roles, new ways of acting, as well as making experiences that we wouldn’t get in everyday life. All of this can lead to expansion of the self, opening up for new possibilities. The experiences made in a safe setting, such as in play, can be transferred into everyday life, empowering the person.

To be able to expand and develop as a person, the playing-ground needs to be safe, and the communication with others needs to be clear, as well as based upon respect and trust. It requires a lot of guts to be clear towards others, revealing your secret wishes, fears and desires. This is something most of us try to achieve, failing and succeeding, over and over, in different situations and relationships, throughout life.

One way of practising communication and role-taking can be through playing games. Another way could be through practising and experiencing BDSM. A third – and in my opinion perfect – option is through playing (and making) games about BDSM.