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What video games can teach us about consent and intimacy

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Consent is a prickly topic to navigate — in society, in sex, even in our own heads. But learning how to properly practice it in a video game space could help educate entirely new audiences, according to speakers at IndieCade East 2015.

The development trio of Allison Cole, Jessica Rose Marcotte and Zachary Miller are responsible for In Tune, a game jam title that evolved into a full-fledged project. In Tune asks players to negotiate terms of physical contact with which they're both comfortable. In practice, this leads to two people talking out their comfort levels with a variety of poses — everything from hugs to butt bumps — and figuring out how to work together or around those poses. The trio's talk, "Staying In Tune: The Importance of Creating a Dialogue About Consent," covered the various ways in which In Tune may be able to help better explore consent.

Cole spoke about modern culture falling short in its consent education, while Miller cited a familiar scene in romantic comedies as a common offender: the man who forcefully plants a kiss on the woman to shut her up or woo her.

"Consent is often taken as implicit," Miller said. "That sort of representation completely skips over the navigation of consent."

There's a pervasive idea that consent is binary, or that it essentially boils down to a simple yes or no, Miller said. Instead, the process is continuous; maybe you have permission for one move, but not another. This goes for both sides of the relationship, Marcotte added.

"This ignores consent as a two-way relationship."

"Another more subtle way that the representations of consent are problematic is the narrative of pursuing a yes," Marcotte said, "or having one person who's giving consent and the other person who asking for it.

"Often men are asked to make sure that they have a woman's consent — which is amazing — but the language used in these conversations frequently centers the discourse around usually women being the ones withholding consent and men being the ones seeking it. This ignores consent as a two-way relationship, and it ignores the constantly shifting intricacies that are involved in true negotiations."

In Tune's developers hope to emphasize consent in situations outside of sex. It should be something you can take into every part of your life, Cole said. The team hopes eventually to move the game into situations in which it can be used to teach at schools, from elementary levels to universities.

"Games are a medium that can bring this subject to new and more spaces than the average consent workshop," Marcotte said. "Players represent an audience that may not have been exposed to consent discussions. This audience itself is exactly one of the new spaces we're hoping to reach. We want you to see it, and to thinking critically about what consent is like in games."

At IndieCade East, attendees also can check out other games that focus on consent, such as Realistic Kissing Simulator and Consentacle.