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[Review] Passion and Play: A Guide to Designing Sexual Content in Games
Reading industry literature for fun and profit in Naughty List News #77
This week’s edition of Naughty List News was sponsored by Paradise Lust, the erotic dating sim about a stranded pleasure yacht full of beauty pageant contestants looking for a way home.
With Passion and Play, narrative designer Michelle Clough has created a profoundly important work to the art and craft of adult game design. The book examines the design of adult games with the utmost care and respect, something that is unfortunately still a rare occurrence in the literature about game design.
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Thanks to the gracious sponsors of this newsletter, I was able to buy my own review copy of the Passion and Play from Amazon (non-referral link). If you would like to see more of this type of writing from me, please know that checking out the sponsors really helps!
What is the book about?
First published on April 15th, 2022, Passion and Play comes in at 395 pages. The book is spread out over 26 chapters, organized into four parts: “Sex, Games, and Culture,” “Sex and Pre-Production,” “Sex in the Larger Game Structure,” and “The Craft of Sex Scenes.”
First things first, do not be fooled by what appears to be a meager page count. My paperback copy of Passion and Play (bought on Amazon) measures 25 cm tall by 17.5 cm wide and weighs about 800 grams. This is a tome of well-researched academic writing about the design of adult games. But this hefty size and weight also make it a bit uncomfortable to hold the book up for long periods of time.
Each part of the book is extremely comprehensive, covering everything from the design of AAA blockbusters right down to experimental games released by a single person on Itch.io. Passion and Play assumes a base-level familiarity with popular releases like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Inquisition, both franchises which feature romance mechanics and sex scenes. Referencing these games makes the book more accessible to readers who may not be familiar with more esoteric titles, which might have better sex mechanics but also far fewer players.
The first chapter of the book clearly explains that it aims to provide you with a toolbox for critically evaluating the sex mechanics in the game and getting you familiar with best practices in adult game design. It provides you with a sex-positive framework that you can use to check how you’re faring.
And critically, the first chapter explains what the book is not about. For example, the book is not a strict list of dos and don’ts. The author acknowledges that they don’t have all the answers and that what might work for her may not work for you. She’s also focused more on the narrative design of adult games rather than the design of their mechanics. This makes sense, considering her background as a narrative designer.
I also appreciated that the author asked a number of my favorite people to contribute throughout the book: Kris Wise, Souha Al-Samkiri, and Ana Valens are all people who are doing the hard work of pushing the limits of adult game design. If I were writing a book about designing sexual content for games, I would likely have asked the very same people for advice!
How to use the book
Each chapter of Passion and Play is self-contained and ends with workshop questions that you can immediately apply to your own project. This means you don’t have to read every chapter to get the most out of the book.
Passion and Play is definitely an academic text, but Ms. Clough is not afraid to break the mold by sprinkling stock photos and dad humor throughout. The stock photos are all properly sourced, which adds an extra layer of humor for me. (Though I’m weird like that.) The humor may not always land, but I found it to be a welcome respite from what would otherwise be a wall of text.
The second chapter is all about the myths of adult media. For example, while adult media is supposedly only for straight men, the romance novel market is a billion-dollar industry that accounts for 23% of all fiction books sold. And this is a theme throughout the book: the people who make and enjoy adult games are more varied than you think.
The book features many interviews with industry professionals. The author is aware that as a cis-gendered woman who is attracted to men, her perspective on what works best for designing sex scenes may not be universal. She uses these interviews to defer to other experts when it comes to same-sex attraction and transgender experiences. I think this is a really smart choice that highlights how much thought and care was put into this book.
One of the chapters in the book that I personally got the most out of compares and contrasts the design of “Kindness Coins” with a “Chemistry Casino.”
The first is a common design trope in games about sex, particularly dating sims. In this design, the player showers an NPC with compliments, gifts, favors, etc., until they get their desired outcome, which is often sex. This kind of design effectively treats NPCs as Sexual Vending Machines. Put enough Kindness Coins in, and sex rolls out. Even though most adults know the difference between real life and entertainment, the Kindness Coin design can still reinforce harmful ideas about sex and relationships.
After examining the pros and cons of this design, the author provides an alternative. In a Chemistry Casino design, the likes and dislikes of the NPC are put front and center. Instead of responding to direct stimuli like gifts and compliments, the NPCs respond to more ephemeral inputs like a character’s appearance, how they carry themselves, and their decisions during gameplay. This means the player has to consider the inner life of an NPC; they can’t just keep doing the same few actions to increase a “relationship” bar on the HUD.
But what makes Passion and Play such a great and well-researched book is that Ms. Clough does not present this alternative design as a Golden Hammer that will instantly make your game better. She is quick to point out that Chemistry Casinos may be a more realistic model for mapping attraction between characters, but it also makes the design more difficult to implement and harder to understand for your players.
Ultimately, it’s up to you as a designer to figure out what your game, and your audience, require. But being aware of the downsides of your chosen design is extremely useful. Because now you’re making informed decisions about your game design instead of being caught off-guard by audience reception.
If you are interested in making your own adult game or simply want to broaden your horizons as a game designer, you should absolutely get this book. I cannot imagine a university course on sexuality and games that would not have Passion and Play on its reading list moving forward. Suffice to say that I would have loved to have read this book before I started designing my own adult game!
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