• The Languages of Sexuality, and how they relate to game design and game play

    by  • June 15, 2012 • Essays • 4 Comments

    One of the first things I do in the sex ed classes that I teach is to talk about how we talk about sex. For most people, in most places, talking about sex is difficult, or at least unusual.  So we talk about language first. There are four main languages of sexuality, and a fifth that is more subtle, maybe a dialect.

    The first is scientific. It is medically accurate, precise, and clinical. It is used to convey exact information, to demonstrate knowledge, and to create distance. For example: coitus, urinate, breast.

    The second is familial. This is the sort of language you use in the presence of your great-aunt or your 3-year-old or your friend’s kids. It’s non-confrontational, it uses euphemism to avoid offense, and it is often silly or childish. For example: special grown-up hug, go potty,  bosom.

    The third is common. It’s what you use among peers to talk about your own body and your own actions. It’s used to convey a casual attitude, to create rapport, and to express connection and humor. For example: have sex, pee, boobs.

    The fourth is vulgar. Language that is emphatic, colorful, or crude. It is used to show vigor, passion, and excitement, but also can be used to oppress, denigrate, and insult. For example: fuck, piss, tits.

    The fifth is the language of seduction, and is unique to each set of lovers, and even each encounter between lovers. What is really sexy to one couple may be really crude or really silly to another. For these reasons, it’s not as easy to define, because it’s not meant for people outside the lovers involved. This is also where you get in-jokes and innuendos that only the couple understand.

    While these are extremely helpful to know and understand in terms of communication in a sexual relationship, they are also super helpful in thinking about game design and game play.  Here’s how.

    Game Design

    This is about how you write about sex.

    Most of the time, you’ll land on the right language by default – these are not secret hidden things,  just things that are not usually articulated. When you have an opportunity in designing and writing your game, think about what you are trying to convey about sex.  This figures in two main ways.

    One, in the tone you use to write the text. Apocalypse World has a tone that demands a lot of vulgar language. It’s assertive, it’s crude, and it has to convey a certain ‘fuck you’, or at least a certain ‘this shit is fucking weird!’  Try to imagine Apocalypse World with familial language. That’s some other game entirely. Perhaps not mechanically, but in the feel of the game.

    In a Wicked Age is full of implied sex, but the language is mostly common – a camp-wanton, an exorcist lusting after carnal congress, a virgin pledged to marry a local stone idol – with the occasional nod to familial or vulgar, just to keep things interesting.

    1001 Nights uses a very elaborate strand of familial language – “I have a taste for a man forbidden to me”  “I am chaste” “My ambition is to lie with the newest wife of the Sultan.” The words are more polite euphemisms, but the meaning is very clear.

    The other is the way you handle sex in your rules and game design. Bacchanal has excellent mechanics for increasing sexual tension or excitement in the scenes. Sex moves in Apocalypse World are as directly about sex, and how sex is to be treated in the game, as any game I can think of.  And all the Apocalypse World hacks that keep sex moves will probably have this too.  However. The way that Apocalypse World treats sex as distinct from rape is amazing. The sex moves are explicitly only triggered through consensual behavior. In 1001 Nights, which has no explicit rules about sex, there are examples that very clearly include sex, as referenced above, and the questions of consent and rape remain open. The utter lack of sex rules in PsiRun conveys that the sexuality of the characters is not at all my focus of the game design – also, that I designed it to include an audience that might not want to encounter sexual language or themes.

    So, as you think about designing game mechanics and writing game texts, consider how you want to address sex and sexuality, what you are trying to say about it, what language you want to use, and what mechanics might best support your intentions.

    Game Play

    This is about how you portray sexual behavior.

    I recently played a great game of  Bacchanal. In the scenario, I played a young house slave named Didius on the run from his master’s house.  As is fitting for the game, there was something really weird going on in the city, and people were being overtly sexual in odd and occasionally inappropriate ways. On the way to his lover’s house, he passed a field where there were several couples having sex, in broad daylight. The mechanics of the game dictated an increase in sexual tension or excitement. I decided he was focused on getting to his lover’s house, but thinking of Octavius and seeing all this sex going on was overwhelming. So he found a sheltered place beside the road, leaned against a tree,  and masturbated.

    But that’s not what I said, because it’s clinical, which is distancing and chills the scene. Even typing in that paragraph feels disjointed, because it’s out of step with the description that preceded. What I said was: “Didius sees that it’s not just one couple, but many couples engaged in sexual relations, scattered all over the field! This is the power of Bacchus overwhelming him – he staggers to a stop beside a small grove of young oak trees. He leaves the road and leans against a tree, watching the field as he begins to pleasure himself.”

    Way more sexy. A euphemism that carries a vulgar meaning. And it fit the tone of the game.

    Here’s the same scenario, in three different games:

    1001 Nights – “Didius sees the field of lovers locked in amorous embrace. It  rouses his passion for his own beloved, and, pausing beside the road in a stand of oak trees, he spills his seed upon the ground.”

    Apocalypse World – “The Maelstrom-induced haze of lust floods the holding. There are people fucking everywhere, in every combination. Didius is leaning up against the wall, watching everything and jerking off.”

    Dogs in the Vineyard – “The demonic influence has manifested as lust, following the false doctrine that having sex in the fields is the only way to ensure a good crop. There are couples scattered all over the field. Didius is transfixed, and, unable to look away, commits the sin of Onan.”

    It’s easy to slide into clinical language to distance oneself from the action, or to go for the vulgar language to make it a joke and break the tension.  Use language that fits your game. Sometimes this means pushing yourself a bit to use words you don’t normally use, like “sin of Onan”, sometimes it means finding a more poetic way to say what you mean, like “pleasure himself.” Being aware of what language you are using can help.



    Meguey Baker has been playing RPGs since 1978. Her most recent game is Psi*Run, a game about people with psychic powers and amnesia, released in 2012. She is currently working on Miss Schiffer's School for Young Ladies of Quality, a game about bold adventurous women scientists and explorers in the 1890s. Meg is also the mother of three sons, a sex ed teacher, and a textile conservation specialist.


    4 Responses to The Languages of Sexuality, and how they relate to game design and game play

    1. avatar
      June 15, 2012 at 16:53

      I think there is also a matter of how specific and how broad sexual terms you use is also something that conveys a lot of information, even when you chose term from the same type of language.

      Sex – Broad
      Oral sex – More specific
      Fellatio – Even more specific and narrow

      The more specific you become, the more images you paint in people minds, and the more you set an expectation that sexuality will something will that will be detailed and specific in the game.

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      • avatar
        June 15, 2012 at 17:26

        Yes indeed. And, there’s a bit of a tipping point there in where the language shifts from broad and often more Common to specific and often more Scientific or more Vulgar. Your progression splits out on the last line, where you choose “fellatio” over “blow-job”.

    2. avatar
      June 15, 2012 at 18:12

      This is a fantastic way of breaking it down. It’s come up in a few games I’ve run, but generally there hasn’t been the need to go into a lot of detail…or it could be because I’m terrible at describing sensuous encounters, so I try to be witty.

      One was “And now the two of you, despite your trappings of wealth, seek the nearest hayloft and entertain one another for the next hour or so.” Another, “It can be safely concluded that you’ve gained a companion for at least the remainder of the evening.” Incidentally, the former game eventually saw the two characters married, while in the latter, the NPC so smoothly seduced by the player was actually the main villain of the story. Had I tried to flower it up any further, one must wonder how it might’ve changed.

      Of course, now I’m going to need to look up “Dogs in the Vineyard”, because describing anything in language that overwrought is fun, and for sex scenes, absolutely precious.

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