Going Deep into Love in Games: Just a Heartbeat Away

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“Heartbeat is safety”, “Heartbeat has been a place for connection and exploration”, “I feel spoiled for other game jams, this was something special”*.

Turn by turn, the members of Blushbox Collective read out reflections from attendees at the close of the symposium and I’m close to tears. I’m one of the lucky few who got to participate.

Pause. Menu. Select Chapter.

Arrival.

A little sleepy, nervous, and excited, I arrive at the event space at 9 and the Byron Bay sun is already heating up. My partner, myself, and the others we’re lodging with are welcomed at a front table. Music plays and we say hi to our hosts, Lauren and Kim. I think we’re all a slightly uncertain; queuing, checking our names off, getting tags with mysterious symbols on (from a Star, to a penis, to a bunny, and a fart cloud). The huge warehouse door is shut, but others who arrived earlier are milling about, already in excited conversation clusters. The attendees are highlighted with green, white, blue, pink hair. Sexy clothes, simple clothes, anime or game related shirts and bags we eagerly compliment – a way to say hello to a stranger, soon to be new friend/Heartthrob. After some spontaneous selfies and introductions, I’m pulled away to do sound check with Katie inside. I’m reminded I’m here to present, and my nerves flush a bit, trying to soothe myself and keep it together. Eventually we’re welcomed into the space. 70+ game designers, academics, musicians, artists, sound designers, programmers, writers, and a few oddballs like me. Heartbeat, a symposium and game jam on love, sex, and romance in games. Scanning the crowd there are a diversity of genders, ethnic backgrounds, all shapes and sizes, yet we’re all linked by this curiosity. A passion for a more varied gaming experience and the chance for a deep dive into it this weekend. On introducing myself to the people sitting by me, we find that the three of us are bisexual, a little joy and boost for me as I anticipate my talk.

A welcome by Katie, including some directives – “Try something old in a new way, something new in an old way, and don’t be afraid to fail”. The first talk is by a brilliant designer from the States about first experiences of porn in the 90s, an alternative horror game. Then I’m up, and I do my best to talk through some of what I think psychology has to say about how love and intimacy works. I talk safety and scaffolding, attachment and boundaries, and what it means to reach past zones of threat or productivity into connection. I try to apply these things to games, but also to game designers, the people in the room. I look into audience member’s eyes, searching for that connection myself. I’m met with warmth, delight, smiles, and soon I’m finished, accepting generous applause and back to my seat.

The first day is filled with brilliant talks, ranging from inclusive and sexy boardgames to newer definitions of love as the opposite of abuse. I learn about what sounds make a game scene sexy, romantic, or totally silly. Personal stories, funny stories, vulnerable stories and the skills of creating something out of nothing. In breaks we eat, keep meeting the rest of our group, and excitedly discussing what we’d just heard. I could feel my heart and mind expanding, growing with the nurturance of the environment and people around me, filled to the brim with new ideas and thrilling connections. Once talks were over, we found that the symbols on our name tags actually matched us to our game jam teams. My team was affectionately branded “Startits” after team Star and team Tits fused!

What followed for me was dinner and brainstorming what our collaboration could be, the game was afoot! (not literally, though I suppose this could be a kinky game…). It was incredible how quickly our team of four strangers bonded and created ideas for our game, from a sexy Overcooked, to a consent focused “I Fon-Do!” feeding game. That’s what you get when your brainstorming happens while waiting for dinner. Though I had basically no game creation experience, I felt so immediately welcomed in my group, and I deeply appreciated their varied expertise. What could a programmer, a writer, a game designer, and a psychologist/love nerd accomplish?

Saturday the game jam began in earnest, with teams setting up across the space and starting work. Through the day, specialists ran workshops like intro to programming, building alternative controller games (dildo controller, anyone?), all the way to the basics of Shibari and light bondage. I joined the modular narrative workshop where, between learning narrative theory, we managed to come up with a modular narrative about a poly triad with a new partner, who happened to be a lobster. Let’s just say they really came out of their shell… After some more jamming and lunch, we shuttled people across to the beach, to a little patch of shade under trees on the grass. Here, along with 25 brave souls, I ran a loving kindness and connection workshop. Starting with mindfulness of the five senses to open ourselves to the present moment, we paid attention to the beauty which surrounded us. Moving into a traditional metta, or loving kindness meditation, I guided the group in self-generating feelings of connectedness, directing and expanding focus. Finally, I led the group to open up out loud, forming partners and meeting one another in fullness.

Take a few minutes to just talk with them. Notice three good things about your partner as they speak. Tell them what they are (e.g. Curiosity, Kindness, and Cool Hair). Then each person tells their partner while maintaining eye contact, “I love my Curiosity. I love my Kindness. I love my Cool Hair.” Breaths in between, the only response allowed a brief “Thank you”. After each of these exercises, I heard participants’ experiences; what worked, what didn’t, where their minds went. I was floored by the groups’ openness and willingness to step into growth with me as their guide. I took a moment as people were expressing their self-love to feel the enormity of the loving energy around me. It was sublime, and I’m getting chills and tears just remembering now, days later.

Sunday morning was beach time for a lot of us, getting in a well-deserved swim in the heat, and honestly, just queering up Byron Bay beach a heck of a lot! What a bunch of hotties. That evening we presented our games, which included physical games, video games, card games, and a lot of laughing. Startits presented our DIY fanfic, where you play someone writing an erotic fiction and uploading it for reviews – a great opportunity to consensually craft your gameplay experience to the level of intimacy or hilarity that you wanted. We played as a whole cohort, getting selections from the crowd and acting it out as we went. The result was such a thrill, having our creation enjoyed by all of Heartbeat at once!

There were so many moments at Heartbeat, small and large, which demonstrated the power of humans connecting with joy, passion, and earnest engagement. Debating dialogue for our game with our feet in a kiddie pool. Laughing about alien genitals. Trading stories of awkward sex moments. Late night serenades on the ukulele before a live action version of a cuddle pile card game. Midnight swimming with bioluminescent bugs. There are too many moments to mention, and I’m sure hundreds more that others experienced. Heartbeat was fantastic while we were in the moment of it, and on reflection, something incredibly special that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. My utmost thanks and appreciation to the organisers, and every single person who attended or supported it to make it such a beautiful event. I’m hoping we can all go back again in the future.

*phrases roughly remembered.

(Games from Heartbeat2018 are soon to be available on itch.io, check out the program for the event and Blushbox Collective here.)