Submitted By: Jennifer Estaris
It begins with a touch.
Video games have long been accused of segregating gamers from real life interactions. Gamers emerge listless and bleary-eyed after hours in front of a screen, their lovers snap, untouched and feeling unloved, and after a few restless hours of sleep the cycle continues.
Here Birthmark falls in, with a hope to reconnect couples.
Birthmark stems from massage theories, experimental touchscreen gameplay, and Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, a novel of loss and love. The body is a coded text; as Winterson writes: "Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there."
Like the novel, Birthmark is a journey of discovery. It is a journey to discover the accumulations of someone's lifetime. By 2020, technology will evolve to allow for a new game console accessory: the Body Suit. Today's analog would be the Wii Balance Board, if the Balance Board also had a touchscreen.
The person who wears the Body Suit thus becomes the body-host. The game is controlled by the touch of the player (the person who touches the body-host) and muscle reaction and external response of the playee (the person who is the body-host). The interactions range from a slight touch to a deep tissue massage. It's relaxing; it's beautiful; it's intimate.
Certain areas of the body suit's interface glow, others spin with fractal or other designs, and some areas simply sparkle -- these special effects are the game's "birthmarks". The player's touch and the playee's body's movements affect the playing field. Finding, interacting with, and correctly manipulating each "birthmark" uncover music and poetic text, similar to the body writings from Greenaway's film Pillow Book.
The player and playee work together to learn which is the "correct" manipulation via pattern recognition. But in this game, there is no universal correct versus incorrect; there is simply what feels right to the playee -- what body-shades, what touch-feeling does the playee respond to and enjoy most? The playee responds via the muscle or skin's reaction to a touch (Does she shiver? Does the muscle spasm?) or via external response -- e.g. manually inputting in the degree of pleasure.
When the playee responds positively to a player-touch, the Birthmark system remembers and recommends other areas and touch methods. For example, if the playee enjoys a rolling movement of hands over her back, perhaps she may enjoy a rolling movement of hands down her arm – hence a sparkling waterfall may animate, as if falling from the shoulder to the wrist.
While the player massages the arm in a downward motion, the water image fragments into drops, and the splashing sound quiets to a few drips. Those who enjoy rolling touches fall under a certain “Massage Shade” (e.g. “Shiatsu shade”, as shiatsu employs rolling as one technique). The win condition is discovering and agreeing upon the player and playee's Massage Shade, as well as reaching a point of satisfaction. Gameplay can last anywhere from a quick ten minutes to a luxurious two hours.
On the most basic level, Birthmark helps couples learn about each other's bodies; in the single player version, the person learns about his/her own body. It also teaches basic massage (and brushes on the different methods, whether Swedish or Balinese or Esalen). On a more aesthetic level, Birthmark is about relating our body's energy to our internal energy; it is about stimulating our bodies as well as our minds with others.
Like a Kindle for the body, Birthmark has a wide range of content. The player and playee can select literary texts from innovative writers such as Ben Marcus and Shelley Jackson, erotica and romance, the classics, or even the latest news, stocks, and sports.
Music can range from sensual, Bjork-like tones to fun Electroplankton-style manipulations to calming New Age pieces found in a beauty spa. Massage styles can range in methods as well as theme, so that romantic couples, friends, family, and individuals can partake in the benefits of massage.
The game also includes other modes beyond the exploratory, open-body (as opposed to open-world) sandbox. Players can choose from typical forms of gameplay. One is following a set pattern – think Dance Dance Revolution with hands instead of feet (in most cases) and the playee's back instead of a dance platform.
Another takes word games to a feel-good level – players spell out words on a back, whether for Scrabble-style or Word Whomp-style play. And of course, arcade style gameplay allows players to trace over backs for a Pac-Man-inspired maze escape.
As the years pass, Birthmark's expansions could whirlwind out into how-to's for breast cancer detection, auxiliaries for cuddle parties (which currently exist, see http://cuddleparty.com/), prenatal preparations, combat practice (for self-defense rather than offensive purposes), and dual body-suit use (such as for partner yoga, dance, or even foreplay).
But until then, for now, or rather, for 2020, there is just the playing, the reconnecting, and most of all, the touching.