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Consensual tentacles: Naomi Clark's provocative card game Exclusive

Consensual tentacles: Naomi Clark's provocative card game
November 3, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander




New York-based veteran developer Naomi Clark is fundamentally a brilliant designer first, a sexual politician second. Though she's been on the scene since Sissyfight, recently she's been speaking about -- and designing -- more works that explore sexuality and queerness.

Her obscure, devilish Sex Mix ruleset challenges you to set your intimate time with a partner or partners to alienating music. More recently, she's decided to develop a card game based around tentacle sex -- more importantly than that, it's about consent.

Despite being frighteningly intelligent, Clark is approachable, conversational about every topic, no matter how arcane. The concept for Consentacle seems similarly familiar, until you unpack it just a little bit.

"Enjoy a mutually-fulfilling romantic encounter with a sentient member of an unfamiliar species," the rules say. It's a game for consenting partners, where one plays the curious human, and the other plays a willing alien. The analog card game design offers players the opportunity to build and Share trust with these tentacled foreigners, and trust can be traded toward the quality of Satisfaction.

The game is cooperative -- the goal is not to beat the other player, but to create satisfaction mutually.

For the imagery on the cards, which depicts interactions between humans and tentacles, Clark drew on the troubled history of the "tentacle porn" genre, as found in anime. "I encountered tentacle-rape porn for the first time in the 90s, when my sister and I accidentally checked some out from the video rental place where she worked during high school," Clark explains in her design notes.

"We subsequently tried to wash our eyes and brains, to no avail," Clark adds. As a Japanese-American, she grew increasingly uncomfortable as she approached college age and encountered 'jokes' from classmates about her family's relationship to tentacle porn.

"The topic became part and parcel of a depiction of Japanese culture that I grew far too familiar with, even though it bore little resemblance to my own experiences living in Japan as a kid and visiting friends and family there: Japanese culture as super-weird, disgusting, sexually obsessed, sexist, and characterized by anime, video games, manga, porn, sadistic game shows, cute schoolgirls eating cute snacks, and so forth," she says.

Adds Clark: "Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy many items among the aforementioned categories, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the 'Japan is Weird' trope as it’s emerged in the West."

So why draw on the "tentacle alien" as a relationship for a card game about mutuality, trust, satisfaction and consent? For clark, the "Tentacle Bento" Kickstarter scandal catalyzed some thinking -- the crowdfunded card game was booted from Kickstarter after it became clear its themes were subtle allusion to the rape of schoolgirls.

"I was one of many people who spoke out against that game, but I also ended up mentioning an idea to Anna Anthropy -- couldn’t you make a game about having consensual sex with tentacled monsters?!" Clark suggests.

"Besides the crucial point of not making players act out rape, it seemed to me like potentially productive (and squirmy) terrain to explore. Different partners negotiating differently non-normative bodies: it spoke to me as a queer creator. After all, creatures with tentacles need love too."

This year's No Quarter exhibition at New York University proved the perfect catalyst for Clark to finally bring her idea to life. It gelled well with her curiosity about sex and relationship games that amounted to mutual negotiations -- more than just the "raising points" archetype commonly encountered in romantic sims.

"As a designer, I’ve always been interested in playing around with systems and rules and seeing what we can do with them expressively — especially in a space of play that involves multiple players encountering each other — so hopefully Consentacle explores some of that and will add to the fruitful intersection of sex and games," she writes.

Clark says Consentacle's mechanics are directly influenced by games of limited communication, like Hanabi or Onirim, as well as by classic puzzles like Tower of Hanoi. "I thought a lot about Android: Netrunner during the creation of this game, because of how that game’s system and interplay feels so expressive of intimacy, vulnerability and relationships between players–albeit one fraught with secrecy, betrayal, and competition," Clark adds.

The game saw a limited but intriguing engagement at No Quarter, although its complete manual is available on her site, and she's interested in hearing feedback from potential playtesters who might respond to her ideas, or who may want to print kits and experiment.

So far, Clark tells me people have been curious about the visual style and the game mechanics, but less interested at the idea of negotiating consent through a game. Fans of tentacles tend to expect less sexy, more "pervy," she suggests.

She's also been surprised at the backlash from people unable to tell the difference between the play environment of mutual negotiations with aliens as presented by Consentacle, and the non-consensual overtones of the widely-panned Tentacle Bento concept.

The confusion may suggest that card games -- which tend to require close social relationships, discussions about rules, and the comfort of all players -- might be an ideal way to demonstrate the differences between consensual sexuality and the destructive power dynamics often presented in media.


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