Gay cruising game The Tearoom conveys the perils – both historical and frighteningly current – of not being ‘proper’
Developer Robert Yang’s latest title gamifies the risk-ridden process of cruising public toilets for anonymous sex, replacing penises with flesh-coloured firearms to both sidestep a Twitch ban and pick holes in US gun culture
In 1962, police in Mansfield, Ohio police set up hidden cameras in a public bathroom to record consensual sexual activity between men. An artist named William E. Jones, who was born in Ohio that same year, later found the footage online. He edited out a voiceover that he described as “as illiterate and hateful a text as I have ever heard committed to film”, and released the result in 2007 as a “found footage” documentary called Tearoom (US slang for a public bathroom in which men meet to have anonymous sex).
The footage reveals that the men involved were diverse in appearance – and presumably background – but all were wary. And with good reason: many of them were later arrested. Public bathrooms have long been a battlefield where LGBT people are targeted by the law.
Recently released video game The Tearoom is about the experience portrayed in Jones’ documentary: cruising public toilets for anonymous sex. It was created by Robert Yang, an indie game developer and artist who has released a number of short, often funny games about gay sex and culture. These include Cobra Club, an explicit-picture simulator; Hurt Me Plenty, which explores consent and BDSM; and Succulent, which was inspired by “homo hop” music videos.
The player’s goal is to engage in sexual acts with other men – but before that, you must wait for someone to enter the bathroom, and then engage in a ritual that involves repeated periods of prolonged eye contact, all the while keeping a look out for the police.
“A lot of it is based on this sociological study by Laud Humphreys called ‘Tearoom Trade’,” Yang says. “[He] actually calls it a game, and tries to write out what the rules are and stuff, so it’s almost like a game design document. A lot of it is eye contact, so they’ll be peeing and then they might look at you and then you look at them, and then you look away and then they look away … stuff like that.”
In the game, large icons clearly indicate when it is or isn’t appropriate to look towards the man at the other urinal. It’s like a subversion of the stealth genre, as this time you want to be seen (though not by the cops). Yang wrote on his blog that this mechanic was difficult to design because – as he puts it – “decades of male heterosexual hegemony have trained gamers into thinking of ‘looking’ as a ‘free’ action, with few consequences or results.”
Players who are used to games that pander to the straight-male gaze may struggle to empathise with someone for whom a glance may be punished. If the other man doesn’t want to be looked at, a red eye with a line through it appears on screen. The player cannot move away from the urinal, so the only actions available to them when not soliciting or engaging in sex are to look around, perhaps glancing out of the window to check for cop cars, or to pee.
Ironically, Yang wanted to create his “technologically advanced urinal” (which you can aim a stream of urine into and also flush) as a response to the habit other video games have of providing bathrooms that serve no purpose. “The funny thing is, with tearooms you’re not there to pee at all,” he says. “Peeing is a pretence. Peeing is your plausible deniability as to why you’re there.”
If the object of your gaze is interested, however, enough careful eye contact fills a bar that appears, and he’ll abandon the urinal and approach the camera. This is where Yang’s representation becomes more abstract.
For one thing, a video game representation of sex is a difficult proposition. In fact, sex in general remains a problem for game designers – titles such as Heavy Rain, The Witcher 3 and the Mass Effect series have featured sex, but the awkward character models often make the scenes look ridiculous.
“I tried to look at some sex games to see how they do this, and they’re much worse at embodiment,” he says. “[This is] because it’s less about you being there and more you being a director, creating some kind of scene and watching it from afar.”
Yang’s concession is to have a flapping tongue appear at the bottom of the screen, which the player is then free to use. And there’s another departure: instead of penises, these men sport a variety of flesh-coloured guns.
There’s an obvious parallel here, with video game guns as phallic objects permanently attached to your character (especially in early first-person shooters, where the gun was all you could see of your avatar). But initially this dramatic decision was a response to game-streaming site Twitch banning broadcasts of Yang’s previous games.
“I thought I would just change my depiction of sexuality to something that video games and Twitch would never ban,” he says. At the time of writing, The Tearoom has not joined Twitch’s list of prohibited games.
Yang is also interested in the political implications, and in the “very strange relationship” that video games have with violence and gun culture. On his blog, he also highlights the disconnect between how the US treats guns (for example, with “open carry” laws) versus the depiction or display of genitals, especially if those genitals belong to a transgender person.
Yang’s game is free (or pay what you want) and its interactive nature gives players some idea of the perils – both historical and frighteningly current – of existing outside what those in power consider “proper”.