What follows is an edited transcript of my talk at YOU, PORN, a conference on the logics, aesthetics, and ideologies of post-photography organized at IULM University on June 7, 2019, as part of the 2019 Milan Photo Week.
I gave a short presentation titled I LOVE DICK(S).
Hello and welcome.
Unlike the previous talks, which described emerging phenomena, I will discuss a case study, specifically Cobra Club, a free photo studio video game about body image, privacy, and dick pics developed by Robert Yang, released in 2015 and 'remastered' in high definition in 2016.
Robert Yang is an American video game designer, currently part of the faculty of the NYU Game Center.
Yang creates games about gay culture and intimacy.
Among his most celebrated works are a male shower simulator titled Rinse and Repeat,
A bathroom sex simulator titled The Tearoom,
A car sex simulator titled Stick Shift,
A sexy gay music video editor titled Succulent,
And many more...
Heads-up: if you are interested in the topic, Yang will be at IULM University on June 19, to deliver the final GAME TALK of the year, aptly titled Sex in games. You've been warned.
So, what is Cobra Club about?
Ok, let's take a look at this short walkthrough video:
Basically, Cobra Club is about exhibitionism.
The game takes place entirely within a bathroom. You play as a man who's eager to take a picture of his dick and share it. His goal is to impress other people who can comment via a smartphone. Your audience is a) anonymous and b) simulated, that is, entirely controlled by a computer.
As a photography simulator, Cobra Club is relatively simple, especially compared to the photo modes available in contemporary video games, which have reached Photoshop-like levels of complexity and sophistication.
Nonetheless, the software is quite versatile. The player can move the camera to frame the picture, zoom in and out, and apply filters and extra effects, including the ability to change skin tones. Of particular interest is a "dick slider" located on the upper left side of the screen that allows you to change the status of the virtual penis, from completely relaxed to fully erect. In other words, the slider simulates the effects of Viagra. It is worth noting that taking a good dick pic is harder than it seems.
It is also important to state that while the player's penis is clearly visible at the center of the frame, the character’s face is blurred and pixelated for reasons that will soon become clear.
At this point, you may ask: Ok, why are you talking about this?
Firstly, because I’m interested in video games.
I am not simply interested in games as texts, environments or practices, but also in their design.
As the program manager of the Master of Arts in Game Design at IULM, I am especially interested in games that push the boundaries of the medium, raise questions, present interesting situations. The goal of our program is to make games that matter, that is, to use games - not films, not novels, not comics - that explore contemporary issues, articulate ideas about the self, society, and culture as a whole.
Cobra Club is a game that matters for various reasons, as I will try to demonstrate in the next few minutes, so bear with me.
Secondly, because I’m interested in post-photography.
Cobra Club is, essentially, about the gesture of photography, digital photography. It's about what André Gunthert calls the "shared image". It's about the social life of images that circulate at the speed of light.
Yang's game is very meta: these are not "real" photographs, these are not “real” dicks, and these are not "real" people.
At the same time, Cobra Club perfectly illustrates the semiotics of a vernacular genre otherwise known as the “dick pic”.
In his 2016 book on post photography La furia delle immagini, Spanish photographer, curator, and critic Joan Fontcuberta discusses the aesthetics of the selfie.
After discussing the origins and evolution of the genre, Fontcuberta introduces two neologisms: “selfphoto” and “reflectogram”.
The "selfphoto" is what, today, we conventionally call a selfie. Here's an example:
As you can see, there is the subject takes a photo by holding the camera with her hand, but her eye is not in contact with a viewfinder, that is, there’s a distance between the eye and the machine.
As Fontcuberta wrote, in the case of the reflectogram
“we take the photo in front of a mirror which, despite always involving a certain randomness, allows for greater control. Without doubt, this advantage explains why the reflectogram preceded the selfphoto, both at the time of analogue photography and with the digital imagination. From the perspective of photographic culture, the simultaneous presence of the camera and the mirror in the reflectogram have significant implications in both ontological and symbolic terms.”
To make a long shorty short, Robert Yang’s game is about virtual reflectograms, and, as we shall see, this has ontological and symbolic implications.
The third reason why I find Cobra Club fascinating is because, as a media scholar, I am interested in the social uses of technology.
In fact, this game is not only about the semiotics of the dick pic, but also about its phenomenology.
In a postmortem of the game published on his blog, Yang wrote:
“Gay dudes have been trading dick pics online for centuries. In gay dating networks, your body pic/dick pic is a promise as to how great the sex is going to be, while your face pic is where you show how attractive and normal and safe you are. (Given the history of gay men being targeted for attacks via gay apps, safety is always a concern.) There's an implicit private life/public life divide.” (Robert Yang, 2015)
He then added:
“Purpose-built gay male dating sites like Adam4Adam let you ‘lock’ certain photos from most users unless you specifically unlock it for them. So the typical use-case is to chat someone up, and then unlock your dick pic for someone to show them that you mean business... except some users are closeted or “DL” (down-low), so instead of locking their dick pic, these guys are locking their face pic. Yes, their dick is more public than their face.” (Robert Yang, 2015)
“This is why Cobra Club pixelates/obfuscates the dude's face, to represent this muddy relationship to identity and context. A lot of dick pics are used to project power and harass people. A lot of dick pics are also about exposure, shame, or fear. Robert Frost might ask us to ponder the dick pic not taken. In this way, perhaps dick pics are about the vulnerability of possibility.” (Robert Yang, 2015)
In describing the cultural phenomena that inspired the game development, Yang mentions the popular (i.e., in 2015) Tumblr site Critique My Dick Pic in which Madeleine Holden posted and reviewed the images of penises that she solicited and received on a weekly basis (during peak time, between 100 and 200).
“In her dick pic reviews, she makes a case for a certain progressive feminist dick pic aesthetic: one that values the whole of a body, the posture, the hand placement, the lighting, the background. She has a particular distaste for gag dick pics, characterizing them as lazy, and she harshly grades ‘log’ pics that prioritize size above all.” (Robert Yang, 2015)
Ok, I just shared three reasons why I find this game so fascinating.
Truth is: a) there are plenty more and b), let’s face it, you probably don’t really care about the reasons why I find Cobra Club so significant. And that’s fair enough.
So, let me tell you instead why I think you should/could/might find Cobra Club interesting.
Firstly, this game says something important about video game culture as a whole.
Yang’s previous games - the ones that I mentioned at the beginning of my presentation - have been cited and discussed by influential YouTubers, meaning that millions of gamers around the world have become familiar with his work. Such "discovery" turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because small, if not obscure, indie productions designe d by a modern auteur have reached global visibility. A curse, because Yang did not necessarily feel comfortable with the way in which some YouTubers have presented and discussed his games. Without going into details, to state that that game culture is openly homophobic is a bit of an understatement. You can check out these videos yourself.
In a sense, Cobra Club is a response to the rise of game videos, that is, the rise of audiovisual commentary practices where games are appropriated, dissected, discussed, and their designers often publicly humiliated. However, Cobra Club is considerably different that Yang's previous productions, where sexuality was only alluded to and gay sex ironically referenced. Here, realistic-looking penises are the main focus of the game play. God forbid, these appendices are often erect! Thus, Cobra Club is not erotic, but explicitly pornographic. It leaves nothing to the imagination: what you see is what you get.
For this reason, Cobra Club cannot be broadcast on YouTube—players would have to censor the game to upload the video, but that would be pointless. Since all YouTubers crave is attention that can be monetized, being flagged and banned by YouTube would be counterproductive. Cobra Club is a game that gamers would love to show - and possibly disparage and denigrate - but just cannot. In a sense, Cobra Club is a form of sabotage.
Secondly, Cobra Club is a commentary of the meaning of privacy and the effects of surveillance.
In this game, surveillance is both local and global.
As Yang writes,
“Dicks pics are often composed in bathrooms because bathrooms afford two important things: a mirror, and guaranteed privacy. In Cobra Club, I attack this privacy in two ways:
First, every 5 minutes or so, your mother will knock on the door and ask if you're doing okay. The fiction is that you're doing this in your mother's bathroom, with some "God Bless Our Home" needlepoint decorating the back wall. (I think it's kind of funny.) The Mom AI will leave you alone after about 20-25 minutes, but not after she hints that she knows what you're doing in there, because, well, a mother always knows.
Secondly, as the player takes more dick pics, and time elapses, the game secretly sends your dick pics to a server which posts it to a public tumblr.
(This server acts as a "middleman" proxy to anonymize your image uploads, and keeps no logs of its own.) After about 15-25 minutes, the player will be bombarded with messages about a government spy database "COBRACLUBB". Tumblr posts contain a dick pic, a partial chat transcript, and a hashtag of a username to show them all their logged posts." (Robert Yang, 2015)
If mum was not enough, Big Brother is watching you.
Such design choice reflects an ongoing tension between the privacy and respect promised by Critique My Dick Pic and the holistic surveillance project highlighted by Oliver Lacan's Can They See My Dick website.
which shows how the NSA and other government agencies are after you and your dick pics, as Edward Snowden publicly told comedian John Oliver in 2015.
Last but not least, Cobra Club is a commentary on culture (and technology) as a whole.
In fact, before starting to play, the player is greeted with this screen:
This is an EULA (End User License Agreement) or, rather, a simulation of one.
Like all kinds of software, games require the user to basically sign a contract, which the user does, in the vast majority of cases without reading the fine print, or without reading anything for that matter.
By signing this contract, the player basically abdicates his rights and privacy.
This decision has repercussions within the gameplay itself, which may led the player to reflect upon the implications of constant surveillance.
As Yang writes,
“At the end of the game, the player is banned on vague and arbitrary grounds because the player legally consented to it by agreeing to the EULA at the beginning of the game. To play again, the player must clear all their account data and create a new account... and so the cycle continues.”
But there’s more.
Until a few months ago, Tumblr was one of the biggest archives of pornographic images on the web.
But in December of 2018, Tumblr officially banned and removed all adult content from the platform. This decision was a paradigm shift for the internet, which affected Cobra Club as well.
Three days after the draconian ban was enforced, Yang patched the game and moved his huge dick pic archive on Twitter. Such migration is probably temporary as the policies of private companies masquerading as social spaces can change on a whim. Besides, Twitter is not exactly known for its tolerant views on gender and sex.
In short, as Yang wrote in 2015, Cobra Club is more than a game: it is an “interface for politics”.
The implication is that in order to grasp our culture, we need to pay attention to games, because as Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “the games of a people reveal a great deal about them.”
And so, the final question is: What do games about dick pics say about us?
LINK: GAME TALK #9: ROBERT YANG (June 19 2019)