Playing with Affections, Digitally
Affection games require players to flirt, hug, kiss, or make love to meet their goals. They are games whose core actions are affections. They are bereft of the complex narratives of dating simulations and differentiate themselves via short, situated play. Affection games are typically about that limited moment of affection, not the time before or after. As such, they are also short game experiences, lasting as little as thirty seconds per level.
In a society that still aligns digital play with violent play, affection games offer sharp and meaningful contrast. Affection games are the make love, not war experience of a contemporary play. These games afford players the opportunity to kiss their favorite celebrity (Kiss Justin Bieber), flirt their way into hearts (School Flirt), or practice pleasing an intimate partner (Give a Kiss Brazil). As a genre with demonstrable growth between 2010 and 2013(Grace, 2013), they offer an engaging and growing set of case studies.
Affection games also serve as cultural perspective on social norms, values and dynamics. They provide hints of the developer’s own biases, demonstrating through game design a collection of philosophies about affection and human-human relationships. As the game making community asks more critical questions about gender, diversity and representation in games, affection games provide specific examples of the tensions therein.
Core challenges in analyzing and constructing affection games include cultural sensitivity and the procedural rhetoric of gender roles. From previously published work it is clear these games are marketed to young women but it is also clear that wider demographics plays them (Grace, 2013). They are particularly popular on mobile devices, where the scale and intimacy of play affords for an arguably more personal experience.
As the game community becomes increasingly self aware of gender inequality and encoded directives, the analysis of affection games provides a several key benefits. Like other game studies it can provide a unique perspective on the values of both the players and the game makers. Just as Brian Sutton’s Smith’s analysis of affection games (1959) provided critical perspective on adolescent life, analyzing digital affection games provides a contemporary peak into their media consumption habits and play. Second it provides an opportunity to effect the trajectory of such design by redirecting the standards. As a relatively young digital play genre, there are opportunities to effect the future of affection games through conscious design. It gives future designers the opportunity to turn misogynistic practice into something pro-social, to turn intolerant parody into tolerant play.
This paper provides an overview of the digital affection games genre, providing examples of the most popular affection games produced by independent developers. It also illustrates the few examples of affection game mechanics used in popular digital games. Following the migration of the genre from websites to mobile apps, the digital affection game genre demonstrates a new quantifiable growth.
Culling data from more than 100 published affection games for mobile devices, this paper aims to provide readers with a key set of considerations when understanding this complex digital game genre. These key observations include:
Certain Affections are more Popular than Others:
As the genre evolves it is clear that romantic affections are generally more popular than non-romantics ones. Games involving affectionate kissing and making love receive more installations than hugging and flirting games. While hugging remains the least popular of the affection games, kissing is the most widely distributed. There are 162 kissing games, toys and interactive guides on the Google Play store.
Cultural standards for expression and definition of affection:
Digital affection games are primarily developed by independent developers based in the Netherlands, Japan, China and the United States. The majority of these games share a cultural definition of affection that is perpetuated by popular western media. In these games people kiss as romantic expression or prelude to more intimate experiences. The result is a playable experience that combines artifacts from romantic comedy, harlequin novels, and a dash of children’s good feeling media. Players sneak kisses at work, despite the pressure of work (Kiss Kiss Office) or they have the rare chance to enjoy a Mermaid’s Kiss (ABC Casual Games).
The distribution of affection games
Any curated collection of affection games is subject to the inherent limitations of the distribution standards. In 2012, affection games were largely distributed via websites targeting female tweens and teens. Aligning with the growth of low cost mobile devices and the relative decline of Adobe’s Flash, developers have ported many of these games to Android and iOS operating system. This new distribution model, comes with a new authority.
In the western world relatively restrictive distributors like Apple’s App Store substantially limit the number of affection games distributed. Google Play’s relatively lax content rules allow for an estimated 12x more affection games (based on parsed game descriptions in Google Play and Apple App Store). In 2013 Apple iOS users had less than 10 kissing games available to them. In the more fragmented Asian mobile markets, the affection game space is dense with cloned games on nearly opposing ends of the censorship spectrum and intellectual property rights.
Affection games seem to be marketing along a single spectrum. The self described “nice” affection games, involving kissing and hugging, are explicitly marketed to females. Their marketing language uses female pronouns, pastel palette and typically posits the player character as female. The red light affection games, involving sexual acts, often provide players with male player character and offer more gender neutral pronoun descriptions.
The Dark Side of Affection
Affection games also avail themselves for a less optimistic reading. Many of the games employ affection in Machiavellian terms. Players flirt merely to collect the hearts of young men or sneak kisses to get the greatest personal score. This is further complicated by affection games that involve alternative sexual content.
ABC Casual Games (2014). Mermaid Kiss. [Android Tablet], Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.abccasualgames.mermaidkiss
AlexKeller (2013). School Flirt. [Android Tablet], Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.alexkeller.schoolflirt
Examobile SA (2014). Give a Kiss Brazil. [Android Tablet], Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.examoblie.giveakiss
Girls Game 123 (2012). Kiss Kiss Office. [Android Tablet], Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.girlsgames123.kisskissoffice
Grace, L. D. (2013). Affection Games in Digital Play: A Content Analysis of Web Playable Games. Digital Games and Research Association (DIGRA) 2013.
JianQing (2013). Kiss Justin Bieber. [Android Tablet], Google Play
Raby, F., & Dunne, A. (2001). Design noir: The secret life of electronic objects. August and Birkhauser.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1959). The kissing games of adolescents in Ohio. Midwest Folklore, 9(4), 189-211.
Vaisaga Project (2009) Charming Girls 2 [Adobe Flash, Online Game] Girls Games Go Hilversum, Netherlands: played 12 February 2013. http://www.girlsgogames.com/game/charming_girls_2.html