SEXtember: Game developer Nina Freeman talks intimacy and relationships in her game Cibele
INDEPENDENT game maker Nina Freeman re-created her first sexual experience with a person she met over the internet for her new game Cibele. Deborah Goh caught up with the American game developer to talk about Cibele, sexual awakenings, relationships and more!
American game developer, Nina Freeman, is known for creating small, intimate and unconventional games based on her own personal experiences.
Unlike the majority of developers however, she’s also particularly open about sex in her games — she’s opened up about sexual assault (in Freshmen Year) and her girlhood experience attempting to figure out how sex works via Barbie dolls (in How Do You Do It?).
Her latest autobiographical game, Cibele, is based off her past relationship with a guy she met in an online game. The two of them fall in love and eventually progress that relationship to the point of meeting up in-person and having sex.
Freeman’s bold, honest and unique storytelling style can be found in Cibele and she’s not afraid to give players a taste of her 19 year old self’s world. Players are invited to explore photos, messages and other intimate materials on a version of her own computer on the way to a story about her first sexual experience.
It is personal, intriguing and potentially polarising. Some may relate immediately to the teenaged Nina who came of age and had formative social experiences with people online while others may have trouble connecting with her story.
In our interview with Nina, we discuss all things Cibele: her influences, whether love is possible without the existence of physical intimacy, and the portrayal of sex in games.
Your upcoming game, Cibele, is based on your own experience of falling in love and having your first sexual experience with someone you met over the Internet. You’ve made a concerted effort to create the game in such a way where the player truly gets to experience what you felt in that moment, through your eyes. Why did you choose to produce the game in such a way?
As a game designer, I’m interested in helping players embody characters through game mechanics. As a writer, I’m inspired by the personal poetry of the New York School poets, and poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Langston Hughes. Cibele is where my interest in these two things meet.
It’s a personal game that strives to give players the mechanics through which they can embody my personal story. I am trying to give players the mechanics that help them feel like they can live my experience through the game. In order to accomplish this, I do things like let the players go through a desktop with my personal things on it, as if they’re me, sitting at a chair, browsing the computer.
I think ordinary stories about regular people are really powerful and interesting, so I hope that people who play Cibele will come away with that knowledge, and perhaps a better understanding of what my life is like.
What do you think male gamers who try Cibele might feel or walk away with after playing it from a female point-of-view?
I’m not sure there is a good answer to this question, because everyone will come away from the game with a slightly different experience.
Love, sex, and technology all have different kinds of associations for different people, and those associations will always cause players to experience the game differently. However, it’s true that cultural expectations play a role in how people experience a game.
Women are not often encouraged to talk openly about sex. So, I think many people, perhaps especially men (for whom it’s more socially acceptable to be open about sex), will be surprised at the game’s frankness.
However, I hope that men (and many women) are able to suspend their disbelief while they play the game so that they can better understand a different perspective, shaped by different cultural norms.
There’s also the issue of trust and safety with sexual relationships online. Before deciding to meet up with the guy from the MMO game that you played, did that cross your mind or did it just feel right?
Many of my earliest and most important social experiences happened online. I had met many friends through the internet prior to meeting this particular person that Cibele is based on, so I had very little anxiety about strangers on the internet. I was fortunate enough to never be put into any dangerous situations, but I was smart enough to be conscious of it as well.
Also, I was also of age when I met up with this person (about 19). It was definitely not a spur of the moment decision. The game tries to really explore the circumstances and social nuances of how the two of us decided to meet up, so I think you might better understand what I was thinking at the time once you play the game.
Some argue that you can’t be in love with someone you have never seen and touched before in real life. Do you think it’s possible for two people to be in love without them having a physical relationship?
I do believe that it’s possible to love someone that you’ve never met in person, as long as there is some mode of communication between those people. Communication is a huge part of any relationship.
Communicating using technology certainly has its nuances, but it’s just another form of communication. Most people really want to love and feel loved, I think, so they will find a way to make that happen using any form of communication that they can find, whether it’s talking, texting, emailing, using video chat or [by any other means].
Many international students are in long distance relationships and struggle to overcome the impossibility of physical intimacy. In your experience, how have you managed to keep a relationship sexually satisfying in an online space? Is it possible?
Similar to my last answer, I think that people who are motivated to make technology work as a part of their relationship can and will do that. It’s not for everyone, of course. I can’t say that I’ve ever made it work myself — after all, Cibele is a game about how myself and this guy decided to meet up in person so that we could have physical intimacy. Communication mediated by technology wasn’t enough for us, in my case.
However, I don’t think a lack of physical intimacy is necessarily something that will destroy a relationship. It all depends on the needs and wants of the people involved; some folks don’t even need physical intimacy to sustain a relationship. It really depends. You just have to make your relationship work on your own terms, technology as a mediator or not.
Your games have dealt with the morphing sexuality/sexual awakenings that adolescents experience. In what ways do you think gaming offers a more intimate avenue for young people to come to terms with their burgeoning sexuality/sexual awakening?
Games are really good at helping people embody a different lived experience from their own. Games are really good at telling stories. Stories are really good at helping people understand their sexuality. All of these factors make games a really great medium for exploring sex. It’s not the only way to learn about sex, but it’s certainly an interesting way!
I’m no expert, but in general, I think sharing stories that are open and honest about these kinds of things, through games or any other kind of media, is a really good way of teaching younger people how to have a healthy outlook on sex.
The theme of “sex” seems to be rarely explored or portrayed realistically in video games. Why do you think that’s the case? Could you recommend a few other developers who are pushing the envelope for game making like yourself?
There are lots of games that explore sex in an interesting way, but because of cultural expectations and taboo, they’re not often talked about. Cara Ellison‘s Sacrilege, Fullbright‘s Gone Home and Anna Anthropy‘s Dys4ia are all incredible games that have interesting and nuanced ways of addressing sex in games.
Finally, what’s next for you after Cibele’s release? Are there any other exciting projects that we can expect from you in the near future?
I’m currently working at Fullbright on their current game, Tacoma. So, that is and will continue to be my focus after Cibele. I’m also working on another game about sex themes for an event called No Quarter that’s happening in New York City in October. I hope to release some details about that game very soon!
Nina Freeman’s Cibele will be ready for gamers to play sometime this year. To find out more about Nina Freeman and her work, head to her personal website to learn more about the games developer and storyteller.