Robert Yang on The Tearoom, Getting around Twitch Censorship with Guns, and LGBTQ Representation

There are many things that video games are known for -portraying historic injustices, adult relationships, and maturely exploring LGBTQ life are none of them. We talk to Robert Yang, whose games have dared to challenge the taboos that inhibit what should be society’s most open and innovative artistic medium.

In 2007 video artist William E. James presented a reel of footage captured by Mansfield, Ohio police in 1962. Titled ‘Tearoom’, the film is a shocking historic document made by cops voyeuristically sitting behind a two-way mirror filming men cruising in a public bathroom. Their material was later used to prosecute those recorded under sodomy and public deviancy laws.

Inspired, Robert Yang, game developer and adjunct professor at NYU’s Game Centre, started doing some research. “I went to my library and checked out a copy of Tearoom Trade, the most cited landmark piece of research done on tearooms. I also read commentary on Tearoom Trade, to try to understand the context for the research.

A lot of my game design process usually involves reading a book or three, because sex is complicated and I’m never an expert.” The end result, The Tearoom, is a simulation of this dark chapter in American history. Causing both controversy and admiration, it was presented at the ICA ahead of William E. James’ film at this year’s London Short Film Festival.

“Even though I make political art, I’m pretty cynical about art’s ability to change someone’s politics”

Many of Yang’s games have been banned on streaming site Twitch for their uncensored depiction of male anatomy. In an ingenious tactical move, for The Tearoom Yang replaced the offending material with guns, “the only thing that the game industry will never moderate nor ban”. A reflection both of game culture and the contemporary United States, a nation where, since 1968, more people have died from guns than from all wars in the country’s history.

The Tearoom

Most Let’s Plays of The Tearoom on Twitch are immature, some borderline offensive. It’s something Yang is not particularly surprised by. “Video games basically don’t talk about sex. If video games were your dominant media diet, how would you know any better?”

Fortunately, he doesn’t measure success against the videos of streamers.  For Yang, what matters is “whether I’m happy with the design problems I attempted to solve, whether I’m communicating the ideas I wanted to communicate, whether I would’ve done something differently”.

A reasonable perspective from the developer, but outsiders might see this as a depressingly low bar for games covering such pressing and unexplored issues. I wondered if Yang thought his work had ever made anyone change their attitudes; I can’t recall. Even though I make political art, I’m pretty cynical about art’s ability to change someone’s politics. I think only an actual relationship with another person can change an attitude. At best, I hope my games encourage straight people to actually go talk to a gay person.”

The Tearoom was one of many of Yang’s games to approach sex, sexuality, and relationships in unique ways. In 2015 he released Stick Shift where the player climaxes a car; in 2016 No Stars, Only Constellations a game that revolves around stargazing with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. His untypical method of game design exists for a reason: “I believe heavily in the importance of novelty. If gay sex ever feels completely mundane and embraced by society, then I’ll probably stop making games about it.”

Emotional complexity is something eschewed by even the most conventional AAA games, too. A reflection of both technical limitations and attitudes. “In almost every AAA game, whatever you’re seeing is usually an “objective” reality. In these big budget games, emotional state is usually an isolated cutscene or animation, instead of a whole artistic approach.”

No Stars, Only Constellations: a “first person go-on-a-lousy-stargazing-date-and-then-get-dumped-at-the-end simulator”

Games and diversity: ‘The progress is actually kind of pathetic’

Mainstream films and TV shows are slowly improving in terms of the number and depth of LGBTQ characters. One wonders why video games are so slow to catch up. “Much fewer women and LGBTQ people work in the video game industry”, Yang explains. “The progress is actually kind of pathetic though; film and TV industries are totally filled with gay people, and it took decades for them to finally produce their own stories?” 

There could be feelings of isolation being such a pioneer of subjects consciously and unconsciously labelled as taboo in a heteronormative video game culture, but Yang is keen to discredit this notion: “I’m not a pioneer… I’m just among the first (of several!)… and I was foolish / privileged enough to throw away my career to do this, and then lucky / privileged enough to salvage my career and survive. If my mom hadn’t saved a college fund for me, then I would be dead.”

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