Yes Means Play:
Consent as a Function of the Magic Circle in Consentacle
Naomi Clark’s cooperative card game Consentacle begins with a formalized entrance into play. Before beginning, both players must verbally agree to the game, mimicking the social contract for which Consentacle is named. A small step, one that seems so intuitive it need not be made a rule, but the moment is an encapsulation of Consentacle’s abstraction of consent, communication and sex. The subsequent game arc is equally ritualized, with players taking on the roles of an alien and curious human, combining flirtatious and sexual action cards, exchanging “trust tokens” to earn “satisfaction tokens” in order to complete the game. Consentacle draws on number-based mechanics and resource management, by Clark’s own admission, in an exploration of the “intersection of sex and games.” (Clark, Dead Pixel Co.)
While the game is highly structured, the core of Consentacle rests in how well players communicate. Following the theme of consent, all information is open during play; although some play modes restrict communication to gestures or eye movement, the central mechanic requires players to be efficient communicators to finish the game. Implicit in this mechanic is the continuous nature of seeking consent - that consent can be revoked at any time and best sexual practice is one in which partners align their interests to achieve satisfaction. By virtue of abstracting a complex social concept and relying on player communication to drive the game, Consentacle betrays its own system-oriented nature. Consentacle exemplifies the tenuousness and necessity of player maintenance of the magic circle, the in-game culmination of which is how well the players remain in the circle.
Synthesizing a few definitions, the magic circle is the boundary or frame of a game that players enter and allows them to define the parameters of the game. (Pargman 237, Juul 62) Despite the controversy over its precise meaning, the core understanding is a social contract that a game occurs within a specific frame with specific social conventions that inform gameplay. Much as in the opening turn of Consentacle, players agree to enter a game, agree to its rules, agree to the world it creates. In the case of Consentacle, players agree to act as intergalactic lovers. They understand that the cards they play are cardstock surrogates for foreplay and sex and that plastic pieces are the metric for their metaphorical physical satisfaction. Few would agree to the game expecting actual sexual pleasure from a many tentacled beast.
In terms of a basic understanding of the magic circle, Consentacle appears well delineated from the “outside world.” Honing in on the role consent takes in the game (and games generally) complicates the matter. Even more so than the magic circle, the meaning of consent is in flux - often used without a clear definition. As a legal term, consent is simply voluntarily agreeing to another’s proposal. (“Consent”) It is when consent is examined as a social phenomenon that the definition complicates. Is consenting to something a one-off event or ongoing? Even Juul’s description of consenting to play a game occurs once - upon entry. (Juul 58) Focusing on consent as a function of sexual activity, as Consentacle does, is even more difficult to navigate. Does consenting to sex mean mentally agreeing to sex or physically agreeing to it? Must given consent be verbal or nonverbal? (Hickman 259) Not only can the definition of consent vary over cultural lines, but between genders in the same culture. (Hickman 258) In many respects, these sorts of definitions of consent require constant awareness of it - that it may be given or revoked at any time. Keeping social consent as a major component of the magic circle in mind, parsing out Consentacle’s abstracted and mechanical usage of consent gains depth.
Consentacle’s abstraction of these definitions of consent takes two majors forms. One is the aforementioned rule of beginning the game with asking your fellow player to play. This rule is an abstraction of the similar understanding of consent seen in Realistic Kissing Simulator. Here, consent is sought and obtained (or not) in a single instance and the game proceeds. The second major abstraction of consent in Consentacle is the rule that a player may revoke consent during a turn if they are not satisfied with the potential results. Such an action causes the player to lose 1 trust token. Unlike Realistic Kissing Simulator, this withdrawal of consent exemplifies the definitions of consent that account for its tenuousness.
Despite these valiant attempts to systematize consent, the concept cannot be delineated by the rules of a game. Unstated in the rules of Consentacle is the ability of the player to fully withdraw consent to the game’s systems, to stop play. Giving consent, in any form, does not stop. Whereas the magic circle, even if posited as a highly permeable boundary, operates on a entry- exit binary; consent does not. Unlike the abstracted, systematized rules of consent that the game conveys, “entering” and maintaining the magic circle is an act of continuously giving consent. It is the organic process by which players navigate the game that fully embodies consent. In this regard, Consentacle is not just an exploration of sexual consent, but of the role of consent in games by rewarding players who can effectively scaffold the game with efficient communication.
Like many card games, Consentacle operates on the communication of information. Whether that be through literally telling your partner what card you intend to play or what cards you have in your hand, play is predicated on players interpreting each others’ signals. In opposition to many card games, such as Poker where misinformation is the key to success, it is in both players’ interests to be fully cognizant of the information at play in Consentacle. In one mode, “Practice Consent,” this exchange of information is quite simple: players may tell their partner every card in their hand, openly working together. In the “Consent Challenge” mode, communication is restricted to varying levels of nonverbal cues - gestures, eye movements, or straight eye contact. These different play styles are meant to complicate communication (another corollary to the practice of obtaining and maintaining consent), implying that the goal of the game is to communicate card information as well as possible.
The cards do not just represent potentially beneficial combinations, the numbers by which players achieve success, but the physical representation of connection. Some of Consentacle’s cards are more than sexual acts, instead they are gestures of communication such as the “Wink” card. In other cooperative card games such as Bela, the cards are “a communication channel between partners... [where] reading the cards ‘properly’ [is] a way of negotiating the social uncertainty about players’ intentions.” (Pisac 194) In Consentacle the cards’ theming of communication mirrors their role as the connection between players. In the case of the “Wink” card and similar cards such as “Gaze” or “Touch”, the player that uses that card gains trust tokens and playing “Wink” in tandem with another “Wink” allows both players to reap a bonus trust token. Better communication produces better results thematically (the alien and human convey their interest to one another) but also pushes the pair closer to a mutually satisfying end.
Conversely, a poorly matched pair of cards may compromise the game or cooperative play, with one player earning more satisfaction tokens than the other. These situations could arise from poor communication between players, once again systematizing their ability to convey information well. In her design notes, Clark writes that “winning” in a strict sense isn’t something that can quite be done in Consentacle. (Clark, Dead Pixel Co.) Not once is the word “win” mentioned in the rules. There are a multitude of endings for the game, including both players reaping a large number of satisfaction tokens, neither player having many satisfaction tokens, or one player has more satisfaction tokens than the other. While a chart is provided to help players interpret end-game situations, equating the number of satisfaction tokens to the degree of physical pleasure the alien-human couple achieved, it is up to players to decide what a satisfying end to the game means. As Clark writes in her design notes, in a situation where one partner has more satisfaction tokens, “perhaps one of [player] was more giving or sacrificing than the other,” allowing the players to determine “how [they] want to play and what [their] goals are.” (Clark, Dead Pixel Co.) Consentacle players construct their own negotiated meanings of the game’s systems, their own meanings for what “leaving” the magic circle means.
Fundamentally, these aspects of Consentacle are not different from other games. Most games are a mediation of the magic circle, a carefully choreographed dance of accepting the premises of the game and avoiding the pitfalls social interaction. Although many of the definitions of the magic circle acknowledge the act of consenting to a game and negotiating its boundaries, few games address that negotiation. All games tacitly operate on a view of continuous nature of consent, particularly the notion of enthusiastic consent. (What is a spoilsport if not a player unwilling to give enthusiastic consent?) What makes Consentacle unique is the coalescence of theme and mechanics. Predicating optimal play on optimal communication, swathed in the premise of a human and alien interacting, Consentacle plays with more than just numbers and sex, but the boundary players create.
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