Game of penises: South Africa's latest online gaming sensation
Bobby Jordan meets the team behind a game that tries to disrupt entrenched notions of male power and authority - using jousting genitals
Richard Pieterse leans back to show me his penises. I am impressed. Red ones, green ones, zippy yellow ones, a large purple one gyrating across his computer screen in search of an orifice; Pieterse wears the satisfied smirk of the well-endowed.
Lots of penises on the screen alongside, too, and the screen opposite, and up on the wall. Last time I saw this much penis was a drunken evening I'm not supposed to talk about.
And yet there is nothing obscene or salacious about Pieterse's multicoloured friends, no matter how surprising they might seem worming around the place. Titillating yes, but unlikely to offend any except the most pious souls for whom Genital Jousting will hold no appeal.
Not for the faint of crotch is South Africa's latest online gaming sensation, home-grown and expertly crafted, with almost 300,000 sales under the belt.
I am visiting Free Lives, a gaming company nestled incongruously in Cape Town's leafy suburbs. I am under-prepared and ill-informed: the only thing I know about gaming is that you now do it standing up, just like we used to at George's Superette in Derby Road when 20c bought you an afternoon against the German Luftwaffe in a twin-prop Spitfire. The only thing I know about Free Lives is from Facebook and YouTube - a clip about its penis game.
"Go check them out - they're bound to be interesting," was the sum total of the editorial brief.
And so I had buzzed 10 Willow Road, Constantia, with "interesting" in mind. How weird could they be with jobs, an office, even an office administrator? That's borderline mainstream in my line of work.
But "mainstream" is not a word that comes to mind inside 10 Willow Road. Workmen everywhere, on ladders and carrying tools. Corridors and interleading doors. Work pods of ear-phoned staff glimmering in the light of their PCs.
"We're expanding," explains the staff member who leads me to Pieterse, co-progenitor of Genital Jousting, barefoot and extremely relaxed in black leggings. There's only time for a quick peek at his computer penises before we shuffle off for a team meeting with the entire creative team - in the garage.
This is where I meet Evan Greenwood, the Chief Whiskers of Free Lives, a straight-talking code-addled creative with an immediate laid-back appeal. He has '60s hair, a '70s jacket, an '80s hat, and an attitude pegged to some far-off utopian world of uninhibited wow-ness. He is a fine arts graduate, a Free Lives patriot, and an opponent of everything boring.
IT'S NOT SOME 'MASTURBATORY AID'
In a few rollicking sentences, spoken with a faintly American drawl, Greenwood sketches the origins of Genital Jousting. "It has been a journey of penis games. There were a couple of others and it wasn't the first thing we had tried. This was the one that landed hardest so far."
"Richard had been working on penis-related games for a while. He had made a sports game where you control penises and bump balls around. Then it was my idea to put a butt hole on the end of a penis."
Greenwood is quickly philosophical about human genitalia, as are the rest of the team. He is quick to point out that Genital Jousting is not some "masturbatory aid", but rather an attempt to subvert prevailing attitudes about gender and sex while having some fun.
'Genital Jousting' is an attempt to subvert prevailing attitudes about gender and sex while having some fun
If there is an underlying "operating system" it is entertainment, rather than arousal, although Greenwood concedes there may be a significant overlap: "What we worked out over time was the fact that floppy penises not good at doing what the player wanted them to do made them abject - they were no longer these intimidating powerful members. They were instead these floppy more 'relatable' characters, more endearing, in stark contrast to how you often see masculinity portrayed - as more aggressive."
"We came up with the idea of removing the [soccer] ball to just to have penises fucking each other. The game was surprisingly engaging, and that made me curious."
The game works like this: each player is a penis (with a butt hole). To win, players must have as much anal sex as possible, either giving or receiving, even with yourself. There are no points for getting to know each other a little first. It's all about congress, consensual or not.
WATCH a game trailer for Genital Jousting
As such the game is vulnerable to negative social commentary, but the team considers this part of the game's appeal - provoking a reaction.
Explains Pieterse: "We realised there was something interesting going on when people played it. It was initially just a game where you could have sex with each other and people assumed the goal was to penetrate and not be penetrated. Then we made a rule set that you get a point for being penetrated. For players that is an aha! moment - when you realise things are not what they seem."
Greenwood chuckles as he recalls friends' discomfort at realising they must fuck each other: "They start off going I'm going to fuck you but don't fuck me - moving their butt holes away from penises. Then they realise they must actually have as much sex as possible. What you have is a bunch of dudes screaming 'Get into my butt!' as opposed to 'Get away from it'."
VAGINAS WOULD BE OUT OF PLACE
Invariably questions around rape arise, and Greenwood concedes this is why vaginas would be out of place in Genital Jousting. At heart the game is a play on masculinity, an attempt to disrupt entrenched notions of male power and authority.
Their other games also parody the status quo, such as the prevailing obsession with blood and gore. Free Lives' first major commercial success was a game called Broforce featuring cartoon super-heroes; it has rung up more than a million sales. Genital Jousting evolved out of this tongue-in-cheek tradition.
At heart the game is a play on masculinity, an attempt to disrupt entrenched notions of male power and authority
Despite its commercial success - it is available on major gaming portal Steam - the game has its detractors. Negative comments in the blogosphere sparked the anticipated debate. So much the better, according to Greenwood: "We have had major pushback. The game was banned from major platforms before it was even launched - it won't ever be allowed on Xbox or PlayStation because it is a 'mature game' - it has penises."
I get a quick behind-the-scenes tour of Free Lives headquarters. Some of the staff live on site, and amble down to work as the spirit moves. There is a communal kitchen and a cook to keep the creative juices flowing.
"Sometimes we start work quite late," says Pieterse, whose hairstyle would trigger a security alert in most commercial banks. "But we're often here till the early hours of the morning - that's when we like to work."
There is an irony underpinning Free Lives that goes to the heart of my editorial brief: jousting genitals are more likely to offend than is psychopathic slaughter. In the parallel world of human imagination, the penis is truly mightier than the sword. No doubt the vagina too.
Therein, perhaps, lies our salvation.