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How an inflatable sex doll and an Xbox controller are changing the game

The first gay football game isn't about scoring goals. It's about caring for your teammates' bodies.

Robert Yang

In a dimly lit dive northeast of Melbourne, Australia, a crowd begins to gather.

Welcome to Bar SK, a meeting point for local game developers and players. It looks like a Jackson Pollock painting of video games and offbeat effigies. In one corner, a mannequin with a horse's head, draped in hanging lights. In another, Xbox controllers and an arcade stick. Hundreds of bar coasters with hand-drawn figures adorn the walls.

Tonight, Bar SK is special. It's playing host to "Artworld Videogames", a new exhibition celebrating independent, experimental video games and the cultural connection between New York City and Melbourne.

Here, Robert Yang, game critic, developer and professor of video game studies at New York University's Game Center, is displaying his latest video game. It's a game about masculinity, homosexuality, bar culture and sport. It's controlled with an inflatable sex doll. It's called Ruck Me and it's the first homoerotic Australian Rules football game. In fact, it's probably the first homoerotic sports game period.

The grungy bar vibrates with a buzz of bodies. Most gather around a projector screen that fills a bar wall with footage of athletic men kicking an oval-shaped ball, tackling each other around the waist and leaping into the air. In front of the screen a life-sized, inflatable male sex doll rests face down. Patrons, drink in hand, talk amongst each other, laughing and smiling. Just like in any bar, anywhere else in the world.

Well, except for the sex doll.

The game is about to begin.

At the front of the bar, yellow text bursts onto the wall, overlaying the Aussie Rules Football match, illuminating the crowd. 

Robert Yang

Gay experiences as digital systems

Robert Yang is something of a celebrity in these circles -- and that might be underselling it. His games are popular and critically acclaimed, and they are also notorious. He is one of the most banned game developers on Twitch

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Robert Yang calls Aussie Rules "the gayest sport he's ever seen."

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Rinse and Repeat is possibly his most well-known game. It's a first-person shower-simulator where you scrub down naked men over successive real-world days and receive a rating for how well you clean them up.

Many of Yang's games re-create gay real-world experiences, fantasies and anxieties. The Tearoom, released in 2017, explores the dangers homosexual men faced when meeting and having sex with strangers in a public bathroom in 1962. Hurt Me Plenty is a spanking simulator that explores intimacy and consent, as well as sex as reward in video games.

"These games are my attempt to articulate gay experiences as digital systems," Yang says. "The games certainly aren't perfect, and I still have a lot to learn, but I hope the games at least feel honest."

Yang's games are delicately crafted experiences that exist outside the narrow, consumer-driven scope of triple-A blockbusters like Fortnite or Call of Duty. They often skirt the line between "art" and " video game". Yang releases them for free at his itch.io page and they're remarkable not just for their design, but their considered approach to sex and sexuality as mechanics.

Yang has always wanted to make a sports game.

"My games are concerned with playfulness, bodies and masculinity, so obviously sports culture is bursting with so much material for me," he says.

Ruck Me continues Yang's legacy. It's a video game that only makes sense here, in Bar SK, in Australia. It's a game that will cease to exist in one week. 

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Jackson Ryan/CNET

Custom designed for gay men

Ruck Me explores homoeroticism and sports bar culture, framed by Australia's national sport: Aussie Rules Football, or AFL.

To interact with the game, players make use of the sex doll that lies in front of the screen. The slender, blue-eyed doll is adorned in the black and white, prison-bar-styled jersey of the Collingwood Magpies, one of the AFL's most historic clubs. It even has a name -- "Nathan Fuckley" -- named after legendary player and current Collingwood coach, Nathan Buckley. An erect inflatable penis protrudes from between the doll's legs.

An Xbox 360 controller is gaffer-taped to the sex doll's butt. 

Jackson Ryan/CNET

On its back, hidden underneath the jersey, are two Xbox 360 controllers, gaffer-taped to the doll. It was designed in collaboration with the owner of Bar SK, Louis Roots, specifically for Ruck Me. 

"Using the doll is a very simple way to add a physical component to the game, to make it more suitable for display in an accessible way," Roots says. "The sex doll is a way to set up expectations about the game and also add a layer of context to its intention." 

People are dotted along the bar's interior all night. Mostly, they congregate toward the front of the room, watching Yang's game projected on the wall. 

A flash of yellow sans serif text cuts across the iridescent screen, next to a countdown clock: 

"Make the mark!"

Robert Yang

The mass of bodies in front of the screen writhe together, picking up the inflatable doll and thrusting its pool-noodle arm skyward to hit a red button Yang has placed on the roof. When successful, a Collingwood player on screen takes a "mark" -- the Aussie rules name for a catch -- and scores.

Three months ago, Yang didn't even know Aussie Rules existed. He doesn't consider himself a sports fan.

The AFL has been around for 150 years, and it's a strange concoction of soccer, rugby and gaelic football. Four posts at either end act as goals, players jump in packs to catch the ball and play pauses whenever a mark is taken, but only briefly. After each goal, the ball returns to the centre and gets bounced while two of the tallest players in each team, the "ruck" men, have to jump up and tap it to a teammate -- hence the name "Ruck Me". 

AFL Ruck Contest

A ruck contest involves two players leaping at the ball and attempting to tap it down to a teammate.

Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Originally, Yang planned to build a rugby game, but given the location -- Melbourne, the heartland of Aussie Rules -- Roots asked him to pivot to the state's (and nation's) most watched sport because it would have a greater impact.  

His game doesn't exactly reflect how a match of Aussie Rules works. It's an approximation, a video-gamified version of one defining aspect: the marking.

Ruck Me takes that and combines it with sports bar culture and the "gay tradition of sports-fetish porn." Ruck Me takes a wholly different approach from sports video games such as FIFA or Madden that are designed to replicate their real-world counterparts down to the lick of paint on a goal post. It uses footage ripped from club YouTube channels and match broadcasts to recapitulate '80s VCR-based video games such as VCR Quarterback.

Then there are the homoerotic massages. 

At random intervals, footage of the AFL match switches to that of a man lying face down on a massage table. Yang says it's ripped from a porno. I can't tell if he's joking. During this phase, the yellow sans serif font plastered over the screen says:    

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"Massage the man for more mark time."

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Players run their hands over the back of the sex doll, caressing the Xbox controller that lies hidden underneath a jersey. Any button press accumulates extra time, which can then be used during the match for a better chance of taking a mark. 

"The AFL uniforms are so small, tight, and revealing, it makes me blush," Yang says. "It's almost like the sport was custom designed for gay men."

It may make Yang blush, but for years, the AFL has wrestled with homophobia, locker-room exclusion and abusive attitudes that have made it unwelcoming to the LGBTQ community. 

Reduced to a synonym

Around Australia, AFL stadiums regularly attract in excess of 50,000 supporters per game. The Grand Final, Australia's Superbowl, sees almost 100,000 pass through the gates. Pastry and spittle fly like ash from volcanic mouths shouting obscenities on a play-by-play basis. The crowd lexicon still contains words like "faggot", especially when it comes to the umpires. "Gay" is still shouted over the fence at players as a synonym for "weak" or "soft."

In 2014, Brian Taylor, part of a national TV broadcast commentary team, remarked live on air that a player was a "big poofter" because of the way he waved to the crowd. In 2017, after Erin Phillips was judged best player in the AFL's professional women's league, she kissed her female partner on the lips, prompting football writer Mark Robinson to write, "Let's be honest, it was probably a touch sensual for a number of men."

The idea that sports are for burly, straight men refuses to go away. 

In the US, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. A year later he gave up the sport entirely, citing mental health battles. He later said he believed coming out hurt his chances of making it in the competition. The NBA had to reconcile its own policies when Jason Collins came out as gay while still active in the league. Collins retired a year after his announcement. 

2017 AFL Grand Final - Adelaide v Richmond

Short shorts and high-flying marks are a staple of any Aussie Rules match. 

Matt King/Getty Images

In some eyes, being gay in men's sport is still abnormal. To play in a top-flight professional competition and be gay? Practically unheard of. 

Things are starting to change in Australia. The creation of the professional women's league, the AFL Women's (AFLW), and the advent of the annual "Pride Game", which used the rainbow flag motif on the field and in club paraphernalia, has raised awareness and promoted inclusivity with fans and players alike. 

Before the AFL's first Pride Game in 2016, research by Latrobe University in Melbourne showed that more than 50 percent of LGBTQ fans felt unsafe or unwelcome at an AFL match. Nearly 60 percent had experienced homophobia or transphobia at a match.

But the organization appears committed to stamping out ridicule and harassment in the game.

"The AFL does not tolerate vilification in any form and is committed to ensuring safe, welcoming and inclusive environments for all people involved in Australian Football," a spokesperson for the AFL said. In addition, the AFL is currently formulating a Gender Diversity Policy focusing on inclusion that applies to transgender and non-binary players.

Steps are being taken, but there's still a way to go. 

AFL Rd 12 - St Kilda v Sydney

The AFL's annual Pride Game uses the rainbow motif to support inclusion and raise awareness of LGBTQ issues

Michael Dodge/Getty Images

A missed opportunity

Jason Ball understands homophobia in the AFL better than anyone. In 2012, he was playing amateur football for Melbourne's Yarra Glen Football Club and became the first male player -- at any level of competition -- to come out as gay. 

"When I was growing up the football club felt like the one place I wouldn't be able to come out," he says. "'Faggot', 'poofter', 'homo' were all considered part of the game." 

Ball's own teammates threw those slurs around, he says.   

Ball, now 30, came to understand those slurs often arose from ignorance, not hatred. Those who used them didn't always know the damage they were causing. Before coming out, Ball had also learned of a damning statistic. Young people attracted to members of the same sex are much more likely to experience depression -- or contemplate suicide.

Having had similar feelings, he knew how important it was to share his story. Ball figured coming out to his football club publicly was the right move.

"That would have made a really big difference to me, if I had of known of such thing as a gay footballer," he says.

Before Ball, there were no role models. Although his teammates and football club fully supported his decision, the national competition has been slower to champion the LGBTQ community. Ball sees that as a missed opportunity.

"There isn't the same level of investment or education or programs targeting the LGBTQI community," Ball explains. "Without the leadership of the AFL, it's only going to get so far."

There still isn't an openly gay professional AFL player. 

When the mood in the room changes

It's opening night at Bar SK and Robert Yang is wrestling with the idea that maybe his game is too difficult.

Yang wonders if he should add a sign above the screen, explaining what the objective is.

But later, as night falls and the bar gets rowdier, a crowd clots around Ruck Me's luminous display and its blow-up-doll controller.

There's a warmth to the gathering masses, laughing and hollering as they watch the match. Everyone in the bar's front area is ensnared by the game, together. It's a multifarious crowd of same-sex and heterosexual couples holding hands, young and old strangers exchanging stories, folks in jazzy coats and candy-coloured hair. They're all on the same team. All heads turn when the doll needs to be massaged. Their chins point skyward when the button on the roof needs to be pressed.

"To me, that's what sports bar culture is all about: when the mood in the room changes," Yang tells me. "The idea is that hopefully people let their guard down."

Late in the night, the button on the roof, which was taped to the ceiling, becomes unstuck. It dangles in the air off a piece of gaffer tape. For the last two hours, it's been constantly battered by the sex doll, held aloft by a swarm of bar flies, bellies full of beer. 

It's happening. Strangers are working together. 

Strangers work together to massage the sex doll's back.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Tonight, we take over the world

Three months ago, Yang didn't even know what AFL was. I'm on the opposite end of that spectrum.

I've followed the AFL my entire adult life. I've made friends with strangers in crowded stadiums. Enemies, too. I've flown my team's flag and worn their colours. I've painted my face. I've lived and breathed the sport, experienced its highs and lows.

Before playing Ruck Me, I had no idea what to expect. I'd heard it was an "erotic AFL game". I was intrigued but I couldn't predict how I would react. Ruck Me was an intervention. I was ignorant to the myriad ways others experience and appreciate a sport that I had claimed as "mine". 

Sport is no longer the sole domain of men bristling with testosterone. Sport is a shared experience in a crowded bar, a packed stadium, a living room, a post-game dressing room. It gives people reason to interact, it asks them to. 

It can make you feel a little less lonely. And it can be a conduit for change. 

On Aug. 15, Ruck Me became extinct. The PC it was connected to powered off, the sex doll was undressed, deflated and stashed away. But for one week it was, perhaps, the most important AFL video game on the planet.

It challenged us. It challenged me. It challenged what the AFL could be. Yang believes if the AFL embraced the LGBTQ community, it could take over the world.

"It's one of the gayest sports I've ever seen," Yang says.

And for one week, at least, he was right.

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