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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mapping Sex in the Stars

Lately I've been toying around with a new way of graphically representing sexuality. I think I've finally hit on something that is at least presentable, but I thought I would present it in a rather novel way. Rather than simply throwing it up and explaining what it all means, I thought I would show the process that led to its creation. This will, I hope, accomplish two goals: exploring how a graphic designer solves design problems, and exposing some of the ways that graphic design decisions can shape an argument, or a worldview, or an identity. The article will therefore have two types of lessons:

Design Lessons--how art gets made
Truthiness Lessons--how "truth" gets made

It all started when I posted this article on asexuality on my Google+, with some passing remarks about the difficulty of static, concrete identities. In response to the article, my good friend (and frequent comment writer here on the blog) Timebaum started this little exchange:
David Baum's profile photo
Timebaum  -  Gotta love the little-thought-of third point of the General Sexuality Triangle. And if that isn't already a thing, I suggest you make it in an article.
Feb 27, 2012   
Sam Keeper's profile photo
Sam Keeper  -  It's just tricky because it's hard to decide what to include.... I'm not sure I would be up to the task of sorting it out.
Feb 28, 2012  -  Edit   
Sam Keeper's profile photo
Sam Keeper  -  Especially since "Pansexual" actually doesn't fit very well into any existing scheme...
Feb 28, 2012  -  Edit   
David Baum's profile photo
Timebaum  -  The way I see it, I think most people probably see the sexuality spectrum as a line, with Homosexual on one side, and Heterosexual on the other. However, I think that it's really either a triangle (with the third point being Asexual) or even a pyramid (with the fourth point being Polyamory). I don't think the 4-point Pyramid really works, though, as I don't know if Polyamory really fits in the the others. Regardless, I think the Triangle works pretty well, and it's at least an improvement.
Feb 28, 2012   
Sam Keeper's profile photo
Sam Keeper  -  Well, but the problem is, something like Pan functionally doesn't fit because the whole point of pansexuality is that it bases sexual attraction on nonsexual personality characteristics. Furthermore, where would you put someone that is romantically attracted to women but sexually attracted to men? They would end up occupying two different points. And yeah, poly is another possibility, as is gender expression.

I have to wonder if Kinsey didn't, in some ways, do more harm than good by passing down to us this spectrum mindset when maybe a better model would be a constellation...


Actually, that's not a bad idea. Hmmmm...

Thus began a project that would only add to my general sleep deprivation. A few snippets from the conversation struck a chord with me: the idea of mapping things on a triangular spectrum, the idea of finding a way of mapping multiple types of sexualities onto the same chart.

And, of course, there was that one word:


There seemed to be such poignant potential in that one word. Sexuality, I thought, is a beautiful thing. Why not express it as points of light in an imaginary sky? What a great way of moving past simple categorization and scientific measurement to an emotionally resonant expressive model! It's sexuality as expressed not by psychiatric medicine (no offense, Timebaum) but by artistic sentiment.

Of course, not all of this went through my mind in so many words, but it was there nevertheless. It just seemed intuitive to me. But there's an underlying logic to decisions like this that are not necessarily apparent even to the artist making the creative choices, which, I suspect, helps reinforce the myth of the magical creative moment. This is Design Lesson Number 1: Inspiration is a cognitive skill. That flash of an idea came to me because I have worked to strengthen the neural connections that support this particular problem solving heuristic. Non-artists often seem to have this idea that what we do is magical and comes from some secret place in our souls, but really all we've done is strengthened the parts of our brains that enable creative problem solving.

It also introduces Truthiness Lesson 1: Minor decisions can totally reshape our understanding of reality. All it took was Timebaum's suggestion that I add in a third point to prompt me to rethink our conception of sexuality. What if you could be somewhat bisexual but also mostly asexual? Or, to split things up further, what if you could separate other sexual characteristics? These decisions are pernicious because they are also often invisible. I suspect that if you asked someone who wasn't aware of asexuality how they would map sexuality out they would suggest a spectrum with gay at one end and straight at another. (Or straight at one end and hellbound on the other, I suppose.) It's just common sense, after all. But Kinsey made a decision, when he first described sexuality as a spectrum, to label the two ends in that way, and, with that decision, shaped what common sense was.

But enough of this intellectual drivel, let's get to the first pretty picture. Even I'm tired of my own writing by now.

Sexuality Star Chart Version 1 (Click For Larger Version)
 My design decisions for the star chart largely stemmed from the need to merge gender expression and sexuality into one chart. I decided that, rather than go the usual path and put gay and straight at either end, I would stick male and female at the bottom end with asexual on the top. This allowed me to use particular points to indicate different aspects of sexuality. I wanted to make sure to differentiate between several types of sexuality and gender expression, so I created a point for gender and biological sex, and points for sexual attraction, willingness to play (meaning you might not be physically attracted to a person of a certain gender, but you'll play around with them because, well, pleasure is nice), and romantic attraction. I also wanted a way of showing polyamorous interest, and I decided the best way to do that would be to put additional circling planetoids around the sexuality stars. This is where the metaphor started to get kinda weird, but I liked how it looked, and I wanted to express it somehow, so the idea stuck.

For this chart, the individual would be (apparently) intersexual (note the biological sex is in the middle), slightly more male gendered, polyamorously interested in play, attraction, and romance, all slightly more interested in females and more romantically than sexually interested.

It's not a bad system, I don't think. But something about it didn't quite work for me. This is Design Lesson Number 2: Design is a method for problem solving. The problem solving aspect of art tends to be a bit overlooked in modern artistic discourse, but it's absolutely huge conceptually. I don't care how much of an inspired, creative, emotional person you are, eventually you're going to look at a piece and realize that not only doesn't it look right, you don't know how to fix it.

So, I stared at this design for a while and pondered it over, and noticed a few things:
  1. The stars are way too varied in their appearance. There's no unity to the piece as a whole because I've got that weird pointed thing, moons, that really large yellow circle and so on. A simple circle and a simple triangle are the major shapes in the work; I need to stick to those.
  2. The colors are terrible. They just look arbitrary and badly organized and bleh. There's not enough variety for it to be a balanced rainbow (a desirable scheme, considering what this chart represents) but there's too much for there to be visual unity.
  3. There really aren't enough stars, and they're too big. They don't look like stars, they just look like abstract symbols in a triangle. Thankfully, this can be solved by also solving the next problem:
  4. There's some stuff I'm missing. For one thing, gender identity isn't necessarily obvious (I don't always wear a skirt, for example) so I should add in gender expression.
I came to these conclusions because, again, I have a way of thinking about art that lets me come to decisions quickly. I run down the list of What Could Be Wrong, and I run immediately into "Is the design unified?" "Do the colors relate?" and "Is it expressing what you're trying to express?" That tells me what I need to fix to make it look better overall.

But it also catapults me straight into Truthiness Lesson 2: When you lock into a particular model, you blind yourself to what you have excluded. This is true in two ways. First, you blind yourself potentially to people whose needs are different from your own. The lack of unity is ugly, there's no denying it, but it does accomplish one thing:

It makes the chart readable to people who are colorblind.

And that actually didn't even occur to me until I started writing the article. This is a great example of how I became blind, through my design strategies, to the needs of others. And while I think there's some validity to the argument that you can't design based on every single person's needs, my point isn't that I should redesign the piece to be useable to the colorblind, or the blind, or what have you, but that I should have at least made the choice consciously. And, thinking back, that was one of my reasons for designing the chart the way I did originally, but somewhere along the several days of creation I forgot that I had made that choice.


What's more, as I wrapped up this first draft, I happened to run into a friend of mine that's interested in analysis of gender roles and sexuality. I asked this person what else I might include as part of sexuality.

"What age group a person is attracted to."

I was flummoxed. That had never occurred to me. Age attraction is just something that's taken as either normal or not normal--common sense, again. And, I was locked into a chart design that really couldn't effectively incorporate that information. The model I had decided upon, combined with cultural assumptions, had totally blinded me to a whole area of sexuality.

The chart also can't account for: causes of attraction (there's no difference between bisexuality and pansexuality), kinks and fetishes, domination or submission preferences, where you prefer to be touched, how hard, and so on. Again, my point is not that I should have found a way to model all of these--that would probably be impossible, or at least it would be really ugly and cluttered looking. My point is that what I chose to map was largely arbitrary and no more fundamental, in some cases, to aspects of sexuality that I excluded from the star chart. But again, once I was locked into the chart design I was blind to what I had left out.

These stunning failures aside, I slogged forward through the murky marsh of graphic design, and turned out this:

Sexuality Star Chart Version 2
There are a lot of improvements here. For one thing, the colors are less crap. That's because I started actually plotting out what colors I wanted specifically, what colors should dominate, and so on. Blue-Green and Violet were pretty important, so I made Orange my other major color for... well, reasons. If I went into that whole decision process I would be here all day, and I'm actually planning a Color Theory article for the next few weeks, so you'll just have to tremble in antici... pation for a while longer. I'll point out, though, that based on this scheme the least common and most important color is Orange, which gives Willingness To Play special prominence on an unconscious level...

It also now includes both interest in forming friendships, and gender expression, which helps fill the chart out a bit more and helps potentially clarify some of the person's sexual nature a bit more. (Incidentally, yes, this is a real person's chart, and no, I'm not telling you who.)

 Just for fun, here's mine. I'm sexually the big dipper!
Sexuality Star Chart Version 2 B
 Interestingly, in the process of putting my own chart together, I learned Truthiness Lesson 3: Take metrics with a grain of salt: they're probably better at getting you to examine yourself than anything else. You see, I don't know that my star chart is "right" or "accurate." I know that putting it together helped me to think about myself, though. I realized, as I placed the symbols, that I'm a lot less comfortable receiving pleasure than giving it, and I'm less open about playing around with someone I'm not physically attracted to. I also sort of recognized a bit more consciously that I perform masculinity quite strongly even though I think of myself as not just genderqueer but kind of ambivalently genderqueer--I don't think of myself as not just in between but in between and somewhat neutral.

None of this is a definite, last word sort of thing. It's a snapshot of how I was feeling about these issues as I put the chart together--kinda like how our labels of straight, gay, bisexual, asexual and so on can change over time, despite their definite biological basis. The definitions and our understanding of them change, and that is enough to change our understanding of reality. This chart might be a good way of exploring that, so long as people don't start adopting it like some sort of badge that defines them forevermore.

And, of course, that leads me to Design Lesson Number 3: There Will Always Be Something More To Do. Call it the perfectionist impulse. Once you're used to thinking of work in terms of problem solving and analysis, it's really easy to fall into a perfectionist model of behavior. I can think of a number of clever ways to make this better more complicated:
  • Lines indicating direction of influence, so interest in friendship could point to physical attraction to indicate a genderqueer disposition, and so on
  • An interactive version built in Flash (possibly with the help of guest contributor Ian?) that I could upload for people to play with
  • Some sort of, I don't know, orbit line thing for age ranges or...
Augh, see what I mean? It's so easy to come up with a laundry list of new things you can do with a project. Sometimes, though, you have to just let it go. Will I return to some of these problems? Hell, probably. Obsessiveness is just as much a part of my nature as polyamorous panderqueerosity. But there's a point when you have to say, dammit, this article--er, project is done! Time to send it to the presses and go to bed.

Although, every once in a while you just get an idea so good that you have to try it out.

What, after all, does a map of space naturally include?

That's right.

Space Invaders.

Hm, and this could be combined with the David Icke "Reptillians" theory to suggest that Rick Santorum is secretly a lizard being from outer space that is trying to constrain civilization by preventing sexual exploration, and... [wanders off scribbling notes furiously]

Lesson Number 0: Creativity is just a form of madness that has been put to a constructive purpose.

If you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me some kind words in the comments below.


  1. This! You've gotten back to the crux of the blog, which is "Here's a problem, and here's how I used - and by extension, how you can use - the liberal arts to solve it!"

    I would very much be interested in making that Flashmajig! =D

  2. Comment 1: Yay! I helped a bloggy thingy! The second I typed that comment, I was kind of hoping that you would do pretty much exactly this with it. Glad I could help xD

    Comment 2: " It's sexuality as expressed not by psychiatric medicine (no offense, Timebaum) but by artistic sentiment." The only time I think psychology/psychiatry and sexuality should mix are A) To get Santorum to admit that, when someone thinks about gay sex as much as he does, he's probably gay and B) To get sexually repressed people to admit that there's nothing wrong with other sexualities and open themselves to other options.

    Comment 3: Please, please, please make some kind of interactive version of this. I would very much like to make one of my own.

    Comment 4: So, with the mechanics of the whole thing, if you were to put, say, "Willingness to Play" towards the male side, that would refer to Willingness to Play with Males, correct? It's not saying that in a "You prefer the generic Male way of playing, which is with females," right?

  3. This was very interesting to read, for a variety of reasons: learning about problem-solving, (graphical) design and sexuality. So +1 for the content.

    I'm less sold on the sexuality triangle. I'll try to be as constructive as possible with my criticism, but it might be hard, since I don't know much about the stuff.

    First of all, the graphic isn't easily grokable. The Kinsey-scale might not allow for much variance, but everyone can look at it, and understand it instantly. This also goes for your pony wheel. The reason, I think, it's not grokable is because it tries to present too much information. This is only a problem, because (as you said) you are still missing a lot of information on it. I honestly don't know how to fix this.
    Following from this: it's not easy to read. You can't look at it, and in less than a minute, know what kind of person it represents. Partly, this comes from the fact that the symbols aren't clear in what they represent. You constantly have to check, and recheck which symbol means what. This might be remedied by just using abbreviations, instead of colors and symbols but that might defeat the purpose (and the Poly/Mono distinction becomes less clear).

    I really like the effort, and it certainly made me thing about sexuality, but as a graph, it doesn't quite work for me. Part of it is certainly the fact that sexuality is extremely difficult to define and represent.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. First off, SO FRAKKING AWESOME! I love it. Hopefully my twitter followers find it interesting too.

    My first request would be for you to post a blank version of it, if only so I can tinker with it/make my own.

    Second, and this is partially to follow up on Yxoque's criticism, is that it's hard to know how to put down something that might encompass a wide range of things. For example, you are pansexual--at least to some extent you can be attracted to men as well as women. How would you express that? My guess is that you would put it more towards the "Asexual" triangle, since your attraction is not defined by sexual (or gendered) traits...
    ...however it's very unclear.

    Also take, say, "Willingness to Play;" if the base "Willingness to Play" is, on average, pretty high but higher for women than for men, how would you differentiate that from someone who's willing to play with only women only a little bit? Both of them would be skewed slightly towards the female end, but it doesn't differentiate between "Lots of interest in women and some in men" and "a little interest in women and none in men" because the ratios here are the same. See what I mean?

    What if a scale (with axes) isn't what we need? It could be that we need a graphic that an describe attractions to/descriptions of different genders independently. A scale might work great for gender identity, but not for romantic/sexual attraction. But I digress...

    Anyway, I love that you did this and I would love to see where it evolves if/when you continue to tinker with it!

    1. First of all, blogspot needs an "edit" feature.

      Second of all, I just thought of something; is the "degree" supposed to be the axis with the asexual triangle? Would someone described by my "lots of interest in women and some in men" be skewed towards women and be at the bottom of the chart while my "a little interest in women and none in men" person be higher up on your chart?

      Maybe I've answered my own question. It definitely requires some thought to wrap your head around...

  6. Great post!

  7. I was looking at the very last chart, and it was pretty good, but I fixed it up a little for you.

    In all seriousness though, kind of wanted to say I agreed with the others above in that it's harder to read, and sometimes, I have difficulty understanding what a few of the symbols themselves actually mean, even with the description.

    There's also that sometimes, I'm not sure where I would place myself, even after thinking about the actual category myself. Best example is Gender Expression. Should I go with what I am actually consciously doing, or by what the people around me consider me doing? Because I always feel like I'm "doing" female more than what other people consider me to be "doing." Not only that, but thinking about my combination of possible "doing" of gender, how do I place it on here, especially with the addition of the asexual axis? What should I consider "asexual doing" of gender? Would my Gender Expression be about the same as my significant other/somepony's Gender Expression, even though we're doing it differently?

    Other than that, I'm excited about this being created. It looks hard, but if you do decide to go back and fix some things, I'm excited to what will come out of this!

    1. I like your version better, for the record.

      I might revisit this at some point... there are a lot of problems, though, as you found out :P

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