Unity Student Ambassador & Social @GaymerX - Designer
Within the world of video games exists a subculture whose sole purpose is to document every video game toilet in existence and compare them with other virtual toilets. There’s a virtual toilet subsect of game studies out there that has yet to be recognized. The main goal of this article is to get a sense of who is interested in toilets, and to what extent, within the gaming community and why they are interested in virtual toilets in the first place? The study is done by means of a targeted survey on public interest on video game toilets and individual interviews with game toilet museum curators and journalists, who have written about game toilets in a professional capacity. My analysis of the survey data covers pervading patterns of game toilets regarding: improving player immersion, changing player & developer expectation, and inclusivity within the gendered and de-gendered spaces of a bathroom. By the same token, I analyze the survey testimonials and data on the role of toilets in our lives both in and out of games and how that lends to them being an integral part of game discourse.
Keywords: toilet, videogame toilets, toilet survey, interviews, toilet archiving, scatological, horror, graphical fidelity, game journalism, gendered space, inclusivity, poop, art
Due to a recent influx of video game toilet related archiving & documentation over game developer platforms such as Twitter and online written media (see: IGN & Waypoint Articles) it’s apparent that video game toilets are trending within the games space. Most of video game toilet study is comprised of memorable toilet lists or close studies of developer’s design philosophy in accordance to specific games, but what I found lacking was explanation on the interest in game toilets and thus I began my studies.
I am looking to see what makes toilets so special as opposed to other common everyday staples in modern games such as vents and crates and understand why people actively archive game toilets or write about them. I figured I might get a broader sample of public opinion: not just developers who make games with toilets inside them, but also journalists, toilet curators, academics, gamers, and non-gamers on in-game toilet representation.
There were 100 anonymous subjects surveyed and 4 video game toilet experts interviewed.
67% of the subjects surveyed consider themselves “gamers”, 55% identified themselves as a “Game Developer”, 6% as a “Games Journalist”, 9% identified with “all of the above”, and 12% marked themselves as neither part of the games industry nor gamer culture. The survey was distributed within one afternoon across numerous social platforms (see: figure 2) and targeted towards multiple gaming, development, and academic groups along with some public discussion boards, chat rooms, and hashtags.
This being my first research assignment I was late to include any form of an Informed Consent Document (ICD) with my survey, and learned of my mistake through some helpful feedback on the Game Studies Open Forum Facebook group when I was directed to an online article from The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association on “Survey Research Recruitment on the World of Warcraft Forums”. I was quite embarrassed at my rudimentary research ethics in comparison with the reading, “Very few posts explicitly identified the researcher and/or the purpose of conducting the research, instead offering vague descriptions such as it being for an assignment or a class project.” (Bergstrom, 21) Quickly after discovering my error in complying with research ethics (Informed Consent Guidelines, U. of Michigan), even if exempt from an IRB application, I proceeded to correct each post with an edit explaining, in specifics, the goals, use of information, and anonymity of the study, and contact information for identification and inquiry for the final findings.
The survey questions included 5 multiple choice and 10 short answer questions gauging quantitative interest in videogame toilets in comparison with other mundane objects within games along with qualitative explanations. Additionally, the subjects who had marked an affinity for game toilets were asked the following…
1. What got you interested in video game toilets in the first place?
2. Do you follow any social media or documentation of video game toilets? If so, please list them below.
3. What is special/unique about toilets to you? What role do toilets play in your life?
4. What values (cultural, political, etc.) do you think toilets present in games?
5. Your favorite memory of a toilet in a video game
6. What aspects of toilets in games do you think appeal to you personally (if any)
7. Any interesting findings or discoveries you've found in your time with toilets?
The interview questions were identical, but tailored to each of the individuals’ expertise in game toilets - Why they are interested in videogame toilets and how they got involved with documenting them. In reaching out for interviews (see: Figure 3) I tweeted to two of the toilet experts’ personal Twitter pages as well as sent emails to the rest. The first interview was with Andy Kavanagh, curator of @ToiletsInGames on Twitter and toiletsinvideogames.tumblr.com. The second with Toby Saunders, a freelance writer, who wrote an article on videogame toilets on thegamebolt.com. The third interview with Amy Dentata, who runs videogametoiletmuseum.tumblr.com, a separate showcase of digital toiletry. It also should be noted that as of 12/30/2017, I am still interviewing PCGamer’s Andy Kelly, writer of “What virtual toilets can teach us about the art of game design”. Upon completion of the two remaining interviews I’ll update this essay with their contributions.
Most of the data validates one salient point in existing toilet literature, and that point is toilets “make a place immediately more believable” (Smith, Four Reasons To Love Toilets In Games). One of the survey responses stated, “A toilet represents an entirely extraneous element in a video game. Flushable toilets even more so. Interacting with a toilet is typically completely systemically valueless, but feels right in context, lending a feeling of authenticity without necessarily an increase in graphical fidelity.” (Anonymous, Toilet Survey)
This idea seems to coincide with the bathroom voice over inside the commentary mode of Gone Home where designers Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja talk about the concept of “Pointless interactivity”. “Things being interactive for the sake of being interactive,” that “the world needs to be internally consistent. If there is something your character might do, you should be able to do it in the game”; it’s empowering the player and letting them make their own judgements of what is meaningful or not, which is popular among players. Over a fourth of recorded responses to the toilet rating justification short answer question mentioned the “attention to detail” that: “makes the world feel more whole”, “make games feel alive”, lets “you know they care”, and “exist in video games as a requirement for their plausibility as real places.” That intuitive interactions link the player’s understanding of the real world to the game by means of associations, this is Don Norman’s concept of affordances as read in The design of everyday things. The player’s expectations are acknowledged by the designer. It makes sense that as games raced to achieve visual fidelity by means of realism the introduction of toilets to video games had overlap with the introduction of 3D graphics, which explains why almost 15% of all survey responses to “what got you interested in toilets in the first place?” included the key words “Duke Nukem”.
A surprise inside!
But what of everyone else sampled? What sparks peoples’ interest in something as mundane as virtual toilets? A small portion of those sampled started to notice and pay specific attention to in-game toilets after seeing developers on social media such as “Robert Yang”, “Megan Fox”, and “Brendon Chung” routinely post about them. Others notably mention their interest piqued after playing games with more interactive toilets than usual such as Fallout, Bioshock, and Half Life 2, but also after playing games like No More Heroes and Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore a Fedora that had uniquely incorporated toilets into the save system. In the interview with Saunders he said “toilets are there to take our waste, it is always interesting to see what they'll do in a game - I suppose we might even want to see if games will stoop so low as to make their characters use the loo for its sole purpose.” Saunders’ main motive for writing his article on game toilets was due to his fascination with games turning the mundane into something abstract and unexpected… like having the ability to drink from a toilet in Fallout which 6% of the subjects surveyed had mentioned.
“I find the toilet area's in levels to be the most dense part of the level, when you walk into a public bathroom, it's sort of well-known that dev's like to hide loot in toilet stalls or even jump scares. I think bathrooms are like a loot box experience, opening one stall at a time.” (Anonymous, Toilet Survey)
Toilets in games have become a trope through their continued use for horror ambience in something like the Silent Hill franchise as well as a place of potential comedic reward seen in Borderlands where the upon interacting with a toilet the player may get a randomized surprise enemy encounter or loot drop. However, why do developers keep using toilets this way? In part it’s learned association but also it stems from a preconceived notion of what a toilet affords from past media that is now being expected from designers. Seen through the responses it’s apparent that when it comes to horror, toilets represent isolation and the grotesque. If something is “off” with the player’s idea of what a bathroom should appear like, then they will most definitely notice; the uncanny valley is being used with something so familiar… so mundane, that it makes us sick.
As for comedy, toilets support the “scatological humor” and “mastery” described in Henry Jenkins’s “boy culture” where the player “can exploit the built-in affordances to find […] Secret codes, Easter eggs, and Warp Zones” (SZ, 340-341) The interactable toilet stall embodies a certain possibility space that offers a dilemma for the player.
“Boy spaces”, “possibility spaces”, and “orphaned spaces” aside, one of the subjects was interested in video game toilets as gendered spaces.
“I'm trans. Playing video games and finding the gendered space available to me was baffling and fascinating. Partly that the space was built the way it was - connected, ‘allowed’, but also that there was never the tension or threat that accompanies me into real life bathrooms. […] Often games with normal settings featuring public toilets will restrict you from entering the ‘wrong’ one - such as the Sims. Post-apocalypse or destroyed-world settings will often ‘join’ the bathrooms via collapsed walls, un-gendering the spaces, providing the protagonist with ‘permission’ to enter both or either. Thinking of fallout 4, which I played a lot of, every time I found gendered public toilets, they were in a pair, and connected this way. Why? Is it some squeamishness that causes the developers to do this? Problems with small dead-end rooms?” (Anonymous, Toilet Survey)
One the same vein another surveyee stated “every toilet is a dead end to a map, and dev's don't usually have dead ends with no purpose, so to avoid a pointless area, every dev will put something in the bathroom”, so perhaps the trope exists out of a developer’s own compulsion to avoid orphaned spaces. Orphaned spaces regarding “orphaned verbs”, verbs as actions in-game that have “no relationship to the other verbs, so the other verbs don't reinforce it, it doesn't grow, and the player has forgotten about it by the time she reaches the one situation that demands it.” (Anthropy & Clark, A Game Design Vocabulary, 18). So perhaps developers are scared of isolating a space because they want to give the player, as Henry Jenkins describes, “complete freedom of movement” and similarly Yi-Fu Tuan’s book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience defines space as “movement” and “freedom” whereas place is “a pause in movement”, so it’s understandable why designers try to eschew players from being caught up in and or stuck inside a part of the game that may not be absolutely necessary to the main narrative or action at hand.
When I put out the question “What values (cultural, political, etc.) do you think toilets present in games?” I was met with a lot of resistance and disbelief that toilets can even have embedded values within them, and some proceeded to fill the survey out as a joke. Yet, in my interview with Kavanagh, owner and operator of a videogame toilet archive, he brought up “the comments made in games where you try to enter the public toilets for the gender opposite to your character. Some games ignore it. Sometimes it depends if there’s anyone in there to react. Max in Life is Strange comments on how disgusting boy’s toilets are. The player in Persona 4 is prevented from going into the girls’ toilets in school with “you’re not allowed to enter”. I’d like to see how developers deal with non-binary people in this situation.”
Likewise, the same surveyee from earlier who identified themselves as trans said “games almost always depict public bathrooms as gendered, and rarely acknowledge trans people let alone nonbinary ones. There's also a notable omission of accessible bathrooms, similarly correlating with the relative absence of disabled characters in games.” Which is true. Upon cross referencing the survey data of people’s experiences with videogame toilets to my own, I could not find a single game with accessible bathrooms. Obviously, it’s such a small detail, but from an inclusivity standpoint it’s a big deal. As designers if one is creating a world to be believable yet excludes a group of people from that world, whether they intended to or not, is a message to that group that the space was not designed with them in mind and that they are not welcome there. And yes, it’s virtual toilets… and only a small minority of gamers consciously pick up on or even care about such tiny details in comparison with the whole of the experience. However, if the developer already has put enough detail into making toilets flushable they may as well take the time to ensure that their audience feels validated.
Like Robert Yang, a game developer, writer, and teacher at the NYU Game Center, said in an interview with Kotaku “Bathrooms are extremely political spaces, right? Racial segregation, HB2 in North Carolina, Larry Craig’s ‘wide stance’ in an airport bathroom...I want to try to acknowledge that” (Hernandez, Sexy In The Bathroom)
Why toilets?! Why not vents or crates?
Like toilets, videogame vents and boxes serve many of the same purposes. “Hiding place, contains goodies, etc.” Additionally, “are fun, because they play with expectations”, “tend to lead you to hidden/secret places or shortcuts.”, and of course shows an “attention to detail.” (Anonymous, Toilet Survey) Toilets are statistically similar to other objects when it comes to isolated interest (see: Figure 10). So then why are there dedicated blogs, Twitter pages, YouTube channels, and Reddit pages devoted to them? Why do game journalists write about them any more than the other mundane staples of gaming?
“The main appeal is that it’s something I like ‘collecting’. Some people like postcards of landmarks, or erasers bought from museum gift shops. I like collecting photos of toilets I find in games.” (Andy Kavanagh, Interview)
Andy has been documenting videogame toilets on his blog for over 4 years.
"I started the tumblr on a lark. I was playing the first Dishonored with a couple friends when we noticed that not only can you flush the toilets, but you can open and close the lid on them. It was a very intricate interactive object. I thought, if people are putting so much work into these things, maybe we should honor that work in a way that is equally silly." (Amy Dentata, Interview)
Amy has been documenting videogame toilets for 4 years as well.
As for journalists who choose to cover very specific aspects of games, Tom Francis, a previous writer for PCGamer and now fulltime independent developer stated “When you're a games journalist your job is to analyze a game and say why it's good... why it's bad... and if you notice like some subtle little thing in Legend of Zelda or Half Life 2 that you love then it's really easy to massively inflate its importance because A: It was something you noticed and felt good for noticing it, but also B: You want to seem slightly more insightful than everyone else and like 'Ah I noticed the subtle thing! And that's so fucking important! if you didn't notice that then you don't appreciate the game as much as I do.’” (Lessons Learned Making Gunpoint, GDC 2015) And this can explain why journalists continue to write about videogame toilets. It should be noted that Francis went on to further clarify that what he said didn’t mean the “small things” didn’t matter at all, but just didn’t matter as much as the “big things”, thus the reason why they are called “big”.
As discovered, toilets in video games do not differ much in interest and in application from any other mundane object such as vents or boxes. Yet, what makes video game toilets special is the subculture and appreciation surrounding them. We make them special so long as we believe they are special. As real-time 3D graphics were introduced to games the race for photo realism and visual high fidelity began and along with it came pointless objects in games such as toilets that would help sell that realism. So, whether the fascination started by “Flushing toilets in Duke Nukem 3D.” Or “It's been a lifelong fascination” toilets are undoubtedly an inescapable “part of our lives […] They serve a very human need. They can also be a place of tranquility, solitude, and thinking […] They make life significantly easier […] Toilets present a way that players can relate more to the world of the game.” They are in essence “common relics” that we can all relate to in some form or fashion, because “they’re ubiquitous in real life.” (Anonymous, Toilet Survey)
So, while toilets in games adhere to player centric principles such as effective use of space, intuitive affordances, and non-orphaned verbs - popular games tend to include more interactive toilets than not. Nonetheless, toilets will always mean different things to different people; be it an opportunity for loot, a possible jump scare, environmental storytelling, opportunity for an insightful writing piece, a hobby, or an obsession… Video game toilets are not only “a porcelain window into the soul of the artist who created it” (Kelly, art of game design) but also a mirror into the soul of the player looking down upon that virtual toilet water. It’s not just “a perfect opportunity to introduce the player to the face they’re going to be perched behind for the next few hours” (Smith, Four Reasons To Love Toilets In Games), but also a moment of self-reflection onto the player’s own behavior. Toilets are a focal point in the artistic exchange and dialog between developer and player and so it is no wonder why Marcel Duchamp considered toilets high art.
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