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Queer Game Studies – an Alternative Lens for Reading Videogames

It seems like only a decade ago that public-facing scholarship around videogames was beginning to ‘legitimize’ the medium and open up broader conversations about play. While we have yet to transcend some of the stock arguments about games, the discourse (both within them and about them) has definitely opened up. The number of major ‘AAA’ titles that contain queer characters and more fluid thinking about gender and sexuality, the groundswell of queer videogame makers working across the field and the proliferation of inclusive spaces and events to keep those numbers growing – #GamerGate be damned, the cisgender white male gamer/developer/theorist has definitely been knocked off his pedestal and this has made room for a greater diversity of folks to convene. So now that there is a little space, how can it be put to use? The recently published Queer Game Studies invites a cast of contributors to explore and hash out what an LGBTQ approach to games might look like. In their introduction to the anthology, editors Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw note that queer gaming is “a paradigm not a subfield” and that it is not so much the intersection of queer studies and videogame scholarship, but the spectrum of approaches that are generated by that intersection.

So in moving beyond the usual binaries in videogame thinking (e.g. narrative vs. play, AAA studio vs. ‘indy’, etc.) what dynamics can we observe? Edmond Y. Chang sets the stage nicely, by expanding Alexander Galloway’s theory of countergaming, concluding “a thoughtful reonfiguring and reimagining of more than just screen, pixel, interface, content, and controller” and “non- competitive, productive, judgemental play” are needed. Chang summarily dismisses many of the ‘inclusive’ story arcs from widely played games of recent years (e.g. the opportunity to play as a bisexual paramour while ‘romancing’ in the Mass Effect series) and years for entirely different rules and goals. Derek A. Burrill further deflates the notion the market has provided ‘games for everyone’ and points to the “microchip sweatshops, hit-point farming misery, and ecological catastrophe that is e-waste” that that system is propped up on, and gestures toward the centrality of ‘the body’ in queer studies and makes a case for its potential primacy in reading videogames.
↑ 90s-stalgia: released in 2013, The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is undoubtedly one of the ‘critic’s picks’ amongst Queer Game Studies contributors

Moving beyond these efforts to establish a foundation and define queerness within games, a number of folks in and around game design chime in with distinct perspectives on the landscape and their outputs. Peter Wonica chronicles his work creating Ending the Cycle, which simulates the experiences of people working to leave abusive relationships; Aubrey Gabel playfully looks to French literary wordplay (Oulipo, etc.) for clues and cues to enable transgressive play; Mattie Brice delineates the missing link between videogames and BDSM play; and games journalist Leigh Alexander serves up a commentary on various adventures in fan backlash and the ‘personal’ (and dare I say empathy inducing?) games movement. Though wildly scattershot in focus and execution, these personal perspectives build nicely on the previous chapter by giving concrete examples of how practitioners might work/conduct themselves, and towards what ends.

Perhaps Queer Game Studies shines brightest when its contributors don their critic caps. Robert Yang unpacks the “ludo-material politics of gendered damage power-ups” which sounds impenetrable but is actually a super-entertaining analysis of some code that was not meant to be seen by the public. Elsewhere Amanda Phillips and Todd Harper pitch in and contribute close readings of the equal parts hyper-sexualized and campy Bayonetta, and gender fluidity in Mass Effect that one would expect (hope!) to find here. Zooming out from particular titles, Adrienne Shaw’s “The Trouble with Communities” is a fascinating discussion about the barriers (intentional or otherwise) put up within LGBTQ gamer communities.

↑ From screen to page: designer Robert Yang unpacks the strange tale of ‘FeministWhorePurna,’ a 2011 controversy that erupted around some code buried deep within Dead Island (“a kinda-mediocre AAA open world first person co-op zombie RPG”) – see his related chapter summary here.

If this review sounds uniformly positive, the book is not without its flaws. For starters, in terms of tone and format, contributor-by-contributor it reads like a grab bag of writing styles that perhaps could have been streamlined through much more aggressive editing. Likewise it feels as if everyone just contributed what they were going to contribute, and there was little coordination to avoid redundancy (Gone Home is referred to often enough to create a drinking game, as is game designer Anna Anthropy who is mentioned so many times she may as well be here to speak for herself). Measured grumbling aside, it is hard not be swept up in the enthusiasm in this corner of media scholarship; much of the thinking here is bold and there are some commendable efforts towards shining light at videogames, using them more like dazzling prisms instead of banal mirrors. A moment toward the end of editor Bonnie Ruberg’s final chapter “Forty-Eight Hour Utopia: On Hope and the Future of Queerness in Games” sums up the experience of the book nicely; she relates how some peers asked her about how a conference (that brought together many folks from this very text together) went and half burnt-out, but still totally elated about the forum she’d just created, she replied: “It was short … but it was wonderful.”

Get it from Amazon UK | Amazon USQueer Game Studies Bonnie Ruberg & Adrienne Shaw

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