How are video games queer? This question is central to recent game studies scholarship that attempts to bridge the rigor of queer theory with the playful possibilities of digital games.1 The paradox of mainstream digital games is that while they purportedly offer agency to the player, they are also constrained by conventional rules and an expectation to cater directly to players’ sense of “having fun,” where fun equates to fantasies of power and control. That video games offer escapism in the form of power fantasies is one of the common responses to the increasingly mainstream trajectory of digital gaming.2 But as I suggest, the presumption that the “fun” that digital games deliver must be tied to fantasies of power and control feeds into a toxic culture of hypercompetitiveness and hypermasculinity in gaming communities.3 This toxicity in gaming culture reached a flashpoint in 2014 during the Gamergate controversy. Gamergate, which was a concerted effort by ultra-conservative gamers and critics to attack what they perceived as the feminization of gaming culture put a spotlight on how misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism in video game communities persists as an issue, especially for LGBTQ and queer players.
Matt Bors compares the rampant misogyny and toxicity of #GamerGate to a contagion. GamerGate began as backlash against perceived breaches of journalistic integrity on video game news sites and calls for an end to “gamer identity,” but the movement devolved into an aggressive harassment campaign against “social justice warriors,” progressivism, and other targets.
The idea that digital gaming must cater to individual fantasies of power and total control is reflected in the binaries that often structure game design such as narratology/ludology (e.g. story/gameplay), control/agency, and winning/losing. The result of such binaries is flattened representations of queer subjects in video games and a hypermasculine, hyper-competitive gaming culture. For this reason, I am less interested in locating images of queerness in digital games, such as the interchangeable romance options in role-playing games like BioWare’s Mass Effect or Dragon Age series. Instead, I explore how gameplay itself might be queered or queerable.4 I am particularly interested in how David O’Reilly’s Mountain and Sean Wejebe’s The Longest Couch supplant the dominant definitions of what a video game should be with alternative possibilities of what a video game could be by challenging the game design binaries of agency/control and winning/losing. Because my focus is not mainstream games but games that challenge that mainstream model, my guiding question is more specifically: how might video games be queer?
Queer subjects in mainstream games like Mass Effect 3 are often folded into the formula for representing straight characters. From top right to top left (clockwise): Commander John Shepard and Jack a.k.a. Subject Zero (heterosexual human romance); Shepard and Kaidan Alenko (homosexual human romance); Shepard and Liara T’Soni (heterosexual nonhuman romance); Shepard and Tali’Zora (heterosexual nonhuman romance).
Ultimately, I argue that reconceptualizing queerness through digital games and vice versa is necessary in order to overcome the toxicity of mainstream gaming culture. I position my argument alongside the essays in Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw’s recent Queer Game Studies. According to Ruberg and Shaw, the essays in their volume are “driven by a desire to explore queerness beyond representation,” where “Queerness, at its heart, can be defined as the desire to live life otherwise, by questioning and living outside of normative boundaries.”5 While I acknowledge that the pragmatic goal of LGBTQ representation in digital games is valuable in order to challenge the systems of power that shape LGBTQ lives, I don’t think representation alone is enough. As GamerGate has shown, queer visibility may actually intensify anti-queer and anti-female violence in gaming communities, while efforts to counter toxicity have been ineffective or only marginally successful. Indeed, Ruberg and Shaw note that some of the writers and journalists who contributed to Queer Game Studies have since left the field altogether as a result of harassment campaigns targeted at them. I stress, then, that I am not dismissing LGBTQ characters in video games; rather, I am advocating for queer representation alongside queer game design.
What is needed is, as José Esteban Muñoz writes, “the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”6 One way of bringing this possibility to fruition is to queer the assumptions and binaries that limit game design, where queer, as Ruberg asserts, “isn’t just confined to the flesh.7 Queer, in this sense, can refer not just to matters of sexuality, but more abstractly to (game) modes of being that defy normativity.8 I also want to avoid the kind of discourse that, for example, connects violence in video games to violence in human behavior. The point is not to demand that all games be “queer,” just as toxic gamer culture demands that all games be ultra-violent, hyper-competitive, and hyper-masculine. Rather, the point is to make gaming communities inclusive spaces for gamers of all identities, orientations, and play preferences.
Powerless Passivity and Queer Failure in Mountain (2014)
“It’s fucking nothing.” This is the popular gamer and YouTuber Total Biscuit’s review of David O’Reilly’s Mountain, which is displayed on O’Reilly’s website and is one of among many similarly frustrated reviews of the game. But I suggest this nothingness is at the center of Mountain’s potential to be read as queer. “To invert David Golumbia’s critique of the normative mode of videogames,” James Hodge writes, “Mountain is not so much an example of a game ‘without play,’ but rather a mode of ‘play without gaming.’”9 Mountain, in other words, reimagines “play” outside of the binaries that constrain mainstream game design. It is a role-playing game where the player role-plays a literal mountain floating in space. The game begins with a prompt to pictorialize a series of concepts — “Children,” “Logic,” “Birth” — after which the application generates a “unique” mountain with the message: “Welcome to Mountain. You are Mountain. You are God.” Yet unlike games where simulated godhood equates to total player control, such as God of War, The Sims, Spore, and nearly all top-down real-time strategy games like Age of Empires or Starcraft, Mountain’s players are given extremely little agency. O’Reilly describes Mountain as a “Relax ‘Em Up” game, which is a play on the genre of popular, competitive “shoot ‘em ups” like Call of Duty. The features of the game are listed as “no controls, time moves forward, things grow and things die, nature expresses itself, ~ 50 hours of gameplay.” To be sure, the player has some degree of control — the audio can be toggled on and off, the player’s perspective can be spun around the mountain or zoomed in and out into the cosmos, different tones can be sounded off with the keyboard (and playing particular melodies like the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind reveals hidden easter eggs) — but Mountain is a largely spectatorial experience about “the pleasure of just being.”10
After completing a series of drawing prompts in Mountain, the application generates a mountain floating in space with the message: ‘WELCOME TO MOUNTAIN. YOU ARE MOUNTAIN. YOU ARE GOD.’ Reviews of Mountain have centered around the game’s limited features and unconventional gameplay.
What is queer about Mountain’s gameplay is that it invites players to engage in affects other than the highly positive or deeply negative ones associated with the win/fail model of mainstream gaming, such as frustration, achievement, anger, self-satisfaction.11 Unlike many mainstream games operating under the binarism of control/agency and winning/losing, Mountain does not indulge hyper-masculine fantasies of god-like power. This is reflected in a comment posted to a write-up of Mountain on the popular gaming news website, Kotaku. “THIS is the Mountain simulator I would like to have,” the commenter writes, attaching an image of Gregor “Mountain” Clegane — blood-spattered, muscle-bound, and snarling — a God of War-esque character from the HBO show Game of Thrones notorious for amassing large body counts per episode. One senses that the commenter is being tongue-in-cheek, but the comment gestures towards a fact about Mountain’s reception: critics love it, but players — those used to a gaming culture that privileges hypermasculinity, competition, and total player control — hate it. Viewed from the perspective of GamerGate, Mountain’s passive gameplay experience makes it part of the “feminizing threat” to the normative model of mainstream video games.
A comment under a write-up of David O’Reilly’s Mountain on the gaming news site Kotaku declares, “THIS is the Mountain simulator I would like to have,” with an attached image of Gregor ‘Mountain’ Clegane from HBO’s Game of Throne‘s. Gregor Clegane bears many similarities to Kratos from the popular, hyper-violent game series God of War.
It is precisely because Mountain fails to adhere to the normative model of game design — namely, the binary of agency/control — that the game performs what Jack Halberstam calls the “queer art of failure.” Halberstam posits “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing” as a challenge to heteronormative capitalism’s logics of success. “Failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior,” Halberstam writes, “And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.”12 While Halberstam refers specifically to the relentless optimism and positive thinking that undergirds success in capitalist society, I would expand toxic positivity to the notion that winning and the pursuit of a totalizing power is the prime mover of all activities, gaming or otherwise.
Thus, by pleasurably failing at being a game, Mountain insists that “failure might be its own success, its own pleasure, its own art.”13 There is no clear goal to win in Mountain; in fact, the game always ends in failure — after approximately 50 hours, a giant star passes by and obliterates the mountain so that the player must start over again. This failing or losing is not exactly frustrating, though it can be upsetting to witness the mountain’s death. One feels bereaved, but this feeling is undercut by the neutral feeling that everything is at stake and nothing is at stake. Mountain is boring, passive, non-participatory. It produces affects associated with loss — loss of time, loss of interest, loss of something insignificant — but not in the more intense sense of losing a high stakes competitive match in Halo or Mortal Kombat.14 It plays on the background of your laptop or your smart phone and, as Halberstam says, “quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.”15
Cooperative Queer Orientation in The Longest Couch (2016)
Whereas Mountain fails at being a game in its passivity, Sean Wejebe’s cooperative game The Longest Couch fails the mainstream model in the way that its players work together to “win” or “lose.” With some exceptions, cooperative mainstream games almost always involve two or more players using their own respective controllers, gamepads, joysticks, or keyboards. This is especially true of contemporary mainstream games, where cooperative play typically takes place online, in separate physical locations. Moreover, these cooperative games often still include a competitive performance component that pits players against each other, like the accuracy and grade reports in light gun games like Time Crisis and House of the Dead or the post-match results screen in real-time strategy games like Starcraft II. The gameplay of The Longest Couch, on the other hand, reverses these conventions.
While light gun games like Time Crisis and House of the Dead or real-time strategy games like Starcraft II can be played cooperatively, they typically include post-level or post-match performance screens that compare players’ stats (e.g. accuracy, points, resources creation). These screens somewhat undermine the games’ cooperative elements by competitively pitting players against each other. From top (clockwise): Time Crisis 4; House of the Dead 4; Starcraft II.
Unlike Mountain, The Longest Couch does establish a clear goal: enter a series of keyboard commands in order to move two boys closer together so that they can kiss. Each player assumes the role of either boy at the extreme end of a long couch. At the start of the game, prompts appear over each boy that correspond to either the WASD keys for the player on the left or the arrow keys for the player on the right. The commands are simple: “SADSSWDD” and “↑ ↓ ↓ ↓ ← ← ↓ ↓.” But as the players complete more commands and the space between the boys gets smaller, the inputs grow increasingly difficult. Eventually, the inputs become jumbled up so that the two players must coordinate to press and hold the correct series of inputs in sequence across the keyboard: “CAQ BXM” or “A↓D SZ←.” To perform these inputs, the players must cross and co-mingle their hands and fingers, imitating the intimacies portrayed on the screen. Meanwhile, there is a hidden time limit in which to complete each command.
In Sean Wejebe’s The Longest Couch, two players must work together mentally and physically to move two boys on a long couch closer together so that they can kiss.
By failing to conform to the conventions of performance tracking, separate player hardware, and, of course, straight male characters, The Longest Couch imagines and practices a form of queer cooperative gameplay, or “Queer Cooperative Kissing,” that aligns with Halberstam’s queer art of failure and gamifies what Sara Ahmed calls “queer orientations.” Ahmed writes that “Sexuality itself can be considered a spatial formation not only in the sense that bodies inhabit sexual spaces, but also in the sense that bodies are sexualized through how they inhabit space.” 16 For Ahmed, “queer” signifies as a spatial term for a kind of twisted sexuality that does not follow a “straight line.” When Ahmed asserts that “The body orientates itself in space… by differentiating between ‘left’ and ‘right’… and this orientation is crucial to the sexualization of bodies,” we might think of the way that The Longest Couch encourages players to reorient their own bodies in relation to each other on either side of a keyboard in order to win the game. The straight lines of two player’s separate controller cords running in parallel to the computer or television screen are made to intersect by The Longest Couch’s shared gamepad or keyboard. By having players imitate the physical proximities and intimacies of their on-screen avatars, The Longest Couch imagines a way of cooperative play that isn’t grounded in competition. It queerly fails the mainstream model, thereby “offer[ing] more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”17
In contrast to conventional cooperative play, which relies on separate player hardware, The Longest Couch invites players to ‘win’ by sharing a keyboard and negotiating each other’s physical space.
Through its queer cooperative gameplay, The Longest Couch redefines success beyond the logics of heteronormativity, whether inflected by capitalism or toxic gaming culture. To defer again to Ahmed, “we could say that the orientations towards sexual objects affect other things that we do, such that different orientations, different ways of directing one’s desires, means inhabiting different worlds.”18 The Longest Couch’s version of losing and winning is not the same kind of losing and winning that occurs in a round of team deathmatch in, for instance, competitive first person shooters. Whereas in the latter, winners are rewarded with a better kill/death and win/loss ratio and sometimes with in-game currency to spend on virtual commodities — bigger guns, better powers — in The Longest Couch, players simply lose or win. The players don’t play against a rival team; they play against themselves. But, The Longest Couch seems to say, if the players have a fun time, they might play the game again, and that’s enough. Thus, The Longest Couch revels in its failure to be a “serious” game (see the game’s hilariously bad, hand-drawn graphics), where “Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant.”19
As Mountain and The Longest Couch demonstrate, digital gaming can be a fruitful space for thinking about queerness. On the one hand, as Bonnier Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw observe, queer theory “offers lenses through which to reclaim the medium, giving voice to the experiences of queer player subjects and bringing to light the fact that games are queer (or at least queerable) at their core.” 20 This recovery of minoritized voices in the gaming community is of critical importance in order push back against the systemic oppressions and toxic environment of contemporary gaming culture. On the other hand, queer game studies offers the possibility for an analytic framework of play. How might video games be played “queerly,” and what questions or insights does playing queerly raise about the nature of success and failure? What parallels can be drawn between playing a game the “right way” versus the “wrong way” and gameplay as a tool of oppression versus a force of resistance? What reflections do such meditations conjure about the character of heteronormative power structures and our relationships to them?
Queer games like Mountain and The Longest Couch provide the opportunity to explore these questions in practice. Mountain’s passive gameplay and non-binary objective — neither to win or to lose — both emphasizes the dominant structures that run throughout mainstream video games and imagines a way of being and playing apart from those structures. Moreover, Mountain invites its players to experience a different set of affects — indifference, relaxation, boredom, lethargy — that run counter to the high-intensity affects of mainstream games. Similarly, The Longest Couch reimagines cooperative gameplay in a way that removes the competitive aspects that persist even in cooperative mainstream games, such as performance statistics. There are clearly defined win and fail states in The Longest Couch, but winning and losing aren’t presented as a zero-sum game; the players win or lose because of simultaneous actions that they perform together. This is reflected in the very mechanics of the game, in which both players must not only share the same keyboard, but also coordinate their physical bodies in order to move their on-screen avatars closer to each other. Taken together, then, Mountain and The Longest Couch question the game design binaries like agency/control and winning/losing that encourage the escapist power fantasies and toxic, hyper-competitive culture of mainstream gaming communities.
- This essay relies on Bonnie Ruberg’s definition of digital games as “any designed, interactive experience that operates through a digital media interface and understands itself as a video game.” Thus, digital gaming may encompass a wide range of genres and platforms. Bonnie Ruberg, “Queerness and Video Games: Queer Game Studies and New Perspectives through Play,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 24.4 (October 2018): 546.
- To be sure, digital gaming has gone from being an ostensibly antisocial, niche hobby to a major form of mainstream entertainment: Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption series have each broken the record for highest opening weekend sales in the history of entertainment media; Candy Crush and Minecraft are some of the most downloaded applications for mobile devices; the most subscribed channel on YouTube — PewDiePie — features a man in his late twenties playing video games; the highest-viewed Twitch stream to date occurred in March 2018 when Drake played Fortnite with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
- For digital games, escapism, and power fantasies, see Mattie Brice, “Play and Be Real about It: What Games Could Learn from Kink,” in Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw, eds., Queer Game Studies, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 108-114.
- I am thinking along the lines of Edmond Y. Chang’s concept of “queergaming.” Chang comments on the current “window dressing” status of queerness in video games, where the prevalence of split “yes-or-no, date-him-or-her, have-sex-with-man-or-woman” choices serve to reinforce the limited binary of straight/gay. In game series like BioWare’s Dragon Age, Electronic Arts’ The Sims, or Lionhead Studios’ Fable, the player can pursue romantic relationships with non-playable characters of either sex, but these relationships are heavily pre-scripted. The player must complete a series of steps in a decision tree in order to make the relationship successful — that is, to “achieve” intercourse. Failing any of these steps means that the chance to form a relationship with that character is lost. Instead, Chang advocates for a way of playing video games that is noncompetitive and nonjudgemental, and that exploits in-game glitches as opportunities to explore different rules and goals. In other words, to game queerly means to play video games in ways that sidestep the limitations of how a given game was intended or expected to be played. Edmond Y. Chang, “Queergaming,” in Ruberg and Shaw, Queer Game Studies, 39-49.
- Ruberg and Shaw, Queer Game Studies, 9-10.
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
- ”Bonnie Ruberg, “Playing to Lose: The Queer Art of Failing at Video Games,” in Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, edited by Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea M. Russworm (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 200.
- Because queer game studies as a critical paradigm promises new approaches for thinking about queerness beyond explicit markers of identity, it faces the burden of explaining what is so “queer” about it. The difficulty is alleviated by the fact that queer continues to be a politically and ontologically contested space. Indeed, as Michael Hames Garcia and E. Patrick Johnson have shown, queer is often problematically deployed in ways that are counterintuitive to its aspirations towards intersectionality. There is still work to be done in terms of reassessing the priorities and misuses of queerness, but this elusiveness is vital to queer’s reinvention and relevance. “It is necessary to affirm the contingency of the term,” Judith Butler insists, “to let it be vanquished by those who are excluded by the term but who justifiably expect representation by it, to let it take on meanings that cannot now be anticipated by a younger generation whose political vocabulary may well carry a very different set of investments.” Queer gaming and its politics are one set of investments that could not have been anticipated when, for example, Teresa de Lauretis invoked queer (in contradistinction to “lesbian and gay”) in 1991 as “potentially productive of new forms of self, community, and social relations.” For this reason, I am partial to Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt’s more encompassing use of queer. In trying to elaborate a definition of queer world cinema, they explain: “We are unwilling to relinquish the category of queer to charges that openness equals conceptual looseness and a dissipation of power. In fact, we believe that capaciousness is necessary so as not to determine in advance what kinds of films, modes of production, and reception might qualify as queer or do queer work in the world.” Schoonover and Galt’s “radical openness” to what counts as queer film could just as well be applied to digital gaming. See E. Patrick Johnson, “‘Quare’ Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother,” in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, edited by Johnson E. Patrick and Mae G. Henderson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Michael Hames-García, “Queer Theory Revisited,” in Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader, edited by Michael Hames García and Ernesto J. Martínez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Judith Butler quoted in David L. Eng et al., “Introduction to ‘What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?’” Social Text 23.3-4 (Fall-Winter 2005): 3; Teresa de Lauretis, “An Introduction,” Differences 3.2 (1991): xi; Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, Queer Cinema in the World (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 14.
- James J. Hodge, “Sociable Media: Phatic Connection in Digital Art,” Postmodern Culture 26.1 (September 2015): 13.
- Hodge, “Sociable Media” 10.
- Jesper Juul calls the feeling of “pleasure spiked with pain” associated with mainstream competitive games the “paradox of failure” — the compulsion in which players expose themselves to repeated failure and frustration in order to achieve the feeling of success. “It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent,” Juul writes, “ but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time.” Juul postulates that failure is a feeling that we innately try to push beyond in order to attain the more desirous feeling of accomplishment that comes with winning. But while attuned to the relationship between failure and play, Juul’s argument replicates the binary logic of mainstream gaming that obscures or dismisses the pleasures of games like Mountain. Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games (Cambridge, M A: MIT Press, 2013), 2.
- Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 3.
- Ruberg, “Playing to Lose,” 202.
- Mountain’s affects are similar to those explored by Scott C. Richmond (“vulgar boredom”) and Tung Hui Hu (“lethargy”), respectively. Scott defines vulgar boredom, or “pleasant boredom,” as “a form of disorganization that is neither overwhelming nor organized by a teleology of eventual engagement” in which the viewer is “a subject, but not an agent.” Scott contrasts this form of boredom with “profound boredom,” or “modernist boredom,” in which the subject is called on to “overcome a negative affect, an ugly feeling, to realize [the object’s] aesthetic. You have to have faith that you’ll discover that the thing isn’t boring at all — eventually.” For Hu, lethargy “captures the feeling of not having any other option,” where the subject “wait[s], not because it helps them get ahead, but because to endure something is to mark time differently.” Notably, Hu delinks lethargy from the escapism, which she explains is “paradoxically… more active: it constructs a specific world or an alternative role that one actively engages or identifies with (a superhero character, a fantasy hero, a videogame avatar).” In contrast to escapism, lethargy is a “scaling back of intensity [that] attenuates the otherwise tightly coupled connection between subject and user.” Scott C. Richmond, “Vulgar Boredom, or What Andy Warhol Can Teach Us about Candy Crush,” journal of visual culture 14.1 (2015): 21-39; Tung-Hui Hu, “Wait, then Give Up: Lethargy and the Reticence of Digital Art,” journal of visual culture 16.3 (2017): 337-354.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 88.
- Sara Ahmed, “Sexual Orientation,” Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 67.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 2.
- Ahmed, “Sexual Orientations,” in Queer Phenomenology, 68.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 6.
- Ruberg and Shaw, Queer Game Studies, 10.