2014’s Gamergate controversy — a concerted effort by ultra-conservative gamers and critics to attack what they perceived as the feminization of gaming culture — put a spotlight on the toxicity of many gaming communities. Despite efforts since then to address the abusive character of these communities, which often takes the form of intense misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism, toxic behavior in video games remains an issue, especially for LGBTQ and queer players. Blizzard Entertainment has tried to encourage positive online behavior by adding a player endorsement system to its popular first-person shooter Overwatch, but with mixed results. A group called the Bully Hunters announced that it would end sexual harassment and abuse in Valve’s Counter Strike: Global Offensive, but were strongly censured after a disastrous live stream premiere that appeared to be less about curbing toxic online behavior and more about selling products. Only recently has an organized and concerted effort been made to tackle online gaming abuse. In 2018, more than 30 companies, including Blizzard, Riot Games, and Twitch, formed the Fair Play Alliance in order to share statistics, research, and best practices for dealing with abusive behavior in video games.
While toxic gaming culture remains a persistent challenge, Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw’s Queer Game Studies signals a moment of unprecedented awareness of queer subjects in the gaming industry. The volume brings together a range of scholarship, interviews, and personal essays on the intersection of video games, gender and sexuality studies, and queer theory in order to reclaim video games as a medium and to give voice to the experiences of those on the margins of gaming culture. Taken together, the essays in Queer Game Studies demonstrate how putting play into conversation with queerness and vice versa promises new avenues both for reimagining the systems of power that shape LGBTQ lives and for untangling the complexities of queerness. This makes Queer Game Studies a significant contribution to the development of an emerging queer games scene, which already includes GaymerX (a gaming convention that offers a safe, judgement-free environment for marginalized gamers), the Queerness and Games Conference (an academic event that invites scholars and industry professionals to present work that explores the intersection of LGBTQ issues and video games), documentaries about queer gamer communities like Gaming in Color (2015), and political activism that advocates for greater representation of marginalized subjects in video games (e.g. #INeedDiverseGames).
The essays in Queer Game Studies advocate for playing within and against the rules of video games in order to expose dichotomies that have long structured video game design, like player control versus player agency or success versus failure, or more academic dichotomies like narratology versus ludology (a debate in game studies scholarship over whether traditional narrative structure or gameplay elements have more weight in determining what constitutes a “game”). Edmond Y. Chang’s piece on “queergaming,” for example, 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.
Win/fail outcomes in mainstream games reproduce the story-versus-gameplay dichotomy that has long constrained game design. They lead to flattened representations of queer subjects in video games, and contribute to a hypermasculine, hyper-competitive gaming culture. As an afterthought, queer subjects are shoehorned into a gamified version of Judith Butler’s heteronormative matrix, into the same mechanics of play that govern straight relationships in video games — complete steps one through five, defeat the final boss, congratulations: you have unlocked sex! 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.
Todd Harper explores this idea further in his essay by attempting to retroactively play Commander Shepard, the manly protagonist from BioWare’s science fiction series Mass Effect, as a closeted gay man, in light of the final installment in the trilogy, which adds the option of male same-sex romances. By comparing a playthrough of the game as a male “ClosetShep” with a baseline playthrough as a female “CanonShep,” Harper points out the seemingly unrelated in-game choices that take on new importance when approached from inside the closet. His experiment reveals that Kaidan, a romanceable male character in the third Mass Effect, shows public physical affection for a straight female protagonist but not for a gay male protagonist. This suggests that BioWare may have deliberately rewritten Kaidan as a closeted gay man in Mass Effect 3 in order to explain why he was not a romanceable option in the first two Mass Effect games. Harper notes the potential of this kind of “comparative queerness” as a tool for video game analysis, in which constructing and playing out a queer narrative against the expected or default narrative of a video game reveals the limitations and possibilities of game design for useful representations of queer subjects.
In Mass Effect 3, players can pursue a male same-sex romance as Commander John Shepard (left) with the non-playable character, Kaidan Alenko (right).
The prevalent expectation is that games should be divorced from real world contexts and relegated solely to realms of pleasure. Although according to Mattie Brice, getting people to care about the subject matter of video games is a challenge but not an impossibility. Game design need not prioritize a narrow definition of players’ pleasure over empathic context. Drawing on the power protocols and dynamics of kink, Brice recasts the roles of game designer and player as domme and submissive, where the domme crafts an experience for the submissive and the submissive relinquishes control after negotiating the rules of play with the domme. Today’s game design privileges escapism through high fidelity graphics and fantasy-fulfillment, and refuses to engage with the world. Brice urges recognition of empathy as not just important in video games, but endemic to play itself. Triple A game series like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are technologically impressive and immersive, but they adhere to an established formula that places a premium on a kind of entertainment value that works against meaningful play and inclusivity. This formula is important for marketing purposes. Fun is the primary selling point for video games in a late capitalist society. But by submitting context and the codependency between designer and player to player control and pleasure, these mainstream games lose their potential to be spaces where players can explore life, culture, and themselves through rules and systems.
In contrast to most mainstream video games, Brice’s own role-playing game, Mainichi, prioritizes empathic context over pleasure and hyper-realistic graphics. Most role-playing games center around epic stakes and character progression. In games like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls or Fallout series, for instance, players customize their characters’ physical appearance and alot points into a skill tree that determines the character’s strengths and weaknesses before the player sets out to save the world from dragons or post-apocalyptic extremists. Mainichi avoids genre clichés, opting instead to limit the player’s agency by fixing their subject position– the player is inside the experience of a trans woman of color, presented as a series of episodes and interactions drawn from Brice’s life.
In Mattie Brice’s role-playing game, Mainichi, players navigate the world as a trans woman of color.
The game is cyclical; it begins with the player getting ready to meet a friend for coffee and ends with a disappointing variant of being misunderstood by that friend, only to repeat the same events. Players can make several choices between these two narrative points, and while these choices may slightly alter other non-playable characters’ reactions to the player, they are inconsequential. For example, the player may choose not to put on makeup before leaving their house, with the consequence that bystanders will openly deride the player, exclaiming: “Oh my god, look. Is that a boy or a girl?” “Shhh! They’ll hear you!” “But isn’t that gross!?” Conversely, if the player decides to put on makeup — to “put on my face” so that “I feel like me again” — men on the street will make sexual overtures to the player, only to be repelled in disgust after realizing that the protagonist is trans. Mainichi forces players to live the embodied experience of a trans woman of color in which the possibility of failing to pass as female in a hostile world is an everyday fact of life. In his essay in the volume, Jack Halberstram calls this the “queer art of failure” in video games — the potential for transforming the rules or goals of a game in repeated failure or in the failure to play by those very same rules. Brice communicates an experience with Mainichi that demands empathy for its queer protagonist. The goal in Mainichi is not to win by passing, but to understand through failing and feeling.
In another sense, the essays in Queer Game Studies explore representations beyond explicit images of queerness. The essays look past “good” and “bad” representations of queer bodies in video games, past the oppressions and toxicity of the present, and towards the possibilities of what José Esteban Muñoz has called a “‘we’ that is ‘not yet conscious,’ the future society that is being invoked and addressed at the same moment.” In its critique of the power structures that affect queer gaming communities both in real and virtual spaces, Queer Game Studies maintains a hopeful anticipation of a better future in the making. Thus, Colleen Macklin argues that videogames are queer by their very nature — by the way they allow players to imagine and explore alternative worlds, by the choices they afford players, by the counterpublics and queer communities that have formed around them. In short, video games are queerable at their core because they provide us with different ways of engaging with the world, ways that reflect the shortcomings of the past and present but that also hint at the potential for change.
The sense of change in queer video games often takes the form of hope, as in merrit kopas’s poignant personal reflection on her experience of playing the 2013 Steam game Gone Home and identifying with its characters. In Gone Home, the protagonist, Katie, returns to her childhood home and discovers a series of notes and clues left by her sister Sam that reveal that she has developed a romantic relationship with another girl at school named Lonnie. The game repeatedly subverts expectations by presenting the player with macabre images — a bloody bathtub, a dark attic oppressively lit by red lights — and overturning them to reveal heartfelt scenes of human connection — Sam helping Lonnie dye her hair red in the bathroom, Sam and Lonnie spending time alone in a safe space they’ve created in the attic so that their relationship won’t be judged by others. Ultimately, Gone Home is a game in which the protagonist revisits the past (a childhood home) to reflect on the present (Sam’s current whereabouts) and to imagine a future in which Sam and Lonnie elope in order to escape the social pressures of their surroundings. kopas emphasizes these moments in Gone Home, and their potential, for LGBTQ individuals grieving the past, to provide a sense of hope.
A “bloody” bathtub and other macabre images are overturned to reveal hopeful and heartfelt scenes of human connection in Steve Gaynor’s Gone Home.
That poignant hope also resonates in kopas’s own abstract game, Lim. In Lim, the player controls a flashing, multi-colored cube through a pink maze. The maze is composed of long, narrow corridors that open up into chambers filled with aggressive black and brown cubes that will assault the player on sight if the player does not “blend in,” that is, pass as black or brown. The violence towards cubes that appear as anything other than the norm in a hostile world is physical, mental, and emotional. The other cubes crash into the player and obstruct the protagonist’s progress. The camera scrutinizes the protagonist as the player tries to blend in, while background noise crescendos to disorienting levels and the protagonist’s movement speed slows to a crawl. At times, the violence of the other cubes towards the protagonist, which can erupt even when the player is “passing,” becomes so intense that it causes a glitch in the game’s collision detection and literally forces the protagonist into the nothingness outside of the maze. This space beyond the oppressive structure of the maze is both isolating and liberating. It suggests that individuals pass in and out of normative systems for survival. Significantly, Lim’s aesthetic figures its two-dimensional plane as an abstracted, multi-dimensional allegory not only for the experience of what could be read as transgender passing, but for sexual, racial, and class-based passing as well (this multiply-signifying quality is suggested by the protagonist’s variegated colors). If the player reaches the end of the maze, the protagonist encounters a black cube blocking the path. But the cube reveals itself to be just like the protagonist — flashing and multicolored — and for a moment, the player can safely “be themselves” without passing or blending in. The screen then abruptly cuts to black, but the possibility of a hopeful, more tolerant future remains.
Players control a multicolored cube through a pink maze while avoiding or blending into other, hostile cubes in merrit kopas’ Lim.
Queer Game Studies marks an important milestone in efforts to reshape the culture of contemporary gaming into an inclusive space for gamers of all orientations and identities. True, the volume is vulnerable to criticism about its limited engagement with race and queer scholars of color. While Queer Game Studies does display an in-depth engagement with the work of micha cárdenas and José Esteban Muñoz, further research should include other theorists of color like E. Patrick Johnson and Michael Hames-García, whose respective work critiques the ways that “queer” is susceptible to dismissing or erasing racial identity in terms of an individual’s relation to power. After all, as mentioned earlier toxic behavior in video games not only takes the form of homophobia and transphobia, but racism as well. At the same time, some affordances can be made given that the essays in Queer Game Studies were written in 2013, shortly before Gamergate made headlines. Indeed, Ruberg and Shaw note that some of the writers and journalists included in the volume have since left the field altogether as a result of harassment campaigns targeted at them. The discourse in video game and queer studies has changed since 2013, and any brave successors to the volume will likely be more intersectional in their focus. Queer Game Studies should be a staple text for future scholars and writers approaching the topic of play, or of heteronormativity and queerness in video games. As Ruberg writes in her concluding essay, reflecting on the growth of the Queerness and Games Conference since its inception in 2014, “Now it feels real: a real community, a real set of labors, a real accomplishment. We may never find our utopia, and that is how it should be. There is no perfection, only change — in games, in our communities, and in ourselves. That is what I hope for.”