Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
Why talk about queerness when we talk about videogames? Queerness is a form of sexuality, but it is also a mode of thinking, of living, of feeling: differently. When we talk about queerness in videogames, we are talking about fair and equal representation of LGBTQ characters, but we are also talking about queer theory, about queer design, and about queer play. We need to talk about queerness in videogames because we need games and the way to approach them to reflect the full richness of the many ways we each live, love, and desire.
What does pinball have to offer in the context of consent and queerness? The short answer is about 2,000 words of a “social justice warrior” yelling at you about gaming. The longer answer is about 1,975 words of a “social justice warrior” yelling at you about resisting compulsory sexual standards and the end of sex as conquest. What is “sex as conquest”? To answer that, first we need to discuss what consent means. Consent is not merely a thing that is given or traded between two people. It is a communal, philosophical, and political ethos that attempts to be aware of class, gender, power structures, and power differentials. When we talk about consent, we’re not just talking about you agreeing to something. We’re talking about the framework within which you can agree to something and the tools you have access to in order to agree— whether it’s to agree to have sex or to exchange power.
Despite its relative novelty, it is easier to explain the Queerness and Games Design Workshop than, for example, to tell family back home what film studies is and why being a film studies major doesn’t necessarily mean learning to make movies. Perhaps explaining the Queerness and Games Design Workshop (QGDW) is easier because family in the Midwest aren’t the ones asking about it—they don’t mention the Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) when I post about it on Facebook either. Those who do ask are already prepared, in a way, for the answer. It is oftentimes difficult to explain anything at all to family back home. But then this has always been part of the reason why we need queer communities in the first place. A recent UC Berkeley Campus Climate Survey found that more than 1 in 4 students at UC Berkeley felt uncomfortable with the campus climate. Those who identify as LGBTQ experienced exclusionary conduct at a much higher rate, even in the classroom. Outside of widespread infrastructural transformations (which we should never stop fighting for—gender-neutral bathrooms, better training for faculty about micro-aggressions), the workshop was conceived of as a small way to help combat these experiences of exclusionary conduct.
In this talk, Merritt and I will be using the word “queer” in a very particular way. It might be easiest to think of that usage as the “verb” use of queer, and think about what it means to “queer” something. We want to give you some thoughts on the nature of the relationship between human beings and games, in the past and present, in the stories we tell about games and the way they shape us, what assumptions we make about human-game relations and how we might be able to queer them. Queer is a word in a constant process of mutation, inherently unfixed. As a young queer in the process of figuring myself out, I sought a word that described me—that somehow encompassed the different-than-expected tangle of my gender, my sexuality, the ways I use and make my body. “Queer,” as I understood it, dealt with these dilemmas by being a relentlessly unfixed signifier—not just available for reinterpretation and redeployment, but by insisting on standing for what’s outside, still unintelligible, not part of an orderly system.
Jeff Watson is an artist, designer, researcher, and Assistant Professor of Interactive Media and Games at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His work investigates how game design, pervasive computing, and social media can enable new forms of storytelling, participation, and learning. Kent Aardse: Hello, Jeff. Many thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for First Person Scholar. Before we get to the meat and potatoes, why don’t you take a moment to tell us about yourself — how you got into academia, where you’re from, etc. Jeff Watson: Hey Kent, great to be here. I’m a fan. I took a fairly indirect route to the academy. I’ve always been an avid player and maker of games, but the trajectory…
Since its release in 2012, the critical consensus surrounding Far Cry 3 has been one of mixed praise: on the one hand, it is an entertaining game; on the other hand, it falls thematically flat on its face as the colonial tropes, the tone-deaf treatment of rape, and the rote action hamstring the game’s attempts to make more serious points. When Jeffrey Yolahem, the game’s author, says in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun that the inclusion of these de rigueur elements are part of an exaggerated satire of the player’s pursuit of entertainment in First-Person Shooters – “This game is about entertainment, and about how far will you go in these loops, and how much entertainment are you actually having from them” says Yolahem – we are nevertheless struck by an inability to distinguish the subject of satire from the satire itself. As John Walker’s reflection on his interview with Yolahem so aptly summarizes, “rather than making us aware of the horrors of the starving Irish when he says they should eat their babies, instead it too often felt like he was publishing baby recipe books to the very hungry.”
Games, we know, do not have the best reputation in terms of representation. Through the decades, games have gained notoriety for excluding people who aren’t seen as their target audience: especially women, people of color, and people of different sexualities. On top of that, certain genres—particularly military shooters and horror games—have developed a reputation for stigmatizing people with mental illnesses. Too often these games equate people who have a mental illness with monsters and/or villains. For example, Silent Hill (Konami, 1999) …