“A glimpse of the possibilities”

A Review of Queerness in Play

Maria Alberto is a third-year PhD student in English at the University of Utah, where she is pursuing research interests in fan studies, genre, adaption, and popular culture. She is also the Digital Matters graduate fellow at the J. Willard Marriott Library for Fall 2019, and some of her recent projects have focused on platforms in fan studies and mythmaking in Tolkien’s work. When she’s not teaching, writing, or playing an air genasi ranger in D&D, she can also be found on Twitter getting excited about her work. Follow the author on Twitter

It seems overly reductive to claim that any field is “characterized” by certain traits, but sometimes I’m tempted to resort to this tactic anyway after excellent first impressions of new work. So, by way of compromise I’ll say it this way: new scholarship in game studies is often influenced by the ways in which game studies itself is a developing and interdisciplinary field. And, in a strong recent example of this, the 2018 anthology Queerness in Play is at once a realization, a celebration, and a call for more work drawing from the intersections between queer studies and game studies. Contributors do a commendable job of keeping both the theory and the games they discuss accessible, and I imagine that this text will prove valuable to scholars and students alike. (I know I was taking notes for two of my other projects as I read!)

Edited by Todd Harper, Meghan Blythe Adams, and Nicholas Taylor, Queerness in Play is one of three volumes in Palgrave’s new Games in Context series (2018), which sets out to highlight the possibilities and ongoing conversations within game studies rather than to establish a canon for it. For Queerness in Play, this means exploring “the strong potential link between queer theory as a practice and games as medium” (Harper, Adams, and Taylor 5), since games, gender, and queerness alike all depend upon performance and the negotiation of pre-set boundaries (ibid. 4-6). It also means clarifying that both game studies and queer studies are “young but not new” (ibid. 1) – that is, how both fields are currently experiencing rapid growth and legitimation as academic disciplines, even though they have existed for years.

As the theme for an edited collection, this “strong potential link” is exciting but also pretty broad, and the fifteen chapters collected here address a significant range of topics across a considerable variety of games. However, Harper, Adams, and Taylor address this scope well, both by providing a structured introduction to their anthology and also by organizing selections into four sections: Queer Foundations, Representing Queerness, Un-gendering Assemblages, and Gaming and Social Futures, each of which takes up a particular theme rather than following a genre or franchise. For instance, the anthology’s introduction outlines each section’s methodological, theoretical, and individual contributions, while Queer Foundations serves as a literature review through 2016. From there, Representing Queerness reviews “the ways games portray non-normative characters, game mechanics, and relationships” (Harper, Adams, and Taylor 3), while Un-gendering Assemblages explores how expected gameplay can be queered by players, fans, and game designers. Finally, Gaming and Social Futures considers how gaming spaces present obstacles to queer individuals as well as how queer players can, and do, push back against these challenges.

Although Queerness in Play in its entirety is inclusive, open, and continually acknowledging its own limitations as a single text within a growing field, each section has its particular strengths as well. For instance Part I, the lit review Queer Foundations, distinguishes between queer play and queer content as two distinct areas. Sarah Evans’ “Queer(ing) Game Studies: Reviewing Research on Digital Play and Non-normativity” is more strictly bibliographic, surveying the sources, methodologies, and approaches of 44 academic publications on queer gaming, while Evan W. Lauteria’s “Envisioning Queer Game Studies: Ludology and the Study of Queer Game Content” focuses more on how queer studies has informed game studies, using queer content such as trans* characters to demonstrate this. These two chapters do a commendable job giving an overview of extant research through 2016.

Part II, Representing Queerness, is the most robust, with six chapters to the other sections’ two or three. Here, authors discuss the representation of same-sex couples in digital games (Kang and Yang), the depiction of same-sex relationships in The Last of Us (Sipocz), polarizing debates over Sheik’s sex and gender in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Lawrence), queered gender performance and roles across the Final Fantasy franchise (Filipowich), parallels between Metroid’s “final reveal” and trans* identities (Deshane and Morton), and two forms of non-normative gender performance – heroic androgyny and villainous gender variance – most visible in video games (Adams). Though these six chapters all treat with representation, then, they do so in fascinatingly different ways. I was particularly struck by Lawrence’s insistence that claiming a distinctive sex and gender for Sheik misses the whole point of the character’s queer potential: “whether by fans or Nintendo executives, [this] is nothing more than an act of policing: an attempt by the hegemony to reassert its dominance” (112). Adams makes a similarly astute observation, noting that gender-variant appearances (seen in characters such as Super Mario’s Birdo, Resident Evil: Dead Aim’s Duvall, and Witcher II’s Dethmold among others) are as strictly bounded and policed as non-variant appearances, or characters who do not trouble the pre-set binaries of male and female presentation. Adams also notes that depictions of androgyny differ depending on the culture a particular game was produced in (147), that conversations about gender depiction are driven by fan reactions (154), and that variance tends to produce new binaries: “androgyny as innocence and purity and gender-variance as threatening mystery” (157). In addition, Kang and Yang’s textual analysis of Reddit threads and player discourse thereon is well planned, explained, and discussed, and I imagine that both scholars and students could draw from this example when considering how to design and implement their own game studies research projects.

Sheik from Legend of Zelda:Ocarina of Time (1998), source: Polygon.com

Sheik from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), source: Polygon.com

Part III, Un-gendering Assemblages, felt like the most ambitious and unexpected section of the anthology, but its unusual combination of different topics paid off in a major way. The connections among its three chapters are less clear and explicit than the connections within other sections, but for me at least, this didn’t distinguish my enjoyment of or takeaways from it. In fact, my notes devolved in excited caps-locks more than once while reading Tanja Sihvonen and Jaakko Stenros’s excellent “Cues for Queer Play: Carving a Possibility Space for LGBTQ Role-Play,” which goes beyond seeking queer representation or studying queer players to instead undertake the first-rate project of “locat[ing] possibilities for queer existence and interaction in the ways that some role-playing games (RPGs) function” (168). Sihvonen and Stenros re-theorize the term “urtext” – which is also a staple in fan studies, my primary field – to distinguish between an RPG’s rules and materials on the one hand, and then those rules and materials while actually being played on the other. In another smart and inclusive move, Sihvonen and Stenros also look at how such “possibility spaces” (167-8) function across three RPG genres: tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs), digital games such as massive multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs), and live action roleplaying games (LARPs). Reader, when I tell you I gasped…

Part III’s other two chapters are likewise distinctive and exceptional. Nathan Thompson’s “‘Sexified’ Male Characters: Video Game Erotic Modding for Pleasure and Power” follows the author’s discovery of explicit sex modifications (“mods”), his dialogue with a gay content creator who produces and disseminates sexually modded content, and Thompson’s resulting argument that the use of sex mods counters much of the “strictly heterosexual and heteronormative material” common in popular video games (185). Meanwhile, Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani, and Clara Gargano’s “Let’s Come Out! On Gender and Sexuality, Encouraging Dialogue, and Acceptance” discusses an indie game the authors developed as well as their findings from having mostly-heterosexual players try it: they report that these players tended to develop greater empathy and understanding from the simulated experiences of queer characters.

Finally, Part IV or Gaming and Social Futures offers three chapters on ways in which queer players navigate games and gaming spaces often rife with virulent queerphobia, gatekeeping, and other challenges. Here, chapters focus on a university League of Legends community of queer and POC players who championed casual, welcoming gameplay (Taylor and Hammond); the larger League of Legends community’s treatment of professional esports player Remilia, a trans woman (Janish); and the struggle over hostile/welcoming environments and LGBT-friendly guilds on the World of Warcraft server Proudmoore (Stabile and Strait). Following these chapters, the anthology ends with just a simple index, though I was expecting (and looking forward to!) an afterword or conclusion from the editors after seeing all the superb work their anthology has collected.

The more I reflect on this anthology, the more I’m impressed with what Queerness in Play has accomplished, especially given the admitted complexity, even controversy, surrounding some of the topics that its contributors have tackled. Though some chapters do focus more on close readings than others, most transition well into discussions of what those readings have to offer players, designers, or the practice(s) of queer gaming itself: even Sipocz’s chapter on The Last of Us, which I found one of the weakest in this regard, finally does so. And, although this might be a small thing, I am also struck by the way most chapters open by contextualizing their work along similar grounds – gaming, definitions of “queer,” or queer gaming – and yet these introductions don’t simply repeat one another, but instead provide new information or outlooks on their shared topics each time.

As mentioned earlier, the editors of Queerness in Play position their book as offering a “hint of the possibilities of the work that can be done in this field” (Harper, Adams, and Taylor 2–3). Its publication through scholarly press Palgrave aside, this introductory wording leaves it open whether Queerness in Play is imagined to serve scholars, undergrad or grad students, or game designers, but I imagine that it would serve at least those academic audiences with ease. (I’m not enough of a game designer to speak with any authority there!) Its use of interdisciplinary perspectives, its variety of methodological approaches, and its insistence on openness also make Queerness in Play more accessible than it might be otherwise as a collection of scholarly work.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my entry into game studies comes via fan studies and queer studies: here, I’m interested in how games constitute participatory media, where the narrative isn’t even possible without player interaction. Similarly, my interests are interdisciplinary by default and I am always on the lookout for transparent, ethically-conscious research methodologies. With this in mind, it was exciting to note two things about Queerness in Play, and the first of which was how many contributors recognized additional intersections among the already inclusive work of queer gaming. Just as examples, Lauteria acknowledges “fan-curated” sources as key data points (42), Lawrence uses fan debates to establish that there’s interest in the Sheik debate (97, 99-101), Adams discusses fan anxiety over gender variance (151, 154), and Thompson finds connections between sex modding and other forms of fan culture (187), among others.

Second, my fan studies background also helped me appreciate the variety of methodologies contributors utilized: Kang and Yang’s Reddit-driven netnography, Taylor and Hammond’s participatory action research (PAR), and the ethnographies, auto-ethnographies, and textual analyses undertaken by multiple authors. It was heartening to see clear methodology sections, open explanations of why a researcher selected a specific approach, and frank notes about the limitations inherent in these methodologies as authors triangulated their approaches in relationship to queer gaming. This is key because, as in fan studies, the participatory nature of gaming means that the text can’t really be separated from its consumer, which opens up a whole rash of new questions about privacy, ethics, and delineations of the text itself. Then too, as many of this collection’s authors have also shown, queer gaming can also bring up the additional issues of lived experience, gatekeeping, and personal safety (Taylor and Hammond; Janish; Stabile and Strait). All of these considerations, which it can be difficult to identify and address adequately, combine to make Queerness in Play’s variety and use of research methodologies especially satisfying.

At the same time, though I did enjoy the depth and variety of gaming subjects these chapters covered, I was also surprised to see relatively little discussion of games by smaller studios. Games such as Dream Daddy (2017) offer explicitly queer characters and player options to engage with them, while games like Undertale (2015) undeniably queer certain genre mechanics and expectations: similarly, both of these specific games made a splash in mainstream media beyond gaming communities. Even as I voice this small gripe, though, I realize that there are several likely explanations for the absence, which certainly include timing (chapters were written in 2016 though the book was published in 2018) and probably submissions (Harper, Adams, and Taylor can’t magic up chapters that weren’t proposed). The editors also note that this anthology is meant to stand “in the spirit of [queer gaming’s] growth” (2), a call echoed by Amanda Phillips and Bonnie Ruberg in their introduction to a 2018 special issue of Game Studies (par. 22) and by Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw in their introduction to the 2017 Queer Game Studies (x-xi). So, just because certain indie games weren’t covered here doesn’t mean that they’re being considered outside a canon (though honestly that term itself seems almost antithetical to the resistance of “queering” anyway), and more that the space for such games remains open in an ongoing conversation that Queerness in Play hopes to encourage.

Ultimately, Queerness in Play, like game studies itself, is open, hybrid, and interdisciplinary; like queer studies, it encourages resistance to dominant narratives about being and performing. And together, these attributes will make Queerness in Play a thought-provoking and valuable read for those interested in queer gaming as this kind of gaming is designed, revealed, and/or played.


Works Cited

Harper, Todd, Meghan Adams, and Nicholas Taylor, eds. Queerness in Play. London: Palgrave Macmillan/Palgrave Games in Context, 2018.

Ruberg, Bonnie, and Amanda Phillips. “Not Gay as in Happy: Queer Resistance and Video Games (Introduction).” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research, vol. 18 iss. 3 (2018): n.p.

Ruberg, Bonnie, and Adrienne Shaw, eds. Queer Game Studies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.