Betsy Brey: Welcome to a special edition of the First Person podcast. This week, we’re introducing a queer games and queer making special issue, edited by Jess Marcotte. This special issue was funded by a SSHRC Connection Grant and we wanted to take this opportunity to showcase a conversation between some great queer games scholars. We’re talking about queer games and queer making and we have some very special, very cool folks on board with us today. Elise and I are delighted to be joined by Bonnie “Bo” Ruberg, an assistant professor at UC Irvine, the co-organizer of the Queerness and Games Conference, the co-editor of Queer Game Studies, and the author of Video Games Have Always Been Queer. We are also joined by Kara Stone, an artist and game designer, a PhD student at University of California Santa Cruz, and a Different Games Collective member. And last but not least, Jess Rowan Marcotte is on the call. Jess is the editor of this special issue, is also a game designer, writer, and PhD Candidate at Concordia University, as well as the co-organizer of the Queerness and Games Conference.
Jess Marcotte: I’m Jess Marcotte.
Bo Ruberg: I’m Bonnie Ruberg, I go by Bo.
Kara Stone: I’m Kara Stone.
Betsy Brey: I am so excited that we have this super ultra all-stars podcast. I’ve got stars in my eyes and I can barely handle all of my excitement for this. But since this is an introduction to a special issue, I wanted us to kinda start off by kicking around the kind of coolness of where we are in game studies. We have Game Studies, the journal, just finally which you are all in, released a special issue on queer games.Queer Games Con has been very successful. We’re in a place where we actually do queer game studies, and it’s not just like is there queerness being represented in games and game studies. What do we do as Queer Game scholars and as queer game scholars?
Jess Marcotte: Yeah, I think moving beyond representation has been needed for a long time, so I’m really glad to see that it’s happening. And when I was trying to conceptualize this special issue, one of the gaps that’s increasingly being filled, but that I thought would be really nice to talk about is practice-based academic work, particularly in queer game studies, so I think the Queerness and Games Conference does a really good job of that, but generally speaking, I think practice focus work by makers about making, is an area that I would love to see more work in. So, I’m really excited to be helping to bring forth this special issue.
Betsy Brey: It’s been super exciting.
Bo Ruberg: I totally agree with that. It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited for the issue that Jess has been editing. Amanda Phillips and I just edited this special issue of Game Studies on queer game studies and it was really awesome to have work in there by Jess and by Kara that brings together making practices with theoretical thinking, with political social justice thinking, it’s one of the things that I’ve loved about QGCon, the Queerness and Games Conference, for years, is that we can’t have these conversations in meaningful ways without bringing together making and thinking. So, yeah, I’m just super excited to see that even more explicit as the focus of this issue.
Betsy Brey: I will admit that when I first contacted Jess about doing this, I just said, “Anything cool and queers is what we wanna do for this special issue.” And then Jess said, “Let’s do queer making.” And I just about died of happiness. I was like, “This is the coolest thing.” I was so excited, like, I was audibly squealing.
Jess Marcotte: Actually, what’s really nice for this special issue is that some of the contributions come from folk who have been to QGCon, and who have had the chance to share their work in the arcade, but who have never necessarily written about it, and so I think that’s particularly special. So, I’m thinking of one of the authors is the creator of a game called Spindlewheel, which is a game that uses tarot to explore character development and procedural story generation. And that was a really special game for me this year, so I was very glad to see Sasha reach out to contribute.
Bo Ruberg: And that game is so great. So, I got to play that because Sasha brought it to UC Irvine, where I work, and the grad students put together this arcade of kind of alternative games, which our campus really needs more of that. So, I played it with a bunch of my grad students, and it went into this amazing place we didn’t expect. It was about the existential nature of entropy and the end of the universe and what is human shame. And I was like, “What is even happening?” It facilitated this amazing, I don’t know, community experience in an academic setting that we would’ve never had if it weren’t for this kind of like queer game making framework we were operating in.
Betsy Brey: Yeah, I feel like, in earlier queer studies when a lot of push was just representation, having queer scholars and having discussions of queerness within games and game studies, that’s what we were doing in the past, and this kind of push into making and doing things that we’re seeing more now, is allowing us to have different kinds of conversations and make different kinds of games that, I think, are really, really cool.
Elise Vist: Just to pull a traditional queer scholar move. And just like, “Well, you know, we have to resist the sort of narrative of progress.” And like, things are better now than they were before.
Betsy Brey: I don’t think it’s bad before, I think it’s cool now.
Elise Vist: Yeah, exactly. You need to do that sort of unearthing work, and I was just looking at the intro that, Bo, you and Amanda wrote for the Game Studies special issue where you talk about that, like it’s not just about saying what is in those games, but about sort of uncovering those queer people who’ve always been a part of games, and I guess that’s why that’s the title of your book.
Bo Ruberg: Yeah.
Elise Vist: Which is very cool. But, yeah, I think it’s super exciting, obviously, what is happening with queerness and games making and the sort of opening up of all of these new genres. And, I’m no longer really in game studies, I still sort of do it a little bit, but it’s not my thing anymore, and I really kinda wish I had been coming up in game studies now.
Betsy Brey: At the same time, though, a lot of it is getting the support on the university level and in the level of the field to be able to do these projects and have recognition for research creation as research, for example. It’s not just a progress in Queer Game Studies, with all capital letters, there, it’s just queering of academia.
Jess Marcotte: Yeah, I think it’s not that people weren’t doing these things, but that it was hard to get traction and funding and being able to get that work recognized. Thinking of Adrienne Shaw and the work that her team is doing with the LGBTQ Games Archive. I would never have imagined these things are buried. I think uncovering, the word that you used, Elise, is a really nice one. Making the invisible parts of these areas visible again, or making them visible potentially for the first time. That’s like the exciting work that I think is happening now.
Bo Ruberg: So, this idea that this is an exciting time to be in game studies, especially doing queer work or as a queer person, I totally agree. One of the ways, I think, that we can resist that really normative teleological narrative of progress is it’s not just like it’s gotten better, it’s like we have fought tooth and nail to make it better. So, I feel like my own experience over the last six years or so during this, since we started QGCon, is just like clawing at academia and being like, “We are gonna build a community, we are gonna fight for spaces of legitimacy.”
Elise Vist: And I think that it’s folks who are doing this, like making and scholarly combination, there is a kind of fight in that, too. And I see it, like, Jess, I see it in your work, Kara, I see it in your work. You’re both in PhD programs that, in theory, bring together making and practice, but from the outside, my guess is that’s still not easy. Like, even in a place that supports that, I bet that that’s hard.
Jess Marcotte: Certainly. I still have to write a dissertation. When we get to the point where the work can speak for itself … I mean, in my case, I wouldn’t want it too, but yeah, research creationists, they’ll complicate it because it seems like we’re not sure yet how to evaluate the meetings and rhetoric that are built into this creative work. So, yeah, figuring out that side of things is still a work in progress, and I guess the writing part is part of my process, but I see my fellow research creators who are exploring very sophisticated ideas in their work, but don’t necessarily wanna write a 150 page explainer about it.
Betsy Brey: Complete with literature review.
Jess Marcotte: Complete with literature review.
Kara Stone: It definitely becomes as if we’re doing just double the work, that we’re expected to be able to publish forma normative academic essays, as well as a dissertation, and then later, books, to be taken seriously. And then also be able to showcase in artistic settings to be taken seriously in that world. And very few times is there an overlap. I’ve been to a lot of academic conferences that say that they have a artistic portion, or an arcade, but that’s often really sidelined, not incorporated into the conference as a whole or as maybe one thing that a lot of people don’t attend, or it’s still not taken seriously as a form of knowledge creation. And it can be so nice to look at it, I’m very happy to be doing it, and I think that me and Jess are probably one of the few rare people that both like the writing side of it as well as the making side of it and trying to not have those be these huge divisions between these two. But, still, it’s then seeming as double the work for half the amount of prestige.
Elise Vist: I’ve been, sort of, more in fan studies these days, and that’s a conversation that we’re having there as well, as a lot of people do vidding and cosplay and other sort of fan-ish endeavors, things that they do as fans that are as informed by the scholarship that they do as their official writing, and the question of how to adequately respond and react and give it the credit that it is due is a big one ’cause I think a lot of people, also, who don’t do it, don’t understand the work that actually goes in to making.
Betsy Brey: I feel like a lot of, like Kara was saying, the arcades, things like that, the opportunities to actually showcase artistic work and made things, things that have been made, they are often treated as sidelines or evening activities rather than, “Here’s a serious panel that has equal standing in this place.” And I think that’s something that makes Queer Games Con really, really important to queer making and just research representation and research creation processes. There’s more than just Queer Games Con and Different Games, for example, but those are some of the ones that really jump out at me as places where people are making critical intelligent work and connecting it through in ways that, actually, people take seriously, you know?
Bo Ruberg: I mean, it’s been huge for me as an academic. So, my background is in creative writing, so I’m not really a game maker, but I teach game design, and I think of myself as a creative person with creative practice, and it’s been really lovely to see at QGCon over the years just how … I’m trying to think how to put this, like, even the game makers who are not working in academia or might not describe themselves in academic terms, are doing thinking that is just so impressive and so theoretical in its own way.
Bo Ruberg: I did this book that’s coming out next year that I interviewed both Kara and Jess for, talking to queer game makers about their art practice, about their politics, things like that, and people who don’t work in an academic context, people who sometimes didn’t even finish their high school degrees are just… their theoretical thinking, their conceptual thinking, just blows me away. So, even when it’s not academics doing making work, or doing making work in an academic context, the things that we separate as academic thinking, people are doing amazing things in that area just in their own practice.
Jess Marcotte: There’re a number of heretofore hard to assail silos that this work has put into. There is definitely that ivory tower thinking and the accessibility issues around universities. And then there’s also … So, I’m teaching this game studies class for the first time, and one of the options that my students have is to make something. And seeing their reaction when they realize that they don’t need a Computer Science degree to make a game, that there are these tools now that kind of help to break down that sort of barrier, too, is pretty awesome. It’s nice to see. Games and academia together could have at one point, I think, felt pretty inaccessible for a number of reasons, but you’ve got the double whammy of the academic ivory tower sort of idea, and alongside that, the tools for making, themselves, becoming easier for the average person to pick up and go with.
Betsy Brey: Yeah, I think the accessibility is really, really crucial there, and when I have my students make things in classes, whether it’s a games class or a digital media class, they all underestimate how much work it’ll be and they all become deeply confused about the evaluative methods of that, and I think that’s probably one of the biggest struggle for games as part of your dissertation, or in place of your dissertation or something like that. And that’s gonna take a lot more fighting like hell to make happen, for sure.
Jess Marcotte: In context, of course, so like, of course there are other accessibility issues around just accessing the tech, or the kidification of classroom tools as well as these boards that have huge import fees depending where you are, so Canada and the states, maybe the UK and that sort of place, you’re fine, but in a place like, I don’t know, South America, there’re huge import fees on this, and they’re also way more expensive to bring in. So, I guess, accessible in a certain context, in this very particular way. I guess I just wanna contextualize that.
Kara Stone: Regardless of being in school for it, or having the tools for it, it’s who’s already motivated or activated to make video games. Like, that’s already such a hurdle purely through cultural ways. That first needs to happen before even thinking about downloading software that can make a game, or enrolling in a class that can do so. I feel like I’m still very new to game studies and to making games. Like, I started in my Master’s. I mean, I was in the arts forever, like my whole life, and it was only until my Master’s that someone was like, “You could make video games, too.” I was like 24 years old, which is still relatively young, but after being in art school for 10 years, for film and theater and digital media, I still think that’s pretty late for that to be offered.
Kara Stone: And I always loved video games and had played them, but I didn’t know that people were making them outside of, like, white guys on the west coast, you know? That’s who I thought was making them, the only people that were. So, even for it to take that long fairly recently, it just shows that there’s so much cultural change that has to happen. We only focus, right now, on giving people tools to make games, but there’s more work to be done.
Jess Marcotte: Yeah, definitely. Kara and I talked about this earlier in the year, and I sort of came into games at the same time and in a similar way, so there were initiatives, brand new initiatives that were happening at like the Pixelles Incubator, which was modeled after the Difference Engine in Toronto, so Pixelles Montreal was helping, or just even introducing that idea that you can make a game in a relatively short amount of time, even if it’s your first game. So, there was this six week incubator and I didn’t even actually get in to the incubator, I just did the follow-along program. So, they had these blog posts where you could follow along, and make a game, and I did it and it was like a key in a lock. It was like all of these things opening up. I think as Kara points out, it’s like the idea of who’s encouraged you and who is motivated already, is an important one.
Betsy Brey: It kind of raises the question, like what kinds of next steps do we need to take as Queer Games scholars to encourage more making, not just of queer games and queer game studies, but games that are just not, as Kara described, dudes on the west coast, you know?
Kara Stone: I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get more people interested in making games, or even if that’s like a good thing to do. I did a lot of workshops trying to share game design skills with marginalized people. I did it with youth in a priority neighborhood in Toronto that was predominantly black in a low income neighborhood, and we brought them computers and they made a game, and they had a really great time. But then, at the end, they didn’t even have a computer at home to play that game or to continue the skills. And so, it was like, “Well, what were we doing here?” And then, also, on a more positive one, I had a better experience with when I went in with Toronto International Film Festival program that goes to psychiatric wards in Toronto hospitals, and have a workshop with the patients there. And so, the idea is not to activate these people to become game designers and join the industry, it’s to just have a artistic communal experience where we are making a game together. And that was like a really positive experience. And some people came out being like, “Oh, I’m gonna go make a game after.” Though, that wasn’t necessarily the goal.
Kara Stone: And I think a lot about, I of course want more marginalized people to be making games for somewhat selfish reasons, as I’m in this industry and this culture and I want it to be better and I also want to play more diverse games, but after GamerGate, I think it changed a lot of those of us who work in activist organizations to be like, “Well, what are we doing? Who are we inviting to this culture that doesn’t want us, that doesn’t provide a sustainable lifestyle in the industries that people want to work in.” So, when these skills are being shared, is it being shared to get someone hired at a company that’s gonna pay them unfair wages, ask them to work 100 hours a week, and then harass them because they’re queer or their women. What good are we really doing? And we’re not really sustaining people already here very well.
Jess Marcotte: Step one, bring down the kyriarchy.
Bo Ruberg: Oh, that’s easy.
Bo Ruberg: Kara, I feel that, too because I work with … I don’t know, I love working with students and I used to teach at USC in their game design, game development program, and I have the most amazing, super artistic, super queer students making really strange, cool work. But then, it’s not true of all of them, but a lot of them really do wanna succeed in traditional elements in the games industry. Like, not necessarily triple A, but like a certain kind of indie development that is more mainstream. And it’s like, what does it mean to be cultivating people as artists, to then put them into, like you say, this highly exploitative system of labor and capitalism. I work with students and UC Irvine who don’t feel like they have a place in games because they’re women or they’re people of color or they’re queer, and I’m there trying to be like, “No, this medium is yours, too. You can do this, you’re awesome!” But then it’s like, what they are conditioned to want or to think that their goal is, is an industry job. And it’s like, to what extent are you lifting people up just to feed them into the meat grinder of an exploitative industry? You know? I don’t know the answer.
Elise Vist: All those conversations about the pipeline and where are we losing people? But there was an article that was like, “It’s not a leaky pipeline, people are just leaving when they get here because it’s bad.”
Betsy Brey: The pipeline ends in a garbage fire, why do you want to go down the pipeline?
Jess Marcotte: It is such a contradiction, and there’s such a tension.
Betsy Brey: Yeah.
Jess Marcotte: Yeah, teaching really exposes it for me because it’s sort of like, on the one hand I start many of the classes telling my students who just got laid off this week in the industry, and at the same time, on the other hand, being like, “But you can make games!” But, cards on the table, this is what’s going on in the industry. I’m trying to be as honest with them as possible. Okay, let’s talk about your portfolio. This is the portfolio advice I’m gonna give you if you’re asking me how to get into this program. This is the portfolio advice that I’m gonna give you if you’re asking me about art, or like making honestly without trying to play these systems. There’s a real tension, yeah. It’s fascinating and scary.
Kara Stone: There’s also so few avenues outside of industry that seem like a possible sustainable life, and I think that’s why I have turned to academia, as I’m sure other people in this conversation have, because I really don’t wanna work in the industry. Academia has in one of the places where queerness is really celebrated and seen as a legit thing to both study and be in, make work about. Academia, of course, has so much horrible things with it. So it’s kinda like this completely utopian opposite to industry, but then thinking about outside of academia and then outside of industry, the paths seem to become much smaller. In Canada, you can sustain quite a bit having a small indie studio or an arts group, but still, that’s very risky to try to do, and it might not last for very long. And the government money is still relatively small and precarious.
Betsy Brey: I am American living in Canada, and the fact that the government does that at all, does have arts grants and things like that that games folk can apply to and can get, it’s amazing. Yeah, the sustainability of it is, of course, a question, but to have the opportunity or the experience in the first place is something, I think, that should be celebrated. And I can’t help but quip a little bit here, Kara, that the games industry has to be super bad when we’re like, “No, no, I’d rather be an academic. This is more stable, this is better.”
Jess Marcotte: Oh my God. It’s all bad. The precarity of contract work and lack of stability is a generalized condition increasingly, especially for marginalized folk. But yeah, these are the questions. So, that’s probably the biggest question that, especially people who are doing research-creation are confronting, trying to fit into a traditional academic profile in order to then be worked very hard and to be overworked, or choosing precarity of contract work, or probably stay in academia and still choosing the precarity of contract work. It’s a mess.
Betsy Brey: I find, in my game studies classes, it’s a humanities-based game studies course as opposed to a game design course, and what I end up with is half students who want to take a cool English class, and half students who want to go into the games industry. And it’s such a weird balancing act of warning the people who want to go into it, who wanna play this complicated game of game development, letting them know the realities of it, but also trying to teach them interesting theory and ways to think critically about what they’re doing, while also trying to lift the other half of the class up to want to do the making and see the possibilities of what they can do and how they can make this space their own. It’s complicated because it’s two very separate goals, and game studies, I think, is really struggling with that, and I think it’s a good question. Who should we be encouraging? What should we be encouraging?
Bo Ruberg: I feel like, I don’t know, this conversation’s so interesting because it makes me think about how I interact with people and what I encourage. And, I think, where I’ve landed is I don’t like telling people what to do, it makes me a very weird mentor now that I have PhD advisees of my own.
Betsy Brey: Who are just desperately like, “Tell me what to do!”
Bo Ruberg: But I think the reason is like, I would find it very hard to make those decisions for someone. Like, is industry right for them? Is the precarity of a more independent artist lifestyle right for them? But what I can do is be a cheerleader and try and combat imposter syndrome. My mentor at Berkeley where I did my PhD is Gail De Kosnik who does fan studies, and she is the most amazing mentor because whatever you do, she’s there being like, “You’re amazing, you did so good!” And there’s like 12 exclamation marks in every one of her emails.
Betsy Brey: I love it!
Bo Ruberg: It’s so good. And I know that there are other people in academia who would be like, “No, a good mentor will tell you the rigorous truth that you need to hear.” But, actually, academia is so busy wringing the soul out of you and crushing you, that just somebody who unambiguously believes in you can make a huge difference. And so, I kinda feel like that’s what I can do. I can help someone find their path, and then I can tell them they’re good. You know? And that they have value. And that’s kind of the most I can do. It’s like not an answer, but it’s like a human level thing.
Betsy Brey: That’s true, academia does spend all of its time telling you everything you do isn’t good enough, and I’m thinking about it and I’m blessed to have at least three solid mentors in my life who cheerlead at everything I do, and that’s probably quite a bit to do with why I feel like I can take on some of the precarity and why I’m still in a PhD program after my funding is out, and that sort of a thing.
Elise Vist: It’s, like you said, it’s not an answer, but it’s sort of the only solution that we have, and maybe why that sort of counting of representation mattered, as well, that you don’t get a cheerleader who cheerleads the queer kids unless there’s some kind of queerness there already. We need queer voices to be shouting and cheering and yelling and crying, because otherwise, no one’s gonna hear anything.
Betsy Brey: That goes back to the fight element of it all.
Elise Vist: Yeah, exactly, but that’s why it’s so exhausting and why it hurts so much to ask people to join in, is that it’s like, “Yeah, we’re asking you to join a fight.”
Jess Marcotte: I think, also, something that I’m trying to make peace with that I think is part of my queer way of looking at things, is the idea of ephemerality being okay, that if somebody takes on a path or does something for a little while, if everything is precarious anyway and everything ends anyway, then trying to be very meditative about it and being okay with things ending or continuing or doing the thing that they’re going to do, which is hard because precarity is exhausting and has very real impact, but yeah. I’ve stayed at my position, that it’s all precarious, so at this point, trying to let things be what they’ll be, because I don’t wanna minimize how exhausting precarity generally can be and how damaging.
Betsy Brey: You have to have a pretty stable starting place to be able to kind of let yourself be okay with failing and feel like you have a place to fail back to consistently. One of my favorite conversations with students, I encourage them to try to do things, and if it goes bad, it goes bad. I typically grade them on their response papers to their creative projects, not their creative projects themselves. So, “Look at this. I tried this. It started on fire. The end.” Like, okay, what’d you learn from that? That’s a way better response than, “I did this completely boring normative thing and it’s perfect.” I’m like, “Cool. Okay.” You know?
Jess Marcotte: So, Jack Halberstam raises this idea that failing can offer more interesting ways of being in the world, that undoing, unmaking, unbecoming, messing things up can offer us insight and new ways of thinking about our existence and the systems that we exist within.
Bo Ruberg: People sometimes talk about it as this kind of turn towards negativity in queer studies that also relates to Lee Edelman’s No Future, but it’s an idea that is important to me, too. Although, I’m also trying to educate myself about critiques of queer failure as well, that this idea that the models we have for success, which are often so heteronormative, right? They’re about following a certain kind of chrononormative model of grow up, get a job, get married, have kids, have wealth, have respect, that when you fail at those things, there’s a queerness inherent in that failure and also to lead a queer life is also a life that fails to conform to the normative notions of success. And instead of saying, “No, no, I am a success. No, no, I haven’t failed.” That there’s something powerful in saying, “If this is what failure means, then yes, I have failed and this is actually the kind of artfulness of my life as a queer person, is to embrace and explore that failure.”
Jess Marcotte: I guess bringing it back to making and design, yeah, I think one of the tensions there is that, depending on the kind of failure that we’re talking about, it can be really hard to make anything under certain conditions, particularly from a marginalized point of view, or a marginalized perspective. The risk level, but also just the actual being creative bit. Like, trying to be creative when you’re stressed out about meeting your basic needs or when there are other external factors getting in the way. It’s astounding to me, sometimes, that any of us is able to make anything under those conditions, but that’s a very real consequence, potentially, of precarity and failure that we could say is maybe a sight to critique. You’re not able to meet your basic needs. There are people who still manage to make stuff, but it is way harder.
Betsy Brey: And, like, why would we ask or encourage somebody to do that? Like Kara was saying.
Kara Stone: A lot of people have the idea that suffering leads to better art. That’s a long term belief, is that if the artist is suffering, the art will be better. And so, I think probably all of us on this call don’t think that that’s true, at least to a certain extent. At least the material needs having been met, but still, the idea becomes pervasive when it’s like, “Well, that person has to have emotionally felt a lot of things to be able to tap into something.” Right? It makes it more of a hero triumph story if that is the case. And that’s so dominant within North America. And in game studies, to have this solo game developer that has overcome all these odds and has made this huge amazing game. And so, I think we really still have to continue to work to say that artists will make better art if we can not be in total suffering. And same with academics. Any sort of creative work will best come, for most of us, we’re like having time to reflect on it.
Elise Vist: And a thing to sort of remind ourselves as queer scholars, queer activism is something that you do in the introduction to the special issue, as well, Bo, that the queer art of failure, queer failure, kind of depends on queerness being a position of always going to fail, like you can’t succeed. But, as we get more homonormative, it becomes easier to position ourselves as the sort of heroes overcoming odds, when, in fact, we’re still kind of the norm in some ways. If you look at GamerGate and you look at MILO, you got a white gay guy betraying us all, but not really because he’s standing up for whiteness. He was never going to fail, right?
Betsy Brey: Yeah.
Elise Vist: And I think that’s something that we’re doing, as well, as we keep on the hard work of queer game scholarship is really interrogating what queerness means and feels like and reminding ourselves that sexuality is part, but not all of what queerness in the world feels like.
Betsy Brey: Yeah. What does queer game making look and feel like? I’m not a research-creator, I’m in awe of the games that y’all make and what you’re able to create while doing all of a hundred other things. And like we were both saying, twice as much work, basically. What does that feel like or look like? It’s a different go about. There are people who would say that queer game making is no different than game making, but—
Elise Vist: I mean, if I can answer as someone who has never published a queer game that I have made, but has made a number of queer games, I don’t publish my stuff, I just make it and some people get to play it ’cause they are at parties that I am at and I make them play my weird little games. And I run table top sessions and I make up campaigns and I consider that queer game making, right? Because I’m creating queer worlds that I get to play in, and that’s really what it comes down to it for me, at any rate, is that like, “Okay, I can do this. I’m gonna do it.” We get to play the way we want to play, and be the way we want to be. And it doesn’t have to be something that I share with the world that that sort of intimacy of it is part of it as well, that like, “Actually, no, no one else is invited to this party. Just people that I love get to be here.”
Jess Marcotte: So, this is a hard question. This is a question that I struggle to answer when writing theory as well, but I think that combination of a certain invitation into intimacy with a simultaneous almost resistance or prickliness to anyone who’s going to maybe try and step on that is maybe a part of it, like at once there’s this invitation in a lot of this work, this invitation to get very close, in many ways, and look into spaces that we’re not usually asked to look while simultaneously … I don’t know, is it like a kind of armor, or a kind of like shell? I don’t know, it’s like there’s this softness inside, but a certain amount of guardedness on the outside. When I think of my own work or the work of the collaborators or the games that I respond to the most, I don’t know that I’m responding to them on a queer level, but that’s what I’m gonna go with. So, that I’m responding to, in terms of their queerness.
Kara Stone: I’ll be very pragmatic, probably too pragmatic in answering the question, but I think there’s lots of different sites of location of queerness and game design, it can be in the production team and who’s making it. I think that does have a huge influence on the game and how it’s received and how it’s designed, just let alone. I think there’s also queerness in how queerness is represented. Like, very simply, either in the narrative, or in characters. There’s also queerness in the mechanic, which I think Bo would be best suited to talk about, and then also queerness in the way people are playing the games and that we as designers can not have complete control over, but it’s gonna happen, if we intend it or not, in the communities that pop up around certain games.
Jess Marcotte: Sort of raises the question, too, of like what it means to play queerly or queer something or reframe it.
Bo Ruberg: Yeah. No, I think about that a ton. I think it’s amazing. Queer people making games is amazing. Games that represent queer lives in a way that is not about triple A consumerism is amazing, but I also really believe in this idea that games themselves can be queer and that that happens in a bunch of different ways. Right? Like it can be through our play practices, through what we choose to value or rejecting the ways the games want to be played, the way that they’ve been designed to kind of orient us towards other desires and other pleasures. It can be through design itself and through mechanics. This idea, for me, really comes from Avery Alder who is an amazing table top designer who creates work where she’s specifically putting queer identity into the way that you play, into the systems that you play.
Bo Ruberg: I think about queer interpretation and a kind of right … I know it feels like an academic thing to sit down with a game and really understand it queerly, but I think it actually … there’s a politics and there’s a real embodied longing that comes with that to say like, “I’m gonna sit down with an object that means something to me, like a game, and I refuse to see it any other way but through my own queer experience and through my own queer connection.”
Bo Ruberg: I think all of those are very valid and rich and meaningful ways to approach games queerly that kind of refuse to stay on the level of representation.
Elise Vist: I feel like the word sort of refusal and the word prickliness that you used, Jess, as well, they feel sort of the same way to me. It’s just like, “I’m here. I’m gonna be here. I’m soft on the inside, but I’m prickly and I’m not gonna move. I’m not gonna get out of the way.”
Jess Marcotte: Yeah.
Elise Vist: Like, not gay as in happy …
Bo Ruberg: But queer as in, “Fuck you.” Yeah, I mean, it’s a funny double place to be in, the place that I find myself in is trying very hard to be a cheerleader for a queer games community, and that’s been really meaningful to me and my career. So, if I was to quit the labor and the privilege that I have into creating community spaces and supporting others, but I also feel a lot of anger and I think anger is really valuable.
Betsy Brey: I’m like 90% motivated by anger and spite human beings, so yeah, I’m for it.
Bo Ruberg: Exactly, exactly. No, I mean, I think a lot of … I mean, just hate and violence. And I think this probably happens to a lot of us that every time I open up the internet, I’m like, “Is today the day that 300 strangers send me death threats?” Like, that’s been my life for a long time, and so I don’t think there’s anything wrong in turning that around and being like, “No, you know what? Fuck you. Games are mine, too. Games belong to us, too.”
Jess Marcotte: Yikes. I recently had to explain what GamerGate was to a crowd of undergrads, and most contextualize is as something that happened in the moment, but also never really had a start point and has never really ended.
Betsy Brey: Atemporal and temporal.
Jess Marcotte: It was a trip.
Bo Ruberg: But I think that that tension that Jess is describing between the prickliness and the softness, the intimacy, that really captures something for me, because that’s how I feel, too. Not even in creative work, but just like working in queer game spaces in general is like there’s a hard shell, there’s a push to fight, but then there’s also this vulnerability and intimacy and sometimes literal softness, right? Like, Jess, your work with Squinky on the Troubleshooter project is about a hard case that surrounds intimate soft objects, and there’s a queerness just to that design choice.
Jess Marcotte: Yeah, we were definitely thinking about emotional labor and, well, there’s some latent queerness that sort of went right along with designing that game. It immediately sort of felt like the right choice that this intimacy with something that we had to protect or contrast with the materials inside. And, yeah, that tension or contrast, I think, is a productive one that does capture something about how this work feels. So, even a title like Spindlewheel. Like, the word spindle … So, we’ve got Sasha’s work on Spindlewheel that’s gonna be published in this special issue, there is, yeah, this word spindle that feels sharp and jagged. And then also, yeah, the experience itself is a very intimate one, and one that’s like … it’s a lot of labor, so thinking to what Elise was saying about running table top games that like, this is a story that has never been played before and will never be played again, and then as your game master, I am creating a world for you that we’re going to inhabit together for a limited amount of time, for an ephemeral time, and it will never come again. But I’m doing this labor, potentially hours of planning time, to make this experience for you possible. That’s a very intimate experience, too. Especially when things are going well and depending on the group that you play with, there’s a care and intimacy to that, too.
Jess Marcotte: Yeah, it’s an interesting contrast. And I mean, we’ve got other work, too, in this special issue thinking about depictions of queerness in LARP and how those operate. We have got, actually, some table top work around what it means to a queer, like, a role playing system. That’ll be something to look out for. And then, of course, we’ve got the queer controller coming in nice and strong with The Undie Game work that Sabine Herrer is bringing. So, this is a game where you put on a pair of underpants and you put a gaming mouse, or just a computer mouse in the underwear, and this is your interface and you sort of hold it with one hand and stroke it and flick it with the other. Yeah, so, it’s contrast between intimacy and confrontation or intimacy and prickliness or armor and soft, gooey insides. I think it’s definitely a theme that’s coming across in this special issue.
Bo Ruberg: And I see it. Like, Kara, I see it in your work, too. I think about Ritual of the Moon and, at least for me as a player, there’s this real intimacy in the art assets you’ve created, like the aesthetic of that game is so clearly handcrafted. Yeah, and that labor and that labor of care and of touch. But then, the emotional reality of that game is so much about distance and about the sort of hardness of contact between people.
Kara Stone: You said that so well, it makes me feel really nice to hear. But yeah, I mean, it took a long time for us to decide on what the aesthetic is gonna be. We came to deciding that everything we were going to have in the game was going to be handcrafted. So, everything in the game took a lot of time to make physically and then to digitally scan and manipulate. I spent one summer, I was having a really difficult summer, and I hand-embroidered all of the words in the game, which are about this queer love that has been lost, and loneliness, and that took me like three months to do, which is kind of absurd and thinking about that, a small game like that, but it was really important. And I think it came across in that game and it was really trying to deal with these dualities of love and loneliness, and future and past, and technology and handmade, and trying to meld these seeming dichotomies and make them into one. Please play it in April, Full Moon. It’s coming up.
Betsy Brey: Yay!
Kara Stone: Finally. After a fucking year.
Jess Marcotte: I think this brings in something that actually, Kara, your work in FPS touches on, which is queer temporalities and thinking through, so what did it mean having hand-embroidered and captured this moment of this summer through your crafting of the writing. What did it then mean to have to continue the game with that being sort of set? Because you’d made all of this hand-embroidered stuff. This captured moment in time, this labor, these handmade, hand-embroidered font, like the narrative and the words of Ritual of the Moon, what it’s like to design after that.
Kara Stone: Yeah, I think that brings up a interesting thing that I reflected on a lot, which is, in some ways the handcrafted seems like there’s a finite end to it, and then we scan it and then the game is out and it’s released and it’s done, regardless if it’s digital or not. In reality, we handcrafted those and then digitally manipulated them, and sometimes I had to add extra text, which was really annoying ’cause I didn’t wanna re-hand-embroider everything, so we just copied and pasted some of the words and Frankensteined words.
Elise Vist: That’s awesome. I really love it.
Kara Stone: I know, I had have – it’s very frustrating.
Jess Marcotte: I was wondering if you’d made a font, ’cause you could make a font of your hand-stitching.
Kara Stone: Yeah, definitely could make a font, but then all the F’s would look the same and all of the E’s would look the same, and then the process of proofreading the game, which is about time. It takes 28 days to play, so me spending three months hand-embroidering the text is not really much of anything. And then, thinking, also, about just how we perceived art in general is that I don’t think it’s ever frozen in a moment of time. It’s easy to look back on our own work and be like, “Oh, that was really representative of me then.” I think we always bring something different to it, or find something new in it, or analyze it in a different way. We’ll have a different reading of a piece of art 200 years from now, but that doesn’t mean one is more right than the other. They can both be generative in thinking new ways about this piece. I don’t think it’s ever finished or static, even if it’s handmade. Eventually, also, this game won’t be available anymore because I won’t be able to update it for the new app stores, or whatever. We won’t have phones anymore. Who knows? It’s gonna happen and it’s gonna be really sad. Which, I guess, brings the importance of Adrienne Shaw’s game archive, queer game archive.
Jess Marcotte: You know, when new work comes out that is in conversation, like Ritual of the Moon, that new work could change our interpretation or our reading of Ritual of the Moon and re-contextualize it, but also that where we’re at when we play it or when we return to it, also re-contextualizes or changes the work. I think that’s an important way of thinking about something like queer time.
Kara Stone: And also, it has been an important fixture in queer theory in general. Like, my first introduction to queer theory was your film theory. So much of that is looking at old Hollywood movies and reading queerness into them in ways that sometimes they were intended, and other ways they’re not.
Betsy Brey: I feel like another element of the piece that you wrote for FPS on Ritual of the Moon, and you’ve written more about it and it’s definitely worth reading all of that and playing the game, but you touched on the idea of reparative game play and healing, and I’m really interested in the kind of connections between our prickly shells and our soft insides and the sort of healing elements that go on with this kind of game play. And that’s something that Elise talked about in a piece she wrote for FPS and queering Dungeons and Dragons recently, too.
Elise Vist: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been thinking as I’m listening to this about prickliness and softness and it is true that so much of queer art has to do with that fight or that sort of pain, sometimes, right? It’s a lot about pain, and I would love to see a way for us to keep our sort of queer orientation to the world with less pain. I think that’s the struggle, right? That to be queer is to be orientated in a way to the world that it just doesn’t feel right. We don’t fit, we don’t feel comfortable. So, pain is kind of part of it, but I would love to stay queer without hurting.
Betsy Brey: I would love to just marshmallow around without my prickles, yeah.
Jess Marcotte: For me, I think, part of the promise of when I encounter queer work or the arcade at QGCon or at different games. In queer arcade context and in queer game design context, the promise is almost one of … not sharing a joke, but an element of sharing your connection that seems important to how I think about my work, that I am trying to share something with somebody who will recognize it, that I’m sending up a signal, or calling out or transmitting something that I hope someone will hear and recognize themselves in, and that moment of recognition and shared recognition is, I guess, like a guiding theme for me.
Kara Stone: Jess, I think that’s such a beautiful point, and I completely feel similarly. And, just to go against wanting to be in a marshmallow all the time or wanting to live without paint, it’s like, I don’t think that’s possible and I also don’t think that’s something that we should be working towards. We want our lives to be livable, but especially from a standpoint in psychosocial disability or disability studies or mental illness, conceptualizing a utopia where there are no bad feelings is like ruling out a lot of people and a lot of generative experiences. And so, I usually follow the queer scholars, like Sara Ahmed or Ann Cvetkovich or Lauren Berlant, who use bad, negative, prickly feelings as a resource for political action and activation and for bringing people together, and I think that that, like you were saying, Jess, that can be a way of having a recognition, to be like, “I feel this way. It sucks, or it’s prickly, or it’s painful. Do you feel this way, too?” And it’s not about escaping that pain, but to be like, “Wow, we’re both feeling this. Isn’t that incredible?
Bo Ruberg: Yeah, Kara, I really agree with that. Also as somebody who’s got an invisible disability, I think a lot about the narratives of like there’s something in repair, sometimes, that I think about, and what does it mean to stop feeling pain? What does it mean to start feeling well? And whose model of wellness that is, and what kind of repair that is. I don’t know that I’m ready to give up my pain entirely because I’m not sure what that means, you know? ‘Cause it’s not entirely pain inflicted from the outside, it’s also about internal experience. And I think about the temporality of good feeling, too. I wrote this piece a few years ago now, it’s in the queer game studies collection, about how QGCon always feels, to me, like this beautiful utopia, but that it’s fundamentally bounded by time. That it’s, for me, always a kind of euphoric experience, but it lasts 48 hours, and then it’s done. And that’s not necessarily a failing, that’s a reality that lives within a bounded space. And to try and find the kind of beauty of that euphoric connection, in part by nature of the fact that it’s always ephemeral.
Elise Vist: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. And when I say I wish there was less pain, it’s less … I mean, I definitely agree we can’t just disappear pain from the world, but just the sort of pain of worrying if you’re gonna open Twitter and find 300 people have decided that their life’s work is to hate you today.
Bo Ruberg: Oh, absolutely. And there’s so much real queer pain. I mean, there’s real violence. I don’t mean to downplay that at all, or try to elevate that in some way that’s just conceptual. It’s like everything, it’s just complicated.
Betsy Brey: I think that also gets bound up with – It’s important to keep in mind the temporality of all of that, too. And, as another person with an invisible disability, I experience a lot of physiological physical pain on a regular basis, and I don’t know what it would be like to not have that. And I think it would be nice if people would have the option in their queerness to have more temporary pain and identities built out of more than just pain.
Elise Vist: I think vulnerability, that’s just making and talking and thinking about games and queerness, it requires vulnerability to an extent that is sometimes dangerous, right? Where you make yourself vulnerable, maybe in a way you didn’t expect, or you didn’t want, or other people make you vulnerable in ways that you couldn’t have predicted, and it’s an unfortunate consequence, but also maybe a necessary consequence of vulnerability, right? You can’t be vulnerable if there’s no possibility of being hurt. That’s what being vulnerable means, and that’s why we struggle with the prickliness and the softness is that that’s what it means to live, and maybe we just notice it more, perhaps, as people who are already primed in terms of our relationship to the world.
Betsy Brey: I know that I love my queerness and I love my prickliness and my softness, and I’m really glad that there are parts of my life that are … I know healing isn’t the right metaphor, but engaging in ways that allows maybe the interaction between the prickly and the soft to meld together a little bit more in a way that is pleasurable or enjoyable or even reparative, sometimes life saving. On that … I guess, before we’re out of time here, any last thoughts about our wishes or ideas for the future of queer games and queer scholarship would be?
Jess Marcotte: Oh, Kara and I asked each other this question in January, and I don’t even remember my answer anymore.
Bo Ruberg: So, my answer, is my answer selfish? I don’t know what … I think there are lots of answers. I think one of the answers is just like I would love to see more and more the kind of stuff that Jess and Kara are doing and more and more people are doing that is bringing together making and academic perspectives, and just thinking, “That’s super awesome, I hope we do more of that.” I also just increasingly feel like we’re taking over, and that makes me feel good. Right?
Betsy Brey: Yeah.
Jess Marcotte: Bo is leading that charge.
Kara Stone: Yeah.
Bo Ruberg: I just get a lot of … So, I run the admissions committee for my department here, and I have done for the last couple years, and we just see more and more people who wanna come to grad school, for example, to make queer games. I think for QGCon, too, we see it more and more with grad students who are like, “I do queer game studies, I see more and more queer game making happening all over the place, especially stuff coming up on Itch.” I’m just like, “We will take over, and y’all will deal with it.”
Betsy Brey: Fuck yes. Fuck yes.
Kara Stone: Yeah, for me it doesn’t feel like such a pressing issue because I’ve always been in game studies and making games in a time when Bo has been writing and Christine Love has been making video games and they’ve been popular. So, I come at a very precious time in which I don’t feel the lack that came before, and I know that I have to be more conscious and recognize that it was really different before, and people had to really fight to have it be the way that it is now and that we have to continue the fight to have it be that way. And ever since the time that I’ve been teaching, I’ve also always had queer students. Lucky enough, at the universities that I’ve taught at, that has been the case as well as nonbinary students and agender students. We have a due diligence to them to have it be even more possible for them to have fruitful careers or relationship to games that isn’t damaging them.
Betsy Brey: I love the “fight the good fight.”
Jess Marcotte: So, I think, for me, I want queer game design to stay messy. Stay messy and entangled and keep questioning and questing and working towards, rather than becoming something that is totally settled.
Elise Vist: I would hate to see a genre develop of queer game.
Jess Marcotte: And, echoing Elise and other folks just louder, more visible and louder than ever before. Yeah, and I hope it’s a little uncomfortable, but in that way where we’re using and recognizing each other’s prickliness. Maybe making the right folks uncomfortable and disrupting stuff and all the settled things.
Betsy Brey: I love disrupting. To paraphrase and extend what Katherine Cross said, write more than ever, play more than ever, be here more than ever. I’m really, really excited that FPS is able to do this special issue, and this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for being here to help us introduce this special issue, and some more awesome work on queer games and queer making. Let’s keep doing it.
Jess Marcotte: Yeah.
Bo Ruberg: Thank you so much for having us. Thank you to FPS, thank you to Jess for editing. It is no small task to do that, it’s really awesome.
Jess Marcotte: Thanks, Bo and Kara, for making yourselves available for this. I’m really excited that you’re both able to be here to have this conversation and to have this chat.