Queer Modding

Revealing a Place for Queerness in Games Through Alternate Reading, Play, and Remixing

Katelyn Campbell is a graduate of Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media. She is currently a freelance video editor based out of Montreal.Follow the author on TwitterFollow the author on Instagram

Queer gaming communities have existed nearly as long as video games themselves, yet queer gamers who engage with video games are often forced to exist within digital spaces that do not account for their experiences and identities. Game developers often design game worlds through a heteronormative, male-centric lens, restricting the possibilities of what gender and sexuality can be within these game worlds. Queerness is therefore ignored, erased, or severely regulated in the game’s narrative, mechanics, and code. When queerness does occur it is on the terms of the game developers—treated as an exception to the otherwise straight rule of video games (Shaw). This kind of game design and discourse upholds particular values and norms where queerness is marginalized and heterosexuality is centered, creating an industry that is heteronormative on a technical, commercial, and cultural level; erasing queerness from video games and video game history.

This fabricated absence of queerness is used to justify continued marginalization and exclusion (Ruberg; Anthropy). However, video games can be interpreted differently from how the developers intended. Queer players bring their own experiences to games, which ultimately impacts how the meaning of the text is read and how the game worlds are experienced. As a result, queer players find ways to bring queerness to these video games through queer modding. The practice of queer modding can push back against heteronormative systems through alternative, queer readings and play, or through directly altering or remixing a game’s source material in ways that subvert the developers’ expectations. These practices reveal how fragile and undesirable normative systems are; proving that queerness is desired by players and has a place in video games.

This paper will explore some key examples of players subverting the intended and heteronormative game meanings through queer modding. For the purposes of this paper, queer modding will be considered any modification made to a game’s intended meaning, including queer play, queer reading, or the direct altering or remixing of a game—usually done through modifying the game’s code. While the term ‘modding’ typically only refers to the altering of code, queer play and reading will be considered here as additional methods, as they achieve similar goals as code modifications and are more approachable to a wider range of people.

All three methods of queer modding ultimately challenge the structures within games that assume heterosexuality. This expanded definition borrows from Blackmon and Layne’s work in post-play feminist mods, which they have defined “as any significant changes to the narrative or to a gamer’s perception of the narrative that happens post-game development and without actually changing the code.”  The new game meanings will be considered queer if they resist normative structures or narratives within the game, in line with Shaw and Ruberg’s definition of queerness as “the desire to live life otherwise, by questioning and living outside of normative boundaries” (Shaw and Ruberg 11). Queerness will, therefore, find its place in video games and these mods beyond same-sex relationships, or otherwise overt narrative representation (Shaw and Ruberg; Shaw and Friesem 3886). For example, queer readings of Octodad: Dadliest Catch (Young Horses 2014) or Mass Effect (Bioware 2007-2017) bring representations of queer experience—such as being closeted—to games which do not claim to directly represent them. A queer play approach widens the potential use of a game, encouraging players to set their own goals and play differently—exist differently—within a game space, as is done in speedrunning communities. Mods that directly remix a game’s source materials can subvert or undo heteronormative logic bound up in the source code, such as Hana’s Stardew Valley (Chucklefish 2016) Gender Neutrality Mod. These modding practices often subvert not only the individual game they are designed for, but can also challenge broader notions of what video games are or how they are understood.

Queer reading interprets a game’s narrative through a queer lens and could include interpreting certain characters, relationships, and mechanics as queer, or extending the narrative beyond its source text to imagine how queerness might exist in that world (Dym; Ruberg). These interpretations can apply to specific playthroughs of a game, or more generally to a game as a whole. An example of a general queer reading can be found in Octodad: Dadliest Catch, where players control an octopus trying to “pass” as a human male father figure. A queer experience can be found in both the game’s story and its unconventional mechanics, as players “play at heteronormativity” and try to “perform the role of straight, cisgender, masculine father” while controlling each of Octodad’s limbs separately (Ruberg 85). In an individual Mass Effect playthrough, Todd Harper reads the main playable character Commander Shepard as a closeted gay man who comes out in the third game. This “ClosetShep” reading explains changing romance mechanics throughout the series; gives new and queer meaning to mundane, seemingly unrelated plot points; and informs gameplay decisions (Harper). What’s more, this reading brings queerness to parts of the franchise where developers did not originally envision it, freeing the queerness from being regulated to same-sex romance mechanics and from being defined on the developer’s terms. This more nuanced understanding of how queerness can exist in the Mass Effect world complicates an otherwise categorical depiction of queerness and the common narrative of LGBTQ+ representation as a linear, upwards progression.

Through queer reading, Octodad and Mass Effect become representative of queer experiences in ways not necessarily intended by the developers. These readings are able to achieve this without changing code or expected gameplay because the potential for queerness already exists within these games. Through acting on narrative alone, queer reading can reveal the subjectivity of these narratives and the fragility of their heteronormativity; breaking them down and making room for queerness in those spaces. Queer reading can therefore fulfill a player’s desire for queerness in games as it locates and brings that queerness into the games—at least for the players applying these queer lenses. The potential of queer readings is not limited to the above examples—the heteronormativity built up in code, rules, and narrative can always be broken down depending on the lens that is applied to it.

Queer reading and queer play have considerable overlap; both involve interpreting a game in ways that are more aligned with the player’s experiences than the developers’ intentions. Queer reading exists primarily within a player’s head or otherwise outside of the game world, but it can inform queer play, which is more actively enacted within the game itself. Queer play often interprets goals and rules set by the game differently and can challenge heteronormativity within the structure and assumed purpose of a game (Chang 19; Ruberg).

In Video Games Have Always Been Queer, Bonnie Ruberg explores various ways in which this queer play takes place. In Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo 2014) Ruberg describes the act of driving directly into quicksand pits intended to be obstacles as being “joyfully contrarian,” repeating the action until all of their “lives are lost” (Ruberg 162). This style of queer play acts against the set rules of a game as well as the assumption that games are meant to be fun at all (Ruberg 163). Here we see how playing “against fun”—or “playing to lose”—can be a complete rejection of the game’s definitions of success, failure, and the player’s purpose within the game. The spirit of queer play is also found in speedrunning communities, where the goal of any game becomes to complete it as quickly as possible. Within these communities, glitches—typically viewed as errors through a normative lens—can be utilized by speedrunners to reach their newly defined goals with greater ease, allowing these glitches to become “features (rather than bugs)” (Ruberg 198). Here the developer’s intended goals, level design, and even criteria of what makes a “good” game are changed as players define their own conditions for success.

Where queer reading exploits the fragility of heteronormativity on a narrative level, queer play acts on the level of interaction, rules, and affordances. The above examples show how digital games can become digital playgrounds through queer play; the importance and utility of various rules and mechanics up for negotiation as players embrace failure, exploit glitches, or create new uses for a game. This redefining or removing of goals allows Ruberg to embrace level design that is meant to create obstacles and allows speedrunners to find joy in glitches which may otherwise cause frustration. As these actions create alternate ways of experiencing the game, they undermine the developer’s authority over gameplay. Queer play is therefore a powerful tool to transform gameplay in ways more aligned with player’s desires, allowing them to regain control over gameplay; locating and creating queerness through interaction. While heteronormativity is embedded into video games through rules, these rules can always be rejected by the player.

While queer readings and queer play work within a game’s existing affordances, mods which work on the level of a game’s code can expand (or further limit) these affordances. These queer mods work with the “raw materials” of a video game—the code, visual assets, rules, etc.—and can challenge the heteronormativity found here. Many queer mods swap out or increase the availability of certain gendered assets to increase queer romance options. Mods such as Harvest Moon: True Love Edition (Nguyen) and Dragon Age Origins: Equal Love (Kamajii) open up NPC romance options to the player, regardless of gender. Stardew Valley’s Gender Neutrality Mod (Hana) makes “Stardew Valley nonbinary friendly” by removing all gendered references to the player as well as the gendered symbols in the character creation screen (Sayer). These mods are often simply “undoing” heteronormative assumptions made by game developers, and allowing queer players to exist more comfortably within a game (Postigo 309; Welch ). Through minor changes to a game’s code, the above examples disrupt conventional gender logic through challenging normative gender restrictions or the fact that gender needs to exist at all. The original games modded here often enforce heteronormative values by using binary and categorical flags to indicate gender or gendered events in the code (Lauteria). Queer mods then take advantage of this simplistic logic to subvert and reverse its effects.

In other cases, queer mods are simply revealing existing code that has been made inaccessible in the game before it ships. For example, modders found code in Mass Effect which could be utilized to open up options and undo heteronormative logic surrounding romance options (Lauteria). This method of queer modding shows how queerness often already exists within these games, and that it is heteronormativity which needs to be brought in through coded rules (Lauteria; Welch). Simple disruptions to otherwise “straight” games destabilize naturalized ideas of gender and sexuality, again revealing the fragility of these heteronormative views and the possibility for queerness which is always present.

Queer mods that remix and directly alter game material reject what the player is presented with in order to ask more of the game. These mods refuse to operate within predetermined rules and act upon parts of the video game which are not designed to be interacted with by the player. While Stardew Valley is often regarded as progressive for allowing for same-sex relationships, its gender-neutral mod further pushes the standards for queer representation (Hart; Megarry). These actions challenge the developer’s authority and even authorship over gameplay more directly than queer play, therefore challenging their authority and ability to regulate queerness out of games or define queerness on their terms. Through acting directly on a game’s source materials, these modders are putting queerness exactly where the industry often insists it is not wanted and therefore cannot be. Queer mods that exist in opposition to these normative ideas therefore become exemplary of both a desire for queerness and how queerness can exist within video games.

It is a common understanding that video games are hetero spaces designed for straight cis-men, despite the fact that even the most hetero-centric games can, have been, and will continue to be queered as queer players interact with them (Anthropy; Frol et al.). Queer mods exist so long as video games exist; video games are an interactive medium whose meanings are always up for negotiation and interpretation by the players. While games are made with rigid ideas around what gender and sexuality are, queer mods push back against these ideas and prove that queerness is desired and has a place in games. Yet, for radical, foundational change, queer mods cannot be the only form of resistance against hegemonic structures in game design and culture. While the direct subversion of heteronormativity can be where mods find their strength—as it is this direct subversion which reveals the fragility of heteronormative systems—this source of strength will also limit what they can accomplish.

Queer mods still operate on and within game systems that are heteronormative on every level down to the hardware they run on and are therefore inherently limited in what they can accomplish (Bagnall). Subverting or rejecting heteronormative structures is still acting in response to those systems, whereas the change that is truly needed within queer game communities must involve creating new, queer spaces from scratch. The above methods of queer mods must, therefore, exist alongside other forms of resistance, such as queer game communities and queer game design. However, the ways in which players choose to reimagine games through mods are not insignificant and point towards new possibilities for video games. These modifications represent a desire for queer representation as well as an exploration of what video games can be, and what they often are just under the surface.

Works Cited

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Bagnall, Gregory L. “Queer(ing) Gaming Technologies: Thinking on Constructions of Normativity Inscribed in Digital Gaming Hardware.” Queer Game Studies, by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 135-144.

Blackmon, Samantha, and Alex Layne. “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, vol. 2, 2013.

Chang, Edmond Y. “Queergaming.” Queer Game Studies, by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 15–24.

Dym, Brianna. “You Can’t Just ‘Fix-It’: Reclaiming Game Narratives in Fan Fiction.” Queerness and Games Conference 2018. Queerness and Games Conference 2018, 29 Sept. 2018, Montreal, Concordia University.

Frol, Janine, et al. “The Hegemony of Play.” Proceedings, DiGRA: Situated Play, Sept. 2007.

Harper, Todd. “Role-Play as Queer Lens: How ‘ClosetShep’ Changed My Vision of Mass Effect.” Queer Game Studies, edited by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 125–134.

Hart, Aimee. “Gayme of the Week: Stardew Valley.” Gayming, Gray Jones Media, 13 Jan. 2020.

Lauteria, Evan, W. “Ga(y)mer Theory: Queer Modding as Resistance.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, vol. 12, no. 2, 2012, p. 7.

Megarry, Daniel. “10 of the best LGBTQ games to play while self-isolating.” Gay Times, 13 May. 2020.

Postigo, Hector. “Of Mods and Modders.” Games and Culture, vol. 2, no. 4, 2007, pp. 300–313.

Ruberg, Bonnie. Video Games Have Always Been Queer. New York University Press, 2019.

Sayer, Matt. “The Modders Making Games More Gender-Diverse.” Rock Paper Shotgun, Gamer Network Limited, 7 Apr. 2017.

Shaw, Adrienne. “Putting the Gay in Games: Cultural Production and GLBT Content in Video Games” Games and Culture, vol. 4, no. 3, June 2009.

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Shaw, Adrienne, and Bonnie Ruberg. “Introduction: Imagining Queer Game Studies.” Queer Game Studies, edited by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. ix–xxxiii.

Welch, Tom. “The Affectively Necessary Labour of Queer Mods.” Game Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, Dec. 2018.

Games and Game Mods Mentioned

Bioware. (2007–2017) Mass Effect.

ConcernedApe. (2016) Stardew Valley. Chucklefish.

Hana. (November 2016). Gender Neutrality Mod, Stardew Valley. Hanatsuki.

Nguyen, Duy. (2013). Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town True Love Edition. Duy Nguyen.

Nintendo. (2014) Mario Kart 8. 

Kamajii. (2010). Dragon Age Origins: Equal Love. Kamajii (Majii).

Young Horses. (2014). Octodad: Deadliest Catch.