Re-Imagining The Borderlands

A Review of Queer Game Studies

E. Deshane’s creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. E. received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. E’s most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online.  bio-blogbio-twitterbio-email

There’s a scene that Bonnie Ruberg describes in the final chapter of Queer Game Studies (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), which still resonates long after I finished the work. It’s a scene of the inevitable social banter after a panel discussion at an academic conference where, as Ruberg states, she feels “pressured to either tone down my queerness […] or to perform it” (271). For Ruberg, her queerness is not evident in people’s assumptions of her while also simultaneously too evident in her research in queer gaming. She reminds herself to not mention her ex-girlfriend and to silence her kinkiness; she dresses the professional part to blend in and answers questions about her research with a smile on her face—and yet, she still deals with feelings of being “the weird grad student” and with people’s seemingly never-ending questions of “Queerness? And games?” with a twinge of disgust (272). No matter where she went, it never felt as if queer game studies could ever become valid or important–which meant that she herself could not be valid or important, either.

This feeling is all too familiar for me. I’ve gone to conferences where my research on transgender studies feels like an anomaly in a panel, a rare gem of diversity in a sea of straightness, similar to Sara Ahmed feeling lost in a sea of whiteness in the academy. But I’ve also gone to conferences on gender studies where my research fits in wonderfully, but where I receive odd looks when I attend a social function with my typically-gendered partner in what everyone assumes to be a 100% heterosexual pairing. No matter where I go, I always feel as if I’m leaving something of myself or my work behind. An academic conference promotes a persistent disjointed feeling of distress that doesn’t quite relent, like Ruberg’s internal voice, until I’m alone in my hotel room again with a book—or in her case, with a video game.

This feeling of social distress I’ve come to think of as being in the borderlands. I’ve borrowed this term from Michael Chabon, who uses it in his nonfiction work Maps and Legends (2008) when he describes the precarious nature of his writing and reading practices between genres. For myself, it’s the borderlands between research areas, between gay and straight, male and female, and between professional academic talk and casual conversation that promote the most dread, but also offer the most rewards. Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw are well familiar with these borderlands in their personal and professional lives; it was the main reason why Ruberg organized the Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) in 2013 and continues to do so now. When organizing the conference, though, Ruberg wanted to stay as skeptical as possible about its potential impact. Gender in the video game community at that time was bleak and she was a healthy cynic. All she wanted from the conference was to maybe spark a few new ideas, nothing more. “After all,” she writes, “what’s the point of dreaming impossibly big, of dreaming utopia, the ‘no place’ that science fiction long ago taught us only exists as the dystopia in disguise?” (270).

What she found at QGCon, however, is really the triumph of the entirety of the Queer Game Studies collection: a panoply of voices, engaging perspectives, and insights into a culture that once only existed at the periphery but has now come into focus. Queer Game Studies is a borderland text as it straddles so many genres and identities in the essays, as well as tackling the quintessential academic borderland that is both queer theory and games studies. Not only is games studies perpetually divided by the consistent sparring between ludic and narrative interpretations, but it is often strongly divided along those same gender and sexual lines. GamerGate–which occurred during the editing process for this book and which caused its delay as they put out a call for more papers–becomes one of the main flashpoints that highlights these divides. But as the conference showed, and as this volume attests, some of the best research doesn’t pick sides. It learns to relish and find its power in those borderlands, and uses them to its best purpose. For Ruberg, QGCon was the first time “in academia, the first time in games, and possibly the first time ever, I felt like I had found a community where I could be the version of myself that I am on the inside” (271) and she, along with her co-editor Adrienne Shaw, has managed to combine these personal feelings of belonging with a strong academic eye for content that makes Queer Game Studies both conscious of its scholarship’s historical past as much as its potential future.

Queer Game Studies does this so well because the label ‘queer’ derives its academic and social power from the same revelling in the in-between. As Ruberg and Shaw write in the introduction, viewing this work as ‘queer’ is a way to be inclusive—studying a variety of different LGBTQ identities and the spectrum of gender—but it also allows for a queer methodology which “[provides] a valuable framework for interrogating the very systems that structure the medium” since it has “the potential to simultaneously destabilize and reimagine video games themselves” (ix). And video games in this realm are definitely reimagined along many different lines and in many different ways. The book is divided into several different subsections, each one focusing on a different area of ‘queer’ and using the source-texts of games as a way to embody or illustrate certain points. Whether it’s Zoya Street’s alternative history of gaming studies, building a queer mythology through game design by Hannah Brady, Merritt Kopas’ reading a transgender narrative through lesbian avatars, or engaging with the potential of failure in queering game masculinity as Jordan Youngblood does, the total volume expands and explores many potential readings of queerness, while also building on a solid foundation of game studies and previous work that has come before.

One of the book’s strongest points is that unlike a lot of other work in queer theory, it does not leave transgender people or trans representation out of the discussion. Many authors mention Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia for its treatment of transgender experience and its probing questions about what really counts as a game. As I mentioned earlier, Merritt Kopas even has a chapter where she relates her trans experience and need to see herself through a feminine avatar in the highly praised game Gone Home. There is also Katherine Cross’s work in this volume, offering a new interpretation of Susan Faludi’s concept of the “terror dream” and how it applies to the gaming community. There is room for transgender people in this borderland–as gamers, avatars, and critics–which is immensely refreshing to see.

It’s also refreshing to see a frank discussion of the romance genre alongside game mechanics in the essay “Role-Play as Queer Lens How ‘ClosetShep’ Changed My Vision of Mass Effect” by Todd Harper. Romance has often been a vilified genre for decades and never given much consideration in critical discussions–much like games and other pulp literature. In his essay, Harper  examines the love story plotline in the Mass Effect series from a gay romance perspective, one that effectively–due to change in game design–puts male Shepard in the closet for the first two games. He focuses his essay on the mechanical reasons why the Shepard narrative is a closet narrative–but ultimately highlights it as a romance with a happy ending which, by virtue of game design, must also tackle the social issues of homophobia and coming out. A happy ending for queer characters can be monumental in works of fiction. It’s partly why fanfiction is so moving and popular, and why there has been a mass market for pulp gay romances (also known as f/f or m/m romance). When a happy ending is allowed, the fantasy space of the story takes over, and the conflict or struggle of the characters can be rewarded by the end. Queer characters can focus on love, relationships, and community building–rather than survival.

Thriving, not merely surviving, seems to be the overall goal for Queer Game Studies as well. Ruberg’s comparison to the QGCon as a temporary utopia wasn’t made for purely poetic resonance, but critical as well, since Jose Esteban Munoz’s work Cruising Utopia is cited multiple times in the volume, especially his thoughts on utopia as a place among the horizon. For Munoz,

Queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an identity. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. (1).

The queerness in Queer Game Studies volume is inclusivity–but it’s also futurity that Munoz mentions here. It has to be when talking about games which heavily draw on sci-fi and fantasy themes, creating alternative worlds and utilizing some of the best technology. These claims for futurity have another resonance when queer people are considered. Since so much of queer life has been seen as annihilation, trauma, death or negativity in general, focusing on the future is a way to create and sustain a community. Jack Halberstam, along with Munoz, are some of the main people who do work in queer futurity (along with Elizabeth Freeman, Lee Edleman, and Leo Bersani), and Halberstam is another person who is consistently cited and makes an appearance in the volume. His essay “Queer Gaming Gaming, Hacking, and Going Turbo” revises his thoughts on the glitch’s role in animation that he discussed in The Queer Art of Failure, and provides a queer reading of the video game themed Pixar movie Wreck It Ralph–but it’s his conversation with Jesper Juul that, for me, is the crucial turning point of the entire work. Within the same year, both Juul and Halberstam wrote landmark works tackling the idea of failure. But, as Ruberg points out in her moderated panel discussion, Halberstam doesn’t mention video games and Juul doesn’t mention queer people when talking about failure–making their conversation at QGCon a way for them to bridge the gaps of knowledge and create communities across typical scholarship borders.

There are many other essays that manage to tackle these ideas of failure, utopia, inclusivity, and merge them into a bricolage, while there only seems to be a handful of games examined in the work that act as source-texts to explore these themes. Most of the repeated works are to be expected; since queer gaming is still relatively niche, there aren’t too many texts to work with, so the better and more popular ones will repeat (like Gone Home and Dys4ia). But these repeated games do not feel like repeated lectures since each new essay offers a new perspective or identity issue examined. Of course, as with any anthology, there will also be a handful of essays that don’t quite fit. That handful in this case is rather small, though, and mostly due to my personal preference. My dislike of certain essays has far more to do with me than with those writers, since the essays that I skimmed could be life-altering for someone, while those that I’ve fawned over in this review may have been boring to others. Overall, the entire volume reads as if it is a conference with many varying panels–which, of course, is precisely the point. The collection reads as if it’s a conference because it is polyvocal, communal, and it all works together as a smaller part of a larger whole; but it also reads as a conference because I know this is just the beginning of the research being conducted in this field. QGCon, which started out as Ruberg’s “forty-eight hour utopia” (270) has now become a nearly 300 page examination on topics that span from reading queerly to queer game designs, and it will only keep growing.

Though Ruberg’s experience at QGCon is now a static object called Queer Game Studies that we can flip through and interrogate, assign for classes, and photocopy for our colleagues, it does not mean that the book itself is over. The conclusion to the volume is merely the last written word and a hope for the future–something similar to what Munoz would offer. It is not an official ending, a final word, but the beginning of an imagined borderland that we can populate with new experiences, new queerness, and new games.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “It can be tiring, all that whiteness.” Feminist Killjoys. 30 August 2012. Accessed: 2 September 2017.

Chabon, Michael. Maps and Legends. NY: McSweeny’s, 2008. E-Book.

Munoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NY: New York University Press, 2009.  

Ruberg, Bonnie and Adrienne Shaw (Editors). Queer Game Studies. US: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.