The Queer Games we Play

Review of Video Games Have Always Been Queer

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betsy brey is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, finishing her dissertation on queering game narratives. She’s been with FPS since 2014, and someone changed her job description on Slack from Editor-in-Chief to “Hollering about Dragon Age.” She plays too much Dungeons and Dragons, has fallen into a World of Warcraft hellhole again, and will continue to insist that Five Nights at Freddys is interesting despite being politely asked to leave.Follow the author on TwitterMore about the author

This is a book I didn’t know I needed. This is a book I needed in the past. This is a book I won’t need until the future. This is a book that I understand now. This is a book I have already known in pieces over the years before it was written. This is a book that rendered me speechless. This is a book for which I am so deeply grateful.

Getting my Hands on It

I feel like I should note that the author of Video Games Have Always Been Queer, Bonnie Ruberg, is a friend of the site and has worked with FPS before. However, they did not request that FPS review their book, much less me personally. The publisher (New York University Press) sent it to our Book Review section along with other books they thought we’d have interest in; dang, they were right. I squealed when I saw the book in the small stack on one of our desks. And I stole it from the pile and started reading right away.

The book itself has a pleasant blue cover and feels soft in my hands. Video Games Have Always Been Queer has two main sections, one called “Discovering Queerness in Video Games” and the second, “Bringing Queerness to Video Games.” Before diving into those sections, the introduction sets up several large-scale arguments, the most obvious of which is the title of the book. Video games are queer. That’s the big claim, and I am Here. For. It.

Ruberg argues that “[q]ueerness and video games share a common ethos: the longing to imagine alternative ways of being and to make space within structures of power for resistance through play” (1). When I explained the argument to a professor, he said, “Oh, I didn’t know that could be queer.” When explained as Ruberg does, any game can be queer, and that’s exactly the point. Queerness is an embodiment of playfulness, one that allows us “to resist structures of power, or partake in alternative forms of pleasure, or inhabit embodied and affective experiences of difference” (15). But this kind of intervention and explanation is deeply needed at this point in game studies scholarship, as we can see more acceptance of queer game studies in multiple venues–the publication of this book being one of them.

One of Ruberg’s main arguments throughout the book is that queerness extends far beyond representation in video games. Developing further from some of their work with Adrienne Shaw, they argue that:

It is not enough to simply count the number of LGBTQ characters who appear on-screen. We must also think about how experiences of difference can be given voice (or once again silenced) by video games’ seemingly non-representational elements, such as their interactive systems, their controls, and their underlying computational logics. (14).

To demonstrate the ways that queerness can be represented in games beyond traditional representation, there are seven analytical chapters that each explore a key text, theory, or concept in queer theory and one or more video games.

The other large-scale arguments of the text are found in each section respectively, but another important element of the introduction is Ruberg’s thorough and clear discussion of their methods. For many Humanities students, methods are tacit and buried in theory, and queer methodologies can be particularly confusing because that’s the nature of queerness–to resist structures of power. (However, according to my dissertation supervisors, resisting the power structure of methodology sections is not a helpful form of scholarship. Hmph.) But in the introduction, Ruberg makes the overall methodology clear and easily repeatable by others. It’s one of the many ways to think about queerness in games and to learn about and from the queerness in games.

Beyond Representation: Queerness as an Ethos

The first section, “Discovering Queerness in Video Games” focuses on identifying queerness present in games just under the surface and analyzing what is present within the game. Each of the four chapters in this section examines a game that isn’t typically considered “queer” by many, but resonates deeply with queer concepts such as queer intimacy, the importance of intersectionally in queer studies, the difficulties and tensions of passing, and exploring the unspoken heteronormative rules that shape societal norms. I use the term “resonate” here as Ruberg does, referring to “points of relationality, moments when the structures and messages of video games echo and are echoed by the structures of queer thinking” (20). Resonance, Ruberg notes, does not require accordance, similarity, congruency, or any form of harmony. It simply means a connection, a moment where ideas, concepts, feelings, memories, and facets of life and identity are evoked (20).

Ruberg states that the goal of the section is to “lay a groundwork for future scholarship,” to “illustrate the concept of queerness ‘beyond representation’,” and to prove the “legitimacy and rich potential of reimagining video games through queer perspectives” (24). They look towards “queer desire, bodies, affects, and acts of hegemonic resistance” (22) that exist in games that are not typically understood as queer, including Pong (Atari 1972), Portal (Valve, 2007),  Octodad: Dadliest Catch (Young Horses, 2014), Realistic Kissing Simulator (James Andrews’ and Loren Schmidt, 2014), and Consentacle (Naomi Clark, 2014) and seek resonance with the theoretical elements of queerness and the lived experiences of queer folks. I would say Ruberg is very successful in this, drawing poignant connections between foundational texts, as they do in Chapter 1 by Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick’s Between Men and Pong, as well as generating new lenses of analysis, as they do in Chapter 2 by finding resonance between Miller’s discussion of the homoerotics of editing and camera angles in Alred Hitchock’s 1948 Rope and a too-close reading of Portal. On top of that, they simultaneously reflect on the kinds of harassment, abuse, and distrust that too-close readings (or, as Edmond Chang calls it, “too-close playing”) can set in motion for players.

These two chapters do the foundational work of positioning this kind of research both academically as well as culturally. Skipping ahead a little bit, Chapter 4 focuses on a conception of queerness near and dear to me, not to mention deeply related to my dissertation. When looking at Realistic Kissing Simulator, Ruberg explains that:

The game has no goal and continues indefinitely, upending the assumption that video games–like sex–must by nature have a win state or point of completion. Here, “discovering” queerness in games means attending to the ways in which design can act as social critique. (23).

Viewed in this light, queerness in games can explore the unstated rules and heteronormative expectations of society. Shira Chess, in the FPS Editor’s Pick™ article “The Queer Case of Video Games: Orgasms, Heteronormativity, and Video Game Narrative,” makes a complementary point about the typical design structure of video games focusing not on “a singular moment, but in the anticipation and release of many singular moments” (88). The queerness of many games that encourage us to endlessly grind through levels and keep playing one more level can all be viewed through this same kind of queer interpretation. As a scholar of game narrative, this lense is invaluable.

“Does anyone notice that he’s an octopus?”

For me personally, the goals of the first section are truly met and surpassed in Chapter 3, “Loving Father, Caring Husband, Secret Octopus: Queer Embodiment and Passing.” The game in discussion itself–Octodad: Dadliest Catch is a fun game, but I didn’t understand precisely what I found meaningful about it. At least until it was framed queerly. When playing as Octodad, you control wildly unstable tentacles separately to move around. His tentacles are shoved unceremoniously into his suit, a tentacle out each armhole on the suit coat and two out each pants leg while the last two cover part of his face to create a mustache, prompting the question: “does anyone notice that he’s an octopus?”

I am always deeply aware of my cephalopodic body as I try to fit in, to make these clothes that aren’t made for my body to look “right,” to avoid the stares and glares that might reveal my secrets, but also, just trying to live life as my genuine self. Easier said than done. I particularly remember trying to climb a tower of soda in the grocery store, attempting to get the flavour my wife requested, which was of course, at the top of a very tall tower. No matter how I tried to move, I couldn’t get my limbs to act how I wanted, my body never behaving how I thought it should. The slightest slip-up–my tentacle landing just a fraction to the left of where I needed it to be?–sent me crashing, flailing to the floor. This world is not just built for someone like me. People stare when they think I’m acting out of line. If they stare too much, I’ll be exposed as different, as undeserving of the life I’ve built. But I deserve to be seen, loved, and accepted as I am. But the game makes me lose everything if I don’t pass as a human.

A screenshot of the author playing Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Octodad is climbing a tower of soda cans and bottles to try to reach the bottle of mango soda requested by his family. One of his legs is in the air, another stuck to a case of soda behind him, and both arms stuck in a crate in front of him. The soda bottle is just overhead and out of reach.

A screenshot of the author playing Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Octodad is climbing a tower of soda cans and bottles to try to reach the bottle of mango soda requested by his family. One of his legs is in the air, another stuck to a case of soda behind him, and both arms stuck in a crate in front of him. The soda bottle is just overhead and out of reach.

As Ruberg explains “passing is related to identity, but first and foremost it is about what others perceive. To pass for straight is not the same as to be straight. Rather, to pass is to succeed at being seen a certain way, to be glimpsed for an instant and deemed ‘authentic’” (101). I have no idea how to be perceived as authentic when everything I do reminds me that I do not have the body this world was built for. Playing this game with a queer lens strongly reminds me of how important it is that we build and maintain queer and safe spaces, but also how passing should be a personal choice, not a requirement to be treated as you deserve.  

From Scholarly Intervention to Queer Praxis

The second main section of the book, “Bringing Queerness to Video Games,” focuses on the ways in which queer and LGBTQA+ people are creating a new genre of queer games. This section of the book looks in-depth at what Ruberg calls “the queer game avant-garde” (24), which has gone on to become its own book just this March (The Queer Games Avant-Garde How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games–grats Bo!). The three chapters in this section act as discussions on how players can queer games through their own designs and their own play practices. Ruberg discusses this as “playing the wrong way” (24) and explores a few ways to play the wrong way in the following chapters, such as playing to lose, playing to hurt, or playing too fast or too slow (17-18). Chapter 5 examines Burnout Revenge (Criterion Games, 2005) while thinking about Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, making the point that failure can be a mode of queer resistance (25). Queer failure is not just losing a game but “revelling in that loss” (143) and recognizing it as challenging hegemonic expectations, which connects failure back to heteronormative standards of winning, losing, and taking pleasure in between discussed in Chapter Four.

The queerness of revelling in failure goes beyond the idea that winning is supposed to be desired and it is supposed to be fundamentally better than losing. Taking pleasure in failure is rejecting success, which itself is a heteronormative measurement of time, as discussed by Jack Halberstam in In a Queer Time and Place and Lee Edelman in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Chapter 6 touches my sad little soul in its discussion of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, the rhetoric of “empathy,” and the ways we play games that are boring, pointless, painful, annoying, or sad. As a strong proponent of playing games that make me sad (and purposefully playing games to make me as sad as possible–looking at you, Dragon Age II), this chapter was helpful to see how I can better theorize these experiences and moments of gameplay. Chapter 7 then considers temporal and spatial queer play, drawing on Elizabeth Freeman and Heather Love to discuss all things time and space in games from speedrunning and Games Done Quick, to the delightfully stubborn slow pace of walking simulators and exploring the kinds of queer spaces and communities that the resistance against normative time can help create.

Setting it Down(?)

I pick up this book many times. Read a bit. I set it down. It stays cheerful, the cover still soft. I flip it open at random to any page, any section, any block of words. Read from there.

As a queer scholar, it challenges me, grounds me, and helps put to words the sounds and feelings buzzing in my head. As a game scholar, it could help anyone seeking to understand both what queer games studies can look like, but also how it can feel. But also as a queer scholar, this book validates what I’ve been trying to do with my research for a long time. It’s strange to feel so incredibly seen. The playfulness of tone, the depth of scholarship, and the accessibility of concepts and examples make this book something that any media scholar could pick up and read without needing a background in games. And although some of the analysis portions dip further into detail than might be expected of a non-academic book, I also think that an interested non-academic reader could enjoy it, too. Especially the queer gamers out there who might need a reminder now and then about why we keep playing.

This is a book I didn’t know I needed. This is a book I needed in the past. This is a book I won’t need until the future. This is a book that I understand now.

Works Cited

Chess, Shira. “The Queer Case of Video Games: Orgasms, Heteronormativity, and Video Game Narrative.” Queer Technologies, 2017, pp. 84–94., doi:10.4324/9781315222738-7.

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