While in theory, video games offer expanded potential for embodiment and self-expression, marginalised identity has often been reduced to a “re-skinning,” in which gender, race, and sexuality seem more like a menu choice than a meaningfully incorporated feature. In a large section of mainstream games culture, these efforts have been poorly received, branded as reading too much into games—a hobby that’s meant to be consumed “just for fun” and should exist outside the realm of social and political criticism. There exists an inherent danger in reinforcing these hegemonies, of leaning into the idea of a video gaming world divorced from the problems of the non-diverse, exclusionary, and oppressive institutions that shape and moderate it. Narrow definitions of what video games should be and who counts as a gamer only perpetuate the harmful and exclusionary status quo that has privileged certain identities while marginalising others.
The last few years, on the other hand, highlight the potential of games to appeal to a growing body of queer and trans gamers. Many developers, in a display of protest against industry standards, have taken their queer advocacy and video game craft to alternative, indie platforms through large queer gaming conferences like GaymerX and Queerness and Games Conference, as well as scholarship synthesizing both queer and video game studies frameworks, like Bonnie Ruberg’s Queer Game Studies (2015) and Video Games Have Always Been Queer (2019).
This essay is, more than anything, an exploration of queer futurity within the video game medium, thinking through how non-normative ways of play shape the possibilities for embodiment and action in the virtual space. Queerness in games becomes a union of more diverse and authentic perspectives, both in and beyond representation. Through a queer reading of Katamari Damacy: Reroll (Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc., 2018), I situate the game in opposition to the hegemonic mechanisms of play—ones that pit time and suffering as a linear trajectory to victory and are heterosexual by default unless its assumptions are questioned and deconstructed.
This essay presents an exploration of the video game medium as a political tool, one that approaches the edges of queer futurity through gameplay mechanics and the subversion of “defaults” in a player’s participation, existence and success. Katamari is an exemplary game that provides the user with non-normative modalities of play, ultimately providing a rich site for exploring queer and trans identity and embodiment.
Into Halberstam’s “Unbuilding Gender” (2018)
The rise of “serious games,” a term popularised by David Rejeski and Ben Sawyer (2007), heralds a shift from a medium previously limited to entertainment to a tool that can both build awareness and open up a new world of embodied social practice. Alexander Galloway (2006)—writer, philosopher, and computer scientist—states that “countergaming,” which “exists in opposition to and outside the gaming mainstream,” offers a source of radical play, one that pushes beyond making minor changes toward creating “new grammars of action, not simply new grammars of visuality” (p. 109). Offering queer modes of being and playing allows the user to transgress these norms, not just through a growing variety of representation, but in how they experience and embody those differences in their gameplay. In the words of Bonnie Ruberg (2019), to read games queerly is “to lay claim to the equal citizenship of those who are ‘different’ in games cultures by understanding games on the terms and through the methods that we deem meaningful rather than those set and policed by the gamer status quo” (p. 61).
In this work, I draw from “Unbuilding Gender,” an essay by Jack Halberstam (2018), which details the life work of Gordon Matta-Clark, a famous “anarchitect” of the late 20th century. Matta-Clark’s photographs, which stage buildings in a state of active destruction, challenge the viewer’s conceptions of what a built structure should and could look like, confronting hegemony through the negative space of broken, missing, and spliced elements of buildings. These confrontations of the permanence of architecture, Halberstam argues, can be interpreted as abstract re-imaginations of the trans* body, stretching the limits of our understanding of identity and embodiment. For anarchitects, Halberstam argues, the act of destruction provides a counterpoint, rebelling against the binary of permanent states of existence — providing space for explorations of the trans* identity otherwise relegated to the margins.
Gordon Matta Clark, Splitting (1974) – Courtesy of Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal
In Halberstam’s (2018) trans* framework, the body is in a constant state of flux and contradiction. Deconstruction and reconstruction thus can “unmake the frames of representation through which the transgender body has been viewed” (p. 3). The discrepancy between what is represented and absent in anarchitecture challenges ideas about what should be, concepts that map onto gender potentiality and multiple, non-normative representations of the body in even its most abstract forms. I build off Halberstam’s work, which operates mainly in visual architecture—or snapshots of buildings in moments of (de)construction—to queer (or perhaps trans* as a verb) the video game universe of Katamari Damacy. These topics in the context of video games not only shift paradigms of being, but include the player as an active agent in shaping and interacting with the video game world. What would it look like to explore a trans* reading of dynamic spaces such as video game environments, particularly ones whose central mechanics revolve around a constant cycle of (dis)repair?
Queering Game Mechanics: Katamari Damacy Reroll (2018)
In Katamari Damacy: Reroll, the player, embodying a five-centimeter tall green Prince, is thrust onto a cluttered Earth by his father, The King of All Cosmos, and tasked with re-creating the night sky constellations that the King had destroyed in a fit of drunken pleasure. Reroll presents a remake of its 2004 PS2 predecessor, pushing the player to explore worlds filled with nonsensical objects. Throughout, the player must roll and absorb seemingly random objects, from ants to cabbages, into a bulky, large ball, or katamari. At the height of their destructive potential, these katamaris can displace large vehicles, skyscrapers, and even clouds—continuing to grow in size until they are deemed “worthy” (having fulfilled either size or composition requirements) to join the constellations of the night sky.
Destruction manifests as a central theme throughout the game, from the responsibility the King places on his son to clean up an intergalactic mess, to the potential for redemption the Prince is offered in enacting cycles of destruction, to replace what is no longer. Destruction in the Katamari Damacy universe simultaneously disrupts and heals as the landscape regenerates and adapts.
I argue that this representation, one that moves beyond any singular representation of the “transgender figure” or the “transgender existence,” expands our conceptions of what it means and looks like to be trans*. The act of destruction is a rebellion against the binary of permanent states of existence—providing space for explorations of the trans* identity through the gameplay mechanics.
While the King exists as a guiding figure, instructing the player how to roll a katamari, he also expresses extreme dissatisfaction with the Prince’s physical size and appearance, capability, and worthiness in the face of the title that awaits him. Throughout the game, both at random and in fail states, the King will make belittling comments that constantly compare the Prince to his own imposed expectations. It is important to note the King frames the opportunity as a chance for the Prince to “build [himself] up,” using the act of rolling a katamari to increase his size and physical prowess. Like the environment he is absorbing and displacing, the Prince’s body is also in a state of change, one that offers the ability to meet and subvert his father’s both gendered and ableist expectations.
The Prince’s trials push him to prove himself in various contexts, with challenges most frequently being time-based, toward a katamari–size goal (ex: “Roll this xx cm ball in yy minutes”). More interesting, however, is the possibility of failure in the North Star constellation stage, in which the King challenges the Prince to roll a katamari as close as possible to 10 cm in an untimed trial. Rebellion, in this case, manifests an ambiguous ending, one that doesn’t necessarily force the binarisation of success and failure, but instead leaves the user to deem when a task is satisfactory. Rather than present a timed obstacle course, like the other stages, this (final) stage defers completion to the user, who chooses when to stop. Though the expectation of success is explicitly stated, the flexibility and freedom allowed to the user are very much a queering of the goals and temporality of the game itself.
To describe queer-gaming in the context of playing against expectation is to consider how users challenge the boundaries of what was possible in these worlds, moving into the space of emergent play (Ruberg, 2015). Should a user choose to play forever, they could. To echo the musings of Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011), what can be gained from seeing failure beyond its place in the “linearity” of success? Giving the user a chance to contradict the way the game should progress, or the “chromonormative,” parallels milestones of marginality both in the game and in the real world (Knutson, 2018). The chromonormative details a linear progression in life and suggests a predefined coming to terms with the self, with expectations of puberty, marriage, child-raising, and other cisheteronormative “rites of passage”—ones that don’t even begin to cover the multiplicity of narratives across racial identity, ability, and class.
Queering temporality thus also allows for new ways of existing and progressing through narratives that may directly contradict these expectations placed on those who “choose” (if “choice” is even the right word) to challenge these norms. Though queer narratives can be driven by story or representation, player controls are important, alternative ways to enrich conceptualisations and interpretations of queerness.
Beyond the initial premise of the game, Katamari makes a point to examine “defaults,” and actively challenge the audience’s expectations using humor—whether representing a silly, flamboyant, and irresponsible caricature as a King, or embedding flirtatious innuendos in the instruction guide. The King’s tongue-in-cheek dialogue is often represented in colourful pink or rainbow text or overlaid onto absurd backdrops. In the first few minutes of gameplay, the King gives users the choice between a vibrating versus non-vibrating controller option, asking the player if they like “~vibration~.” Immediately after, the King establishes that he hates vibration and prefers going au naturel—providing a sense of reassurance should the user move to an option that is not the default. This small menu choice subverts the “default” we may have come too often to expect of the video games world, manifested in phallic-shaped joysticks and vibrating controllers. This option, a seemingly self-aware quip lasting only a brief few seconds, leaves the ultimate mechanic decision to its users rather than assume the default and force the user to dig for alternatives in settings.
Examining and challenging “defaults,” whether visual representations, gameplay choices, or controller mechanics, is vital for making video games not only more accessible but additionally accommodating different players and styles of play—beyond the able-bodied cishet white “gamer bro.” Beyond just offering the option, the game goes out of its way to normalise the non-default, offering the endorsement of the King. This is a small inclusion with potentially big implications in terms of visibilising and normalising the act of modifying player controls to meet different players’ access needs.
For many players, these modifications are a precondition to be able to access games and, therefore, often exist as barriers to overcome in spaces largely missing “diverse” gamer perspectives. That said, recent years have seen extensive modifications of games to meet accessibility needs, from in-game difficulty options to the incredible, always-in-iteration technological advances of adaptive tech and continued disability advocacy from organisations like AbleGamers. That said, the way the vibration option is presented in Katamari puts the preferences of its users at the forefront—among other options that allow the player to adjust difficulty level, text and caption features, as well as visual and physical representations and mappings of controls in the settings menu. Altogether, these features have direct implications for increasing and accepting different possibilities for interaction.
It would be unwise to “reclaim” Katamari Damacy as utopically queer, trans* and unproblematic without examining the potentially ambiguous authorial intent behind the game, originally created in 2004 by Keita Takahashi. Much of the motivations that underlie Takahashi’s absurd imaginaries come from a stance of wanting to push against the status quo, centered around the idea of contributing to user fun, self-discovery, and engagement. In a recent 2018 interview, Takahashi stated:
I’m trying to go against the current trend of game we have right now. You know, shooters or fighting games. They never change, but almost all people love that kind of game, which I understand . . . But as a game designer, that’s kind of sad, because we couldn’t provide a different perspective for the player . . . I still believe games are a very unique media, which is interactive, has music and vision, can provide you with a more emotional story. But we still provide the player a very tiny, small perspective of life experience.
Though never explicitly denoting his games as featuring queer themes, Takahashi details the joy he feels when his games help people enjoy their regular lives more, as well as discover new ways of thinking about life. By including free-play options that rebel against traditional modes of game-play (or more specifically, allow for many ways of experiencing the game), Takahashi allows his users to engage in ways they please, expanding the possibilities beyond “defaults” of who players are and how they should play. It is important to note that I speak of only my experiences as a QT* Asian-American sociologist raised on a tradition of mostly white-Western queer scholarship and mostly white-Western games. I acknowledge the limitations of these perspectives and encourage making space for multi-directional dialogues between my reading of the game and other cultural queerings and subjectivities. I also recognize how an uncomplicated “imposition” of what queer/trans*ness is, particularly when it is an interpretation that goes beyond what its creator may have intended, can be harmful.
It is important to note that Katamari Damacy: Reroll (2018) itself does provoke certain issues, particularly in that its central mechanic uses destruction to impose a vision of what a landscape should look like. Ultimately, what allows the player to explore the many interpretations of the environment and, by extension, the trans* body is maintaining an extractive relationship to the land around them. In Katamari, the environment exists solely as a site for player experimentation and self-discovery, and it’s important not to neglect the power and imperialist baggage inherent to a Prince-about-to-become-King, even if the kingdom’s colonial history is never discussed in the game.
More specifically, the Prince is tasked with turning spaces and found objects, some of which living beings, into resources to consume, ones that will ultimately be repurposed into the cosmos. My reading of the game instead remarks on the act of carving out the Prince’s own “self-identity,” as he learns to negotiate comfort with his body, responsibilities, and the small opportunities for rebellion against his Father. We can experience both the ongoing variability of the landscape through the construction of katamaris and the simultaneous self-growth of the Prince, especially in his ability to determine what “satisfactory work” looks like, as opposed to relying on his Father’s expectations. These mechanics, though imperfect, speak to a new imagination of what queer games can look like beyond representation, presenting alternative modes of play. Digging for opportunities to move beyond “defaults,” to see diverse identities reflected in not only characters and their stories, but in how the games are designed and who they are intended for, is an important piece of building more inclusive gaming futures.
From the mechanics of desire and success to the physical features present in gameplay, video games offer a rich jumping-off point for not only challenging the normative, but positioning the player to negotiate the boundaries of a gaming environment collectively between user and developer. Queer games re-imagine and signal the importance of better ways of being, ones that can make the “now-and-there” imaginaries into the realities of the present, virtually embodied worlds. Whether creating new queer possibilities in games or reclaiming games in the queer canon, this field of study offers new mechanisms of engagement: ones that have the potential to radically shift default definitions of what a game is and what it can accomplish.
Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture. Vol. 18. University of Minnesota Press.
Halberstam, J. (2011). The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press.
Halberstam, J. (2018, October 1). “Unbuilding gender: Jack Halberstam on Trans* Anarchitecture”. Places Journal.
Knutson, M. (2018). “Backtrack, pause, rewind, reset: Queering chrononormativity in gaming”. Game Studies, 18(3), 1-15.
Ruberg, B. (2015). “No fun: The queer potential of video games that annoy, anger, disappoint, sadden, and hurt.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2(2).
Ruberg, B. (2019). Video games have always been queer. New York University Press.
Takahashi, K. (2018, December 7). Katamari Damacy: Reroll. For Windows and Nintendo Switch, Bandai Namco.