Videogames, Queerness, & Beyond

Dispatches from the 2014 Queerness & Games Conference

Bonnie Ruberg is a PhD candidate, graduate instructor, and retired tech journalist working in UC Berkeley’s Comparative Literature, New Media, and Gender & Women’s Studies Departments.


Introduction by Bonnie Ruberg, special feature guest editor.

Why talk about queerness when we talk about videogames? Queerness is a form of sexuality, but it is also a mode of thinking, of living, of feeling: differently. When we talk about queerness in videogames, we are talking about fair and equal representation of LGBTQ characters, but we are also talking about queer theory, about queer design, and about queer play. We need to talk about queerness in videogames because we need games and the way to approach them to reflect the full richness of the many ways we each live, love, and desire.

The Queerness and Games Conference is a bastion of idealism in a turbulent sea of beauty and concern. We stand at a difficult yet pivotal moment in the history of videogames, when the game-makers who design some of the most powerful examples of the medium are also those who put their safety on the line simply by sharing their creations. It’s no secret that it’s difficult to be a queer gamer. The games community and the games industry have struggled for decades with homophobic and exclusionary practices. Straight, white, cisgender men have long dominated the landscape of games. As GamerGate has made clear, speaking up for diversity in this hostile environment takes real courage. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we create safe spaces for discussing sexuality, gender, race, and difference in videogames.

My co-founders and I organized the first Queerness and Games Conference at UC Berkeley in 2013 as a way to bring together game developers, academics, and activists. Our goal was to shed light on these important discussions of difference in a way that was collaborative and creative. We wanted to build a place where speakers and attendees from diverse backgrounds would feel comfortable sharing their experiences. The road to that first conference was a bumpy one. While wonderful events like Different Games and Lost Levels set the stage for discussions of diversity, many of our participants had never crossed the line between academia and industry. What would happen when 200 people spent the weekend exploring and debating the place of queer thinking in videogames?

I can only describe the results as inspiring. By the end of the 2013 conference, attendees were already clamoring for a 2014 event, and so the Queerness and Games Conference has become an annual tradition. As the event has grown, so have the missions of the organizers. In 2014 we developed the Queerness and Games Design Workshop, a two-month program for queer-identified Berkeley undergraduates. As we enter 2015, we’re hoping that our areas of focus will broaden to include pressing topics that intersect with LGBTQ concerns. Racial identity, ablest discrimination, socio-economic class: these are equally important issues, and they demonstrate that the struggles of oppressed peoples (and oppressed players) are commonly intersectional struggles.

The pieces included in this four-part special issue of First Person Scholar have been selected and adapted from talks given at the 2014 conference. (Talks from the 2013 conference are forthcoming in a print volume titled Queer Game Studies: Gender, Sexuality, and a Queer Approach to Game Studies edited by myself, Adrienne Shaw, and Ben Aslinger). While these six pieces represent only a taste of the 30-odd conference presentations, each of their authors does an excellent job of introducing readers to a key concept–from queer rule sets to queer community education, from social analysis to self-critical imperatives, from gender in computing to the definition of queerness itself.

The first two installments of the issue explore queerness in videogames directly. In Part One (Feb 18th), game designers Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas present an abridged transcript from their conference keynote, “Queering Human-Game Relations.” Here, Clark and Kopas trace and challenge discussions of queer gaming that have come before, pushing us to think about queerness through design rather than representation. The authors argue that current debates in game culture have a long history that extends beyond contemporary clashes, revealing that the true queer tension at play in games may be between usefulness and unproductive pleasure, between failure and the glitch, between social expectations and unexplored possibilities.

Part Two (Feb 25th) includes two articles that also look at the relationship between games and queerness. In “All Balled Up Inside: Consent, Pinball, and the End of ‘Sex as Conquest,'” journalist Jetta Ray argues that pinball has important lessons to teach us about queerness and the culture of consent. Ray explains how the commonly held notion of sex as a form of conquest leads to the commodification of intimacy and the oppressively universal idea of being “good in bed.” For Ray, pinball models how we can break these universals, since each machine has its own unique set of rules. Like pinball players, lovers should listen instead of conquering. This, says Ray, is itself a form of queerness: rather than accept cultural absolutes for either sex or games, embrace experiences that are unique and shared.

Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Christopher Goetz joins Ray in Part Two with “Building Queer Community,” a reflection on the Queerness and Games Design Workshop. To inspire other educators to establish similar programs, Goetz describes how the workshop fostered student expression and helped make Berkeley an important place for combatting discrimination in games. Goetz also shares tips on logistics and potential obstacles that will help program organizers as they join in on the hard but important work of educating a new generation of game designers.

Parts Three and Four of the issue look at queerness and games through the lens of intersectionality. How do concerns around race, gender, class, and post-colonialism relate to questions of the queer? Part Three (March 4th) features “Designing for the Other: Serious Games, Its Challenges, and Mindful Play.” In this piece, game designer and researcher Mohini Dutta turns a critical eye on the practice of making serious games, which, she argues, run the risk of reproducing the inequalities and oppressions of imperialism. In place of serious games, Dutta describes a design practice she herself has pioneered, called “mindful play,” in which designers work with players to create opportunities for shared meaning making.

Part Four (March 11th) concludes the special issue with two articles that challenge us to confront the role of race and gender as we find it woven into the fabric of games. In “Cards Against Humanity Is _____,” Drew University professor Edmond Chang charts the racist, sexist, and homophobic humor of the bestselling card game Cards Against Humanity. What makes the game fun, Chang argues, is the license it gives players to be “horrible people” at the expense of cultural sensitivity. In response, Chang calls for the development of games that represent a wider variety of players and pleasures, i.e. games that are “for” rather than against humanity.

Finally, UCLA postdoctoral fellow Margaret Rhee’s “On Beauty: Gamers, Gender, and Turing” encourages us to read the gender politics of videogames in conjunction with Alan Turing’s “imitation game.” Insufficient scholarly attention has been paid to the fact that the game that inspired the now famous “Turing test” was not a test of differentiating between man and machine, but between man and woman. Drawing from her experience designing an online interactive version of the Turing test, Rhee argues for thinking about difference as equally integral to the future of games as it has been to the history of computing.

Together these six essays tell a story about the myriad ways that we can begin to approach discussions of diversity in videogames openly and incisively. My own dream—as a queer game studies scholar, a queer-identified gamer, and a former games journalist who has faced her share of vitriol and skepticism alike—is of a time in the not-too-distant future when critical self-reflection is celebrated as core to the everyday work of videogames. While I hope that the Queerness and Games Conference will continue to grow, I hope most of all that the wonderful insights our participants have shared will echo throughout the industry, throughout the culture, and throughout games themselves.