AS SOMEONE WHO has always turned to video games to take a break from everyday tedium and intense stress alike, I’ve often struggled to find myself represented as a queer person of color within the digital world. While popular game franchises like Super Mario 64 and World of Warcraft are nostalgic hallmarks of my childhood (and the source of personal accomplishments I continue to brag about to this day), they have also been a source of alienation and exclusion. These feelings occur when I am forced to embody the straight, white, cis-gendered plumber Mario on a journey to save a disempowered princess, or traversing an expansive world with 13 years of sustained development support that has yielded the realistic texture of dragon scales, but no serious effort to present a single queer or trans character. These absences further alienate me as a gamer the older I get, as I wish to see some representation or acknowledgment of the various identities I occupy.
This sense of being misrepresented — if my identities as a queer person of color are even represented at all — is only exacerbated by the misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic culture that continues to permeate the video game industry and many gamer communities. The 2014 Gamergate controversy — a harassment campaign targeting female gamers and those who support them that was followed by an organized movement of angry anonymous gamers and conservative critics bent on preventing what they saw as the feminization of their favorite platforms and games — makes clear the anxiety that those who are not white, male, and cis-gendered can feel when playing video games. That bitter episode also illustrates the convergence of contemporary concerns about access and inclusion for marginalized people with an erupting tension between discrete consumer demographics and their respective market segments. It is easy to feel exasperated when incidents like #Gamergate go viral, making the prejudice bubbling just beneath the surface burst into full view. At such moments, I am confronted with the fact that my enjoyment of games might come at the cost of enduring consistent forms of intolerance and violence, no matter how much I might want my experience playing games to be separate from such things.
Yet, like an obscure power-up revitalizing the hero on their journey, a new collection of essays titled Queer Games Studies has come to address the intersection of gender, sexuality, and video games. Alongside the recent GaymerX convention and the Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon), as well as a growing number of LGBTQ+ game developers working in the indie game market, the past five years have seen a welcome shift in efforts to create a safe space for players with a diverse range of sexual and gender identities. As a primer meant to merge the gender and sexuality studies with the relatively new field of video game studies, Queer Games Studies editors Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw have gathered work that expands current debates about gender and sexuality in gaming, encouraging us “to see video games as spaces of queer possibility” that offer marginalized people “alternative ways of looking and living in an otherwise oppressive world.” Whether that queer possibility appears in a range of gendered avatars, in reenacting fantasies often proscribed in a world still to a large degree organized by normative identities and sexualities, or in reconsidering the value of fundamental gaming goals like winning, Queer Games Studies brings our attention to the world-making capacity of video games. The nascent, exciting, and very public nature of the field can be seen in a roll call of contributors that includes professors, game designers, and tech bloggers, all of whom interrogate the relationship between queerness and emergent academic debates within Game Studies, the ways that queerness encounters gameplay and design, or how queer “failure” might help us rethink gameplay.
The large majority of work in Queer Games Studies should appeal to anyone interested in the role and representation of gender and sexuality in video games, and takes the conversation far beyond more facile ideas about identity. In other words, the collection is not interested in merely marking the presence (or absence) of particular sexual and gender identities, but rather in thinking about how they function within particular games and within the industry itself. One such example is Robert Yang’s “On ‘FemnistWhorePurna’ and the Ludo-material Politics of Gendered Damage Power-Ups,” which refers to an incident in the video game Dead Island that featured a data file containing the text “FeministWhorePurna” to indicate a player power-up whenever the character Purna killed a male character. Yang argues that what was deemed a “mistake” by the game’s developer, Techland, was illustrative of how deeply misogyny had rooted itself within a well-established company. Yang’s critique explores the production side of video games in order to understand how sexism and racism manifest within the industry and its games long before any user has mashed the buttons. Another example is Mattie Brice’s essay, which uses the lens of “kink” to think through issues of consent and inclusivity over traditional game design formulas. These and other essays demonstrate the range of questions generated at the nexus of queerness and video gaming.
Several essays that demonstrate the potential of video games’ immersive capacity for connecting with queer players are an added strength to the collection. Hanna Brady’s whimsical “Building a Queer Mythology” considers fantasy scenarios and story-line prompts centered on issues that resonate for queer and trans-identified people. These reimagined story lines oscillate between humor and seriousness, deliberately departing from the heteronormative narrative conventions like the romance or the heroic quest that still dominate the marketplace. (Brady’s essay is also a welcome addition for the way that it breaks with the predominantly academic register of the contributions.) In similar fashion, Merritt Kopas’s essay on Gone Home, a first-person adventure game where the player assumes the role of a visiting older sister uncovering the mystery that shrouds her childhood home, offers a deeply poignant point of contact for queer players. As a video game praised for its positive portrayal of an authentic young lesbian relationship, Gone Home offers a moment of liberation in which Kopas’s own emotional childhood memories connected her to the character’s narrative. Such essays allow readers to understand the role of game studies beyond academic or industry discussions, thinking about their impact on the everyday lives of the broad, often anonymous public of the player community.
Though Queer Game Studies is successful in tracing the circulation of queerness and gender in the gaming world, it lacks a sustained focus on how race, ableism, and other identities that are often entangled with discussions of sexuality and gender. As a person deeply invested in thinking about how my racial identity has been formed and functions in conjunction with my queer identity, this is an especially disappointing absence. While a handful of the essays touch on these concerns, none of them really offer the sort of substantive treatment that feels necessary. This is not to suggest that the contributors disregard issues like race completely, but rather that such topics take a back seat in ways that seem to mark a separation, deliberate or otherwise, from the gender and sexual identities that are the major focus here. The collection does, however, include some solid work on transgender representation and experience in video games that broaden what can oftentimes be a more general focus on gay and lesbian issues. As the field continues to grow — this is a primer, after all — perhaps future studies will take into consideration how queerness in video games is further inflected by an even more expansive array of identities and experiences.
Queer Game Studies triumphs as a collection of rigorous essays that challenge, problematize, and extend queer modes of inquiry into the realm of video games. However, the collection also shines in its attempt to bridge the academic, industry, and the player communities it engages. The collection’s willingness to embrace the amorphous community of queer gamers as contributors challenges the traditional academic anthology genre by seeking to reach those beyond the classroom and faculty lounge. Though it neglects to fully engage with the full range of identities shared by queer gamers, the collection remains an enriching and worthwhile study. Hopefully, it is only a beginning.
Marcus Tran Degnan is a current graduate student in the Asian American Studies Department UCLA, where he works on grotesque literary aesthetics, Vietnamese-American cultural production, and racialization within video game studies. He is also involved in various Asian-American coalitions, including Asian Pacific Islander-Equality LA, as well as the progressive Vietnamese-American collective, Ha Ba Trung.