I ran this workshop at the NYU Game Center in February 2014 as a part of their Personal Best series in Feminist Game Design. My goal was to build on work done by others outside of digital games (in analog play, art, queer studies, etc.) to indicate some possible directions for future-oriented queer digital play. I drew heavily on José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia — though I think the connection between play and queer utopias is one that needs further elaborating. I am also indebted to Avery McDaldno and Joli St. Patrick, whose 2013 QGCon talk on moving beyond representation as the metric of queerness in games essentially sparked this entire workshop. Thank you so much to everyone who came out — the energy and ideas you generated were truly powerful. Many thanks also to Toni Pizza, Gwynna Forgham-Thrift, Winnie Song (who designed the most gorgeous event poster I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing my name on) and everyone else at the NYU Game Center who helped put this event together.
I saw the new Hunger Games movie the other day and, honestly, I was bored. For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, the series describes a utopia in which a decadent and urban capital exploits a number of outlying districts, forcing their children to participate in annual bloodsports as a means of keeping them demoralized. The books and movies participate in all kinds of well-trod ideas about dystopia and futurity. The oppressive capital is coded as feminine, urban, excessive, and queer. The hero of the story, Katniss Everdeen, represents a kind of masculine heterosexuality that inevitably triumphs, restoring rural authenticity and the rightful place of the family. That Katniss is a woman makes some difference, but not much – this is still a story I’ve heard a million times before.
And you know what? I’m bored of dystopia.
I recently heard someone describe dystopia as a genre where the contemporary daily, real experiences of oppression are finally visited on white people, and I think there’s a lot of truth to this. More broadly, dystopia as a genre often seems to lack any real future-oriented political imagination. Dystopias are reactionary projections that don’t do anything for us in the here and now. In many ways, imagining dystopia is a safer activity than imagining utopia – the latter involves projecting our hopes, desires, and fantasies, rather than simply our fears.
Maybe even moreso than film, games are lousy with dystopias. Maybe it’s because our design is still so focused around violent physical conflict, and these settings provide convenient backdrops. Maybe it’s because moreso than other media, the people making games are overwhelmingly white men. Regardless of the reason, I’m tired of it. I want to start thinking about play and utopias. But not just any kind: queer play and queer utopias.
So let’s talk about queer play. The phrase “queer games” was thrown around a lot in late 2012 and early 2013. Like most of these kinds of groupings, it’s an artificial and kind of shaky term, but the games most often named as part of it are well-known: dys4ia, Mainichi, Howling Dogs, and so forth. These and other works are what got me into making videogames – they convinced me that digital play could be used to tell distinctly queer stories.
But since then, I’ve noticed a pattern. Many of these works have received critical acclaim within games circles – even as they’ve been simultaneously vilified and discounted as non-games. But outside of these communities – outside of people already invested in videogames for one reason or another – there’s relatively little knowledge or interest in them.
How many times have I told another queer about a powerful game about oppression or struggle only to hear them reply “I don’t really play those kinds of games… I play games to escape” — if they play games at all. As someone working in the medium, this is obviously a tremendously frustrating thing to hear. At the same time, I’m interested in creating games for other queers and not as a kind of empathy tourism for straight people. So simply ignoring these comments is not an option for me. Instead, I think we have to theorize the notion of games as queer escapes.
Muñoz conceptualized queer escapes in his text Cruising Utopia. The book’s project is a reclamation of utopianism through art in the face of an academic queer context that seems relentlessly present-focused and critical. For Muñoz, contemporary queer studies and mainstream queer politics are both insufficient for queer political struggles because they are ultimately “antisocial” models which fail to imagine radically different futures. Mainstream queer political movements are too short-sighted, focused on assimilationist goals like marriage and military inclusion, a far cry from their more radical origins. And contemporary queer studies seems to be heavily invested in a “romance of negativity”, focusing on present and ceding the future as the privileged domain of heterosexual reproduction.
Of course, there are a number of reasons for these moves. At the most basic level, there is a kind of appeal to pragmatism that insists that we attend to the here and now without being distracted by dreams of what might be. But Muñoz argues that that in a context in which our lives are restrictively structured by systems of power, it is not enough for art to dwell on present pain. We need work that goes beyond representing struggle to imagining otherwise; painting pictures of what might be and in doing so, implicitly critiquing the here and now.
For Muñoz, the stark line we sometimes draw between escapism and radical politics is illusory. He argues that escape “need not be a surrender, but, instead, may be more like a refusal of the dominant order and its systemic violence,” adding that “queer fantasy is linked to utopian longing, and together the two can become contributing conditions of possibility for political transformation.” In order words, escapes can be important not just as temporary refuges, but as sites for exercising our hope and imagination.
Maybe it seems strange to think of hope as something that takes practice. But as people who are subjected by systems of power, it’s so easy to let go of the future. When we’re trying to survive on a daily basis, imagining radically different worlds can seem like a luxury. But Muñoz’s point is that it is precisely for that reason that we need to constantly rekindle our imaginations about what might be.
Tonight I want to think about these ideas specifically in relation to digital games. I want to think about the kinds of work we’ve been doing as marginalized people in and around games, and about how we might use games as a means of performing futurity and imagining otherwise. And most of all I want to rekindle our hopes, together, that we can build other worlds.
Moving Beyond Representation
I think a lot of us, especially those of us who are informed by media and literary studies, find it very easy to treat games as texts – we want to read them in the same way as a poem, or a film, or a TV show. A lot of queer and feminist readings of games are coming from this perspective, because queer and gender studies in US academia have been so closely tied to literary theory.
Representation matters, but a focus on what games look like risks missing what games do. Joli St Patrick and Avery McDaldno gave a talk on this subject at the Queerness & Games Conference last year, where they argued that “putting a veneer of queerness over games doesn’t create queer games, it creates pinkwashing.” As they describe it, the frame of representation and inclusion often elides deeper issues of mechanics. Game systems are inscribed with the politics of their designers, and if we fail to examine those systems in favor of focusing on surface imagery, then we will end up playing straight games. In this account, the inclusion of recognizably gay and trans characters is carried out through a male, colonial gaze and is useful insofar as it will help to sell those straight games to queer players. Similarly, Ed Chang’s work on queerness and games questions the inclusion of options like same-sex marriage in games like Fable as window-dressing that doesn’t actually change the way in which the game is played.
Furthermore, a focus on representation can end up favoring traditionally-structured games, big-budget affairs with voice acting and three-dimensionally rendered spaces and characters. We end up getting more excited about a queer or trans character in a mainstream roleplaying game than we do about the work of actual queer and trans people, who often do not have access to the tools, money, or skills required to create these kinds of experiences, or else are not interested in creating them in the first place.
For instance, I know a number of trans women making games whose work is clearly influenced by their experience. But their work isn’t necessarily representational and does not often feature recognizable avatar-characters. Indeed, for me part of the excitement around their work is the destabilization of assumptions around what videogames look like: the eschewing of unitary individual player-characters, clear representational narratives, and so forth. So while it can be exciting to see trans or queer characters in our favorite big budget games, there’s always the danger that that becomes our focus. We need to think about queer mechanics and forms of play.
St Patrick and McDaldno provide two frames for thinking about queer mechanics: creating queer utopias and validating current struggles. Both are important and can even appear in the same game. But as I’ve discussed, I think that most work towards queering digital games has focused on the latter. Arguably, “queer games” as constructed in late 2012 and early 2013 built this frame of struggle into the concept; most of the games that were positioned as emblematic of the category related painful and upsetting experiences such as dealing with gender dysphoria, navigating medical structures, and facing harassment and abuse. (The elision — through the somewhat sanitizing language of “queer games” — of the fact that the overwhelming majority of these games were made by trans women and deal with the specificity of trans women’s experiences is a development that has yet to be fully explored.)
So, in thinking about these possibilities, I want to focus on their potential for gesturing towards queer utopias – providing us glimpses of the then and there rather than lingering solely on the struggle of the here and now. Even so, by thinking about what might be, the construction of queer utopias implicitly works to critique the present.
St Patrick and McDaldno work in analog story games and so their talk was focused on work in this format. Here I want to think through the ways we might translate some of their insights to work in digital games, and about some additional possibilities for specifically digital queer mechanics.
1. The Fruitful Void: the fruitful void refers to the idea that the game is about whatever is conspicuously absent from its mechanics. Queerness is often formulated as being about the uncategorizable, so it makes sense to think about ways that we can usefully write absences into a game. When we think about digital games, if we drill deep enough, the logic of binary computation rules all of our mechanics. So rather than attempt to code the full range of possible desires and object choices into our games, perhaps sometimes they could be left unstructured. McDaldno provides their game Monsterhearts as an example – it’s a game where players take on the roles of teenage monsters, and it’s fundamentally about attraction. However, there’s no real sexual orientation mechanic – this is left to the players.
2. Coding Fluidity/Uncertainty: McDaldno and St. Patrick describe stats as “straight mechanics” that enable a linear journey from more to less powerful. In contrast, they describe queer lives as multidirectional, indicating a need to disrupt clearness and linearity in rulesets.
It may seem that the notion of stats is much more fundamental to digital games, which by necessity track a number of variables and present this information to the player for them to review at any time. For some writers like David Golumbia, the vast majority of digital role-playing games are about acquiring power as represented through mechanics like stats and experience points. What would it mean for a contemporary RPG to reject some of these conventions of progression?
3. Character Nonmonogamy: character monogamy is a way of describing the convention, often unquestioned in tabletop roleplaying games, that each player takes on the role of a single character at a time. This convention was imported to many digital games, starting with RPGs. It’s easy to see this in huge contemporary roleplaying games where the player controls a single character throughout the game, building their power and telling a story centralized around this one avatar figure. This convention reflects a number of myths and narratives around individualism, progress, and class. McDaldno and St. Patrick suggest that unpacking character ownership in tabletop games might thus be a way of unpacking some of these narratives and building more collective stories.
Think about the roleplaying titles of Bioware, which have often been a site for discussion of queerness in games. What if we moved the conversation away from representation and towards the assumption of character monogamy? What would a Mass Effect series where the player shifts between viewpoints rather than occupying the avatar-role of Shepard throughout look like? Or more radically, what would a similar game designed to be played by multiple players telling a story collaboratively look like?
4. Explicit Power Dynamics: it’s often taboo to talk about and name power, much less to play with it. And digital games haven’t done a great job of exploring explicit power dynamics, though there are some examples. Most obviously, anna anthropy’s work has sought to code kink dynamics into digital play in a variety of ways. In her platformer game Mighty Jill-Off, the player takes on the role of a submissive attempting to prove her devotion to her domme via climbing an obstacle-laden tower. anna’s text-based work deals with power dynamics as well, often placing the player in fantastical scenarios exploring fictional sub/domme relationships and the power dynamics inherent in the player/designer relationship that so often go unremarked upon.
Some of my work has attempted to explore these ideas too – in particular, my text game Consensual Torture Simulator was an effort to conspicuously invest the player with a sense of negotiated power.
5. Enshrining the Prepostrous: games don’t need to be hyperrealistic physics engines! “Grimdark” games are an easy target here, but we might also look to the ways that many games ensconce themselves in a protective layer of irony. Games could use more camp and hyper-sincerity! Take a game like Dominique Pamplemousse, a musical claymation detective game all made by a single artist, Deirdre Kiai. It’s totally prepostrous and silly and endearing and unashamedly so, and centralizes the experience of a genderqueer protagonist.
These are all mechanics that McDaldno and St. Patrick identify with regards to analog games, and I think many of them are transferable to digital work. But we can also identify other possibilities that are unique to digital games, many of which are already implicit in analog story games:
7. Disrupting Time: according to Elizabeth Freeman in Time Binds, linear time is straight. The vast majority of videogames accept straight time — time as a constant, progressive, flowing structure; think about games that refuse this structure and introduce breaks, ruptures, that borrow well-established techniques from film to depict time queerly. Thirty Flights of Loving is a good example, as a first-person game that uses jump cuts to shake up and disrupt the player’s experience of time.
8. Nonrepresentational Spaces: what would it mean to reject the goal of photorealistic representations of places and bodies? Of course, many of us outside of the mainstream games industry already reject this goal to some extent – but we can go further in affirming the value of building digital spaces to explore aspects of the world that often go unnoticed or that create entirely new ones. For instance, Stephen Lavelle’s game Slave of God places the player in the space of a nightclub, but chooses to emphasize intensity of feeling in order to create an experience that is in a way “truer” than a photorealistic representation might be.
9. Unconventional Movement: conventions in FPSs and RPGs dictate that player movement is smooth and frictionless; players glide through the world with perfect ease and are free to go wherever they please within the confines of the space. For me, the fantasy of free movement is tied in open-world games to colonial masculinities – so many of these games place the player in a fantastical open space in which they have no ties to community or place and are free to explore a supposedly “empty” frontier. Games can experiment with other forms of movement that challenges these assumptions. However, unconventional movement need not always be introduced as a means of reproducing limitations or conveying struggle; some games use unrealistic or unusual moves of movement to convey exuberence or joy. (e.g. The Floor is Jelly)
10. Modeling Bodies: bodies in so many videogames are inexhaustible machines capable of traveling forever and exerting tremendous force; they rarely break down or fail; games could explore different forms of embodiment in ways that don’t necessarily involve more accurate simulations of processes but that evoke embodiment in different ways. Games like QWOP or Surgeon Simulator represent one means of approaching the topic. My game Consensual Torture Simulator is another, in which the player is tasked with topping a consenting partner while also managing the limitations of their own body. For anyone who hasn’t done it before, wielding a flogger eventually tires you out, and even slapping or spanking someone can take a toll on your hand. In that game I wanted to show this kind of interplay of limitations and exertion without reducing it to a simple gauge or number.
11. Shifting Play(er) Assumptions: the product model of videogames assumes a singular player using a game product on a console or personal computer; public play and local multiplayer games can be understood as discarded formats that can be adopted. Elizabeth Freeman describes queerness not as being on the cutting edge of newness, as it is commonly understood, but as basking in the fading glow of the past. And for all games’ uncritical obsession with so-called retro aesthetics, I think there’s something to that idea. Models like unconventional online play, distributed play, etc. that have been rejected by mainstream videogames can be reappropriated and put to use (e.g. Brace, Soundself, etc.)
Thinking about queer play might require us to step out of common sense thinking about videogames. Many recognizable genres of digital games come with so much mechanical baggage that we either need to be prepared to do a lot of unpacking or else to jettison genre and start from a more basic level of mechanics.
The rest of the workshop was spent in several activities: identifying mechanics that reproduce normative thinking in mainstream games; playing through several examples of games that invoke queer mechanics; and finally, considering ways that we might twist and queer existing games to make them more interesting and useful. The notes from these activities are reproduced below.
Games with an asterisk were examples played live at the workshop – all of these games do interesting and vital things and invoke the kinds of queer mechanics described above. Most of these games are free, though a few are commercial.
*Ultimate Flirt-Off – Diego Garcia
*SABBAT – ohnoproblems
*Slave of God – increpare
Pale Machine – Ben Esposito & bo-en
Queers in Love at the End of the World – anna anthropy
Thirty Flights of Loving – Brendon Chung
Reset – Lydia Neon
The Floor is Jelly – Ian Snyder
Soundself – Robin Arnott
Dream Fishing – Sophie Houlden
This first set of notes was generated by participants after having been asked to analyze existing mainstream games through the lens of their mechanics, thinking about the ways in which what the player was doing – rather than the representations being depicted – could be understood as reproducing normative ideas about topics like bodies, power, and control.
- Focus on killing
- Killing as a primary mechanic in “hardcore” games
- Sports games as an exception
- “No-kill runs are the gay sex of Dishonored” – Robert Yang
Civilization-esque games and RTS games and management games
- Starting with nothing, building towards a goal
- Inherent tiers, progress
- Time constantly progressing
- Class/culture-based, clear divisions between groups
- Capitalist agenda, resource extraction, expansion, etc.
- Fog of war
Big Buck Hunter
- Pastoral scene in which animals appear within your sights
- Quantification of body parts
- First-person perspective moves the player through the forest space
- No experience of using the weapon – kickback etc.
- Repetitive shooting mechanic
- No dealing with the aftereffects of violence
- Unobstructed movement – usually inaccessible to people who are not white men
- Narrative development tied to difficulty and physical dexterity
- Cultures built up around games – demanding of a particular kind of vocabulary and function as a kind of unpaid PR
- Role of memorization and nerves
- Sanitized “killing” of goombas/koopas etc.
- Translation of hyperrealistic landscapes into playgrounds made to interface with the body – all surface are available to the player character
- Erasure of consequence – frame story justifies ridiculous/alternative modes of play
- “Playground logic” where supposedly realistic elements become playful
- Joyfulness mapped onto serious elements, turning it into a kind of fun park
- Forrest Gumpification
FPS games, e.g. Far Cry Blood Dragon
- Genre popular enough to accept parody
- But: some aspects still taken seriously
- Linear progression, world behaves like a clockwork music box
- E.g. Half-Life, player control not disrupted during cutscenes but unable to affect the situation
- Replication of the world but within limitations, constrained unpredictability
- Social interactions – role of voice chat as reasserting the importance of external social conditions like race, gender, language
The following notes were later generated after another activity in which participants were asked to take the game they had previously discussed – or another game – and think about ways they might twist and queer some of the mechanics of play to produce more interesting and useful results.
- Timelines – introducing randomness, disrupting linearity
- Seeing branching timelines, introducing multiplicity
- Removal of stats/direct control
- Decentralizing mechanics in the design process
- Foreclosed outcomes of battles
- Shifting perspectives/character nonmonogamy
- Removal of implicit goals/reward structures
- A “desertion simulator”
- Multiple perspectives/interconnected storylines between characters e.g. Run Lola Run
- Blackboxing in Nordic LARP
- Shifting to deer POV
- Some weird uses of time but always happens in predictable ways controlled by the storyline
- Some gestures towards odd ways of looking at time, space, history, etc.
- Pushing existing aspects a step further
- Buck Hunter
- Shifting to deer POV
- Playing as the weather/environmental conditions
- Disrupting the emphasis on vision as a means of knowing the world
- Shifting the temporal focus to preconditions (e.g. licensing)