Some colleagues and I had the pleasure of presenting at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con, as part of the academic Comic Arts Conference that is associated with the Con. I can't tell you what a pleasure it was to be able to get my cosplay AND academic geek on at the same time!!
Our panel was on graphic representations of Otherness. Here's the description:
Authors such as Scott McCloud and W. J. T. Mitchell have argued for the ways in which graphic narratives manipulate ideas through both image and language, highlighting the way that these elements may work cooperatively or in disjunction to present robust depictions of subjectivity. Anne Cong-Huyen (University of California, Santa Barbara), Caroline Kyungah Hong (Queens College), Kim Knight (University of Texas at Dallas), Amanda Phillips (University of California, Santa Barbara), Melissa Stevenson (Stanford University), Elizabeth Swanstrom (Florida Atlantic University), and Candace West (University of California, Santa Cruz) examine representations of Otherness in graphic media, including comics, television, and video games, focusing on the ways in which representations of otherness in graphic narratives and other media can either solidify stereotypes or undermine cultural assumptions -- or both. The roundtable will consider a variety of forms of "Otherness" including gender, race, and sexuality, as well as metaphors of Otherness, including the animal, the monstrous, and the heroic.
We had so many panelists because we did our presentations in the Ignite style. It's a simple but daunting format: Five minutes of 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. Ruby has put up an example of her Ignite talk on networks here, if you want to see a video of an actual talk. I'm going to be a bit lower tech here and just make a picture blog with captions of the text I was reading. Because the Ignite format is so compressed and the Comic-Con audience is a mix of fans and academics, our focus was to bring up a couple of interesting points rather than make a theoretically dense argument. My talk on queerness in gaming is below.
Hi, I'm Amanda Phillips, and I am a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara studying issues of difference in video games. For our panel on graphic representations of difference, I want to focus on the visual aspects of queerness and their implications for gaming.
First, I’d like to explain my concept of the word “queer.” It is an empowering and inclusive political term whose meaning can shift as needed - it includes gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transpeople, and others who don’t fit society’s sexual, gender, and body norms norms.
Visibility is a queer political strategy that manifests in Pride parades and coming out campaigns. Representation in the media is one way to improve the public’s disposition toward the community and to help queers feel more comfortable in a society that acknowledges their existence.
So having queers in video games is important - but including them in a way that is meaningful is important, too. We can all think of outrageous game characters that strike us as queer regardless of sexuality. They are instantly recognizable, not always in a good way.
But despite some negative backlash from the gay and lesbian community, many actual queers embrace a queer aesthetic, adopting certain fashion and body conventions to signal their membership in the group. They are also instantly recognizable, a valuable part of the community.
Before I continue, I’d like to note that not being recognizably queer is a matter of safety for many, and not everyone desires or is able to fit on a visible spectrum of queerness. Being a visible queer can be an expression of privilege or disadvantage - sometimes both simultaneously.
In the media, the threat of the visible queer is contained by means including exaggerated caricaturing, sexual or gender normalization, humiliation, and death. This trope originates in the association of queer lives with tragedy and difference with criminality. Lately, it just seems like habit.
Let’s talk for a moment about Jack from Mass Effect 2. To the queer eye, she reads as a butch lesbian: tattoos, shaved head, aggressive body language, defiant attitude. But like GI Jane and Ripley before her, her gender nonconformity is securely contained within a heterosexual matrix.
Not only is Jack functionally straight with regard to the game’s mechanics, but her stereotypically masculine exterior is nothing but a front for a hyperfeminine interior - a wounded heart who dreads the thought of losing another man. She is the one partner to actually cry during the game’s lovemaking scene.
I don’t wish to produce masculinity and femininity here as fixed constructs nor to criticize Jack’s heterosexuality per se, but her queer mediation of masculinity through a female body had a lot of potential to be truly progressive for women and queers alike. Instead, she shrivels into a tired archetype.
Of course, many of us play video games not to watch NPCs flitter about living their lives, but to make our own mark on the stories and characters and to explore a world that has been designed with play in mind from the start. Are there better queer options for player characters?
A medium of action, the video game reduces expression of sexuality to sex acts. An avatar’s sexual identity is a matter of who they’re sleeping with, not any number of other markers of queerness that are used to identify and misidentify members of the community.
Bioware-style romance is the perfect example, offering the player a menu of partners to choose for their character. If you look at other well-known queer-enabled games, it’s all the same: queerness is reduced to sexuality, which is reduced to choosing a partner of the “right” gender.
What does this coding of queerness as choice and action suggest in a political climate that begrudgingly offers acceptance to queers largely on the basis of their having being born this way? Is the currently acceptable mode of expressing sexuality in games really doing anyone any favors?
The question of what “makes” a queer is not a question with a definitive answer, nor is it one I wish to explore here. However, striking a balance between sex acts and gender expression is at the core of creating meaningful queerness in video games, and progressive games still can’t quite manage it.
Even though The Sims enables same-sex relationships, its avatar editor locks normative hair and clothing choices to particular genders. BioWare’s gender options are paltry. Oblivion has a truly bizarre mechanic that converts clothing acquired in-game, even when stolen off of someone’s body, to the gender of the avatar.
The closest I’ve come to creating a queer avatar that suits me is in Fable 2. The female avatar grows into a hulking she-beast as she levels up, something quite satisfying for a person who desires but can never attain such epic body proportions. Unfortunately, this feature was nixed in the sequel.
The progressive gender system in Fable, which does not categorize hair, clothing, or accessories by gender, comes coupled with a rigid sexuality system that fixes the sexual preference of NPCs and requires the monarch, regardless of chosen sex partners, to produce two biological heirs for a sequel.
Any transgressive queer potential in these games is minimized when developers neglect one or the other side of the equation. Gender and sexuality have a complicated relationship, but they always inform each other.
Since gender is the foundational trait upon which customizable avatars are built and sexuality is so important to contemporary games, it is time for developers to stop cluelessly wandering through their intersecting terrains and offer gaymers some meaningful tools for digital self-expression.