Blog Post

Beyond Window Dressing: Queering Video Game Studies

Cross-posted from my blog:

Above is the Prezi (which I used for the very first time) presentation for my 5-minute “lightning talk” at MLA 2012 this past weekend.  The roundtable “Close Playing: Literary Methods and Video Game Studies,” organized by Mark Sample, gave me an opportunity to be seated alongside some terrific (and wonderfully smart) people: Steven E. Jones, Loyola Univ., Chicago; Jason C. Rhody, National Endowment for the Humanities; Anastasia Salter, University of Baltimore; Timothy Welsh, Loyola University, New Orleans; and Zach Whalen, University of Mary Washington.

Overall, I wanted to bring a cultural studies, queer studies approach to video games and to draw attention to the fact that current games with LGBT content tend toward “window dressing,” queerness as menu choice and menu-driven identity.  This surface, banal inclusion and representation (much like nods toward diversity and multiculturalism without any sense of nuance or depth) has very little impact narratively, mechanically, and socially.  Yes, you can romance a same-sex partner in Dragon Age or woo an alien (of the same sex?) in Mass Effect.  Yes, you can select a same sex spouse in Frontierville or encounter a queer character here and there.  However, much of this is either taken up as shock value (certainly by mainstream and often homophobic players)and titillation, is recuperated back into heteronormativity (re: you can have a same-sex spouse in Frontierville but must complete a whole series of very traditional marriage quests), or it simply does not matter because algorithmically there is no difference.

I further sketched the need to push the need for intersectional approaches to look not only at gender and sexuality but also race, class, and other cultural logics and formations of power.  What I did not get a chance to expand upon was the need to also think intersectionally when it comes to certain foci of video game studies itself–the need to look not only at code and platform or gameplay and reception or representation and narrative as independent.  Rather, there is a richness here to understand how normative logics cleave to normative narratives, which are structured by what I call technonormative programming and design.

All in all, it was a great roundtable and I was honored to be included.  I hope to continue to see these kinds of collaborations and conversations continue across domains and disciplines.



I think it really comes down to finding some concept that the gameplay models that has relevance to queer communities and then infusing that with queer themes in the fiction elements

At the risk of coming across as assumptive, I'm curious what you would define as such a concept besides the "coming out" narrative. I'm really interested in the idea of what, at least for what I do, would be considered "audience interpollation" with queerness (thus gaining access to an experience framed as "unknowable"), but at the same time I wonder if that doesn't simply risk reasserting a new, supposedly "knowable" real, to drag Lacan/Zizek into the arena.


I'm not sure the mechanic is an entire failure; instead, I would argue how they executed it is the real failure since it, as you note, forecloses so many possiblities to the player. If one assumes their prime interest is in coming out and family rejection, the act of "coming out" is a conversational process (that is, one where both parties seek to eventually "close the loop"). But in "A Closed World," the key problem is that they centered their game around conversation-as-combat (through the lens of rhetoric), which relies on Skinner-box-style reward. 

If executed properly, I'd argue a game utilizing a deep puzzle-style conversation tree can illumine both personal and insitutional prejudices to great success. It wouldn't be easy, and it would require turing conversational processes like turn-taking and adjaceny pairs into algorithms, but it could be done.


I think I'm going to stand by what I asserted on Twitter: I don't think there really is a fundamentally "queer" mechanic... and if there is, it's got to be philosophical rather than having anything to do necessarily with representation. Certainly I think that's what Adrienne Shaw is talking about here when she calls for scholars to apply the principles of queer theory to game studies as opposed to just the language, a statement that definitely left me feeling a little (necessarily) sheepish looking back at some past work.

To me I think the critical thing is to not give in to what Miguel Sicart has been calling "proceduralism" but still remember that rulesets and systems of simulation are fundamental aspects of the game text. I think it really comes down to finding some concept that the gameplay models that has relevance to queer communities and then infusing that with queer themes in the fiction elements. It's something we didn't 100% accomplish with A Closed World, as you say earlier, and part of that came from a long 4 months in the prototyping process of smacking our head against this very question of what a queer mechanic was in the first place.

Maybe the other thing I learned was that the idea of making a text intended for "all queer people" is basically nonsense. But that's probably a discussion for another day.


This is the direction I am trying to push my theories about race and ethnicity, and that I would be excited to see others tackle, especially in relation to queerness. Whenever I give talks about race in videogames I am asked about how to do things better, and it's a difficult question but one which I would like to have better answers for. There are not many  games (if any, really)  that deal with race in creative or intelligent ways, particularly at the level of mechanics. I've been looking to film for inspiratin here because we have a rich history of, for instance, Black Film which intervened into exclusionary filmmaking production practices at the levels of content and form, innovating new forms of signification that connected to Black cultural traditions. I think game mechanics could signify in a similar way.

To take just one example, I have been reading a lot lately about Native American history and considering how Indian identity in games is often relegated to narrative and visual representation, but there's a frutiful and diverse collection of native cultural practices and ways of being that could be adapted in fascinating ways through game mechanics, e.g. "economic" systems of reciprocity vs. capitalistic accumulation and exploitation. Such a simple design shift, even beyond overt representation, would provide a queering of normative economic structures in games. 


Given some Tweetversations happening around this post, I want to extend some of the lines of inquiry started above.  Mainly, I by no means want to simply critique for critique's sake games that do try to incorporate LGBTQ content (though certainly there is a real lack T & Q attention).  And I like A Closed World for its thinking about how to make a game about Q concerns and Q logics.  (Of course, this kind of work is often still the purview of independent developers and designers and writers.)  My biggest hope is that we will move beyond just the question of representation -- some representation is better than none -- and the positioning/locating of Q concerns only in narrative. 

Here I can reinvoke the technonormative or technonormativity as thinking about the ways that the constellation of practices, discourses, and technologies that produce video games (and gaming cultures) are also important points to put pressure on.  Todd Harper (@laevantine) raises an interesting question: Is there an inherently queer mechanic?  Obviously, to say yes would result in all sorts of interesting kerfuffling about biological and technological determinisms.  I would like to see whether we can play with the idea of what a queer mechanic would look like, play like?  And this again has to move beyond a certain kind of player action/choice = gamic world/narrative consequence.  Yes, for example, to make a Q choice in-game might produce terribly homophobic in-game responses, but that reduces Q experience to a very narrow, linear, and victimizing logic.  But I would also float the suggestion that algorithms and programming in of itself are ambivalent.  Code is never neutral, always constructed and bear the traces of gendered, raced, sexualized, embodied norms.  So, we might extend the conversations about Q gaming to run the gamut from platform studies all the way up to cultural studies.




Since you used it as the background, I'm curious if any of you talked about "A Closed World" to any depth?

I followed the discussion after its release, and I was fascinated by the implication (more explictly expressed by its designers) that the game was about player interpolation, a chance to "experience" discrimination and coming out. However, the mechanics of the game itself were a case of, as you describe, "normative logics cleave to normative narratives:" if you trigger the right argument, you can acheive a "successful" coming out.


Given the roundtable format and the limit of 5 minutes to speak per participation, we really only got a chance to make a few provocations.  We did not talk about A Closed World during the session. 

I don't really care for A Closed World, actually.  I think the "spirit" of the game and the intent of the designers to address homophobia and gender oppression are admirable.  But, as you say, the game itself is not successful to me.  I think the biggest problem is its mechanics, the necessity of boiling down a very complex and often ambivalent experience of oppression/fear/what have you to just a few algorithmic choices.  I also find that the game limits the expression of that oppression/fear/whatever only on a personal/individual level and overt oppression and does not do enough to consider institutional and covert oppression.  Finally, the ending of the game seems to me to recloset the character (it is a Closed World after all).



Love the term "technonormative." I will be borrowing it!


Have at it!  It's a neologism I use and think about in my diss.