‘Queer Game Studies’ Aims to Break Entrenched Binaries

This collection exemplifies what great benefits the wider gaming community stands to reap as people of more diverse backgrounds find themselves comfortable within that community.

“We often think ourselves into corners by dividing spheres of human life from one another and then naturalizing these divisions to the point that we actually believe them to be real and true.” — Jack Halberstam

Curated and edited by two prominent academics of New Media whose prior work has mostly revolved around LGBTQ issues and video games, Queer Game Studies features a stunning collection of written work by a wide variety of game developers, journalists, and academics. With academic essays, opinion pieces, personal accounts and interviews working together to provide a full picture of the multifaceted world of queer game studies, it stands as a shining example of what great benefits the wider gaming community stands to reap as people of more diverse backgrounds find themselves comfortable within that community.

The main thread tying a lot of this collection together is the idea of breaking entrenched binaries in how we think about video games. As with gender, which used to be thought of as having two polar opposite states with nothing in-between and is now pretty uniformly (at least among academics) understood as a vast and rich spectrum, these binaries are often taken for granted simply because of their historical momentum. But they limit our thinking and lead to exclusionary practices in both the games we make and how we see their audiences. Having triumphed over our antiquated views of the gender binary, queer theory is mobilized to tackle other socially constructed binaries in Queer Game Studies, which, as it turns out, video games are pretty rife with.

If you’re someone who dips their toes into the deeper river of games journalism — beyond the shallow waters of the latest Nintendo product news — you’ve certainly heard of the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’. It describes a situation in which some mechanical aspect of a video game doesn’t make sense in the narrative universe the game is trying to immerse the player in, taking the player out of the magic circle and reminding them that this is just a game. The term comes from a binary way of thinking about video games and has provided fodder for the narratology/ludology debate among game theorists for over 20 years now. In her essay “What is Queerness in Games, Anyway?”, Naomi Clark describes how this way of thinking predisposes players to dislike games that don’t revolve around the player exploring some complex mechanical system, and therefore limits the variety of stories the medium is able to convey.

The other binary that is tackled extensively in Queer Game Studies is the tendency of video games to encourage certain kinds of play and not others through ‘win’ and ‘lose’ states. An entire section of the book is devoted to the idea that ‘failing’ can be seen as a way to escape the normative systems encoded in conventional video games. A discussion between Jack Halberstam and Jesper Juul, two influential theorists who work on the idea of failure in the context of queer theory and video games, respectively, is particularly illuminating about how this framework can be useful for both players and game designers.

“Failure serves as a way of being that confronts norms of human behaviour, subverts the narrative of ‘growing up,’ and destabilizes systems of hierarchical knowledge like the university, reproduction, and anthropocentrism,” writes Jordan Youngblood in “‘I Wouldn’t Even know the Real Me Myself’: Queering Failure in Metal Gear Solid 2”.

In “Ending the Cycle”, Peter Wonica writes about conducting a workshop at the University of Texas at Dallas, in which a group of people collaborated on building a board game that could “communicate the challenges faced by queer women leaving abusive relationships”. Using this as an example, he shows that game development and game play is another binary that is worth reconsidering — developing formal systems that reflect real-life issues can be as illuminating as navigating those systems and figuring them out.

The only binary that gives the authors some trouble, the one about which there seems to be little consensus, is whether games should strive to be more serious, or whether they should continue aiming to entertain. Quite a few authors call for game developers to abandon their love of gratuitous comic violence and simple, heteronormative narratives in order to make marginalized communities more welcome. “If video games want cultural legitimacy, designers will have to concede that it’s not all about fun,” begins Kotaku (a gamer’s guide) editor Leigh Alexander in her essay, “Playing Outside”, “Gaming culture is much like any other insular, ideologically driven group faced with the fact that their little world needs to start meaning more to more people”, she writes later on.

In “Queer Growth in Video Games”, Christopher Goetz outlines the parallel school of thought which maintains that “Video games are ‘queer’ precisely for their embrace of blissful jouissance, for their association with activities that are perceived as immature, and for the pure wastefulness of energy and time spent outside the narrow structures of hetero-normativity.” He doesn’t advocate for completely throwing serious themes overboard, though, and concludes by saying that “Queer games studies entails accepting the co-presence and mutual reflexivity of the childish and the adult in games.”

Even though this volume focuses primarily on the ways queerness can be incorporated in video game design beyond the surface-level inclusion of same-sex relationship choices (“a yes-or-no, date-him-or-her, have-sex-with-man-or-woman choice, which replicates the rather limited binary of hetero or homo, gay or straight, and even more insidiously the conservative belief that sexuality is a simple choice,” writes Edmon Y. Chang in Queergaming), it also contains its fair share of criticism of mainstream game culture for being hostile towards people who don’t conform to the stereotypical ‘gamer’ identity.

The ghost of GamerGate haunts quite a few of the essays, and the unfortunate reality of casual sexism of the gaming mainstream is covered quite extensively. Robert Yang’s essay, which takes apart one vicious scandal that followed the release of Deep Silver’s Dead Island, is particularly illuminating on this subject. However, as Adrienne Shaw writes in her essay on video game communities, “they become strong through hardship” — instead of stamping out diversity, these exclusionary attitudes only work to energize marginalized communities to demand being included.

Besides analytic, insightful, and mentally stimulating writing, this volume also contains highly personal accounts of various people involved in queer games studies. Game developer and zinester Merritt Kopas’s account of what it was like to play Gone Home is probably the most touching article you can find about this critic-darling of a video game. As a finishing touch, the final essay of the book, “Forty-Eight-Hour Utopia”, is Bonnie Ruberg’s retrospective account of what it was like to organize the first Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) in 2013.

It’s hard to concisely summarize all that is contained in this volume, every new page seems to burst with fascinating ideas about how this artistic medium could reach its full potential. You don’t have to be a game developer to appreciate the ideas laid out here, but those who are interested in making games, no matter how small, should look into this book for a treasure trove of inspiration.

RATING 10 / 10