Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Take ecstasy with me": a manifesto for Gay VR

Before I explain what the heck I mean by "Gay VR", let's review why Gay VR would be necessary. I gave a MVR talk on this topic at A/D/O a few weeks ago, and someone tweeted my slide above and it went mildly viral. A quick explanation:
  • "failsons" (failure + son), coined by popular "dirtbag left" podcast Chapo Trap House, are a particular type of 20-30-something men who have failed to fit into capitalism for whatever reason -- they don't have promising jobs, or careers, or relationships, or futures -- and they definitely feel the shame of it. When they hit rock bottom like this, do they blame capitalism and start listening to Chapo Trap House, or do they blame women + people of color and they join some Reddit hate mobs?
  • But when they buy video games, the right-wing failson finally fits into capitalism in some small way, and so they stake their self-worth on it. Instead of philosopher-kings, they are consumer-kings, who think they're so good at consuming video games that they can impose their radical conservative racist misogynist politics on the rest of gamer culture...
  • ... and they basically succeeded, thanks to tacit support from the game industry. It's now way too late to reverse this deeply unhealthy attitude toward art and media, and gamer culture is never going to get "better." These toxic conservatives have basically shit the bed, and now that shit will stay there forever.
To save a newly emerging VR culture from this poisoned gamer culture, I believe that we must act now, to fortify and insulate pockets of VR culture from the inferno. Ideally, we all pursue many different strategies in tandem, and here's a tactic that I'm working on, it's two short sweet words: Gay. VR.

The goal of Gay VR is to make VR completely universally entirely gay. Let's flood VR with gay stories, gay ideas, gay images, gay bodies, gay feelings, gay systems, and gay interactions. Some of that will be making gay games and gay VR art, but some of this work will also involve talking about VR and developing a theory of gay VR.

Here, I take a cue from José Esteban Muñoz's idea of queer utopia. Specifically, Muñoz argues that no one is truly queer, and queerness is always an ideal that we chase. Queerness is always "not yet here."

Compare "gay rights" vs. "queer rights." Gay rights are a politically stable platform built by huge advocacy organizations to lobby for specific incremental reforms; we can even name specific gay rights concerns like gay marriage, HIV/AIDS treatment, ENDA, FADA, HB2, etc. Gay rights are pragmatically concerned with the present, the here and now. In contrast, no one can agree about what "queer rights" exactly are, and that's the whole point. It's nothing and anything at the same time.

The power of a weird utopian call to Gay VR is also in how it is nothing and anything. It is a horizon that we will never quite reach, but the general trajectory will help us see each other and come together. The apparent impossibility of the demand is crucial -- if we consider why Gay VR seems impossible, then we can better understand the forces arrayed against VR artists.

It's important to note that we resist along these utopian lines in gamer culture already: for instance, the fact that every single character in popular video game Overwatch is super duper gay.

When we ship Hanzo / McCree together ("McHanzo") as a double hungry-vers-bottom couple that can't stop groping each other, it is not "pragmatic" and does not directly repeal anti-trans bathroom laws -- but it does help us ponder what is stopping the industry from creating entirely gay character casts (answer: fear of right-wing gamers) and it does help us imagine worlds where men can be cute and tender with each other. Saying "everyone in Overwatch is gay" isn't just fun and horny, but it's also a crucial political strategy that re-frames what Overwatch means and who controls cultures.

And just like queerness and gay horny Overwatch tumblrs, we think of VR as a utopian project. Ask any VR evangelist and they'll confess the technology is "not yet here" but argue there is still so much untapped potential to explore. In this way, VR always seems to be over the horizon, in the future.

Now, can we actually save VR from collapsing into a technocapitalist wasteland ruled by entitled consumer-king whiners? Considering all the forces arrayed against us, no, we probably cannot, but maybe in the future there will be some way to make sustainable spaces for VR artists and weirdos.

In his book Cruising Utopia, Muñoz exemplifies this communal pleasure of contemplating new possibilities with a line from a Magnetic Fields song: "take ecstasy with me."

"take": do something on your own power, of your own initiative, on your behalf

"ecstasy": Muñoz means ecstasy not just in the sense of extremely pleasurable drugs or euphoria, but also religious rapture. Spiritual ecstasy enables vision and foresight and prophecy.

"with me": let's do this together, as a community, because the value of ecstasy is in taking it together and strengthening our bonds

When we combine two improbable utopian projects like mass collective gayness and VR, it's like a miraculous double-impossible utopia. And once we dream of banishing the heteronormative consumer-king usurpers and conquering VR, why stop there? Imagine even grander visions of gay AI, gay computers, gay continents, gay mountains, gay caves, gay rocks, gay sand, gay physics...

So please come join me in making VR so fucking gay that the worst of toxic gamer culture will stay far away from it. Wow, doesn't that sound delicious? To me, that would be like... ecstasy.

(HEY, ONLY READ THIS IF YOU ALREADY KNOW ENOUGH INSIDE BASEBALL TO TALK ABOUT GAY / QUEER IDENTITY: Christina Xu asks, "Curious about why/when you switch between queer and gay here; why "queer utopia" but "gay VR"?"... my answer is that my work centers specific gay sex acts between men, it'd be disingenuous to claim that is queer sex? But in a weird way, I do consider centering gay sex to be a queer project: it is non-normative and anti-respectability, interferes with narrative of homonationalism, etc. There's also a debate about whether "queer" is more useful than just expanding "gay" to be an umbrella. As someone who is gay, I do often wish gay men were more radical, and maybe this is my attempt to try to queer "gay" again?)