Sunday, August 6, 2017

Recent developments in queer game studies, Summer 2017

Here's a few recent updates in the """discourse""" within the exciting world of QUEER GAME STUDIES!!!

First, there's a new call for papers in the long-running Game Studies journal -- this time the focus is on "queerness and video games."  The full CFP is here. If you're a student or academic (or anyone with a perverse tolerance for academic citation styles) then you should consider sending-in some original scholarship and/or maybe trim your thesis into a submission; full articles of 6500-8000 words are due by December 31st, 2017. Good luck!

Next, Miguel Sicart wrote a piece about "Queering the [Game] Controller." Sicart, as far as I know, doesn't identify as queer, so some may argue he thus cannot really "queer" anything -- so please allow me, a certified gay person, to try to unpack some of his ideas here:

Currently, the most visible platform promoting non-traditional video game controllers is the (popular) alt.ctrl.gdc expo at GDC. If you've ever been to that space, you wouldn't doubt the designers' enthusiasm or skill -- but what you could doubt is any kind of "alternative" political orientation. Many of the projects at alt.ctrl, even if they're very engaging experiences about hacking sewing machines or licking gamepads, often rely on well-known game design conventions about conquering territory or avoiding death. Why aren't "alternative controllers" provoking more diverse / radical approaches to game design and player relations?

Sicart poses queer theory as a tool to help re-frame this problem: if we think of "queer" in a similar sense to "alternative", then we can ask, how does alt.ctrl.gdc fall short of a hypothetical "queer.ctrl.gdc"? Currently, you could argue that alt.ctrl.gdc, despite its good intentions and beneficial net impact, ultimately functions like a safety valve, to redirect the inspiring energy of students and hackers into a giant business convention, thus reassuring a staid industry that it isn't creatively bankrupt. In contrast, a "queer.ctrl.gdc" would not be a crowd-pleasing industry-beloved thing, it would threaten fundamental assumptions about how the game industry works.

For example, Sicart wonders, what if alt.ctrl.gdc featured games that use actual vibrators as controllers? (Yeah, I know game controllers rumble and stuff, but gamepads don't look like vibrators / don't carry the cultural impact of vibrators.) Framing vibrators as a playful device could possibly prompt a fresher approach to pacing and intimacy in game design, and it would also center the pleasure of women (and some men) at an industry expo that is overwhelmingly dominated by straight men. Dildos and vibrators are also tools that make up part of a sexual experience, but often not its entirety -- what if games were something that didn't demand complete flow, immersion, or even our attention? What if games were a "sometimes food" instead of compulsion machines?

For this reason, you could argue that GDC would likely never feature an alt.ctrl project about vibrators, because it might force the industry to justify which pleasures it embraces (constant murder and extraction of resources) and which pleasures it forbids (sex, decentralization, contemporary feminism). Can anything ever truly be "indie" or "alt" from the game industry?

Sicart points to some games and designers that are already queering existing controllers -- games like Fingle, Chicanery, or Luxuria Superbia, emphasize the tension inherent in using a touch interface with partner(s)... and then when you inevitably feel aroused, that's because your body was reacting to the interactions -- not because Call of Duty insists "press F to feel" actually produces a specified feeling. (see: "Press F to Intervene": a brief history of the Use Key Genre)

If you're interested in this stuff, I recommend checking out Shake That Button, an on-going database by Pierre Corbinais of non-traditional game installations and alternative interfaces.

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Now let's pair that conversation with Marcus Tran Degnan's piece "Gaming Gone Queer", a write-up for the LA Review of Books on Queer Game Studies (a book where I contributed a study of the FeministWhorePurna scandal)

The first half of the article is about easing the non-gaming LA Review of Books readership into the idea of academic study of video games, or even, a queer academic study of video games. He also summarizes some of the chapters in the book (including mine) before delivering this critique:
Though Queer Game Studies is successful in tracing the circulation of queerness and gender in the gaming world, it lacks a sustained focus on how race, ableism, and other identities that are often entangled with discussions of sexuality and gender. As a person deeply invested in thinking about how my racial identity has been formed and functions in conjunction with my queer identity, this is an especially disappointing absence. While a handful of the essays touch on these concerns, none of them really offer the sort of substantive treatment that feels necessary. This is not to suggest that the contributors disregard issues like race completely, but rather that such topics take a back seat in ways that seem to mark a separation, deliberate or otherwise, from the gender and sexual identities that are the major focus here. The collection does, however, include some solid work on transgender representation and experience in video games that broaden what can oftentimes be a more general focus on gay and lesbian issues. As the field continues to grow — this is a primer, after all — perhaps future studies will take into consideration how queerness in video games is further inflected by an even more expansive array of identities and experiences.
He's right, the book doesn't really address race or ableism or etc enough (nor does the majority of queer theory?) but I want to add a little bit of context here -- many of these chapters in this book were actually written and compiled back in 2013 at the first Queerness and Games Conference, and academic book publishing can take a surprisingly long time.

2013 was also a different time in video game discourse (I'm literally outnumbered by gamergaters haunting the comments section of that article already) when some of us were fighting just to exist in our field, and were too focused on fighting that garbage to foresee Ferguson (in 2014) or apply that urgent theory to games. In the time since then, I know I've certainly grown-up in my thinking and I'd like to think I'm better about this, and I imagine other people feel the same way too -- and if there was ever to be a second book, it would probably be much more intersectional, because hopefully we know better now!

Of course, there are still a lot of people who don't know better. For instance, Dave Chappelle is still doing transphobic jokes, and argues trans issues matter today only because white transwomen like Caitlyn Jenner are conspiring to push black people to the back of the line. While skepticism of Jenner's politics is warranted, Janet Mock and other trans people of color aren't amused by this kind of erasure of people of color from trans movements.

These flashpoints form a self-perpetuating cycle: white scholars and critics avoid analyzing intersections of race and queerness, but then (straight) people of color see that lopsided focus on only gender / sexuality, and argue that queer theory is a predominantly white space -- which convinces white people to "stay in their lane" further, etc. We must intervene and interrupt this cycle.

* * *

Naomi Clark has some good commentary on what all this means for a possible way forward: we should to try to untangle who is / isn't allowed to queer stuff, and/or build some theoretical machinery that allows for another kind of queerness.

Marcus Tran Degnan can critique a queer game studies book because he's involved in that community and presumably lives that life every day. In contrast, Miguel Sicart's social location as a not-queer-person means he can't really critique or apply it without coming-off as appropriation or whatever, so he can only cite it, which is basically what I think he does here anyway. Is it a question of separating queer theory from queer lives, or is there some way around this?

Naomi's cheeky solution is to invent a new word for all this:

I doubt Naomi truly intends to make "quarsahd" happen, but the point is made: we all need to work on this language some more, somehow. As she argues in that thread, queerness should be an "inherently conflicted" concept, changing and reshaping and morphing itself into something new.

It's going to mean having some difficult and complicated conversations, and we'll have to try to be patient with each other. Let's rise to that challenge.

(PS: please don't actually make queer.ctrl.gdc into a thing though. It's a terrible idea.)