Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Queerness and progressive game design

Earlier, I attended a conference on queer theory, game studies, and game design.  This inspired in me several topic ideas.  I will start with the one that is most directly related, and most reactionary.  One of the conference's major themes was how to find queerness in games beyond the literal inclusion of queer characters.  Queerness isn't just in the characters, it's in the image of gamers, in the broader narrative themes, in the way we play games, and in the design and mechanics.

There are many great ideas in there.  But some ideas... Well, they're "productive" ideas in the sense that it's helpful to discuss them, but they're ultimately bad ideas IMO.  In particular, several conference speakers decided that queerness in games can mean conforming to their particular ideas about progressive (and transgressive) game design.

For example, it was repeated many times that queerness means choices in your video games.  Queerness means transgressing the prescriptive definitions of a "game" made by formalists.  Queerness is playing a game and making your own objective rather than using the one designated by the designer.  One presenter even said queerness means fluidity in the rules of the game (this being the context of tabletop RPGs).

The overall message I seem to be getting is that queerness is Indie.  Which maybe sounds just a little too much like self-flattery when it's coming from a bunch of queer indie game designers and queer indie game lovers.

Don't get me wrong, I love indie games.  These days I've been playing more AAA games, but indie games are often the ones pushing the envelope, ultimately resulting in a better future for all games.  But though queerness is great and progressive game design is great, they don't really seem to be the same thing.

If queerness is reduced to themes of human variance, fluidity, and transgressing norms, then you'll find these themes everywhere you want to find them.  (You'll find these themes in AAA games too, but I think people at this conference were less interested in finding them there.  It was said during the conference that buying AAA games is supporting capitalism, but we shouldn't shame people who do it because maybe they just don't have the cultural capital to really be aware of the indie games out there.)  And yes this is a problem.

It's sort of like... Dumbledore being gay in Harry Potter.  Author J. K. Rowling said that Dumbledore was gay, but it's not really clear from the books themselves.  So the bottom line is that this queer "representation" may not be satisfactory to many queer readers.  Therefore, it's best not to overplay the queerness of Dumbledore, because frankly we can do better than that.  Similarly, it's best not to overplay the queerness in games, because many queer people are not going to be satisfied just by progressive game design, and we can do much better than that.

I can also imagine other problems with equating queerness and indie gaming.  Imagine a queer person feeling that their queer cred is under question because they are disinterested in indie games.  I don't think this is a likely scenario, but it could be likely if the queer indie ideology at this conference were widespread.  It's even more problematic to say that fluid game rules are queer, because even when it comes to sexuality, queer does not necessarily mean fluid.  Plenty of trans people felt they were always the gender that they are, and plenty of bi people do not feel that their orientation fluctuates from gay to straight (which is a common misconception about bi people).

If progressive game design means bucking some common sexist, racist, cissexist, or heterosexist conventions, then sure, that's more queer.  It would be great to come up with new fantasy races, rather than the rather racist ones inherited from Tolkien.  It would be great to have some new mechanics which make it easier to tell stories about groups in relation to society (rather than the usual stories about a single straight white male hero).  It would be great to offer the player more choices about character genders (ie more than two) and sexualities.  New ideas in narrative and game design are essential to improving the experience of queer players, but progressive game design in itself is not sufficient.

1 comment:

drransom said...

On the subject of offering choices in character design, I think there also needs to be more room for ordinary straight cisgender characters (or characters assumed to be such because they aren't defined otherwise) to be gender-nonconforming. I'm reminded of Dragon Quest IX, where you have a fair bit of choice in avatars and the equipment is all rendered, but there's a bunch of gendered equipment that members of the wrong gender can't equip. Why can't the characters just decide to pick a non-conforming outfit?