Sunday, October 27, 2013

Conference report: queerness in gaming

Not the target audience

I attended the Queerness in Gaming Conference (QGCon) this weekend.  It was a unique intersection of topics: game design, the academic study of games as a medium, and queer theory.

I was not really in the target audience for this conference, since I neither design games, nor work in a remotely related academic field.  I am a mere consumer of games.  Probably a conference like GaymerX would have been more appropriate for me.  But even though I was not the target audience--in fact, partly because I was not the target audience--I found it to be full of ideas that were novel and fascinating.  And though I will not apply any of this knowledge, it was thoroughly stimulating, and could enhance my enjoyment of games.

Being a typical ungrateful blogger, I will talk at length about all my disagreements with things in the conference, while glossing over the stuff I agreed with.  But one should not infer that I disliked the conference. Even listening to talks I disagree with is a joy.

In particular, there was a lot of critical theory in the conference (literary criticism, postmodernism, or whatever you'd like to call it).  In the world of skeptics, I'm relatively sympathetic to postmodernism, but that's like saying that in the world of gender studies, I'm relatively conservative.  A lot of critical theory is still nonsense to me, and this conference provided many egregious examples.  For much of this post, I may be teetering on the edge of a rant, but I'll try to save the rant for another time.

More than representation

The most striking thing about the conference is how little it discussed queer character representation in games.  Speakers uniformly believed that there are many more ways to find queerness in games.

For example, stories can have queer themes without having any queer characters.  Jack Halberstam talked about how once we moved from 2D animation to 3D animation, cartoons became more capable of depicting crowds, and thus featured more stories about large groups.  So you get stories about conflict between groups, which is more reflective of the conflict between queers and normative society.

Some mechanics of games were also described as queer. If players can decide for themselves the traits of their character, this allows them to express something different or unique about themselves.  Unfortunately, choices also tend to be constrained, such as to a gender binary.  Or perhaps the choices have no real impact on the game (eg, the NPCs in Skyrim will hardly react to the protagonist's race, even though there's supposed to be signficant racial tension in the world).

There are also many ways we can apply queer theory to how we play games.  Samantha Allen and Kathryn Bond Stockton both made a fascinating analogy between the way people are shamed for being queer, and the way they are shamed for being gamers.  There are also some interesting problems in the way gamers are presented in order to buck their negative image.  Namely, social gamers are emphasized, and solo gamers are deemphasized.  Another interesting parallel was between The Art of Failure and The Queer Art of Failure.  The latter book is about the way that the system of success and failure enforce cisheteronormativity by describing queerness as failure.  The former book is about how we like games even when we fail at them, much the same way we enjoy tragedies.

And there were lots more analogies; speakers really liked analogies.  Sex and gaming was a particularly common analogy.  Moral panic over kids playing games is like moral panic over kids being gay.  The power structures and role playing in games are like kink.  There was a lot of Freudian comparison of joysticks and first person shooters to penises (I think only some of this was serious, although it is my humble opinion that ironic Freudianism is no more acceptable than serious Freudianism).  One speaker compared the censorship of sexual content in imported games to the blocking of homosexual immigrants earlier in US history.

I liked speaker Adrienne Shaw, who talked about doing some ethnographic studies of gay gamers.  She found that most of them don't care so much about having character representation.  They care more about the homophobia, and the image of the white heterosexual cis male gamer.  She critiqued the idea that if we just got more gaymers together, representation would automatically follow.  Female gamers have been around for a long time, and yet the structures of exclusion have not been dismantled.  Furthermore, even if game producers did decide to cater to the queer market, this would only include the least marginalized among queers, and would not be a complete solution.

But yes, representation too

There were, of course, also lots of talks about representation.  I particularly liked talks about history.  Bill Jahnel talked about the (very problematic) history of queer representation in comic books.  Hanna Brady talked about the (also extremely problematic) representations of race in fantasy, and also had a bunch of cool book recommendations.  Evan Lauteria had a short but fascinating talk about the way early Japanese games were localized in the US.  In particular, he compared Poison from Tekken and Flea from Chronotrigger, both trans villains.

There was also lots of talk of more modern representation, from Bayonetta to Dominique Pamplemousse to Bioware.  While I enjoyed these talks, I seem not to have written many notes on them... but they were a presence!

I also enjoyed the open arcade, which was a showcase of indie games with queer themes in various forms.  It included a couple Twine games, an interactive fiction, and a puzzle platformer that told me it hated me.  Indie games, of course, are much more able to have queer themes and appeal to niche audiences.  My favorite one, of course, was the puzzle game.  Triad was a short puzzle, designed by Anna Anthropy, in which the goal was to fit three people on a bed without anyone falling off.  And I entered this conference thinking that there wasn't much opportunity for queer representation in puzzle games.

My greatest disappointment with the conference is that Anita Sarkeesian was there, but I did not even realize until after it was over!

Potential future topics

Attending QGCon, especially the parts I disagreed with, inspired in me several blogging ideas.  Most of these ideas extend beyond just this conference.  I outline them here:
  • Labels are maps, not walls
  • Can analogies be arguments?
  • Queerness and progressive game design (and why they're not the same)
  • People should bring out their disagreements rather than acting like we all agree
  • Academic queer theory vs internet queer theory
  • thoughts on gamer shame
I hope readers enjoy these topics, and I apologize for procrastinating the completion of my other two running blog series.