The intersection between the LGBTQ community and gaming has always existed, but it has become much more high-profile in the last several years. With gaymer groups like Queer Geek! Seattle and events such as GaymerX and Havencon, queer gamers have a larger and more vocal presence than ever, and more and more games are coming out with queer content and LGBTQ characters, both indie and AAA commercial.
What makes a game queer? How do we make our games more inclusive, and extend out into the community? These questions and many more are explored among fans and at conventions, but in recent years, the study of queerness in games has extended into more academic pursuits.
I recently spoke with Bonnie Ruberg, one of the pioneers in the field of queer game studies, and co-founder and lead organizer of the Queerness in Games Conference in Los Angeles on April 1-2, 2017, now in its fourth year.
What does this conference entail?
It’s a kind of unique hybrid of academia, development and players. We’re a little bit more about taking the intellectual issues and often design issues in games and delving deeply into them. One of our main goals is to bring academics and developers together, as there’s a weird history where developers and academics feel uncomfortable with each other. With questions like LGBT issues in games, it’s not just about the academic or the development side. We need to be in conversation with each other, so we can be making games the best and most inclusive spaces they can be.
What kinds of events make up the conference?
We have keynote talks from developers or academics. This year we have a design keynote from John Epler, the narrative lead on Dragon Age, which has great fan support around the fact that it has queer characters, kinky characters. We also have a keynote from T.L Taylor, a professor at MIT, and she studies gender and e-sports. There are some academic panels, diving into topics like how driving mechanics in urban spaces can be understood as queer. Some are social science, like what are queer fandoms, how queer fans are changing Overwatch. Some are run-throughs of the game design process. There are workshops where you can learn how to make a game or design teaching tools for inclusive pedagogy, especially with US politics, how to support LGBT through games.
Who attends the conference?
We definitely have students, grad students, faculty. We also have a lot of developers and designers, some AAA, a lot of people on the indie game development side, people who are making their own games, so they’re there either presenting about their games or thinking about how to make their games more inclusive or how to bring more LGBT representation into their games. It’s mostly a combination of academic and game making.
What’s new this year?
One of the things that we are always striving to do more of is to take an intersectional approach to queerness. For example, working hard to bring more voices of people of color, who can put these questions of LGBT issues directly into dialogue with what it’s like to be a person of color in games, in the industry, how we’re representing people of color. We have Tanya DePass speaking. Bianca Anderson is giving a talk called Bi, Black and Visible: Coming Out in the Age of Trump. And we’re trying to increasingly bring in disability studies and perspectives from non-neurotypical people.
How much impact do academic studies have on developers who are making games?
We have a lot of direct interaction with certain sectors of the game industry and considerably less interaction with others. On the indie side of things, there are a lot of designers who work to make games that are directly involved in the event. We have a lot of indie game makers who present or who come to the conference every year and often really cool collaborations that come out of the conference.
On the AAA side, the bigger industry side, it’s harder. We have had some folks come and speak who work in that part of the industry, but movement in that area is slower. There are some really great games coming out these days that are AAA games that have LGBT representation, but I think our crowd tends to want to push that envelope a little bit and think not just in terms of, is there a gay romance in this game, but how do we do something revolutionary, like who we put in games and what stories we tell. It’s a little bit less of the AAA mindset and more of the activist mindset.
While there’s not yet a degree you can get in queer game studies, but there’s definitely coursework available, then?
There might be 30 of us who consider ourselves super-committed queer games scholars, but there are probably a couple hundred more game studies scholars interested in these issues. And it’s becoming increasingly common in game departments or degree programs to have a class about gender and sexuality in games, or diversity in games. For example, I’ve taught at USC. I’m starting at UC Irvine. I taught at UC Berkeley. Wherever I work, I offer a class about gender and sexuality in video games. It’s about finding the people who do that work, taking a class with them and making the most of what they have to offer.
As an organizer, your interests in the field are broad, but your own academic work focuses on combining queer theory and video games, looking at games analytically that don’t appear queer, don’t seem to have any LGBT content.
There are all these different games that don’t seem queer, but by using ideas from queer theory, we can see them queerly. For example, Octodad is kind of a game about passing for straight, white, cis father, even though it seems to be a physics game about flailing your arms around. Octodad is one of my favorite games because it’s really hard to control, on purpose. Your body is this strange wriggling creature, and that’s what it feels like a lot of the time to be queer. I identify as genderqueer. I’m bi. I’m kinky. I’m non-neurotypical. And if often feels like being a creature in what looks like this everyday world around you, but you have to work extra hard just to figure out how to pass as a “normal person.” For me, that’s a really deeply queer game and one that’s really meaningful to me.
For the longest time, queer people have been told that games aren’t really for them. And we’re told that it’s “getting better,” but it’s just recently there’s starting to be LGBT content in games. If we start to see games differently, if we start to see this whole wider range of games as queer, we can reclaim the medium and history of games. We belong in this medium because we can understand this medium on our own terms.
If you’re interested in learning more about queer game studies, Bonnie’s website links to examples of her work and other resources. Tickets to the Queerness in Games Conference are available online. If you’re interested in helping out, you can also register as a volunteer.