Beyond Window Dressing: Queering Video Game Studies

Above is the Prezi (which I used for the very first time) presentation for my 5-minute “lightning talk” at MLA 2012 this past weekend.  The roundtable “Close Playing: Literary Methods and Video Game Studies,” organized by Mark Sample, gave me an opportunity to be seated alongside some terrific (and wonderfully smart) people: Steven E. Jones, Loyola Univ., Chicago; Jason C. Rhody, National Endowment for the Humanities; Anastasia Salter, University of Baltimore; Timothy Welsh, Loyola University, New Orleans; and Zach Whalen, University of Mary Washington.

Overall, I wanted to bring a cultural studies, queer studies approach to video games and to draw attention to the fact that current games with LGBT content tend toward “window dressing,” queerness as menu choice and menu-driven identity.  This surface, banal inclusion and representation (much like nods toward diversity and multiculturalism without any sense of nuance or depth) has very little impact narratively, mechanically, and socially.  Yes, you can romance a same-sex partner in Dragon Age or woo an alien (of the same sex?) in Mass Effect.  Yes, you can select a same sex spouse in Frontierville or encounter a queer character here and there.  However, much of this is either taken up as shock value (certainly by mainstream and often homophobic players)and titillation, is recuperated back into heteronormativity (re: you can have a same-sex spouse in Frontierville but must complete a whole series of very traditional marriage quests), or it simply does not matter because algorithmically there is no difference.

I further sketched the need to push the need for intersectional approaches to look not only at gender and sexuality but also race, class, and other cultural logics and formations of power.  What I did not get a chance to expand upon was the need to also think intersectionally when it comes to certain foci of video game studies itself–the need to look not only at code and platform or gameplay and reception or representation and narrative as independent.  Rather, there is a richness here to understand how normative logics cleave to normative narratives, which are structured by what I call technonormative programming and design.

All in all, it was a great roundtable and I was honored to be included.  I hope to continue to see these kinds of collaborations and conversations continue across domains and disciplines.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Window Dressing: Queering Video Game Studies

  1. I haven’t played the game, but I’ve read of how in Dragon Age II, there’s at least one NPC that’s “queer” before you “affect” him — provided you’re playing as a male (whether the player is male adds another layer to consider). This NPC doesn’t start out as asexual and then you sexualize him through menu choices; rather, he sexualizes you to begin with, and you must decide how to respond. This, in my opinion, is anti-homophobic work being done by the game. IMO, it teaches heteronormative players to recognize how gay people aren’t just “window dressing” but have actual lifeworlds that overlap with their own.

    Unfortunately, the character isn’t a great role model. I believe he whores himself as a defense mechanism or something along those lines.

    I’ve further read that many if not most hetero players are okay with same-sex relationships in the game, as long as they can choose whether to pursue the relationships and their character isn’t coaxed or forced into anything. These players feel comfortable “asserting” their heterosexual orientation to this NPC, by redirecting his sexual overtures (or they choose to have sex with him for titillation’s sake). But for other players, being hit upon by a gay NPC is precisely the opposite of a relationship pursued. The player is given no choice but to be in a “gay situation.” These players think that queer NPCs, if they must exist in the game for realism’s sake, are supposed to show interest in other NPCs only, not the player.

    Obviously, gaymers who’ve played RPGs in the past with romance elements have had little choice in the matter of the gender of the NPCs romancing them, so it might seem reasonable that hetero players deal with a few gay overtures now and then. But this raises a question about what exactly we’re doing when we infuse an idea of “social justice” into games. We might want gaming to do anti-homophobic work, but I think games are supposed to create spaces of possibility that are intentionally unrealistic for the player’s sake. Imagine a game where during character creation where you can checkmark the world to orient itself sexually to your choosing. You could create a world where no one is gay to make you uncomfortable, but you could also create a world that’s queerer than the one we live in. I wonder if that’s where the technology is headed… a queer utopia or queer genocide with the click of a button.

    I’m under the impression (correct me if I’m wrong) that the romantic relationships in Dragon Age are pretty much secluded to the “bedroom,” whether they’re gay or straight. As you say above, the romance elements aren’t something that affect the overall narrative. If they did, the designers would have to create a great deal of parallel content based on sexual orientation, and hence, for budgetary reasons, when overall narratives do include the romance, it’s most likely going to be heteronormative. I don’t know…now that I’ve put a good deal of thought into this, I see that “gaming” is definitely an interesting space to think about these issues… clashes of representational politics and such.

    PS: You might check out threads about how the game Valkyria Chronicles represented gay characters. The queerness had “mechanical” impact (the player was benefited by making use of the queerness of characters) and thus arguably “social” impact, but the queerness was not emphasized narratively. Strange…is there some scholarly triangular relationship between those 3 aspects?)

  2. I’ve never thought about this topic in this context however it has been very discouraging how video game developers / or / marketers do mix in sexy icons for computer ridden geeks (like myself) to drool over. Focus on game play and come out with something new, not the same ole “you played one you’ve played them all” type deal.

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