“Queer Glitches, Or, The Recuperation of Vanellope Von Schweetz”

Back from SLSA13!  It was a great conference full of wonderful people, amazing ideas, and fun times.  Below is an excerpt and the Prezi for my presentation “Queer Glitches, Or, The Recuperation of Vanellope Von Schweetz”:

Here, inspired by J. Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and their close readings of animated films like Shrek and Finding Nemo to locate “alternative ways of being” and “animating revolt” (52), I turn to Disney’s 2012 feature Wreck-It Ralph—in part because it imagines and dramatizes what goes on inside a video game in fun and useful ways—but also because it outlines the radical potential of queer glitches and the perils of recuperation, particularly via the character (voiced by Sarah Silverman) of Vanellope Von Schweetz.

Here’s the text of my talk:

“Queer Glitches, or, The Recuperation of Vanellope Von Schweetz”
SLSA 2013
Notre Dame, South Bend, IN
Edmond Y. Chang, Ph.D.

“Games are uncertain, and must be so to remain interesting” (113), says game designer Greg Costikyan.  According to Costikyan, good game design is really about managing uncertainty both in terms of the player and the game.  He says, “[T]he struggle to master uncertainty is central to the appeal of games” (2).  Whether it is player skill (or lack thereof), player expectations, randomness, or narrative complexity, games must provide a designed experience that is neither too predictable or too surprising.  But what about unintended, serendipitous, exploitable uncertainty?  What about uncertainty that cannot be “mastered” or “managed.”  What about, for example, the glitch.

Alexander Galloway argues we must not “exclude the cultural or technical importance of any code that runs counter to the perceived mandates of machinic execution, such as the computer glitch or the software exploit, simply to highlight the fundamentally functional nature of all software (glitch and exploit included).”  Mark Nunes agrees saying we must open wide and articulate the ways in which “failure, glitch, and miscommunication provide creative openings and lines of flight that allow for a reconceptualization of what can (or cannot) be realized within social and cultural practices” (4).

That said, what is a glitch?  According to the OED:

glitch, n.

a. A surge of current or a spurious electrical signal (see quots.); also, in extended use, a sudden short-lived irregularity in behaviour.

b. Astronauts’ slang. A hitch or snag; a malfunction.

1962   J. Glenn in Into Orbit 86   Another term we adopted to describe some of our problems was ‘glitch’. Literally, a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit which takes place when the circuit suddenly has a new load put on it… A glitch..is such a minute change in voltage that no fuse could protect against it.

glitch, v.

intr.: To experience a glitch, setback, or malfunction; to go wrong. Also occas. trans.: to cause (something) to experience a glitch.

1962   Washington Post 14 Oct. 1/1   We’ve gone almost 55 hours..and we haven’t glitched (met unexpected problems) yet.

In digital games, glitches may include anomalous graphics or sound, unintended results, exploitable faults, even freezes and crashes.  Here are three examples of game glitches:

Super Mario Brother’s “Minus World”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHTkH6nFHik

Sims 3 Baby Glitch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Btk13sm0Zko

FIFA13 Players Kissing Glitch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7Zw1sd-_Y4#t=13s

So tantalizing…

When a game glitches, the screen flickers, the sound garbles, the controls fail to respond, something unexpected happens.  When a game glitches, play is interrupted, confused, data is lost, but is the game lost?   What if we think of the glitch as more than an accident, interruption, or unwanted malfunction.  What if the glitch is more than noise or error.  In other words, how might glitches in computer programs, particularly in video games, be theorized as queer?  Video games in many ways are normative, structured, and deeply protocological even as gamers and game developers evince their promises of power, freedom, and agency.  Therefore, I want to imagine the glitch as potentially denaturalizing, productively destabilizing of the technonormativity of games and consider the perils of “fixing” these queer glitches.

In a previous presentation entitled I gave this past March, I provoked: Is it possible to create a queer video game?  Whether it is Dragon Age, Fable, The Sims, Mass Effect, even Frontierville, most “queer” games focus on content, on same-sex sex, and queer marriage or couple plots.  Queerness is still window dressing, menu-driven identity (to quote Lisa Nakamura), a yes-or-no choice, which replicates the rather limited binary of hetero or homo, gay or straight (and more insidiously the conservative belief that sexuality is a choice).  In a sense, queer game design seems still mired in the limited and unproductive binary of narratology versus ludology, story versus playability.

Anna Anthropy, an openly trans*, poster-indie game maker argues:

In this world, “gay” is a checkbox on a character sheet, a boolean, a binary bit, not an experience that greatly changes one’s life, identity, and struggle.   Token characters are not the product of queer experiences.   Actual queer experiences offer perspectives on identity, on struggle, and on romance that could be entirely different.

–anna anthropy, “Now We Have Voices: Queering Videogames”

Anthropy’s indictment of the “straight, white, able-bodied cis-gender” privilege in games and in the game industry provides a scatter plot of terms and tensions that frame the problem of queer games: content versus experience, Boolean checkboxes versus the multiplicity of identity, and the inescapable binary structure of digital computers.  Video games execute and play for us what I call the “technonormative matrix,” the technologically-enhanced and informatically-infected version of Judith Butler’s heteronormative matrix, “the matrix of power and discursive relations that effectively produce and regulate the intelligibility of [sex, gender, or sexuality]” (Bodies 42).

Designing and queering video games then must grapple with the fact that interface, mechanics, programming, platform, and electromagnetic states simultaneously, ambivalently allow for (some) flexibility and heterogeneity yet are also determined and controlling, often in unseen and naturalized ways.  The tyranny of the binary, of the Boolean, of the the matrix is what Galloway defines as protocol.  This “proscription for structure,” this regulation of gamespace is fundamental to digital computers and to games.  After all, what is a game but “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman 80).   Games materially and informatically are uncertainty and mischief managed.  Even games that espouse openness and sandboxy-ness still have boundaries, decision trees, and fail states.

But even under the thumbs and joysticks of protocol, of the fantasy of zero errors are slippages and potential resistances.  If queerness—in Eve Sedgwick’s words—is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” (8) and to queer invites “experimental linguistic, epistemological, representational, political adventures” (8)—then the glitch is queerness and queering par excellence.

Here, inspired by J. Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and their close readings of animated films like Shrek and Finding Nemo to locate “alternative ways of being” and “animating revolt” (52), I turn to Disney’s 2012 feature Wreck-It Ralph—in part because it imagines and dramatizes what goes on inside a video game in fun and useful ways—but also because it outlines the radical potential of queer glitches and the perils of recuperation, particularly via the character (voiced by Sarah Silverman) of Vanellope Von Schweetz.

The basic plot of the film is that the titular character Ralph is tired of being the eponymous villain of his game and jumps games (already a kind of error) in search of a golden medal that will make him a hero.  Through various gamescapes, he chases the medal, the symbolic and programmatic object that will in a sense reprogram his in- and out-of-game status.  In the brightly-colored, hyperactive Sugar Rush, a cart racing game, he meets Vanellope, who is also an outsider, who is not supposed to be in the game.  She is a glitch.

<Wreck It Ralph clip>

The above scene reveals the normalizing logics of game algorithms and the policing structures of game worlds and gaming cultures.  Interestingly, Vanellope figures her “glitching” problem as a disability—pixlexia—as something that will not prevent her from participating in the race and as something that should be accommodated.  Like mainstream attitudes toward persons with disabilities, the “mean girls” attitudes of Candy Rush is pity and exclusion.  Vanellope is something that must be “fixed,” and if she cannot be fixed, she must be deleted or destroyed.

<Wreck It Ralph clip>

Ultimately, the feel-good movie ends triumphantly with both outsider characters—Ralph and Vanellope—getting their just desserts.  Ralph wins his medal and saves the day.  And Vanellope discovers that she is not a glitch after all—or rather her glitching power is not a bug but a feature.  In fact, she discovers that she is actually the princess and ruler of Sugar Rush, who had been usurped by King Candy.  King Candy it turns out is another game jumping character Turbo, whose original game was decommissioned and who broke into and reprogrammed Sugar Rush in order survive.  When Turbo is unmasked and King Candy is destroyed, Vanellope’s place in the game is restored (as are all of the memories of the other characters):

<Wreck It Ralph clip>

Here Vanellope is recuperated by the film’s narrative and the fixing of the game and her critical potential as a queer glitch is largely diminished.  All of the game-jumping characters return to their “proper” spaces, places, and roles.  And although they maintain knowledge of their adventures outside of their own game boxes, they are content knowing all’s well that ends well (complete with wedding sequence).  Vanellope’s disability is reconfigured as superability.  And while the message of acceptance of difference and personal triumph is commendable, her power as a queer glitch is controlled, managed, and domesticated.  Even so, Vanellope’s glitching allows her to flicker, to shift and teleport from one location to another.  Every time she glitches, she is neither wholly here nor there.  It is this ambivalent state that might recover her from full recuperation.

Returning to Halberstam, these “new forms of animation, computer-generated imagery in particular, have opened up new narrative opportunities and have led to unexpected encounters between the childish, the transformative, and the queer” (186).  These films reveal the ways that “[t]o live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die…the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy” (187).

So where do we go from here?  How might we think about ways to play games and make games that take advantage of the affordances of digital computers as well as the happy accidents, workarounds, and transformations that provide alternative practices, opportunities, and endgames.  How might we think about what Galloway calls countergaming, which does not simply identify “alternate formal strategies” of gaming but actively employs and gleefully explores those strategies (Gaming 111).  By extension, how might we imagine queergaming, ways of playing against the grain, against normative design, and ways of designing gamic experiences that foreground not only alternative narrative opportunities but ludic ones as well.  Queergaming embraces the uncertainty of the glitch not as a mistake but an opportunity for exploration, for different rules, for non productive goals, and even for the radical potential of failure.  Sometimes a glitch leads to another world—as in the case of the Super Mario Brothers’ Minus World—and even if you cannot “win” that world, it’s very discovery and traversal is remarkable and worth the trip.

To sum: I’d rather be a glitch than a princess.

One comment to ““Queer Glitches, Or, The Recuperation of Vanellope Von Schweetz””
One comment to ““Queer Glitches, Or, The Recuperation of Vanellope Von Schweetz””
  1. Pingback: #QGCon Reflections | Amanda Phillips

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