Video Games Have Always Been Queer
Video Games Have Always Been Queer
NYU Press: New York, NY, 2019
Video games, as both an artistic medium and culture, have been historically hostile to the queer community. This hostility is well documented and feels ever present. At times, it feels like we need to constantly battle for games-as-territory. This, however, obscures a deeper truth. Queerness and video games are not, nor have they ever been, mutually exclusive phenomena. In their latest book, Video Games Have Always Been Queer, Bonnie Ruberg lays out the case for the fabric of play and gaming being essentially queer. That title is, as internet speak suggests, something of a BIG MOOD and can serve as a rallying cry and a reminder: video games have always been queer.
What makes this book so important is that it escapes the neoliberal absorption of LGBTQ discourse. It would have been easy to make a full stop at representation—a catalogue of queer characters, their impact and importance—but that is not enough. In an era where every AAA title is retconning one or two of their characters to be queer in order to rake in that woke income while simultaneously firing queer game devs and emboldening harassment, representation is a poor metric for queer success. Video Games Have Always Been Queer focuses instead on how video games, on a conceptual level, enact and embody queerness, and how game players and developers are bringing queerness to their games.
The text breaks up into two sections around those themes. “Discovering Queerness in Video Games” which seeks to evoke the queer discourse buried just beneath the surface of gaming and “Bringing Queerness to Video Games” which looks to find queer interpretations of games and modes of play that might be overlooked when considering “queer” gaming. This framing of “discovering” and then “bringing” queerness to games does something interesting and, honestly, a little beautiful. It models the way many queer people first “discover” themselves and their identities and then “bring” that out in their own lives. Ruberg’s book on the nature of queer video games is, in itself, queer.
The section “Discovering Queerness in Video Games” is all about encountering queer experience in video games at large. Rather than a simplistic survey of queer characters in gaming, Ruberg seeks to demonstrate that video games, themselves, are fundamentally queer. They outline this by using the theoretical frameworks offered by queer studies to examine the ludic aspects of video games. What better place is there to start this reframing of games discourse than at the historic and discursive core of the videoludic, Pong.
Ruberg sets the tone for the rest of their book by doing what I can safely describe as my all time favorite thing that happens in academic discourse: the connection of two seemingly un-relatable texts. Ruberg opens the book by connecting Atari’s seminal classic Pong with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Between Men. I’m not sure I’m capable of describing how wildly engaging I found this first chapter. It’s one of those rare feats of academic strength where you’re just stunned silent then every “mind blown” gif starts looping at once.
The arguments that connect Pong to Between Men are formed by analyzing the physical spaces occupied when players step up to the arcade cabinet, the relationships formed between paddles as avatars only connected by a ball they bat back and forth, and the “queer geometry” of a game that, in Ruberg’s words, has “movement that never adds up ‘straight’.” Ruberg takes their argument down similar paths for the game Portal and D. A. Miller’s essay on Hitchcock’s cinematography “Anal Rope,” Octodad and a discourse on queer passing, and Realistic Kissing Simulator and Constentacle as designing games against heteronormativity. The underlying theme being that if the inherently queer nature and potential of the seemingly thematically blank Pong can be realized, then it easily radiates outward from there to the rest of the videoludic.
“Discovering Queerness in Video Games” takes its discovering very literally. Using the vehicle of queer studies to explore video games “beyond representation” and towards a sense of queer play and queer design. This perspective is so liberating to see. So often queer discourse finds it self captured and repurposed to the heteronormative cultural hegemonies in which it exists. By looking beyond this, their text is able to envision and articulate the queerness that undergirds gaming and play itself. This is in contrast to the second half which looks to explore the ways in which players and queer game devs are actively making games, and play, queer.
The second section, “Bringing Queerness to Video Games,” takes a look at the artists and players who, maybe even unbeknownst to them, bring queerness to video games. This section takes a look at the queer failure in Burnout Revenge, a compelling section against the hegemony of fun and towards the queer potential of games that hurt, and the queer play behind speed runs and walking simulators. The final chapter of their book closes with a few profiles of queer game developers and their games.
The flow from a reclamation of “failure” as an intentionally queer practice and the queer potential of games that hurt or sadden is natural. In dialogue with Jesper Juul’s look at failure in games in his book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, Ruberg argues for failure in games as being fundamentally queer. They use Burnout Revenge which lets players revel in the glorious ways they can destroy their vehicle, but the argument applies to every game that gives the player enough space to reap some joy out of their own losses. Rubeg cites the growing trend of “fail comps” as an example. We can also look at all the comical attempts to orchestrate new failures in gaming. From my own childhood experience, there was nothing more fun than seeing how many remote mines my friends and I could stack in Golden Eye before we would inevitably destroy ourselves.
This idea of purposed self-destruction framed as counter-hegemonic action is central to Ruberg’s chapter against fun. Fun on a conceptual level, argues Ruberg, has been absorbed into the cultural hegemony. Which experiences get to count as “fun,” who is allowed to have “fun,” and when are invariably linked into a greater anti-queer attitudes. Games that provoke sadness or cause the player to become hurt run counter to this demand for lighthearted entertainment and queer the ludic purpose of contemporary gaming.
I’m especially happy that they focussed an entire section in the close of their text on the games of Robert Yang. Sex, as an overt topic, has been largely ignored by gaming and when engaged typically gets the God of War treatment. Robert Yang’s games like Hurt Me Plenty and Stick Shift look to re-complicate sex in gaming through both gay and kink lenses. It’s fantastic to see Ruberg’s text give so much space to kink in the discourse of queer gaming. Closing the book with an eye towards active, queer game devs reminds us that “Queer Theory” isn’t just an academic practice, but should remain centered on the lives of the queer people from whom it is derived.
Obviously, and this should go without saying at this point, but if the intersection of queer studies and video games peaks your attention this book should already be on your shelf. But we can go, as Ruberg has, beyond that. Video games and their discourse are still largely locked into and defined by the “hegemony of fun.” Games and play are fundamentally queer modes of human expression which, by extension, means that the study of these modes are likewise at least proximally queer. This centralizes the importance of texts like Video Games Have Always Been Queer in the growing field of game studies and serves as a broader reminder:
Video games have always been queer, and they always will be.