Monday, May 9, 2016

Memoirs of a Gaymer: An Experiment in Playful Autobiography

The Fire

Flames have always come for me. I lost my home the summer I turned nine to fire started by my cat, Tuffy. My sister had a tendency to leave candles and incense lit in her room, and Tuffy had a tendency to knock anything he could off tables, counters, and shelves. In the end, it didn’t really work out. Ash-covered bricks lay where my childhood home once stood. Luckily, my family and pets were safe and sound. On top of the house fire, I had just caught the flu. Because I was completely drained, I don’t remember much about that night, other than watching the smoke from my neighbor’s house and crying myself to sleep in my parents’ van. They tell me that I was most distraught over losing my Pokémon cards and my video games. To this day, it still doesn’t surprise me that’s what little Spencer missed most.

Following the fire, my parents scrounged up the money they had to buy a used motor home. We parked it next the mother-in-law unit on our property my mother previously used as an antique shop. We had some money leftover, so my mom bought me a Nintendo 64 that summer; I spent most of my days playing Pokémon Snap, Legend of Zelda, and Kirby 64 to cope with my loss.

Games had become my escape from the world’s tragedies, and they were catalysts for meaningful human connection and community in the toughest of times. Late that summer, my elementary school sent out letters to tell other families about our loss. I had gotten in trouble the year prior for trading my Pokémon cards at school, so the administration made sure to include my parents’ claim that my Pokémon cards were what I missed most. Following that letter, several kids and their parents visited my property and gave me cards to start my collection again. Some of these kids I had never met before, and others were friends I had had throughout my childhood. Nonetheless, several of these became the support and community I needed most. Even when I had nothing else to offer, trading cards and video games helped me find compassionate friends who would help me get through one of the most difficult times of my life.

Christmas Eve of that year, my mom surprised me with what was at the time the most rare and expensive Pokémon card—Charizard!! Charizard, a powerful fire-type Pokémon, was now in my possession. I held onto him closely that night, as he mesmerized me with his holographic flame. He became my pride and joy, and looking back on it now, I think the loss I experienced that year made that moment even more special. I had lost my house to a fire, but now it was I who controlled the flames. Charizard was my fire, and I couldn’t wait to show him off to all my friends. The fire came for me again, but this time I had learned to play with it.

In losing my home, my nine-year-old self had lived through fire’s destructive potential. But I had also experienced firsthand the possibilities that fire creates for new life. Games, in many shapes and forms, have been one of my fiery passions, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that my history with games ignites the passion for my research. What are the ways that race, gender, and sexuality influence marginalized gamers and their communities? What brings marginalized gamers together and how do they organize? Both my personal and academic histories inform my research on marginalized gamers, which I explore more below through personal memoir, ethnographic portraits, and analytic reflection.

A Child of the Arcade

All throughout my life, my parents have had a gambling addiction. Even with our lower-middle class status, barely making enough to survive on my dad’s disability check, my parents still found a way to gamble at least twice a week. Sometimes this manifested by going to the local casinos, found 20-40 minutes away from our home, but other times it meant travelling to Reno or Lake Tahoe. We would spend a few nights in a complementary room they received for how frequently they gambled, and my parents would send me with some cash to meander the arcade for several hours while they themselves dropped quarters into machines.

The savannahs of the arcade.

I like to think I was raised by coin-operated machines on the savannahs of the arcade. It’s a more romantic and magical image of my childhood. It was through those landscapes I became a world-saving zombie fighter, a racecar driver, and a disco-dancing capoeira martial artist. I loved every minute of it! I would find temporary companions who would quest alongside me in interactive game worlds and alternate digital realities. I was an expert in making friends and playing with others across differences. I played with almost anyone I could find despite their differences in age, race, or gender. I didn’t think anything of it, and that’s refreshing to remember. Given the shitty current state of representational politics and diversity in digital games, there’s something magically magnificent in my childhood willingness to connect with a variety of people just for the sake of play. Is it childish naïvety or blissful acceptance? Maybe I shouldn’t think too hard about it…

Scholarly Beginnings

I took a brief break from gaming when I moved away to college. I had convinced myself that I needed to grow up and leave my gaming days behind me. Now talk about childish naïvety! Little did I know, gaming would continue to be such a positive influence in my life even at university. I moved into the “Gender Neutral” dorms at Humboldt State University, housing specifically designed for LGBT students and their allies. Several of my suitemates and I bonded very quickly through queerness and our love of digital games. After learning that games could bring me new friends even in college, I decided that on my first trip back home, I would gather up all my gaming devices and bring them with me to my new playgrounds in the redwoods.

Games never really took center stage during my years at Humboldt. I wanted to focus on my schoolwork and develop myself as a scholar, so I really only played games during the summer in between semesters. When school was in session, I dedicated my time to learning all I could about social inequalities, cultural awareness, and social justice activism through the fields of anthropology and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. Theoretically, I found a particular interest in queer studies, intersectional feminism, and digital anthropology; methodologically, I found a particular passion for interdisciplinary scholarship and ethnographic fieldwork. During my final two years as an undergraduate, I committed to finding the perfect research project that would bring all those frameworks together.

"What Gaymer as a label does, of course, is unite being queer and being a gamer. […] Neither being gay nor gamer is fully accepted by society and so there’s always some degree of masking required in what we do. Combining the two and creating a community around it creates a place where both masks can be taken off and left at the door, and it becomes very, very comfortable. For me, being a gaymer isn’t just a label, it isn’t even part of my identity, but it’s become something representing where I belong."
From a conversation with Skye, one of my informants. 

Around the same time, a friend of mine had sent me a link to the GaymerX Kickstarter page. GaymerX was the first LGBT gaming and technology convention in the making, and the creators sought financial support through crowd-sourced funding. In the end, they raised enough money to both make the convention happen and to create GaymerConnect, an online social networking forum for attendees to meet and game together before the convention. I participated in those forums everyday for several months, and I saw deeper connections than I had anticipated. Participants shared their experiences with interracial dating, offered advice for coming out to family and friends, and even shared strategies for navigating social anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. I grew very close to my GaymerConnect friends, and I knew I had found not only my ethnographic project, but I had also found my sense of authenticity and belonging in the queer gaming community.

 A GaymerConnect participant's thoughts about the site.

“For the Good of All of Us”

Ethnographic Field Notes, GaymerX, August 2013

I sit in a large, yet crowded room in the Kabuki Hotel in San Francisco’s Japantown. I’m surrounded by hundreds of other convention-goers, who have collectively come together as “gaymers.” It is the end of the first GaymerX convention, which has lasted two-full days for most of the attendees. As the closing ceremonies end, Ellen McClain, a voice actress for the game Portal, takes the stage.

This was a triumph.
I‘m making a note here. Huge success!

Immediately, almost all of the gamers in the room, myself included, chime in to sing with her.

It's hard to overstate my satisfaction!

I looked around to see the expressions of satisfaction on everyone’s face. Through this song, we had sung and laughed together. I look around to the gamers next to me, and I notice a gay couple holding each other and crying presumably happy tears. This was the same couple who had gotten engaged earlier that day during a surprise proposal at the end of Ellen McClain’s voice acting panel. This song, “Still Alive,” was our last hurrah, our final collective act during this first GaymerX convention.

We do what we must because we can
For the good of all of us
except the ones who are dead!

Welcome to the Outlaw Club!

I gave a talk at TEDxHumboldtBay event in December 2014. The theme was "Outlaws." I knew the curator of the event, and she was more than thrilled when I applied to be a speaker. I wanted to think through my own life as an outlaw and how it changed my worldview. I wanted to engage with how we can empathize across our shared, but oftentimes differing outlawry. Love, community, and transformation fall at the center.

"Find a home and build a community. Take them out for shakes and fries. And then begin changing the world." 

Tattooed Conclusions, Reparative Prospects

“What we can best learn from such [reparative] practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
“Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So
Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay is About You

It only seems right for me to end where I began with Pokémon and fire. In 2014 I got a Pokémon tattoo on my left ankle. It consists of Red, the main character from the first series of Pokémon games, and Charmander, the evolutionary predecessor of Charizard. Wherever I go, I carry a bit of that flame on my body. It’s a constant reminder of the importance of gaming in my life and the faith I have in transformative potential of the gaming community. As much as the mainstream gaming community reinscribes notions of hegemonic masculinity, racism, sexism, and homophobia, I found within it others at the margins who were both just as critical and just as in love. So I’ve dedicated my intellectual and personal inquiries into the reparative prospects of the gaming community. I’ve followed the passion, the love, the fire, and it’s brought me to the academic crossroads of queerness and gaming. I leave behind flames, arcades, Kickstarter pages, and queer gamer sing sessions, and I forging my own path ahead out of the ashes of the past. But I keep that fire in my heart and on my ankle, because it’s forever a part of my future. Flames still come for me, and I continue to play with the fire.
The author's tattoo. Red (left) and Charmander (right)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Magical Sex and Gender Outlaws: Studying Sexuality and Gender in Digital Games, Pt 1

This week for my independent study, I chose to read Mia Consalvo’s “Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games.” Written in 2003, Consalvo’s piece was included in The Video Game Theory Reader and is one of the earliest essays that tackles examining sexuality in video games. Consalvo chooses two popular games from the early 2000s—Final Fantasy IX and The Sims—and analyzes each using theoretical approaches from feminism, queer studies, and cinema studies. However, one concern studying technology and video games is the speed at which technology develops and changes. Therefore, Consalvo’s piece could be considered dated and less applicable to the current state of gaming. Nonetheless, Consalvo’s “Hot Dates” opens the door for contemporary sexuality scholars to take video games as their texts. It is in this fashion that I revisit Consalvo’s call to “explor[e] more systematically how these varying sexualities are expressed [in games]” (191). Below I draw on two contemporary games (as of 2016)—BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) and Midboss’s Read Only Memories (2015)—to discuss the importance of attending to gender and sexuality in games. Part 1 focuses on queer and trans representation in Dragon Age: Inquisition, whereas part 2 focuses on queer subtlety and gender affirmative practices in Read Only Memories.

Queer and Trans Subjectivity in BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition
BioWare’s Dragon Age series is known for its inclusion of romance and sexuality in its games. Since the first Dragon Age game, players have had the option to develop romantic and sexual relationships with various companions, with both same- and opposite-gender possibilities. In 2014 BioWare released Dragon Age: Inquisition, announcing that the game would include the series’ first exclusively gay character. Dorian Pavus, a male human mage and companion in Inquisition, is a romance option for anyone playing a male character. Before Inquition’s Dorian, all of the same-gender romance options are coded as bisexual—i.e., any character who is romanceable by someone of the same gender is also a romance option for someone of the opposite gender. Dorian’s exclusive sexuality marks a pivotal point in the series, in that Dorian’s queerness is written, coded, and actively engaged with in the story. The only relationships Dorian can pursue are with men, which many LGBT gamers read as a step in the right direction for queer representation and diversity in games.

While Dorian is only a romance option for male characters, any player who chooses to progress Dorian’s plot arc will encounter his queerness; part of Dorian’s backstory revolves around his father’s intolerance of his gay identity. After gaining Dorian’s trust, optionally progressing his story arc leads to a scene between him and his father. Upset and angry with his father, Dorian tells you that his father never approved of Dorian’s preference for “the company of men.” Because Dorian chose not to marry a woman and keep his queerness closeted, his father plotted to use blood magic to, as Dorian says, “Alter my mind. Make me…acceptable.” What’s striking about this scene is that Dorian’s sexuality (and his father’s homophobia) becomes an element of the plot, rather than just a sexual outlet for LGBT gamers who desire queer romance options. This desexualization of queerness provides a narrative that includes sexuality without the sex, offering an example of new ways that AAA game titles can grapple with issues of queerness and sexuality. (Though if you play a male, you have the possibility in this scene to romantically respond to him and receive a kiss.) Dorian’s history with his father also becomes a moment where players, queer or not, can empathize with his traumatic past, creating the opportunity for affective connection despite the player’s gender or sexual orientation.

Even if the player doesn’t progress Dorian’s plot arc, there are still opportunities for Dorian’s queerness to be brought up. If the player does not pursue romantic or sexual relations with Dorian or Iron Bull (another party member in the game who is romanceable by any player), the two have the possibility to develop their own relationship, illustrative through their party banter. Having both members active in the party will result in Iron Bull teasing and flirting with Dorian. Sexual banter (e.g. Iron Bull asking Dorian “Spend a lot of time polishing your staff?”) and references to their sexual affairs fill the out of combat silence, and befriending either of them and asking about the other confirms their relationship. As stated before, Dorian’s queerness becomes a possible encounter, even if the player doesn’t actively choose to play as a male character and pursue Dorian as a romantic interest.

(I do also want to point out that while Dorian was the character that received most of the media attention when the game was announced, he isn’t the only exclusively queer character. Sera, a female elf rogue, is another party member and companion who is only romanceable by female characters. I interpret Dorian’s hype by the mainstream media as indicative of the gendered hierarchies that exist in the LGBT community; it’s could also be argued that the media perceive gamers as male, so the possibility for Sera’s character to also be heralded seems less likely.)

 In addition to the diverse content of sexuality in Inquisition, the game also offers important insights into the life experiences of Krem, a trans non-playable character in the game. Krem serves as lieutenant in Iron Bull’s mercenary company known as the Chargers. Rather than me tell you all about Krem, I think it is more powerful to actually watch some of the dialogue regarding Krem in the game.

Iron Bull: In Qunandar, Krem’d be an aqun-athlok. That’s what we call someone born one gender but living like another. 
Krem: And Qunari don’t treat those… aqun people any differently than a real man.
Iron Bull: They are real men. Just like you are. 
Krem: Maybe your people aren’t so bad after all. 
In the first half of the video, we see the player responds somewhat poorly to learning about Krem being trans. Even though you are given the option to not respond the most appropriately, the game creates a learning opportunity for those less versed in trans issues. The dialogue between Krem and Iron Bull affirms Krem’s gender identity as a man, as Iron Bull implies that being a trans man doesn’t make you any less than a cisgender man. In the second half the video, we see the assumingly ignorant player-character make another insensitive remark that “Him being a her isn’t a problem?” With skipping a beat, Iron Bull metaphorically slaps the player-character’s hand and reiterates that “[Krem] is not a woman,” further reaffirming Krem’s identity to the player-character. Iron Bull’s adamancy functions as a response to the player-character’s misunderstanding, actively grappling with transphobia and issues of gender identity. Both Iron Bull and the game itself behoove you to take Krem’s gender identity seriously, which is one of the first AAA games to actively grapple with the lives and experiences of trans characters. And while the games allows you to explore more of Krem’s history later in the plot (which you can watch below), the game decidedly only makes a big deal about Krem’s trans identity to address transphobia and ignorance—otherwise, the game goes on to develop Krem is other ways.

Queer and trans content in Dragon Age: Inquisition is more abundant than any other AAA game that has preceded it. There are several other ways that Inquisition grapples with romance, sexuality, and gender, including heterosexual pairings for some companions and other queer relationship possibilities, as I briefly mention above with Sera or Iron Bull. While Dragon Age: Inquisition does an excellent job moving the game industry toward more gendered and sexual diversity in mainstream games, it isn’t without its faults. For instance, all of the examples I discuss above are completely optional and sometimes are happenstance. Therefore, not every player will be confronted with sexual and gendered diversity in the game, making it easy for normative gamers to never experience the subversive potential of the game. What would it look like if the character had to develop their relationship with either Dorian or Sera? What would it feel like for the game to write a quest where the player-character learns to apologize and empathize with an offended a party member after the player-character uses insensitive (e.g. transphobic, homophobic, or racist) language? These are a few options for more transformative potential that could be found Inquisition specifically and in digital games more broadly.

Nonetheless, BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition offers several possibilities for game designers and developers to take sex, sexuality, and gender seriously in digital games. Examining the roles that gender and sexuality play in Inquisition partially responds to Consalvo’s call to action for game studies scholars. In the next post, I look at an indie game made by a queer gaming company and look at the possibilities available there for studying sexuality and gender in digital games. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Potential of Digital Games as a Medium

Games are a part of our lives. I feel comfortable saying that we all have experienced games first-hand at one point or another. Some us remember playing hide and go seek on the playground in primary school. Some of us have had to play silly (and sometimes annoying) icebreaker games during a team meeting at work. Some of us just today have sent friends invites to games like Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, or Miitomo. Games mediate our lives on a regular basis, so why not embrace and realize the importance of them in our lives?

I think there is a lot of potential for digital games to transform the ways we experience the world. This is an awfully big claim, but hear me out. Digital games are cultural artifacts; they embody the cultural values and logics of our society. Mario’s goal to rescue Princess Peach sheds a lot of light on the social scripts and expectations of masculinity. Call of Duty exemplifies modern fascinations with militarism and war. Designing and dressing your Mii in Miitomo illustrates the cultural values of individualism, consumer capitalism, and social networking. However, as Anna Anthropy argues in her manifesta, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, the gaming industry has only produced certain types of games: ones that mostly tell the stories of hypermasculine white men saving damsels in distress; these are the games that sell to an imagined white male audience and make profit. Because of that, Anthropy argues, mainstream games haven’t been able to tell diverse stories or experiment with interesting game designs and mechanics. She urges for game hobbyists of all types to begin making their own games, tell their own stories, and experiment with diverse game designs, all in the name of making games more interesting and personal.

I’ll say it again: digital games have the potential to change human experiences. As a unique medium, games allow for a different type of experience that other media like books, film, or art can’t. Games give you the control over a character (within a limited system of rules, of course). You make decisions, and you experience the consequences of those decisions. What I find most transformative about games is this agentic and affective engagement, in which games can promote multiple forms of sociocultural awareness. Early in Anthropy’s book, she describes a game called We the Giants, in which the player takes on the role of a cute stubby cyclops. The goal of the game is to sacrifice your cyclops’s body to help build a staircase that subsequent players can use to reach the star in the sky. Upon successive log-ins to the game, your character remains dead, but you can watch as others sacrifice themselves for the greater good. No other medium allows you to actually see, feel, and understand the implications of sacrifice; this is a unique phenomenon that games allow for. But games—at least games made by AAA gaming companies—haven’t truly capture these unique capabilities for expression, and it’s about time that changed!

A staircase of cyclops bodies in We the Giants

Games also allow for the development of empathy across categories of difference. I wrote a few weeks ago about Mainichi, a game in which you experience some of the everyday oppression of a black trans woman. While you can never quite teach someone what oppression actually feels like—mostly because any simulation of oppression is abstracted from the real world violence and its material effects—experiencing oppression based on the decisions you make in a game can still be bring about broader social awareness and cultural competency, which I believe is another unique potential that games can have but hasn’t quite been explored yet. Or at least there isn’t enough of it circulating in wider publics.

Additionally, the actual use of digital games as social tools is very limited. What would it mean if we took games seriously enough to use them in ways that foster cultural competency and empathy? Or what about using digital games for educational purposes?  For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential for games in the context of teaching sex education. Imagine a game that students had to take home and play through to learn more about their sexual lives. What if the game asked them to play through scenes to understand consent? Or a scenario that includes safer sex practices? Or a game that allows them to create a character their attracted to, in order to explore and learn about sex from a more pleasure-based paradigm rather than an abstinence-only paradigm that uses scare tactics as a form of prevention? This is just one way that games can be utilized for their unique possibilities.

I want to end with an excerpt from Anthropy’s book that I think illustrates the importance of games as a medium and their possibilities for mediating experiences:
What are games best suited for? Since games are composed of rules, they’re uniquely suited to exploring systems and dynamics. Games are especially good at communication relationships; digital games are most immediately about the direct relationship between the player’s actions or choices and their consequences. Games are a kind of theater in which the audience is an actor and takes on a role—and experiences the circumstances and consequences of that role. It’s hard to imagine a more affective way to characterize someone than to allow a player to experience life as that person.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Gaming as Looting

I wrote previously about Michel de Certeau’s notion of readers as poachers: textual nomads who scavenge from texts bits and pieces that come together to produce their own methaphorical sustenance, cultural meanings, and textual interpretations. Previously, I discussed how gamers themselves should be consider poachers who roam gamescapes and make meaningful connections with games that they then apply to their own lives in multiple ways. As an extension of the poacher metaphor, I want to shift my discussion to a theoretical analysis that is more conceptually located in the terms of gamers—I want to think about gamers as looters. Bear with me while I see what I can poach from a theory of gaming as looting.

Looting is a term common to most gamers, despite its multiple deployments. What often first comes to mind are some MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) that are considered loot-based games—games whose whole premise is for you to run around completing missions and killing bad-guys in order to gather game resources and items to become more powerful. Take for example World of Warcraft (WoW). One of the main premises behind WoW is to complete dungeon quests that pit you up against big baddies (bosses) and their minions in an attempt to loot from them their treasure. Oftentimes this treasure (or loot) is randomly generated, so there are chances an enemy might drop a rare item that can make your character more powerful. However, sometimes (maybe oftentimes?) these rare items are ones that aren’t particularly useful for your character. Good luck getting your Night Elf Priest to make use of that  rare two-handed mace! You might go and auction it off or disenchant it, but nonetheless it isn’t directly useful to your character. These are loot-based games and have become one of the most popular and addicting types of games that exist (see video game psychologist Jamie Madigan's thoughts here at the Psychology of Games webpage).

But even many single player games have looting in them. Over this spring break, I played through Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and was reminded that the Ass Creed games (yes! I use that abbreviation all the time!) actually use the word “loot.” After killing an enemy, you can loot their bodies for money and ammunition. Looting here in Black Flag occupies a backseat role that isn’t really all that necessary; it was something I actually forgot I could do until nearly halfway through the game. Other popular games (mostly RPGs [role playing games] I think?) adopt a system of looting, including some of my favorite games like Dragon Age, Persona 4, and anything Legend of Zelda. In the end, gamers are familiar with the concept of looting.

Looting Tutorial in Assassin's Creed 2

However, some RPGs require you to be picky with your looting, since you can only carry so many items. For example, in Skyrim (and the other Elder Scrolls games) each item you pick up and loot from either a treasure chest or enemy has a certain weight to it. You have to make your decisions to loot an item meaningful, and sometimes that means leaving behind a valuable gem or a rare item so as to not become over-encumbered. Looting then often requires you to take what you need or take items that are most useful for you.

So let’s apply this concept of looting to gaming as a whole. When you think about it, it becomes apparent that gamers are adventurers. Each game that we play is a different dungeon in both out gaming narratives and our lives overall. Some dungeons have loot (characters, stories, landscapes) that we can take and make applicable to our own lives, and some are less personally meaningful and more just fun (or even annoying) to play through. Gamers are looters in that they loot from games the treasures and items that are useful for them to produce their own meanings, interpretations, and applicability. I’d also argue that some gamers are more experienced in this critical looting than others. Queer gamers are high-level looters. One example is that we are excellent at finding the homoerotic subtext, even when it’s “not supposed to be there.” Even when games aren’t designed for us queers (which is a dominant discursive position of many normative gamers), we make games queer. Kingdom Hearts is one of my favorite examples, and one that many queer gamers have latched onto. There are two popular “ships”— a term used often in fan fiction communities, short for “relationship,” to mean when two characters read and interpret characters in a relationship—for queer KH fans: Sora/Riku and Roxas/Axel. Reading queerness in a hybrid Disney / Final Fantasy franchise is illustrative of some of the most fun looting. Need even more proof of the homoeroticism? Well, check out the TV Tropes article on Ho Yay! in the Kingdom Hearts franchise here

Riku (left) and Sora (right) from Kingdom Hearts
However, looting for queer gamers isn’t all about the queerness. In her monograph, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture, Adrienne Shaw reminds us that queer gamers enjoy a variety of games, not just ones with queer content. We as queer gamers connect to games in many different ways, and oftentimes because we are located multiply at the margins of society, there is something reparative about connecting with games, characters, and stories. Looting becomes a queer reparative practice for marginalized gamers of all varieties. Maybe it’s that we’re more likely to empathize with a character's struggles because of our own? Maybe it’s hard to find people who recognize our value and worth, but games are a space we can always be rewarded for our achievements? Maybe it’s something completely different? But no matter what, marginalized gamers aren’t afforded the privilege to have most characters’ stories map neatly onto our lives, so we’ve learned to loot what we can. This is the process of gaming as looting that I find so generative!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Putting the "Gay" in Gamer: A Taste of My Research

Below is a taste of my research, blending some of my ethnographic observations as an undergraduate from 2013 with some more recent research I've been conducting over the last few months. Let me know what you think, and feel free to post comments below.

I talk a lot about the queer gaming community, and oftentimes that means talking to "gaymers." I myself identify as a gaymer, and you can see my TEDxTalk from a few years ago to prove it. 

So exactly what is a gaymer? UrbanDictionary defines ‘gaymer’ as “a gay person who is also a gamer.” Gamer with the inserted ‘y’ then at first glance becomes a simple portmanteau, literally putting the “gay” in “gamer.” However, this merging of two identity categories carries significant symbolic and cultural meaning for the queer gaming community.

Many of the gaymers I interviewed for my undergraduate research noted that they had experienced feelings of fear, alienation, and discrimination in both the mainstream LGBT community and dominant gaming culture. Additionally, in the recent 2015 documentary on queer gamers, Gaming in Color, several gaymers express how hate speech and bigotry are common in online gaming spaces. “That’s gay!” and “Faggot!” are commonplace for non-queer gamers to use in both text and voice chat in many online gaming spaces, leaving many queer gamers feeling alienated, uncomfortable, or even fearful in their participation. The frequency of this alienating and discriminatory speech is made possible, in my opinion, because of the heteronormative design and content of video games. Much of the content in video games in its short 50-year history has forced you to “play the straight guy,” embodying a hypermasculinized male protagonist saving the “damsel in distress.” Only in the last 10 years have any representations of queer bodies, practices, and desires emerged; even so, they are few and far between. While some of these games, like Rockstar’s 2006 Bully and BioWare’s 2012 Mass Effect 3, contain queer representation, you are never forced into the role of playing a queer character and instead have to follow the very specific line of play to make your character queer. This “default straightness,” as I call it, is illustrative of the gaming industry’s ideal gamer: straight (often white) cisgender men. Historically, this has left very little room for queer gamers to exist, or as one gaymer in Gaming in Color put it, “to see myself in characters…and to make me feel validated.”

In addition to this marginalization within gaming culture, most gaymers also express feelings of isolation from mainstream LGBT community. One of my informants, Brian, put it this way:
It’s the stereotype that all gay men are these super trendy, perfect 10 sex-fiends who only spend time in the gay bars and clubs, the gym, or the mall. […] I’m just not into that trendy stuff. And I don’t care if I am or not, but the perceived stereotype is that not only should I be following [the trend], but setting it as a gay man. […] I don’t follow fashion, I like to play video games and watch cartoons. […] If I mentioned gaming to another of “my nation,” I’d get the look that says “This guy’s kinda nerdy, abandon ship!”

Brian articulated feeling isolated and outside the dominant constructions of what it means to be a ‘good’ gay subject. For Brian, his desires to play video games and watch cartoons are deemed incompatible with his queerness, at least queerness (or more correctly gayness) produced through the media representation and dominant discourse. “Gaymer” as a category for identity then creates the ideological space for queerness and geekiness to exist simultaneously for those at the margins of two already marginalized groups. Part of being a gaymer for Brian is his feelings of isolation and shame for expressing what he later calls “his true self.”

Another of my informants, Skye, discusses the role of gaymer in relation to this multiple marginalization. He says:
What Gaymer as a label does, of course, is unite being queer and being a gamer. […] Neither being gay nor gamer is fully accepted by society and so there’s always some degree of masking required in what we do. Combining the two and creating a community around it creates a place where both masks can be taken off and left at the door, and it becomes very, very comfortable. For me, being a gaymer isn’t just a label, it isn’t even part of my identity, but it’s become something representing where I belong.

For Skye, the category of ‘gaymer’ allows him both find a sense of comfort and belonging while simultaneously building a community for him to express himself. Skye isn’t the only one who sees ‘gaymer’ as creating a community. In Gaming in Color, one gaymer put it this way: “Even though I usually don’t like the idea of labeling oneself, you need a flag to bear once in a while. You need to have a term to bring yourself together. Gaymer with the ‘y’ is also an issue of branding. It gives us a common flag. And I think it’s more about being a part of a community than simply saying, ‘I am a gay man’ and ‘I play video games.’”

However, “gaymer,” like any category of identity, is filled with multiply contradictory and conflicting discourses. Many trans gamers have critiqued the category of “gaymer” for not being fully accommodating of their experiences. The inclusivity of “gaymer” is something that has been debated since its popularization within online spaces like and and with the rise of the GaymerX (GX) convention. Many of the gaymers I interviewed (mostly LGB, but several trans gamers as well) viewed “gaymer” more like the fluid umbrella version of “queer” rather than a simple merging of gay and gamer. One self-identified gaymer (who also identifies as a pansexual, cisgender woman) views gaymer as a collective term for “non-normative gamers and all those who are left at the margins of society” including women, gamers of color, and trans gamers. Another who self-identifies as a gay male gaymer put it this way: “Gaymer is a term that doesn’t specify gay male gamers, but all gamers of alternate sexualities and gender expressions, as well as their allies.”

However, most of the trans gamers I interviewed stated that they felt at best apprehensive with or felt excluded by the category of “gaymer.” When asked about their thoughts on the term “gaymer,” Roxxy, a trans, gender fluid gamer, said:
It’s okay, but not great for people who don’t identify as gay. I know it’s supposed to be an umbrella term, but transgender people don’t really get lot of visibility from the LGBT acronym as it is, so I don’t feel like applies to me as a transgender person. It’s difficult enough explaining to the average person that trans isn’t the same thing as gay.
Chris, a transmasculine gamer told me: “I don’t have a problem associating with it myself, but I don’t feel like it describes me as a trans gamer. I don’t identify as gay, so I feel like it at least partially doesn’t apply to me.” However, despite the feelings isolation by the term “gaymer”, many of these trans gamers I spoke with discussed still planning to attend the first GX convention and continue to participate in the online spaces organized around “gaymer.”

So at the end of the day, what does it all mean? How should we all feel about the term? Well, it’s complicated, and ultimately up to you to decide. For me, “gaymer” grants the opportunity for some (mostly gay male) gamers to find community and solidarity, while simultaneously leaving some gamers (mostly lesbian and trans gamers) feeling apprehensive about the category. Ultimately, I am inspired not by the category itself, but by the openness to discuss the politics of naming within the community. I would also argue that the term “gaymer” gains a lot of its weight from the GX convention, hailing both queer and allied gamers into the space of GX and, even if ever so slightly, into the category of the term “gaymer.” Conversations around the inclusivity of the term “gaymer” has existed since its emergence, and GaymerX has worked to find ways to be inclusive overall, including gender netural restrooms; safe spaces and meet-ups for trans gamers, gamers of color, and asexual gamers; and more diverse panels on gaming, the industry, and the community. I would argue that because the queer gaming community has constructed a space for marginalized queer gamers, critiques of the inclusivity of the term “gaymer” have created a coalition-based space, one that, like what Bernice Johnson Reagan describes, tends to the often challenging, stretching, and uncomfortable tensions that are central to coalition-building. While the gaymer community still has a long way to go, the community seems to have taken momentum to begin difficult conversations both within its participants and outside in larger gaming culture. Just like my fellow gamers, I am hopeful in the productive change that brings about broader awareness of race, gender, and sexuality in gaming culture. But cultural transformation doesn’t come without work. And, as Bernice Johnson Reagon puts it, “If you feel the strain, you might be doing good work.”

Monday, February 29, 2016

Queer Game Analysis: Mattie Brice's Mainichi

[Spoilers for Mainichi ahead]

The first panel I attended at GaymerX2 in 2014 was titled “Gaming and Intersectionality: How Politics and Games Collide.” Among the panelists was games critic, developer, and activist Mattie Brice. Brice talks a little bit in the panel about how she got bored with seeing the same representation in games, seeing the same characters pop up and being forced to play the same unintelligent and emotionally stunted male character propositioning a female character who has no real idea why she is there. Brice talked about this helping inspire her to make a game about herself; this is where I first heard about her game Mainichi. Although I had heard it talked about a lot after that day, it wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that I actually downloaded and played through Mainichi.

How I Played the Game

My character wakes up in her home and comments that she has a few hours to get ready before her coffee date with her friend. Though, my character looks over at the bed and says it’s tempting to just jump into bed and take a nap. My character then thinks, “I should try being more positive today.” As I explore the house, I’m presented with several options to interact with in her home, so I play some video games and eat some food. I attempt to take a shower, but my character thinks she doesn’t have enough time, so I try to put on some make up. Unfortunately, I can’t put on make up since I didn’t have time to take a shower, so I go and take a nap instead. After these three decisions, it’s time to head to my coffee date, so I leave through the front door.

I walk across the street and pass several people, who turn and look toward my character’s direction. I walk around a group of people, when suddenly some text populates at the top of the screen:
“Oh my god, look. Is that a boy or a girl?”
“Shhh! They’ll hear you!”
“But isn’t that gross!?”
I continue walking down the street, when a guy intercepts my path and tries to talk with my character.  However, upon getting close enough to see me, he backs off and says, “Holy shit, YOU’RE A MAN! FUCK!” As I continue to walk across the street and into the coffeehouse, he proceeds to say relatively hurtful things, including “DID YOU SEE IT!? WATCH OUT FOR THAT MAN!”

As I arrive in the coffeehouse, I’m greeted by my friend, who asks if I can pick us up some coffee while she finishes up a call. I walk up to the clerk, who greets me as “Sir” and after ringing me up after I choose to pay with card calls me “Mr. Brice.”  I walk over to the barista and try to “catch his attention” (i.e. flirt with him), but he reads my character as a “dude” while handing me my drinks. After delivering the coffee to my friend, she notices my annoyance and asks if everything is okay. My character says, “It’s just hard to be happy sometimes.” My friend respond, “You shouldn’t care about what people think of you. Your friends love you and that’s all that matters.” The screen goes black, and I am returned to opening scene.

Realizing that I must have not made the right decisions, I play through it again, this time choosing to take a shower, to put on make up, and to dress up fancy for my coffee date. As I leave the house, I realize it’s probably best to avoid people, so I decide to walk across the street where there are far fewer people, even though it’s a bit more of a round about way to the coffee shop. I get to the coffee shop, approach the clerk, and he greets me: “Hello there Miss!” and I pay with cash instead of paying with card. But it’s when I’m successfully flirt with the barista and he asks if I want to hang out during his break that I knew putting more effort into prettying myself up would pay off. I drop the coffee off with my friend, who can tell I’m looking chipper this time. I tell her that I think the cute barista is going to ask me out, and she says, “Does he know? You know? I just don’t want you to get hurt.” A frustrated thought bubble pops over my character’s head, and the screen goes black yet again, only to bring me back to my bedroom with a few hours to spare before the coffee date.

Everyday Affective Lives and Game Design

Mainichi both frustrated and pleased me, all within a short 20 minutes. I wanted a happier ending. I wanted things to turn out better for my character. But that frustration got me to reflect on my experiences and feelings while playing this game.

Firstly, I realize that my emotional responses and affective experiences of the game mimic what I imagine Brice feels on a daily basis. My desire to do better my second time playing through the game gives me a glimpse into the everyday strategic ways in which mundane activities shape the ways my character—as a trans woman of color—interacts with the world. My character and I together experienced those transphobic words, and the passersby staring to figure out my character’s gender, and the constant misgendering and gender policing. The game also gives me a glance into Brice’s everyday affective life, with lines such as “I should try being more positive today” and with both happy thought bubbles when something positive happens (e.g. playing a video game or successfully flirting with the barista) or frustrated thought bubbles when something annoying happens (e.g. being misgendered or overhearing someone calling my character gross for being trans). The game even addresses some of the complexities of allyship, where your friend chides you for getting your hopes up when you flirt with the barista, veiled under the claim that she “do[esn’t] want you to get hurt.”

Secondly, the game design itself, while quite simple, is effective in communicating personal elements of Brice’s life as a black trans woman. On her website, Brice notes that Mainichi “helps communicate daily occurrences that happen in my life, exploring the difficulty in expressing these feelings in words.” She continues that the game “stands as a commentary of how we currently use game design for broad strokes of universal experiences instead of the hyper-personal, and often exclude minority voices.”  The design of the game, making you relive the same day over again shares those experiences of what it means to navigate the world as a trans woman of color and to constantly experiencing microagressions regarding your gender and race. (On a separate playthrough when I prettied myself up but walked through the crowded street, one woman commented on how pretty my character’s hair/afro was and asked if she could touch it.) This “hyper-personal” narrative, rather than disconnecting us from Brice’s character, immerses players into her experiences, allowing for players to identify with her character and connect with her experiences of both pleasure and discrimination. And while it’s kind of depressing to say it, there’s a powerful meaning behind not being able to win this game. You try harder every subsequent playthrough, but you can never quite escape the cyclical nature of not feeling good enough. And that is both frustrating, but enlightening at the same time!

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Cake is Queer! So is that Game!

[Mild spoilers for the game Portal.]

I write a lot about queer gaming and queers playing games, but nowhere on this blog, or even elsewhere, have I attempted to explain what makes a game queer for me. This is a short blog post to address this issue.

The first and obvious answer to what makes a game queer is that contains LGBT/queer content. Seems simple enough. Does the game have a queer character? Is there queer subtext in the game, even if not explicit? Do you have the option to romance a character of the same gender? Are there characters that present more androgynously or are genderless altogether? If yes, then it will probably be eaten up by queer gamers. Some examples of AAA-title games that are lauded for LGBT/queer content are Dragon Age: Inquisition, Life is Strange, Mass Effect, Bully, and Persona 4. Many of these games employ what I call “default straightness,” which means that queer content and representations are only available for those who actively seek to make their characters queer—take Mass Effect 3 and Bully as examples. This is really only beginning to change now in AAA titles, with the examples of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Life is Strange. Nonetheless, we queer gamers enjoy finding the bits of representation we can in order to connect with narratives and explore our own queerness in new (digital) ways.

A second way that games can be queer is by embracing other non-normative content and asking us to rethink our identities, communities, and society. In this regard, queer games queer how we engage with the world, not in terms of ‘queer’ meaning “Make it gayer!” but ‘queer’ as a way to challenge our assumptions and the status quo about society. One of the most popular games by queer folk (and other critically aware gamers) is Portal. If you haven’t played it, I high suggest you look into it. To keep it short, Portal is first-person platform puzzle game, following the storyline of silent protagonist, Chell, and the game’s artificially intelligent villain, GLaDOS. Chell, a test subject in the Aperture Science Laboratories, is instructed by GLaDOS to navigate various rooms using a gun that creates portals between any two flat planes with the promise of cake for completing each puzzle. At the end of the game, after being denied cake (The cake is a lie!) and just dodging GLaDOS’s murderous plan for her, Chell confronts and defeats GLaDOS by dismantling and incinerating her components, ultimately allowing Chell to escape Aperature Science.

Portal is one of these games that grapples with non-normativity, and because of it, it has been widely embraced by queer gamers of all types. I’m not 100% sure why queer gamers have such an obsession (that is to say, I don’t have data to back up the following claims), but I can make an educated guess from my experience playing the game. Bonnie Ruberg develops some of these ideas a little more on her blogpost, “Portal is for Lesbians,” which you can find here. <>
Portal as a game does a lot with gender. Firstly, the game’s characters are exclusively female,  and the game’s plot hangs on the interaction between these two female characters. One reading of the game views the interactions between Chell and GLaDOS as a complicated relationship, with GLaDOS refering to Chell “breaking her heart” in the famous end credits song “Still Alive.” Whether you buy this reading or not, you can’t deny is the a game about women. Secondly, Portal queers the masculine genre of the First-Person Shooter (FPS) games. Rather than further continuing dominant discourse of violence is for masculinity and squishy, cuddly romance is for women, Portal puts a gun into a woman’s hands, allowing the space for female gamers to see themselves in this genre and literally shifting the male gaze to a female gaze. And lastly, Portal subtly objectifies men. The only reference in the game to a male character is the Weighted Companion Cube (WCC), when GLaDOS uses male pronouns to describe the WCC. The WCC is metal cube used to open doors in various puzzles and can be an obnoxious burden to carry around. At least he’s cute with his little pink hearts on each side. At one point, GLaDOS encourages Chell to emotionally invest in the companion cube, even as she later forces Chell to incinerate the WCC. I’m not going to go there, but I’ll let you decide if that’s commentary on the usefulness of men, a queer Oedipal murdering of your father, or some other metaphor. Nonetheless, men literally appear as objects in the game. But again, at least the WCC is super duper cute for a male metal box!

Taking all things into consideration, Portal asks us to grapple with our notions of gender both in- and outside of games. It queers our understanding of what video games are supposed to look like, and it offers new ways to think about alternatives to representation, gender scripts, and the anticipated audience of various media. These are some of the reasons that I classify Portal as a queer game, and as such, has been heralded as a critically aware game by queer and feminist gamers alike. After all, we are all still alive!