Video game conference brings queer perspectives to the conversation

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Lu Han/Staff

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As the 10 a.m. introductory talk was coming to a close, the presenters posed a final question: “Are you happy with the state of queer representation in games?” The South Hall room, filled with gamers, academics and developers all invigorated by free coffee, fell solemnly silent. Not a single one raised a hand in agreement.

Nor was anyone surprised. The first Queerness and Games Conference, hosted by the UC Berkeley Center for New Media the weekend of Oct. 26, was created in part because queer characters in video games — as well as queer gamers themselves — aren’t well represented in the gaming industry. The academic conference’s organizers are looking to change that.

“I strongly believe that LGBTQ issues and representations of queerness in games are highly problematic,” said Bonnie Ruberg — a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, new media and gender and women’s studies at UC Berkeley and one of the conference organizers — during the opening talk. She added that she would like to see the gaming community begin “thinking queerly about not-explicitly queer games.”

It wasn’t quite clear what she meant at first, but the keynote that followed illustrated her point perfectly.

Colleen Macklin, a game designer and professor at Parsons The New School for Design, opened with a rhetorical question: “Where do we find the queer in games?” She listed a few obvious answers — the characters, the story — and then a few not-so-obvious ones, such as the game-play mechanics and the game creators themselves. An example was Mattie Brice, an activist critic and one of the conference organizers, who made a game about being transgender called “Mainichi,” which is Japanese for “every day.” Macklin also cited mods, or player-made code alterations to change game play, as examples of the community “creat(ing) something queer” out of games that aren’t.

“I think games themselves are queer,” Macklin concluded before changing her original question. “Where do we find the queer? In games!”

The punctuation shift was simple, but it highlighted both the promise and the problems with queer representation in games. Though perspectives are limited, the possibilities of games aren’t: Games have the potential to empower people and help them explore their own identities. Queer voices, however, are missing in the gaming community, and QGCon was a meaningful starting point for expressing those voices. Talks by more than 30 people from a variety of disciplines focused not only on queer characters but on things such as creators’ experiences, the role of journalism and the translation and localization of Japanese games.

Featured speaker Kathryn Bond Stockton, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Utah, gave an outstanding talk incorporating academic queer theory into gaming. She pointed out that the idea of “jouissance,” or “painful overpleasure,” is as important in queer theory as it is in video game theory. She addressed the common stereotype that queer people overindulge in pleasurable pastimes — often sexual ones — and explained how indulging in pleasure is seen as “childish,” putting the two stigmas regarding sexuality and childishness at odds with each other. This is also true of games, she argued, in that being attached to an electronic device is seen as “adult” and inappropriate for growing children while indulging in that device is considered “adolescent.” The similarities between the contradictions make gaming an important tool in exploring queer identities.

Game designer Samantha Kalman, for example, spoke about her transition and how her identity struggles aligned with her career problems. Her game’s prototype just wasn’t working, and her project was stalling. Once she’d moved through the “awkward” stage of transitioning, her game — “Sentris,” a music game — gathered steam, and she’s now experiencing success with a Kickstarter campaign. Her point was that she had to continue “prototyping” herself and not just her game to reach an ideal final product, but it seemed that her identity and the game were working in tandem and that the game had helped her reflect on herself.

Brice and journalists Danielle Riendeau and Carolyn Petit held a round table on activism in gaming media, an idea usually associated with feminism and not queer rights. Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent critic who has been vilified in gaming culture for “attacking” video games, was even in the audience, and the discussion definitely revolved more around feminism than queer issues. The sentiment, however, was critical. The writers remarked there is often one writer per gaming site who is expected to always write about social issues — in most cases, a woman and often a queer one — because he or she is the sole voice for those causes. Other voices are sorely needed, because the burden often falls on a select few to be examples for everyone else.

There was an overall theme of optimism toward the conference, so one series of talks that focused more on problems than solutions was met with some audience opposition. Speaker Greg Bagnell argued the nonplayer characters in Skyrim — an open-world game in which players are afforded a lot of freedom in character customization — should react to the player based on race or gender; instead, they will occasionally comment on things like a player’s weapon or armor quality. Many members of the audience pointed out that it could be good that gender and race don’t affect game play at all; one attendee directly asked Bagnell if it could be considered a “utopian ideal.”

Even if some talks weren’t as well received as others, they all achieved the same goal: to get people thinking. They brought new voices to the conversation. Even if those voices weren’t always raised in agreement, they were present when they are normally absent in the general gaming community. The hope is that those perspectives, in contributing to the gaming industry, will work together to create better queer representations — ones that people can honestly say they’re happy with.

Contact Kallie Plagge at [email protected].