Carolyn Petit Is at the Forefront of Feminist Video Game Criticism

Carolyn Petit, host of Queer Tropes vs. Video Games (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Petit/HUJI Cam)

A decade ago, video-game criticism was bleak. The gaming industry seemed to be the virtual final frontier where straight, white, cis dudes could roam free without ever having to consider the implications of the content they consumed. While every other form of media, from literature to film to music, was ripe for feminist analysis, the men treated as the intended audience of most video games had no interest in critically thinking about topics like queer representation, violence against women, or the male gaze.

Enter Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. In 2013, the Kickstarter-funded YouTube series analyzing the representation of women in games became an immediate success; the crowdfunding campaign raised more than $150,000 and garnered millions of views. Unfortunately, Tropes vs. Women received its fair share of backlash. To say that Gamergate—an online harassment campaign targeting women in the gaming industry—was an utter shit show would be a massive understatement. As it turned out, hordes of angry, faceless men were supremely invested in shielding their beloved games from social critique.

Thankfully, video-game criticism and the content of the games themselves has come a long way. Progress has been slow and measured, but games like Dream Daddy, The Last of Us, and Life Is Strange have all included explicitly queer characters, and in 2019, Feminist Frequency released a new miniseries called Queer Tropes vs. Video Games, a deep dive into the ways that LGBTQ characters have been portrayed throughout game history. We spoke with Queer Tropes host and 2019 Bitch 50 recipient Carolyn Petit about the impact of the series, the evolution of feminist game analysis, and the future of queer representation.

Earlier this year, you cowrote and hosted Queer Tropes vs. Video Games, which was Feminist Frequency’s first video game series since Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. What was your goal in creating Queer Tropes?

With Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, we opened many people’s eyes to the existence of numerous widespread, harmful patterns that dominated the representation of women in games for so much of video game history. With Queer Tropes, we wanted to do something similar with queer representation, but it required a different, smaller-scale approach because there’s so much less queer representation of any kind—positive or negative—throughout video game history. (Though there’s more than some people may think). So we focused on a few categories—queer villains, queer relationships, and just straight-up homophobia and transphobia—that would allow us to demonstrate how queer and trans people have often been ridiculed and demonized by video games, while also enabling us to acknowledge ways in which things might be starting to improve.

The aims of the series were personal for me, as a trans woman who had grown up loving video games. In our episode on queer villains, I mentioned 1993’s Police Quest: Open Season, one game of particular significance to me [where] you play as an LAPD cop who savagely kills a trans-coded villain in the game’s climax. I remember the very strange feeling I had as a young person playing the game at the time of its release, a feeling I couldn’t articulate then, but that I now understand as the growing realization that this medium I love so much often hates people like me, and that it actively contributed to the hostile culture [that] I lived.

How was the series received? How did the response differ from the response to Tropes vs. Women?

Queer Tropes didn’t get the level of attention that Tropes vs. Women did, but there’s some measure of relief in that; it means it also didn’t generate the kind of large-scale hatred and harassment that Tropes vs. Women did. I’ve received messages from many viewers who were grateful that we examined the history of queer representation in games, and that’s meaningful to me. The study of queer representation in games is a growing field, with the LGBTQ Video Game Archive leading the way as a resource for those wanting to explore this important history, and I’m very proud of our contribution to the conversation. I expect that our little series is something that educators and students will find quite valuable in the years ahead.

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What was your biggest challenge while working on the series?

The research was the biggest challenge. With Tropes vs. Women, the research was also a big challenge, but in a different way. Because sexist treatment of women in video games was so widespread and so commonplace, with that series, the challenge was often sifting through the overwhelming amounts of material, cutting things down to a manageable size, figuring out which examples were going to be the most effective at helping to make our point. With Queer Tropes, it was looking for just about anything we could use. I love that this led us off the beaten path in some cases. For instance, at one point, we reference a little-known and extremely homophobic 1985 text adventure called Mad Party Fucker, which was seemingly made by a few guys in Cleveland, Ohio.

It’s kind of an acknowledgment in the series that game development and game culture has never been purely the domain of corporations, and that important stuff, some of it liberating, some of it oppressive, has always happened in the margins as well. Thankfully, we’re starting to see more and better queer representation in games, though as our series shows with examples like the one from Breath of the Wild, games certainly haven’t left the ridicule of queer and trans people behind.

Have you seen an evolution in how people respond to feminist game analysis? If so, how are the cultural conversations we’re having now different from when you first started critiquing games?

When I first started critiquing games, there was still this dominant belief that one could or should write almost “objectively” about games, as if they could be evaluated the way one might evaluate a toaster—as consumer products and nothing more. There was a sense that a review should focus on things like how good the graphics are and whether the gameplay is “fun,” and that all sociopolitical concerns were irrelevant, so I felt this pressure to bury my critiques about harmful representations in the text, giving those elements much less weight than anything else. And even then, readers would often throw fits in the comments, arguing that any concerns about sexism had no place in a game review, or that it was good that the game treated women as sex objects since, after all, the intended audience for the game was men. Yeah, nothing misogynistic about that attitude.

While some folks remain vehemently opposed to any feminist considerations in game reviews, our collective attitudes about what’s acceptable are definitely shifting, and there’s no question in my mind that the decade behind us has changed the way that we talk about media forever. With the explosion of social media, it’s become impossible to ignore the voices of entire groups that sometimes previously had no way of making themselves heard, and more women, people of color, and trans people have been given platforms to write about games, destabilizing the old idea of the straight white male perspective as the “neutral” or “default” point of view.

At the same time, there are a lot of very loud, angry people out there who still want to go back to the “good old days” when games routinely objectified women, when Star Wars was centered on a white dude, and so on. I don’t think that feminists have “won” or that we can rest on our laurels. Things are more out in the open, ideologically speaking, and it’s clear to all of us that we’re not just arguing about media. We’re arguing about what kind of culture we want to live in, a white supremacist patriarchy something in which everyone’s humanity and value is recognized.

When a marginalized group is fighting for scraps of representation, as queer and trans people have often had to do, it’s understandable that we might sometimes find value in seeing ourselves represented at all, even in ways that might reinforce harmful stereotypes about us in the minds of many straight cis players. 

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When it comes to queer characters in games, what rubric do you use to measure good representation versus bad representation?

It’s about what I feel the player’s response to the character is supposed to be. Is it supposed to be one of revulsion? Does the character pathologize queer identity by linking their queerness directly with their evil nature, as we often see with queer villains? Or are we meant to relate to them, to connect with them, to see their humanity as valid and valuable?

I want to be clear, though, that there’s a danger of being reductive in these conversations and labeling things as entirely “good” or “bad” in ways that don’t always acknowledge the sometimes messy and complicated nature of how we actually respond to media and art. When a marginalized group is fighting for scraps of representation, as queer and trans people have often had to do, it’s understandable that we might sometimes find value in seeing ourselves represented at all, even in ways that might reinforce harmful stereotypes about us in the minds of many straight cis players. That’s valid, and we need to allow room for those feelings and those attachments, even while acknowledging the larger harm done by such representations.

In Queer Tropes, you mention several examples of recent games, like The Last of Us and Dream Daddy, that have included explicit representation of queer characters, but you note that progress is still limited. What do you think it will take for more game developers to make LGBTQ characters integral to their storylines in a meaningful way?

We’re at a really interesting moment right now. Just a few days ago, Dontnod Entertainment, the studio behind the very successful Life Is Strange games, announced their next game called Tell Me Why, an episodic three-part game coming next summer that focuses on twins, one of whom is a transgender man. And that’s exciting, but it also still feels like something of a test, asking the question, “Can a mainstream game with a story focused on a trans character be financially successful?” And if Tell Me Why is successful, we may see more stuff like it.

It’s great that this is happening, and it’s a necessary step, but I want us to get to the place where it’s no longer particularly noteworthy when a game focuses on a queer character or trans character, where it’s fully normalized, so that if a game like that fails, nobody thinks, “Well, it failed because it was about a trans character.” Games and films with straight white male heroes sometimes flop, and nobody says, “That just goes to show you that you can’t center straight white male heroes in your stories.” I’ll feel like we’ve succeeded when we’ve reached that point with queer representation. That’s my vision for the future of video games, and as long as women, people of color, and queer and trans people keep staking our claim to video game culture and asserting that we belong here and that we love games, we’re bound to get closer and closer to making that a reality.

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by Marina Watanabe
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Marina Watanabe is Bitch’s social media editor. She hosts a web series called Feminist Fridays and has been told that she’s an “astrological nightmare.” You can find her on Twitter most days.