Playing for FreedomWelcome to the Queer Gaming Revolution

Bonnie Ruberg, author of The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games (Photo credit: Courtesy of Bonnie Ruberg)

Many people have a specific image of what a “gamer” looks like in their minds: a white, cishet man between the ages of 18 and 30 who still lives with his parents. This image crystallized during #Gamergate, an abuse campaign that targeted women and nonbinary people in the gaming industry and community. There’s no doubt that a substantial portion of gamers meet this profile: The Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of gamers are men, and 60 percent of gamers are between the ages of 18 and 29. However, a 2019 Entertainment Software Association survey showed that the disparities between gamer demographics are slimming—54 percent of the men surveyed identified as gamers, as did 46 percent of women. And the aforementioned survey doesn’t even consider race and ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity, which means that the demographics of people playing video games may be diversifying even further—or, more likely, that marginalized gamers have historically been overlooked.

Regardless, as more marginalized people game, more people from these communities are creating games. (In 2017, Statista found that 21 percent of developers worldwide are cis women while 5 percent are “transgender/androgenous/other.”) In The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games, University of California, Irvine, professor Bonnie Ruberg examines the indie game makers (a term Ruberg uses purposefully and interchangeably with “artists,” as not everyone is a game “developer”) who are revolutionizing and queering video games. Ruberg defines “the queer games avant-garde” as a loose movement that began around 2012 and concerns “games that disrupt the status quo, enact resistance, and use play to explore new ways of inhabiting difference.”

These “scrappy and zine-like” games are often “developed largely outside of the traditional funding and publishing structures of the games industry.” Most important, the queer games avant-garde is a “rising tide of indie games being developed by, about, and often for LGBTQ people.” Ruberg’s latest book is markedly different from their previous monographs, including 2017’s Queer Game Studies, which Ruberg coedited with Adrienne Shaw, and 2019’s Video Games Have Always Been Queer. Some of that can be attributed to the new book’s structure: It’s broken into seven sections that feature interviews with between two and three artists. The book’s 20 chapters run the gamut of queer desire and representation, intimacy (rather than empathy), community, intersectionality, influences, and queering games beyond representation.

Though The Queer Games Avant-Garde is an academic text published by Duke University, it’s accessible for those who aren’t scholars including game makers, gamers, games journalists, and anyone interested in the present and future of queer and indie games. Ruberg began thinking about The Queer Games Avant-Garde in 2016 while they were working on Video Games Have Always Been Queer. While their previous book rethinks video games through a queer and academic lens, Ruberg wanted to center queer creators in this follow-up. “It felt really important to me to not just be doing this academic thing of being one person saying what I think games mean,” they told me, “and instead, if I care about queer and trans community, to actually listen [and] find opportunities to sit back, listen to, and value the voices of queer and trans people who are making games.” 

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The Queer Games Avant-Garde stresses that gaming is political, which is important to consider when interacting with the medium. “Like all forms of cultural production, [games] reflect and react to the society around them,” Ruberg writes in the book. “It is no coincidence that the rise of the queer games avant-garde is taking place alongside the rise of the alt-right or the election and governance of a president who is unapologetic in his racist, sexist, antigay, antitrans agenda.” Nearly every game creator Ruberg interviewed speaks about the inherent political nature of their work. For instance, Canadian game creator Nicky Case, who created Coming Out Simulator in 2014, said games are “uniquely suited for explaining social and political systems.” Similarly, Avery Alder, who has created a number of games, including The Quiet Year, Variations on Your Body, and Monsterhearts 2, is interested in “operating outside dominant modes of power and discourse in ways that eat away at the foundation of the dominant.”

Unfortunately, these queer artists and others have often been pigeonholed because of their earlier work. For example, Nina Freeman was labeled “the woman who makes sex games” after she released how do you Do It? in 2014 and Cibele in 2015. “I want to be known as a game designer, not as a person who made one specific game,” Freeman told Ruberg. “That’s what I want for my career, not to be ‘the girl who makes sex games’ or even ‘the girl who makes games.’” Mattie Brice, whose work has both digital and performative elements, told Ruberg that people “latched onto” her first game, Mainichi, in 2012. “I’m not mad or anything, but it feels strange to be identified with just the first thing you put out there,” she told Ruberg. “I’m deeper than that.”

Many of the creators Ruberg interviewed are excruciatingly aware of this problem, leading them to raise questions about how the gaming industry treats marginalized artists. Liz Ryerson, designer of Problem Attic (2013), told Ruberg that games have a “really oppressive environment. As a trans person or a queer person, you face so much hostility towards you in general in society, and then add the fact that it’s worse in games, and the fact that you’re broke and can’t figure out how to make a living in a field where some people make a crap-ton of money. It’s a lot.” Llaura McGee, who runs the game studio DREAMFEEL, agrees, adding, “Indie games are this weird space where there are marginalized people right next to people who are super well off.” She describes listening to two cis, straight, white male developers “with well-paying jobs [talk] about getting inspiration from trans women who are financially insecure. These men are profiting and marginalized developers don’t see any of that. It’s not just those two guys. The whole industry is like that.”

The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games by Bonnie Ruberg (Photo credit: Duke University Press)

The Queer Games Avant-Garde, in contrast, centers on the voices of marginalized game makers. Rather than theorizing why creators might eschew “empathy games,” which creator Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer describes as “games in which you can supposedly walk in another person’s shoes,” Ruberg allows the artists to speak for themselves. For example, Loren Schmidt, who along with Jimmy Andrews created the Realistic Kissing Simulator in 2014, said they’re “really adamantly opposed to the sort of empathy voyeurism that you’re seeing in early virtual reality work, for example. It’s disgusting and exploitative. A lot of it boils down to whose story you’re telling.” Schmidt’s not the only artist who expressed this sentiment: Case argues that “games [as a medium] aren’t uniquely suited for empathy.” Rather than focusing on empathy, many of the games highlighted in this book—like Naomi Clark’s Consentacle (2014) and Kara Stone’s Ritual of the Moon (2019)—shift the focus toward intimacy.

When artists like Seanna Musgrave, Elizabeth Sampat, and Kat Jones connect players in both analog (card, tabletop, and other non-digital games) and digital games, they’re more concerned with the relationship between creator and gamer or gamer and gamer than they are with empathy. Musgrave’s Animal Massage (2016), for instance, uses virtual reality to show players a calming landscape, while Musgrave physically touches the player based on what they experience (for example, brushing a feather over the player’s body when a bird flies by). “One of my goals was to make something where strangers touch you in public, but it’s a comfortable, positive experience,” Musgrave told Ruberg.

Such games have little to do with educating non-marginalized folks. For instance, Alder creates tabletop games because they allow “opportunities for telling fundamentally different stories—stories about marginalized experiences. You’re not creating a narrative that has to cater to a mainstream consumer. You’re creating it for each other.” This is also the case with digital game makers. “More than trying to enact social change, I make art to affirm myself and others who might be experiencing similar things,” Stone told Ruberg. Still, some of these creators are interested in educating non-marginalized folks—but in unexpected ways. “Games aren’t just about telling people something; they’re about having them take part in the action,” Emilia Yang, cocreator of Downtown Browns (2016), told Ruberg. “For social justice work, that has the potential to be way more effective than just handing out materials.”

Most important, the queer games avant-garde is a “rising tide of indie games being developed by, about, and often for LGBTQ people.”

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Using games to educate, though, requires speaking to a mainstream—or, at least, a non-marginalized—audience on some level. When I asked Ruberg about this tension, they said, “On the one hand, doing work queerly is, at its heart, not about trying to make mainstream society better. That’s why we see so much pushback from various parts of the queer community on the whole ‘it gets better’ narrative, because it’s simple. It doesn’t get at the realities of the complexities of queer life. But we all still live in a world where I would like to see people be less discriminatory.” Many marginalized artists and their audiences understand the problematic aspects of empathy and educating, but it might be more difficult to grasp the importance of going beyond simple representation when discussing queerness in gaming.

“The idea is that you have LGBTQ identities, which are identities that don’t fit the kind of dominant norms of gender or sexuality,” Ruberg explained. “Queerness can cover all of that together. But then there’s this other side of it, which says it’s not necessarily just about identity or specific people. It’s also about ways of acting, being, or desiring that also go against the kind of dominant norms of gender and sexuality.” Games like Realistic Kissing Simulator, in which, upon giving consent, two players control giant floppy tongues to kiss each other, are inspired by queer and trans experiences without necessarily being representational. “[Realistic Kissing Simulator] does a really beautiful job of picking [apart] this idea, that sex is something we’re supposed to be good at, like we’re supposed to do it well,” Ruberg told me. “[Instead of sex being] some kind of game that we’re supposed to win, [Realistic Kissing Simulator] takes that all away.”

A queer approach to game creation challenges the hierarchies and expectations that are often tied to gender and sexuality. “Video games themselves are really strongly associated with straight men, but there’s this whole amazing network of queer and trans folks making video games,” Ruberg said. “That itself kind of queers what we think games are.” Ruberg argues, both in the book and when I spoke to them, that though representation is vital, thinking about queerness more broadly is just as important. Plenty of the artists featured in the book are concerned about representation, but many are also thinking about what it means to queer games overall. Examining and exploring what it might mean to queer a medium is, perhaps, the fundamental contribution of this book.

The Queer Games Avant-Garde is an absolute must read for anyone interested in queer studies, queer games studies, or the games industry. It unpacks pressing issues for marginalized creators and asks others to challenge not only their understanding of games but also what games can do. In a time where supporting marginalized artists, especially independent ones, is more important than ever, Ruberg’s book is a necessary addition both to this burgeoning academic field and to anyone interested in queer art and its evolution.

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by Naseem Jamnia
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Instead of writing, Naseem Jamnia spends way too much time on Twitter and Sidequest, where they're an editor. A native Chicagoan, Naseem now lives in Reno, Nevada, with their husband, dog, and two cats.