- Queer Worldmaking Games:A Portland Indie Experiment
Queer games are minor voices in global imaginaries of video games and commercial routes for transnational cultures of circulation. In 2014, Nintendo replied to requests for same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life with a promissory note; wait for the next version, and perhaps by then there wouldn’t be such a market chasm between Japanese and U.S. cultural norms.1
Queer voices have emerged with the greatest visibility among minor games. Twine, a visual software for interactive story games, has provided a primarily textual space to reference GLBTQ, and particularly transgender, experiences alongside and encircled by heteronormative power.2 Among Triple A (large capital) and Indie studios (small capital), “gay” characters are daring but limited acts.
For many within the United States, the international economy of game production is naturally aligned to American demographics and modes of consumption. The demographic realpolitik of game markets is that unmarked protagonists exert greater purchasing power on 12–18-year-old boys than subaltern, minor, or marginal figures. U.S. economic calculations of game production posit that 1) entrenched limits to identification by consumer markets and 2) resource scarcity of big-budget games preclude investing in a diversity of player choice. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed responded to appeals for a female protagonist by stating production expenses would double, a claim hotly contested by smaller studios. Under the scarcity conditions of game development, the rational response is to accept limits and allocate capital elsewhere. [End Page 98]
Demographic shifts in U.S. markets momentarily unsettle the presumed morphology of gamer consumers as young hetero males.3 When game companies have fronted queer bodies as a space of desire and collective imagination, their employees face the immediate cost of heteronormative counterpublics. Queer possibilities, only recently available in Dragon’s Age and Mass Effect couched as same-sex relationships, generate immediate counterpublics castigating game designers for forcing a perverse politics on straight gamers. Indie darling Gone Home traffics in the same economy by playing with presence and absence, revealing after extended play that the player’s dominant point of identification, Kaitlin, has a sister who is lesbian. Their sly unveiling is lauded for capturing straight gamers in comfortable ambivalence, an identification with minimal difficulty or contradictions. The Atlantic calls this “slowly, quietly introducing LGBTQ heroes” through polysemic ambiguity, “leaving protagonists’ preferences open to interpretation” by including “characters not defined by gender or sexuality.”4
Queer worldmaking in and with games is risky, and the threshold of risk taking is uneven and highly variable. The relevant terms exceed “geek,” “nerd,” or “gamer”—marketplace monikers for mass public consumers.5 Unfolding from contemporary controversies has been a clamor for expanded spaces of participation and identities. Localized in Portland, Oregon, a burgeoning or emergent space for Indie game development, queer games bear familiar costs in branding, community uptake, economic scarcity, and vulnerable public space. Most Portland gaming groups formally delimit their public–social space by signaling a uniform membership or meetup interest—game developers, Super Smash Bros. players, Unity developers, Lady Monster-Slaying Society, and so forth. Groups queering games often travel under limited frameworks such as PDX Gaymers, which nominates itself as an extension of “Gay Geek culture” and abstracts from the more volatile convergences implied by GLBTQ.
The promise of an explicitly marked queer game jam, a social form for public eventfulness, is the surprise that may unfold in an open invitation to a public of strangers; gather together, witness each other, and play in the variant desires of an already ambiguous, political, adult category.6
One model we aspire to is Marni Cohen’s Queertastrophe, a game created for an indie showcase that imagines queerness as a zone of (disastrous) pleasure, one full of unavoidable presence and public visibility.7 Set at a pixelated bar, the player endlessly runs into “exes” who block you from creating new erotic possibilities with strangers. Win by avoiding exes to bring drinks for your newfound potential paramours. It is a game without a win condition; ultimately [End Page 99] you must fail to evade and fall into a trap of complicated history. The only option is to play again...