Queer Indie Video Games as an Alternative Digital Humanities:Counterstrategies for Cultural Critique through Interactive Media
Since 2012 the American video games landscape has seen a rising tide of experimental, independently developed queer digital games. In this essay, I argue that the development of these games can be considered a form of digital humanities practice, and that the game makers who produce them can be seen as performing their own genre of American studies scholarship. Together, these games and their creators offer an alternative vision of the digital humanities, modeling counterstrategies for critical engagement through queer, digital praxis and pushing current conversations around diversity, representation, and social justice in DH in important new directions. To illustrate how these games model an alternative DH, this essay draws from interviews conducted with the queer indie game designers Aevee Bee, Andi McClure, and Nicky Case. Building from work by scholars like Tara McPherson, Kara Keeling, and Moya Bailey, this essay contributes to a larger push from scholars of sexuality, gender, and race within DH to interrogate the methods and meanings of the digital humanities and to continue to expand the field's engagement with perspectives that have too long been pushed to the margins.
Starting in 2012, with the inception and subsequent expansion of what has been termed the "queer games scene," the North American video games landscape has seen a rising tide of experimental, small-scale, independently developed digital queer games.1 These games can be called "queer" either because they explicitly reflect the experiences of LGBTQ people, because the designers and other artists who created them themselves identify as queer, or, most often, both. Despite the fact that mainstream video games and the cultures that surround them are still notoriously hostile toward those perceived as "different," these queer indie games and the artists who develop them are pushing the medium toward greater inclusivity—whether through increased LGBTQ representation or an expanded engagement with queerness in conceptual, political, affective, and nonrepresentational modes.2 In this way, these game makers are bringing to fruition what Anna Anthropy presciently described as a growing movement of video game "zinesters," interactive media artists operating outside traditional game production structures who are creating often deeply personal work that resists the norms of the medium.3 Simultaneously, these games are also reimagining video game development itself as a tool for exploring identity, performing cultural critique, and enacting distinctly queer ways of making meaning from the world.
I argue that the development of these games can be considered a form of digital humanities practice—or, more precisely, that one of many generative ways to understand the rich, varied, and increasingly vast network of queer indie games being produced in North America today is through the frameworks of the digital humanities. I also argue that thinking about queer indie games in the context of the digital humanities, and specifically the digital humanities as it has been explored within American studies, has the potential to productively nuance and extend current debates around issues of identity, diversity, [End Page 417] and representation as they intersect with digitally mediated scholarship. In a variety of ways explored below, these queer indie games both resonate with and suggest new, expanded directions for thinking about queer and otherwise marginalized perspectives within the digital humanities. The sample of games considered here, for instance, takes up issues of algorithms, systems, and abstraction and repositions them within distinctly queer frameworks. Lastly, I argue that queer indie game making makes manifest a mode of digital humanities praxis founded in social justice that a number of American studies scholars have proposed in more polemical, speculative, and theoretical modes, but which has less commonly come to fruition in the actual production of digital humanities projects. "We need a digital humanities that will center on the intersection of digital production and social transformation through research, pedagogy, and activism, and that will not be restricted to institutional academic spaces," write Moya Bailey, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, and Amanda Phillips in their 2016 reflection on the hashtag and related work of #transformDH.4 This is precisely the type of digital humanities praxis that is represented in contemporary queer indie game making.
As a form of digital humanities praxis, queer indie game making represents an alternative vision of the digital humanities (i.e., alternative to the dominant norms of the discipline, as well as alternative to larger societal standards of heteronormativity), one that embraces rather than eschews the cultural, political, and personal implications of making meaning through computational media. In this way, it demonstrates powerful counterstrategies for doing the work of DH. These strategies can be seen to answer calls from many American studies scholars in recent years for an approach to the digital humanities that does not look simply like "traditional scholarship with a digital hand," in Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel's words, and that does not shy away from a "critical analysis of its own embedded practices in relation to issues around … race, gender, disability, and global praxis."5 Queer indie game making offers us one possible route for imagining a digital humanities that brings to life the potential to enact critique that is at once transformative and transformed, to borrow terms from Lothian and Phillips.6 The present essay is not the first to argue for thinking about video game development as a form of digital humanities scholarship (as Patrick Jagoda, Anastasia Salter, and Bridget Blodgett have done), or to combine game making with queer perspectives within the realm of the digital humanities (as in both the scholarship and media making of micha cárdenas).7 Nor is it alone in taking an interest in the conceptual implications of contemporary queer indie games; indeed, this work emerges from the growing [End Page 418] paradigm of queer game studies, an active network that includes many scholars who are writing about queer indie games or who design queer indie games themselves.8 The intervention that I am staging here is based, rather, in proposing queer indie games specifically as a form of digital humanities and American studies scholarship, and indeed in arguing that these particular games and their creators model counterstrategies for cultural critique that can point us toward an alternative vision of the digital humanities that is political, personal, playful, and deeply queer—one that operates as much in practice as in theory.
The Digital Humanities and Queer Video Games: Contexts, Definitions, Stakes
To explore and interrogate the counterstrategies that queer indie game making brings to DH, this essay looks to the work of three designers of contemporary queer indie games: Aevee Bee, Nicky Case, and Andi McClure. I have chosen to focus on Bee, Case, and McClure because the differences in their work speak to the wide range of queer indie game making that is taking place today. In addition to discussing their games, I also draw from individual, long-form interviews that I conducted with these game makers during the spring of 2017. These interviews were conducted as part of a larger oral history project that brings together the voices of twenty-five queer indie game makers to explore the personal histories, artistic influences, and often radical politics behind these increasingly influential games.9 The oral history project aims to foreground the narratives that these game makers tell about their own work rather than the (often instrumentalizing and reductive) narratives told by the mainstream games industry and straight players. In this way, the project is structured not as academic analysis per se but as a "collaborative construction," much as Bailey describes in her work with black trans women in social media spaces.10
All of these artists in what I describe as the "queer games avant-garde," and many more who did not participate in the oral history, could be seen as digital humanists in their own right. The digital humanities has long been invested in critical making, and queer indie game making could certainly be understood as a form of maker praxis. What is more, it quickly becomes apparent in these interviews that, while the game makers I spoke with did not use the term digital humanities, they already see themselves as hybrid digital makers and cultural critics; rigorous, intellectual—if not strictly academic—engagement through interactive media is one of their explicit aims in creating queer video games. As Jagoda writes of digital humanists, "Building, for these scholars, is not an [End Page 419] alternative to critique or an activity that is either distinct from or subordinate to thinking. Making … makes possible the process of developing, testing, and transforming concepts."11 This is very much true in the work of queer indie game makers.
To argue for queer indie video game making as a critically engaged digital humanities practice first requires a definition of the digital humanities. However, even from this basic starting point, the tensions inherent in this work begin to reveal themselves. There is no single, static definition of DH, yet proceeding without such a definition would enact a kind of gatekeeping, inviting only those already familiar with the standards and debates that surround the ontologies of DH into this discussion of queer video games.12 This would be counterproductive, since one aim of this work is to expand and diversify the network of stakeholders invested in the digital humanities. However, much like defining a video game, the task of defining DH is, at best, challenging; it represents territory that is at once (perhaps too) well trodden and simultaneously underinterrogated.13 When it comes to establishing the parameters of what does or does not "count" as DH, the ontological is inextricable from the cultural. In the history of the digital humanities as a discipline, drawing the line between what is "out" and what is "in" has often been a tool for maintaining hegemonic norms of privilege, as John Martin and Carolyn Runyon address in their essay "Digital Humanities, Digital Hegemony."14 Wherever those boundaries are drawn, they tell an exclusionary narrative about whose work does and does not constitute "legitimate" DH scholarship. I place the word legitimate in quotes because, as Jamie "Skye" Bianco has argued, it is crucial to remain skeptical and self-critical of the structures of legitimization within DH.15 Traditionally, the work that has been deemed most definitively digital humanities is that which is also least critical of the status quo, whether that status quo be cultural or intellectual, whereas the work most often deemed questionable or simply not-DH has been the most expressive in its form, radical in its politics, and explicit in its investment in the work and lives of women, queer people, people of color, and other marginalized subjects. To replicate that oppression within an argument for the value of considering queer game making as a form of digital humanities work would defeat the basic purpose of such an argument.
Therefore, rather than operate from a prescriptive definition of the digital humanities, I am building here from a looser but, I believe, more productive understanding of DH as a constellation of existing work (and potential future work) grouped around a shared interest in the place where culture meets the [End Page 420] digital. This work may use digital tools to augment the work of the humanities or use humanities frameworks to enrich the study of the digital. Digital humanities work is what brings together the digital and the human in order to understand one, the other, or both in new ways. In this sense, DH describes a set of meaning-making practices in which culture and its products stand in intimate relation to technology. An advantage to conceptualizing DH as an extended constellation is that this image makes clear that there is no hard boundary at the edges of DH. Rather, by looking at the stars in the night sky of DH from different angles and with different patterns in mind, one can welcome additional points into the constellation; this is another way of saying—and indeed embracing—the notion of a digital humanities that, in Bianco's words, "is not one."16 The downside and the upside of this approach to DH are the same: that by being broad, inclusive, permeable, and open to interpretation, the parameters of the digital humanities become potentially endless and intentionally unclear.
To conceptualize queer video game making as a digital humanities practice is to do far more than argue for the reclassification or academic legitimization of queer games and their creators. This reconceptualization fundamentally shifts the narrative about queer indie game makers, presenting them not just as designers of interactive media but also as critically engaged thinkers who perform their own genre of cultural studies, queer studies, and often American studies scholarship. At the same time, by modeling a form of digital humanities praxis that is fundamentally concerned with the experiences of marginalized subjects, bringing queer indie games under the umbrella of the digital humanities valuably contributes to larger discussions about the presence of diverse perspectives and methodologies within DH. Though a number of DH scholars—Kara Keeling, Fiona Barnett, Zach Blas, and Jacob Gaboury notable among them—have worked to explore the intersection of queer studies and the digital humanities, queerness is still a contested site within DH (much like in video games), as is the place of other marginalized peoples and experiences. Many feminist scholars and scholars of critical race studies have compellingly articulated how the digital humanities as a discipline has sidelined research both about and by women, people of color, indigenous people, and people with disabilities. As Tara McPherson writes in "Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?," often the frameworks that characterize other areas of contemporary American studies scholarship, such as critical thinking around race and gender, have remained absent from more technical, tool-oriented discussions of humanities computing.17 Describing the digital humanities and potential [End Page 421] strategies for change, Bailey writes, "Those already marginalized in society and the academy can also find themselves in the liminal spaces of this field. By centering the lives of women, people of color, and disabled folks, the types of possible conversations in digital humanities shift."18 This is one of the key goals of arguing for queer indie gamemaking as a form of digital humanities scholarship: to recenter the lives of queer folks and the works that they create within a field that often continues to marginalize LGBTQ perspectives.
Queer Indie Video Games as an Alternative Digital Humanities
Who are the artists who are creating contemporary queer indie video games? Though only a handful of these games makers, such as Anthropy and Mattie Brice, are well known outside games culture, there are dozens of active or recently active artists who have created and released professional work in this area. A notable portion of these game makers are transgender, with a particularly strong representation of trans women. Though the majority of contributors to the queer games avant-garde are white, many are people of color, and they come from a variety of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. They often use what are generally described as accessible game-making tools to create their video games, such as Twine or Game-Maker: development platforms that allow individual game makers or small groups of collaborators to create games without larger teams or considerable resources. Though some queer indie game makers live outside North America, it is fitting to think of the queer games avant-garde specifically in the context of American studies. The majority of this work comes from the United States (or Canada), and much of it is in direct dialogue with American culture and American politics. At the beginnings of what some have called the "queer games scene," many of these game makers were based in and around Oakland, California—though, because of the rising cost of living, most have left the Bay Area. Today, as more and more artists enter into the work of queer indie game making, there are thriving queer games communities in New York, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Boston. In our discussions, even those queer game makers living abroad reported seeing their work as a direct response to the current political and cultural landscape of America.
Queer indie game making also emerges out of specific contexts in the video games industry and games culture. On the one hand, video games have a long history of underrepresenting and misrepresenting marginalized people. Today, reactionary forces from within games culture have made the contemporary [End Page 422] video games landscape a notably hostile and even dangerous place. In 2014 the large-scale harassment campaign #GamerGate began targeting feminist game makers and cultural commentators, labeling them "social justice warriors" and making them the objects of vicious online attacks. On the opposite side of the equation, the work of the queer games avant-garde is part of a larger movement toward greater LGBTQ inclusivity in video games—a movement that combines creative work, academic study, and community engagement. The newly formed and fast-growing field of queer games studies, mentioned above, is becoming an important facet of contemporary video games research. Community-oriented events like GaymerX, Different Games, and the Queerness and Games conference are creating inclusive spaces for queer players. Increasingly, large-scale corporations like Microsoft and Intel are bolstering their public efforts to support diversity. These factors, both negative and positive (and at times somewhere in between), form the backdrop for queer game making in the contemporary video game landscape from which this practice emerges.
It is particularly important to note that queer indie game making does not only exist alongside the academic study of queerness and games. These game makers are themselves engaged in rigorous critical "scholarship," loosely defined, through their video games. Their work reflects a hybrid methodology of digital making and critical approaches to culture. This is a key way in which the work of the queer games avant-garde can be seen as a form of digital humanities practice. Though these queer games often do not resemble traditional digital humanities projects, they too explore the intersection of the digital and the human. Indeed, they do this in ways that bring together what have been commonly seen as opposing modes of digital humanities scholarship. Queer indie games, such as the examples I discuss below, approach humanistic inquiry through digital tools (e.g., using video games to interrogate the place of queer subjects in American culture); they also reconsider digital media through a humanistic lens (e.g., bringing queer and intersectional perspectives to video games in order to interrogate the politics of the medium). Though each of these artists enacts this hybrid creative-critical work in unique ways, the spirit of cultural critique runs throughout their work. At the same time, queer indie game making as a form of DH looks very different than the majority of digital humanities projects that have come before it. In this sense, the vision of the digital humanities that can be found in these works is an alternative digital humanities, one that suggests new strategies for making meaning through and from interactive digital tools. In the sections that follow, I introduce the work of Bee, Case, and McClure. For each, I offer a brief overview of their [End Page 423] work, highlight excerpts from interviews that demonstrate how their work interfaces with important discussions in the digital humanities, and explore the counterstrategies for the work of DH that their games inspire.
Aevee Bee: Cultural Studies, Queer Stories, and the Rejection of Objective Truth
Bee is a game designer and writer best known for her 2015 game We Know the Devil (fig. 1). Created in collaboration with the visual artist Mia Schwartz, We Know the Devil brings together the established game genres of dating sims, visual novels, and survival horror to tell a story about three queer teens at a Christian summer camp. In promotional material, Bee describes the game as a "surreal … dystopia … about everyone who made you cry at summer camp … and … about being weird and queer and wrong."19 Bee herself grew up in a religiously conservative environment in the American Midwest, and in our interview she explained that her own experiences as a queer, trans teenager trying to figure out her place in the world inspired the game. Bee's primary creative passion is writing; she holds an MFA in creative writing, has a day job in an academic institution where she focuses on student writing, and worked as a video game journalist for years before she made her first video game. This background shows in the emphasis on text throughout the game, which allows Bee to present the strange, emotionally charged coming-of-age tale that sits at the center of We Know the Devil through the voices of her young, queer protagonists.
Though Bee's game may not, at first glance, resemble traditional digital humanities scholarship, Bee herself has many traits that qualify her as a digital humanist, and specifically one with experience in the field of American studies. In addition to making video games, Bee writes extensively about video game culture for online publications. In turn, Bee's cultural critique informs and shapes her game making, which highlights the hybrid creative-critical nature of her work. When asked about her intended audience and how her games have been received by heteronormative players, she responds, "I'm not trying to make games for straight people. At some point, I had the revelation that I didn't need to make work that was accessible for as wide an audience as possible. … That was informed by my journalism around [the large-scale online harassment campaign] #GamerGate, because I was like, 'Why are we making stuff for these people who … are actively trying to attack us for doing this sort of work?" This insight—that digital media about queer experiences can be [End Page 424] made for queer people rather than for the mainstream—is expressed in the "surrealism" and irreverence of Bee's games. Additionally, literature has long been a focus for the digital humanities, and Bee describes how her approach to video game criticism is fundamentally literary in nature. Yet she also challenges the way that literary references are used as marks of "seriousness" in games, calling on other game makers to look beyond literature as a way to establish the intellectual value of exploring culture through video games. For this reason, Bee can be seen not only as a digital humanist but also specifically as a critical thinker who is interested in questioning the standards of how legitimacy has been signaled within works of interactive media.
The alternative vision of the digital humanities that Bee's work offers is one that rejects notions of mimesis and objective truth. She describes We Know the Devil as "super autobiographical," but also explains her resistance toward the pressure that mainstream culture places on queer artists to create confessional work for straight consumption. Rather than use video games to tell her own story as it "really" happened, Bee springboards from her lived experience but offers players the opportunity, through branching narrative choices, to take different paths and achieve alternate endings. This, says Bee, interrupts the narrative of queer games as opportunities for empathy and instead allows queer subjects themselves to unpack, reimagine, and assert agency over their [End Page 425] own queer histories. Pointing to the power of video games to allow players to make choices through interactivity, Bee describes her game this way: "Here's a thing that brings you in and allows you to both experience queer suffering but also to escape from it. In making a game like that, you can control and process your personal truth rather than just reproducing it." As a form of DH, Bee's work prompts other digital humanists to question the foundational logic that dictates that the job of interactive digital scholarship is to make more widely accessible representations of life and culture as it is. Instead, interactive tools have the potential to allow users to explore alternative ways of being and to purposefully complicate rather than distribute representations of marginalized people's lives.
Bee's work can also be seen as embodying and extending conceptual notions of queer technology, such as those discussed by scholars like Keeling in her essay "Queer OS" and Barnett, Blas, cárdenas, Gaboury, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Margaret Rhee in their companion piece, "QueerOS: A User's Manual." Keeling, in describing her vision of a queer "social operating system," writes that "Queer OS names a way of thinking and acting with, about, through, among, and at times even in spite of new media technologies. … Because Queer OS ideally functions to transform material relations, it is at odds with the logics embedded in … operating systems … [seeking] to undermine the relationships secured through those logics."20 A game like We Know the Devil similarly operates both as an expression of and in resistance to the logics of new media technologies, in particular the established computational logics of video games. On the one hand, Bee's game is built around interactive elements taken from established game genres; on the other hand, it refuses to allow these interactive elements to resolve into traditional win-states, lose-states, or even states of understanding. In response to Keeling's "Queer OS," Barnett et al.'s "QueerOS: A User's Manual" offers "a speculative proposition for a technical project that does not yet exist and may never come to exist," one that responds with skepticism "to the requirement that the digital humanities create working technologies" by proposing "theoretical vaporware" and "ephemeral praxis."21 Yet work like Bee's, along with many other examples of contemporary queer indie game making, takes the challenge of Keeling's Queer OS in a different direction, creating "real," working media objects that nonetheless embody expressions of queerness through technology. Such games suggest that a queer digital humanities need not necessarily remain theoretical and speculative. [End Page 426]
Nicky Case: Playable Social Systems and Queer Studies as Embodied Knowledge
Case is a game designer, computer programmer, and creator of what Case calls "explorable explanations." Queerness manifests in Case's work in a variety of ways. Their first game, Coming Out Simulator (2014), is about coming out as queer to one's family and the difficult decisions queer individuals must make about whom to tell, what to tell, and when to lie about their identity. More recently, Case has worked on hybrid game-web-interface experiences that invite users to play with interactive tools to explore complicated social systems. The best-known of these is Parable of the Polygons (fig. 2), made in collaboration with Vi Hart. Like a number of queer game makers, Case is a sharp, deep thinker who did not complete undergraduate school. After spending time in the games industry as an intern at Electronic Arts during college, they decided not to finish their degree. Case is following a different financial model than Bee in order to fund the work of making queer games. Having left a full-time job at a start-up, they are now supported largely by their Patreon account, a common if unreliable strategy for queer game makers whose work is innovative but rarely lucrative.
Case can be seen as a digital humanist in that they are deeply invested in systems. As Jagoda writes, "Digital games represent a unique form around which to organize transdisciplinary thought … [because] they spur decision-making, enable roleplaying, teach procedural knowledge, and enable users to inhabit complex systems."22 Game scholars often talk about video games as systems, but Case's work explicitly links this understanding of games to a broader understanding of cultural systems. Parable of the Polygons and Case's other explorable explanations use interactive tools to illustrate how cultural biases can lead to discriminatory attitudes with wide-reaching impacts on society. These interactive tools are developed in conjunction with extensive research and in this sense can be identified as scholarly work. Much like a traditional digital humanities project, the game-like experiences that Case designs combine text with dynamic digital elements; their purpose is didactic, and Case's web-based explorables are already being used in classrooms to teach undergraduates about unintentional, self-perpetuating cultural bias. Explains Case, "One thing that [games] are uniquely suited for is explaining social and political systems. I'm really interested in turning real-world systems into playable systems, especially the systems that lead to nationalism and the cultural polarization. … When things get bad, people blame scapegoats, usually a minority group. If people [End Page 427] could really see the system though, they would understand that those people aren't their enemy." What makes Case's approach to systems unique is that they are invested both in using systems as intellectual tools and in critiquing systems themselves. This makes Case, like Bee, a critically engaged digital humanist—even as they operate from outside the confines and structures of academe.
The alternative vision of the digital humanities found in Case's game making is not only critically engaged, however; it is also deeply embodied. While Case's interests are intellectual, they do not have training as an academic in cultural studies or queer studies. Fittingly, Case describes their own knowledge in these areas in ways that highlight the importance of learning that emerges from lived experience and from the queer body, rather than learning imparted by traditional institutional structures. When I asked Case, in the concluding moments of our interview, whether they saw their explorable explanations as queer in a conceptual sense (since these works do not focus explicitly on LGBTQ issues), they responded, "I am a queer person and that influences everything [End Page 428] I make. Really though, I should be asking you that question. Do you see them as queer? You're more familiar with queer theory than I am. I'm just a self-taught queer." It would be possible to interpret this response as dismissive, or perhaps as a sincere statement of not-knowing. I believe it reflects something far more powerful, however. Case refers to themselves as a "self-taught queer," one whose knowledge of queerness as a way of being emerges from living life as a queer person, not from receiving instruction in queer studies. This is an important counterstrategy of the DH that is suggested by queer indie video games. Such a DH is equally rigorous and insightful as what takes place within the traditional boundaries of academe, yet it draws its critical lenses and its approaches to making meaning from the body and its desires rather than from officially sanctioned authorities of knowledge and cultural meaning.
Andi McClure: On Beautiful Algorithms and Making Meaning Messy
McClure is a game designer and visual artist whose best-known game is the 2013 Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds (fig. 3). Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds pushes the boundaries of what does or does not "count" as a game. In this work, the player is invited to scramble and remix computer graphics to rapidly create a new piece of original art. Like Bee, McClure engages in cultural criticism alongside her game making. Though McClure also keeps a blog where she writes critically engaged articles, her main locus of what might be called scholarship is Twitter. Twitter is actually a key site of critical discourse—and a key site of interpersonal connection—for many queer indie game makers. As mentioned, the three game makers discussed here bring queerness into their work in different ways. McClure's work, in contrast to Bee's and Case's, rarely includes representations of human subjects. Instead, it engages with queerness on a more conceptual register, challenging heteronormative notions of aesthetics and identity through disruptive play and abstraction.
McClure may seem the least likely of these three artists to be described as a digital humanist, but, in fact, her work has perhaps the most profound implications for the ways that meaning is made through computational media. As a computer scientist with an interest in mathematics and physics, McClure and her work are deeply invested in algorithms. Algorithms are a common (and commonly criticized) feature of mainstream digital humanities projects, linking McClure's work to traditional DH. However, McClure's approach to algorithms and their meaning is distinctly different from that usually found in academic settings. Rather than instrumentalize algorithms in the search for [End Page 429] correct research findings or the optimization of classification, McClure is interested in their aesthetics. She locates and celebrates beauty in the moments where computational systems break and where representational meaning gives way to chance. She explains her process this way: "Rather than having an end goal in mind, I start with some algorithm and I go, 'Hey! I wonder what it would look like if I did this or that.' Sometimes the result will look something like I expected, sometimes not. A lot of what I do is taking advantage of accidents. There will be a bug in something I've written and I'll realize it's much more interesting than what I was trying to do, and it will become the new focus of the piece." Here, algorithms and bugs become creative collaborators rather than structuring logics. In this way, McClure's work offers a vision of the algorithm as a critical tool that profoundly differs from current discussions around algorithms, search engines, and discrimination.
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A counterstrategy of the digital humanities envisioned through McClure's work is that it intentionally makes meaning messy, which relates directly to the place of queerness in her games. "I'm a queer person in a non-queer society and that shapes my values, which comes through in my work," she says. "That shows in the way that I find beauty in messing something up or using something the wrong way." Among others, Jen Jack Gieseking has articulated the connection between queerness and messiness. "What else is queering … but an engagement with mess?" Gieseking writes. "What other way is there to conceive of queer radicality but as a mess, a failure, a fissure in the neoliberal order that relies on productivity, normality, and visibility to determine which lives are deemed worthy?"23 Indeed, the notion of the mess offers a powerful counterpoint to the more traditional goals of the digital humanities to take large amounts of information, order them, and make them clean—that is, easily approachable and discernible. In McClure's work, the messiness of queerness is pushed beyond the conceptual register, however, into the visual and the interactive. Messiness, glitch-iness, and other "failures" and "fissures" that resist "visibility," to call back to Gieseking's words, are themselves made hypervisible in a game like Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds, which invites the player to transform traditionally representational artworks into queer, abstract messes. In this way, McClure pushes queer digital humanities thinking beyond acknowledging the value of messiness and toward messiness as its own goal. "Messing something up," as opposed to cleaning it up (as in the case of cleaning up data), becomes the end product of making meaning.
Messiness and abstraction also express themselves in the way that McClure articulates her own embodied relationship to her work. When asked about her trans identity, McClure states her skepticism about identifying with specific identity markers, pushing instead for a looser and less formal taxonomy of desire and selfhood. She describes how, on occasions when she has tried to represent her own identity directly in her games, she has found these games to be creatively unsuccessful. This does not mean, however, that McClure's identity is not present in her work. Rather, the presence of her identity challenges established notions of representation and brings into question what it means to add "diversity" to the digital humanities. McClure says, "Part of why I am drawn to abstraction is that it's like an escape from my identity. As a trans person, my identity means, to some extent, that there are things about my physical, external self that I don't like. … My body doesn't necessarily feel like a great place to me. … Abstract art is a place where you don't have to have a body. There's something that feels really natural about just floating in those abstractions." [End Page 431]
Counterstrategies for Cultural Critique through Interactive Media
From the description of these three game makers, their games, and their reflections on their own creative processes emerges a picture of the conceptual richness and creative variety that characterizes the work of the queer games avant-garde. As these interviews make clear, each of these artists—and many more who are working on queer indie games—could be considered to be engaging in a kind of digital humanities practice. However, it is crucial to note that these games and their designers do not simply meet the criteria for inclusion in the digital humanities as it is commonly imagined today. Queer indie video games also model a set of alternative approaches to the digital humanities that resonate with calls for greater inclusivity of content and perspectives from the so-called margins of the field. Conceptualized through the framework of DH, these games have the potential to push the discipline in new directions by modeling counterstrategies for exploring and critiquing culture in conjunction with interactive digital media. These video games can be said to "count" as DH; however, importantly, they also break the standard molds of DH. They question, destabilize, and reimagine many of the methods and beliefs that have long characterized a large portion of digital humanities scholarship.
The alternative vision of the digital humanities suggested by queer indie video games sets itself apart from much (though certainly not all, as the examples given above demonstrate) existing DH work through several key characteristics. First, it is explicitly creative. The digital humanities of queer indie games enacts critique through artistic expression. Because its medium is video games, this expression is fundamentally playful. It is far from incidental that these critically engaged creators have chosen video games as their medium. Yet playfulness can also be found in the approaches and mind-sets of these queer game makers as well as in the medium of video games itself. Their work frequently plays with traditional game genres and player expectations. Through their work, these artists also invite those who experience their games to play with—and through play, interrogate, and reimagine—cultural expectations about issues like identity and agency. This emphasis on creativity and playfulness makes the counterstrategies of this alternative DH exuberant and also, notably, subjective. Each of these game makers interprets and represents queer experience in their own way, much like each of their players will have their own unique encounter with these games and their meanings. In this way, the work of the queer games avant-garde models a form of cultural critique that values rather than obfuscates the instability of meaning. It resists the notion that the ways of making sense of the world that are best suited to digital media [End Page 432] platforms are those that are data driven, large scale, or supposedly computationally objective, universal, disembodied, or apolitical.
A second key characteristic of the alternative digital humanities modeled by queer indie video games is that it is queer. That is, it embraces queerness as an ethos, as well as (sometimes) its representational subject matter. This queerness manifests in many ways. Some of these games, like Bee's We Know the Devil or Case's Coming Out Simulator, use digital tools to tell stories about queer people. However, it is equally common in the work of the queer games avant-garde to find games that embody queerness in more conceptual modes. Games like McClure's Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds, for instance, call to mind Jack Halberstam's notion of the queer glitch as that which creates opportunities for queerness by "breaking" the machinery of the digital system.24 A game such as this complicates standard notions of representation, calling to mind discussions around the ethics and often unspoken biases of data visualization in the digital humanities (and beyond). There are no people displayed on-screen in McClure's game, yet, as McClure herself explains above, it is precisely this abstraction that allows the game to embody the artist's own transgender experience. The alternative DH suggested by the queer games avant-garde emerges from the lives of queer people, yet it also models how DH itself can be done queerly and how it can queer the hegemonic logics of the field. Whereas many traditional digital humanities projects present data sets and archives as if they offer their users access to an accurate, transparent knowability of their subject matter, work like Become a Great Artist offers an alternative vision of what is knowable through the digital—one that resists visibility, transparency, and (in this instance) the access of cisgender players to transgender experiences.
Another counterstrategy of this alternative digital humanities is that it operates from a deep investment in the perspectives of marginalized subjects: queer people, trans people, and others who have traditionally been sidelined in both video games culture and the digital humanities. This form of DH is built from the ground up on a belief in social justice—rather than attempting to address the experiences of those who have traditionally been excluded using tools that were themselves designed through discriminatory practices. As a mode of digital humanities, and as a praxis more generally, queer indie game making is by nature political, and it recognizes itself as such; almost every queer game maker I interviewed used the word political to describe their work. Though queerness has been my focus in presenting the practices of these artists, the subject positions that these individuals represent and the critiques that they enact through their games are deeply intersectional. In these interviews, it quickly became [End Page 433] apparent that questions of queer lives and queer making are inextricable from experiences of race, socioeconomics, and mental health, among other factors. The prevalence of intersectionality in the queer games avant-garde can be seen, for example, in Case's "explorable explanations," which critique the biases that fuel discrimination of many kinds, including racism as well as homophobia. Case identifies as both queer and a person of color, and these interconnected identities manifest side by side in their work—as in Coming Out Simulator, where the experience of coming out as queer to one's family intersects with a family's experience as immigrants to North America from Asia. Intersectionality is a key counterstrategy of this alternative digital humanities. These artists bring their whole selves to their work and represent selfhood, marginalization, and privilege as fundamentally interconnected, interactive systems.
Also among the traits that set this alternative digital humanities apart from DH as it has been most widely practiced is the way that it resists the ethos of the "big" (e.g., big data), on which many prominent digital humanities projects are founded, and instead embraces the value of what could be called the "small." In using the term small, I do not mean to imply that the relevance or stakes of this work are limited in scope or niche. Much to the contrary, their implications and potential impact are wide reaching. Rather, by "small" I mean that they resist the logic of big archives and big institutions and instead value personal experiences. They create DH work that is specific, affective, and embodied; it exists at the level of the individual and springs from and in response to individual queer histories and queer desires. If big DH is digital humanities performed within the sizable structures of academic institutions, by groups composed of numerous collaborators, funded through an elaborate chain of resources, and invested in the preservation and presentation of large archives or otherwise momentous amounts of information, then small DH is DH that finds meaning in the tangible, emotional, and interpersonal details of lived experience rather than a belief in comprehensive knowledge or objective truth. Together, the queer games avant-garde constitutes a large network of game makers, but their strength is not only in numbers. These games are powerful in part precisely because most remain short and intimate—not an enormous data set but individual experiences of intimacy, selfhood, and personal truth.
Queer Indie Games as Digital Humanities? Remaining Self-Critical
From these interviews with queer indie game makers emerges a compelling vision of an alternative approach to the work of the digital humanities in action. However, any model of scholarly practice that is truly critically engaged must [End Page 434] remain aware of and indeed in constant dialogue with its own limitations. For that reason, it is also important to acknowledge some of the potential pitfalls of the premise of this argument: that the work of the queer games avant-garde can—and should—be considered a form of DH. One such potential objection is that DH has been, to date, firmly rooted in academe. Many of the game makers in the queer games avant-garde, by contrast, have a complicated and at times tense relationship with academic structures and related issues of privilege. A significant number of these artists, such as Case, left undergraduate school without completing their degrees, often because they felt unsupported as queer people, trans people, or socioeconomically disadvantaged people. At the same time, as the years pass, more and more queer indie game makers are entering master's and doctoral programs—though, admittedly, this is often because queer indie game making is precarious work and graduate programs offer comparative financial stability. Some queer game makers, like Bee, work or teach in academic settings; still others, like McClure, have what could be called academic interests (e.g., mathematics and physics) but do not approach them from within academic frameworks. In short, the participants in the queer games avant-garde represent many different and often conflicting positions of relationality to academe—positions that could be problematically conflated or overlooked in an unambivalent claim to queer game making as a form of digital humanities scholarship.
Another valid potential critique lies in the question: what does it mean to "claim" queer indie game making in the name of the digital humanities? What are the ethics of labeling queer game making as a form of DH when none of the twenty-five artists I interviewed used the words digital humanities to describe their work? In response, I would argue that understanding the work of the queer games avant-garde as a form of digital humanities should represent not an attempt to colonize queer game making on the part of an academic discipline but an attempt to lay claim to DH—with its productive range of attendant debates and its access to structures of legitimacy (though it is equally important to remain wary of bids for cultural legitimacy)—for queer video games and their creators. For the marginalized artists who produce this work, the possible social and material benefits of establishing a foothold in the digital humanities are many. For example, access to digital humanities funding pools, such as large-scale public and private grants, could feasibly improve the precarious financial standing of many of these artists. At the same time, far from being subsumed into the digital humanities as we know them today, queer indie games have the potential to challenge the traditional boundaries of the field, modeling a step away from academe as such and toward less hierarchical communities of [End Page 435] hybrid theory-creative praxis. Digital humanities work, both as a classification and as a way of making meaning, does not belong to career academics (or their industry partners) alone. As Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal write in their introduction to the "Black Code Studies" special issue of the Black Scholar, a truly radical vision of cultural critique at the intersection of social justice and technology "rejects formulations of [scholarship] that tie intellectual production only to institutional structures or the digital humanities only to grant-seeking projects with university affiliations."25 In this way, the work of reclassifying queer game making as DH becomes political, embracing the messiness of defining the field, celebrating the generative frictions that can be found at the blurred edges of the digital humanities, and looking to the so-called margins in order to challenge traditional DH subjecthoods and modes of thought.
It is also worth remaining wary of the notion that the marginalized (such as queer indie game makers) should be working to make video games, the digital humanities, or any other field in which they are underrepresented more "diverse." Even as we celebrate the work of these creators, we must continue to ask: Who is served through the labors of the marginalized? Should it be the responsibility of those who are often excluded or discriminated against to make work that promotes change within the status quo? These queer game makers themselves offer words of warning against focusing our efforts on promoting normative progress. When asked whether she believed that queer indie games were inspiring meaningful change in the mainstream video games industry, for instance, Bee responded, "I don't really care. That's their problem. Instead of wasting my energy trying to make work that speaks to the mainstream, shouldn't I be fighting to create something that's really meaningful for the queer people I want to speak to?" This, ultimately, is the challenge that queer indie game making poses to the many scholars who are already invested in issues of sexuality, gender, race, power, and privilege in the digital humanities, myself included. Is our task to change the broader field as we know it today, speaking truth from the margins for the betterment of the center? Or is our task to reject the very notion of marginality and centrality, to use these counterstrategies as tools for building our own worlds and our own ways of making meaning, inventing for ourselves a terrain of DH scholarship that is fundamentally queer, feminist, antiracist, personal, political, and culturally aware—and to inhabit that space together as our own alternative digital humanities? [End Page 436]
Bonnie Ruberg is assistant professor of digital media and games in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Their research explores gender and sexuality in digital media and digital cultures. They are the coeditor of the volume Queer Game Studies (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), the author of the monograph Video Games Have Always Been Queer (New York University Press, forthcoming), and a cofounder and long-time organizer of the annual Queerness and Games Conference.
1. Brendan Keogh, "Just Making Things and Being Alive about It: The Queer Games Scene," Polygon, May 24, 2013, www.polygon.com/features/2013/5/24/4341042/the-queer-games-scene.
2. Janine Fron, Tracy Fullerton, Jacquelyn Ford Marie, and Celia Pearce, "The Hegemony of Play," in Proceedings, DiGRA: Situated Play, Digital Games Research Association Conference, September 24–27, 2007, 3, ict.usc.edu/pubs/The%20Hegemony%20of%20Play.pdf.
3. Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form (New York: Seven Stories, 2012).
4. Moya Bailey, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, and Amanda Phillips, "Reflections on a Movement: #transformDH, Growing Up," in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
6. Alexis Lothian and Amanda Phillips, "Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?," E-Media Studies 3.1 (2013).
7. Patrick Jagoda, "Gaming the Humanities," differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 25.1 (2014): 189–215; Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett, "Playing the Humanities: Feminist Game Studies and Public Discourse," in Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, ed. Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018); micha cárdenas, "A Game Level Where You Can't Pass," Confessions of an Aca-Fan, January 10, 2013, henryjenkins.org/blog/2013/01/a-game-level-where-you-cant-pass.html; cárdenas, "Becoming Dragon: A Transversal Technology Study," Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies, April 29, 2010, journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ctheory/article/view/14680/5550.
8. Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw, eds., Queer Game Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 1.
9. These interviews were conducted via Skype; each lasted for two hours. Each interviewee received a stipend of $200. In academic settings, marginalized and already financially precarious subjects are often asked to perform labor for free. Therefore, a crucial prerequisite for this project was sufficient funding to be able to offer the interviewees reasonable monetary compensation for their time.
10. Moya Bailey, "#transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics," Digital Humanities Quarterly 9.2 (2015).
11. Jagoda, "Gaming the Humanities."
13. Within game studies and video game culture, the exact nature of what "counts" as a video game represents a debate that has raged since the first days of the academic study of games, dating back to original frictions between those who see games as interactive narrative (narratologists) and those who see it as ludic system (ludologists). While many scholars have grown tired of this debate, today the claim "That's not a game!" is still regularly deployed by reactionary gamers attempting to police the types of video games that are acceptable in the medium. This serves as a potent example of how the ontologies of digital media work serve thinly veiled cultural and political purposes.
14. John D. Martin and Carolyn Runyon, "Digital Humanities, Digital Hegemony," ACM Computers & Society 46.1 (2016): 20–26.
15. Jamie "Skye" Bianco, "This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One," Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
17. Tara McPherson, "Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation," in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/29.
18. Moya Z. Bailey, "All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave," Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 (2011).
20. Kara Keeling, "Queer OS," Cinema Journal 53.2 (2014): 154.
21. Fiona Barnett, Zach Blas, Micha Cárdenas, Jacob Gaboury, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Margaret Rhee, "QueerOS: A User's Manual," in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/56.
22. Jagoda, "Gaming the Humanities."
23. Jen Jack Gieseking, "Messing with the Attractiveness Algorithm: A Response to Queering Code/Space," Gender, Place & Culture 24.11 (2017): 1659–65.
24. Jack Halberstam, "Queer Gaming: Gaming, Hacking, and Going Turbo," in Queer Game Studies, ed. Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
25. Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal, "Introduction: Wild Seed in the Machine," Black Scholar 47.3 (2017): 1–2.