- Queerness and Video Games:Queer Game Studies and New Perspectives through Play
At the intersection of queerness and video games stands the experience of play. Though queer studies has yet to explore video games in depth, this digital interactive media form has much to say about queerness and the relationship between technology and contemporary LGBTQ lives. Video games represent an immensely popular and widely influential form of cultural production that both reflects and enacts social expectations around gender and sexuality. This makes games an important site of investigation for queer studies scholars. Yet the resonances between video games and queerness go far deeper than the representation of characters on screen or the identities of players. Queerness and video games share an ethos that can be fundamentally characterized through play. The language of play is not only the language of games; it is also the language of BDSM and other queer communities, where kink and sex parties are "play parties" and individual erotic practices are known by names like "anal play," "bondage play," and "puppy play." In an implicit sense, the importance of play already underlies much of queer experience and existing queer theory scholarship. Playfulness ties sexual expression to the queer desires of childhood in the work of Kathryn Bond Stockton (2009). It luxuriates in the jouissance of pleasure and rejects the use-value of sexual reproductivity in Lee Edelman's No Future (2004). The vibrant tomorrows, always "not yet there," of José Muñoz's Cruising Utopia (2009) are built through make-believe. Each of these examples demonstrates how play is already central to queer studies, and how play has the power to both disrupt and reimagine worlds.
Placing queerness in dialogue with video games brings play to the fore. The politics of play are complex and often contradictory—and no subject of study illustrates [End Page 543] this better than games themselves. The nature of play has long been a point of debate among scholars of game studies, the academic field dedicated to digital and analog games. Even the titles of the early works that have been foundational for the field, like Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (2016) and Roger Caillois's Man, Play, and Games (2001), make it clear that understanding play has been a central concern of game studies. Common lines of inquiry from game studies scholars include questions about how and why game players play (De Koven 2013; Sutton-Smith 1997), how they feel when they play (Isbister 2016; Juul 2013), how game play is structured and subverted (Bogost 2007; Consalvo 2007), and what cultural values play enacts (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014). Scholarship that explicitly ties video games to queerness is a relatively new—and fast-growing—addition to game studies. However, seen through a queer lens, video games become windows into both the powers and the pitfalls of play. On the one side is play as playfulness: a kind of free-form expression that allows game players to explore new ways of being in the world and by extension themselves. In this mode, players roam in-game terrains and try on the lives, bodies, and desires of others. On the other side is play as conformity to a system of rules. Video games appear to offer players infinite possibilities for interaction, but they are in fact highly structured. To play a video game the "right" way, the way that the game intends, is also to play along. In this way, video games complicate the notions of play that already underlie queer studies and queer pleasures.
This is only one of many new perspectives that video games bring to the study of queerness. As will become apparent below, the academic field of game studies is already being notably enriched by an increasing interest in queer studies. What about the other side of this interdisciplinary equation? What does queer studies stand to gain by turning its attention to video games? To date, conversations around LGBTQ issues and video games have taken place almost exclusively in game-related contexts, such as at game conferences and in publications on digital media. Now this work must cross over into the terrain of queer studies. Among the...