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  • Queerness in the Digital AgeA Scholarly Roundtable

For this issue on queerness in the digital age, the velvet light trap gathered a diverse group of scholars with a range of specialties related to queer theory and media. The conversation that follows touches on everything from dating apps to the films of John Waters to a livestreamed Indigo Girls concert, demonstrating the myriad ways digitality has affected queer media, representation, and audiences. Apropos of an issue concerned with digital spaces, this roundtable took place via email. The editors began this roundtable on March 9, 2020, only for closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic to begin in earnest a few days later. Thus, the participants' contributions began to reflect this fraught period toward the end of the conversation.

This conversation has been edited for clarity. [End Page 49]


What do you think is the state of queer theory and queer studies in light of contemporary media practices?


My first thought goes immediately to dating and hookup apps geared primarily at subsections of the LGBTQ+ community. The current field of "Grindr studies" (what I call scholarship related to apps geared primarily at gay/bi men and some trans/queer people) looks a lot at self-presentation strategies (how people communicate about their bodies, gender identities, ethnicities, safer sex strategies, etc.). I also look a lot at the culture of the apps and how (especially queer) people use "hookup apps" for a lot more than sex (such as for finding friends, jobs, rooms, local info).

Within the cultures of online, queer dating apps, individuals' profiles communicate a lot. Some are political, some confrontational, some challenge dominant categories and problematic discourses. Individuals broadcast their message, via their profiles, to an audience. Hence, I see parallels with other media (newspapers, web forums).


In my own media corner, I think and write about video games, which have been really interesting to watch change over the last ten years or so. Like other media, we've seen a surge of representation of queer folks beyond the cis white gay men that had already made some inroads into cultural stories. On the mainstream front, major franchises like Assassin's Creed, Dragon Age, The Last of Us, and Mass Effect introduced queer and trans characters that differ from much of what came before: they are characters of color, they are women, they are protagonists, they don't have to die.

In some ways, however, the appearance of these new representations is a bit of an illusion. In December 2018, the Schwules Museum in Berlin put together the Rainbow Arcade, the first exhibit dedicated to queerness in video games, cocurated by Sarah Rudolph, Jan Schnorrenberg, and Adrienne Shaw. One of the messages of the exhibit is that queer representations in video games go back much further than we think. They even dug up queer games from the late eighties and early nineties! One of them, Caper in the Castro, is now available to play on the Internet Archive.

Representation inevitably leads to the question of creators, and efforts to diversify the industry and make it more welcoming for marginalized folks include hashtag campaigns like #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe, which were a sort of call-and-response starting in 2012 about sexism in the industry and why women nevertheless persisted. Today, there's a big push to unionize game workers, in large part because labor conditions like "crunch," in which workers are expected to work eighty to one hundred hours per week to finish a project, are a big reason that marginalized folks choose to leave the industry. There's a recognition here that what is good for the most vulnerable workers is good for all workers, though it's been an uphill battle for them. Game Workers Unite has been a huge influence here.

On the indie front, what Bo Ruberg's new book calls the "queer games avant-garde" exploded in the early 2010s, in which queer developers, most of them trans women, started creating small, quirky games—some about being trans and/or queer and some of them not. In some ways, they heralded the...