- Video Games Have Always Been Queer by Bonnie Ruberg
Video Games Have Always Been Queer makes its central argument boldly and on the front cover. Bonnie Ruberg, a leading voice at the intersection of queer theory and digital media studies, carefully lays out the provocative premise behind the title with characteristic patience and a deep eagerness to address a broad audience. If you know nothing about queer theory or video games—not to mention why their intersection has recently become so urgently important—do not fear. You soon will. Throughout the book, Ruberg demonstrates repeatedly that queerness is not some special coefficient added to games by scholars and activists; it's always been there, just as queer people have always been playing video games. Games, like the world we live in, are more diverse, complex, and strange than is suggested by the simplified frameworks or assumptions we deploy when talking about them, including what games are, why they exist, and who plays them.
Ruberg frequently frames a special connection between gaming and queer subjectivity in terms of queerness's counter-hegemonic function. She argues that both queerness and games "share a common ethos: the longing to imagine alternative ways of being and to make space within structures of power for resistance through play."1 The book's first half explores games that already oppose such structures, but perhaps in ways not always fully appreciated. In the first three chapters, Ruberg works "to reimagine the history of [End Page 203] video games" by locating queerness "beneath the surface of digital games from their earliest forms."2 The book's second half considers a variety of ways players have "queered" even commercial games with no LGBTQ content by engaging in play that itself resists the dominant systems that games reproduce. In the broadest sense, Ruberg is offering a comprehensive map of how players "queer"—or pose some sort of opposition to—hegemonic forces in the industry, its games, and its communities. Queering a game can entail challenging assumptions about why we play (e.g., to win), how we interpret a game's meanings (e.g., Pong [Atari, 1972] is just table tennis), what features we assume a game must have (e.g., that it should take dozens of hours to complete), or even how we should feel while playing (e.g., triumphant or happy). One necessary starting point for understanding Ruberg's intervention is the notion that the video game industry is rigidly standardized with deeply embedded protocol, business models, and mentalities. So, too, is much of gaming culture apparently set in its ways and determined to resist the changes that are being called for by a growing number of voices within the community.
The threat of real-world violence directed through online spaces at anyone who stands apart from or poses questions about gaming's normative models of play or its supposedly cisgendered, straight, white, and male culture looms over Ruberg's discussion. Readers will likely have already heard about #GamerGate and the harassment faced by queer players and women in online spaces. But some readers may still be surprised to learn that simply undertaking a close reading of a game in order to highlight its gender politics can result in violent threats of rape and murder. As with their peers in the emerging paradigm of queer game studies, Ruberg sadly does not have the luxury of simply writing for an academic audience in an ivory tower, shielded from the difficult realities of a culture war unfolding in real time. Ruberg addresses and beautifully analyzes some of the anti-intellectual and homophobic vitriol that they have personally received as a result of basic queer readings of games. Though difficult to encounter even vicariously, such reactions against queer or feminist voices in online spaces attest powerfully to both the serious difficulty and the urgent necessity of addressing identity in gaming.
This reference to a culture war is meant to speak to the timeliness of Ruberg's important book. But I...