[Editor’s note: This the conclusion to a two-part series by guest contributor, Zoe, originally written for the author’s Queer/Feminist Application to Art class.]

After establishing video games as an art form, we can begin to look at the bigger question: how do we read video games as queer art? The most obvious answer to this is to look at video games that present queer themes, even though they have been few and far in between, as the game making industry has continually been dominated by middle-aged white and Asian men (Clark). However, more and more games are beginning to incorporate queer themes into their characters and stories, such as The Last of Us 2 (2019) (IGN), which, in its gameplay trailer, made it clear that it would be heavily including details about the main character’s sexuality.

Screenshot from The Last of Us 2 depicting two female characters in a kiss.

Additionally, games whose storylines revolve around queer stories have already emerged into the limelight. Gone Home (2013) is a game where the protagonist must uncover the details about her sister’s sexuality as well as the circumstances behind her disappearance, and is well known for being one of the first games that was centrally and openly about a queer story (Bagnall).

Screenshot from Gone Home of a small bedroom. There is a pirate flag on the wall, a bed, a side table with a lamp and mug, and pens, and markers on the floor. In the foreground is a blue locker with a collage of women decorating the front.

But there is more than one way to interpret a game as queer. Naomi Clark, a scholar, teacher, and maker of games at NYU, says: “In contrast to the focus on representation in game content, other queer game creators have taken up the question of what happens when we question norms and conventions about how games, or specific game genres, are expected to function.” (Clark) In Clark’s eyes, we’re able to look at games through a queer lens that functions closer to queer’s original definition, and how games are able to “mutate and confuse,” as well as reproduce, the same heterosexist logics palpable in other technologies.” (Bagnall)

Black Playstation controller against a white background.

Most video games function on inherently heteronormative software and hardware. One example would be how most video game controllers heavily relay phallic and therefore male imagery with the dual-joystick design that has become the most common (Bagnall). New ways of experiencing games continue to be created, however, and therefore subverting this heteronormative hardware, as we’ve seen with the introduction of voice controls, touch pads, (Bagnall) and, most notably in recent times, the implementation of virtual reality. It mainly boils down to a deliberate and conscious choice over standard convenience that would allow game designers to queer their players’ experiences by forcing them to play their game in a way that fits outside the norm.

Another way to read video games queerly is to think about what they ask of the player. Often, in a video game, one acts as a pre-crafted character, with an already established name and gender. In stereotypical role-playing games, the player controls every movement and every decision the character makes, within the provided storyline. Especially with games in which there are open world environments to explore and different options for in-game choices, this means that each and every player has an entirely unique experience with the game.  Even in games that don’t offer exploration or decision-making, every player’s individual background intersects with the themes and story of a game in unique ways. It’s here that the tenets of Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author really ring true. A video game can never truly be credited to one single person as, even in the instance of indie games, support from others is required to reach completion. The same is exponentially truer with big-name games, which can have sometimes hundreds of names in their credits. Just as there is no true author of an experience with a story within a book, there is never one true author of a video game, as every player is the author of their own experience.

Additionally, depending on the player, the gender of the controlled character in-game doesn’t always match up with the player’s gender. This has obviously not always been the case, as up until recently, men have dominated both the consumer and producer side of games. But from this arises an inherently unique and queer experience where the game is asking the player to be someone else, to adopt the worldview and movement capabilities and gender of the character. Through this lens, we can see that “play, like queerness, encourages complexity and unpredictability to exist and blossom in cultural systems, be those digital games or the gender binary.” (Bagnall) This is not the only way games cross gender lines, however. If anything can be taken from Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, it’s that the 21st century is an age of breaking down boundaries, including those between genders, and those between human and machine. The immersion of the player in video games is one of the best examples of this, as it represents the culmination of the player and the avatar crossing gender boundaries as well as a computer-simulated human, or almost human, experience.

This thought process is crucial to understanding queerness in video games, especially since video games “have seldom been made by and for queers, or even with queers in mind.”(Clark) Clark asserts in her piece that “creators with marginalized experiences and subaltern viewpoints have a different capacity to make new kinds of games that we hadn’t even seen yet.” (Clark) In other words, since queer, among other marginalized, creators have largely been excluded from the market, there is so much potential within games that we haven’t even begun to tap into yet. Other trains of thought have begun to break down what it means to be a game. Indie games, having emerged in the early 2000s, began to question the fundamental components of pre-existing games. Anna Anthropy is a queer game designer most famous for her works Mighty Jill Off (2008) and dys4ia (2012) (Clark). Her latter game has generated quite a bit of controversy over its unique design, as it mainly consists of a series of static images that the player must flip through, with some saying that it could have been created in PowerPoint slides and “is not a game” (Clark). However, it is precisely this dialogue that brings dys4ia’s inherent queerness to light. “[It] manages to destabilize one of the rarely questioned tenets of what a game must have to be considered a game.” (Clark) dys4ia serves as one of the best examples of the type of game that could be made by marginalized creators, if more were allowed in the market: one that defies and questions all norms, even those of what a game is even supposed to be.

A series of four screenshots from the game dys4ia. Top left: blue background with three green pixelated figures representing people. There is a light blue stripe beneath these figures with a pink figure in the center and a blue house on the right. The green figure in the middle has a green speech bubble that says: "Can I help you, sir?" Below the pink figure is a light blue speech bubble, signifying a whisper, that says "ma'am". Below is a caption that says "Everyone calls me sir."

Top right: White background with various-colored figures, some sitting in white chairs. There is a rainbow in the bottom left of the room. At the top is the caption: "Waiting room." The bottom has another caption: "At last, I'm at a clinic."

Bottom left: A green background, with a pink horizontal stripe in the center. At the left in this stripe is a pink house. Walking away from the house is a blue figure. At the top is a caption: "These blood pressure meds are really draining my energy."

Bottom right: Purple background with a lighter purple maze-like structure. There are four blue rectangles with white diagonal stripes signifying mirrors. There is a green figure standing in front of one of the mirrors to the right. At the bottom is a caption: "Sometimes I can almost see myself as beautiful as my girlfriend says I am."

Although very new to the title, video games have already been considered a form of art for several years. They have the capacity to be queer not only in their subject matter, but in the way they are created. Even the hardware and controls upon which video games are experienced can be queered. For this reason should video games be considered a form of inherently queer art. Perhaps not all video games on all axes, however, as a large majority of them still follow very heteronormative conventions in their software and hardware. The subject instead demands more exploration that hopefully, within time, could lead to the expansion of queer creators, queer content, and queer gameplay within video games.

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