The December 2018 special issue of Game Studies on “Queerness and Video Games” is the largest in the journal’s history. “This is a groundbreaking special issue,” notes Informatics Professor Bonnie Ruberg, who co-edited the issue with Amanda Phillips, an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University. Yet the issue’s significance stems not just from its impressive volume of content. “It’s the first time,” says Ruberg, “that this major venue has engaged in such depth with issues of gender, sexuality and identity.”
This move by Game Studies, a leading journal on the cultural genre of games, highlights a shift in the field. “Queer people are destabilizing and reenvisioning games from the bottom up,” explain Ruberg and Phillips in their introduction, “Not Gay as in Happy: Queer Resistance and Video Games.” This bottom-up resistance has caused “a crucial shift in the relationship between games and queerness.”
Game studies has a history of shying away from topics related to identity and politics, but the special issue’s 11 peer-reviewed articles tackle everything from depictions of LGBTQ-affiliated characters in games and fan fiction, to queer game design and game modifications, to discussions of subversion and normativity and representational politics in specific games. In addition to the wide range of topics, the authors use a variety of methodological approaches, including close reading, data analysis and hands-on design practices.
Two years in the making, the issue is part of the rise of Queer Game Studies. According to Ruberg, a founding figure of scholarly work in this area and author of the forthcoming book, Video Games Have Always Been Queer (New York University Press, 2019), the articles “demonstrate growing engagement with queerness and video games from game studies scholars and game makers.”
Ruberg and Phillips note that the issue is “inspired by the spirit of queerness as both an umbrella term for LGBT people and an ethos: a way of living differently in the world that resists heteronormative prescriptions related to sexuality and gender.” By presenting a collection of articles that undermines dominant power structures, their goal “is not to move queerness from the margins to the center. Rather, we aim to de-center the center, to resist the very hierarchy that dictates that certain ways of knowing and being are marginal or central.”
This presents a new cultural narrative that pushes beyond idea that the gaming industry is “becoming more inclusive.” While Ruberg and Phillips don’t contest this view, they argue that there is much more to the story. “Rather than celebrating the supposed newness of the presence of LGBTQ characters and developers in games, we need to unearth the contributions of queer and transgender folks, alongside women and people of color, who have been appearing in and helping create games for decades.”
This special issue is part of that effort to unearth such contributions, revealing the pervasive existence of queerness in games and amplifying voices that resist the status quo in search of “radical inclusion.”
— Shani Murray