Seeing Video Games in a New Light

February 25, 2019

By exploring gender and sexual identity in video games, Bonnie Ruberg’s latest book seeks to provide a sense of belonging for LGBTQ players while also offering readers of all backgrounds a new perspective on video games that foregrounds diversity.

Informatics Professor Bonnie Ruberg is a leading figure in the emerging field of queer game studies. (Han Parker/UCI)

Millions of people across the world play video games. These players represent a wide range of identities, and many are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). Unfortunately, diverse players are often overlooked by the game development industry. They also endure hostility from what has been described as a toxic gamer culture. According to Informatics Professor Bonnie Ruberg (they/them pronouns), who studies gender and sexual identity in digital media, this is why it is important to flip the script on video games and argue that LGBTQ players and queer perspectives are in fact central to games. In their new book Video Games Have Always Been Queer (NYU Press, 2019), Ruberg, a leading figure in a new academic sub-field known as “queer game studies,” demonstrates how video games can be reimagined through queerness, inspiring readers to see video games, as well as how they are developed and played, in a new light.

What was your motivation for writing this book? Why write about queerness in video games?
Queerness means many things to many people; it can be an umbrella for non-straight, non-cisgender identities, but it can also be an ethos that resists the status quo of gender and sexuality. For me, it is crucial to support this resistance and fight for diversity in video games and gaming cultures. I do that in many ways in my work — for example, by organizing community events like the annual Queerness and Games Conference or giving talks at game industry events. Another important way to enact change is through scholarship. I’m honored to be a leader in queer game studies: an emerging, fast-growing area of scholarship. This book uses queer theory, a vibrant area of critical theory that draws from LGBTQ experiences, to argue that we can see video games in a whole new way. Rather than pushing LGBTQ people to the margins of games and gaming culture, this work puts queerness front and center. I am a queer person who has loved video games for more than 20 years but who has often faced discrimination in video game culture. Writing this book was an act of passion and reclamation. It says, “Video games belong to us, too!

In the book, you write that “queer people have always belonged in video games — because video games have, in fact, always been queer.” What do you mean by that?
This idea is really the core of the new approach to video games that I am arguing for in this book. It’s a bold statement, but that’s what we need right now. What I mean is that, if we start to see video games as fundamentally tied to LGBTQ perspectives — in the ways they are played, developed, and interpreted —then we can think of video games themselves as a queer medium. And if video games are a queer medium, then all those people who have been hostile toward diverse players can no longer say, “Games aren’t for you.” Harassment based on gender, sexual orientation, race and many other factors is a day-to-day reality in gaming spaces. I am pushing back against that by claiming that video games themselves are about diverse experiences.

Do you think that a book like yours can help make video games and the game industry more inclusive?
On the one hand, I absolutely believe that academics like myself who are committed to promoting social justice can — and should — work to make the cultural landscape of games more welcoming and supportive of those who are currently seen as “different.” That means not only LGBTQ people, but also people of color, women and non-binary people, people with disabilities, and more. The more we talk about the place of LGBTQ people in games — whether as players, developers, characters or scholars — the more that we raise up the voices of those who have been pushed to the margins because they do not fit the image of the stereotypical “gamer” and create opportunities for intersectional solidarity.

On the other hand, we need to maintain a healthy skepticism about the rhetoric of “inclusion.” Inclusion sounds great in theory, but it may not be what we want to strive for. Many scholars from fields like queer studies, feminist studies and critical race studies have voiced important critiques that warn us that being included isn’t necessarily the same thing as making meaningful change. Sara Ahmed’s work in this area is particularly poignant. What does it mean to want more people to be “included” in a system that is itself oppressive? Rather than pushing for inclusion, I’d rather push for resistance.

Who is your target audience, and what do you hope people take away from this book?
My hope is that this book will interest both academics and non-academics — that is, people from fields like game studies, queer studies, media studies and cultural studies, as well as people who make video games or simply people who play them. It would also be wonderful to see the book in the hands of activists and artists and all sorts of queer folks who love video games.

The big take-away from the book is that video games as we know them today do not just have to be the domain of straight, cisgender, white, male gamers. There is so much more to these games! Many video games already contain elements that are non-heteronormative — that push back against the status quo of gender and sexuality. As I argue in this book, even games that don’t appear to have any LGBTQ content such as gay characters or same-sex romances can be interpreted, designed or played queerly. Ideally, I want readers to look at the games on their shelves (or consoles, computers and phones) and realize that this medium belongs to queer people just as much as to anyone else.

When we talk about diversity, we often talk about representation. In the book, you argue for looking for queerness in video games “beyond representation.” Why is that important?
It is true that, for diverse video game players, representation can be really meaningful. I wouldn’t want to undervalue that. However, representation is only one part of the equation. Queerness in games isn’t just about who we see on screen; it is also about how we understand, make and experience games. Some of my colleagues in queer game studies, like Adrienne Shaw, have done insightful work demonstrating that identification between diverse players and characters isn’t as direct as we assume. Also, representation can get messy. Sometimes big game studios include LGBTQ characters in their games but represent them in problematic ways. There’s only so far we can go just by saying that corporate, commercial video games should have more LGBTQ people in them. For me, the much more exciting and radical proposition is to lay claim to the medium of video games as a whole. Worlds of possibility open up when we allow ourselves to see and experience games themselves in new ways.

Shani Murray

Media: Members of the media who want more information on Professor Ruberg and their new book, or who want to schedule an interview with Ruberg or request a review copy of the book, please contact Matt Miller at Additional photos of Ruberg can be downloaded here.