Queerness and Games at First Person Scholar

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as guest editor for a series of four issues of the wonderful online journal First Person Scholar. First Person Scholar‘s mission is to publish dynamic critical writing on games, so I was very excited to pair up with editor-in-chief Steve Wilcox to bring together six talks adapted from presentations given at the 2014 Queerness and Games Conference. I also got to write an introduction, “Video Games, Queerness, and Beyond,” which makes a case for the importance of talking about queerness when we talk about games.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, I highly recommend checking out the articles! Here is the full list from across the four issues:

- Bonnie Ruberg, “Video Games, Queerness, and Beyond”
- Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas, “Queering Human-Game Relations”
- Christopher Goetz, “Building Queer Community”
- Jetta Ray, “Consent, Pinball, and the End of ‘Sex as Conquest’”
- Mohini Dutta, “Designing for the Other”
- Margaret Rhee, “On Beauty: Gamers, Gender, and Turing”
- Edmond Chang, “Cards Against Humanity: Playing Up and Playing with Difference in Games”

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The 2015 Game Developers Conference: something different?

After years as a games journalist and then years as a grad student, I’ve finally had the chance to return to the Game Developers Conference as a plain old speaker and attendee. Still, that reporting instinct is in my blood, and these days I can’t seem to listen without live tweeting. Those who follow me have seen the torrent of notes on the state of social justice and games.

For me, this year’s GDC felt different from years past. Diversity, accessibility, and change were central to many of the presentations I saw and almost all of my discussions with colleagues. Has something fundamentally shifted? Maybe there truly were more women, more queer folk, more people of color at the conference this year. Maybe I’ve just learned to tune out the noise. Or maybe I’m starting to find my place in the fuzzy landscape between academia and industry, to feel at home.

You can find my full Twitter coverage (and my future conference coverage) by following me: @myownvelouria. I also Storified a few key sessions, including the micro talk panel I lead on creating safe spaces at game events. Video recordings should be hitting the GDC vault soon.

- Creating Safe Spaces at Game Events, micro talk session with Matt Conn, Chelsea Howe, Toni Pizza, and Bonnie Ruberg

- #1ReasonToBe 2015, this year with Brenda Romero, Leigh Alexander, Katherine Cross, Sela Davis, Amy Hennig, Elizabeth LaPensee, Constance Steinkuehler, and Adriel Wallick

- The Problem with Gender and Body Choice in Sunset Overdrive, a report from Aldabert Kinsey’s talk on animating for diverse body types

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The 2014 Queerness and Games Conference was a hit!

Well, it’s December, and the 2014 Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) and the accompanying Queerness and Games undergraduate game design workshop have both come and gone. I’m happy to report that both were hugely successful! This was our second year running QGCon, and we didn’t know what to expect. As in 2013 though, our amazing community of game developers and scholars blew us away with their talks, games, and support.

If you’re interested in learning more about the wonderful work that was presented at QGCon 2014, almost all of the sessions have been made available as Youtube videos. The games designed by our Berkeley undergrads have received praise from across academia and the industry, and you can play all five up them for free! At the request of our attendees, we’ve also started a Facebook group (Queerness and Games), which you are very welcome to join. You can also continue to find the QGCon organizers on Twitter as @qgcon.

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Play the games from the Queerness and Games Design Workshop!

Ultimate Star Collector small

My co-organizers and I are very proud of the wonderful students who took part in the pilot program of the Queerness and Games Design Workshop here at Berkeley in September and October. Our hope was to put accessible game-making tools into the hands of a diverse group of students, and to bring the work of QGCon to the amazing undergrads on campus. The games that the workshop participants made blew us away. They tackled everyday issues faced by queer students in insightful and exciting ways.

The games from the design workshop are now available to play (for free)! Check them out:

- Ultimate Star Collector: Winner of the Universe. It’s a platformer built in Melon JS that features a protagonist of non-binary gender and some gorgeous retro-meets-watercolor art. As players progress in search of stars, levels become harder and NPCs become more confrontational. Can you make it from childhood to early adulthood while facing increasing levels of misunderstanding and discrimination?

- Hard Mode 101. It’s an RPG built in Unity that re-imagines the daily obstacles of college as a series of turn-by-turn battles. Fight that 9:00 a.m. class with compulsive note-taking. Go to a club meeting and combat problematic language with the power of rainbows. Deal damage at a party by dressing fierce and smashing gender binaries.

- That One Time You Left Everything That You Needed at Home. It’s a text-based game built in Twine that walks players through the hectic life of a campus commuter. Wake up. Face an empty fridge. Dress fast and fabulous. Rush to class. Face impending gender misidentification. Celebrate when your professor cancels lecture (editors note: sad face).

- The Becoming. It’s a point-and-click adventure built in GameMaker. Players start as seemingly genderless and unmarked figures. As they progress through various landscapes, they take on new attributes and clothes. The message: identity and self-presentation aren’t just about how you were born, they’re about your life experiences and who you become. For more, see co-creator Jenn Georgevich’s great write-up of the game and the creative process.

- The Convenience Store Contingency. It’s a JRPG that started in GameMaker but hopped over to Unity. Oh no, you’re out of delicious snacks! In order to make your way to the convenience store, you have to rock-paper-scissors your way past combative acquaintances, frustrating ex-partners, and nosy parents ready to doll out heteronormative prescriptions. Why haven’t you settled down with a nice boy yet?

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The 2014 Queerness and Games Conference in almost here!

Queerness and Games Conference 2014 poster

After an amazing event last October, the Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) is back for 2014. QGCon runs from the evening of Friday, October 24 to the evening of Sunday, October 26. Registration is free and open to the public, and all sessions will take place in UC Berkeley’s beautiful South Hall. I couldn’t be more excited about this year’s line-up of speakers, talks, workshops, and games. The wonderful undergraduates from the Queerness and Games Design Workshop that I’ve been co-running over the last few months will be presenting as well, and I’m already very proud of what they’ve accomplished.

This year our keynote speakers and their talk titles are:
- Naomi Clark & Merritt Kopas, “Queerness and Beyond: Rethinking Human-Game Relations”
- Brenda Laurel, “Enabling Realities”
- Lisa Nakamura, “Racism, Sexism, and Social Justice Warriors in Video Games Culture”

Feel free to join us in Berkeley for as much or as little of the conference as you like. Thank you in advance to our generous volunteers and sponsors, without whom this unique opportunity for collaboration and queer visibility would not be possible. See you at QGCon 2014!

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Speaking up against sexual harassment at Burning Man

I’m proud to call Black Rock City my temporary home for one week each year. It’s an invaluable and often downright magical place where creativity and community flourish in inspirational ways. But just because Burning Man is a place of beauty doesn’t mean we can’t speak up against its uglier sides. Here is my feedback to the Burning Man organization about sexual harassment at this year’s Burn. I welcome others to use the following link to send their own feedback and help make Burning Man a welcoming space for people of all genders, bodies, and self-presentations.

“I have been a Burner for five years and I am a dedicated member of the BRC community. This year I was dismayed to witness and experience an increasing amount of sexual harassment on playa. While I know that sexual assault at Burning Man is already a recognized concern, the harassment I’m talking about is less clearcut and more pervasive. Female-bodied Burners, especially those camping in non-staff areas, know well that walking down the street in BRC means facing cat calls and other aggressive, sexualized behavior at all times: participants on bullhorns shouting, “Look at that ass!”; participants flicking floggers at women as they bike past; participants demanding “titties” in exchange for bacon. As BRC grows in size and new Burners fill the city, this unacceptable behavior snowballs. I believe the Org needs to step in with an official stance that makes it clear that sexual harassment, which leaves many Burners feeling unsafe in their own city, will not be tolerated at Burning Man.”

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How to promote inclusivity when playing video games in the classroom

This summer I’ve been knees-deep teaching an intensive course on race in video games. I’ve taught games plenty of times before as part of classes on digital cultures and/or new media, but this is my first shot at all-games-all-the-time. One of my main tenants for students is that we don’t just talk about video games, we play them. Interactivity is, for obvious reasons, crucial when it comes to understanding games. I want the class to experience that together.

Playing games as a group sounded great on paper, but the reality has been challenging. Most classrooms and/or university media labs don’t have the resources to support access to expensive mainstream titles. Meanwhile the balance between long play-through times and busy teaching schedules makes pedagogical decisions tough. A new 80+-hour game has just come out; it seems right on target. How long do I need to play it before I responsibly present it to the class?

I’m also learning the importance of setting ground rules that make the classroom a safe space for all students to feel comfortable playing. For me, it’s crucial that the group doesn’t replicate the dynamics of sexism and one-upmanship so ingrained in gamer culture. This is especially important, and especially tricky, because any given bunch of undergraduates will likely include players with considerably different levels of experience and considerably different social backgrounds.

Here are the ground rules I’ve learned to set before the group plays a game together (students take timed turns on one-player games):

1. Watch carefully and think critically even when you’re not playing.
2. Never tell another player what to do or offer “help” unless they directly ask.
3. Be patient with yourself and others.
4. Don’t skip cut scenes or text boxes. Do feel free to explore.

And here’s one more ground rule I wish I’d set at the very beginning of the semester:

5. This is a class about viewing media critically. It is not about performing extensive outside gamer knowledge. References are fine, but our focus is the material at hand.

These ground rules help promote inclusivity by taking the wind out of competition and pressure. They encourage the group to watch with intellectual engagement and mutual support. Most of all, they make it clear that those who “do well” at the games we play or can list off obscure game facts are valued no more and no less than those who are still learning their way around the medium. We are experiencing video games, and experiencing them together.

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O’Keeffee exhibit at the de Young keeps things suspiciously sexless

“Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” the big temporary exhibit currently at San Francisco’s de Young museum, is now in its final weeks. I’m not normally a huge O’Keeffe fan — I prefer my art with less optimistic exuberance and more explicit sexual politics — but I have the requisite feminist admiration for her work. I visited the show this weekend with guests from out of town and was surprised by what I found. “Modern Nature” focuses on O’Keeffe’s earlier years, in particular her summers spent at Lake George with Alfred Stiegletz. More than anything it emphasizes how the beauty of lake and its surrounds made its way into her watery landscapes and vibrant floral images. By way of informational text, the paintings on display were accompanied primarily by quotes from O’Keeffe about the loveliness of her placid surroundings and little interpretive commentary. Visitors of all ages drifted through the space with faint smiles. In the gift shop, umbrellas featured O’Keeffe’s purple blooms. It was all exceedingly pleasant.

o-OKEEFFE-900When it comes to the narratives we tell through art, I’m highly suspicious of pleasantness; it rarely tells the whole story. In this case I was amazed that the exhibit managed, with one brief and telling exception, to avoid all mention of the body. In both popular culture and gender-oriented art history, O’Keeffe’s work is most frequently (and perhaps most dismissively) referred to as being about, well, vaginas. Sometimes you hear about how her work empowers women through her bold, beautiful representation of the female form. Sometimes you hear about how her work speaks to same-sex desires: a woman gazing at the curving, folded flesh of a woman. Sometimes you hear O’Keeffe’s admirers complain about how her images are often reduced to genitalia jokes. And sometimes, as recently happened in my own art history classroom, you hear neoliberal post-feminists scoff at all that “lady part painting girl power.”

ART452947Meanwhile, “Modern Nature” sidesteps all of those debates by ignoring the body completely. It’s not to say that every O’Keeffe exhibit has to focus on her abstract interpretations of the human — but to pretend that the works on display had no relation to people felt like a deliberate gag order on the elephant in the room. For the most part the curators hushed up the issue by choosing images that appeared to most literally represent nature: paintings of trees, leaves, flowers (though we know an O’Keeffe flower is rarely just a flower). If I had to re-title the exhibit, I’d choose “Georgia O’Keeffe: Finally A Chance to Not Talk about Vaginas,” or maybe “Georgia O’Keeffe: An Exhibit You Can Bring Your Grandmother To.”

One set of images, however, broke conspicuously with the trend to ignore the body. It also managed to make it laughably clear that the body loomed large yet unspeakable in the otherwise notably sanitized exhibit. imagesThe first image (all three are from O’Keeffe’s Series 1, though they don’t represent the complete series), we see what looks a whitefish mound with two peaks, following by some abstracted greenery, and then the deep blue reflection of mountains overlooking a lake. The explanatory text, insightfully enough, pointed out that, while this painting seems abstract, it could in fact be depicting the artist’s own knees as she sits on a canoe on Lake George. In the second image that the curators selected from the series, the greenery and the lake have been pushed further to the edges of the frame by the white knee form, which has grown larger, more corporeal, and notably ass-like. Here the explanatory text offers us the exhibit’s only mention of the body. Of the knee-forms, the explanation admits euphemistically, “Their curves and folds, so unlike the artist’s own [slender] body, suggest possible associations with other elements of human anatomy.” Really? Then comes the third image. Now the white knee-shapes have morphed unmistakably into “other elements of the human anatomy” — specifically a rear end with raised legs, a flowering vulva, and an exposed pink anus.

Yet this third image (along with the fourth in the series, which reads as more “simply” vaginal) comes with no explanatory text. That is, after hinting at the bodily implications of these Lake George images, the exhibit falls silent. Out of embarrassment? Out of decorum? Given O’Keeffe’s prolific production during this period, why include this painting only to ignore it? Though each element of the exhibit has been carefully planned, it feels as if this one work, with its bold if abstracted exposure of the celebrated abject, has snuck in among the plants and landscapes to remind us that 1) the body is always at stake in O’Keeffe’s work, as it is in any work, and 2) that pretending that the story of her art can be told without the body can itself never amount to more than a suspiciously tight-lipped pleasantry.

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The wounded body as the terrorist body

A few months ago I was rushing around in a last-minute flurry to prepare for a trip, when I slipped on my basement stairs and sprained my ankle. It hurt, but with some icing and some Advil I was able to walk, and so I set off for the airport.

In the security line I asked for an “opt-out pat-down,” the code phrase for, “I think your backscatter machine is an invasive and unnecessary performance in the grand theater of national security.” When you opt for a pat down, a TSA agent of your gender (God help you if you’re gender queer) gruffly directs you to a table, grabs your luggage from the belt, and instructs you to spread your legs and raise your arms while he/she runs a pair of gloves along your crotch, ass, and waist band. If you’re unlucky, you’ll also get a few unprofessional and indignant remarks, such as: “Why are you making us do this? The machine isn’t even that dangerous.”

Each time, before starting the pat-down, you’ll also be asked: “Do you have any painful or sensitive areas?” Normally my answer is “no.” However, having just rolled my ankle, I said “yes,” pointed to where it hurt, and expected (naively) that the TSA agent would run her hands especially gently over my fresh wound. Instead, when she reached my ankle, she grabbed it tightly, rubbing it hard and scowling. In the 50 or so pat-downs I’ve received, never has a TSA agent handled a part of my body so roughly, insistently, and with such overt disdain and suspicion.

Needless to say, I felt angry — and I felt pain. When the agent went to run the gloves through the scanner that tests for explosive residue, I bent down to rub my sore ankle. “Don’t move!” she barked. My scan came up clean, she dismissed me with a wave of her hand, and I hobbled off.

I think about this incident often when I travel. I think about being lied to implicitly and misled, about how the question “Does anything hurt?” seems to communicate caring and respect for the bodies moving through the enormous parade of American security. I think about how, instead, that question was used as a litmus test to track down any area I might not want to be touched, any area where I might be concealing… who knows what. I think about how admitting that I felt pain meant that I was treated with less dignity and less compassion than someone who felt none (or did not admit to “weakness”). I think about how my injured body became a site of suspicion, how my wound made me a potential threat. And I think about what in the world I would do if I had chronic pain, or any number of other disabilities. Would my “sick” body be treated as a terrorist threat every time I tried to step onto a plane?

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Why ‘gamer cred’ is a fundamentally sexist concept

I’ve been making my living writing about video games, in some sense or another, for nearly a decade. And like many woman in the industry, I regularly confront my own compulsive need to assert my gamer cred. The fact is, people still assume that being female means you’re not on the inside of gaming, not really “one of us.” Gamer cred is the currency you use to buy back the right to be considered a goddamn human being. In a games conversation with a homosocial gaggle of men who figure you’ve never held a controller, you’re invisible — until you bust out the Ocarina of Time reference, jangle around your N64 keychain, and roll your eyes at the success of whatever new title in whatever longstanding series is still nowhere as good as the original. Throw down!

Over the last couple of years there’s been a lot of talk about what makes women “real” or “fake” gamers (see the “Idiot Nerd Girl” meme). Long told by society that playing video games wasn’t girly enough, women are now being condemned for not being gamer-y enough — at least in the eyes of the insular, defensive gaming masses. They’re being accused of jumping on the nerd wagon for the sex appeal and glory (really, people?) without earning their cred through long years of dedicated play. See also: you’re pretty, you intimidate me, get out of my tree house. The feminist pushback has largely focused on the hypocrisy and the pervasiveness of “fake girl gamer” shaming. Female gamers are just as “real” as male ones; whether you like it or not, we have the cred to prove it.

The problem is that gamer cred as an institution is fundamentally sexist. Let’s think about what counts toward your “gamer cred” score. 1) How much you play games. 2) How you perform your own gamer-ness. 3) How long you’ve been playing games.

Let’s start with 1 and 2. Cultural expectations prescribed for women are different than those prescribed for men (duh). If I am male, the contemporary culture around me encourages me to play games. I see other men playing games on TV and in movies. I have been socialized to bond with other men by challenging each other to rounds of Smash Bros. I have also been encouraged to perform my gamer-ness in loud, proud strokes. A wide array of t-shirts and paraphernalia specific to boy bodies is available to me. If I am female, on the other hand, I may play games a lot, or I may play games less frequently. I may socialize through gaming, or I may not. I may rock a games shirt (despite my limited options), or I may “pass” as a “normal” lady in normal lady clothes. But when I make those choices, I make them under a different set of conditions than men do. Your cred is not my cred. When you claim they’re the same, that there’s some objective scale, you impose on me a male standard that I’m going to have to fight uphill hard to live up to. And that’s straight up discrimination.

But it’s 3 I want to focus on: the incredibly sexist idea that you have more cred the longer you’ve been playing video games. You’ve seen the slogan with the NES controller: “Know your roots.” Let me make a confession, a confession that I have made to groups of male gamers before, a confession that is always met with looks of surprise and mild disdain. Here it goes. My first video game console was the N64. My first console game was Mario 64. Before the age of twelve, I had only ever touched a computer game. Now you know my shame. As a (male) fellow journalist once said upon hearing this, “Wow, Bonnie, I thought you had cred.”

Let me tell you something about a system like the Super NES, which came out in 1991, when I was six years old. No six-year-old buys her own game console. She plays with the toys that are bought for her, and what is bought for her is dictated by what society tells her parents are right for her age and gender. If I had waited until I could buy my own game consoles, I wouldn’t have started playing until I was sixteen and bought a GameCube (the horror). As it stands, the only reason I had access to a Nintendo 64 was because my little brother — who was around six himself when the console came out — got one for Hannukah. Like so many young girls, I had access to video games only through my brother. This isn’t because I wasn’t a “real” gamer. It’s because I was a girl.

When you judge gamer cred by how long someone has been playing, you discriminate against them based on factors outside of their control. You discriminate against women. You discriminate against people of color. You discriminate against those raised poor. We are here now, and we make the choice to play games. Counting our cred based on our past reveals how little you know about what it means to “really” love something, and what it means to just “fake” it.

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