The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games, by Bonnie Ruberg

Tanja Sihvonen enjoys a collection of interviews with the queer game makers who are transforming the whole world of video games

May 14, 2020
A float  advertising LGBT video games at the Taiwan 2019 LGBT Pride Parade
Source: Getty

The video gaming community is a masculine, heteronormative and racially and ethnically homogeneous site of action. The stereotype of the white, straight, cisgender male gamer still prevails, although women, queer people, transgender people and others have always played and made games as well. Such players, often perceived as “different”, have been systematically under- and misrepresented in games and gaming cultures. At times, they have faced serious hostility on public platforms, as the 2014-15 hate campaign #GamerGate demonstrated.

This is the context into which The Queer Games Avant-Garde, the latest book by Bonnie Ruberg (an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine), taps. It is a collection of 22 interviews with contemporary game makers who either identify as queer, aim to work queerly or make work related to queer issues.

The book begins boldly by stating that queer independent game makers are leading the charge in finding ways to deconstruct and reconfigure the medium of video games. The queer games avant-garde is understood as a “rising tide of indie games being developed by, about, and often for LGBTQ people…that disrupt the status quo, enact resistance, and use play to explore new ways of inhabiting difference”.

Queer indie developers usually work individually or in small teams, and they produce their art across a variety of genres and platforms. An important starting point for this project was thinking about LGBTQ themes through people’s personal histories and trajectories, rather than considering queer games as a “scene” or a “movement”. This approach seems particularly suited to the discussion of queer games, as “queer” in this context can be thought of as an act of queering – thinking differently, subverting, disrupting and even destroying – games and the toxic particles of gaming culture.

The Queer Games Avant-Garde is experimental also in terms of form. It is not a traditional monograph or edited volume, but rather a project that literally brings together many voices. The book is structured around game makers talking about themselves – their lives, passions, identities and what could be called design philosophies – and so provides an exceptionally approachable collection of ideas and personal visions about queer games and the realities of game making.

As this publication is aimed at giving queer game makers an arena in which to express themselves, it is important to understand who these people are and where they hail from. Almost all of them are based in North America, especially hubs such as the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Montreal and Toronto, and many have immigrant backgrounds. They are in their twenties and thirties, and often in precarious work situations. They clearly have shared interests, and all acknowledge the political aspects of their game making. For a project that celebrates diversity and variety, the interviewees actually share quite a lot.

The queer game makers who operate from marginalised subject positions, making their voices heard in and through games, form an important and timely topic for a book. For a European reader, The Queer Games Avant-Garde offers a fascinating glimpse of contemporary North American realities and the anxieties around doing creative work in the current political climate.

Tanja Sihvonen is professor of communication studies at the University of Vaasa, Finland.

The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games
By Bonnie Ruberg
Duke University Press, 288pp, £86.00 and £21.95
ISBN 9781478005919 and 9781478006589
Published 20 March 2020

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