In this episode we speak with Bo Ruberg, who is Assistant Professor at UC Irvine in Film & Media. Their interdisciplinary research crosses media studies, queer studies, the Digital Humanities, cultural studies, and an engagement with computational fields. From 2015-2017, Bo served as a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Interactive Media & Games Division and a member of the Society of Fellows at the University of Southern California. In 2015, Bonnie received their Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley in conjunction with the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Women and Gender Studies. Prior to entering academia, they worked as a technology journalist, reporting on tech, video games, sex, and gender from 2005 to 2009.
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
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Video Games Have Always Been Queer
The Queer Games Avant Garde
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed.
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about games research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Well, Ruberg, we’re very happy to be speaking to you at the moment could you introduce yourself in your own words?
Ruberg: Sure! Thanks for having me, I’m really excited to be here. I am a scholar of gender and sexuality in digital studies and digital culture but my speciality is on queer issues in video games. I work at the University of California, Irvine in Southern California. I just moved into a new position here in the film and media studies department. Which I am super excited about! A lot of the work that I do is really trying to bridge academia with game making practices and academia with activism and organising. So for me, those things are kind of all tied up together.
Darshana: We’re going to be talking a bit about your book “Video games have always been queer”, which is definitely feeding into those things you’ve just talked about. One of the interesting things in talking about this book is that it seems to be bringing queer theory, queer studies into proximity with games studies but what you actually end up doing is way more complicated than that. I mean, many people may think that the goal of queer games studies is to identify and think about queer characters or themes in games but you argue, early in the book, that we need to go beyond this model of representation.
Ruberg: Yah! So I think that you’re totally right that the argument is not just about bringing queer people into our conversations about games but going beyond that and thinking in queer ways. So that’s not something, that kind of basic premise isn’t something that comes from me, that’s really the foundation of queer theory and/or studies. So, in academia, we talk about LGBT studies as the study of individual LGBT people or communities and then queer studies is much more about thinking about ways of desiring or ways of knowing things that kinda shake up what we know as heteronorm activity. The quote-unquote normal way of being a person with gender, sexuality things like that. So, you’re totally right in that the goal of the project is to argue that when we look at videogames, it’s not enough to look for LGBT characters as a kinda traditional diversity representation. We should be thinking about how games can subvert our ideas about gender, and sexuality and desire and intimacy and that that’s a much more meaningful way to look for queerness in games than just this kind of like inclusion checkbox of LGBT people being represented.
Darshana: You have done that kind of work though which is to bring ideas from key academics like Sedgewick and Miller to apply them to videogames and this kind of like reading them in a queer way. But those academics were talking about films and novels. How would you say this way of crossing forms and disciplines influences your work?
Ruberg: Yah, so, you’re absolutely right that the project kind of in some ways is kind of trying to lay the groundwork for other people to take up this work and keep doing it. Like I don’t think about this book as being ‘the book’ on queer theory and games, I think about it as kind of like showing some examples of how you can do this work. With the hope that other people will take it in new directions. Because of that, I look at some really classic queer theory texts like Eve Sedgewick’s ‘Between Men’, DM Miller’s writing on Hitchcock’s film ‘Rope’ and try and show how we can put these things in dialogue with videogames. So in part, the reasons that I use texts that are about film and literature is that’s kind of where queer theory has been. The kind of the foundations of queer theory come from looking at queerness through other media. Cus it’s kind of like here here’s where we’ve been and now let’s springboard into where we’re going. The other piece of it is that my training is in literature. So I was a tech journalist for five years. Then I went back to grad school and my PhD is in comparative literature. So my training is in looking at media through critical theory and looking at texts. So for me, that kind of the, is like the lens that I bring to doing these kind of queer theory readings of games.
Darshana: One of the things that comes out of this project is the ‘queering’ of the term that a lot of people will be familiar with which is gamification. Gamification, I guess, is often associated with completing a game, or beating a game, or skilling up the subject in a particular kind of a way. But you add some extra terms that maybe do some, some interesting work here which is like degamification and regamification. Can you talk a little about what those mean?
Ruberg: Gamification, folks probably know this term, I think about in terms of erm things like in the workplace, or with apps for exercise and er self-care where you try and take these everyday things in life and gamify them. So add levels to them, add points systems and I think it’s a really problematic concept because I love games, I have nothing wrong with games coming into our day-to-day lives. But the way that gamification tends to be used is to encourage people to buy more products or to work harder and it uses these things that we love about games to to really exploit people and that’s not… That’s an argument that lots of people have made. So for me, what I think about is how queer games can challenge gamification. Like you said, I think in the book about this idea of de-gamification. What would it mean instead of taking something and gamifying it, to take something that already has game-like qualities and to break those down. So, so it’s a term that I first started thinking about because of ah Andi McClure’s work. So Andi McClure does these like really amazing messy, glitchy playful erm algorithm inspired pieces. I think of her as a kind of new media artist and it’s something that she brought up that she was thinking about that I’ve then taken up and thought about. So there are a lot of queer games out there that break down the games that are already there around us. So in the book, I look at this, this game that I love which is called ‘Realistic Kissing Simulator’ which was made in 2014 by Jimmy Andrews and Lauren Schmidt, and it’s a game that has no goal. So it’s just two faces on a screen, two players and you have these long floppy tongues and you just lick each other and like poke each other [background chuckles]. And it is really big on consent, it has no points, it has no levels. What I love about that game is the way that it takes the game of sex, or the game of dating that you’re supposed to do really well, you’re supposed to like be the best at and it just strips all of those game elements away and makes it really freeform and playful. But then I’m also really interested in how queer games might regamify something. What I mean by that, instead of trying to gamify something to make it better or make you more productive, a game might turn something into a game to show you how it was already problematically game-like. So let me tell you an example, Naomi Clark’s game ‘Consentical’ is this amazing tabletop game that is about sex between an alien and a human and it has all of these super gamey elements. So it’s got like tokens for intimacy, points for pleasure. And when I first played that game years ago at Indiecade, I was like, really confused because I love Naomi’s work and I love the idea of this like superqueer game, about like a gender-neutral person and sex with an alien, but I was like do we wanna turn intimacy into tokens? Do we wanna like turn pleasure into points? And I talked to Naomi about over the years and she was like “no, that’s the point. The point is to demonstrate how even in queer communities and queer relationships we still have this gamified attitude towards gamified sex and pleasure.” So for me, that regamification is actually a critical move. It’s a way to to demonstrate, to like make visible the things that are already cognitively game-like.
Darshana: One of the most interesting concepts, I think, in the book is this idea of chrononormativity and the way that you draw on some seminal, well not seminal but like kind of really important queer theorists like Halberstam and Freeman. Can you talk a bit about what chrononormativity means, where it comes from and what these theorists have meant to your project?
Ruberg: So ah the idea of chrononormativity like you said comes from Elizabeth Freeman and she’s a queer theorist. And er chrononormativity is the idea that, we have normative cultural ideas of time. Normative just means our kind of cultural concepts of what’s normal or what’s standard. So we might think about ideas of normative gender identity or sexual orientation. But chrononormativity is the idea that time and temporality are really closely tied to heteronormativity. So like let’s say there’s a certain timeline you’re supposed to live your life based on. And it’s often tied to sex and gender so like you’re supposed to hit puberty, then you’re supposed to start dating, then you’re supposed to get engaged, then you get married and then you have kids right? But, actually queer folks, trans folks, often we do those things in the wrong order or we don’t do them at all, or legally we are prohibited from doing them. So queerness is er really tied to not fitting that chrononormative timeline. So Elizabeth Freeman talks about this, Heather Love, Jack Halberstam, a number of big queer theorists that’s how the idea exists outside of games.
Darshana: And in a way, you’re bringing proximity of this idea to something that’s very interesting and you talk about the idea of failure or you queer the idea of failing in games as filling in time in a new sort of a way. And one of the most interesting ways you do that I think, is in taking something that a lot of people would consider a very masculine as discourse of speedrunning, this kind of like conquering turning the space of the game or the possibilities that the game into something that is completely realisable. How do you do you queer speed running?
Ruberg: It’s a really good question and it’s funny as I’ve been talking about this book and er roughly a year since it came out, to me this is like one of the real sites of complexity and messiness in a way that, I think that is really productive. Like you think it would be bad for me to say “Oh yeah speedrunning, you know speedrunners don’t tend to think of themselves as queer which is true. They don’t tend to think of their community or their practice as queer but oh yeah I’m telling you that it’s queer”. Like it’s not that simple, the interpretation matters but also how players think of their own practices matter and also it’s there’s something that’s like there is a little, you gotta, I dunno, it’s like there’s a little off at like looking at what is still like a very straight, very male community and saying “this is where queerness lies”. So I’ve thinking a lot about how these things can all be true at once. Like how this can be a queer way of playing but also a site of trouble. So Donna Haraway has this idea of staying with the trouble, kind of looking for these points of tension and complexity and instead of trying to fix them, you know sitting them and letting them kind of be things to think through and things to think with. So it’s just, it’s just in, not exactly answer your question but to say I think it’s a good question cus it is actually complicated and the complication I think is one of the things that is the most valuable about it.
Darshana: And er are there any speedruns in particular that you think exemplify this or is, is it something that’s kind of inherent to the practice of speedrunning?
Ruberg: The basic idea in the book with speedrunning and chrononormativity is that games have their own sense of what’s normative in terms of time right? Like, we have a sense of play through times, especially with triple-A titles. If you go to buy something you’re like is this worth the playthrough hours? Speedrunning doesn’t work that way, right? They try and go fast, they also do really interesting things with space, moving through space at the right amounts of time, like jumping through spaces and glitches, like tons of super interesting practices. And so speedrunners are kind of messing up or taking a queer approach to the way that time is supposed to work in games. So that’s the side of it I think you can really compellingly read queerly. But then, it’s erm, I keep finding myself coming back to speedrunning in my work and I want to stop. [chuckles] But it’s something that I find fascinating and so I wrote a piece erm coupla years ago now, on people who speed run ‘Gone Home’ because Gone Home is such a like, slow contemplative game. In theory, it’s about queer topics, it’s totally a thing in the speedrunning community. When you speedrun there, there are different types of run you might do but for one type of run, you can speed run Gone Home in like 20 seconds!
Ruberg: It was super fascinating to think about this game that erm is queer in its content, it’s queer in its form, it’s supposed to be about like meandering around this house right? And yet speedrunners can bypass all of that. And they do it, it’s super fascinating when you watch the runs, they do it by going as straight as is physically possible. Like literally when walking in space, it’s about creating the straightest possible line. And so what does it mean to have this queer game that’s been straightened, like literally straightened by speedrunners? There’s so many interesting things they’re doing but it’s like really productively intentioned with queerness.
Darshana: Yeah, and I think that, that question of how do we go beyond content or form to get, I guess, something philosophical which is what you’re, you’re doing and there is an easier segway to this question of walking sims as an example of queer space and time in games and this idea of stalling the dominance that, I think, sits in that chapter in a really interesting way. Could you talk about, like how walking sims figure in the book?
Ruberg: In the same chapter as where I talk about speedrunning I talk about walking sims as in some ways, two sides of one coin. They seem kind of like opposite with speedrunning practices about going super fast. We associate them with a kind of like mastery, that’s very male coded in games culture. You have to be super good at games, there are all these cultural associations that come up with that. And then walking sims are often about very different kinds of stories. We associate them with a diversity in games so often the most famous walking sims are about women or queer people or people of colour, generally people who are marginalised. But to me, they have a lot in common because they’re both about different ways of playing with how we move through time and how we move through space in games. So the fact that walking sims quote-unquote “don’t look like games” and I mean I’m not saying they are or aren’t games that’s not the interesting thing. It’s interesting to me the cultural discussions around walking sims, and the fact that people debate whether they’re games because what those games are about is just moving right? And often moving comparatively slowly through time, through space. So, that part of the book looks at that as it’s own kind of the queering of the chrononormativity of games in their form right? That it’s not again about seeing LBGT people on screen, some of them do have those characters. It’s about creating design and game experiences that resist the way we think games should move through space and time.
Darshana: One of the best things about talking to you about this stuff is that is makes me realise that queer studies in many ways puts everything at play, so it’s in some ways the purest games studies.
Ruberg: You know it’s an interesting form of games studies because we have for so long had this ludology/narratology divide in games studies. Which, I understand, most of us just wanna get past but I think it’s still relevant in that it is the like underpinnings of our history in games studies. And there’s still a lot of debates, even if people don’t use those terms, there’s a lot of debate between whether we should talk about platform and form or whether we should talk about representational content and cultural meaning as if those two things are opposed. And for me what queer studies does is that it shows us that those two things are not separate. Y’know I’m not as interested in representation, I’m interested in design, I’m interested in computational tools. I’m interested in that stuff that underlies games, but it has direct implications for the cultural meanings and issues of who belongs in games. So I kind of love that queer studies is the thing that bridges those two, two sides of games studies.
Darshana: Thank you so much. Where can people find out more about your work and the work of others you recommend checking out?
Ruberg: I’m super big into cheerleading for other people. It is just meant the world to me as a person and in my career to build a community around queer games studies. Huh! When I was a grad student all of my faculty members told me this was a bad thing to study and I shouldn’t do it and building a community has, has made all the difference. So a couple places there is an event that runs annually called the Queerness in Games Conference or QGCon for short. We’re now in our sixth year, it’s gonna be in Montreal at Concordia in May. May 23rd and 24th 2020 and it’s really an amazing event. It tends to be about 300 people, and a really nice mix of academics and game makers and activists so definitely a kind of hybrid space. So if you wanna go play we have an arcade, we have presentations, we have workshops. If you wanna go play or make or learn about queer games with 300 awesome queer people for a weekend totally check that out. And yeah beyond that twitter is a really helpful place and so I am @myownvelouria on twitter, velouria is v e l o u r i a. And just it’s a nice space for promoting each other’s work erm so it’s a good place to keep an eye out. I have a new book that comes out this spring, Spring 2020 and in some ways, it’s kind of the companion book to the one we’ve been talking about. So the new book is called ‘Queer Games Avant Guarde’ and the one from last year is called ‘Video Games Have Always Been Queer’. And the idea in the new book is to really focus on the voices of queer and trans game makers. So whereas the first book was much more about how I read and interpret games. As someone who really values queer games community, it felt important to me to also have a project that wasn’t about really first and foremost what I think, it’s about all of these amazing people who are out there making these scrappy, radical experimental queer games. So the project includes interviews with 25 queer and trans game makers, they’re presented as profiles. So people talk about their work but y’know I really wanted to get beyond this kind of standard diversity narrative of like queer people make game now, games are getting better. So instead they were like this kind of long-form in-depth interviews about people’s politics, about their aesthetics, about their art practices, about their personal histories in ways that are can be really moving. And the hope is that it can be interesting for scholars but that it’s interesting for designers. Like if you’re a person who wants to make games from a marginalised perspective like here are 25 people who are awesome, who can talk about how they’ve done that.
Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org