This is the inaugural blog post on Queer Me - or The Queer Games Library - and so first and foremost, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Emilie Owens, and Queer Me was my idea.
Full disclosure: it started as an assignment for a class at the University of Glasgow late last year. The brief was to curate a collection of children’s media that in some way fostered diversity.
So I teamed up with my brilliant colleague Laura Cesa, and together we put together the concept and design for a website which would curate video games for young people that offered, in some way, a queer perspective. Thanks to some truly excellent work by Laura (who is clever enough to understand things like coding and copyright and spreadsheets), The Queer Games Library was launched in January of 2021. You’re on it right now! Hi!
Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. The tricky issue at the heart of this process was mainly the concept behind the term queer. It is a word with a complicated history: originally a Scots term for something unusual, around the beginning of the 20th century it began to be used as a fairly serious slur against individuals who chose to engage in same-sex relationships or otherwise non-heterosexual behaviour. Then, at the turn of the following century, it started to gain traction as a way to refer to the study of homosexuality in culture - queer studies was officially recorded as being a thing for the first time in 1994. Now it is commonly accepted as a valid sexual/gender identity, and stands proudly as the Q in the ubiquitous acronym LGBTQ+.
But what, in 2021, does it mean to be queer? And what exactly is a queer perspective? And most importantly, how was I going to apply it to video games for young people in order to begin curating for our sexy new website?
To answer those questions, I borrowed a brilliant piece of work by children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop. Sims Bishop has been referred to as the mother of multicultural children’s literature, and has come up with some groundbreaking strategies for researching and promoting racial and cultural diversity in children’s books. If you are fortunate enough to have books with black and brown faces in your childhood collection, you have Rudine to thank.
In her determination to move stories for children away from the white norm, Mama Ru came up with metaphors that could represent three levels of diversity in kids’ books: these she called the Mirror, the Window, and the Door. To massively paraphrase her work, they function somewhat like this:
When children’s books work as a Mirror, children can see themselves reflected in what they read.
When they function as a Window, children’s books offer readers a view into someone else’s world.
And when children’s books function as a Door, they invite the reader to consider new possibilities for how the world could be - for themselves, and for others.
Having been introduced to these outstanding metaphors through my research, I took Sims-Bishop’s idea and ran with it, applying a healthy dose of queer theory (for the nerds: I read Edelman (2004), Halberstam (2011), and Miller (2015) - sources are at the bottom) and a touch of games theory (Ruberg, 2018) in order to come up with what I call the Q3 System for curating video games. It works something like this:
Where Mama Ru used the mirror metaphor, our site uses the term Queer Me, and the games which are classified this way offer users a chance to play queer characters. This means that players of a game have the opportunity to select characters that have diverse sexualities and gender expressions - that could mean gay, lesbian, and bi, but also trans, or non gender conforming. In short: Queer Me games give you the chance to be queer.
The window metaphor has been turned into the term Queer You. On our site, a Queer You game is a game that lets you interact with other characters who are, in some way, queer. In these games you’re as likely to come across and have interactions with a straight, cis-gendered character as you are a bi, trans character, or an asexual non-gender conforming one. In short: Queer You games give you the chance to see queer.
The door metaphor is one that children’s literature scholars argue the most over. What does it mean to offer a new and other worldview? For us, though, the door metaphor can be understood as the straightforward term Queer World. Games on our site which are classified this way allow the players to explore a world that exists outside the restrictions of heteronormativity, patriarchy, and late-stage capitalism. In short: Queer World games give you the chance to see what the world might be like if queerness were part of the norm rather than the exception.
Ta-da! Our site is as simple as that.
But why do queer games matter? And why is it important to have them curated on a website for young people?
Well, it’s important because queerness is not yet part of the norm. The world is still, in many places and for many people, very anti-gay. Even in places where LGBTQ+ issues are at the forefront of politics and media, and where gay marriage has been legalised and gay rights enshrined into law, it’s not hard to find anti-gay sentiment on the ground. Kids report getting bullied for their gender and sexual identity, and studies indicate that young people still feel public perceptions of queer identities are largely negative. Many young people face shame, ostracisation, and even violence if they express themselves in a way that is considered queer by their peers or social circles. For these young people, video games that offer queer perspectives - queer characters, queer storylines, an entirely queer world - are affirmative and necessary.
Queer games also matter because play is an integral part of life! Communities and cultures are formed through play, and video games make up a massive part of that process in our current digital era. Between tablets and smartphones, laptops and desktops, console games and the ever-growing field of virtual reality gaming, young people have countless opportunities to play video games. Why not make sure those games represent something outside of the straight, white, male norm? We don’t choose our beliefs, we inherit them. The same goes with our biases - those communities who discriminate against gay and lesbian love, who inflict violence on queer kids, and who refuse to see the validity of diverse gender identities are simply carrying on a very old tradition of heteronormativity. Straight is still the inherited standard, but we don’t think it should be. In the same way that queer kids have always had to play straight stories in games, we want straight kids to be playing queer stories in games without a second thought. How else are things going to change around here?
Lastly, think about some of the popular games you know off the top of your head. I mean the big ones that are likely to make it into the mainstream news: Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Halo, Red Dead Redemption. Who are the characters in these games, and what are the stories? I won’t spell it out for you, and I won’t pass judgement on those games (because they are good games), but I will say that there are countless amazing games out there that suggest other ways of being, of exploring stories, and of accomplishing goals. By collecting these games together on our site, we want to create a new narrative of video games as queer, and promote games and games developers who risk placing themselves outside of the rigid heteropatriarchy.
And so we offer you The Queer Games Library, or Queer Me as we call it for short, where I hope you’ll find a useful and aesthetically-pleasing archive of video games that
question some of those most pesky assumptions about gender and sexuality. And I hope you have fun playing those video games, too.
Lots of love,
[References for the nerds]
Bishop, R. S. 1990, Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives. 6 (3), ix–xi.
Edelman, Lee. 2004, No future: queer theory and the death drive. University Press, 2004.
Halberstam, J. 2011, The queer art of failure. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.
Lachance, L. 2019, "LGBTQ2+ Youth Priorities for Addressing Gender-Based Violence", Wisdom2Action Consulting LTD. Halifax, Canada. Available at: https://www.actioncanadashr.org/sites/default/files/2019-06/Wisdom2action-LGBTQ2-GBV-Final-Report.pdf. Accessed on 02/11/2020.
Miller, S. 2015, "A Queer Literacy Framework Promoting (A)Gender and (A)Sexuality Self-Determination and Justice", English journal, vol. 104, no. 5, pp. 37-44.
Ruberg, B. 2018, "Queerness and Video Games: Queer Game Studies and New Perspectives through Play", GLQ, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 543-555.