Dispatch from the Queerness and Games Conference

This past weekend I went to the Queerness and Games Conference, an event I co-founded last year at UC Berkeley and now hold an advisory and conflict resolution role. It’s amazing to see it have a second go-around, and presumably keep going, from a more participatory standpoint so I could see the culture it invited and produced. It also had the interesting timing for occurring after Gamer Gate, which both hung like a cloud and impassioned people at the same time. Concurrently, I feel like QGCon is starting to form an ideological community and ethos, so this was definitely an interesting followup to last year. So here are some of the notes I took, but you can also look up the recorded stream and see everything for yourself.

The first keynote of the conference was by Lisa Nakamura on Social Justice Warriors in video game culture. She broke down what seemed to be the ‘taxonomy’ of an SJW to better understand how people, usually those actively against social justice movements, both see themselves and what they want to get rid of. Some qualities Lisa listed out: SJW framed as opposite to SWM or straight white male, a common term used for a projected most privileged identity; fundamentally insincere in their motives and use of ideology, while at the same time too sincere and unable to take jokes or fit in; not native to the community, foreigners from Twitter and Tumblr trying to immigrate to video games. This helps identify not only how gaters treat people they assign as SJW, but also how they see themselves: person vs ideologue; genuine vs manipulative; native vs the opportunistic. Wrapped up in this is how to be a minoritized person that is a ‘true’ force for change, aka not a fake feminist or gamer that wants social good, by the way of practicing ‘cruel optimism.’ Cruel optimism is that common response to inequality that’s a mix of positivist individualism and ‘harsh reality,’ like for more minoritized people to create games and THEN media will get better, just sit back and wait and it’ll take care of itself. I feel like we see this with the overabundance of girls in STEM initiatives and no resources for those right now fighting against marginalization. Lisa used the term ‘procedural meritocracy,’ that in order to earn respect in gaming, you have to display exceptional skill. Basically the idea is if men who spout sexist stuff online are beat in a video game fair and square by a woman, they will include her based on meritocracy and proving she’s not a fake geek girl. This attitude doesn’t address that the barriers to gaining skill are still very high for minoritized people, and that this process ultimately turns the bullied into a new bully; you climb the ranks so you can police the behavior of others, essentially giving permission to those already at the top. The true warrior looks like other gamers, talks like other gamers, and plays like other gamers. The SJW doesn’t play by the same rules, or even worse, doesn’t play the same games. This is hyperbolized by the codification of certain games as worthy of getting paid for playing and not, and how that is gendered, raced, etc. I think this is a pretty useful perspective to have because it helps people frame how they talk to those projecting the image of the SJW and better yet work to counteract the qualities of being conniving interlopers by referencing their credibility in the community.

Near the end of the first day was an unconference session where people signed up to speak and discuss a topic for about 10 minutes each. I really enjoyed it this year because it let conference-goers say what was on their mind and know that they’ve been heard. I super encourage a microtalk and roundtable discussion to any event that wants to foster community. One of the main themes in the talks was the still evident disparity and therefore clash between between people of different backgrounds at conferences and even at QGCon; is a conference held at a major university that features a lot of academic talks welcoming someone who doesn’t have a college education? Same for something like GDC, which is expensive to participate in and only has speakers of a certain kind of experience. It was fitting for the conference’s theme, Difference at Play, and is relevant to the on-going mission of QGCon to bring together people of different communities and disciplines. Class is definitely a dirty word for the games industry at large; few want to talk about who has most the resources and who doesn’t have much and why that is, and how a lot of opportunity for anything surrounding games requires a base amount of resources. It’s hard to participate when you are expected to have had the time and money to receive a certain kind of education, do a bunch of research, hack at a low-paying job or internship. And, predictably, class problems hits other minoritized people disproportionately to those who aren’t. It opened up how QGCon is different and more accessible than other conferences and yet still has a ways to get to a place we ideally want all events to be like.

Another keynote was by both merritt kopas and Naomi Clark did a lot to provoke and challenge previous ideas constructed about queerness and games, which I enjoyed since it gave some continuity between last year’s conference and this one. I actually want to respond further in depth in a separate piece, but here are some critiques they had: we are currently in the gay liberation of games instead of the queering of games, drawing a parallel between the gay marriage rights movement and the continual backburning of many issues in the queer community for people not looking or being able to stealth into society; gaming has been shuttling between being perceived as a vice and finding new roles to promote social values for long time before the 90s; games are not actually safe spaces to fail and are often sites of trauma for many queer people (often stories of finding queerness through games are based on a relatively constrained sample); the idea of glitches as queer ‘failure’ instead of acceptable failure that is wrapped in reproducing capitalism; and ultimately, why is queerness so often set in opposition to utility? Chew on all that!

Near the end of the conference, Zoya Street and I lead a decompression session, a moment where people can let out what’s bothering them and work it out through writing and art and conversation. We had people draw a river on a long roll of paper and write down what was on their mind, then make little paper boats marked with words of what they needed to get through it all to sail on top of it. I won’t recreate the conversation here and we didn’t record it so people could feel secure in expressing themselves, but I think there are some themes worth mentioning. For one, Gamer Gate took over the majority of the conversation, and from what I gathered, there was different feelings of powerlessness. I think for the most part, people have worries and want to change things, but don’t have direct, safe avenues to express themselves and feel like they can actually make a difference. I felt this at IndieCade as well, where it felt like some people were being actively engaged, in person, for the first time and actually feel like they are being heard and receiving a response. I think this is where the need for more local safe-space events would really help in getting people heard and more involved. Saying things on Twitter both feels futile and dangerous given how gaters are always searching for people to gang up on. I really do think this is a good impetuous for more community organizing that should be spearheaded by institutions all over the place and encouraging devs to start their own thing to meet their particular localized needs.

If there is something I left QGCon this year with though, it is a dire need for intergenerational dialogue between minoritized people in games. And intergenerational is a bit stretched here because the landscape of video games changed rapidly, giving different kinds of opportunities and difficulties to each group within a relatively short amount of separation in time. In particular, I think there’s the more queer, in all senses of the word, group of people outside of the games industry that is incredibly disenfranchised by it and resentful for that, and minoritized people inside the industry with a pining for the freedom those on the outside have. These groups generally do not have strong lines of dialogue with one another, and very easily clash when coming together for about anything. There are outliers of course, but in general this is the case, as these two groups have different customs and histories. This isn’t to equate their struggles; people within the industry have decidedly more resources and power than those on the outside. In spite of this, I think it’s possible for conversation to happen with attention paid to power dynamics between generations of minoritized people. From my vantage point, I feel like some people feel tied to the industry even though it’s a burning building, and others see kicking in some more gasoline will help them have a more self-determinating future. I think this is a good thought to leave off on with regards to what this year’s conference implies for the next: when the destruction or major, major reconstruction of industry seems to be the only path for sustainability for one group, but the crumbling of the lives of another, how does one reconcile that?

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