Matt Knutson

Matt Knutson is a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine’s Program in Visual Studies. His research focuses on media temporality, esports and frame-perfect play.

Contact information:
mknutso1 at

Backtrack, Pause, Rewind, Reset: Queering Chrononormativity in Gaming

by Matt Knutson


Applying Elizabeth Freeman’s concept of chrononormativity to play, this article examines time in high-stakes, professional play as a normative structure against which to recognize a set of queer temporalities. Instead of twitch reflexes, frame-perfect timing and rapid decision-making, queer play temporalities unwind linearity by backtracking, rewinding, resetting, mulling over and accepting frame-imperfect play. The article discusses Life is Strange as an illustration of both queer content and queered time in games.

Keywords: queer, temporality, time, replay, rewind, pause, backtrack, esports, chrononormativity


I weigh a gameplay decision as if I have all the time in the world. There is no timer, one option or another does not promise to make playing the game easier and if I choose to reverse my decision, I can do so immediately using in-game mechanics. I am playing Life is Strange (2015), a story-based game in which a defining mechanic is the ability to reverse time and (in most cases) unmake decisions after having seen their consequences. Life is Strange unwinds the linearity of time to enable the player to follow different branching paths, double back, rethink, accept inevitable failures and remake its story. Among the player’s many decisions of narrative development and characterization is the way in which main character, Max, responds in moments of sexual tension with her closest friend Chloe.

In both its mechanical manipulation of time and its diegetic flirtations with outedness, Life is Strange invites its player to explore non-normativity. The game exemplifies one form of queer temporality, a contrary position to “chrononormativity” (a term I adopt from Elizabeth Freeman, 2010). Freeman’s term describes the major milestones of a normative life (graduate, get married, buy a house, etc.) as well as normative temporal cycles (the 9-to-5 workday, etc.). To explore Freeman’s concept in the context of video games, this essay locates the clearest example of gaming’s chrononormativity in esports, where financial stakes and standardized play lead to a strict observation of regulated time. After identifying this manifestation of the medium’s chrononormativity, the essay discusses a set of queered corollaries to normative time in gaming, followed by an analysis of Life is Strange as a game that queers time and offers rich possibilities for interpreting queerness in its narrative. This juxtaposition may not seem intuitive or obvious, but analyzing the chrononormativity of esports throws the queered temporality of Life is Strange into relief. While many games feature time manipulation, Life is Strange focuses on decision-making rather than adept performance, which emphasizes interpersonal relationship management and opens up critical discussions of queer failure. What queer theory generally and Freeman’s work in particular offer for analyses of time in games is alterity through play: play beyond norms, creative play, play for its own sake and play for the sake of being different. While esports does not encompass the whole of gaming, esports exemplifies larger trends in the commoditization of play, whether that be from an elite pro or a famous Twitch streamer. Juxtaposing normative and queered temporal practices of play helps to identify the extent to which play can be standardized and to recognize the value of non-standard play.


Go to grade school, go to high school, go to college, get married, buy a house, have kids, get promoted, save for retirement, see the kids get happily married, retire after 40 years with a single company, live out one’s golden years and die. The middle class Westerner’s life most normatively lived serves as the basis for Elizabeth Freeman’s (2010) term “chrononormativity” in her work Time Binds. To Freeman, the term signifies “the interlocking temporal schemes necessary for genealogies of descent and for the mundane workings of domestic life” (xxii). Freeman later adds that “Chrononormativity is a mode of implantation, a technique by which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts. Schedules, calendars, time zones, and even wristwatches inculcate what the sociologist Evitar Zerubavel calls ‘hidden rhythms,’ forms of temporal experience that seem natural to those whom they privilege” (3). [1] Conventions of timekeeping both at the scale of the day and the lifetime therefore establish and naturalize norms as if technologies such as the calendar were innate phenomena. Freeman undercuts this sense of order by identifying its cultural constructions and establishment of temporal norms. As other scholars such as Jacques Le Goff in Time, Work & Culture in the Middle-Ages (1980), Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum in The History of the Hour (1996) and Mary-Anne Doane in The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2002) have noted, when timekeeping practices shift, they routinely advantage those who stand to gain capital from stricter and more universal adherence to normalized, synchronized clock time. Le Goff’s example of textile manufacturers at the advent of clock time, for example, illustrates the economic stakes of the establishment and enforcement of temporal standardization: textile owners profited greatly from timekeeping practices that milked more productivity out of their employees. Freeman’s work builds on this kind of argument to include not only the accumulation of capital but the reproduction of a working population that will sustain such an end.

Bliss Cua Lim’s Translating Time (2009), in particular, parallels Freeman’s work in identifying normalized timekeeping practices of colonial origin versus a colonized, “backwards” time--a temporality out of sync with modernity, progress and capital. This rationalization of colonialism provides its own invitation to colonize and bring the colonial other into the present, so to speak. Freeman similarly identifies normative temporal practices as standardizing the social order by privileging heteronormative (rather than colonial) structures of power. The two works share the insight that temporal standardization serves to naturalize existing power structures and consequently force a sociocultural other into a peripheral temporal position. Such a position is somewhere out of step with “the rest of us,” as if from another century or unmentionable in the course of forward-moving historical progression. Hence the figure of the “good queer” who embraces chrononormativity through homonormativity: settling down in a monogamous pairing, adopting children, being productive members of society and saving for a well-earned retirement (think Cam and Mitch from ABC’s Modern Family). Or, similarly, the “immigrant success story” of someone who succeeds by fully assimilating into Western culture and leaping into the normative flow of time from whichever “backwards” country they came. [2]

To extend Freeman’s argument to popular media forms, one clear example of chrononormative media expression is illustrated in Lynn Spigel’s essay “Women’s Work” (2000). Spigel argues convincingly that “The gendered divisions of domestic labor and the complex relations of power entailed by it were thus shown to organize the experience of watching television” (93). Spigel analyzes programming, magazine advertisements and network documents to illustrate how daytime television historically identified and targeted women during their domestic labors. Traditional gendered divisions of labor placed women in the home during the day, and so programming catered to this audience and brought in advertisers seeking to attract its purchasing power. [3] The routine cycle of daytime television during the workday and primetime television at night creates a temporal inflection in popular media that serves the interests of the heteronormative household. In other words, this daily cycle of television programming exemplifies Freeman’s concept of chrononormativity.

Chrononormativity in Post-Fordist Digital Labors

It might be tempting to suggest that the dissolution of the 9-5 workday into the splintered labor time of the post-fordist economy challenges or destroys the old status quo, upending the putatively strict distinction between work and leisure and even, perhaps, queering time somehow. But such a conclusion would mistake the precarious, moment-to-moment labor of the post-fordist economy as an emancipating flexibility that moves labor beyond the confines of the 9-5 job. Only on the face of post-fordist labor is flexibility a feature and not a bug of networked employment. Patrick Jagoda observes in his Network Aesthetics (2016) that “In an early twenty-first century world saturated increasingly by always-on computing, pervasive social media, and persistent virtual worlds, connection is less an imperative than it is the infrastructural basis of everyday life” (1). Connection is, to Jagoda, a foregone conclusion of contemporary experience, a principal assumption of the nature of labor. There is nothing especially liberating in the move from Fordist to post-fordist labor; if anything, post-fordism extracts more labor out of those on the network by keeping them constantly tethered to their work. Moreover, as Tiziana Terranova notes in her Network Culture (2004), while post-fordist digital labor is characterized by flexibility and increased opportunities for freelancing, “The Internet does not automatically turn every user into an active producer, and every worker into a creative subject” (75). We would do well not to assume that Internet platforms that lower barriers to production do so to an equal extent (and with equal results) for all users. Even when such platforms do enable more people to produce content, new issues arise out of new labor practices. One platform relevant to gaming and worth examining further is livestreaming, the practice of producing live video for a viewing audience, particularly of videogame play through

The 9-5 workday’s regimented media schedule (television) sets a historical precedent analogous to the post-fordist economy’s momentary media schedule (for example, livestreaming). Just as television takes cues in form and content from predominant economic and social structures, thus adopting a temporality synchronized with the 9-5 workday, so too does livestreaming take its cues in form and content from predominant economic and social structures. Livestreamers on encounter flexibility in setting their own working hours but also great precarity: with neither salary nor benefits, livestreamers who endure a medical or family emergency face immediate consequences for any resulting absence. Twitch streamers make money off of subscribers, viewers who support them at a starting rate of $5 per month (about half of which goes to the streamer themselves). But even the most successful streamers with thousands of monthly subscribers face high rates of attrition for every break they take. The appealing flexibility of livestreaming thus brings with it the inflexibility of constant connection and a baseline obligatory frequency of streaming even just to maintain (if not grow) an audience. Precarity, constant connection, and a sense of round-the-clock labor characterize the post-fordist gig economy; like Uber drivers and online freelance writers, Twitch streamers grapple with an unforgiving yet supposedly liberating industry. This is all to illustrate that flexibility of working hours alters, but does not escape from, normative timekeeping practices. In tracking chrononormativity’s presence in gaming, the clearest and most immediately fruitful signals emerge when “following the money.” To Freeman, chrononormativity standardizes timekeeping practices for the sake of productivity (and re-productivity). At the intersection of gaming, critical timing/ timekeeping and money, one finds esports.

Now that tournaments for games such as League of Legends (2009) and DotA 2 (2013) pay out in the millions of dollars per team, and a class of professional gamers makes a living at games as diverse as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012), Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) and Rocket League (2015), competitive gaming is a significantly more viable career in the West than it was just ten years ago, when T.L. Taylor was doing field research for her now indispensable Raising the Stakes (2012). The stakes, so to speak, have been on the rise as the esports industry has swelled financially. Play’s tendency toward optimization at higher and higher levels of competition crescendos in this context of high-stakes performance, and as play becomes standardized within any given gaming community, so too do players become professionalized, observing social and temporal standards within their industry. Such social standards include a cleaning-up of language, as commentators in particular tend to embrace a family-friendlier vocabulary across many esports, especially for high-profile events. Likewise, players who sign on to sponsorships themselves typically agree to certain behavioral guidelines that protect sponsors’ interests and images. Temporal standardization within esports merits close attention as something that optimizes and professionalizes play.

As Boluk and LeMieux (2017) discuss at length in their analysis of eleven seconds of play in DotA 2, success in professional gaming often depends on twitch reactions and the microtemporalities of fractions of a second. An eleven second window in a single game in a best of three match in a tournament such as Valve’s The International 2012 can “turn the tide” and make a six- or seven-figure difference in team compensation. In Boluk and LeMieux’s analysis, a critical half-second window within that fateful game between Na’Vi and Invictus Gaming made the difference in the game and the match, setting the victor on a short path to the grand finals. When so much financial pressure rests on a momentary window of play at such a visible venue as The International, no wonder that professional and aspiring professional gamers spend hundreds of hours practicing their techniques, timings, tactics and team play. Multiple temporal cycles are at work in competitive play for a game such as DotA 2:

  • Tournament seasons and schedules (yearly)
  • Regular practice regimens (daily and weekly)
  • Intra-tournament schedules (a certain number of hours per round)
  • Timekeeping at the level of the course of the game (drafting, the game clock, creep spawns, environmental “jungle” enemies--mostly at specific minute marks)
  • Player-specific timers such as cooldowns and respawns (by minutes and seconds)
  • Critical timings of player and team tactics (fractions of a second)

At each of these temporal levels, esports habituate their players (and spectators) to multiple overlapping ludic rhythms. Internalizing them and acting according to their parameters is critical for successful play and, at high levels of skill, financial payoff. The higher the financial stakes and the greater the competition amongst competitors, the more esports players are compelled to conduct themselves according to standardized timekeeping practices in and around esports culture. Such is the nature of competition and economic incentive.

The last two temporal layers mentioned above (player-specific and critical tactical timings) best exemplify rhythms at the level of play itself. The most normative forms of play from a socioeconomic perspective are those reinforced by financial incentives, which are laid out the most clearly in esports. Immediate decision-making, twitch reactions, tight timings, microtemporal awareness and frame-perfect [4] performance characterize competitive play behaviors in fighting games, first-person shooters, MOBAs and real time strategy games. [5] And because successful esports are widely broadcasted to their audiences, professional play has a significant influence on each game’s low- and mid-level metagames, the prevailing strategies and habits of play at those levels of skill. Players at lower levels learn tactics and acquire the motivation to perfect technical skills in part from esports broadcasts. Watching high-level play with a critical eye develops one’s understanding of the game and how it can best be played. For example, character picks and bans in MOBAs lay bare the broad strategies top teams employ to create synergies and anticipate opponents’ preferences. Viewers who witness which characters the top players pick and ban (and listen to the commentators’ analysis of such decisions) develop their critical understanding of how the game can best be played. This is all to say that because successful esports have a broad player base, many of whom consume broadcasts of professional-level tournaments, such games are by nature more prone to standardization than noncompetitive games (or even competitive games without structures for organized play).

Existing scholarship outside of esports has already outlined some ways in which play can become standardized. Mia Consalvo’s Cheating (2007) explores her concept of gaming capital by examining the paratextual “flood” of “[r]eviews [...], ads, cheat code releases, G4 TV specials, walkthroughs, discussion board topics on,” etc. (8). These paratexts serve to “upgrade your game experience” by teaching you the right way to play even before you pick up the controller. Also, in Playing with Videogames (2008), James Newman describes play in speedrunning as “the search for perfection” (131) and highlights the “high degree of community participation and a manifest collective knowledge that underpins and supports speedrunners” (130). To both Consalvo and Newman, sources of information surrounding the games we play (whether casually or competitively for time) lead us to greater competency, sometimes setting a standard against which to compare our own play. In the case of esports, normative play practices like those described by Consalvo and Newman are established not only through competitive communities themselves but also from the media that surround and extend the games.

Queer Temporalities in Games: Life is Strange

In the spirit of queering normativity, queer temporalities in gaming would be marked by contradistinctions from normative play. [6] Therefore, to embrace queer temporalities of play is to backtrack, pause, rewind, reset, reconsider, mull over, reject actionable windows and accept failure and frame-imperfect timing. Such play drops the pretense of high-stakes urgency; it unwinds the strict sequentialism of competitive game clocks and frame data; it carefully considers decisions and their consequences; it picks apart the game as an object of critical consideration rather than an apparatus for perfectible performance. The classic preoccupations of the “serious gamer,” such as overclocking graphics cards and reducing latency through manipulation of hardware settings, become moot in queer temporalities of play. Such play is deeply unmarketable: Who wants to pay to watch someone think really hard about a decision in a noncompetitive game? What “let’s play” YouTube personality is going to attract an audience by backtracking to review old areas or repeatedly loading previous save files? What kind of paying subscriber would sponsor a Twitch streamer for mulling over the consequences of a decision in an obscure single-player game?[7] The proven marketable skills in gaming include offerings such as high-performance play, a big and outrageous personality, the tendency to utter immediate and thoughtless outbursts--the usual in the world of professional streaming, including esports.

Some recent scholarship has already raised the topic of queered temporality in gaming. Claudia Lo’s “Everything Is Wiped Away: Queer Temporality in Queers in Love at the End of the World” (2017) discusses time in Anthropy’s game (2013) through the briefness of having only ten seconds to act before the apocalypse arrives. Time is in this sense queered because of the looming catastrophe that characterizes the player character’s relationship with their queer lover. Bonnie Ruberg’s “Permalife: Video games and the queerness of living” (2017) builds on Lo’s work by analyzing the constant restarting that the player of Queers in Love at the End of the World must do to experience more than just ten seconds in the game. Permalife in Anthropy’s game, as Ruberg argues, paradoxically arises from the impending apocalypse through the player’s persistent restarting. To Ruberg, the game offers a “hopeful vision of queer living through a kind of queer micro-world building” (169) in spite of the apocalyptic backdrop and extreme briefness of remaining time. They later raise the topic of Freeman’s work on time: “Video games, both as individual genres and as a medium, have their own chrononormativity. Permalife, by contrast, does not follow this chrononormative arc. Instead, it operates in the possibility spaces of queer temporality” (170-171). Another essay to cite Freeman, and the most recent work on queer temporality in gaming, is Gaspard Pelurson’s “Flânerie in the dark woods: Shattering innocence and queering time in The Path” (2018). After conducting a literature review of queer theory scholarship that addresses time, Pelurson describes “non-linear or timeless stories” (4) as those most productively queerable. Pelurson then analyzes The Path (2009) as demonstrating queered temporality in its unrushed pacing and nonlinear structure.

This essay draws different conclusions about chrononormativity in gaming from the above works in part by locating normative timekeeping practices in esports. Rather than taking Pelurson’s view that nonlinearity in and of itself opens certain games up for interpretations of queered time, I emphasize the active unwinding of time through reversal, etc. that runs so contrary to play for the sake of productivity, efficiency and profitability.[8] While this kind of temporally queered play can apply to any game (one can reset Mario Kart 8 just as easily as Undertale), I would like to take Life is Strange (2015) as an object of analysis for two convenient reasons: its central mechanic has to do with reversing time, and it addresses queerness both directly and indirectly. Certainly, Life is Strange is not the first game to make time manipulation into a mechanic: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003), Braid (2008), Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time (2009), among others, have previously done time manipulation. Nor is Life is Strange exceptional for featuring time travel as a narrative move: BioShock: Infinite (2013), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (1992) also do this, to name a few. But as an adventure game that privileges player choice, Life is Strange brings its decision-making process to the fore, which itself becomes subject to the game’s time manipulation mechanic. The kind of choice Life is Strange privileges is, to be certain, still highly constructed and constrained. As Anastasia Salter comments in What Is Your Quest?: From Adventure Games to Interactive Books (2014), “the interactivity of adventure games is in the opportunity for responsiveness within limits: the tension between narrative and play is used to tell the story” (35). In Life is Strange, the player explores dialogue options and decision trees, and while the player has choices about how to characterize Max and how to respond to other characters’ actions, the adventure genre can only offer these choices within specific boundaries. Given the adventure game-style system of Life is Strange’s branching dialogue, its time reversal mechanic adds another wrinkle to its presentation of meaningful choice and alterity to linear storytelling. This quality of the game’s interwoven narrative and mechanics requires further unpacking.

In Life Is Strange, players take on the role of Max Caulfield, an aspiring photographer and student at Blackwell, a boarding high school for the arts in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. After a nightmarish flash-forward that begins the game in medias res, Max discovers that she has acquired the ability to reverse time. This allows her to take things back, give the right answers and prevent accidents and tragedies. Max prevents one such tragedy by saving the life of Chloe, an Arcadia Bay native and an estranged friend. Over the course of the game, the two strengthen their old friendship in a way that lays sexual tension on thick, but neither they nor the game put a label on what they have. They investigate the disappearance of Rachel Amber, a former Blackwell student, as they try to prevent the cataclysmic storm Max sees in her flash-forward. But when they finally confront the storm, they eventually conclude that Max’s own temporal intervention in sparing Chloe’s life in the first place is in fact the cause. Having saved Chloe’s life repeatedly and seeing Chloe die in practically every timeline, Max confronts the inescapable conclusion that Chloe is fated to die, suggesting that postponing her death will only oblige Max to save her again and again through more time manipulation. At this juncture, the player--who has made many story-affecting decisions throughout--must now choose between Chloe and Arcadia Bay. Max can go back in time to let Chloe die in order to prevent the catastrophe from destroying everyone and everything in town, or the player can keep Chloe at the expense of all else.

Time travel in the game works at two scales: small manipulations of less than a minute at a time and large manipulations of days or even years. The former is player-controlled: undoing dialogue choices or making a kind of spatial/temporal leapfrog by moving through part of the environment, reversing time, moving, reversing to arrive someplace as if in an instant. For example, an early conversation with her teacher presents Max with a multiple choice question that she can get right or wrong. If the player guesses wrong, they can listen to the teacher’s correction and then reverse time to change their answer. Large-scale manipulations of time are more of a narrative function than gameplay mechanic (there is no “skip back to previous timeline” button). Max, whose preferred medium is analogue rather than digital photography, discovers that she can apply her powers to analogue photographs of her own life events and relive them at will.[9] Whereas the small manipulations of time enable a kind of in-game backtracking, the large-scale manipulations create entirely new timelines. For example, Max travels back to when she and Chloe were much younger and prevents Chloe’s father from dying in a car accident. Consequently, when Max finds Chloe in this timeline, she is paralyzed from an auto accident of her own, dying slowly and painfully enough to ask Max to assist with her suicide.

This context should illuminate why, at the end of the game as Max nears her final choice between Chloe and Arcadia Bay, Chloe despairs “I know I’ve been selfish, but for once I think I should accept my fate… our fate…” She advises Max to let her die and save the town; her revision of “my fate” to “our fate” suggests on the one hand that Max is fated to let Chloe die and on the other that their relationship is doomed to fail. Up to this point, Max has watched Chloe stumble into fatal situations numerous times, preserving her life only to see Chloe jeopardize it again or meet another accident. Consequently, by the end, Chloe seems ill-fit for chrononormativity: Max’s attempt to restore Chloe’s biological father to life only creates more suffering for Chloe, and every attempt to fix time for her sake leads to another dead end. Over the course of the game, Max and Chloe renew their old friendship after Max’s years-long absence: they hang out together in Chloe’s room, eat, investigate Rachel’s disappearance, share a kiss (optionally), go swimming in the school pool after-hours in their underwear, sleep in the same bed, take pictures and track down Rachel’s suspected abductor/killer together. Their relationship would seem to grow past “just good friends” to something more serious and filled with sexual tension. And the coincidence of their sexual tension and Chloe’s suggestion that their relationship is doomed calls up notions of queer failure.

Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011) responds to normative paradigms of success (not unlike the milestones of Freeman’s concept of chrononormativity) and the crushing pressure placed on individuals to succeed economically or be found at fault. In the heteronormative, capitalist context in which Halberstam centers his argument, “[f]ailing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” (3). He subverts normative paradigms of success by celebrating failure and recognizing negativity’s potential to reach some kind of alterity, both queer and otherwise. To bring this style of analysis to Life is Strange’s pair out of step with normative time, Chloe and Max would seem to fail spectacularly. Either they end up together and depart from a destroyed, survivor-less town, or they destroy their own relationship to save a city. There is no in-between and no authoritative “good ending” in which the player can manage to keep both. As such, the game intermingles one form of success with one form of failure, salvation with destruction, defiance with acceptance.

Bonnie Ruberg’s distinction between “failing toward” and “failing against” helps illuminate some of this narrative uncertainty as well the ludic complexities of willful failure in videogames. In “Playing to Lose: The Queer Art of Failing at Video Games,” they link Halberstam’s work to Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure in order to better understand “queer failure through play” and vice-versa (198). Ruberg demonstrates how games can and do make failure playful and pleasurable, contra Juul’s assertions that we only tolerate failure for the “rewards of struggling to overcome it” (202). To Ruberg, we “fail toward” a game when we fail “in the way that a game wants us to” and “fail against” when “failing in the way that a game does not want” (204). In providing the player an informed choice between Chloe’s life and the town’s safety, Life is Strange encourages a kind of failure toward rather than against. It is not for a lack of skill that the player cannot achieve a happy resolution for both Chloe’s and the town’s safety; rather, Ruberg’s interpretation of Halberstam suggests that we might find meaningful alterity in the significance of this difficult choice.

To bring this discussion back to queered temporality in gaming, Life is Strange’s gameplay mechanics of reversing time and replaying dialogue require a kind of mandatory failure. After all, what good would a time reversal mechanic be if the player never needed to use it? We might consider it a failure to guess wrongly when a character asks Max a question, and this bad guessing more concretely exemplifies “failing against” the game when the player has been told the right answer but forgets and answers wrongly again. But certain decisions in the game in fact require Max to make an unavoidable mistake only to reverse time and correct it. Such a scenario seems at first to be the result of the player’s poor choice, but the player is likely to notice the subtle ways Life is Strange requires failure when replaying the game, as I did when replaying a section in the junkyard in episode two. During this section, Max must collect glass bottles. After spotting one on top of a fridge, Max tries to reach for it but breaks it in the attempt. The player then reverses time to repair the bottle, and then Max brings a crate over to assist with the safe retrieval of the bottle (Figure 1). When I replayed this section, I naturally first attempted to interact with the crate, knowing that it was required for the solution. However, I discovered that the crate only becomes actionable after first breaking the bottle and reversing time.

Figure 1: Reaching the bottle with the crate.


The choicelessness of this kind of mandatory failure yields something closer to “failing toward” than “failing against.” It is not the player’s bad choice or poor performance that breaks the bottle, it is the fact that, in Ruberg’s terms, the game “wants us to” fail. We break the bottle as a necessary part of Max’s interaction with the world, we experience the consequences and we rewind time in spite of them. Max’s powers over time offer the player a radical refusal of strict linearity within a game that itself frustrates attempts at optimization and proficient play.

From a conventional game design perspective, required failure of this kind ensures that the player makes frequent use of the game’s mechanics, but it grates against the proficient player’s desire for mastery and the speedrunner’s will to optimize. [10] As Juul recognizes in The Art of Failure, games are often designed to allow for safe failure, and those that never make us fail can feel just as frustrating as those that constantly do. In this sense, failure is an anticipated (and even desired) state for practically all games, including those that play with time. However, forcing the player to fail repeatedly is a slow and inelegant design choice that prioritizes narrative development over gameplay fluidity. And yet, the mechanics of Life is Strange are not useful unless the player regularly fails. The game features a central mechanic built upon player failure. However, other time manipulation games such as Braid and The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time can be played proficiently for practically their entire length without requiring their players to fail. These games of dexterity differ significantly from Life is Strange, which is a decision-making game in the adventure genre. Rather than failing because the player misses a jump or is hit by an enemy (both of which are “failing against” moments that inevitably occur for first-time players of platformers), Life is Strange implements player failure in the options for what the player is and is not allowed to do--as with the crate example, these are more in line with “failing toward.” At a broader level, the narrative culminates in Max’s failure to preserve her relationship with Chloe in their town (sacrificing one or the other). And the cultural context for Max and Chloe’s failure, as Halberstam would suggest, is one of crushing pressures to succeed and a queer negativity in contradistinction from conventional notions of success.

The defining mechanic of time reversal in Life is Strange exemplifies a queer temporality, one that recognizes failure, grows past it in some ways and accepts it in others--sometimes fatalistically. The game unwinds normative, profitable styles of play through its mechanics: there is comparatively little to be gained from training oneself in proficiency at this game rather than, say, League of Legends (2009). And while even the most lumbering game can nonetheless enjoy a community of dedicated and proficient players, including speedrunners, there is no financial incentive to cultivate a rapid twitch response, or memorize frame data, or optimize routes or map decision trees for speedier responses to the in-game events of Life is Strange. Moreover, the game does not lend itself to spectacle or replayability the way games most profitable for live-streaming tend to. By encouraging backtracking, rewinding and careful decisions rather than linearity and twitch reflexes, the game queers normative temporal practices in gaming.

To the extent that play is creative and emancipatory, it is of critical importance to be able to dislodge play from normative structures, especially those that arise within gaming. As other very lucrative sectors of the industry discover countless incentives to optimize and professionalize play, reencountering the playfulness of play becomes, in part, a queer project. How do we navigate our way back to a creative, emotionally engaged, freed space for play, even as some of the most visible and spectacular practices in gaming obsess over frame-perfect timing, constant drilling, twitch reactions, stage memorization, decision trees, build orders, and other modes of standardization? Queer theory turns our attention to methods of finding meaningful alterity to normative structures of all kinds; specifically, Freeman’s concept of chrononormativity illuminates temporal standardization of media conventions and labor practices. As a digital medium produced by post-fordist labor and, in the case of esports, mobilized for the continued production of post-fordist labor, gaming inevitably establishes its own sorts of chrononormativity. What the example of Life is Strange illustrates is that even as new norms become established, their queer corollaries point us to the periphery, to being different and playing differently. To recognize nonnormative temporal acts such as resetting, rewinding, pausing, and backtracking as not only mechanics within a commercial medium but also deviations from wider norms is to open up that medium to reencounter what makes play creative, free and playful.


I would like to thank the peer reviewers and the editors for their patient feedback, which the essay owes much to. Thank you also to my adviser Braxton Soderman for his continued support and for his notes on an earlier draft of this essay. My thanks and sympathies to my partner and our kids for having to live with an academic. And a special thank you to Ben Kruger-Robbins for his reading recommendation that first seeded this essay.


[1] As Halberstam, whom Freeman also cites, argues in In a Queer Time and Place (2005), unlike these kinds of normative schedules, queer time is “about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing” (2).

[2] My point here is certainly not to belittle the accomplishments of those who find financial success in spite of institutional and cultural biases but rather to point out that praise for such individuals stems in part from a recognition of their willingness to join normative temporal paradigms.

[3] I use the past tense here because Spigel’s sources are historical, not to suggest that these advertising and programming tendencies are completely in the past.

[4] To be frame-perfect is to execute a given technique within a one-frame window. In games on consoles made for NTSC televisions, where the standard rate is sixty frames per second, this typically means acting within a one-sixtieth of a second window. The “perfect” in “frame-perfect” suggests the furthest degree of optimization in certain spheres of competitive gaming. In a context of perfectibility, what is nonnormative is deviation from the empirically optimal play, the best possible timing or flawlessly executed combo. The pursuit of frame-perfect execution therefore places special emphasis on conforming to established standards of play.

[5] One notable exception among esports would be the turn-based trading card game genre, which includes Hearthstone (2014) and Magic: The Gathering Online (2002). Both of these bound play within time limits, but neither demands of its players anything like frame-perfect timing.

[6] In some cases, the queered temporalities of play I describe run counter to the game’s apparent designs; in other cases, games such as Life is Strange specifically enable one to play with these kinds of temporalities. The concept of non-normative play has a scholarly precedent in works such as Aarseth’s “I Fought the Law” (2014), which considers “innovative, subversive and transgressive play” as something with definitional importance to play itself (182).

[7] Of course, people can and do get paid for a surprising variety of things through Twitch subscriptions and YouTube ad revenue. That said, there is no comparison between the profitability of high-performance play and that of the kinds of low-stakes backtracking described above.

[8] While characters in esports may have special powers that reverse or slow time, these kinds of powers do not serve to upend the “overlapping ludic rhythms” described in the previous section; Bayonetta’s Witch Time in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (2014), for example, does not crack a tournament match open for critical reflection mid-set or end the match in a draw. Tracer, a coincidentally queer hero from Overwatch (2016), reverses time but, again, does so within the competitive and productive logics of esports, including the player’s twitchy, immediate responses to a dynamic game state.

[9] This kind of large-scale time manipulation seems to be a take on an established convention in film and television, exemplified in Blow Up (1966), Blade Runner (1982) and Stranger Things (2016), all of which present analogue photography as boundlessly faithful to its subject. In each example, characters enhance analogue photographs to discover something recorded but previously unnoticed. Max’s preference for analogue photography not only characterizes her as a hipster but also, in keeping with this convention, suggests that analogue photos come alive and reveal more than that which is initially legible (and, implicitly, more than a digital photograph can).

[10] There are, in fact, speedruns of Life is Strange. At time of writing, the Any% (the fastest category) world record is held by Kevbot43 with 5 hours, 12 minutes, and 21 seconds (according to Much of Life is Strange’s length comes from unskippable cutscenes, and mandatory failures such as the one described above also increase the time.


Aarseth, E. (2014). I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and the Implied Player. In N. Segal & D. M. Koleva (Eds.), From literature to cultural literacy (pp. 180-188). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Boluk, S., & LeMieux, P. (2017). Metagaming: playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, and breaking videogames.

Consalvo, M. (2007). Cheating: gaining advantage in videogames. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Doane, M. A. (2002). The emergence of cinematic time: modernity, contingency, the archive. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Dohrn-van Rossum, G. (1996). History of the hour: clocks and modern temporal orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Freeman, E. (2010). Time binds: queer temporalities, queer histories. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Halberstam, J. (2005). In a queer time and place: transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York: New York University Press.

Halberstam, J. (2011). The Queer art of Failure. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.

Jagoda, P. (2016). Network aesthetics. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Juul, J. (2013). The Art of Failure: an Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Le Goff, J. (1980). Time, work & culture in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Life Is Strange - Leaderboard - (n.d.). Retrieved July 16, 2018, from

Lim, B. C. (2009). Translating time: cinema, the fantastic, and temporal critique. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lo, C. (2017). Everything Is Wiped Away: Queer Temporality in Queers in Love at the End of the World. Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, 32(2 (95)), 185-192.

Newman, J. (2008). Playing with videogames. London ; New York: Routledge.

Pelurson, G. (2018). Flânerie in the dark woods: Shattering innocence and queering time in The Path. Convergence, 1354856518772421.

Ruberg, B. (2015). No Fun: The Queer Potential of Video Games that Annoy, Anger, Disappoint, Sadden, and Hurt. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2(2), 108-124.

Ruberg, B. (2017a). Permalife: Video games and the queerness of living. Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, 9(2), 159-173.

Ruberg, B. (2017b). Playing to Lose: The Queer Art of Failing at Video Games. In J. Malkowski & T. M. Russworm (Eds.), Gaming representation: race, gender, and sexuality in video games (pp. 197-211). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ruberg, B., & Shaw, A. (Eds.). (2017). Queer game studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Salter, A. (2014). What is your quest?: From adventure games to interactive books. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press.

Spigel, L. (1992). Make room for TV: television and the family ideal in postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, T. L. (2012). Raising the stakes: e-sports and the professionalization of computer gaming. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Terranova, T. (2004). Network culture: politics for the information age. London ; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.


Anna Anthropy. (2013). Queers in Love at the End of the World [PC]. Anna Anthropy.

Bandai Namco Studios and Sora Ltd. (2014). Super Smash Bros. for Wii U [Wii U]. Tokyo, Japan: Nintendo.

Blizzard Entertainment. (2014). Hearthstone [multiplatform]. Irvine, California: Blizzard Entertainment.

Blizzard Entertainment. (2016). Overwatch [multiplatform]. Irvine, California: Blizzard Entertainment.

Criterion Games. (2005). Burnout Revenge [multiplatform]. Redwood City, California: Electronic Arts.

Dontnod Entertainment. (2015). Life is Strange [multiplatform]. Osaka, Japan: Capcom.

Epic Games. (2017). Fortnite [multiplatform]. Cary, North Carolina, USA: Epic Games.

Konami. (1992). Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time [SNES]. Tokyo, Japan: Konami.

HAL Laboratory. (2001). Super Smash Bros. Melee [GameCube]. Kyoto, Japan: Nintendo.

Hidden Path Entertainment. (2012). Counter-Strike: Global Offensive [multiplatform]. Bellevue, Washington: Valve Corporation.

Insomniac Games. (2009). Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time [PS3]. San Mateo, California: Sony Computer Entertainment.

Irrational Games. (2013). BioShock: Infinite [multiplatform]. Novato, California: 2K Games.

Leaping Lizard Software. (2002). Magic: The Gathering Online [PC]. Renton, Washington: Wizards of the Coast.

Nintendo EAD. (1998). The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time [N64]. Kyoto, Japan: Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. (2014). Mario Kart 8 [Wii U]. Kyoto, Japan: Nintendo.

Number None. (2008). Braid. [Multiplatform]. Number None and Microsoft Game Studios.

Psyonix. (2015). Rocket League [multiplatform]. San Diego, California: Psyonix.

Riot Games. (2009). League of Legends [PC]. Los Angeles, California: Riot.

Tale of Tales. (2009). The Path [PC]. Tale of Tales.

Toby Fox. (2015). Undertale [multiplatform]. Toby Fox.

Ubisoft Montreal. (2003). Prince of Persia: Sands of Time [multiplatform]. Rennes, France: Ubisoft.

Valve Corporation. (2013). Dota 2 [PC]. Kirkland, Washington: Valve Corporation.

©2001 - 2018 Game Studies Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the journal, except for the right to republish in printed paper publications, which belongs to the authors, but with first publication rights granted to the journal. By virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.