Jess Marcotte

Jess Marcotte is a queer nonbinary game designer, writer, intersectional feminist, and PhD student at Concordia University who has worked on games such as “In Tune: a game about navigating consent”, “rustle your leaves to me softly,” and “The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter”. Through these projects, they explore their interests in accessibility, diversity and provoking meaningful conversations through their work. Their other research interests include critical and speculative design, feminist making, and praxis-focused research. Their PhD at TAG, under the supervision of Rilla Khaled, will explore physical-digital hybrid game experiences from intersectional feminist and critical design perspectives. They are a founding member of Tweed Couch Games and were one of the co-directors for Critical Hit 2015. In their spare time, they like to scuba dive, make sushi and play roleplaying and board games.

TAG Research Lab
Concordia University

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Queering Control(lers) Through Reflective Game Design Practices

by Jess Marcotte


In this article, I make the case that control and controllers -- the peripherals which players use as extensions of their bodies and minds to operate videogames -- are a key entry point into the project of altering the hegemonic status quo of mainstream game design. Concepts from queer game studies, intersectional feminist theory, and critical design practices (particularly, the reflective game design framework) are brought together in order to analyze and subsequently queer five core aspects of control and controllers in videogames. I make use of examples from the work of queer creators, including my own, in order to queer each aspect.

Keywords: queer game design, design research, critical design, reflective design, control, game controls, alternative controllers, intersectional feminism, research-creation, alt games, art games, queer games

Content note: This article includes brief mentions of racism, sexually explicit acts, genitalia, and BDSM.



Over the course of the last decade, a growing body of intersectional feminist and queer game studies literature has documented the violent, hegemonic, misogynistic, heretosexist status quo of the videogame industry and game design's normative best practices, and called for their disruption (Fron et. al 2007, Ruberg 2015, Trammell & Waldron 2015, Bagnall 2017). Frequently, these practices are also ableist in their construction, assuming a standard player for a standard control scheme (Boluk & LeMieux 2017, p. 36). Game controls and controllers, as the means by which players interface with games and enact their agency on games’ systems, are a key site for disrupting this status quo. As a queer, nonbinary game designer, my queerness is a part of how I approach both intersectional feminist activism and game design. Dismantling oppressive, kyriarchal systems to the extent that we are able where we encounter them is a core part of the intersectional feminist project writ large. By operationalizing my knowledge of critical design practices, queer and intersectional feminist thought, and game design, I propose ways of disrupting, reorienting and queering the hegemonic status quo of games, with game controls and controllers as an entry point. Using examples from the work of queer creators, I queer five core aspects related to control in videogames by drawing on my design experience and research with the Reflective Game Design framework as part of the Reflective Games research group. By queering game controls and controllers, we can access more ways to question, transform, resist, imagine, and bring difference to game design more broadly.

Critiques from intersectional feminist and queer game studies about game design best practices in the industry often focus on the status quo, rather than individual instances of representation. What is being critiqued is "the way in which a complex layering of technological, commercial and cultural power structures have dominated the development of the digital game industry over the past 35 years, creating an entrenched status quo" (Fron et al. 2007), and that this status quo is, by default, violent, misogynistic, and exclusionary on many levels. In particular, some of these critiques address hardware and controllers as a site of entrenched hegemony (Fron et. al 2007, Bagnall 2017, Boluk & LeMieux 2017).

The concept of control in games is inextricably linked to the control interface (or controller), but extends into the game software, as agency in-game is not exclusively linked to the physical interface itself. The liminal space formed between the physical interface and the software must be addressed as part of the control provided to a user/player (Galloway 2012, p. vii). For the purpose of this discussion, "game controls" refers to both the physical and digital aspects of control that allow players to interact with a game, including controllers, their physical, tactile feedback and materiality, and the feedback that players receive from them through the software (for example, their avatar acting on-screen as a result of a button press, or auditory feedback related to the same). These are the components that provide a player with a sense of control and agency. Standard game controllers include keyboards and screens (particularly, touch screens), mice, joysticks, standalone buttons in the arcade, and gamepads. Common critiques of these standard controllers often begin with their inherent ableism, as in Boluk and LeMieux's Metagaming, in which they unpack the connection between consoles, game rules, and the standardized hardware that is officially sold with them: "Universal control assumes a universal body, and since the Super Nintendo controller was included as the default input for the platform, most games for the SNES anticipate bi-dexterous players (with two mobile hands able to act independently)" (2017, p. 36). Up until recently, players who did not fit this category often had to turn to unofficial, "hacked" controllers, if they were to play at all [1].

Queer game scholarship extends this critique not only to players' physical ability to play, but also to what standard controllers and control can signify. As an example, Bagnall suggests that the hardware of computer and console games itself reflects phallocentric "prescriptive heterosexual ideology" that forces gamers to "enact heteropolitics" through their use (2017, p. 141). Joysticks (such as those popularized by the Atari 2600 console) in particular have been critiqued for their connection to male gamer nostalgia, "the penis, maleness, masculinity, and the ideal gamer" (Pozo 2015). As tools, which are extensions of the human body, these theorists propose, a joystick or analog stick is a penis analogue (Pozo 2015, Bagnall 2017). Alternative and hacked controllers provide a way of critiquing these hegemonic designs. The Joydick, for example, which is a hacked joystick controller that uses a "blue silicone dick," literalizes the phallus in phallocentric game controls (Pozo 2015, p. 133-137). Pozo situates the Joydick and other interventions in the tradition of "countergaming" (Galloway 2006). Hacked or custom alternative controller projects like the Joydick are frequently made with no intent to bring a design object to mass market (Pozo 2015). Rather, as instances of countergaming, they are a comment on and reaction to the status quo. They may have been made with a specific user in mind to facilitate their play, or they may represent a unique design object made for just one game. Not all alternative controllers are intentional critiques of the status quo, but as Boluk and LeMieux suggest, "Whereas standardized control standardizes play and produces normative players, alternative interfaces do not simply make videogames accessible, but radically transform what videogames are and what they can do." (2017, p. 36). Alternative controllers represent a desire to see, make, and play with something that does not exist within the standard set of interfaces, and there is queer, intersectional feminist, political potential in that speculative possibility space.

One of the reasons that I propose queering alternative controllers as an entry point into queering hegemonic practices in games, in addition to their relationship to agency and control, is their relative accessibility with respect to user cost and insider knowledge. Creating alternative controllers with relatively little technical knowledge and experience is more possible now than ever before. "Inventor kits" such as the Makey-Makey and the BBC micro:bit serve as plug-and-play entry points for interested parties to learn about circuits, physical making, and creative interfaces. Alongside these technological developments, free game-making tools that require little to no programming knowledge are increasingly accessible, so long as one has access to a computer and an internet connection. Such increasingly available avenues of participation demonstrate that there is interest in and evidence for game controls and controllers as a site of disruptive potential. That is, the accessibility of these tools increases their disruptive potential because more makers can access them. Emerging out of this paradigm, the question for me is, "What does it mean to queer controllers?" In order to answer this, it is necessary to synthesize what is meant by "queer" in this context, what is specific about "queering", and how we can make use of related intersectional feminist and critical design practices in our queering practices as these relate to alternative ways of controlling and alternative controllers.

Intersectional Feminism & Queer Theory

Ultimately, inclusive, actionable theories of queerness in games must include intersectionality as a core concern, or risk reproducing the same hegemonic structures that intersectional feminist and queer games theorists are concerned about. Originally conceptualized by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), intersectional feminism acknowledges that the interrelations between different identity positions and experiences are complex and create shifting dynamics and subjectivities which operate within larger, interrelated systems of privilege and oppression. Intersectional feminism comes out of a tradition of women-of-colour feminist thought (i.e. Moraga & Anzaldua 1983) and many theorists have expanded upon the term since its inception to include other intersections and ideas (i.e. Collins 2000). Intersectional feminism acknowledges lived experiences and systemic pressures as acting simultaneously upon us and our relationships to others. Current queer theory has taken on the language of intersectionality (Ruberg 2015, Clark 2017). Queer theory is highly compatible with intersectional feminism because it is a framework that more closely examines a number of the "intersections" suggested by intersectional feminism -- specifically, those of sex, gender, and sexuality from queer perspectives. To be an intersectional feminist thinker means to acknowledge and consider questions related to power, privilege and oppression, including race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, physical ability, mental health, nationality, and power relations and dynamics. It means to interrogate our first impulses and assumptions as well as establishing one's own position within these systems (Davis 2017, p. 47-50).

To design from this perspective means not only to hold these considerations in mind, but to allow our designs to be informed by them. Game designers can consciously design from an intersectional feminist perspective, with an eye to their own positionality, through enactment of intersectional feminist principles within the design process (as related to power dynamics within the team, project management, etc.), or through designing games about intersectional feminist concepts. An intersectional feminist design perspective may determine what topics are addressed, as well as what subject matter is purposefully avoided. Designers may choose not to address subjects and areas with which they do not have lived experience and knowledge, may engage consultants who do have this lived experience and do careful, thorough research, or may choose to collaborate with someone who does have that lived experience so that this person can "speak" for themself (understanding that one person cannot speak for a whole group).

In Tune, which I co-designed, is an example of a game that was developed around intersectional feminist principles. In Tune is a game where players are asked to negotiate consent separately from sexual intimacy (Cole, Marcotte & Miller 2014a). Players are asked to perform a series of sustained poses, negotiating who will do what to whom, whether the pose needs to be modified, and whether they will perform the pose at all. The game positions consent as an intersectional feminist issue that affects our day-to-day interactions with others and that requires active, ongoing engagement rather than the binary, one-time giving and receiving of consent in sexually intimate contexts. One of the poses asks players to negotiate touching each other's heads, which finds echoes in a game like Hair Nah, which is about (white) people touching a black woman's hair without her permission (Pixel 2017). Games like Hair Nah and In Tune demonstrate some of the ways that one can design intersectionally. In Tune is an example of a game with intersectional feminist content and concerns, while Hair Nah is an example of a game that speaks from a specific intersectional identity.

Although deeply and necessarily interrelated, queer theory is distinct from intersectional feminist theory and has its own traditions both within and beyond game studies. This is because queerness contains its own collection of axes and intersections. On its own, the term "queer" is definitionally-difficult because, as Annamarie Jagose argues, “It is not simply that queer has yet to solidify and take on a more consistent profile, but rather that its definitional indeterminacy, its elasticity, is one of its constituent characteristics” (1996, p. 1). The term's definitional indeterminacy does not point to an emptiness, but rather to a complexity and richness that is multiple and multimodal. In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed takes note of and unpacks her use of two senses of the word "queer": "First, [...] as a way of describing what is 'oblique' or 'off line'" and, "Second, [...] to describe specific sexual practices", emphasizing that "specific sexualities [are] describable as queer in the first place [because] they're seen as odd, bent, twisted" (2006, p. 161). Ahmed argues for the importance of preserving both meanings of the word:

In a way, if we return to the root of the word "queer" (from the Greek for cross, oblique, adverse) we can see that the word itself "twists," with a twist that allows us to move between sexual and social registers, without flattening them or reducing them to a single line. Although this approach risks losing the specificity of queer as a commitment to a life of sexual deviation, it also sustains the significance of "deviation" in what makes queer lives queer. (Ahmed 2006, p. 161)

For Ruberg, "Being queer is about being different and desiring differently" (2015, p. 113-114). Queerness as orientation and intersection of lived experience is about our desires for our own and other bodies, at the same time as being about ways of thinking and relating to the world that are "oblique" to the heterosexist status quo. After Ahmed, I take queering as a verb to mean to reorient, redirect, to deviate (2006, p. 161). It is this reorientation and redirection that allows queer designers to bring the "difference" to design that Ruberg tells us we need for "our discussions of video games and the experience of play" in order to provide alternatives to the status quo (2017, p. 113-114).

Reflective Game Design

Through the ways that we desire differently as compared to the hegemonic culture of games, queer game designers can "reorient" our design practices (Ahmed 2006, p. 161). As a queer designer, my queerness is bound up and entangled within my identity in a bidirectional relationship, where my queerness shapes other aspects of my experience which in turn shape my queerness. My experience with critical design practices and, more specifically, with Reflective Game Design informs my understanding of what a queer design theory approach to queering game controls and controllers looks like. Reflective Game Design is an approach to critical making that values resistance to the status quo. It was developed by Dr. Rilla Khaled, and put into practice by Dr. Khaled with the Reflective Game Design group at the Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Research lab at Concordia University, of which I am a member (Khaled 2018). In order to reorient, redirect, deviate, and queer control in games and game controllers effectively, both the designer and player(s) must have some familiarity with the status quo, be aware that something within it has been altered, and have the opportunity to reflect upon that. This is where Reflective Game Design comes in.

Reflective Game Design is a critical design practice. Critical Design is a broad category of design practices which are used for talking about, designing around, and troubling the status quo, as well as engaging with social issues (Dunne & Raby 2013, p. 34-36). It stands in opposition to Affirmative Design (Ibid.). These two categories, Critical Design and Affirmative Design, form a spectrum whose targets and signposts are continuously moving as the design status quo changes. What was critical today may be read as affirmative tomorrow. In this same way, intersectional feminist and queer theorists' concerns with the hegemonic status quo of video games exists within a particular, changing context, and the goals of these critical projects may change as these contexts do. Related forms of design practice that are critical include speculative design (Auger 2013), ambiguous design (Gaver, Beaver, & Benford 2003, Sengers & Gaver 2006) and, more specific to games, critical play (Flanagan 2009) and reflective game design (Khaled 2018). Speculative design is a set of related practices which "remove the constraints from the commercial sector that define normative design processes [...] and use fiction to present alternative products, systems or worlds" (Auger 2013). The literature on ambiguous design suggests that ambiguity and a multiplicity of interpretations are a desirable outcome of design: designers create experiences but cannot control that players might experience something unintended by the design (Gaver et. al 2003, Sengers & Gaver 2006). However, while designers cannot ensure that those experiencing our design work will feel or think exactly what we expect, we can create contexts and situations that encourage certain effects. This is useful for game design because it brings player subjectivity into the picture while acknowledging that designs still possess embedded potential to create meaning. Flanagan's Critical Play investigates "games designed for artistic, political, and social critique or intervention, in order to propose ways of understanding larger cultural issues as well as the games themselves" (2009, p. 2). However, despite Critical Play's familial resemblances to other categories of critical design practice, it does not directly draw on critical design literature, and there are few examples of literature from the Critical Design tradition being applied to game design contexts.

The Reflective Games framework explicitly connects the Critical Design literature described above to game design and aims to bridge this gap. Reflection, for the purpose of this discussion, is “the mental process that occurs when we encounter situations that cannot be effectively dealt with using previous experiences and solutions” and is acknowledged in educational psychology as an important part of learning (Khaled 2018, Boud et al. 1985, Mezirow 1990). Because I work with Dr. Rilla Khaled, the creator of the Reflective Games framework, the thinking and theorizing that I do in relation to this model closely informs my design work. The Reflective Games framework is a way of thinking about and designing games that encourages reflection for both creators and players. In "Questions over Answers: Reflective Game Design", Khaled suggests that games have an opportunity to be true “reflection machines” as a form that could lend itself quite easily to creating reflective experiences (Ibid). Khaled's Reflective Game Design framework refers to four design patterns for encouraging reflection. These are: "Questions Over Answers", "Clarity Over Stealth", "Disruption Over Comfort", and "Reflection Over Immersion" (Khaled 2018, p. 22-24). The framework, in naming reflective game design patterns, also encourages us to recognize common design choices as patterns, where individual choices exist in relationship to each other.

The act of reflection can make explicit and visible the ways that designers are queering the status quo. The Reflective Game Design framework provides guidance for analyzing existing queered games and for designing new ones which deviate from and reorient mainstream game design. Khaled notes the importance of "Questions Over Answers," saying, "[Reflection] concerns deep consideration of problem spaces and is premised on questioning and revisiting our existing assumptions" (Ibid.). This suggests that ambiguity is a desirable quality for reflective games, as it provides interpretive space for the player to work through their own thoughts on a subject, not only in the context of the current game, but within their own lived experience. The principle of "Clarity Over Stealth" refers specifically to countering the idea of "stealth learning", which is to say learning divorced from the context in which it is intended to be used (Ibid). Transferring knowledge learned in-game that is not at some point then explicitly connected to its possible real-world applications may make it difficult or impossible for players to apply that knowledge in their day to day life (Ibid). With respect to "Disruption Over Comfort", Khaled explains that "Reflection is triggered when we are not strictly comfortable, when our assumptions are thrown into question and when we are confronted by situations that challenge our status quo" (emphasis in original) (Ibid). Players presented with unproblematized situations that they are in agreement with and information that they are already familiar with are unlikely to reflect. To contextualize the concept of "Reflection Over Immersion," Khaled explains that:

Immersion is a highly desirable quality if design objectives mainly concern escapism. But reflection is precisely not about escapism: it concerns revisiting our previous beliefs intentionally and with a high degree of self-awareness. In the context of games, it requires acknowledging and incorporating the “fourth wall”, even if this conflicts with the experience of “being there”. (Ibid)

What makes for an entertaining game does not necessarily align with the qualities that best promote reflection through games, and, as Bo Ruberg tells us, there is a great deal of queer potential in games that are "No Fun" (2015). By prioritizing critical reflection over fun, the Reflective Games framework is in line with the disruptive agenda of many queer game studies theorists.

Aspects of Control

Gregory Bagnall reminds us that, "As the prime navigational mechanism and explorative tool of nearly all console games, we must not underestimate the importance of game controllers" (2017, p. 140). As has been discussed, control and controllers represent the major source of agency for the player, and therefore an important entry point into queering game design. In queering the concept of control, concretized in game controllers, game designers making use of the Reflective Game Design patterns can create space for critical reflection, and this reflection can in turn help designers and players reflect on the status quo and the ways in which it has been and can be queered (2018). There are five aspects related to control that, when unpacked and queered, address many of the ways in which one might imagine control and controllers differently.

I have identified five core aspects of control that are key to this discussion of queering game controllers. They are flow, game feel, control literacy, procedural rhetoric, and materiality and embodiment. Collectively, these aspects, each drawn from game studies and related fields, cover most facets of control and controllers in games, and can be used to discuss how their manipulation affects control, what control communicates to players, and what is enabled as a result. These five aspects bleed into the narrative and programmatic materials of games, as control(s) cannot always fully be divorced from the content and themes of a game. The examples of queered game controls and controllers discussed below were all made by queer creators or small teams that include queer creators. A number of them are my own projects, allowing me to make use of the in-the-moment design documentation I have gathered about them in my writings about process.


1. Flow

Flow, a term popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), refers to a mental state achieved when performing a task wherein the level of challenge is commensurate with the player’s skill. Gameplay must walk the line between boredom and frustration to fall within the flow channel. When players are in this state they forget what is around them and are totally involved, totally absorbed (Ibid.). However, the perfected flow state is not one that promotes reflection (Khaled 2018). Rather, the opposite is true, as Brian Schrank points out in Avant-garde Videogames: “Games or cultures that foster flow allow people to be perfectly subjugated within their systems. When a system is designed with optimal flow, people forget that they are being subjugated: their doubts and distractions are kept to a minimum, and all human labor is positively absorbed into the system” (2014, p. 57). Game designer Dietrich Squinkifer suggests that there is “untapped potential in using gameplay itself to take the player out of flow and instead deliberately invoke uncomfortable emotions,” and that furthermore, this is necessary for the maturation of games (2016). Ruberg's concept of "No Fun" and Juul's discussions on the "Art of Failure" support this conclusion (Ruberg 2015, Juul 2013). As Halberstam suggests in The Queer Art of Failure, "Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world" (2011). Through failed or negative affects and experiences, queer design practices can problematize the flow state and similar "seamless" states with design that encourages “reflection over immersion” and “disruption over comfort” (Khaled 2018). Many of the best practices concerning control in games relate to encouraging this flow state, including forms of control in games. Therefore, it is also a key concept that must be queered to disrupt the status quo. In disrupting the other core aspects of control, the designer has the opportunity to disrupt, or, after Ahmed (2006), reorient the flow channel, as flow arises from an ideal (from the hegemonic perspective) combination of these factors of control.

The use of an elaborate human puppeteering system in Squinkifer's Coffee: A Misunderstanding queers flow in a Brechtian fashion by creating visible gaps and seams in the experience (read: flow) for the actors, the drivers, and the audience (Squinkifer 2014, Brecht & Willett 1964). Two players are the "puppets" and two others are the puppeteers or "drivers." The drivers communicate to the puppets through the iPod touches, selecting what the puppets should do or say next from a list of choices (Squinkifer 2015). The same narrative, with many variations, is repeated multiple times with different puppets and drivers for the same audience. Frequent pauses before instructions appear create awkward silence by delaying the actors' responses to one another. Since the actors are performing the lines "cold," they may start to read a response aloud before realizing that they have used an odd intonation or rhythm that appears stilted and unnatural. At times, actors switch roles, removing their "identity" and exchanging it, highlighting the fictional, constructed nature of the game. It is in these gaps, which resist flow and immersion, that reflection upon the queered, reoriented nature of the experience can occur.


2. Game Feel

“Game feel” is a term that many players and designers intuitively understand, but it is difficult to define. Swink defines game feel as: “the tactile, kinesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object. It’s the sensation of control in a game” (2009, xiii). Game feel is about “moment-to-moment interaction”, which is one reason why a simple set of instructions for how to deliberately create effective game feel is elusive (Ibid). In order to achieve a certain game feel, perhaps the in-game effect of a certain control input needs to be sped up or slowed down, or perhaps an animation needs to be smoothed, or perhaps a change in audio feedback is needed. Swink takes the normative stance that game feel that feels “intuitive” and that encourages the “flow state” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) is to be sought after -- that is, that a game's controls should feel as little mediated and as invisible as possible. Like Swink's suggestion that the player will only notice game feel if there is something wrong, many normative ways of managing control in games are all about invisibility and seamlessness. When a game is well-balanced, well-crafted, and well-designed, these norms tell us, the player should feel totally immersed and involved in the game. They should enter the flow state and be able to comfortably play for hours at a time. While the mainstream considers this level of involvement and seamlessness desirable, it reduces the need for thought in the moment, and therefore the impetus for critical thought.

Glitches and aspects of design that feel “glitchy” are one potential site for disrupting game feel. Clark and kopas write about glitches as disruptive forces that can show the seams of play experiences, noting that "to support glitch autonomy may mean not revealing whether a glitch is intentional or not, preserving a certain sense of wonder as to where it came from, why, and what the meaning of a glitch is" (2015). It is the audience's perception of whether something is a glitch that matters. In Seventy-Eight, a 2D platformer about labour and the perception of women in the workplace, the player controls a woman who cannot seem to please the system. There are a number of unseen programmatic rules: phantom key presses trigger at random, causing the avatar to jump or walk without player input, and platforms lose their collision detection boxes, causing the avatar to fall (Cole, Marcotte & Obin 2014). For myself and my fellow designers of Seventy-Eight, these were deliberate choices meant to make the game feel systemically unfair, procedurally representing the invisible forces of systemic oppression in the workplace. Although this runs counter to the reflective design pattern of “clarity over stealth" (Khaled 2018), our intent was to cause players to wonder whether the system was against them or if their own performance was inadequate, a reference to the gaslighting that marginalized people might experience in the workplace.

In Robert Yang’s Hurt Me Plenty, the player takes on the role of a dominant negotiating boundaries with a partner who they are about to spank (2014a). The festival version of Hurt Me Plenty often makes use of the Leap Motion controller, which can register the speed and movement of a person’s hand in the air. This finicky controller does not always work well, meaning that players may not have quite the right technique, and might accidentally flick their wrists too hard, or over-accentuate their next motions in their frustration. This can lead to the player violating their partner’s boundaries, and the game can lock the player out for hours at a time, potentially days, depending how seriously boundaries have been violated. This denial powerfully promotes the principle of “disruption over comfort” (Khaled 2018). Players are used to being catered to and to being in control: being able to reload, reset and try again with few consequences. The possibility of glitches in technology can be usefully integrated into our toolkit for queering control and controllers, as glitches create emergent possibility spaces from errors. This technological failure recalls Halberstam's thoughts on queer failure, in that failure can offer creative and surprising ways of being in the world (2011).


3. Control Literacy

Control literacy is an important factor in a player's ability to easily interact with a game. In the tradition of Gilster's Digital Literacy (1997), I use the term "control literacy" to refer to the player’s ability to pick up and use a given controller or any other set of learned conventions for controlling a game. When it comes to game controls, control literacy is often assumed. This literacy quickly becomes invisible for those who have it. These design conventions make it easier for those players who are familiar with them to gain competencies more quickly than players who are not [2]. All forms of literacy are learned skills. In reference to the Xbox 360 controller, Anna Anthropy points out: "The amount of both manual dexterity and game-playing experience required ... makes play inaccessible to those who aren’t already grounded in the technique of playing games." (Anna Anthropy 2012, p. 15). Designers and those who are inculcated with this literacy make many assumptions about these standard control schemes. Designers rarely interrogate the status quo of controllers. They thoughtlessly affirm that same status quo through their design (Dunne & Raby 2013, Malpass 2017). The hegemonic impact of such standardized controls has already been discussed at length (Fron et. al 2007, p. 4, Boluk & LeMieux 2017, p. 36, Bagnall 2017, p. 140). As Shinkle notes, “such control systems demand their own highly-specific skillset”, which can be quite exclusionary (2008, p. 909).

One solution to the exclusionary impacts of complex, standardized controls is to level the playing field by making an interface that no one is familiar with but that is relatively easy to learn to use. This is common with alternative controllers, and something that I frequently make use of in my own design practice. A number of games that I have designed or assisted with do so: In Tune (Cole, Marcotte & Miller 2014), We Are Fine, We'll Be Fine (Olou, Phillips & Pacampara 2015), rustle your leaves to me softly (Marcotte & Squinkifer 2017), and The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter (Marcotte & Squinkifer 2017) all take this approach to alternative controls, using fewer buttons and the affordances of their interfaces and mechanics to create reflective experiences. In the case of We Are Fine, We'll Be Fine, this takes the form of players each being assigned a single button to press while holding hands with one or more of the other players (Olou, Phillips & Pacampara 2015). While perhaps not every game needs to remap its controls in this way, it is worth considering who these defaults include and exclude. Control, with these alternative interfaces, becomes about what control can signify in a game, or what the method of control's procedural rhetoric is trying to communicate.


4. Procedural Rhetoric

Procedural rhetoric is the idea that rules and processes have meaning and ideologies embedded within them that can be learned and read by an audience (Bogost 2007). Miguel Sicart argues that "proceduralists" situate the meaning of a game wholly in "the formal properties of the rules" and that this disregards the importance of play and players, reducing their interpretive role to "actively complet[ing] the meaning suggested and guided by the rules" (Sicart 2011). According to Sicart:

Proceduralists believe that those behaviours can be predicted, even contained, by the rules, and therefore the meaning of the game, and of play, evolves from the way the game has been created and not how it is played; not to mention when and where it is played, and by whom. (2011)

Sicart's assessment of procedural rhetoric suggests a false dichotomy. As structures that facilitate play and encourage certain actions over others, the rules of a game cannot help but contain arguments. Such arguments are contextually-dependent, and may be interpreted differently depending on who is playing (see: Treanor & Mateas 2013). The rules of a game provide a frame upon which the player can reflect through play, but emergent and house-ruled play is common. Ambiguity and multiplicity of interpretation, as the critical design practices literature tells us, is not only a likely outcome of design. Ambiguity can indeed be a desirable outcome, one that provides additional nuance and depth for our designs (Gaver, Beaver, & Benford 2003, Sengers & Gaver 2006). Something that becomes abundantly clear when we extend this discussion to the design of physical objects and spaces is that design always supports or critiques the status quo (Dunne & Raby 2013). How we design spaces and objects reflects who we expect to be using them, and therefore, who it is for and whom it excludes (Boluk & LeMieux 2017, p. 35-36). It is possible to say that there is rhetoric and meaning within rules without saying that rules are the only site of meaning. Designers also unconsciously or consciously reveal their own biases through their designs. Designers interested in queering the hegemonic status quo of games should be careful not to reinforce existing problematic structures.

In the standard procedural rhetoric of most game controls, the relationship between the player and power usually remains uninterrogated. Players are given a great deal of power. The average game tells us we can run without getting tired, that we can leap high into the air, executing identical jumps each time, and that we will have no trouble activating complex machines at the push of a button or two. To quote Mattie Brice, “Gamers are set up to be colonial forces. [Playing video games is] about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world” (2016). Players are used to having maximum agency and power within the rules of most video games.

Figure 1: The We Are Fine, We'll Be Fine gameboard. Source: TAG Research Lab


We Are Fine, We'll Be Fine offers an example of queer, alternative control that makes space for reflection by through the rhetoric of its controls (Olou, Phillips & Pacampara 2015). The game resists providing players with traditional agency and power by limiting what actions it is possible to take within the bounds of its rules. Featuring a finely-crafted wooden game board, the play session is set up like a ritual or séance. When players touch each other’s hands in different combinations with the game board, audio clips play. The audio is made up of interviews with marginalized people who tell stories about their experiences. The game reorients player agency by limiting the player’s options for interaction to activating the game board, holding each other’s hands, and listening. Players cannot fix the situations they hear about or make contributions to the game's archive. Their only option is to listen and to hold onto each other, or cease playing. In normative design traditions, the designers might have been tempted to encourage players to take action in some way or to work on solutions, but this is a game about listening. Resisting the urge to design a solvable problem and to give the players more agency disrupts normative play (and the comfort that comes with that), privileging shared experience, reflection and the stories of the marginalized people over all else. The physical aesthetics of the round, laser-engraved, wooden board encourage this moment of reflection, which brings us to the importance of materiality and embodiment.


5. Materiality and Embodiment

Standard, mass-produced game controls are objects of plastic, rubber and metal, with electronic circuitry inside. The material differences between most controllers are so slight that some writers wax poetic about differences in plastic and their subtle impact on factors like game feel. Swink writes, "The white plastic that houses my Xbox 360 controller has a smooth, pleasingly porous feel. It’s almost like skin" (Swink, 2009, p. 117). Game controllers share many physical familial resemblances from one to the next, with relatively little variation in the past few generations of consoles (though there are notable exceptions that we have already discussed) [3]. Similarly, most mass-produced game controls target the same body parts and senses: the eyes, the ears, and the hands. It is clear that for accessibility reasons, controls must engage with bodies in alternative ways. However, there are other reasons that designers and players might want to extend their modes of play beyond those parts of their body and beyond the standard materials of the average controller. If Swink can tell the difference between his Xbox 360 controller's pleasingly porous plastic and the plastic of a Wiimote or PlayStation controller and recognize that there is an impact on game feel that stems from it (2009, p. 117), then we have an opportunity to impact game feel and play by bringing in new materials and new ways to use our bodies in video games. Since we can alter and augment our analog experiences of play through the use of technology, we can and should think about what games can do if we take materiality and embodiment under serious consideration.

There are many material choices within the realm of possibility for alternative controllers that are unlikely to be mass-produced in the foreseeable future. Alternative materials, especially ones that are too impractical to fulfill the requirements for monetary exploitation, can create fascinating opportunities for reflection. Consider two examples from my own design practice, The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter (Marcotte & Squinkifer 2017b), which makes use of handcrafted fabric objects, and rustle your leaves to me softly, which makes use of living non-human entities (Marcotte & Squinkifer 2017a)

Figure 2: Handmade textile objects embroidered with conductive thread inside the SUITCASE for The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter. Source: Mattias Graham.


The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter is a radically-soft game about emotional labor and otherness that fits entirely inside of a carry-on suitcase. Assisted by the Troubleshooter’s toolkit, the SUITCASE (Suitcase Unit Intended to Cure All Sorts of Emotions), the players work together to find a solution to a previously-established problem by following a series of steps for active listening and problem-solving. The “buttons” in this game are handcrafted objects which were crocheted or sewn and then embroidered with conductive thread. Their soft, yielding tactility was important to our design, suggesting a vulnerability and an openness that contrasts with the hard shell of the suitcase that houses them. There are nine objects: a fish, a beaker, a scroll, a lizard, an eyeball, an ear, a heart, teeth, and a plant. A tablecloth, embroidered with the game's grounds, serves as a kind of portable stage, a physical boundary between the "real" world and the fiction of the game. This boundary is an entry point into a speculative possibility space: a queer, intersectional feminist world where emotional labor is valued and technology is soft and used for care. When “consulted,” the nine objects play from a selection of object-specific statements without perfectly defined meaning, which are then meant to be interpreted and serve as inspiration for resolving the customer’s trouble. This is in line with reflective game design concept of “questions over answers” and the previously discussed importance of ambiguity as a resource for design (Khaled 2018).

Figure 3: A plant partner, peperomia obtusifolia variegata, being stroked gently as part of play in rustle your leaves to me softly. Source: TAG Research Lab.


In rustle your leaves to me softly: an ASMR plant dating simulator, players form a relationship with one or more plants by touching and stroking them and listening to the ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) soundscape feedback that their actions generate (Marcotte & Squinkifer 2017a). This game is deeply physical and embodied. The physical properties of the human-plant relationship are not deliberately engineered, and form the unique character of the relationship between each plant and human. The feeling of being connected to another living creature, even if it is mediated, is sincere. Within the fiction of the game, the plants enjoy this relationship. In reality, neither the player nor the designers can access the consciousness of these plants to determine whether or not they enjoy being touched, although there is growing attention to the science of plants, their sensory organs, and how they communicate with and experience the world (Gabbatiss 2017). Still other research talks about how some plants may benefit from or “enjoy” being touched, while others are harmed by it (Dye n.d.). The stroking interaction, which feels so qualitatively different from pressing a button, queers control by asking players to ponder impact of their actions on a normally tacit non-human entity, and consider what its consciousness might be like.

This plant-human relationship and the use of intimate touching as a control for the game stand in stark contrast to hegemonic, heteronormative play, and in the sense that it is non-heteronormative and cross-species, is queer, reorienting player desire (after Ahmed [2006]). In a vital materialist tradition, this game highlights the intimate, sensual possibilities that might exist between humans and non-humans, whether those are other living organisms or what normative political ecologies would consider inanimate objects or "things" (Bennett 2010, Haraway 2008). Plant metaphors (root, stem, bud, flower, etc.) are deeply embedded into romantic poetry traditions, and words that are perhaps innocent when they refer to plants become sensual, even erotic, within the game's whispered ASMR soundscape. Leveraging the intimacy thereby created connects players to each other and to other organisms rather than isolating them within a virtual reality headset or engulfing them in what Schrank would call the subjugation of the flow channel (2014), thereby privileging “reflection over immersion” (Khaled 2018).


The examples discussed in relation to these five aspects of control reorient the hegemonic status quo of control in videogames. After Ahmed (2006, p.161), I take "queering" in its verb form to mean reorienting, redirecting, deviating from and causing to deviate, altering the established heterosexist hegemony that has such a strong hold on mainstream games. These acts of queering are made visible through reflection on the part of players and designers. Reflection can be encouraged through the use of explicitly reflective game design patterns. The examples that I have discussed which show their queer orientation most clearly are those which follow one or more reflective game design patterns.

While not all alternative controllers are queer, most of the hegemonic status quo in videogames is heteronormative and heterosexist, which is why operationalizing queer theory, queer game studies, and the work of queer creators is necessary. Common control schemes prioritize smooth, seamless experiences that are designed to be self-effacing and encourage subjugation into the flow state. These norms within game design best practices tacitly support other hegemonic practices. I propose that we can and should create gameplay experiences by taking players out of the flow state and away from seamless, invisible experience. Let the game be slow. Let players be bored, or frustrated, or, with their informed consent, any number of the other emotions that are part of the spectrum of human experience beyond the limited set that flow and industry best practices encourage. As Bo Ruberg suggests, let the game be "no fun" (2015). Let them remember that they have bodies, and encourage them to think about that embodiment. Let them interact with something other than plastic. By queering (reorienting, redirecting, deviating from and causing to deviate) and questioning hegemonic practices related to control and controllers, and by implementing reflective design patterns to help both designers and players consider this queerness, we expand the definitions of what is possible not only for ourselves as designers but also for players and for those who are not yet players.



I would like to acknowledge the support of the TAG Research lab and its members, my supervisor Dr. Rilla Khaled, and my peers from the Reflective Games group throughout this research. I would also like to thank the Canadian Game Studies Association for allowing me to share an early version of this research at the 2017 conference.

[1] May 2018 saw the official announcement of Xbox's accessible game controller, the Xbox Adaptive Controller, designed in partnership with organizations that provide support to disabled gamers, and supporting a fair number of peripherals and accessories (Spencer 2018). This announcement comes after many years of organizations (such as Able Gamers) and gamers crafting the custom, hacked solutions that Boluk and LeMieux describe (2017, p.35. The existence of alternative controllers geared at making gaming accessible, designed by disabled gamers and their support networks, has made such an eventuality possible.

[2] For a detailed analysis of some standard game inputs, see Chapter 6 of Steve Swink’s Game Feel (2009).

[3]Nova and Bolli discuss the historical evolution of controllers in Joypads! (2014)



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