Bonnie Ruberg

Bonnie "Bo" Ruberg, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of digital games and interactive media in the Department of Informatics and the Program in Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. They are the author of Video Games Have Always Been Queer (New York University Press, 2019), the co-editor of Queer Game Studies (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), and the co-lead organizer of the annual Queerness and Games Conference.

Contact information:
bruberg at

Amanda Phillips

Amanda Phillips is Assistant Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Georgetown University and Chair of the American Studies Association Digital Humanities Caucus. She teaches game studies and game design and writes about death, race, gender, and social justice in video games and the digital humanities. You can find her work in Queer Game Studies, Games and Culture, Digital Creativity, and Debates in the Digital Humanities. Her book, Gamer Trouble, is under contract with NYU Press

Contact information:
amanda.phillips at

Special Issue -- Queerness and Video Games

Not Gay as in Happy: Queer Resistance and Video Games (Introduction)

by Bonnie Ruberg, Amanda Phillips

Content note: This introduction includes references to, but not explicit descriptions of, online harassment, queerphobia, and sexual assault.


The place where queerness meets games is a site of radical potential. At this intersection stands the invitation to radically reimagine games and play: their forms, their meanings, their politics, and their place within the world. We are standing now in the midst of a crucial shift in the relationship between games and queerness. This is not because mainstream video games are becoming more diverse, or because the game industry is becoming more inclusive, or because discriminatory “gamerbros” are becoming more empathetic, as many have enthusiastically claimed (Riley, 2018). It is because queer people are destabilizing and reenvisioning games from the bottom up. Over the last half a decade, we have seen this revolutionary work taking place in areas of game making, game community organizing, and game scholarship. Dozens (if not hundreds) of LGBTQ independent developers are creating games about, by, and for queer people. Events like Different Games, GaymerX, and the Queerness and Games Conference have created spaces that are explicitly and unapologetically queer. On the academic front, the new paradigm of queer game studies is rapidly gaining speed. Queer lives, queer voices, and queer desires are rising up to resist the status quo of games.

There are many ways to tell the story of queerness and games. Recent years have seen the prominence of a particular cultural narrative about games (especially video games) and diversity: Once exclusionary and discriminatory, so the story goes, games are now becoming more inclusive, with LGBTQ characters represented in mainstream video games and diverse gaming communities beginning to flourish. This narrative is not untrue, yet it is only one version of the story. When we talk about queerness and games, we need to talk about more than representation and inclusion -- which risk subsuming the complexities of real, queer lives into instrumentalizing, neoliberal promises of happiness (Ahmed, 2010), cultures of cruel optimism (Berlant, 2011), and oversimplified assurances that “it gets better” (Puar, 2017). Rather than celebrating the supposed newness of the presence of LGBTQ characters and developers in games, we need to unearth the contributions of queer and transgender folks, alongside women and people of color, who have been appearing in and helping create games for decades, often with little recognition (Nooney, 2013). Queerness and games are fundamentally and intimately linked--through play (Ruberg, 2018), through their invitation to inhabit new worlds (Shaw and Ruberg, 2017), through their non-normative pleasures (Clark, 2017), and more. Queerness can be a way to question what we know about games and the place of those who are marginalized within them.

This special issue represents a call back to the radical politics (and the radical political potential) of exploring queerness in and through games. It also represents a call to question, challenge, and ultimately move beyond the neoliberal rhetorics of representation and inclusion that continue to surround games and LGBTQ issues. Each of the articles in this issue explores queerness in games in modes that move beyond representation. These articles encompass a range of voices and perspectives. The authors featured here come from many different disciplines, backgrounds, and identity positions. A number of them are game makers as well as game scholars, which demonstrates the value of bridging theory and praxis. Together, these authors push our thinking about games, identity, and culture in important new directions by prompting us to consider how queerness can be brought to games (or stripped from games) through many means: from the ways that games are designed and developed, to the ways that they structure their in-game temporality and economies, to the responses of queer fan fiction authors and modders, to the mechanisms by which games re-normativize queerness. These articles are inspired by the spirit of queerness as both an umbrella term for LGBT people and an ethos: a way of living differently in the world that resists heteronormative prescriptions related to sexuality and gender. In this sense, queerness is not so much a stable, clearly defined sexual orientation as it is a way of seeing and experiencing the world: aslant, askew, out of line. “Depending on which way one turns,” writes Sara Ahmed in Queer Phenomenology, “different worlds might even come into view” (2006, 15).

We draw the title of our introduction to this special issue, “Not Gay as in Happy,” from a rallying cry of queer culture: “Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you.” This phrase has been graffitied on city walls, printed on the materials of grassroots organizations, and worn proudly on the bodies of real, live queers. [1] It resonates with us as both queer game studies scholars and as queer human beings who value passion but who also, inspired by women of color feminists like Audre Lorde, value anger (Lorde, 1981). The forms of identity, desire, intimacy, and disruption that we are drawn to in games are not surface level representations of difference. They do not promise, in uninterrogated terms, to make the cultural landscape of video games a more “diverse” place. Nor do they strive simply for increased representation and inclusion, drawing marginalized subjects into the existing hegemonies of video games. Instead, they challenge norms. They undermine dominant structures of power. Like José Esteban Muñoz (2009), they long for queer worlds on the horizon. Yet, they also remain skeptical: of homonormativity, homonationalism, appropriation, re-marginalization, and exploitation. The modes of queerness in games explored in this issue -- as well as the ways of approaching games through the lens of queerness represented here -- are not gay as in happy. They are queer as in resist.

(Queer) Resistance and Video Games

Resistance, a central tenet for those who value social justice in an era of resurgent white nationalism and far-right movements around the globe, is an undercurrent of the present moment for games and the cultures that surround them. This resistance is being enacted by people who make games, people who study games, and people who build gaming communities, as well as by games themselves. Resistance in, through, around, and against video games takes many forms. We see the work of resistance, for example, in the 2017 #resistjam, which called on developers to make games that “resisted oppressive authoritarianism.” [2] It is no coincidence that #resistjam and the subsequent creation of 200 #resistjam games took place in the months immediately following the inauguration of American president Donald Trump. We also see the work of resistance in the organizing efforts of Game Workers Unite, which challenges the exploitative labor practices of the games industry and calls for the unionization of game developers (Sinclair, 2018). We see the work of resistance in the social action efforts of those bold academics -- many of them women and others in precarious positions -- who worked to successfully shut down the 2018 ACE (Advances in Computer Entertainment) conference, which had become a vehicle for discriminatory punditry (Deterding, 2018). We likewise see the work of resistance in games created by women of color like A.M. Darke, Lishan AZ, and Momo Pixel, which use play to perform activist interventions around race, gender, and discrimination. [3] Games are fundamentally political, as is the place of marginalized subjects within them. There can be no meaningful engagement with games as a widely influential media form that does not acknowledge this reality.

Video games offer opportunities for resistance. At the same time, it is crucial to resist games themselves, at least as we know them today: the ways they have been traditionally imagined, the communities they have commonly hailed, the problematic politics and values they often embody. Both historically and in the present day, video games as a medium and an industry have been aligned with the forces of hegemony and empire (Fron et al., 2008; De Peuter and Dyer-Witherford, 2009). “Toxic gamer culture,” as it has been termed by feminist game studies scholars like Mia Consalvo (2012), Megan Condis (2018), Christopher Paul (2018), and Anastasia Salter and Bridgett Blodgett (2018), has come to dominate popular discussions of games. The field of game studies, too, with its canon of straight, white, cisgender men and its longstanding emphasis on supposedly apolitical formalism, has also been implicated in these systems of oppression (Murray, 2017; Malkowski and Russworm, 2017). These are broad claims, admittedly, and we acknowledge that there are many valuable exceptions -- games, game makers, and game scholars who have used play to question dominant structures of power. Given the history surrounding games and game studies, however, it is particularly crucial to bring to the surface this undercurrent of resistance.

Approaching games through queer studies is both an invitation to resist and itself an act of resistance. This is because resistance is at the heart of queer studies. Like its related disciplines of feminist studies and critical race studies, queer studies acknowledges and embraces the political nature of academic knowledge production. Indeed, the emergence of queer studies in the early 1990s, a moment when homosexuality was becoming increasingly acceptable in mainstream U.S. society, was in part a response to the depoliticization of gay and lesbian identity in academia and other areas of culture (Butler, 1993: 20). At the same time that homosexuality was becoming “respectable,” other sexual and gender minorities were being increasingly marginalized. Contemporary queer activists and scholars remind us that Stonewall, often considered the origin point of the queer rights movement in the United States, far from being a protest led by white cisgender gay men (as it was recently represented in Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film), was in fact an uprising initiated by trans women of color who put their bodies on the line in the name of social justice. In our current dire political moment, we must insist on the radical implications of queerness or betray this legacy.

Like game studies, queer studies is now more than two decades old. Over that time, queer studies scholars have continued to grapple with the changing nature of politicized identity and its relationship to scholarly practice. In 2005, a landmark special issue of the journal Social Text, titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?”, explored how “queer” shifts as a critical concept over time, and why scholars must continually renew their fight to keep queerness radical. In their introduction to the issue, David Eng, Jack Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz describe a political landscape that looks much like the one that surrounds video games today, with LGBTQ characters appearing more frequently in mainstream games. They write:

The contemporary mainstreaming of gay and lesbian identity--as a mass-mediated consumer lifestyle and embattled legal category--demands a renewed queer studies ever vigilant to the fact that sexuality is intersectional, not extraneous to other modes of difference, and calibrated to a firm understanding of queer as a political metaphor without a fixed referent. (2005, pg. 2)

As Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz state, queerness is a project that must be continually renewed. Its political utility stems, in part, from its demand that we engage with power and identity in all of their complexities. This requires, in Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz’ words, “a broadened consideration of the late-twentieth-century global crises that have configured historical relations among political economies, the geopolitics of war and terror, and national manifestations of sexual, racial, and gendered hierarchies” (2005, pg. 2). Addressing these complexities in video games requires attending to many layers of gamic systems, including but not limited to representation, procedural logics, hardware, player communities, and economic concerns. It also requires bringing together multiple methodologies and approaches to making meaning (Krzywinska, 2006). Holding these varied factors in tension with one another is an important step toward understanding how power flows through video games as assemblages and overlapping systems. The intersection between queerness and games is itself a nexus of systems and possibilities that are complicated and at times contradictory. The inclusion of LGBTQ people in game narratives and the labor structures of the video game industry are only part of the equation. In many ways, the queerness of queer game studies (and of games more broadly) is not yet here. We must bring it into being.

Queerness is political, yet so are games. It is no longer acceptable to overlook the political implications of the medium. #GamerGate has forced the gaming community, including academic game studies, to take seriously the longstanding warnings, analysis, acts of resistance, and pleas for help from marginalized folks who play and work on video games. The troubles that structure #GamerGate are not new to many of us--especially for feminists, queer people, and people of color who speak publicly about the need to shift discussions around video games to concerns of social justice. Recent coordinated efforts to contain the damage of the 2018 ACE Conference and challenge the World Health Organization’s new designated “gaming disorder,” which drew outraged support from many established game studies scholars (McKenzie, 2018), are worthy of commendation. Yet where was this communal fervor from privileged colleagues when coordinated online harassment campaigns were attacking junior scholars for publishing feminist writing on games (Chess and Shaw, 2015), or when women games commentators like those from Feminist Frequency became the objects of violent threats (Jenson and de Castell, 2013), or when Dickwolves were running amok in fandom (Salter and Blodgett, 2012)? The knowledge necessary to understand and adequately address to toxic masculinity, white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism as it exists in games and game communities is already available (Shaw, 2018). Making such work central to game studies scholarship is an ethical, and intellectual, imperative.

We are not the first to call for the field to confront the politics of games--nor the first to recognize the challenges of such a call. Historically, attempts to politicize game studies have been fraught with trouble. “Trouble” here takes on an expansive meaning. It brings to mind interpersonal (and intergroup) conflict, productive (and circular) intellectual dispute, political (and consumerist) agitation, and more. [4] In thinking about the trouble that surrounds game studies, we might invoke the dreaded, infamous narratology vs. ludology debates (entangled in the early history of this very journal), which many have identified as a turning point that moved the study of video games away from political critique (see Murray, 2005, for an example of this position). We might also think about how game studies has needed to defend video games against moral panics about school shootings and sexboxes, backing the field into defensive stance against controversy. [5] We might think about how professionals working in areas related to games are often required to justify their interest in “kid stuff”--prompting us, as a group, to embrace the violent and offensive content of games as proof that they are made for adults, or to look past representational content in games to focus on the technical and ludic structures that operate beneath them. We might think about Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003 - 2018), Duke Nukem (multiple developers, 1991 - 2016), God of War (SIE Santa Monica, 2005 - 2018), or any number of problematic games franchises that live on in the canon of video game “greats” with largely uncritical celebration. These are just a few examples of the troubles within games, game cultures, and game studies that the radical potential of queerness inspires us to identify and resist.

Resistance in Action: New Work in Queer Game Studies

This special issue both builds from and productively enriches a vibrant, growing body of contemporary scholarship that explores queerness, games, and play. Over the past half a decade, there has been a considerable increase in game studies work invested in queerness and games (both digital and analog). Shaw and Ruberg describe this as the scholarly paradigm of “queer game studies,” also the title of their landmark 2017 collection, which, along with the annual Queerness and Games Conference, has been an important touchstone in this area. To date, queer game studies has addressed a range of topics. Longstanding questions from within game studies more broadly about representation (Consalvo, 2003a), player and developer demographics (Taylor, 2003), and the nuances of player-avatar identification (MacCallum-Stewart, 2008) have been raised often. Among queer game studies scholars, many are also interested in bringing lenses from queer theory to the work of understanding games, such as by performing reparative queer readings of seemingly “straight” video game content (Phillips, 2017) or by exploring how elements of games like their mechanics (Engel, 2016), interfaces (Pow, 2018), narratives (Chess, 2016), and opportunities for non-normative play (Chang, 2017) can be interpreted as queer. Though important research on gender and sexuality in games has been conducted by scholars in the 1990s and 2000s -- some notable examples include T. L. Taylor (2006), Helen Kennedy (2002), and Jenny Sundén (2009) -- the present focus on queerness in game studies is comparatively nascent and still leaves considerable room for exploration. Recently, interests in affect, platform, and temporality, driven by other trends in critical theory, are coming to the surface in both scholarly and non-academic thinking about queerness in games. New games like Dream Daddy (Game Grumps, 2017) and Life is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment, 2015) have achieved mainstream success while explicitly courting queer audiences. The authors in this issue engage with and expand beyond many of these topics, springboarding in valuable new directions.

Contemporary queer game studies work has come a long way from Mia Consalvo’s 2003 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) report “It’s a Queer World After All: Studying The Sims and Sexuality,” one of the earliest inquiries into queerness and games. Today, many look to Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture (2014) as the first monograph to focus on queer issues in marginalized communities that play games--though 2019 and 2020 will see the release of additional queer game studies monographs. [6] Recent collections like Gaming Representation (Malkowski and Russworm, 2017) and Queerness in Play (Harper, Adams, Taylor, 2018) are continuing these conversations. One of the recurring projects of existing queer game studies scholarship has been constructing the history of queerness and games. Databases like Queerly Represent Me and the LGBTQ Video Games Archive research and document the existence of queer characters in video games, which extends as far back as the 1970s (much earlier than many people think). Recently, researchers working in conjunction with the LGBTQ Video Games Archive resurrected what is believed to be the oldest gay-themed video game in existence: C.M. Ralph’s 1989 Caper in the Castro (Borman, 2018). “Rainbow Arcade,” the first-ever exhibit dedicated entirely to queerness and games, opened at the Schwules Museum in Berlin just a few weeks prior to this issue’s publication. More and more scholars, especially junior scholars who represent the next generation of the field, are coming to the work of queer game studies.

Queer game studies does not exist in an academic vacuum. It has deep ties to communities of queer game makers and players. This research also exists in dialog with a number of shifts in gaming culture and game creation that have occurred in the 2010’s. As one (of many) origin points for the rise of discussions around queerness and games, many point to the influence of independent video games by queer and trans artists like Anna Anthropy, Mattie Brice, merrit kopas, Porpentine, Liz Ryerson, and more. Indeed, Anthropy’s 2012 Rise of the Videogame Zinesters has been a source of inspiration for many queer game makers. Today, however, a far wider network of game makers participate in this “queer games avant-garde” (Ruberg, 2018), which produces short, zine-like games inspired by queer experiences: from personal struggles with living and loving in an oppressive society to adventures in hugging and feminist sorcery. In the commercial arena, blockbuster games like Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment, 2016) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (Bioware, 2014) have begun featuring LGBTQ characters more prominently (and more positively) in their narratives. BioWare has played a particularly visible role in bringing attention to queerness in mainstream games. Important shifts have also occurred in the queer communities that surround games. The first queer-focused fan convention, GaymerX, debuted in 2013. Just this year, SonicFox was crowned the top esports player in the world at the international Game Awards. In front of a crowd of thousands (and countless more watching remotely), he concluded his acceptance speech by proclaiming, "I'm gay, Black, a furry - pretty much everything a Republican hates - and the best esports player of the year, I guess!" (IGN, 2018).

Queer game studies is tied to politics, both within games and at a national level, as well as the work of political resistance. Academic interests in queerness and games have enjoyed growing popularity and visibility in part thanks to a surging mainstream interest in identity and social justice. At the same time, it is not coincidental that queer game studies began picking up speed at the same moment that large-scale online harassment campaigns against feminist game commentators were first coming to the attention of mainstream media, or that the growing interest in this area exists side by side with the rise of #GamerGate and its alleged connections to the Alt-Right. While it is true that outside interest in the field has spiked in light of high-profile harassment events, we contest two prominent narratives about harassment in online spaces: first, that feminist and queer work on video games largely emerged in response to these attacks; and second, that such attacks began with the 2012 harassment campaign against Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” Kickstarter fund. There is a longer and richer history of feminist and queer work on video games dating back at least to the early 1990s. [7] There is also a long, violent history of anti-feminist and misogynistic harassment in online gaming spaces that far pre-dates #GamerGate. [8] Scholarship has an important role to play in interrogating the current political moment, and queer game studies can perform important parts of that interrogation. Given this, it is fitting that resistance is a theme that crosses all of the articles in this issue. Resistance manifests in different forms in each of these pieces; who resists, what they resist, and how resistance is enacted are factors that productively vary across these works.

Firstly, a number of pieces in this issue identify resistance in the cultural production and meaning-making practices of game players themselves -- especially video game fans. Early work on fan cultures by scholars like Joanna Russ (1985), Henry Jenkins (1992), and Constance Penley (1997) laid the foundations for understanding how fans resist the normative politics of their beloved entertainment media through their own media creation. Following in this tradition, Brianna Dym, Jed Brubaker, and Casey Fiesler’s article in this issue, “‘theyre all trans sharon’: Authoring Gender in Video Game Fan Fiction,” investigates how fans write queerness into games. To address this, the authors analyze metadata in the online fan fiction database Archive Of Our Own. Through their study of author-generated tags, Dym, Brubaker, and Fiesler demonstrate how game fans resist the existing limits of LGBTQ representation in video games by reimagining these games with additional transgender characters and characters of other non-normative genders. The authors also resist standard logics of representation by suggesting that, while explicitly queer and trans game characters are important to fan communities, characters whose identities are left ambiguous also provide compelling opportunities for the creation of fan work. Similar to how game fans can enact resistance by writing fiction, players can also push back against the status quo of video games by creating queer game mods (unofficial game modifications that introduce queer content into existing video games) -- a strategy of queer resistance explored by scholars like Evan Lauteria (2012) and promoted by queer indie game makers (Anthropy, 2012). In his article “The Affectively Necessary Labour of Queer Mods,” Thomas Welch expands on these discussions by reframing queer mods through questions of labor. For Welch, the work of modding queerness into video games is both potentially exploitative and also “affectively necessary”: a form of labor done by queer folks for their own self-actualization in a straight gaming world.

A second mode of resistance that the articles in this issue address is resistance as it is performed in and through game development practices -- as well as why such attempts to resist might fail. Feminist and queer concerns about games and social justice are also highly relevant to the games industry and the ways in which games get made. Here, multiple authors speaking from hybrid theory-practice positions reflect on what it might mean to make games from a place of queerness. Kara Stone’s “Time and Reparative Game Design: Queerness, Disability, and Affect” draws from Stone’s own experience developing her game Ritual of the Moon (2018). In this piece, Stone deftly interweaves elements more traditionally found in game design post mortems with provocative insights from queer theory and disability studies. Through this interplay, which resists the perceived divide between theory and practice, Stone challenges the strenuous and damaging ableist demands placed on game developers by arguing for a design process that obeys queer and “crip” (disability-centered) notions of time. Jess Marcotte, in their article “Queering Control(lers) through Reflective Game Design Practice,” also proposes an alternative framework to mainstream game design. Similarly drawing from their own experiences with game making, Marcotte argues that designers can reimagine their engagement with games at the level of the controller as a valuable way to rethink how power, ability, and heteronormativity operate in video games. “Engineering Queerness in the Game Development Pipeline” by Eric Freedman turns from game design to the technical elements of game development. Freedman looks at game engines in order to articulate how the innate queerness of computer programming languages becomes disciplined through the development pipeline, which norms and constrains (queer) possibility and other forms of resistance.

Resisting hegemonic logics is another thread that crosses these articles. Queer theory has long been invested in understanding how queerness challenges the heteronormative ways of thinking that structure society -- such as by disrupting accepted notions of time (Halberstam, 2005; Freeman, 2010), space (Bouthillette, Ingram, Retter, 1997; Ahmed, 2006), and feeling (Sedgwick, 2003; Ahmed 2004, 2010; Chen, 2012). To be queer is to exist differently, to bump up against these norms, and to reshape or destroy them in moments of friction; this resistance can be found in material queer bodies as well as ethereal queer concepts. Many of the authors in this special issue are likewise invested in how queerness can bring into question the structures, systems, and affects typically associated with games. Matt Knutson, in his article “Backtrack, Pause, Rewind, Reset: Queering Chrononormativity in Gaming,” explores the relationship between video games, queerness, and temporality. Knutson juxtaposes time in esports, which standardizes player behavior according to heteronormative temporalities, to time in games like Life is Strange, which operates more queerly by deemphasizing the virtuosity and frame-perfect performance of competitive gaming. In this piece, Knutson demonstrates the queer potential of game design that resists the normative logics of how video games structure time. “Coin of Another Realm: Gaming’s Queer Economy” by Christopher Goetz unpacks the relationship between video games and capitalism. Goetz argues that, while video games are undoubtedly imbricated in the white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal power dynamics of global capital, they also have the capacity to disrupt this power by steering players away from the activities that maximize productivity. Drawing connections between video games and children’s “treasures,” Goetz resists a simplistic understanding of the economies that circulate around and within video games. In “Queer Feelings After Empathy: Consent, Cuteness, Haptics, and Feminist Film Theory in Queer Game Design,” Teddy Pozo confronts heteronormative logics about how queer video games should make players feel. Incisively deconstructing the problematic misconception of queer games as “empathy games,” Pozo draws on a range of feminist thinkers to conceptualize alternatives to empathy.

Lastly, these articles address the ways in which queerness itself can meet resistance. Even in celebrating the growing presence of queerness in games, it is important to attend to the fact that inclusion itself can be limiting. In the case of some games, the inclusion of LGBTQ characters and narrative elements actually reinforces hegemonic power structures. Braidon Schaufert, in “Daddy’s Play: Subversion and Normativity in Dream Daddy’s Queer World,” critiques a widely popular queer indie game -- Dream Daddy -- that raises concerns about its portrayal of queer lives. Schaufert untangles both the enthusiasm for and criticism of the game from straight and queer players, ultimately arguing that Dream Daddy tames the figure of the gay “daddy” and re-normativizes queerness. In “Cloud x Barret: Queer Easter Eggs and Their Hierarchies of Play,” Eric James encourages reader to dwell on the importance of ambivalence. James both embraces and rejects the idea that an Easter egg (a semi-hidden element of a video game left by the game’s developers) with queer content constitutes meaningful queer representation. Queer Easter eggs, writes James, have been historically important for queer representation in video games, yet they also serve to further push queerness to the margins of the medium. Finally, Jordan Youngblood’s “When (and What) Queerness Counts: Homonationalism and Militarism in the Mass Effect Series” unpacks how the LGBTQ inclusion for which many people celebrate the Mass Effect series actually instrumentalizes queers to further the nationalist and militaristic projects of white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy. Through this critique, Youngblood powerfully resists dominant strands within queer game fandom by calling for a reevaluation of the values embodied by a much-loved series that is often seen as the go-to example of queer inclusion in mainstream video games.

The Radical Potential of Queerness and Games

This special issue, with its focus on the radical potential of queerness and games, also enacts its own form of resistance. Queer game studies, as a larger movement within game studies, resists the norms of the discipline: its longstanding hierarchies of what and who matter in the study of games. Yet the moment of resistance that this issue represents is both more particular and more pointed. As a top journal in the field, Game Studies brings considerable visibility and legitimacy to queer game studies (though it is also crucial to remain skeptical of such economies of legitimacy). The present issue is in fact the largest in the history of the journal. That this issue presents more than a dozen voices foregrounding queer perspectives is itself a manifestation of the power of resistance. Yet we, as special issue editors, remain wary of making bold claims about how work like that which is presented here will bring change to the field of game studies -- or about how the queer experiences described in these articles will make the medium of video games “better.” Our goal is not to move queerness from the margins to the center. Rather, we aim to de-center the center, to resist the very hierarchy that dictates that certain ways of knowing and being are marginal or central. It is an honor to bring this new work in queer game studies to new readers, from game studies and beyond. At the same time, more than an informative introduction to the intersection of queerness and games for our straight, cisgender colleagues, we see this issue as a beacon for our fellow queers: the growing number of current and aspiring scholars who are passionate about approaching games through questions of sexuality, gender, identity, desire, and intersectional social justice. We see you. We value you. Join the resistance.

Our commitment to the politics of resistance also demands that we resist ourselves. By this we mean that we must maintain self-criticality and welcome critiques of our own positionality. Game Studies is a venerated venue that brings status and validation, as much as we ourselves want to resist these hierarchical systems of value. Both special issue editors hold tenure-track faculty positions at respected universities. We have worked hard for these privileges, but they are privileges nonetheless. This is an exciting moment for queer game studies, but also a slippery one. As an emerging paradigm, queer game studies is still new: molten, pliable, fiery. Yet that means it risks hardening, growing disciplined (i.e. regulated, codified, normed) as it strives for a recognized place within a larger discipline. To uphold the very ethos of queerness, we must seek ways to allow this work to shift, to veer, and even to revolt against itself. We must resist the desire for a disciplinary stamp of approval. In addition, while we believe that this special issue brings many important new topics of discussion to queer game studies, we recognize that there are crucial topics not foregrounded here. There is still a need to answer TreaAndrea Russworm’s demand “to take seriously the ways in which games and gaming culture are indelibly marked by the reanimation of white supremacy” (2018, pg. 75), which echoes earlier calls by Kishonna Gray (2014) and David Leonard (2006). There is still a need for more thorough engagement with disability. There is still a need to further investigate the place of queerness in analog games, such as in live-action role-playing games, both as experiences of play (Sihvonen and Stenros, 2018) and objects of design (Trammell and Waldron, 2015). These topics merit additional future research. We hope that others will take up this scholarship, drawing inspiration both from our insights and our omissions. Frustration, anger, and longing are all valid and valuable drivers of the work of resistance.

The articles in this issue call on us to look for new sites of queer potential in games, and also to confront the limitations of that potential. If the story that is still commonly told about the place of queerness in games is one about an empowering push for greater representation and inclusion, these articles tell a different story. Certainly, there is value in LGBTQ representation; it can matter immensely to queer players. Yet, the pieces presented here leave us with a constellation of questions and provocations that cannot be ignored. For queer people, both players and scholars, why should representation and inclusion be our goals? If mainstream video games are the medium of empire, why would we want to be represented in them? If the video game industry is exploitative, what is the value of being included in it? If “gamer” culture is homophobic, misogynistic, and racist, why would we want to fight for the right to belong within it? Why should our queerness be subsumed into the capitalist machinery of making games and consuming them? Is there such a thing as radical inclusion? There are no easy answers to these questions. These articles themselves challenge us to inhabit ambivalence, to resist the comfort of normative cultural logics and instead, in the words of Haraway, to “stay with the trouble” (2016). This issue points us toward a radical vision of queerness and games that lies on the horizon: a vision in which games, game cultures, and game studies are not gay as in happy, but queer as in resist.


This issue could never have come to fruition without the help of many, many individuals. Open access publishing is a worthy and important enterprise, but it requires all hands on deck. We wish to thank the editors and staff of Game Studies for the opportunity to assemble this special issue, and for their guidance and assistance throughout the process. We are also grateful to the anonymous volunteer reviewers who gave their time and labor so generously to read and comment on the submissions, and for the authors who worked bravely and tirelessly to bring their ideas to the world.

We are sustained by the entire community of queer game studies, but particularly by Alexandrina Agloro, Josef Nguyen, and Adrienne Shaw, whose emotional and intellectual support throughout this and many other projects has been invaluable. Amanda Phillips would also like to thank Caetlin Benson-Allott, Alexis Lothian, and Dana Luciano for their advice and input during the editorial process. Bo Ruberg would like to thank Aaron Trammell for his support, as well as the fierce, playful co-organizers (past and present) of the Queerness and Games Conference, who have helped bring queer game studies and queer game communities into being.

And finally, to the queer, trans, nonbinary, antiracist, decolonial, feminist, and otherwise outcast troublemakers of our community, inside and outside of video games and game studies: thank you for existing, for fighting, for killing joy. You give us a reason to do the work and keep the conversation rolling, and we hope to always be of service to the resistance. Fuck respectability. Fuck white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy. We are not gay as in happy; we are queer as in fuck you.


Yours in solidarity,

Amanda & Bo



[1] As with any phrase or lore that emerges organically within a community, the origins of this phrase are difficult to track down. It evades some of our most elementary tools: for example, it does not come up on a Google ngram search, suggesting its emergence outside of print texts. A Google Trends search reveals the truncated “not gay as in happy but queer as in” search phrase occurring at its peak in 2004, when the Trends data begins; then, it rapidly falls off and lingers to the present day. We can speculate that it comes from the same militant spirit that caused queers to embrace a slur as an identity in the first place (see Queer Nation, 1990), combined with the tongue-in-cheek clarification “not gay as in happy” as the word “gay” shifted meaning over the course of the 20th century. It is most famous on the Internet thanks to an image of a white woman in a midcentury-style dress pointing a gun, whose creator is similarly elusive. By 2010, Alan Bailey and Hanif Leylabi note in Socialist Review that it is a “slightly cliched line.”


[3] Examples of these game makers’ important work include A.M. Darke’s Objectif (2017), Lishan AZ’s Tracking Ida (2016), and Momo Pixel’s Hair Nah (2017).

[4] The notion of how “trouble,” an agile theoretical term developed in queer studies, structures games and gaming culture is central to Phillips’ book, Gamer Trouble, forthcoming from NYU Press.

[5] For more on moral panics in video games generally, see Kocurek (2012 and 2015), Brathwaite (2007), and National Coalition Against Censorship. For more specific information on the “sexbox” controversy surrounding Mass Effect, see Dutton, Consalvo, and Harper (2011). See Jenkins (2006) for an account of when a game studies academic was asked to defend Grand Theft Auto in front of a live television audience. For a critique of how game studies responds to moral panics around video games, see Leonard (2008).

[6] Both special issue editors are the authors of monographs that will be published in 2019 and 2020 by New York University Press. Ruberg’s monograph is Video Games Have Always Been Queer. Phillips’ is Gamer Trouble.

[7] See for example Marsha Kinder’s Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games (1993) and Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997).

[8] This history includes such incidents such as Dickwolves in 2010, the attack on the Shakesville blog for their critique of Fat Princess in 2008, game developer Kathy Sierra’s exit from her own blog in 2007, the infamous “Rape in Cyberspace” that targeted a brown-skinned nonbinary avatar and a white woman avatar in 1993 (see Dibbell, 1998), and more -- perhaps going back as far as the advent of the Internet itself.


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