Queer Mechanic

The Queer Mechanic series, exploring how aspects of queer identity and culture could be not only represented but modelled through game mechanics and systems.


What is Queer Mechanic?

Queer Mechanic is a regular feature over on GayGamer – each month, I present a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanic is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Queer Mechanic #1: Identify As...

Character customisation is present in some form in the vast majority of games, but it’s only recently that we’ve seen an explosion of games where you can design the lead protagonist from top-to-toe, such as Mass Effect, The Secret World, Dragon’s Dogma, or Skyrim. Sometimes, we get the option to have the characters have romance options with a character of the same sex, but as of yet, we never get the option to explicitly state that our character is gay, or bisexual, or trans*, or any other terms of identity. We often have to read these identities into the characters, come up with personal “headcanon” where we decide, in our own heads, what our character is “really” like (even though there’s no way to represent that in game, and it often contradicts what actually happens in-game as well).

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach – it means your character isn’t necessarily shackled to their sexuality because you ticked the “gay” or “lesbian” box. For example, Oscar Amell, one of my characters from Bioware’s Dragon Age, started a relationship with Leliana (a woman), and then, when the relationship came to an end, he and Zevran (a man) got together. That was only possible because of the “laissez-faire” approach to sexuality in the game, where I wasn’t choosing what Oscar was (e.g., homosexual), I chose what Oscar did (i.e., had sex with a person of the same sex as himself). Any character trait I read into that – that Oscar was homosexual, or bisexual, or pansexual, or situationally homosexual, or heteroflexible – would only ever exist in my own head. In the world of videogames, our characters are only ever WSW, MSM, WSM or MSW.

Many folk interpret that as a perfect world that we’re striving for in reality, where we’ve moved beyond the need for restrictive labels, where gay folk don’t need to define themselves as gay, where trans* people don’t talk about being trans*, where queer folk are Just People like the rest of us. But I don’t think bigotry suddenly disappears if we just stop labeling ourselves – I’m pretty sure a bigot will still understand the significance of two men kissing one another and that it is A Thing That They Hate.

Besides, identity is important – it literally informs who were are as people, and its importance, significance and ubiquitousness is immediately apparent if you start noticing every time you use the verb “to be”, or count the number of times you refer to yourself in speech. Identity influences everything from our daily lives all the way up to the peaks of human culture and society – and it’s a system that’s rife for exploring in games. And, with that in mind, let’s present the very first of GayGamer’s Queer Mechanics – the “Identify As…” Mechanic.

You can read the rest of Queer Mechanic #1 over at its home over on GayGamer.Net!

Queer Mechanic #2: Wolves & Otters & Bears...

If you’ve been around the gay scene in some form or another – pubs and clubs, online gay communities, or dating sites/apps like Adam4Adam or Grindr – you’re bound to have come across terminology like “bear” or “otter”, used as a kind of shorthand to discuss people’s body types. These terms of identity also help foster social groups and subcultures.

A quick run-through of the most common of these terms, all of which have some degree of overlap: “Bears” are typically large men, often with plenty body hair and facial hair, and their size can either be down to fat, or muscle – though large, muscular men can also be called “bulls” as well; by extension, “cubs” are younger men with all the attributes of the aforementioned bear bodytype. “Otters” are lean, hirsute men; “wolves” are similar, but are typically more muscular than lean, and also tend to have an aggressive or assertive quality to them. “Chickens” has almost fallen out of use in favour of the word “twink”, to describe younger men, typically without much bodyhair.

These terms of identity are a big part of the experiences of gay men in the West, but have largely been ignored in videogames (a sneaky nod to bear subculture in Mass Effect 3 notwithstanding). They may seem trivial or inconsequential in comparison to previous literary contributions from, for and about gay culture and subcultures; but then, the content and mechanics of videogames – or any genre, in fact – don’t have to have an immense literary quality to be worthwhile to represent or include. And you know what I think would be awesome? A game all about the dudes we know in those subcultures!

Last month we delved into the potential for letting players define their character’s gender and sexual identities in a wide variety of different types of games – this month, let’s explore what we could do with a game that specifically focuses on a particular element of gay male subculture in Queer Mechanic #2: Wolves & Otters & Bears!

You can read the rest of Queer Mechanic #2 over at its home on GayGamer.Net!

Queer Mechanic #3: Coming Out

Many of the LGBTQ characters in games come “as-is”, in the sense that they have already undergone most of their soul-searching and self-realisation about their gender, sex or sexual identity prior to the beginning of the story; similarly, although there are often dialogue options to bring up the fact that your character isn’t heterosexual, these are rarely (if ever) framed as your character “coming out” to that person – instead, it’s more like they’re getting the other person up-to-speed with something that has already been established.

Which is strange – because for all its potential for being an emotionally-taxing event, coming out can be a big event in queer folks’ lives, as it marks a milestone in the process of coming to terms with one’s identity. And, while it may be too niche to be included in all games in all genres, there’s certainly scope for using coming out either as a core or constituent part of a capital-Q Queer game, or even as a special event inside games with lots of character-driven narrative, such as Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect. So, with all that opportunity for interesting storytelling, why don’t we consider ways we could use it in games?

Last month we took a look at the potential for games based around the “animal” epithets in gay subcultures – this month, we’ll explore another facet of queer identity – how the process of coming out could be modelled and explored in videogames.

You can read the rest of the article over at its home on GayGamer.Net!

Queer Mechanic #4: Transition

Trans people are rarely represented in games, and when they are, the representation is rarely very positive; given that the vast majority of games fall over this first set of hurdles, it can be hard to imagine what games with trans-ness represented and catered towards would look like.

If I could bet on someone being able to imagine these games, though, it would be Eilidh, Emily Crosbie, and Moose Hale, three trans gamers who took part in this interview to share their understanding with game developers, players, and writers looking to address the massive imbalance against trans people, issues, characters and representation in general throughout the medium of videogames.

While reading, it’s important to note that transitioning is not the be-all, end-all of trans experience, as Laverne Cox recently attested to in an interview (alongside Carmen Carrera) with Katie Couric; it’s one facet of a massive, nuanced set of topics which overlaps with queer-interest games-based discussion, and (hopefully!) one of many more to come.

Enough from me, though: let’s have Eilidh, Emily and Moose take us through Queer Mechanic #4, discussing transition and representation of trans people in videogames!

You can read the rest of the article over at its home on GayGamer.net!

Queer Mechanic #5: Queering the Male Gaze

The concept of male gaze as we know it now was formulated by Laura Mulver in her 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, and has since been diffused throughout the fields of media critique and analysis, in particular that of film.

Finally Feminism 101 has an excellent FAQ on the male gaze over here, which is well-worth reading so that most of what follows makes sense, but, in summary: the male gaze is the name given to the idea that scenes in media are often constructed from the perspective of an assumed straight-male viewer and his (often, but not always, sexual) interests.

We’ve probably all seen movies where a female character takes a shower, and the camera takes its time to hover over her body, lingering at her hips, her ass, her breasts, perhaps a close-up of her lips, half-opened, or her eyes, closed as though in pleasure.

Boom. That’s male gaze. The camera “stands in” for the straight male audience, watching the woman in a way that would probably seem jarring and unusual were it to be done to a male character. Not because male characters aren’t nice to look at – but because we’re so used to seeing only women framed as sexual characters (or objects).

Male gaze is an interesting topic to discuss in the medium of games, because video games in particular have borrowed a number of techniques, concepts and vocabulary from film that make it ripe for exploration – the most obvious of these are Quantic Dream’s games Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but really, any game with characters moving around a scene and followed by a camera will inevitably borrow filmic techniques. And, as the concept of “male gaze” has similarly been applied to other non-film media, so to can we discuss the theory with regards to concepts unique to (or most prevalent in) games.

For this month’s Queer Mechanic, we’re going to take a look at ways of toying with, subverting, destabilising and queering the concept of the straight male gaze. So let’s jump right in!

You can read the rest of the article over at its home on GayGamer.net!

Queer Mechanic #6: Relationships

Relationship mechanics have become enormously popular in recent years, to the extent that it”s not uncommon to see forum threads of speculation about whether certain characters in games can be “romanced”, guides for the optimal way to romantically engage with Love Interests (LIs), or discussing the difficulties inherent in romance options in games. The creation of engaging and interesting romance options and mechanics is something that’s vital, timely, and, most importantly, wanted.

Nonetheless, implementing romance options isn’t as easy as just rubbing one character on another until hearts pop out (…figuratively speaking). For example, the complexity of the sexual politics involved in Dragon Age: Origins alone is staggering, before we even get to what Denis Farr refers to as the “Schroedinger’s Sexuality” of Dragon Age II and the fact that some players had reservations about how the in-game Love Interests were portrayed as “playersexual” rather than bisexual – that is, there is little-to-no reference to their sexual orientation except in the case of when the player-character puts the moves on them. And, in those instances when romance mechanics go wrong, they can go really wrong: case in point, Gaygamer’s Trevor Smith’s discussion of the abject horror of badly-implemented romance mechanics resulting in a deeply creepy ‘romance’ scene.

So, it’s important that we have interesting and engaging relationship options – but it’s also important that these options don’t undermine themselves by cutting corners, which can lead to perpetuating tired stereotypes without commentary, creating one-size-fits-all mechanisms that take away nuance and context, and sending out mixed messages.

Unfortunately, the games industry has done all three of these things repeatedly over the years, to the point that whenever games include relationships or romance options that aren’t your regular cis-heteronormative man-kisses-woman-and-they-marry fare, they tend to be cliché, crude, or conflicted. And that’s if they include them in the first place.

But in this month’s Queer Mechanic, we’re not talking about “the gay romance option”. We’re talking about romance options, plural – using game mechanics to explore how we could model and represent alternative relationship structures like polyamory, open relationships, D/s relationships and more, and the possibilities and difficulties these bring with them.

You can read the rest of Queer Mechanic #6 over at its home over on GayGamer.Net!

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