Ignite! at Comic Con

Some colleagues and I had the pleasure of presenting at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con, as part of the academic Comic Arts Conference that is associated with the Con. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to be able to get my cosplay AND academic geek on at the same time!!

Our panel was on graphic representations of Otherness. Here’s the description:

Authors such as Scott McCloud and W. J. T. Mitchell have argued for the ways in which graphic narratives manipulate ideas through both image and language, highlighting the way that these elements may work cooperatively or in disjunction to present robust depictions of subjectivity. Anne Cong-Huyen (University of California, Santa Barbara), Caroline Kyungah Hong (Queens College), Kim Knight (University of Texas at Dallas), Amanda Phillips (University of California, Santa Barbara), Melissa Stevenson (Stanford University), Elizabeth Swanstrom (Florida Atlantic University), and Candace West (University of California, Santa Cruz) examine representations of Otherness in graphic media, including comics, television, and video games, focusing on the ways in which representations of otherness in graphic narratives and other media can either solidify stereotypes or undermine cultural assumptions — or both. The roundtable will consider a variety of forms of “Otherness” including gender, race, and sexuality, as well as metaphors of Otherness, including the animal, the monstrous, and the heroic.

We had so many panelists because we did our presentations in the Ignite style. It’s a simple but daunting format: Five minutes of 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. Ruby has put up an example of her Ignite talk on networks here, if you want to see a video of an actual talk. I’m going to be a bit lower tech here and just make a picture blog with captions of the text I was reading. Because the Ignite format is so compressed and the Comic-Con audience is a mix of fans and academics, our focus was to bring up a couple of interesting points rather than make a theoretically dense argument. My talk on queerness in gaming is below.
White text on a black background, "Visibly Queer in Video Games? Amanda Phillips, aphillips @ umail.ucsb.edu, @NazcaTheMad

Hi, I’m Amanda Phillips, and I am a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara studying issues of difference in video games. For our panel on graphic representations of difference, I want to focus on the visual aspects of queerness and their implications for gaming.

Four sets of rainbow symbols arranged in a rectangular pattern, all neon rainbow colored. From top left, clockwise: Female symbol intersecting female symbol, male intersecting male, male intersecting female, transgender symbol (male symbol with bar under arrow, derived from combining male and female symbol))

First, I’d like to explain my concept of the word “queer.” It is an empowering and inclusive political term whose meaning can shift as needed – it includes gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transpeople, and others who don’t fit society’s sexual, gender, and body norms norms.

A black man with a thin mustache and close-cropped hair, wearing a red shirt with a large bead necklace in shades of red, brown, and yellow. He is smiling, and most of his body is covered by the large rainbow flag billowing in front of him.

Visibility is a queer political strategy that manifests in Pride parades and coming out campaigns. Representation in the media is one way to improve the public’s disposition toward the community and to help queers feel more comfortable in a society that acknowledges their existence.

On a black background, three images in a row. From left to right: a pixelated representation of a tan man with black sideburns and goatee, wearing a skintight black suit, red vest and hat, blue thigh-high stockings, and black knee-high boots. He is posed with elbows up, arms behind his head, and has a gold female symbol around his neck. Caption is "Ash (Streets of Rage)". Second image: a pastel forest scene in the background, pink sky and black trees. The bottom half of the foreground is covered with giant white daisies, and one daisy in particular takes up most of the bottom middle. Flanking the daisy are two tanned male body builders in light purple bikinis, both with antennae and dragonfly wings. The left one is posing in profile, knees bent, with his back turned toward the viewer and arms flexed up. The right one is facing the viewer, his left knee up, arms outstretched. Caption: "Cho Aniki". Third image: A cartoony portly man with pointy ears, in a skintight green suit and red bikini pants over them. He wears a clock around his neck, has a pointed beard, pink swirls on his cheek, exaggerated Asian eyes, and a beauty mark under the left corner of his mouth. His pose is effette, knees bent and arms swishing outward. Caption: "Tingle (Legend of Zelda)".

So having queers in video games is important – but including them in a way that is meaningful is important, too. We can all think of outrageous game characters that strike us as queer regardless of sexuality. They are instantly recognizable, not always in a good way.

A photograph of two female-bodied, light-skinned African American individuals holding a telephone pole that is splashed with pink, blue, and green paint. They stand against a blue sky with lots of green vegetation. The woman on the left is butch, with a white baseball cap on backwards and a black vest. Her hair is reddish and very curly, peeking out from under the hat in two clumps on either side of her head. She has a lip ring in the middle of her bottom lip. The woman on the right of the pole is feminine, with a thick pink mohawk, green eyeshadow, and large hoop earrings. She is wearing a low-cut blue camisol with black lace on the top and has two matching black paisley tattoos on either side of her chest. Both are looking defiantly at the camera. In the bottom left, there is a logo that reads Blac Gurlz Ink.

But despite some negative backlash from the gay and lesbian community, many actual queers embrace a queer aesthetic, adopting certain fashion and body conventions to signal their membership in the group. They are also instantly recognizable, a valuable part of the community.

A blank, black screen.

Before I continue, I’d like to note that not being recognizably queer is a matter of safety for many, and not everyone desires or is able to fit on a visible spectrum of queerness. Being a visible queer can be an expression of privilege or disadvantage – sometimes both simultaneously.

Three images on a black background. On the left, a tan woman with short black hair, heavily muscled. She is wearing a red bandana and olive green tank tops withdog tags. She is looking down at the massive gun she holds with both hands. Caption: "Vasquez (Aliens)". Second image, top right. A pale man with long, teased blonde hair. He is naked with a shawl draped over both arms, but the image cuts off just above his pubic hair. His arms are outstretched, and he is looking at a point somewhere above the camera. Caption: "Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)". Third image, bottom right. A large purple woman with think blue eyeshadow, red lips, and white hair sticking straight up. Her fingers are clasped just below her chin, and octopus tentacles curl over her shoulders, two on each side. Caption: "Ursula (modeled after Divine)".

In the media, the threat of the visible queer is contained by means including exaggerated caricaturing, sexual or gender normalization, humiliation, and death. This trope originates in the association of queer lives with tragedy and difference with criminality. Lately, it just seems like habit.

On a dark background, a computer-genderated image of a woman with her hair shaved off and copious tattoos all over her body. There is a strip of barcode-like tatoos on her head, and numerous circles and other geometric patterns in black, brown, and faded blue all over her back. Her back is to the audience, with her head in profile. There is a leather strap around her neck, running down both sides of her back.

Let’s talk for a moment about Jack from Mass Effect 2. To the queer eye, she reads as a butch lesbian: tattoos, shaved head, aggressive body language, defiant attitude. But like GI Jane and Ripley before her, her gender nonconformity is securely contained within a heterosexual matrix.

The same woman as in above, this time seen from the front from the neck up. Her expression is hesitant and sad. She is looking offscreen to the right.

Not only is Jack functionally straight with regard to the game’s mechanics, but her stereotypically masculine exterior is nothing but a front for a hyperfeminine interior – a wounded heart who dreads the thought of losing another man. She is the one partner to actually cry during the game’s lovemaking scene.

The same woman again, still from the shoulders up. She is hugging a man whose face we cannot see. Her mascara runs with tears.

I don’t wish to produce masculinity and femininity here as fixed constructs nor to criticize Jack’s heterosexuality per se, but her queer mediation of masculinity through a female body had a lot of potential to be truly progressive for women and queers alike. Instead, she shrivels into a tired archetype.

An embroidered circular badge, gold bordered with a red background. A muscular hand grips a Nintendo controller. Across the bottom, in font that resembles Japanese script, it reads: "Power to the Players"

Of course, many of us play video games not to watch NPCs flitter about living their lives, but to make our own mark on the stories and characters and to explore a world that has been designed with play in mind from the start. Are there better queer options for player characters?

On a black background, a computer-generated image of a woman's back with a man's bandaged arms attempting to unhook her bra. Boxes with commands that map to console controllers are floating near the man's left hand.

A medium of action, the video game reduces expression of sexuality to sex acts. An avatar’s sexual identity is a matter of who they’re sleeping with, not any number of other markers of queerness that are used to identify and misidentify members of the community.

On a dark background, a wheel with three menu choices. On the left, highlighted: "I want to see someone else." On the top right: "Don't worry." On the bottom right: "You don't need me."

Bioware-style romance is the perfect example, offering the player a menu of partners to choose for their character. If you look at other well-known queer-enabled games, it’s all the same: queerness is reduced to sexuality, which is reduced to choosing a partner of the “right” gender.

A blonde toddler is holding a sign horizontally to his right. He is wearing a green hooded sweater with gray sleeves, jeans, and white shoes. The sign, sideways, reads "Born GAY July 4, 1951"

What does this coding of queerness as choice and action suggest in a political climate that begrudgingly offers acceptance to queers largely on the basis of their having being born this way? Is the currently acceptable mode of expressing sexuality in games really doing anyone any favors?

On a black background, a white heart with partial gender symbols inscribed in black. On the left lobe, a transgender arrow points toward the center. On the right, a male arrow points toward the center. At the point, the female cross points up.

The question of what “makes” a queer is not a question with a definitive answer, nor is it one I wish to explore here. However, striking a balance between sex acts and gender expression is at the core of creating meaningful queerness in video games, and progressive games still can’t quite manage it.

A computer-generated image of a female-bodied person in a medieval-style wine-colored dress with gold embroidery across the breasts and down the middle, with a belt with white circles across her middle and hanging down in the center of her dress. She brandishes a shield in her left hand and a long knife in her right, with a quiver of arrows peeking over her red shoulder. Her hair is shaved, she wears no makeup, and she has a gray bandana around her forehead. In the bottom-left corner of the image, there is a closeup of her face. Caption: "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (courtesy of Lesbian Gamers)"

Even though The Sims enables same-sex relationships, its avatar editor locks normative hair and clothing choices to particular genders. BioWare’s gender options are paltry. Oblivion has a truly bizarre mechanic that converts clothing acquired in-game, even when stolen off of someone’s body, to the gender of the avatar.

Against a brick background, a muscular, large female-bodied avatar swinging a hammer upward. She is in a brown bra and panties, large leather glove, has a blonde ponytail, and a bandana around her head. There is a sword on her back, and another hanging on the wall behind her. There is a green arch above her head, apparently a game indicator of some sort. Caption: "Fable 2"

The closest I’ve come to creating a queer avatar that suits me is in Fable 2. The female avatar grows into a hulking she-beast as she levels up, something quite satisfying for a person who desires but can never attain such epic body proportions. Unfortunately, this feature was nixed in the sequel.

A cartoon image of a throne with people surrounding it. The throne is gray stone with a gold symbol in the middle and red curtains hanging on either side. Sitting on the throne is a tan man with black hair, tan and purple garments, a large gold crown, and black boots. He is resting his head on his right hand, leaning on the throne, and looks very disgruntled. There are children surrounding him brandishing fake swords: one boy on the top-right of the throne, two more boys under the throne to the right. Under the two boys is a happy-looking dog that looks off to the left. There is a black-haired girl sitting on the king's left leg, another waving a sword at him from the side of the throne opposite the boys, and a third girl sitting at the bottom of the throne with a chicken. A toddler sits with its back facing the viewer, looking up at the king. To the right of the throne is a brown-haired woman in a white and purple dress who is looking at the king angrily and waving her finger at him. Caption: "Fable series"

The progressive gender system in Fable, which does not categorize hair, clothing, or accessories by gender, comes coupled with a rigid sexuality system that fixes the sexual preference of NPCs and requires the monarch, regardless of chosen sex partners, to produce two biological heirs for a sequel.

White text on a black background: Amanda Phillips University of California, Santa Barbara aphillips @ umail.ucsb.edu @NazcaTheMad Special Thanks To: Lesbian Gamers, http://lesbiangamers.com, The Border House, http://borderhouseblog.com, The students of ENGL 129: Queer Virtualities

Any transgressive queer potential in these games is minimized when developers neglect one or the other side of the equation. Gender and sexuality have a complicated relationship, but they always inform each other.

Since gender is the foundational trait upon which customizable avatars are built and sexuality is so important to contemporary games, it is time for developers to stop cluelessly wandering through their intersecting terrains and offer gaymers some meaningful tools for digital self-expression.

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