Preserving and Visualizing Queer Representation in Video Games

Cody Jay Mejeur (cmejeur@gmail.com), Michigan State University, United States of America

The nascent field of queer game studies has expanded exponentially in recent years thanks to the work of scholars such as Adrienne Shaw, Bonnie Ruberg, and Edmond Chang. This growth in scholarship has paralleled a significant rise in LGBTQ representation in games, including games such as Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Dream Daddy, and others. Yet, despite growing representation and scholarly attention to queer characters and players, queer game studies continues to face the multivalent marginalizations of queer folks and their experiences in gaming. A prime example of this marginalization is the difficulty of preserving queer gaming cultures: queer representations and gaming communities are recorded largely in ephemeral, unofficial digital forms such as wikis, blogs, and fan-made websites due to a lack of access to mainstream platforms that often minimize and reject queer perspectives and desires. There is some advantage to these forms in that they allow queer gamers to create online communities as “counterpublics,” which are communities defined against normative rules and expectations, but this means that queer gaming cultures are also in constant danger of being ignored, becoming outdated, or disappearing suddenly due to lack of resources (Warner, 2002).

A case in point is GayGamer.net , a website dedicated to game news, commentary, and community for LGBTQ gamers that went dark without notice in May 2016. GayGamer.net was a valuable resource for documenting LGBTQ game characters and communities, and while parts of it were captured by the Internet Archive, much of the site is no longer accessible outside of an old Facebook page ( GayGamer.net ). While many digital objects face similar issues of compatibility and archiving, queer game artifacts and documentation are especially endangered because of the marginalized status of queer gamers and characters in gaming culture. With fewer individuals (almost all volunteers) and institutional resources to support them, these sources must be actively preserved now before they—and crucial LGBTQ cultural heritage with them—are lost.

The LGBTQ Video Game Archive, founded by Adrienne Shaw at Temple University, was created to address these issues by collecting LGBTQ representations from the 1980s to the present in order to “offer a record of how characters are explicitly coded, what creators have said about these characters, as well as how fans have interpreted these characters” (Shaw). The archive aims to allow easy, comprehensive access to queer gaming sources for queer game scholars, queer gamers, and the interested public, and further to ensure that these sources remain available in the future. To this end, one of the archive’s current projects is an ongoing preservation effort in association with the Strong National Museum of Play that seeks to save copies of the many online media artifacts that document queer gaming cultures. The archive’s preservation project demonstrates how archiving can be used to further social justice projects in digital spaces by safeguarding the cultural productions (including personal blogs, community forums, wikis, etc.) of marginalized peoples. As part of this presentation, I will share the process I developed for collecting and storing the websites, images, and videos referenced in the archive, and then transferring these materials to the Strong for permanent storage and public access. Using a combination of browser plugins and command line tools such as wkhtmltopdf and youtube-dl, the sources are saved as common file types that are entered into an Omeka database. The database allows the Strong to make the files publicly accessible, and the common file types allow for easier maintenance and curation of the collection. This process could be of use to other scholars and activists working to collect, curate, and sustain digital cultural resources, especially those significant to marginalized communities.

By preserving this cultural heritage, the LGBTQ Video Game Archive allows for new analyses of queer gaming culture and representation that highlight ongoing issues and emerging possibilities in games. For example, Utsch et al. used the archive to create data visualizations of queer representation throughout video game history, and revealed several trends such as a predominance of gay men in LGBTQ representation and an exponential growth in overall number of representations (Utsch et al., 2017: 7). To date, however, an intersectional analysis of the archive that addresses sexuality alongside identity categories of race, class, or disability has not been attempted, and this paper presentation will address these intersections using new interactive data visualizations. Completing these visualizations required revisiting each representation in the archive and recording additional data about the character’s identity. The visualizations are interactive in order to make them more fluid and dynamic: in other words, to make them better representations of identity than the static categorizations that intersectionality has sometimes been accused of (Puar, 2005: 125). This intersectional analysis of the archive is only the beginning of the archive’s potential, and it has a number of limitations. For example, it only includes games currently in the archive, and only what is observable and documented about each representation. Future work will add more games to the analysis, and provide more granular analysis of particular genres, developers, and intersectional identities in games. Together, preservation and critical analysis are essential tools for developing archival practices that support social justice in digital humanities, and both are much needed forms of public, academic, community-oriented activism.

In sharing the LGBTQ Video Game Archive’s ongoing efforts to preserve and visualize queer representation in games, this paper presentation calls for increased attention in digital humanities to the needs of marginalized groups such as queer gaming communities. Concepts and design practices such as imagining a QueerOS can help guide the field’s attempts at better inclusion, but we as digital humanities scholars can and must do more (Barnett et al., 2016). As we build and make with our digital tools, we must constantly confront the question of who we are building and making for. I argue that digital humanities should be the digital theories and practices of social justice, and it should do the crucial work of engaging with communities and supporting their efforts to make and shape themselves. Representation in queer games and queer gaming communities provides some practical methods for doing so, and contributes to ongoing discourse of what digital humanities can be.


Appendix A

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