The LGBTQ Video Game Archive and Visualizing Representation
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. Yet, despite growing scholarly attention to queer characters and players, queer game studies faces a daunting issue: queer representation and gaming communities are recorded largely in ephemeral digital forms such as wikis, blogs, and fan-made websites, meaning they are in constant danger of becoming outdated or disappearing suddenly. A case in point is GayGamer.net, a website dedicated to game news, commentary, and community for LGBTQ gamers that went dark with little 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. 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 is a great example of ongoing preservation efforts in response to these problems. The LGBTQ Video Game Archive was started by Adrienne Shaw at Temple University in order to collect all instances of LGBTQ representation in video games from the 1980s to the present, and 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). By focusing on developers and players in addition to the characters themselves, the archive aims to develop a complex picture of how each representation has functioned within queer gaming communities. The documentation of queer representation in games is ongoing, and the number of games to document increases each year.
In terms of my CHI work, I’m interested in the new types of analysis that the archive, combined with digital humanities tools and digital cultural heritage methodologies, enables. 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. 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 I intend to address these intersections using new interactive data visualizations. The visualizations will be 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. 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 could provide more granular analysis of other intersections.
These projects are so important because I believe digital humanities should become more responsive to the needs of marginalized communities such as queer gaming communities. As we build and make with our digital tools, we must constantly confront the question of who we are building and making for. Our digital research and projects should demonstrate the digital theories and practices of social justice, and 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.
For an excellent collection of recent work on queer game studies, check out Queer Game Studies (edited by Shaw and Ruberg) if you haven’t already.