Screenshot from Anna Anthropy's Queers In Love At The End of The World
Better late than never, as they say! This is the very long-overdue companion blog post to my presentation ‘Archaeogaming as Queergaming’ which I presented in Session 16 ‘Play, Process, and Procedure: An Experiential Digital Archaeology’ at the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology Conference (CAA) on March 22nd 2018. This was held in Tübingen, Germany, and the session was organised by Meghan Dennis, Lennart Linde, Megan von Ackermann, and Tara Copplestone.
I thoroughly enjoyed the session, and was very encouraged by the fact that I was able to communicate my thoughts about queerness, archaeology and video games to an audience that may not have had prior interest in all three of those areas. Personally, doing this presentation was a huge milestone for me. Not long ago, the idea of standing up in front of a group of people and openly discussing queer representation in video games would have completely terrified me. In all honesty, I think that I procrastinated on writing this blog post because I was still concerned about getting it ‘right,’ and perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to draw a line under the whole experience. Also, somehow the constraints and standardised blog form doesn’t really seem appropriate for the subject matter, but I promised to make the presentation and bibliography easily available online so that’s my priority.
Queergaming, like archaeogaming, is a field that fills me with excitement and hope. Keeping with the themes of the talk itself, I consider this to be just one beginning in my continued exploration of queer archaeogaming.
Full reference for this presentation:
Smith Nicholls, F. (2018). Archaeogaming as Queergaming. Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology Conference. Tübingen, Germany, 19-23 March 2018.
Moireabh-Tetlock, B (@mxmoireabh) Ontologies of Practice: A Proto-Ontology of Queer Archaeogaming. 2 March 2018, 5:19pm. Tweet
Chang, Y. E. (2017). Queergaming. In B. Ruberg and A. Shaw (eds.) Queer Game Studies. University of Minnesota Press.
Copplestone, T. (2017). Designing and Developing a Playful Past in Video-Games. In A. A. Mol, C. E. Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, K. H. J. Boom, and A. Politopoulos (eds.) The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games. Sidestone Press.
Dennis, L. M. (2016). Archaeogaming, Ethics, and Participatory Standards. SAA Archaeological Record 16(5): 29–33.
Engel, M. (2017). Perverting Play: Theorizing a Queer Game Mechanic. Television & New Media 18(4) 351–360.
Nakamura, L. (2012). Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 1.
Pavlounis, D (2016). Straightening Up the Archive: Queer Historiography, Queer Play, and the Archival Politics of Gone Home. Television & New Media 17(7):579–594
Reinhard, A. (2017). Video Games as Archaeological Sites: Treating Digital Entertainment as Built Environments. In A. A. Mol, C. E. Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, K. H. J. Boom, and A. Politopoulos (eds.) The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games. Sidestone Press.
Ruberg, B. (2017). Permalife: Video games and the queerness of living. Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 9(2): 159–173
Anna Anthropy. (2013). Queers In Love At The End of The World. [Video game]. https://w.itch.io/end-of-the-world
Sophia Park. (2016). Forgotten. [Video game]. https://sophiapark.itch.io/forgotten
The Fullbright Company. (2013). Gone Home. [Video game]. Portland: The Fullbright Company
It probably goes without saying that these are only rough notes and that what I delivered on the day was probably quite different, but I still think they’re useful to look at in tandem with the powerpoint presentation.
Before I get to defining archaeogaming and queergaming, I’d like to ask the audience a question. On screen there’s a screenshot from a video game. What happened here?
As archaeologists, we ask a lot of research questions, and perhaps many of them can simply be boiled down to the question of what happened here? What and how can the material remains we record inform us about past events? Many video games, such as the one shown in the screenshot, involve the player making inferences about the past based on the immaterial culture contained within it, and at times can manipulate the player experience of a game based on expectations about how a game will unfold.
I’ll come back to this screenshot later.
Archaeogaming can be very broadly defined as the archaeological study of video games as artefacts, immaterial spaces and their programming. In the spider diagram on screen I’ve distilled archaeogaming down into various sub-fields in terms of representation, creation and praxis with examples of work done in each area. For example, Meghan Dennis has conducted works on the ethics of how archaeology and archaeological practise are represented in video games, whilst Tara Copplestone has developed games with an archaeological perspective whilst experimenting with non-linear narrative. In terms of archaeological engagement with games, Andrew Reinhard has researched games as archaeological sites. Of course, this definition is not exhaustive and these categories are not mutually exclusive, but they are useful in terms of delineating parallels between archaeogaming and queergaming.
In Queer Games Studies (2017) Edmund Y Chang coined the word queergaming to refer to not just a focus on queer representation in games but also how queer game creators have questioned the norms and conventions surrounding how games should be developed and played. This follows on from queer theory, which is not only concerned with queer identities but also with queer as a verb. In this way, just like archaeogaming, queergaming is not just an examination of how queerness is represented. In his article, Chang draws upon Alexander Galloway’s six values of countergaming, which examines what it means to experiment with the form, genre, function and experience of games. In particular, Chang calls for play “not grounded in normative ideologies like competition, exploitation, colonization, speed, violence, rugged individualism, levelling up and win states.”
If any of this seems esoteric, consider that in response to the Parkland shootings Donald Trump had a meeting in which he brought together top executives from the game industry to discuss violence in video games and showed them a supercut of violent video games. The question of what video games are and what they should be is highly political and is as important now as it has ever been.
To interrogate this archaeogaming and queergaming further, and to further examine the parallels between archaeogaming and queergaming, I’m going to explore the concept of permadeath.
Permadeath is a term used to describe a particular gameplay mechanic-when a player dies they permanently die, rather being able to respawn and continue from a similar point in the game. Permadeath is an interesting concept to think with, not just in terms of video games but I would argue the archaeological record itself. In the analogue, and arguably the digital world as well, archaeology is a destructive process. The very act of archaeological investigation results in the permadeath of the archaeological record as it once was. I would like to queer the concept of the archaeological record in three case studies through the concepts of permalife and permadeath. A theme throughout will be the cyclical nature of these games, and as such it seems very fitting that I should record and present them as gifs.
As I stated before, queergaming is interested in queering established norms and expectations in gameplay. In their article Permalife: Video games and the queerness of living, Bonnie Ruberg considers the concept of permalife-which is basically the opposite of permadeath-when it is impossible for a player to die in a game. In particular, they argue that permalife games don’t just have an absence of a death mechanic but make the impossibility of death a core part of the gameplay. One of the examples that Ruberg uses is a game I will also be examining.
Queers in Love at The End of the World is a game that is so short that I can include its entire duration in one gif. It was created by Anna Anthropy and can be played in your online browser (the link for the game is below). In the Twine game Queers in Love, you have 10 seconds to choose various dialogue options to interact with your lover before the word ends. You cannot ‘win’ in any clear sense in this game and death is inevitable. Ruberg argues that the fact that the game ends and then can immediately be replayed on a constant loop makes it a permalife rather than a permadeath game.
It is also interesting to note that, as an archaeogamer, by recording and presenting this game to you through the medium of a gif I am perpetuating this cycle myself and creating a record of the game that continuously replays itself. However, I would argue that even this record does not reflect the true queer potential of the game as Ruberg explains that the permalife of the game is all the more significant when you consider that the intimacy between the two queer bodies in the game is built upon with each playthrough. This gif only shows one.
My second case study is another twine game which is freely available online called Forgotten. The premise of the game is that you access an old computer with a hard drive which has almost been completely exhausted. The developer explores the idea that NPCs (or non-player characters) of a game have occupied this computer for so long and through so many playthroughs that they have become sentient, but because their thoughts take up hard drive space this has led to the disintegration of their digital world, as evidenced through the glitching interface of the game. By interacting with the NPCs you take up more hard drive space and eventually destroy them.
What is, I would argue, particularly queer about this game is the fact that forces the player to confront the concept that non-player characters have agency. The NPCs address the player as if they know them and have seen them die, presumably because the player character has interacted with the game in the past. In this way, focus is on the permalife of the player character from the NPC point of view. From an archaeological perspective, it is particularly interesting how the game touches on the problem of digital disintegration and how as archeaogamers we have to consider that old games and software may have become inaccessible over time due to damage or non-compatibility with contemporary technology. Its also important to note that this case study does not contain queer representation but can be considered queer.
My last case study also touches on themes of archiving. Gone Home is a first-person exploration game. Its set in 1995, with protagonist Katie returning home after a year abroad to find her family’s house empty. Gameplay involves her exploring the immaterial culture of the house to piece together what happened to her family members. In this way, its incredibly archaeological, and Dimitrios Pavlounis has argued in their piece Straightening Up the Archive that the house in the game constitutes a digital archive, more specifically, and that it “evokes an archaeological understanding of history” as the player interacts with assemblages of objects from different chronologies within the same space.
The scene I started with is from the game. At first glance it might appear that the red marks in the bathtub are blood, but they are actually stains from red hair dye when Katie’s sister Sam dyed the hair of a young women named Lonnie who she has a relationship with. Thus, the game potentially challenges a player’s expectations, turning what is initially thought to be a record of violence into a record of queer intimacy. Though the game does have queer representation, it arguably is not queer in terms of its game mechanics. Anna Anthropy, for example, has argued that the linear and neat construction of the game render it actually pretty conventional in terms of gameplay. Death is impossible in the game, but this is never commented on or an important theme. I would argue that aspects of the material culture in the game, though, such as this example, are perhaps the most queer in challenging preconceived horror game tropes.
-What is archaeology? What is a game? Both can be queered.
-“tension between queerness as a topic and queerness as a methodology”
-permadeath and permalife-interesting concepts when applied to archaeology, the archaeological record which suffers permadeath through excavation, and then the records of those investigations which may appear to have a permalife but could suffer permadeath in future through damage
-continue to experiment and create