Veli-Matti Karhulahti | vmmkar [a] utu.fi | Editor | University of Turku | University of Jyväskylä
Laura Saarenmaa | laura.saarenmaa [a] utu.fi | Editor | University of Turku
Ashley ML Brown | ashley [a] eae.utah.edu | Editor | University of Utah
Welcome, dear reader, to our WiderScreen special issue! We, the editors of this collection, have carefully collated the readings found here in a celebration of intersecting play(fulness) and sex(uality). While this conceptual duo has been frequently referenced at least since Karl Groos’ (1901) study of human play in general and Sidney and Shirley Kaplan’s (1981) work on digital games and sex in particular, research on the explicit relationship between play(fulness) and sex(uality) has remained relatively undeveloped (see Harvinainen et al. 2018).
The call for papers produced a great number of submission, of which we could unfortunately accept only a few. Our review process was long, playful, and rigorous, which resulted in the lowest acceptance rate in the history of the journal. We look much forward to seeing all the texts that did not make it to this special issue soon to be published somewhere else! In total, we are proud to present five full articles (two of which in an interview form), two book reviews, and a conference report. The common thread which strings them all together are play’s capacity to enable experimentation with and embodiment of sex and sexuality.
Our first article is an interview between Jess Marcotte and Kara Stone entitled “Questions on Queer Game Design: An Interview”. The paper is a back and forth between the authors who discuss their own scholarly and design approaches to making games for and building queer communities. Central to the article is the idea that queer game maker spaces are ones with a reduced pressure to make commercially viable titles. This is not to suggest that making commercially viable titles is undesirable or unachievable by non-hegemonic gamemakers, but rather to highlight the freedoms afforded by making games in an indie-dev space. According to Marcotte and Stone, not being beholden to shareholders has thus allowed for freedom, creativity, and playfulness to thrive – producing games about sex and sexuality in an earnest and experimental way, which is difficult in the AAA context.
As the Marcotte and Stone article discusses the playfulness of queer game development space, the next article talks about play happening in queer spaces. In “Gaming with Gender Performativity, Sexuality, and Community”, Michael Anthony DeAnda writes about the playful nature of Drag Bingo in gay bars. For the host Sofanda Booz, Drag Bingo is – in addition to allowing for losing and winning (which is important too) – a chance to give back to the LGBTQ+ community through charity, to play with conceptions of gender and sexuality, and to creatively express herself in an environment where the stakes, like in bingo, are low.
After the two interviews, we present four original research articles. “The Pro Strats of Healsluts: Overwatch, Sexuality, and Perverting the Mechanics of Play” by Kyle Bohunicky and Jordan Youngblood discusses the phenomenon of ‘healslutting’, a term that is given to the rethinking of healing player characters in games like Overwatch as a type of sexual submission. This reimagining of a fairly asexual mechanic like removing player damage so that they may continue to fight in a battle is done with the intent of adding additional interest to the gameplay, or so the Reddit community r/healsluts professes. Bohunicky and Youngblood argue that healslutting provides both an impetus and forum for discussing and playing with sexual identities. This is particularly useful for populations for whom taking a sexually subservient role would be considered wrong or emasculating. As in DeAnda’s interview, Bohunicky and Youngblood demonstrate how play spaces allow for the exploration of identities with lower stakes.
The second research article, “On the Importance of Queer Romances: Role-play as Exploration and Performance of Sexuality” by Tanja Sihvonen and Jaakko Stenros, analyses the appearance of queer identities and content in role-playing games through looking at players’ explorations and performances as well as the content in the games themselves. The article illustrates how games with queer content, such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect, may allow players to play with gender and sexual identities, but in a somewhat limited way. Other role-playing forms like tabletop and LARP foster more player creativity with less boundaries to gendered and sexual expression with regard to content. However, because these forms of role-play are social, they entail collective acknowledgement and participation of queerness, which may again, in turn, be limited by existing hegemonic norms. Hence, the article functions as a companion to the above studies by illustrating the boundaries and limits of games as playful spaces of exploration and queer expression.
In the third article, ”Vakava leikki – Tiedonjakaminen, identiteetti ja leikillisyys suomalaisen seksichatin nimimerkeissä” [Serious play – Information, Identity and Playfulness in Finnish Sexchat Pseudonyms], Lasse Hämäläinen and Ari Haasio shed light on the lingual and textual playfulness through the analysis of Finnish sexchat-pseudonymes. The analysis of the material – 1488 pseudonyms collected from popular Finnish sexchat site herkku.net – combines onomastics and information science research methodology. The authors discuss the findings in terms of identity formation, information sharing and lingual-sexual play, and suggest that in sexchat pseydonyms playfulness is a subsidiary factor to detailed definitions and information on sexual identities and sexual preferences.
In the fourth article, “Synching and Performing: Body (Re)-Presentation in the Short Video App TikTok”, Mona Khattab provides a content analysis of a recently popularized social networking application and its capacity to shape stereotypes in body visibility. By looking at TikTok users’ self-representations in the video format, Khattab probes the notions of beauty and gender as they appear and transform in the app’s social networks. Ultimately, she argues that apps like TikTok provide access to understanding the stereotyped roles better, and eventually, perhaps even change those roles as they are constantly parodied and transformed.
In addition, this special issue contains two book reviews and a conference report. Miguel Sicart reviews Susanna Paasonen’s Many SplendoredThings, addressing the book’s strengths in taking new looks at old theories regarding the relationship between power, play, and sexuality. Next, Sabine Harrer reviews the classic Sex in Videogames by Brenda Brathwaite. Harrer approaches the book as a historical account of how sex has been treated in the gaming industry. She observes the lack of reflexivity and insight into who’s pleasure is being exhibited and at whose expense, ending with a post #GamerGate and #MeToo contextualization. Lastly, Valtteri Kauraoja provides a report of the 3rd Sexual Cultures conference that was organized in University of Turku in May this year.
Overall, the collection of articles here represent a variety of insights and positions on the topic of sexuality and play. Together, they illustrate how playful environments can allow for diverse expressions of gender and sexuality in independent game developer cultures (Marcotte and Stone), gay bar bingo nights (DeAnda), and in actual gamer communities (Youngblood and Bohunicky). Although play offers great affordances to this expression, as outlined in the review of Many Splendored Things (Sicart), there are real world and in-game limitations to this expression (Sihvonen and Stenros), which are both a factor of the zeitgeist in which the games are made and by the personalities and dispositions of the people who make them (Harrer). As such, we hope this special issue advances the understanding of how sex, sexuality, play, and playfulness are now connected in academia (Kauraoja) as well as outside of it.
Groos, Karl.  1912. The Play of Man, trans. E. Baldwin, Appleton and Company.
Harviainen, J. Tuomas, Ashley M. L. Brown, and Jaakko Suominen. 2018. “Three waves of awkwardness: A meta-analysis of sex in game studies.” Games and Culture, 13(6), 605–623.
Kaplan, Sidney, and Shirley Kaplan. 1981. “A Research Note Video Games, Sex, and Sex Differences.” Social Science, 56(4), 208–212.
This co-interview between game designers and scholars Jess Marcotte and Kara Stone takes up questions about queer game design as a critical and reflective scholarly practice, and the ways in which we represent sex and sexuality in videogames. In it, we take turns asking each other questions on the respective videogames that we have designed, our approaches to art-making, community organizing, and the way queer and feminist theory influence us, while also interrogating what it means (for us) to be queer game designers and pondering the future of queerness and games. In so doing, we explore our paths into this art form and provide insight into how our trajectories were influenced by initiatives with the goal of bringing in new voices and fostering inclusion in the field of games. As artist-scholars, we provide perspectives on how our differences of positionality bring difference to our art practices, community organizing efforts, and design approaches. Alternative design practices in non-commercial spaces can provide the conditions needed for experimental work that may fail” by industry standards, but that pushes games into new, exciting, and queer territories.
Jess Rowan Marcotte is a queer nonbinary game designer, writer, intersectional feminist, and PhD candidate at Concordia University. Their work has been showcased at IndieCade, E3, and Ars Electronica. Some of their games include “TRACES”, “In Tune: a game about navigating consent”, “rustle your leaves to me softly,” “The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter” and “transgalactica: A Tune Your Own Adventure.” Their dissertation explores physical-digital hybrid game experiences from intersectional feminist and critical design perspectives. They are a QGCon (The Queerness and Games Conference) co-organizer.
Kara Stone is an artist and scholar interested in the affective and gendered experiences of mental illness and healing as it relates to game design. Her artwork has been featured in The Atlantic, Wired, and Vice. She is a member of the Different Games Collective. She holds a BFA in Film Production and master’s degree in Communication and Culture from York University, and is currently a PhD student in Film and Digital Media with a designated emphasis in Feminist Studies at University of California at Santa Cruz.
This co-interview between game designers and scholars Jess Marcotte and Kara Stone takes up questions about queer game design as a critical and reflective scholarly practice, and the ways in which we represent sex and sexuality in videogames. In it, we take turns asking each other questions on the respective videogames that we have designed, our approaches to art-making, community organizing, and the way queer and feminist theory influence us. We ask each other questions and trade answers on the theories we find most inspiring, how we consider representing sex and intimacy in a participatory, playful media like videogames, and how we understand queerness as embedded in a playful, reflective design process. It is our hope that this conversation provides one (or two) possible blueprints for designing queer games, designing games queerly, and designing for queer communities, while also bringing light the confusing, murky and contradictory aspects within finding queerness in gamesAs artist-scholars, we provide perspectives on how our differences of positionality bring difference to our art practices, community organizing efforts, and design approaches. The received norms and best practices” of the industry suggest a somewhat rigid way of approaching design in order to maximize monetary interests which can lead to risk-averse practices (for a thorough discussion, see: Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter’s Games of Empire). Alternative design practices in non-commercial spaces can provide the conditions needed for experimental work that may fail” by industry standards, but that pushes games into new, exciting, and queer territories.
Kara: To begin, I’m very curious about how you “came to” making and studying games. We have both starting making and studying games before the prevalence and popularity of game design programs in universities, and we are both now not in departments specifically focused on videogames. How did you come to games, and do you feel like you are “in games”?
Jess: Up until 2013, the closest that I came to designing a game (outside of childhood play) was designing and writing adventures for tabletop games to play with my friends. When I was writing my Master’s thesis (a creative writing thesis about short stories, scuba diving, and accessibility of specialized language through contextualization), I was offered a small contract to write some games’ journalism for the lab that I now study at (TAG lab). Simultaneously, I made my first game in a group while covering Global Game Jam 2013 (it was really pretty awful, and the group was far too large for a jam), and made my first solo game while writing about my experience in the Pixelles Montreal follow-along program . That was the first year that the Incubator ran, so it was really very fortuitous. From there, there always seemed to be another chance to learn more about designing and making games. My first game design class was with Pippin Barr, and it was all about making curious games” — small game projects that sort of ran counter to industry best practices and teased rather than pleased.” So, Pippin ruined me forever for AAA games.
So now, I’ve been making games for around six years. I don’t really feel like I’m in games” — maybe that’s partially just an image thing, when I think of my friends in mainstream studios and AAA, and what their companies are making. I feel like I make games but I’m not in games” — I think what I do is closer to somewhere between interaction design and interactive art, maybe? I definitely think that there are other people who are making things that look like what I’m making, but none of them are in mainstream games. I guess this also has something to do with commercialization of a product, to a degree.
How about you, Kara? If I remember right, you started to make games through a similar initiative to Pixelles in Toronto, right? How did you come to games and where do you situate yourself?
Kara: It was also in 2013 when I started. What a big year! I was already in my masters then. Someone in my program heard I liked videogames and invited me to a talk on feminism in games at Toronto’s Vector Festival. The panel consisted of Alison Harvey, Cecily Carver, Sandra Danilovic, Cindy Poremba, Rachel Weil, and Emma Westecott – all feminist games people that have continued to inspire me! Up until then, I had been in various art schools for 10 years already, but no one once talked about videogames as a possible medium, so when Cecily Carver, then of Dames Making Games, a not-for-profit organization for marginalized identities to make games similar to Montreal’s Pixelles, spoke about non-men making games, I immediately wanted in. I went up to her right after and asked her how to join DMG, where I then made my first game Meditation Meditation. Medication Meditation was received much better than I would have expected; an article about it was published in The Atlantic, which pulled me into the indie games scene – which I just learned existed. I “pivoted” my masters thesis from mental illness in experimental video to mental illness in videogames and have continued with that path ever since. Most of my artistic and academic practice is concerned with psychosocial disability, sexuality, and politicizing “feelings.”
I wonder about this question of “belonging in videogames” because of the way games culture pushes non-white men out. There are systems at play that are supposed to make us feel like we don’t belong, which is possibly all the more reason to state “I belong!”. And yet the only time I feel as if I belong in games is when I am at academic feminist games conferences, never industry events and rarely in community organizations – though even that is only sometimes because I am much more familiar with feminist theory and cultural studies than I am with game studies “canon.” (I taught a game studies course before I ever took one!). I have very rarely struggled with feelings of non-belonging; I felt like I belonged in theatre, in experimental video, in art galleries, and in all the different departments of my three degrees. This is largely in part due to cis and white privilege, that those spaces have already been carved out for white cis women like myself. What does it mean for me to not belong in games, when I have made games that have been critically received, displayed at festivals and art galleries, have spoken at huge industry events, and am in a collective organizing for social justice in videogames (the Different Games Collective)? A sense of non/belonging is quite fundamental (or at least very common. I wouldn’t say it is necessarily inherent!) for the queerness; feeling different, excluded, and in search of a queer community that is sometimes never found.
Have you found a sense of belonging in queerness, and how does that sense inform your approach to game design, game studies, and community organizing?
Jess: I’ve absolutely found a sense of belonging in queerness that I didn’t expect. I mean that in a very personal way: embracing my queerness helped me feel like I belonged to myself. By claiming my queer identity, I was able to more fully allow myself to be who I am. I was able to claim a greater sense of agency and control, and more fully resist certain expectations of who I ought to be and who I ought to like. That has been an amazing experience.
That change has reflected positively in almost every area of my life. That renewed sense of agency has been important to me. Knowing how powerful it can be to be able to have that, I want it for others as well. Wanting to create spaces where other people can feel recognized and called to drives a great deal of my approach to design, game studies, and community organizing.
In my creative work, I see this manifesting in the kinds of games that I make. I want to facilitate reflection, moments of questioning, and conversations. I try to do that by creating games about topics that matter to me (usually from an intersectional feminist perspective) where the difficulty of the mechanics or interactions in the game isn’t a barrier to engaging with the work as much as possible (unless that difficulty is part of what is being explored). That’s one of the reasons why I often work with alternative control schemes (although I also just find alt controllers, their materiality, and the possibilities that they open up for different kinds of interactions compelling). This has been the case from when I first started making games, but I was introduced to a framework called Reflective Game Design” (created by my supervisor, Dr. Rilla Khaled) when I started my doctorate that formalizes and puts into words some of the theory behind those impulses. My work in game studies is deeply entangled with my design work, because I write largely about design.
In terms of finding queer community and community organization: I don’t think that I have found a community in a traditional, stable sense. My community isn’t bound to one geographical location, and we don’t have a meeting spot like a church or a sports stadium. The faces in the spaces that I have been organizing change all the time. There’s a fluidity to the composition of the community, and I think that’s okay. People need different things at different points in their lives. I think that what is particularly enduring with events like QGCon (one of the events that I co-organize) is the idea of a space where, even temporarily, and even if only within a very limited scope, we can suspend many of the norms and rules imposed upon us from the kyriarchy and agree to behave a certain way toward each other, with a certain set of agreed-upon values and a certain vulnerability. Many of the community spaces that I have been in have not been able to sustain themselves indefinitely (such as the Mount Royal Games Society, which I co-organized Princess of Arcade for) because they rely on labours of love from a small group of people whose circumstances eventually change.
But these initiatives and communities are no less valuable for their ephemerality, and I’ve noticed that new community spaces and groups emerge from the needs of the community. I never intended to become a community organizer, but I have often stepped up when I have felt able to assist and accomplish a task. That often winds up translating into eventually stepping into an organizational role. So, I guess allowing initiatives to end when they can no longer be sustained, seeing what events and opportunities emerge that match my values, and seeing where I am able to assist, is my queer way of community organizing.
In your own community organization roles and creative collaborations, have you ever found your queer, intersectional approach to organizing and designing created friction between succeeding” by hegemonic, capitalist metrics and preserving your health and values?
Kara: Ha! Yes, and recently. It is possibly impossible to do anti-capitalist work at or with the university as it has become a corporate for-profit business, even at public universities I’ve attended, where they expect all non-academic organizations to feel indebted to them, where they don’t understand non-hierarchical collective models, nor social justice inclusive practices. I personally think it is ok to make temporary coalitions with institutions where we can agree on some terms and goals, but never be fully consumed by it. This means that they often dissolve, like you said, when it becomes unable to make affordances that compromise the group’s ethics. In my current departments, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by those who are “working from within” but that means they are constantly working against, which is exhausting. That working against is necessary and when one is in a community of those working against, it is transformative. When it is an individual working against, it is debilitating. In a way, it is productive to not belong, to not be assimilated into the institution or dominant culture, but there can be a necessity to find a community to make it bearable.
Your points about designing for belonging and reflection really resonate with me. I wonder if we have a diverging outlook on how we approach our art. Let me explain:
There is belonging through community as we have spoken about but you also point to belonging through witnessing and participating in the art piece itself; in other words, art can be a mode of belonging. Of course, representation is massively important in this: to see yourself as an identity represented on the screen. Representation doesn’t necessarily have to be bodies, it can also mean representing an outlook or experience that one identifies with. Beyond representation in those forms, the design structure and mechanics contribute (but do not solely create!) the meaning of the piece. Bo Ruberg’s  work on queer mechanics and queerness inherent in games is a great explanation. My first game Medication Meditation portrays daily minutiae of living with psychosocial disability, though there is no character in it with psychosocial disability – no characters at all. It is designed so that there is no winning, no losing, no score, no defined progress.
This was important to me as for most of us with psychosocial disability, there is no winning or overcoming, and being concerned with “score” or improvement actually negatively affects us. Medication Meditation was my first art piece that was successful, as I mentioned. It led to me receiving emails from strangers telling me about their experience with mental illness, or their brother’s, or how the game helped them. It was the first time I realized that if I am more honest and emotional and pour that into my work, the more possibility of affective resonance the audience has. I did not and still do not set out thinking about the audience. I know that’s a very looked-down upon thing in game design! I’m really not player-focused. I’ve even released a game with zero play-testing. It’s possibly because I come from the arts where art is most often still viewed as personal expression, not design for audiences. I want my idea to be somewhat communicable and interpretable by the audience, but it’s almost secondary to me.
My process of creating now has been about self-reflection and exploration of ideas I don’t understand yet. It is not demonstrative, not “I know this or experience this and now I am creating this piece to represent that knowledge.” It is difficult to explain as it is not the norm, where we view art as communicating something already known. I fall back on the notion that the artist knows already before the art is formed. Even if you look above at me talking about Medication Meditation, I do this. But really, I did not know all of that before making it! I came to know it through the process of making it. There are ideas in the game I did not realize until well after it had been released. I write about this phenomenon in my article Time and Reparative Game Design: Queerness, Disability, and Affect (2018). the earth is a better person than me is clear example of being selfish in the design process. It’s a highly personal game – though not specifically about me, I’m not a character in it, and not all the experiences in it have happened to me. I drew from myself, as well as friends, as well as stories, and took them to a fictionalized but what I see as natural conclusion. The process was incredibly personal. I made it alone, so the writing, art, and programming was all myself. I did it not to demonstrate an idea or experience, nor to make other people belong, but to reflect and understand myself and the world better. But the feedback I received for it was amazing. People wrote long letters about how they related to Delphine, the main character, to her fear of her own sexuality, her suicidality, her masochism, her self hatred. The piece worked to give people a sense of belonging, a “I feel that way too!”, as it expressed things that are rarely expressed in media. It doubles back to me too; when someone says they relate, I think “Wow! I’m not alone!”.
I wonder, does it make a difference if I am not player-oriented when I am designing if the outcome of belonging and recognition is the same? Or is the belonging and recognition even more powerful because it is so personally and inwardly focused? Am I right in the assumptions I make that distinguish between art and design? What is your relationship to the player in your design process? Furthermore, would you describe your design process as queer? As playful?
Jess: I think that deeply personal work is more likely to find deeper resonance with some particular people than something that we design that’s meant to appeal to everyone. When I said that the accessibility of the controls was important to my games, that’s also because the themes and subjects that I’m exploring often ask players for a little extra work when it comes to engaging with them, so that’s the tradeoff. Committing in good faith to having a sensual (through partially fictionalized) experience with a plant, like Squinky and I ask players to do with rustle your leaves to me softly (2017) or being asked to speak vulnerably about one’s personal experiences with oppressive forces like in Flip the Script! (2018) is not the usual ask for games. I think, as you rightly point out, these practices have a fair bit more in common with artistic performances. Because my work often deals with these physical, embodied experiences with control, with components that might need to be repaired or that players might need guidance about, I’m also usually present when my games are being shown. So, I almost have to watch players engage with my work, or in some cases outright facilitate like a gamemaster for a tabletop RPG. I can’t seem to avoid them!
At the same time, while I do wonder about and take into consideration whether my games will be accessible to players (via their controls, or via the language I choose to explain myself), I never wonder if the topics will be of interest to anyone else. I sort of trust that if it’s interesting to me, that it will call to someone else, too. In that way, my practice is also inward-looking. I usually make games about topics that I have questions about or want to work through ideas about — so, it seems like we share that in common! I think my most didactic-feeling games are In Tune (2014), The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter (2017) and Flip the Script! (2018). They’re also games that I worried the most about when playtesting because they ask players to trust that I know what I’m doing as a designer when in fact these are definitely my (well-considered, hopefully well-researched) best guesses about how to make a game about consent, or emotional labour and active listening through divination, or intersectionality with puppets.
You were one of the first players to play The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at QGCon 2017, and that playthrough necessarily made me change how we had been planning to present it. I had to rethink how I was introducing the game and what my role as the designer was. Ever since, the experience involves more “gamemastering” and my showperson patter. Having the opportunity to adjust play experiences on the fly for these kinds of physical-digital hybrid games is another reason why eventually I have to turn my attention to players and the play experience.
I’ve had so much trouble defining queerness because it’s such a messy, satisfyingly ambiguous term. I think of queerness as being about our desires for ourselves and our own bodies as well as our desires for others. Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (2007) does some definitional work that I really appreciate around queerness as an orientation — and as a re-orientation of normative desires. She talks about queerness as a matter of sexual orientation and sexual practices as well as a matter of deviation and obliqueness.
At a very basic level, I think my design process is queer by virtue of the fact that the approaches and results do not look very much like normative game design practices. The subject matter definitely plays into that — making a game about consent isn’t very much like making a first person shooter game. I think the subjects I’m dealing with demand new mechanics and new ways of approaching the design work because the experiences I’m aiming for are not the usual fare. My goals are also different: I have the privilege of, at least for now, designing games without worrying about their commercial viability, and that’s very freeing in terms of subject matter and form — like the way that I am constantly making bespoke, handmade custom controllers that are not easy to replicate or share (I’m a bit annoyed at myself for that). It is really only in the past two years that my games have had explicitly queer content — the “ecosexuality” of rustle your leaves to me softly or the trans space traveler in transgalactica: A Tune Your Own Adventure (2018). My current work-in-progress is about trans time travelers coming to a world and time something like ours.
As to whether my design process is playful, I would say that there are periods of playfulness, such as when designing puppets or a controller, and periods of very serious, almost sombre work, where I work through a lot of fears and doubts, such worrying about whether my games might cause harm to people if I haven’t designed them well or fail to facilitate them well, or worrying about my own ability to complete the work that I set out for myself. The resulting games usually have a lot of inherent humour to them coming out of the play, and humour is such a helpful way of disarming people, helping them feel comfortable, and facilitating discussions on difficult topics.
If I’m not mistaken, I think that we both “claimed” our queerness and became more open about it well into adulthood. How does this change the way you consider your work in “hindsight” if at all, and are there revelations that came out of that? How do you define queerness and do you think of your own design practice as queer? How do you feel about the potential for expansiveness (maybe over-expansiveness?) in the term?
Kara: “Well into adulthood” meaning in our twenties! I knew I liked women and wanted to date women since I was 14, but actively avoided labels including straight. I still do! When being asked about my sexuality and identity, a large part of me is like, “it’s not your business, butt out!” I suppose that is why I like the term queer, because it is blurry and vague and all people really know from it is that I’m not straight. I imagine that without queer theory I would never identify myself or my work as queer, as I came to feel theoretically and politically aligned with queer theory the more I learned of it, forming queerness as an orientation towards something and away from others, like you mentioned. There are still things in my sexuality and my work on sexuality that are currently “inexpressible” – and I think there is power in keeping it opaque and not letting it be fully defined by popular notions of queer identity. Though I am hesitant to divorce it from the sexual and the gendered, and definitionally move it to something as broad as “the non-normative” I understand the rhetorical device to argue queerness in everything, to make it natural and indestructible, but in a practical way I worry it falls apart. If queerness is opened up to be non-normative, that includes quite a few cis straight men indie game designers, and I worry that will then make people be act as if, ‘well it’s already queer so no reason to include other people.’
This question about hindsight is really interesting because we are eternally the “most right” in the present. Here I automatically thought of Sext Adventure (2014), a game where the player sexts with a fake chat bot. There is no real chat bot, I wrote all the paths, but it’s portrayed as if it is a procedurally created individualized experiences.
That fiction purposefully breaks down as the narratives continues; the bot confuses gendered body parts, accidentally sending you a hairy, masculine chest, rather than full breasts. The bot character sometimes tries to assert its own sexuality, or expresses frustration at being overworked. It doesn’t understand humanness. At the time, I was engaging in an imaginary conceptualizing of what robots would make of human sexuality and gender, trying to de-naturalize it. Now, I can see it simultaneously as an expression of my queerness and sexuality at the time: not fitting nicely into the hetero/homo dichotomy, being confused about myself, and frustrated at others’ expectations of me. When we are open and honest and genuine, things seep out we don’t realize, or may never realize. I did not realize that Sext Adventure could be interpreted as an expression of my own sexuality until Bo Ruberg interviewed me as research for a book on queer games. This does not mean it is the most “right” interpretation, but one that resonate in this moment – and is open to change.
My work is predominantly concerned with psychosocial disability, but of course it’s a mistake to view psychosocial disability as divorced from queerness – or from race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Oppression operates in part by debilitating lives. Sext Adventure and the earth is a better person than me are explicitly about sex, and queer sexual desire. Ritual of the Moon contains a queer romance narrative. Regardless of content or representation, my process of designing has queer theory weaved into it. I am working on what I call reparative game design, a way of orienting game design towards healing, healing as a process and never an end-goal. This is based off queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s reparative reading, which argues that the dominant mode of analysis in academia is paranoid, and focused on pointing out more queer wounds rather than healing them. I would never say that videogames can heal people; at least not more than other forms of art can! Art can contribute to a paradigm shift that aligns people with healing practices and orientations. When thinking about queerness is this intrinsic way, I want to be careful not to suggest that everything I do is queer because I am queer, or I am trying to form a queer practice. There are times in which I may re-inscribe heteronormativity if I’m not conscious and careful, as heteronormativity is so pervasive we need to be constantly tearing it down.
You wrote above on the sensuality of your work, particularly rustle your leaves to me softly, and the materiality of The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter. Can you speak more about how you conceptualize sensuality and materiality, and why it is important to your work? Is there something necessarily sexual in the sensual? From there, I’m interested in this move of queer theorists such as Carla Freccero and Mel Chen to study the non-human. Artists Beth Stevens and Annie Sprinkle described themselves as once lesbians and now eco-sexuals. What’s going on here? What’s the connection between queerness and the non-human? How did you and Squinky engage with these ideas in rustle your leaves to me softly?
Jess: There’s a lot to unpack here! I take each project in its own terms when it comes to both sensuality and materiality, but if I had to give one major conceptual opinion about them, it would be that both are under-utilized in mainstream game design. Materiality in particular demands that either the designer reframe and recontextualize existing materials that are commonly-found in games, or that they make something custom. So I understand why this is the case, but it is still disappointing. As to sensuality, I do think that vulnerability and a certain kind of intimacy is necessary to allow ourselves to experience the sensual openly, but there’s nothing necessary sexual in the sensual. I think that the two may be often conflated because many people only allow themselves that kind of vulnerability and intimacy when it comes to sex and romance. The word definitely shows that in its connotations, but it is certainly not inextricable. Each of these concepts becomes important to the current project that I am making as I develop the project in context — so, I would say that in that way, materiality and sensuality are important to that specific project, not to my work globally. But then, because that keeps happening project after project, I can no longer say that they’re not important to my work generally. It took awhile for me to embrace that particularity of my practice as it is now, along with the frequent need for human facilitation. That is how I wound up studying hybrid games.
Before making rustle your leaves to me softly, I had read Karen Barad’s “Posthuman Performativity”, and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, but I hadn’t read books like Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet, or Mel Chen’s Animacies, for example, which I have read since. rustle your leaves to me softly sort of came partially out of secondhand accounts of the theorists that you’ve mentioned — a friend and fellow designer and student, Ida Toft, was very interested in designing games for non-human entities, and we had some discussions about the topic. It was intriguing to me even though I didn’t know much about it — so I made a game with Dietrich Squinkifer to explore some ideas and thoughts about it!
Squinky and I made this game for Global Game Jam 2017, and our local site was sponsored by a Sustainability Action Fund, so there were a lot of plants hanging around as we brainstormed. Another designer, who ultimately couldn’t continue the jam with us brought in the idea of ASMR (Auto-Sensory Meridian Response), and we decided to think about what kind of ASMR a plant would enjoy and want to share with their partner (in this case, a human).
I think that the non-human helps us to conceptualize needs and desires outside of our own, which we might otherwise tend to universalize. I think also it is important to recognize that in popular culture, particularly in games, queerness is often dehumanized, or figured as monstrous (inhuman or non-human). There is excellent work on how disability, mental health, and queerness is figured as monstrous in Adan Jerreat-Poole’s introduction to their First Person Scholar issue, Mad/Crip Games and Play” — and, what’s more, it uses plant-femme Poison Ivy as a key touchstone (2018).
I think that there is also something to be said about how plant metaphors are used in poetry as sensual and sexual metaphors — this is something that I was playing with when writing rustle your leaves to me softly. Words like root”, stem”, nectar”, and bud” have long been sensualized, way before the term eco-sexual came into vogue. Maybe there is also something to be said about how many humans relate to ecological milieus as sensory/sensual places. Maybe the idea of “raw, untouched nature”, which is obviously a construct, helps us to access our desires for our own bodies outside of the contexts and structures that might otherwise normally bound and restrict us. The human body in “nature”…we can almost pretend that we are leaving certain structures behind. But even the idea of “nature” and the natural, of the nature preserve, is a product of those structures. National Park systems, like Canada’s, for example, restrict indigenous people from using their own land as they would have traditionally, because for example, you cannot set up residence in a national park for longer than a certain amount of days, and certain traditional activities are considered illegal. So, they’re inherently bound by colonialist rhetoric about humans and human activities as separate from nature.
Kara: Can you talk about the reception to your videogames on queer and trans experience? What has the feedback been like? In what capacity and to what audience do you find them best shown?
Jess: For those games (and I’m thinking specifically of In Tune, transgalactica and rustle your leaves to me softly as having the most explicit trans/queer content), I’ve been able to share and showcase them in vastly different ways. For example, transgalactica is one of my few recent games that is completely digital, so we were sort of able to share it widely on the internet. I think that’s how that particular game is best — at home, alone, where you can take your time with it and there’s no pressure for how long you take with each message. There’s no pressure to even continue on to the ending at all if you don’t want to (although I hope people do, because I’m proud of the writing). Multiple players have told us that they spent a lot of time just losing themselves in the sounds and in Squinky’s music. Generally, I think that it’s a game about affirmation, humour, and being tired, and people seemed to respond to that on a personal level. It was shared widely on Twitter, for example.
It also recently got written up as part of a preview for this year’s QGCon arcade in RockPaperShotgun. I think most arcades would not have suited this game, but QGCon’s context is friendly and experimental and, well, super queer. I left a notebook there over the course of the weekend for people to write comments in, and people wrote down their favourite radio stations — their own messages to other players and to us.
rustle your leaves to me softly is an installation game, so in most cases, I have been present for its major showcases (which have been a lot fewer since it involves live plants). For some people, the ASMR effect is really strong, and coupled with the words that the plants are saying, I’ve seen quite a few blushes and giggles. People tend to want to talk about it afterwards if I’m hanging around. Mostly, in game contexts, the response has been surprise to the sincere intimacy of the context.
Recently, rustle went to Linz this past September for Ars Electronica, which is a large electronic arts festival in Austria, as part of the “Taking Care” exhibit at AECampus that was curated by the Hexagram Network here in Montreal. There was a lot less surprise in that more “arts-focused” context — (but it was also a harder context because of the particulars of the setup — short plinths, no seats, and some technical issues at first). We also left it alone most of the time, though I popped in to watch people play out of habit.
In Tune has had the most press of any of my games — it’s easy to understand by watching and it came out at the right time. Plus, Allison Cole, who I made it with, took the lead on making sure that we applied to everything with it, which takes a lot of energy, but definitely had results. It had a decent festival run (Indiecade @ E3, Indiecade Night Games, Indiecade East Night Games, Come Out and Play, Montreal Joue, academic conferences, etc) and generally it has been contrasted to the many, many VR experiences that are usually available next to it. Austin Walker said it made him feel human again at E3, which is honestly a comment about my work that I’ll probably never forget. I think what surprises people the most about In Tune is that it’s actually engaging, fun and even funny, but doesn’t disrespect the subject matter (consent and intimacy).
Over the years, because of the kind of game I make, I have had to watch a lot of people react to my games and also frequently facilitate them. So, I have an intuitive/practiced sense of how people are reacting to the work. My work does get some press attention, but mostly I don’t think people know it exists until they run into it at a festival or conference context. I do know that for those that do discover it, it sometimes has deep and personal meaning, which is kind of what keeps me going. I recently got a message from someone I met once, a few years ago, playing In Tune in a park in Culver City for Indiecade Night Games, wondering if I remembered her. Recently, someone also mentioned to me the impact that playing The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter had on bringing them closer to a partner. Although getting press is affirming and helps when applying for grants and proving one’s legitimacy (always an awkward prospect for me), it’s the one-on-one relationship that people form to the work that I think has meant the most. It’s also a little bit fun to watch people blush when a plant whispers in their ear.
I’ll show my games to anyone who is willing to take them on their own terms and commit sincerely to playing! I think they do well in very busy contexts where the noise is practically its own privacy screen, or in private playthroughs. I rarely get the chance for private playthroughs, so places where you can’t eavesdrop on other people’s intimate conversations are probably best.
What has the reception to your work, particularly sex/ual games like the earth is a better person than me, been like? What has surprised you the most?
Kara: I spoke above on the responses to my games more clearly about mental illness, like Medication Meditation, where people identified and opened up to me. That was by far the most surprising response, since it had never happened to me before then. Sext Adventure was one of my next projects and was, on the surface, quite different. The first iteration of the game was an actual texting game, where one pays 5 dollars and gets the number for a hotline to text, and the sext bot sexts them back and sends them glitchy nudes.
In the promotional material I played up the expectations of what a sexting bot would be like and who it would be created for. Most people would assume that a sext bot would be created by straight men for straight men – for good reason, as that model still dominates both the porn and videogame industries. I am clear in the blurbs about the game that the bot subverts those expectations, so I have something to point to when people ask for a refund!
That texting version was shown at Indiecade in Los Angeles and Vector Game Art Festival in Toronto, as well as a few other shows. Media outlets such as Wired, Vice, and Polygon wrote about it as it has a very sexy hook. It’s by far my most “successful” game, in its media coverage and sales. After the texting version became unsustainable financially, I made it into a twine and called it Cyber Sext Adventure. That was about 4 years ago and still people purchase the game almost every single day. It’s likely that very few of those people are satisfied, which brings me a little joy. Every once in awhile I still receive emails saying it wasn’t what they wanted, or how to make the sext bot a woman.
The responses to the earth is a better person than me are a bit of a mix between Sext Adventure and Medication Meditation. The game is advertised as about having sex with the earth, though in a somewhat dark way, and people seem more scandalized and shocked about that then a sexting bot, I’m sure in part because it’s a woman protagonist and the earth characters are not physically anthropomorphized. Though there are very graphic sex scenes with the earth in the game, both visual and written, it’s not often done to titillate the player. Sometimes the sex is very sad or messy; sometimes it’s done before a bittersweet goodbye. It’s always filled with confused feelings about desire, queerness, and mental illness.
Many, many less people have played the earth is a better person than me for a few reasons: Sext Adventure came out 5 years ago, and earth person has been out for only a few months. It’s a visual novel and a lot of people don’t like those. It takes over an hour to play whereas Sext Adventure is under 10 minutes. Straight men think Sext Adventure is to sexually excite them. There is a lot of “Haha what???” sort of responses to hearing the idea of the earth person, but once it has been played, the responses are more of identification and sadness. I’ve received emails from people saying how similar their emotional experiences are to Delphine’s – which is nice, because Delphine’s emotional experiences are close to my own. A microcosm of this is seen in the youtube comments for a Lets Play of the earth is a better person than me done by ProJared Plays! I did not know this stream happened until one of its audience members emailed me saying how much they identified with the game (and later, asked me if I wanted to be friends).
As a side note, this Lets Play has over 12,500 views and 240 comments, though led to a total of 3 more game purchases than average.
Jess: You talked about the difficulty and vulnerability of writing the earth is a better person than me. You also talked about wanting to avoid definitions of queer design that would position every action that you take as a queer person as also queer. You also mentioned that inscribing actions as queer could be viewed as a protective move, since if we position queerness everywhere, it makes it harder to erase and destroy. Given the current political climate and the dangers that marginalized people are facing right now, what are your hopes for the future of queer design?
Kara: I don’t want queerness to be assimilated into the games industry, as a face of a company or a product to be sold. I want queer design to be anti-capitalist, non-homonormative, difficult, sexy, weird, utopian, negative, questioning, and messy. I hope designers think about queerness and feeling queerly when designing. I hope games are made to explore feelings that are common in the queer experience and queer media like desire, shame, and hope. As an artist, I think of queer design as a way I can learn more about myself, others, the world, and the way it all works, so in that way I view it as a research tool and form of knowledge building. It also works as community building and recognizing shared experiences, realizing “oh, I’m not the only one that feels that way?”, or opening up ways in which we could be.
What about you? What are your hopes for the future of queer game design?
Jess: What you said about queer design as a mode of interrogation really speaks to me — I also hope queer design will forever be perpetually questing, questioning, and seeking rather than turning into something settled and set. I hope for queer design to continue to be entangled, messy and unsettled. I also hope that queer game design will continue to be a place where people can hail each other and discover that they aren’t alone in their desires for themselves and for others.
I hope that the future of queer design is more visible and louder than ever before, and I hope it disrupts settled narratives — I hope it makes people a little uncomfortable, and that from that discomfort, come questions about the way that things are.
Kara: Closing thoughts?
Jess: We’ve covered a lot of delightfully messy ground of our own in this conversation, but I think that we probably both still have a lot to say. I hope we’ll be able to continue this conversation with each other and with other designers in our queer future! There’s a special issue of Game Studies about Queer Game Studies that came out on December 31st, 2018 that might be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about these topics. Kara and I both have articles about queer game design in the issue, where I think we expand on some of these thoughts about our own design work.
All links verified 27.10.2019
Cyber Sext Adventure. Kara Stone. 2015.
Flip the Script!. Jess Marcotte. 2018.
In Tune. Allison Cole, Jess Marcotte, and Zachary Miller. 2014.
Medication Meditation. Kara Stone. 2014.
Sext Adventure. Kara Stone. 2014.
the earth is a better person than me. Kara Stone. 2018.
Ritual of the Moon. Kara Stone. 2019.
rustle your leaves to me softly: an ASMR Plant Dating Simulator. Jess Marcotte and Dietrich
The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter. Jess Marcotte and Dietrich Squinkifer. 2017.
transgalactica: A Tune Your Own Adventure. Jess Marcotte and Dietrich Squinkifer. 2018.
Ahmed, Sara. 2007. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Barad, Karen. 2003. “Posthuman Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 3: 801–831.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greg De Peuter. 2009. Games of Empire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Jerreat-Poole, Adan. 2018. “Introduction.” Mad/Crip Games and Play, First Person Scholar special issue.
Khaled, Rilla. 2018. “Questions over Answers: Reflective Game Design.” In Playful Disruption of Digital Media, edited by Daniel Cermak-Sassenrath. Berlin: Springer.
Marcotte, Jess. 2018. “Queering Control(lers) Through Reflective Game Design Practices.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research. Vol 18, 3.
Ruberg, Bonnie. 2017. “Playing to Lose: The Queer art of Failing at Video Games.” Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, edited by Jennifer Malkowski, and TreaAndrea M. Russworm. Digital Game Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Stone, Kara. 2018. “Time and Reparative Game Design.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research. Vol 18, 3.
Pixelles Montreal is a not-for-profit organization that runs inclusive programs, with a particular focus on women in their main programming.
 Before becoming a designer, Jess took a Game Studies class with Cindy Poremba at Concordia University called, awkwardly, Video Games And/As Literature.” Jess is teaching that same course in Winter 2019.
Sofonda Booz is a drag queen host of the weekly “C U Next Tuesday Bingo” event at the SoFo Tap, a bar in Chicago, IL. During her Bingo events, Sofonda draws from gay subcultural knowledge and current events to inform her games, requiring additional player participation through call-and-response, conversations, and lip syncs. In this interview, Sofonda relays her experience doing drag and developing her Bingo set, focusing on how she creates a welcoming community for players on Tuesday nights. Through her reflections on her career, she discusses cultural shifts in drag performances that address larger issues of gender and sexual identity in culture. Furthermore, she articulates her methods of researching, designing, and hosting Drag Bingo that speak to game design skills: research, experience design, and iteration.
In 1992, Judy Werle, the director of development for Chicken Soup Brigade, an HIV/AIDS outreach charity organization in Seattle, was tasked with conceptualizing a new fundraiser for the charity. After studying people playing Bingo at local halls, she decided to organize a similar game, but with a “gay flair” (Ang, 1996). The product of her vision took place in 1992: Gay Bingo hosted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of drag queen nuns focused on service and visibility of the gay community (Kiviat, 2007). Bingo hosted by drag queens proved successful for drawing in an audience of both gay and straight people, resulting in the national spread of Drag Bingo events. In the years following the success of Gay Bingo in Seattle, Werle served as a traveling consultant for other HIV/AIDS community support programs who also wished to implement similar events. Today, every state in the US hosts a regular Drag Bingo night, and many popular ones still serve philanthropic causes.
Sofonda Booz, often referred to in Chicago, IL as “The Bearded Lady,” (see Figure 1) hosts the weekly “C U Next Tuesday Bingo” event at the SoFo Tap, a bar located on Clark Street on the northside of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The bar’s name is derived from it’s location: South of Foster, and Sofonda will often point out how her name includes SoFo. The SoFo Tap gives off a laid-back vibe, and is billed as “your neighborhood bar.” A wooden counter borders three sides of the bar, with the shelves of alcohol and a mirror against the wall. Patrons may sit at the bar or at one of the tables that accommodate two or three people. The layout of SoFo communicates that it is a place for socializing as opposed to dancing. Events at this bar further articulate this space for socializing and mingling, such as trivia nights; Doggy Days, weekend afternoons for patrons to enjoy a beer with friends and bring their dogs and unleash them in the bar; and Bear Night for Bears, larger and hairy gay men, and men who love them. Aside from Bingo, the advertisements all contain masculine men in a state of undress (see Figure 2). While these cards highlight how bars use Bingo to advertise their other events, the types of bodies depicted in these ads contribute to the masculine aesthetic of the space. On Tuesdays, a Bingo set up occupies the open space outside of the restroom and by the dart boards, facing the entrance of the bar.
SoFo’s C U Next Tuesday Bingo generally starts off with about ten to fifteen players, some are seated alone at the bar or at one of the high tables drinking a cocktail or beer and indulging in free popcorn. This bar has a crowd of regulars that attend several of their events, and sometimes they drop in for Bingo. Around 7:45 PM, a couple of men in their early forties usually arrive and arrange two high-top tables close together against the wall and encircle them with five to seven seats. They hold these seats for members of their Bingo group that meets at several different Bingo events in Chicago. Many of them attend religiously to play Bingo and have a couple drinks, particularly because they like socializing. After 8 PM, Sofonda welcomes anybody who walks through the door, “Hi! Welcome to Bingo at the SoFo Tap! Come up and grab some cards!” Most people usually grab cards, even if they just retreat into the far corner to talk after getting their drinks. A couple of times, the arriving person declined the invitation, and the host just continued with the game. By 9:30 PM, half an hour from the end of the event, the crowd grows to nearly thirty participants, usually men presenting more masculine and ranging from mid- to late-twenties to mid-fifties. On occasion, some women also attend to either watch Sofonda host or joining their friends after dinner. During this time, players shift between conversing with their friends and engaging with the host. Sofonda says she encounters many regulars and is able to greet several of them by name.
During her Bingo events, Sofonda draws from gay subcultural knowledge and current events to inform her games, requiring additional player participation through call-and-response, conversations, and lip syncs. For example, she uses innuendos when calling balls, like when calling O69, players are to make their most exaggerated orgasm noise. She also creates Bingo patterns referencing sex and body parts, such as the “tight little hole” and “blown out asshole” (see Figure 3).
Drag Bingo is a more complex game than its ludic and procedural components relay. Roger Caillois (1958/ 2001) explores games of chance as equalizers of all participants, but argues this type of play trains people to accepting fate. Games of chance foreground destiny or luck while setting the player as a passive participant, particularly because it denies the use of skill and training. Thus, chance-based games create space of truly fair play under ideal conditions because skills, resources, and experiences are removed from the situation (Caillois, p. 17). Greg Costikyan (2013), while interested in uncertainty in games, assesses that without the ability to master the game, players will lose interested in purely chance-based games. Though, as Mary Flanagan (2009) discusses, chance-based games serve to facilitate social interaction between players. She challenges the privilege of focusing purely on the procedural and ludic structures of chance games, arguing that understanding the experience games, even games of chance, requires observing the broader contexts in which this play happens. So while Costikyan suggests players often become restless with game of chance due to their limited agency, Flanagan demonstrates that these games provide just enough structure to facilitate social interaction between co-located players. In line with Flanagan, Drag Bingo highlights that games of chance need be probed further than the ludic and procedural elements to incorporate the experiences and socializing activities that also occur in and around games.
Drag Bingo is an interesting game to consider when thinking about studying and designing games. Werle’s initial development of Gay Bingo highlights many of the skills for game design: design research (visiting the Bingo halls), experience design (collaborating with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to bring a gay flare to the event), consideration of the target audience (thinking about how to make this event more than simply calling balls), and marketing (popularizing it in Seattle and consulting for other HIV support organizations in other cities). As Sofonda discusses in this interview, she also researches her events, focuses on her audience, and thinks about the experience she is constructing. Furthermore, she thinks about how to iterate her games and her sessions so that the environment for play continues to be safe and welcoming for players.
In this interview conducted on 23 February 2018, Sofonda Booz focuses on her experience doing drag and developing her Bingo set, discussing how she creates a welcoming community for Bingo players to join in on a Tuesday night. The interview begins with the development of Booz’s drag career and her understanding of drag. Her discussion of drag highlights interesting shifts in gay culture and drag that speak to issues of gender performativity, biological essentialism, and inclusion/exclusion. As she transitions into talking about Bingo, Booz bears light on queerly performing in and out of LGBTQ spaces, but also articulates how her experiences of doing drag influence her Bingo sets. Worth considering through this interview is how play shapes identity and how gender and sexuality are negotiated through play, materiality and performances. Through her experience, she discusses how she utilizes Bingo to create a low-stakes space for players to play with gender and sexuality.
Michael DeAnda [MDA]: Let’s start off talking about your drag career. How long have you been doing drag?
Sofonda Booz [SB]: I would say on-and-off, I’ve been doing drag for six or seven years. The first time I ever did drag for public consumption other than like Halloween was as part of a GLBTQ theater company I was a part of, called Midtangeant Productions. We were running for ten years, and through them there were multiple shows where I ended up in drag. The first show I was fully immersed in corsets and boobs and padding and makeup and wigs was the revival of a show called Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens. That was seven or eight years ago. And the show ran on and off for two years. Through that I kind of just learned [drag] from people around me.
It was all performance, I never considered myself a drag queen, I was like, “I’m an actor, and I’m doing drag for the show.” I even wrote in the program, “I am not a drag queen, and I just want to make that clear. I’m a dragtor.” Because of [acting in drag] there were other opportunities that arose. Like there was another opportunity where I got a chance to write a show as part of that theater company with myself as the lead, [playing a] woman in drag. What I liked doing was being on stage and doing comedy. I found that I got a lot more mileage from being funny in a dress than being funny as a boy. Theater is what started me down this, down this corseted path.
MDA: That’s a great way to put it! So who inspires you to do drag? What are your references when you’re performing or getting ready?
SB: When I started, I was like, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” I was learning from people around me, like close friends in my tight little theater community. Madame X specifically that helped me along, she was part of that theater company and works at Kit Kat Lounge. I call her my drag grandma, not my drag mother, because I make jokes that she’s as old as a dinosaur.
I look in my closet—I have a closet for me, and I have a closet for Sofonda. A lot of Sofonda’s closet was really borrowed, stolen, or given. For a long time I didn’t have an inspiration. I was doing drag to entertain people. As long as the look was funny, and it made a visual impact, I didn’t really care. But kind of over the past couple of years, I’ve been more and more inspired by the bearded drag community. I don’t necessarily model myself after them, but I do look at them as pioneers and as inspiration, not necessarily like a visual inspiration because I’m not modeling myself after their clothing styles. But I look at them as people who are really leading a path to major acceptance for someone like a bearded queen.
To go back to like Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens, when I started that show, I had to shave my beard every single week. And then I convinced my director to let me do it bearded. I had been seeing more and more bearded queens, like Lucy Stool, Hellvetika, JerFay, some of the girls down at The Call. Drag over the past few years has started to diversify so much that everything is drag. Those are the ones who inspired me. Style-wise, I go on these little “journeys.” Right now, I’m on this 50s housewife journey with where I’m at in my life and because it’s a style I’ve always wanted delve into (see Figure ). My biggest inspiration is to make sure that I am larger than life, entertaining as hell, and that I’m not just a pretty girl in a dress. I’m “The Bearded Lady!” So I’m like, “I’m not going to be [beautifully feminine], I’m not going to be cute.” If I’m already exaggerating drag to the point where I’m a bearded queen, everything else is exaggerated too.
MDA: So you mentioned keeping separate spaces for your clothing and your means of expression. I’d like to ask about your pronouns. What pronouns do you use?
SB: I do use “she” and “her” when I’m in drag and I refer to myself as a lady. But when I’m in drag I’m the first one to take the piss on myself. My whole mentality when I’m up there telling jokes is like, “I best make a joke about myself first before someone else thinks that I’m taking this all too seriously, because I’m not!” I’m there to entertain people; I’m there to make people laugh. But I definitely use she/her pronouns. I use she/her pronouns with all my drag queen friends, and I call my drag queen friends by their drag queen names: it’s not “Nate,” it’s “Specificity”; it’s not “Colby,” it’s “Tequila”; it’s not “Drew,” it’s “Dixie.” Unless I met them in a separate part of my life, then I usually call them by she/her. And I think that’s also synonymous with gay culture as well. I think a lot of my gay friends who aren’t in drag I call “her” or “she.” You know it’s almost a colloquialism of gay culture at this point to be like, “Oh girl!” I think it’s beyond just being a drag queen, I think it’s just part of who I’ve grown up and become as a gay man and the culture I’m immersed in currently.
MDA: Do you have a lot of people who refer to you as “Sofonda,” even when you’re out of drag? What’s that like?
SB: Yeah. I’m fine with it. Especially people at the bar. People at SoFo call me Sofonda all the time. I’ll walk in, and they’re like, “Hey Sofonda!” It’s actually kind of a little pat on the back because then it’s like I know that I have over the past few years really taken a different look at my drag and a really different look at my drag career, which is almost exclusively toward Drag Queen Bingo. I always have had a worry that, especially when I started doing drag and when I started doing Bingo, that people aren’t going to see me as a drag queen, as pretty, or as any kind of illusion—that’ I’m just a man in a dress. I’m not the most polished queen in the world, but it shows me that they’re still buying into what I’m selling. So, I mean it validating, like, “I like who you are Sofonda, and I like what you’re doing.”
MDA: I know that the term “drag” is, is really contested, especially when we’re talking about validation and what is really considered “drag.” What is your definition of “drag?” What is “drag” to you?
SB: Well that’s a two-pronged answer because I think to really define what I define “drag” now, I’d have to define what I thought drag was then.
When I was in this GLBT theater company for example, I was in a show, and I was getting in wigs and corsets, putting on makeup and heels, and I was “the drag queen.” But then we have the female actors who are also getting in wigs and corsets and makeup and heels and getting on stage, but for me they weren’t a drag queen. I have a friend who is a female drag queen who performs all over the country really, and I met her through this theater company. We had this debate a few years ago. She’s like, “I’m a drag queen.” I was like, “You’re at an unfair disadvantage. You have big old tits. You don’t even have to [pad]. You have to do so much less. It’s not giving me the illusion of being a woman; you are a woman. You are enhancing it, and you’re making it larger than life, but that’s not what [drag] is.” I think everything that’s been happening in the drag community over the past few years, especially in Chicago—Chicago is one of the most diverse drag communities I’ve ever seen—about the rise of different types of drag: bearded queens and genderfuck and female drag queens. I don’t even really think of any of those label subsets as like, “Oh well, you’re a ‘genderfuck drag queen,’” “Oh, you’re a ‘female drag queen.’” It’s just “drag queen.”
Drag to me is taking that person who isn’t on the exterior every single day but who lives inside and is burning bright, and however you want to express that creatively for the world to see, then that’s drag. There are people who dress in drag for their nine-to-five: they put their hair up, they do their makeup, they put on heels, clothes, suits and slick their hair if they’re a [masculine presenting], and that’s like their work drag. It’s just an enhancement of yourself, and for me, it’s always been the best person you can be and the person you maybe always wanted to be but can’t always be. I try and be a consistent character as a person from day to night, I still tell stupid jokes, I still laugh at myself, I’m still self-deprecating. But when I get on a microphone, I put all the best parts of myself out there full-force. Drag is an expression of yourself and your heart and your passion. It’s so stupid to say it, but I realized over the past few months how passionate I am about fucking Bingo.
When I realized that, I was just like, “God! I can just have even more fun doing it!” I like my nine-to-five job and the people I work with; they know about Sofonda, and they’ve come to see her multiple times. But there’s just this freeing energy I feel when I’m up there with a microphone hosting because I love performing and I love making people laugh. I get so scared when people don’t laugh. That speaks to drag queens needing validation. Everybody has their insecurities. But when I was acting, I didn’t like doing dramas because I didn’t know if I was doing a good job. I’m not going to hear the audience crying. But when I’m acting a fool, and I hear somebody laugh or somebody comes up to me after a show and tells me, “you were really funny,” or “thank you so much, here’s a twenty dollar bill”—which has happened and needs to happen more! I’ve always been a guy who likes tangible results, and I like to know the effort I’m putting in is worth something to somebody.
MDA: So I’m interested. Earlier you said that you’re drag career’s basically been priming you for doing Drag Bingo, I want to hear about that. What was that trajectory like? What were the milestones for that?
SB: So Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens literally opened so many doors for me, and I met a lot people in my life at that time because of that show. There was one time where a friend said, “Hey, my girlfriend’s friend is looking for a drag queen to host Bingo, and I thought of you.” And I responded, “I mean I’ve been to Drag Queen Bingo. I’ve been to some really badDrag Queen Bingo, I’ve been to some really good Drag Queen Bingo too.” But I also never thought, “That’s going to be me some day!” But then this opportunity fell in my lap to do Bingo, and the best part was that it at [Tavern on Little Fort] a straight bar in North Center, just north of Irving Park off of Lincoln.
Basically, they just said they wanted a Bingo night. I didn’t even know if they wanted a drag queen because all their communication only mentioned they were looking for a Bingo host. So I came in [to pitch my set] and I said, “We’ll call it ‘Dirty Bingo’ and I’m going to bring a guest host every week,” as a fucking security blanket. I just got through the presentation and I was expecting some reservation because it’s a straight bar. Instead they said, “Okay great! Sounds like you know what you’re doing, so I guess we’ll see you in two weeks. We’ll start advertising and then go from there.” I was like, “This was easy. I just got recommended for it, wrote my own fucking ticket, and now I’m hosting Bingo at a straight bar.” That first gig ran every week for six months at a straight bar.
There were some good nights, some bad nights. It was a ten minute walk to the train from [the bar]. I couldn’t get all my friends there every single week. I can’t even do that now at SoFo. And, I don’t know, for whatever reason [the straight bar] decided not to continue]. So after six months, on my birthday show too. I had that place fucking packed! 200 people, and [the bar] made so much money! So that was like [August of 2015].
And then I was working with my theater company, but then Snow White ended. So drag was just done for me. I had this closet full of clothes, I was ready to pack it all up and be done with [drag] and then I remember in 2016 I got a call from the girl who bartended and now managed the tavern, and she said, “Hey! I want to bring back Bingo!” So we decided to do it every other week. I did that from December 2016 through September of 2017. I had made lots of friends from that gig and then I started filling in at @mosphere Bar when my drag sister started getting a gig there, and I would fill in for her when she had nights off. Now that I started doing hosting in a gay bar, and I was like like, “What is this magical world I’m in? I can make dick jokes and pussy jokes.”
At [Tavern on Little Fort] I realized that I was not a hundred per cent comfortable because of the audience. If you’re in a little tavern or in a little pub, you’re not expecting a bearded lady to come up to you and be like, “Hey, wanna play Bingo?” A lot of people got scared off! I’m super grateful for that opportunity, it laid the groundwork and gave me a lot of ideas. So, I became part of the rotation at @mosphere for a while, and then I filled in occasionally for my other drag sister, Alexis Bevels, she already [hosted Drag Bingo] at the Glenwood up in Roger’s Park, and she was starting to take over at SoFo. Atmosphere decided to end their Bingo program.
However, Alexis ended up getting a show every other week at a different bar, and she’s like, “Hey, I can’t do this a every single week, would you want to share it? And then we’ll [alternate].” It was a gay bar and I didn’t have to host every week, that took a little bit of the pressure off. Now that I’m at SoFo, I am doing shit there that I never thought I’d do, like: just some of the crap that’s coming out of my mouth, for one; some of the things I’m asking people to do; some of the games I’m asking people to play; the reactions I’m getting from people. I’ve never felt happier doing Bingo than I have at SoFo. It’s like at this point, all the stars have aligned.
MDA: So you said you perform at SoFo currently. How would you describe that bar?
SB: It is kind of a gay neighborhood bar. It’s like a gay Cheers (1982-1993, USA, Charles/Burrows/Charles Productions). Everybody knows your name; you know all the bartenders. Just go and have a beer after work, it’s super chill. The bartenders and the rest of the staff are all also really invested the programming too and want it to succeed. Everyone there is just really open and collaborative, and they let me run with these ideas and be a fool, and they support it. It’s the same thing as my day job: it’s different going into a place you love to work versus going into a place where they’re just paying you and you’re just going. It’s not that I didn’t love doing it at the straight bar or at Atmosphere. I think that familiarity, like that Cheers-type vibe, is kind of what lends itself to that. I know most of the people who come in every week, and they know me too.
MDA: Can you tell me a bit about the people that come in to play Bingo with you?
SB: I’ve gotten the regulars, I’ve gotten the people who followed me from @mosphere, and then the occasional just random group of people who are like, “Bingo? What? I had no idea!” But, I will say this about them, I mean Bingo’s not for everybody, but people get really passionate about playing Bingo. Like, when you need B1 and I call B2, you’re like, “Damn it!” I, on multiple occasions have to explain to people, “You know that I have no control over this, right? You know this is a game of chance. I am just merely the arbiter of said Bingo balls.” I always try to be my semi-charming self when people come in. I’ve never met somebody at any of my gigs who decided to play Bingo that didn’t have a good time. Even if they didn’t win, they’re not like, “Ah crap! That was a terrible evening.” I see that if they’re sitting down to play, they want to be engaged, and they want to be active. And my experience with the specific people who come in to SoFo and play Bingo is just that they’re all a crazy bunch of bastards.
Going back to what I said before, I’ve never met a nicer bunch of people as customers. There was an incident with a customer when I first started, and the owners said to me, “We really want this to be a safe haven for everybody and for everyone feel welcome.” And I took that to heart, I’ve always wanted that in my life, and so I feel like we have our own little Tuesday-night community. Whether they come every week or once a month or once every six months, I just appreciate that they all buy in to what I’m selling.
MDA: What do you think keeps people coming back to Bingo, or what do you think draws people into Bingo?
SB: Like I said, people just want mindless escape sometimes. It’s fun, and they get to be active, socialize, and drink. Part of it is also because people just like SoFo. People are very, very loyal to that bar and what I’m trying to do is forge connections with the people who come in. I’m not just this [host], I love talking to people and engaging with people, and I think that’s part of why people return. People feel like, “I didn’t just come here, you like that I’m here, and you want me to be here.” I think my engagement with people encourage them to come back—at least I hope it does. I don’t want anyone leaving ever feeling uncomfortable because that’s what I would want if I was attending. I know there are just some people who just come in for Bingo now, so I guess I’m doing my job!
MDA: That’s cool! So I’d like to talk about what you do hosting Bingo. What are some of your ritualized practices surrounding the game of Bingo?
SB: I without fail will always continue to make an orgasm noise whenever O69 comes up. You can’t take that away from me. You can’t tell me not to do it. At my core, when it comes to Bingo, I’m dick jokes and dad jokes, and sometimes I get some dad dick jokes in there.
I’ve also got my list of games and my list of special things we can do, like a “Wild Bingo” or a “Speed Round” things like that. And I have my little boards that I use to show what pattern we’re going to do (see Figure 5). I take it seriously. I want to be prepared and make sure I have all my ducks in a row, to make sure that everyone else knows what they’re doing, knows how to play, has a fair chance of winning. And that just might be me coming from an acting background like, “You have to know your lines, you have to know you’re blocking, you have to know you’re choreography.” Like, I don’t choreograph anything I say or do, it literally is all off the cuff. I mean, I’ve got my little rhymes and things engrained in my head, like “O66, sucking all the dicks!” I think it kind of goes along with just the preparedness of wanting to make sure people have a good time and people are entertained.
In terms of rituals, there’s a lot of times where I’m just like, “Okay, let’s put on this makeup and this wig and this dress and let’s hope for the best, let’s hope I don’t break my ankle, let’s hope I don’t get too drunk.” So a lot of hoping is involved with it too. But, I mean I know I’m there to do a job, so I’ve got my little arsenal of tools and I’ve got my know-how in my head of things that I can say and do. And I think just preparedness-wise, the biggest thing is going back to when I get there: engaging people and talking to people and making sure that people know that they’re welcome and that I want them to play, and I want them to win, and I’m cheering for them! I’ve always wanted people doing that for me when I’m playing Bingo, and I want them to feel comfortable. So, I mean, If I’m uncomfortable, they’re uncomfortable, and visa versa.
MDA: You talked about your arsenal and I know part of that is that you have these cards with different patterns on them, can you talk about some of the patterns that you play during Bingo and how you introduce them?
SB: Oooh boy! This is the R-rated part of the interview. Not that my swearing hasn’t been. When I started my career, it was “Dirty Bingo with the Bearded Lady and His Bevy of Beauties.” I researched all of these different Bingo boards. And I’m like, “Well what else can I do? What else can I draw? How can I do this?” And I’m like, “Okay, easy enough, I can draw a dick, so let’s draw a dick on here.” I don’t know why I drew it in purple, but I did, and I’ve had it in purple for years. So I have this “Big Purple Dick” (see Figure 6) and I’m like, “Look at my big, hard, purple dick!” Sometimes I’ll be feeling frisky and it’s like, “Okay, I’ll give you more than one way to win.” Hold it up, it’s a hard dick; hold it down, it’s a soft dick. And part of the reason I do that is to diversify people’s chances of winning, for one, and two I do something where people don’t just yell “Bingo!” when they win with me—unless I’m drunk and forget, which does happen—with every special board, there’s something special to yell out. Like when the dick is hard, you have to yell out, “I’ve got a hard on!” Or if it’s soft I always yell out “Flaccid! Flaccid!” like Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her (Zemeckis [dir.], 1992) which is one of my favorite movies of all times.
So even with the things that they call out, I refer to my own knowledge of pop culture, and movies, and television, and drag, and, current events, to keep people on their toes and make sure that they’re engaged. I like doing all these different boards and switching it up all the time and not having the same program because: one, I like the mentality of people coming in and not knowing what will happen; and then two, having to listen and make sure they’re paying attention. Other good ones I’ve done… “Five whores in a corner” (see Figure 7) is a fun one, so it’s a corner (of the Bingo card) and then the two on either side, and I usually pick out the staff, they’re two whores, and then myself, I’m another whore, and then if I know somebody in the bar, they’re the fourth whore, and then you’re competing to be the fifth whore. It’s just silly stuff. I’m not going to lie, I have gone to other queen’s Bingo, and I have playfully repurposed some of their own boards or done my own spin on it. There’s only so many abstract designs you can draw without it being ridiculous on a Bingo board.
I want people to know what they’re getting into when they do it. At SoFo, it’s not called “Dirty Bingo!” anymore. We rebranded, and now it’s “See You Next Tuesday.” I felt it went along with the brand. Alexis was on board too. I think it also opened ourselves up to have more fun and do other things like lipsyncs, and a ring toss on a dildo.
MDA: Can you tell me a bit about these?
SB: So again with Alexis and I coming in, SoFo wanted to diversify the night, and they’re like, “well we want to have it not just be Bingo. We want it to be something more than that.” So we came up with this concept of like, “See You Next Tuesday” because the other thing that came up was that people are always asking like, “Oh, well when’s Bingo?” “Well it’s called ‘See You Next Tuesday.’” I mean if you can’t figure it out then you have bigger problems. ‘See You Next Tuesday’ officially started beginning of February in 2018. Alexis actually hasn’t been here for any of it, so I’ve had three weeks so far to do my own thing. And there’s honestly stuff that comes to me in the moment that I’m just like, “Let’s do this!” I thank god for those audiences because I tell them to say stupid shit when I’m on a microphone, or I ask them to do stupid shit, and people do it! It’s awesome!
MDA: Can you give me an example?
SB: So like I told you O69, favorite ball of all time, absolute favorite! So I’m just like, “Huh, so we always call this ball, we don’t do anything with it. Why don’t we do a contest? Whoever wants a free shot, show me a dick pic that somebody sent you within the past week.” And then everyone just kind of looked at each other, and they’re like, “Eh, I don’t really want to do that.” And then one person stood up, and I’m like, “Nobody? C’mon! A bar full of predominantly gay men! Somebody has a dick pic on their phone.” And like eight or nine people came up. And, so I’m standing there in this 1950s style housewife dress with a bunch of men shoving their phones in my face with dick pics, like, “What about this one?” I was like, “Woah! What have I just unleashed here?” But again, I think the initial reaction from people was shock, and they’re like, “What?” It’s Bingo! People aren’t expecting that. I think it’s because of the environment I’ve created, people are comfortable enough to come up and do that. Plus people like alcohol, and they want a free shot, so that helps too!
And I’m just trying to also just change it up. I’ve been to Bingo where [the host is] like, “B1, 1 under the B,” and call that out like clockwork every single time, and I don’t like that. I want to make sure you’re paying attention and that you are fully engage in everything I’m doing, so that’s why I’m always trying to throw little curve balls and stuff like that. And plus, it give people an opportunity to win more and do more. Even if one person wins and everyone else loses, everyone still feels good, or like, “Oh that could have been me!” or “I can win too!” So it also kind of bumps up morale in this little Tuesday night Bingo community that we have for the evening.
MDA: You’re kind of touching on this, when you’re hosting do you do anything to get people to explore their gender and/or sexual identities?
SB: I always try and promote a level of openness. As long as people are safe and having fun, anything goes. I just want people to have a good time. One of the things I do that has yielded a myriad of results is “Storytime,” which is just one of my favorite things to do. Storytime is: I have a blank board, I get a volunteer from the audience who’s willing to tell a story, I have now started telling people, “You have to limit this story to about 60 or 90 seconds. Tell me a story about something like a sexy story or an embarrassing story or something stupid that happened to you today.” And the reason I had started doing that at “Dirty Bingo” back in the day at a straight bar—and I got some good stories from straight bars—was just so people [contributed].
Like it’s one thing to get up there on a microphone and be making all these jokes about sex or talking about sex. And it’s because I’m comfortable with sex, but I also want everyone else to be comfortable too. So it’s a little opportunity for somebody to share a little bit about theirself. There’s no shame in anything that anybody has ever told. I would say 99 per cent of the time, whatever story they’ve shared, I mean, usually yields some laughter from the crowd or some kind of big reaction. But I want to normalize sex. There’s nothing wrong with it. We all have sex, we all have our own identities that we need to not be ashamed of and be proud of. Storytime is part of my little opportunity to kind of give somebody else the spotlight for a minute to do the same thing that I’m doing in drag.
I’ve started implementing the “Wheel of Divas” occasionally (see Figure 8). In Bingo, if we have a tie, we’ll spin the wheel and then do a “Lipsync for Your Life.” I will say, some of the people who get up there and lipsync are like the biggest, butchest guys that all of a sudden will pull out these dance moves and put out this word-for-word lipsync, and I’m like, “Where did you come from? And, please don’t take my job!”
I think drag has broken down so many barriers in terms of gender expression and gender identity. Like I said, I don’t think of drag in terms of gender anymore, I think of it in terms of expression. If going up there and lipsynching also gives you an opportunity to be a different person for 90 seconds or explore something within yourself that wants to come out or that isn’t around every moment of every single day, great! I like when people take chances and just release that part of themselves and just have fun.
MDA: When you’re hosting Bingo what do you do when two or more people call “Bingo” at the same time?
SB: Like I said, I have this arsenal of tricks inside my head, and I don’t always know what I’m going to do. I used to be overly prepared. I used to have themes every week at the straight bar, and I used to be like, “I’m dressed like a Disney princess and we’re going to have Disney themed trivia questions.” And I used to have people each grab a boob, or if there was more people, then they’d grab a boob or a butt to use as buzzers. But again, I’ve really been challenging myself to not just do that.
On Fat Tuesday, I had a big, giant dildo from my personal collection that is just far too big to be inserted inside anybody, so I decided to use it as a prop instead. It’s huge! It’s like a Coke can thick, and like two Coke cans long. So I use it as a prop. So on Fat Tuesday we had beads, so then, when we had a tie people did a ring toss on the dildo.
MDA: What do you think makes Drag Bingo unique from other types of drag performances?
SB: That’s really the only world I’m in right now. I’m not performing, and I’m not acting. I do drag performances, like pop-up performance as part of SoFo now during breaks, but I’m not out there at the drag race at Roscoe’s (a gay bar in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood) trying to compete. I’m not at Berlin (a club in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood) [as] part of their midnight shows. I enjoy going there to see that. I’ve always said I have a tremendous respect for drag queens, and I think everybody brings something different to the table. And I went and I saw a local pageant for Hamburger Mary’s. Amazing performers! And the thing that threw me was the interview portion. There were some people that were amazing performers, and when you put them on microphone, they could barely formulate a sentence. I think it was the nerves, clearly, but also they lead me to really value myself and what I do and have a new appreciation for myself. I look at those girls doing the splits and beating their mug for days, and doing some of the shit they do; and I’m like, “I could never do that.” But then I look at myself and I’m like, “I know for a fact that there are some of those girls who cannot do what I do.”
I know a lot of drag queens in the community, but I don’t think I’m viewed on the same level as them, but I don’t think they’ve also given me a chance. Like, I know a lot of these queens that go to other gigs, support each other’s shows. Drag queens don’t come to my Bingo—except for my friends that are drag queens, the few. So, like I said earlier, with all drag queens are, there’s a level of insecurity and need validation. And I have that, definitely. But I see what I’ve done over the past few months and where I’ve come in my journey—especially with Bingo—and I realize that I don’t really care anymore. There’s going to be people who like what I do, and there’s going to be people who look at me as a booger and think that I’m not a drag queen. I don’t really care.
I am confident in what I do. I love what I do! I love being up there. I love making people happy and making people laugh. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I don’t want to be one of those girls, I want to be a hostess. I love hosting and I love talking to people and hearing what they have to say. So, I’m okay with the differences, but I don’t know how many people in the drag community really celebrate the differences. I feel like especially a lot of young queens or people who are very stuck on what it is they do still think that what I do isn’t as valid as what they do. It’s disappointing sometimes, but I think about it this way: I try to keep an open mind, I try to be not that discouraged by it, but the times I do get discouraged by it I’m like, “Well, do you have a regular gig? Do you get paid on the regular to do drag? Or are you going out and getting fifty bucks for a show?” I’m like, “Somebody wants me to be there, and somebody’s paying me to be there, and somebody recognizes my talents and recognizes me as a valid performer and is encouraging me and they can see it because of the reaction of the people who come there.”
So, I mean, if I don’t get validation from other drag queens, I couldn’t really give a shit. The only validation I really want is from the people in the bar that night. I get so stupid gushy-mushy on the microphone sometimes. I think I did a couple weeks ago, I almost started crying like, “You guys mean so much to me!” And it really does. I mean I work a day job that’s not easy, and my favorite parts of the week in order of importance: on a Tuesday: being in drag; hosting; making people laugh; drinking; having a good time; actual day job; waking up; process of getting in drag is at the bottom of the list. I hate getting in drag! It’s not fun. Drag is not comfortable. The other thing that gets me is that drag is not easy, and why somebody else can’t recognize that just because I’m not doing the same thing you do does not mean I am not putting in a shit-ton of effort to do what I do. So, like I said, we’ll agree to disagree and move on with our lives.
MDA: So knowing that drag isn’t easy and having the experience to make that call, why host Bingo in drag?
SB: Like I said, I went to school to be an actor. I got my Bachelors of Arts in acting. I moved to Chicago to be an actor and perform because it was truly the only thing that made me happy for a long time. And it evolved, and I’m a very social person, and I love hearing people’s stories, making new friends, learning from other people’s experiences, and I also still love having a creative outlet.
I don’t know how this happened, but I started dating somebody six months ago, and I feel like on our first date, I told him, “By the way, you should know…” I always lead with that on a first date because some people aren’t into dating drag queens. He’s a dancer, and a performer, and an actor, so he understood, but it took him a while to come see me. He’s now become somebody who’s also exploring the world of drag and also exploring what he wants to do, and has also become a creative collaborator with me in terms of costuming, and wigs and everything in between.
I’ve ebbed and flowed away from the world of drag many times over the past few years, sometimes not even doing it for six to eight months at a time in between gigs. He helped me remember why it was I started doing it . I like hosting was because it fills a void in me, that passion that I had for acting and that passion I had for performing and for making people laugh, it’s back and it’s this whole new world that I feel lucky to be a part of it. Really lucky because, like I said, there’s people out there who bust their butts and don’t get daily gigs.
MDA: So what advice would you give to somebody who’s looking into getting into Drag Bingo or wants to host drag bingo?
SB: First of all, I think you need to just put yourself out there and take a chance. If it’s something you really want to do and you see an opportunity, you have to take the opportunity. My very first gig, somebody said, “They want to do Bingo,” and I said, “I’m going to make this mine, and I’m going to turn this into something.” I mean you have to obviously do your research and know the programming of said establishment to see if it’s even a viable option. There’ll be opportunities that somebody moved away, and you’re right place right time.
And the other thing about it is, if you really want to host Drag Bingo, go see as much Drag Bingo as humanly possible. It’s like anything else, you’re not going to learn unless you immerse yourself in it. Like I have been to so many shows! I used to go to see [Angelique Munro], she used to host at Atmosphere before Christina Rose and I did, and then she went to a bar called Shakers, and then that gig ended. Terry Yaki would do it at the old Halsteds and then at Hydrate. My friend Debbie Fox would do it at Spin when she was filling in for [Angelique]. There are so many Drag Queen Bingos. Go see what they’re doing and then decide what you want to do.
If you want to do what it is that they’re doing, yes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but my advice is make it your own. I know some people do some Dirty Bingo and some stuff like that, but I don’t see people do it the way I do it. But, the other thing I need to do personally is go out there and see who else is doing Bingo and do my research, find out what’s changed, see if there are any new ideas that I can appropriate or switch into my own. And I don’t feel like any one person is doing any kind of revolutionary Drag Bingo.
It all depends on the establishment. It all depends on the prizes. It all depends on the clientele. It depends on the queen doing it, being engaging and funny. But just do as much research as possible. Put yourself out there. Why not? What do you have to lose?
MDA: Those are all the questions that I have. Is there anything else that you’d like to add that I haven’t covered?
SB: Like I said, I realized over the past few months, especially with the gig at SoFo, how much Bingo has actually become a big part of my life. There’s something about playing Bingo that’s just this basic shared human experience like, “We’re all in this together!” It’s just come to symbolize for me so much more than just being in drag; it’s also come to be just a part of who I am at this point.
People at work ask me about it all the time. It’s been a good outlet for me, and it’s been a good opportunity for me to explore who I am as a drag queen, who I am as a hostess, as a comedian. Because that time on the mic has given me this path of self-discovery, it means so much more to me than just calling out numbers on a ball. It’s something that actually is part of my history, and when I decide whatever day to stop doing drag or stop hosting Bingo or the place burns down, it’ll be sad, but I will never be too sad knowing that it has given me so much. And that’s that!
Caillois, Roger. 1958/ 2001. Man, Play, and Games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Costikyan, Greg. 2013. Uncertainty in Games. Playful Thinking Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Flanagan, Mary. 2009. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
 The Kit Kat Lounge is a bar in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood that hosts drag shows every night of the week and drag brunches on weekends.
 The Call is a bar in Chicago’s Edgewater Neighborhood.
 “Genderfuck” is a term used for when a person juxtaposes the aesthetics and performances of masculinity and femininity into one look.
 @tmosphere, “atmosphere,” is a gay bar in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood on Clark Street.
 Wild Bingo is a fast-paced round of Bingo in which the first five balls count for all the spaces in accordance with the ones place value of the number. For example, if B1 is one of the first balls called, all players may mark off on their own sheets B1, B11, I21, N31, N41, G51, O61, and O71. The first player with a “blackout,” the entire card marked off, wins.
 The Wheel of Divas is a tool used to settle ties. Female popstar singers are written on the wheel. Upon a tie, Sofonda spins the wheel, and the two winners lipsync to a song by the diva whose name the wheel landed on.
The performance of the body via new media seems centered on negotiating stereotypes of the body image, mainly gendered images of masculinity and femininity, and perceived notions of beauty as an indicator of sexual appeal. This study seeks to analyze the role of social networks in shaping stereotypes that rely on body visibility. The article chooses the short video app TikTok as one of the recent social networking apps (SNAs) offering users the ability to upload, edit, and share short form videos. The research methodology offers a content analysis of sample videos focusing on self-representation. Such analysis examines the impact SNAs have on the formation and expression of users’ notions of beauty and gender through their digital representations of the body.
The body has long been viewed at the heart of contention between public and private spheres. Due to such tension between the natural individuality of the body and its societal public visibility, ownership of the body and its visibility intersect, leading to issues of self-representation. Sexuality and gender, already linked in more ways than one to the body and how it is performed, have also become linked to social media networks and new digital platforms that accelerate and accentuate the performativity of the body. With the potential of sharing images and videos of a given user’s body, each user falls under the pressure of performing their body knowing it is watched by other users, as well as in comparison to other performances seen in other shared images and videos. As a result of all these elements, the body is constantly a key player in an individual’s self-representation.
If the visibility of the body shapes its public significance, then the performance of the body, in that sense, can be ultimately seen as a presentation of a body image. With the potential for modification via social network sites (SNSs), the performance of the body is locked into constant presentation and representation. This shaping and reshaping of the body image seem centered on negotiating stereotypes of the body, mainly gendered images of masculinity and femininity, and perceived notions of beauty as an indicator and perpetuator of sexiness and sexual appeal.
Sexuality and gender can be viewed as social constructs. SNSs play a role in shaping stereotypes that rely on body image to construct gender-related notions. One effective method of projecting sexuality is body visibility. SNSs work to extract and summarize the self, valuing “characteristics” that are important for garnering attention (Cirucci 2018, 42). The foregrounding of attention in social media underlines the increased importance of the visuality of the body. As mediation of sexuality creates an infrastructure of sexual life based on representations of body images, digital media, in its user-oriented potential, offers many ways of self-representation, thus democratizing sexual presentation. Such presentation rests largely on performing a body image. Psychological studies of social norms and sexual behavior found strong correlations between social media images and peer perceptions of sexual behavior (Young and Jordan 2013).
The short video app TikTok is an example of recent social network applications, which are referred to in this article as SNAs, following the use of SNSs to refer to social network sites. TikTok is among the recent SNAs that offers users the ability to upload, edit, and share short videos. TikTok achieved impressive popularity, particularly among adolescents, teens and individuals in their early twenties, commonly referred to as tweens, thus targeting Millennials, and Generation Z.
Scope of Research
The current research analyzes videos posted on TikTok in order to examine its role in performing aspects of gender and beauty. Through this analysis, the study focuses, based on the nature of the app, on the age groups normally impacted by the app. The videos are categorized to cover various aspects of gender and beauty that can be addressed by the functionality of the features of the app, thus highlighting the significance of the short video app specifically for issues of gender and sexualized beauty for the generation it attracts.
The study is motivated by observations of the rapidly rising potential of social media in not only reflecting, but also shaping sexualized notions such as beauty and gender. Since social media itself is evolving with new apps and new uses, the potential only deepens and broadens. More notions can be impacted by new social media. The significance of this study is that it can help draw attention to the versatility of new digital social media and its growing impact on performativity and self-representation.
This research problematizes digital platforms’ societal impact by inquiring whether digital representations of the body in short video apps can be visibly impacted by sexualized notions of gender and beauty. The paper tries to answer the research question; how does TikTok as an example of new digital media illustrate the normalization of stereotyped body images of beauty and gender?
Short Video Apps
A new video-related feature developed that impacted new media: video editing. The ability to create videos and edit them profoundly personalized the video experience in the world of social networking and turned it from a sharing function into a creative one. In the newly minted short form video apps such as TikTok, and before that Musical.ly, unprecedented editing features, mainly lip synching, filters, and speed control, have set the new apps apart with editing capabilities that personalize each video, thus bringing the individualization and creativity of video sharing to a new level (Sensor Tower, n.d.).
The popularity of TikTok was precedented only by its predecessor Musical.ly before their merger. Developed by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang in 2014 (Baig 2018), Musical.ly almost instantly witnessed 500 people downloading the app every day, and by 2016, Musical.ly reached a total of 70 million users at 10 million users daily, already at times overtaking Snapchat and Instagram (Carson 2016). Musical.ly was bought by Chinese AI company ByteDance in 2017 and joined a similar platform under the name TikTok in 2018 (Dave 2018). The new merged app TikTok, known as Douyin in China, has reached a phenomenal status as the number one short video sharing app worldwide (Jing 2018).
From its launch in 2016 until 2018, TikTok has tripled its revenue and has been downloaded a total of 800 million times worldwide, with 80 million in the United States alone (Yurieff 2018). As of the first quarter of 2018, TikTok ranked first in downloads at 45.8 million, ahead of giants such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook (Tung and Zhang 2018). By September 2018 it was the most downloaded app of any type in the United States (Jenke 2018).
TikTok videos are available to users who sign up for accounts and also to anyone who has a direct link to the video without being a user of the app. The platform allows users to record videos lasting typically from 15 to 60 seconds using lip synchronization to popular tracks, then share their videos with other users, who, in turn, are allowed to follow each other, react or comment on each other’s videos as well as duet together. In many cases, a hashtagged challenge is launched inviting users to share their short videos that address the topic of the challenge, thus linking them thematically.
TikTok hooked its shareability to major social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, gaining even more access. This has led to some real financial gains for the top users of the app. The success of Musical.ly users, called Musers to imply the creative drive of the app, has clearly migrated to the success of TikTok influencers as well (Influencer Marketing Hub, n.d.a). The top Musical.ly influencers earned up to $300,000 per sponsored post (Influencer Marketing Hub, n.d.b).
The short video platform’s widespread outreach has a noticeable societal impact. Such impact, however, did not go smoothly as it faced some criticism and even legal battles over its content. For instance, on July 3rd, 2018, court orders in Indonesia blocked TikTok due to what they deemed sexually explicit content (Saker 2018). Soon after, the ban was lifted when a team from TikTok met with the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and promised to censor specific content deemed sexually explicit (Mohan 2018). In China, authorities criticized insufficient privacy settings in the app as well as what was deemed as “vulgar” content (Jing 2018).
TikTok has raised some parental concerns due to a perceived focus on sexualized topics in comments as well as the popularity of songs that have sensual themes, a concern intensified with that the fact that the age limit was initially only 12 and then was raised to 13 (Chtayti 2018; Goovaerts 2018; TikTok 2019). In the US, parents took to websites such as Common Sense and Reddit to criticize TikTok’s low age limit while mature content is permissible (Common Sense Media, n.d.; Reddit, n.d.). The app even caused an uproar in France as evident in interviews by the French News Agency (AFP) with concerned parents of young users of the app (NDTV 2018).
Playfulness and sexuality are focal concepts to this article. Paasonen (2018) defines playfulness as a mode, thus placing it as intentional behavior, a choice, and, perhaps just as important, a performance (537). This mode, Paasonen argues, pushes sexual identities in its bodily focus (538). In later stages of the evolution of the terms play and playfulness, she points out, both have come to denote exploration and even adult role playing (Ibid). This article uses the term play and its variations of playful and playfulness to denote practices that highlight the body, its image, and features, in an attempt to project, explore, and define sexual and sensual notions. Sexuality in this article is used to refer broadly to all elements pertaining to sensuality, sexual identity, and sexual behavior.
This study links playfulness to sexualization and argues that playfulness is more than pleasurable but is also cognitive. This article utilizes Paasonen’s feminist reference to sexuality. She sees it as a cognitive element. As a result, the role SNSs has in playfulness acquires a broader significance (538). As Paasonen goes on to say that playfulness is a form of openness, this article attempts to see SNSs as a new vehicle for such openness. Paasonen discusses instrumentality as crucial for sexuality and playfulness. It is possible to explore SNSs and social media at large as a digital form of instrumentality (541).
Central to this study as well is the notion of performativity of the body. In SNSs, the presentation of gender is linked to visual display of the body, especially among tweens. Such self-representation often reflects a stereotype of gender heavily underlining hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity (van Oosten, Vandenbosch and Peter 2017, 147). Self-representation intersects with playfulness when it is deemed sexy, a description achieved by suggestive posing for videos and photos posted on SNSs, which may include seductive performances such as sexy gazing, scantily dressed poses, all constituting sexualized appearance (Ibid). Posting on SNSs is specifically linked to adolescents as a source of gratification (Perloff 2014, 368), which is evident in the high frequency of SNSs usage among that age group (Lenhart et al. 2010, 22).
The terms performativity, representation and performance are interconnected in this article. Performativity includes performance as a form of self-representation that presents the body. Self-representation in this article, therefore, refers to how gendered and sexualized notions of the self are projected visually in social media. Studies reinforce the role such visuality plays in incorporating and resisting notions of gender and sexuality (De Ridder 2017, 2). This leads to an “ever-present worry of needing to perform oneself appropriately” (Clark 2005, 217). Webb and Temple (2015) argue that online videos offer a gender performance platform (648). Interestingly, they argue that women are even under more pressure to perform their gender on social network spaces without deviating from pre-existing gender expectations (649). Perhaps one of the reasons of the pervasiveness of digital performativity is the multiple roles play by individuals as digital access becomes increasingly individualized. It is stipulated that the roles of producer, consumer and distributor in digital media are often played by the same individual (Rutledge 2013, 48).
Linked to self-representation of the body in this article is the notion of beauty. Standards of beauty are narrowly defined and harshly applied by mainstream media and mostly adopted by social media (Caldeira and De Ridder 2017, 323). Such standards apply to both women and men, and while they focus more on women, perfectionist stereotypical images of beauty still strictly impose standards of masculinity on the appearance of men as well (Iovannone 2016; Siibak 2010, 419). Also connected to the notion of beauty is the use of the term body image in the article. It refers to the image formed by the presentation of the body as a visible element of the videos. The implications of the body image as a social construct of body worth are still there but are not the primary meaning of the term as it is used in this article.
In order to address the research question, the article engages with this relatively new territory of SNAs by analyzing TikTok sample videos, underlining features relevant to the study. Due to research ethical reasons, the sample videos have been included in the peer reviewed version of the article during the review process but have been removed from the public version. In order to adhere to ethical regulations that protect users’ privacy, this article adopts what I refer to as interpretative video content analysis. This method does not supply screenshots of the videos. Instead, it replaces them with descriptions of the content of each video within the context of self-representation as relevant to the study. This is followed by interpretations of the content. This methodology directly addresses the research question as it highlights how the features of the videos represent the notions of beauty and gender through the performance of the individuals in the videos.
The strategy used to employ content analysis of the videos relies on three elements. First, each video is divided into frames, based on the change of movement, facial expression, and/or attire of the individual in the video. Second, the analysis links such changes to aspects of representations, as each change signals a new category, such as attractiveness or unattractiveness. Third, the analysis draws attention to details that are recurrent in many videos as well as details that appear in few videos only, such as having more than one person in the video, which is less common than a single individual.
The analysis is user focused as it sheds light on the users’ perspective of the representations of the body and notions of gender and sexuality. The research examines videos from three popular TikTok challenges, #DontJudgeMeChallenge, #KarmaisaBitch, and #TheBoyChallenge, in order to contextualize the research question. The videos are selected randomly from the three challenges to offer a randomized sample. The names of the users of the sample videos are removed. Moreover, no screenshots of the videos are used in order to protect the users’ identities. Extensive descriptions depict in detail the relevant features of each video. The identities of the users are not significant to the research in themselves since the analysis focuses only on the relevance of the content to the research question.
I have started using Musical.ly in 2015, followed hundreds of Musers and witnessed the app icon change to TikTok after the merger of both apps. As a researcher and user, I was specifically interested in new challenges. As I watched thousands of videos with the intent of finding links among them, I noted common elements in each challenge. For this article, I chose sample videos that best represent the main features and commonalities I observed among the challenges.
Since the article deals with normative concepts derived from cultural and social understandings such as, “attractiveness”, “beauty” and “sexual appeal”, I am aware of the fact that this might have been affected by my personal and cultural stance, as is common to such concepts. However, for the purpose of this study, and in order to achieve a degree of impartiality, I aligned my understanding of these terms within the app content with the feedback the app received worldwide (detailed in the section titled “Short Video Apps”).
TikTok offers challenges. These are hashtagged trending videos that start a series of video responses from users. Among their most popular challenges is #DontJudgeMeChallenge, which was initiated in 2015 as a campaign based on a makeup tutorial YouTube video by Chicago-based makeup artist Em Ford titled “You Look Disgusting” (Ford 2015; Brad 2015). The campaign spread on social media networking sites such as Twitter and Instagram and gained wide attention as an attempt to combat body shaming, reaching 170,000 video submissions on Twitter. The campaign consisted of videos made by users that highlighted facial imperfections such as acne or scars, clearly and rather farcically added by makeup, only to be removed on camera to show a cleaner complexion. The campaign was sometimes criticized as self-defeating and propagating the very element of body shaming it purportedly targeted (Linshi 2015).
Another major challenge launched by TikTok is #KarmaisaBitch. This challenge builds on the comedic sense propagated by the now-extinct website Vine (Tiffany 2018). The name of the challenge is derived from Riverdale (Aguirre-Sacasa 2017), an American television soap opera, popular among teenagers. In one scene, Veronica Lodge, one of the characters played by American actress Camila Mendes, hears that her rivals have just had a car accident and would take months to recover. Her response is to smile mischievously as she slowly says, “Oh, well. Karma is a bitch.” In the TikTok challenge that adopted this phrase, videos rely on TikTok’s unique editing feature to personalize each user’s video. All videos circle around the theme of transformation where a character begins looking unattractive, says the phrase “Oh, well. Karam is a bitch,” then transforms into an attractive person, usually wearing makeup and/or wearing more stylish hair and clothes (Feldman 2018).
The third challenge, #TheBoyChallenge, features mainly female users who change their appearance to look like males. The videos negotiate a gendered binary of girl/boy transformation.
It is worth mentioning that the challenges are sometimes hashtagged under slightly different names. Some videos are cross-tagged, using more than one hashtag from the same category. For the first challenge, #DontJudgeMeChallenge is the original challenge hashtag and it garnered 430 million users by the 31st of January 2019. Other alternatives are #DontJudgeMe, with 95 million users, and #DontJudge with 75 million, all the way to alternatives such as #DontJudgeOthers (51 thousand), #DontJudgeByCover (217 thousand) or changed spellings such as #DontJudgeChallage [sic] which has 10 million. Similarly, #KarmaisaBitch is the largest challenge in its motif, with 145 million followers, and other alternatives such as #KarmaisaBitchChallenge which has 4 million followers and #OhWellKarmaisaBitch which has 86 thousand, among several other alternatives. #TheBoyChallenge is the original challenge in the third motif with 351 million followers. Some alternatives include #BoyofMyDreams or added nationality such as #GermanBoy or #PolishBoy, or simply #Boy, but all have a significantly smaller number of users.
The videos in the analysis are divided into two binaries. The first is an attractive/unattractive binary that includes video samples from #DontJudgeMeChallenge and #KarmaisaBitch challenges. The second is a gender binary that includes videos from #TheBoyChallenge.
1 The Attractive/Unattractive Binary
The #DontJudgeMeChallenge is a straightforward reference to value judgement based entirely on the body image. The challenge begins with the user projecting herself/himself as unattractive, then attempting to cover the camera in order to transform to a different attractive body image. The title of this challenge is more like a plea asking the public sphere to hold off judgement. It is interesting that the videos do not live up fully to the title. The very structure of the videos accepts and even seeks judgement. It only requests viewers to postpone their judgement until the users change their appearance to become more acceptable within normalized concepts of beauty. In asking for no judgement, however, the videos elicit judgement.
The #KarmaisaBitch is another reinforcement of value judgement based on the body image. This is evident as the makeover motif is central to the challenge. The original scene from the TV show is an expression of gloating over an unfortunate event that happens to one’s rival. The scene went viral on YouTube then became a popular meme before it became a TikTok challenge. In the challenge, a user initially looks at the screen, either plain looking or with unfavorable makeup like the #DontJudgeMeChallenge. The user then throws a bedsheet over, covering herself/himself. The video then cuts to a new scene where the same user has a makeover and fits the same criteria of beauty used in the #DontJudgeMeChallenge. What is added to the #KarmaisaBitch challenge is that the users lip sync the sentence, “Oh, well. Karma is a bitch,” from Riverdale (Aguirre-Sacasa 2017), followed by the transformation scene to the tune of Kreayshawn’s (2011) song “Gucci Gucci,” in a blunt socioeconomic reference.
It is worth mentioning that all the videos take place in what seem to be the users’ bedrooms. This adds an element of intimacy, enhancing playfulness. It is interesting that the videos’ background reveals an intersectionality of the private, as seen in the bedrooms, and the public, as the videos are posted publicly. For the purpose of the analysis, the video samples from both challenges are divided into the following categories: (1) Exaggerated features in the unattractive scene; (2) Body shaming; (3) Ableism; (4) Ageism; (5) Integrating gender; (6) Rejection; (7) Variation.
1.1 Exaggerated features in the unattractive scene
In the first scene from one standard #DontJudgeMeChallenge video, a close up of the face of a male user in what appears to be a bedroom shows that the user clearly uses a filter to exaggerate his features by making his nose and lips seem bigger, adds cream to his face, distorting his complexion, lets his hair hang down, and looks subdued. In the scene following the transformation, the filter is gone, revealing the user’s regular features. What is more, there is no cream or any other material distorting his complexion. His hair is styled with a bandana. Perhaps more importantly, his posture changes dramatically. The subdued look is replaced by a sexy, forward poise where he bends his head sideways, winks, and sticks his tongue out. The absence of the filter that distorts the facial features is replaced by another filter that releases pink hearts around the user’s face, thus creating a sexualized image that sharply contrasts to the initial one. The pink hearts can also serve as typical feminine representation of the male user.
The concept of exaggerated features reflects an interesting defense mechanism that pre-emptively distorts facial features beyond realistic measures, thus the real features of the user seem more attractive in comparison. The facial distortion is aided by performing a look, as the user not only presents what is deemed as unattractive features, but also performs unattractiveness with intentional gestures such as subdued looks, including closed eyes and pouting mouth. These are clearly contrasted in the attractive scene with the user, not only removing exaggerated features induced by technological aids such as filters, and by makeup, but also by performing sexiness. Such sexiness maybe evident here in the flirtatious attitude displayed by the user in front of the camera. The exaggerated unattractiveness, therefore, is a performance that creates distance between the user and the unattractive filter, thus acting as a self-asserting performance of sexual attractiveness.
1.2 Body shaming
In this example, a female user does not use a filter to distort her features. Instead, in order to strike an unattractive pose, she does not wear makeup, wears oversized clothes, pulls her hair back, wears eyeglasses. She stands in what seems to be a bedroom with flailed arms and stares blankly. In the transformation scene, the user wears makeup, a short t-shirt revealing midriff, and poses with her hair flowing and arms widespread, again in a traditionally sexy pose. The two scenes focus on the user’s belly, as she clearly stuffs her shirt in the first scene to seem as if she has a large waistline, then bares it in the second to show a small waistline, with an elaborate focus on an overweight version in the initial scene. The t-shirts in both scenes are also interesting. The first one has a kitten only, symbolizing innocence and infantilizing the desexualization of the first scene, but also laughing, almost as if it is laughing at the unexpecting audience. The second t-shirt has the word Queens written on it, emphasizing the power that accompanies the sexualized transformation.
Another user offers a male version of the body weight motif. He poses bare chested in a bedroom in both scenes. In the first one, he has a protruding belly that he is rubbing, drawing attention to it. In the second scene, he sucks in his belly, showing off a muscular stomach, flaunting the stereotypical six pack abs that are often associated with male sexual appeal. He shifts his pose and smiles confidently as well. It is interesting that this video is among the few videos by male users that focuses on a complete body image, as most videos seem to follow what Siibak (2010) terms as faceism, a focus on the face of male models in advertising trends (408).
Both videos equate body shape and specifically body weight with sexual attractiveness. There is a focus on belly size in both videos, a stereotypical simplification of negative body images. The bare-chested male video corresponds to the female bare midriff video, using the same focal point to reflect hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity at the same time. The users both perform gestures that accentuate their midsection, whether in the female user’s case by flailing her arms or in the male user’s case by directly holding his belly. Facial expressions also change with the body transformation, showing a smile in the second scene, thus correlating pleasure and joy with a sexualized stereotypical body image.
Another variation on the binary of ugly and beautiful is age. In one video, the first scene shows a young man and a child, who both panic as, via filter, they notice that their hair is grey and their faces have wrinkles, indicating old age. Their terrified reaction mimics clearly fear of aging. In the transformation scene, both users are young. Their image is complimented with other features. In the first image, the young man in his older version is wearing a sleeveless shirt, with grey hair and wrinkled face. In the second, he is a young man, wearing a dark shirt on top, implying a more professional look as opposed, perhaps, to a stereotype of retired men in a sleeveless flannel. What is more, in the second image, both users not only have dark hair, but they have their hair styled and coiffed. As a result, a sexualized look reinforced by a wink and a smirk, distinguishes the second image.
The exaggerated facial expression of panic at the aged version reflects the negative space occupied by old age. The video stabilizes the same pose for both individuals, thus focusing attention on the two main changes in the second scene: signs of aging and expressions of panic, therefore linking them together.
On a similar note, another video employs an interesting twist using age as well. The first scene features an older man, with no makeup or filters, who is standing in a rather subdued manner. The transformation scene, instead of using the same user with makeup or filters, features a different user altogether. This second user is a young individual who stands with the stereotypical confidence seen in the other videos. He has a noticeable resemblance to the first man, implying he might be his son. The resemblance in the facial features of the older and young users is countered by the contrast in their poses, which elaborates a more energetic and more attractive pose struck by the younger user. The value judging here is perhaps evident in implying that old age is unattractive.
Physical movement is significant in this video. The hand gestures given by the younger user are parallel to his smile. This indicates an empowered stance, clearly opposed to the older user’s pose which is almost expressionless. The physical movement, then, reinforces the perspective of youth being lively, or even alive, while old age is equated with lack of movement, and, in that sense, lifelessness.
The sample video for this category follows the same steps but adds a slight variation that is quite interesting. In the unattractive version, the hair, complexion, and posture of the user are compromised in a closeup as always. In addition, however, the user is seen holding a respiratory inhaler. The reference to ill health in the video adds health as an attribute to sexual appeal. In the transformation version, the stereotypical elements of hair, complexion, and poise are altered to reveal not only a self-confident user with the usual bold gaze facing the viewer, but also emphasize health as the user is no longer hunched forward and is not holding an inhaler.
In the health-related video, other attributes to sexual attractiveness are emphasized. In the first unattractive scene, the user is wearing eyeglasses, which he removes in the second scene. This underlines the stereotypical image of nerdiness as desexualized, as eyeglasses have a long-standing association with bookishness. The role of health in sexiness is interestingly restricted to physical health, highlighting the visibility of health, and foregrounding it as a primarily societal body image that overshadows its understanding as a personal condition.
1.5 Integrating gender
An interesting and less common play on gender in the #DontJudgeMeChallenge is introduced in a video that has an interesting twist. In the unattractive version, we see the expected face in closeup covered with pimples, a painted unibrow, exaggerated facial expressions, and a mop of hair. The user’s unattractive character wears eyeglasses, which is in line with the negative portrayal of physical weaknesses as weaker eyesight here is portrayed as a sign of ugliness. A new feature is added here, as a moustache and beard are also painted on the user’s face. The gender twist occurs as the transformed user in the second scene is revealed as a woman. Not only do the stereotypical features of complexion, facial expressions, hair, or even eyeglasses change, but also the user’s gender changes. The first masculine image is replaced by a female image. The transformed image is clearly sexualized, with a hazy hue added and the user rolling out her tongue and posing in a traditional sexy poise. It is worth noting that this video selected the stereotypical use of makeup to emphasize a notion of attractiveness as visible, manufactured, and sexualized.
The user intentionally displays mock behavioral change. In the initial masculinized unattractive scene, aggressiveness is emphasized as opposed to the subdued and seductive feminized pose in the second scene paired with a cynical smile. Sexiness, therefore, is associated with beauty. In addition to behavior, facial features are exaggerated in the negative body image, using makeup to add pimples. A medical condition, in this case acne is branded as unattractive. A hint of ableism is, therefore, inherent to some degrees in the process.
One video shows two users performing a short skit. This is the only video that takes place in what seems to be a living room rather than the bedrooms we have in all the other videos. A man and a woman play a couple. The man is sitting on a couch, pretending to be too busy with his mobile phone to pay attention to the woman, sitting at his feet and begging with a hand gesture for his attention. In the second scene, the woman gets a makeover, and is now the one sitting in an aloof pose on the sofa while the man is the one on his knees on the floor raising his arms in the pleading gesture. It is worth noting how, despite seemingly empowering the female partner, the video still reinforces heterosexual norms of gender roles, as the woman only manages to earn the man’s attention when she achieves sexualized appearance.
In the couple’s video sample, the center of power is attention, which is also sexualized. The video feminizes the source of attention by focusing on stereotypical hyperfemininity, as the female partner wears a dress and long hair in the attractive scene. An interesting detail here is the sunglasses. The person sitting on the couch and ignoring the attention-seeking partner is wearing fashionable sunglasses in both scenes, whether it is the male in the first scene or the female in the second. This is a clear reference to the significance of visibility and communal approval which rests on body image. The visual aspect is emphasized by hiding the eyes of the partner whose attention is sought, thus underlining that it is the sexualized body image that is sought. The video asserts that the body needs to be seen in order to be acknowledged.
Variation in one video is worth examining where the focus is not on a person but on a drawing. The background here is not a room but a piece of paper. The initial scene shows only a hand drawing an unimpressive stick figure face. In the second scene, a fully drawn portrait in Japanese manga style fills the screen. Interestingly, it is the character in the drawing who has the stereotypical sexy pose, complete with dangling earrings and stylish hair. Replacing a human body with two variations of drawing styles, an unattractive stick figure and the other an attractive well-executed drawing, reduces body image to a created project, thus emphasizing its performativity and projectability.
It is possible to see this video as a reflection on the process behind the challenge. It epitomizes the performativity of the visual body image and highlights the desexualized oversimplified aspect of the first scene as opposed to the second scene. It is interesting to see in this video how the artist is reproducing what Abidin (2016) refers to in her study of pastiching Asian cuteness as a blend of performative cuteness with sensuality (38).
2 The Gender Binary
#TheBoyChallenge is a seemingly simple gender transformation. A typical video in this challenge begins with a teenage female user who puts her head down or looks away then comes back with her hair covered, usually by a hooded sweater, and looks like a teenage male. Variations on this theme all tackle the intersectionality of the body image and gender as a performance. Moreover, users still attempt a sexy pose, while impersonating a male, thus performing sexiness in a different gender, which highlights the role of the body in presenting not only gender but sexual appeal as well. The video samples are analyzed under the following categories: (1) Clothed transformation; (2) Non-clothed transformation; (3) Witness.
2.1 Clothed transformation
In one typical video in #TheBoyChallenge, the user stands in a bedroom and shows the viewers a hairband, then turns around, hides her head, and when she turns back, she looks like a teenage male in a hooded sweater. She then performs a stereotypical teenage male seductive pose, making a fist with the three middle fingers while sticking out the thumb and little finger of her hand, perhaps alluding to the shaka hand gesture, normally viewed as “chill” or “cool” gesture that indicates a non-committal laid back attitude.
The key to the clothed transformation video is to reinforce the superficiality of the visibility of gender binaries. If transforming from the male to female image relies on rolling up a user’s hair and pulling up a sweater’s hood, then the entire visual aspect of gender is reduced to a performed body image. An interesting component of the clothed transformation video is the emphatic gestures performed by the female user to mock stereotypical masculine sexiness, only adding to the visual level of gender performance.
2.2 Non-clothed transformation
One of the interesting variations of the challenge does not use clothing and hair but uses facial makeup to change the user’s gender. In this video, there is a closeup on the user’s face lying on a pillow on a bed. The user hides half their face, revealing a female’s face, only to turn around and cover the female face, revealing the other side of the face as a male’s face. The side meant to indicate a male has a moustache and a stubble beard painted on the face, whereas the side meant to represent a female has long eyelashes and lipstick. The user is bare-shouldered, and no clothes are shown. A birthmark on the shoulder is shown in both the female and male scenes, indicating that the male and female faces belong to the same person. The video puts emphasis on the body image that relies on natural facial features and the absence of clothes intensifies such focus.
Going beyond the clothed version of the challenge, this video argues that the binaries are, almost literally, skin deep, but also emphasize the focus on the performance of the body image as central to the communicated perception of gender.
In the duo videos in #TheBoyChallenge, the user has an audience witnessing the transformation and showing disbelief. In one video, the screen is split. Both parts of the split screen seem to be taken in a bedroom. A male user eagerly watches a female user with long hair in the first scene. In the transformation scene, the female user turns around, simply covers her hair with her sweater’s hood, then turns to face the camera looking like a male. The male user covers his mouth, wide-eyed with a dropping jaw as if in shock as he watches her transformation.
The duo challenge shifts attention to the viewer as much as to the user. By splitting the screen between the transforming user and the watching viewer, the videos underline the performativity of the gender binary. The transformation is done for an audience, not for its own sake. While the structure of all videos assumes a viewer, as the users are facing the camera, the duo videos create a second layer where we, the actual viewers, get a full opportunity to view how other viewers like us react to the transformation. The duo video structure is a commentary on the communal role we as viewers play in the performativity of the body image to construct a gender binary.
The video samples discussed in the attractive/unattractive binary section show a knowledge of the stereotypes of beauty and hence present some recurrent features; first, the user intentionally displays mock behavioral change, from subdued and meek in the first scene to confident and sexy in the second scene. Sexiness, therefore, is associated with beauty and openness. Second, facial features are exaggerated in the negative body image, using makeup or app filters. Third, medical conditions, from acne to more serious diseases implied, are branded as unattractive. A hint of ableism is, therefore, inherent to some degrees in the process. Fourth, old age is also seen as detrimental to beauty which can be seen as a form of ableism as well. Fifth, body shaming was hinted at more than once as users, both females and males, pretended to be overweight in the initial scene in some video samples. Sixth, there was a clearer emphasis on relationships in bringing two individuals in the videos.
Videos presented to discuss the gender binary share several features that characterize the users’ perspectives on the role of the body image in gender presentation. First, for most of the videos, a simple clothing item and a hairstyle are enough to perform a gender visual appearance. This is a clear statement from the users that they perceive the visual attributes of gender as no more than a performance of the body that carries little weight. Their videos, therefore, point out that they view the visibility of gender as a pure construct of representing a body image. Even the videos relying on makeup deliver a similar message, however more potent, that removable and changeable facial makeup can influence the visual characteristics attributed to gender. Second, in the duo videos, the use of witnesses, almost in a voyeuristic sense, can be seen as a reference to societal monitoring of gender binaries. By showing a mock-surprised audience, the duo videos reflect the users’ critique of the lack of depth, and even shallowness, of the communal perspective of gender binaries and boundaries that can be easily changed by the users.
An important aspect relevant to the discussion in the current paper is value judgement. The images presented in the videos of the three challenges consistently posit essentialist norms of beauty and gender that are either accepted or challenged but are held as constant and fixed criteria. Such value judgement is formed by binary presentations of bad and good, ugly and beautiful, thus constructing a binary hierarchy (De Ridder 2017, 1). For instance, a video is divided into two major scenes. The first scene presents the user in one state, followed by another scene that offers a drastic change to the user’s gendered and/or sexualized body image. In #DontJudgeMeChallenge and #KarmaisaBitch, the initial scene shows the user with makeup that renders her or him presumably unattractive. An intercepting scene usually shows how the user fails to transform from unattractive to beautiful, pretending to briefly panic, then, after trying again, the final scene shows how the user transforms successfully into an attractive female or male, accentuating the new image with sexiness. The transitional scene, which can be a repeated mock-attempt at transforming before the final successful attempt echoes the need for approval that characterizes online self-representation, as “different ‘performances’ need to be modified according to the received feedback.” (Clark 2005, 217).
The digitally mediated value judgements associated with these videos ascribe to a normative heterosexualised performances of feminine and masculine desirability (Ringrose et al. 2013, 305). Such heterosuxalised context resulted in normalizing the sexualization of the female body (Evans, Riley and Shankar 2010, 123). Similarly, men present their body image as sexualized and romantic objects, influenced by stereotypical visual representation of masculinity on social media (Siibak 2010, 405). In his study of constructing masculinity in social networks, Siibak (2010) argues that posing techniques by users in social networks are influenced by advertising trends (419). This is evident in the videos in the TikTok challenges discussed here for both men and women. In all videos, sexy poses and seductive looks involve looking at the camera as opposed to subdued looks or even closed eyes.
Stereotypical visual constructs of the body, therefore, contribute significantly to the hierarchical binary value judgement system of bad and good body image. Traditional beauty ideals are mediatized to specifically favor flawless facial features, complexion, hair, and figure (Engeln-Maddox 2006, 259). In a relatively early study by Groesz, Levine and Murnen (2002), the findings confirm the crucial role that representations of thin body images on media had on body satisfaction (13). The impact of the mediatized body image has persisted into the digital media. The thin body image evolved into an obsession with the athletically fit body image. This has been emphasized, for instance, in a study of the hashtag #fitspiration, a portmanteau of the words ‘fit’ and ‘inspiration’ (Tiggmann and Zaccardo 2018). Furthermore, in another study of self-objectification of women’s body image in Instagram, Fardouly, Willburger and Vartanian (2018) discuss the role fitspiration plays in defining the hard-to-attain body image (1382). Such fixation results in marginalizing ageing and disabled individuals (Tiidenberg and Gómez Cruz. 2015, 79).
A Glimpse into User Perspective
The three TikTok challenges, #DontJudgeMeChallenge, #KarmaisaBitch, and #TheBoyChallenge offer a glimpse into the perspective that users of TikTok, the prime short video sharing app and a major SNA platform, may adopt about the role of the body image and issues of gender and sexuality. Both are viewed as products of the performance of the body, a self-representation that can be altered and shaped to conform to stereotypical notions of beauty, masculinity and femininity. Even while challenging such norms, the users clearly acknowledge their existence, showing an awareness of the imposed normative images of sexiness that define beauty and a gender binary that still shapes visual gender switching.
The variations of the videos range between changing the order of gender, introducing witnesses, and replacing human participants with drawings for example. A recurrent motif that favors youth, health, and a fit body runs through several videos, subscribing to traditional, usually heterosexual norms of beauty. Similarly, a recurrent motif of short hair for males and makeup and long hair for females reflects the stereotypes of a binary gender body image that accentuates hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity.
This study points out that, as SNA offers opportunities of sharing individualized short videos, it is a potent platform for understanding the role of the body image on shaping notions of beauty and gender. What is more, it has the potential to change those roles as it is shared and as the variations introduced may be reinforced.
All links verified 26.10.2019.
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Siibak, Andra. 2010. “Constructing Masculinity on a Social Networking Site: The Case-study of Visual Self-Presentations of Young Men on the Profile Images of SNS Rate.” YOUNG: Nordic Journal of Youth Research 18 (4): 403–425. doi: 10.1177/110330881001800403.
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Obey or play? In digital games, sex is often confined by medial references and mechanical impositions. Tanya Krzywinska, in “The Strange Case of the Misappearance of Sex in Video Games” (2015), explains that games often obscure representations of sex and minimize playing sex. Game series like Mass Effect (2007 – 2017) use cinematic techniques such as the fade to black to allude to the climax to come, whereas games like Playboy: The Mansion (2005) abstract sex into the act of two characters comically bouncing on each other. And when sex is featured as something for players to perform, it often emerges as a mini-game in which the play is restricted by a series of button inputs, from its origins in the 1990 bedroom of Virtual Valerie (1990) to the more recent versions seen in the God of War (2005 – 2018) games until 2010. Far from an emergent, improvisational process, sexual actions in video games feel decidedly assembled and constructed; consider the Second Life (2003) universe, where sexual positions are purchasable encoded processes within “pose balls” that repeat the same action, over and over again.
Yet despite procedural and medial impositions designed to control sexual play in digital games, fan communities have found their own ways to erotically engage within—and outside—the game, playing out their fantasies via emergent mechanics, in-game behavior, fan art, roleplaying, and fanfiction. Building upon prior work from writers like Jenny Sundén exploring how a queer relationship within and outside World of Warcraft (2004) responded and implemented mechanics of play (2012), or Stephen Greer’s analysis of how to “play queer” within digital worlds (2013), this paper focuses on one such community surrounding the game Overwatch (2016), a competitive team-based shooter. While Overwatch has cultivated a massive fan community who are drawn to its diverse and non-normative characters, Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer, has been decidedly coy about the sexualities (and sexual habits) of its cast, making only a few nods via comics and other supplemental media to their love lives. As a Teen-rated cartoonish shooter meant to welcome the maximum number of consumers, little within its designed world of play would seem to acknowledge sex.
In the short story “Bastet” (2019), written by Michael Chu and officially commissioned by Blizzard Entertainment, a specter follows Jack Morrison. Better known to the multiplayer first-person shooter Overwatch’s player community as “Soldier 76,” Morrison is one of the game’s lead protagonists and features prominently in the game lore. Easy to learn and difficult to master, Morrison is a well-rounded offensive player whose balance makes him a common starting character for new players, and he is also featured as the first playable character that players use in the tutorial to learn Overwatch’s mechanics and gameplay. His storyline focuses upon his tenure as commander of the titular futuristic government defense agency, eventually leading to its collapse and Morrison’s apparent demise. Five years after his funeral, Morrison returns as a mysterious figure now known only as Soldier 76, who begins carrying out nonviolent raids on decommissioned Overwatch facilities.
It would seem that 76 might serve as the series’ ghost, both haunted by amorphous neophytes and also haunting former allies and enemies who compose Overwatch’s playable cast. Yet 76 is not without his own phantoms. As we learn in “Bastet,” the specter of Morrison still lingers, and with him, 76’s unrealized future with a man named Vincent. Over the course of the story, 76 is wounded and forced into hiding along his former squadmate Ana; during this time, the two reminisce over photos of Overwatch and the relationships lost along the way. In one photo, illustrated for the story, Morrison is depicted with his arm around another man. He reflects:
“Vincent deserved a happier life than the one I could give him.” Jack sighed. “We both knew that I could never put anything above my duty. Everything I fought for was to protect people like him… That’s the sacrifice I made.”
“Relationships don’t work out so well for us, do they?” Ana said, unconsciously running her thumb over where her wedding ring used to be. (12)
The specter of Soldier 76’s sexuality looms large in these lines, signified through the juxtaposition of Ana’s phantom wedding band and the absence created by Morrison’s commitment to Overwatch and the kinships forged in the throes of battle. Morrison’s ghost reminds Soldier 76 and Ana of everything sacrificed in the name of duty, yet on a larger intertextual level, it may potentially raise an ethical conundrum for Overwatch’s players: what aspects of ourselves do we sacrifice in engaging with the game?
Like Ana and Soldier 76, who find their identities at odds with their actions, Overwatch struggles with a strong case of dissonance between player action and its characters’ narrative identity. Defined by Clint Hocking as “ludonarrative dissonance” (2007), we can observe this effect at work in the in-game environments, which are sites where the Overwatch’s cast suffered significant traumas and triumphs. Rather than taking on the emotional and personal resonance we might expect a battlefield to have for someone who once fought and watched friends die there, these spaces are reduced to mere playgrounds for gleefully gibbing other players during game sessions. Team building runs into similar conflicts. Players can freely play as sworn enemies like Reaper and Soldier 76 on the same team despite the impossibility of such a situation within the game narrative (Ramée 2016). Most importantly for this article, the romantic and sexual identities of the game’s characters endure a similar dissonance. While Overwatch features unlockable costumes and voice lines that gesture loosely towards characters’ sexuality, one of the few being the characters Reinhardt and Ana’s flirtatious pre-game dialogue, these traces of sexuality simply vanish during gameplay. Where Reinhardt and Ana might coyly banter during one match, in the next they could be found driving bullet and hammer into the other’s brain. In short, little, if any, options exist within Overwatch for characters or players to express or play their sexuality regardless of its presence within the game narrative.
This division between gameplay and sexuality has been commented on and enacted by Overwatch’s design team. Remarking on his apprehension about Overwatch porn in an interview with Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson (2016), game director and lead designer Jeff Kaplan commented on the place of pornography within Overwatch fandom, “Nobody’s trying to step on anybody’s freedom of speech or any of that, like I totally love people’s creative expression. I would just say just be mindful that there are a lot of kids who are engaged with the franchise and as long as things are kept sort of away from them, that’s what’s important.” While keeping sexual content out of a game to broaden its potential audience might pass as a savvy business move, the issue is complicated by Blizzard’s decision to issue cease-and-desist orders to adult content creators (Chalk 2017). One order in particular was sent to the online magazine “Playwatch,” which featured “articles, interviews with real-life cosplayers, and yeah, loads of horny fan art…A lot of it was silly—the multi-page interview with Bastion is nothing but beeps and boops—but it also included coverage of the November Symmetra buff, top Hero picks and player rankings for the month, an interview with Jannetincosplay, and even a Spanish-language article about Sombra.” Playwatch, which specifically targeted an adult audience with campy humor and fanmade content akin to that found on websites like DeviantArt, seems a curious case as it falls outside of Kaplan’s alleged concerns with open displays of sexuality in the Overwatch universe.
Possibly, then, it was Playwatch’s decision to combine sexuality with gameplay that made it a target because the magazine violated the Overwatch team’s vision of “exclusive inclusivity.” Kaplan explains that “we’ve always wanted Overwatch to be a very inclusive universe…that inclusivity spans from game play styles, some people like to play support, some people like to play DPS, to genders and body types and different nationalities” (Kaplan). In his description, as with Overwatch itself, there is an apparent division between gameplay and representation, where “inclusivity spans from game play styles… to genders and body types and different nationalities.” Kaplan’s phrasing, compounded by Blizzard’s legal actions, thus divides gameplay from sexuality and embodiment. In Overwatch players can choose their gameplay style and their avatar, but the idea of those elements connecting to sexuality within the space of an Overwatch match itself are things meant to be “sort of kept away,” in a manner of speaking.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, then, one of the few ways in which Overwatch manages to suture players’ experience of gameplay and its characters’ narrative experience is through its division of sexuality and play–a decision that has led many players to question, and “Bastet” to possibly attempt to address, why the sexual identity of its characters matters. We might find answers to this question in the grieving expressed by Ana and Soldier 76 over their decision to play characters in Overwatch’s narrative universe who are unable to summon anything but the ghostly memory their former partnerships. As Chu tweeted following the publication of “Bastet,” “Jack and Vincent were in a romantic relationship many years ago” (2019); his use of past tense and the story’s implication that duty comes before sexuality should, for many players, encourage questions about the place of their own sexuality in Overwatch. In many ways, Ana and Morrison are mirrors held up to the player, and their grief can be read as a troubling reflection of the emotional experience of having to choose between sexuality or gameplay in Overwatch. Ana and Soldier 76 can either play the game of Overwatch, or they can take up their former relationships, but they cannot do both. Must players make the same choice? Can combat co-exist alongside sexuality?
Such tensions are not unusual among fans who identify as part of marginalized communities seeking to find a space for themselves among the texts they love; yet such a challenge does not close off possibilities but rather opens unexpected doors to create, produce, and push back against systems that render such identities invisible. Our article explores a thriving counterculture within the Overwatch player community called “healsluts.” The healslut community is an ongoing, evolving space of sexual play that doesn’t end when the round is over. Despite Blizzard and its development team’s best efforts at divorcing gameplay and sexuality, healslutting repurposes Overwatch and its mechanics into a space for sexual play. We align the actions of the healslut community with acts of creative resistant fandom such as fanfiction, which—as Christine Handley’s (2012) examination of fan fiction within the Star Wars community suggests—allows fans to not pejoratively “poach” content, but provide a powerful “rejoinder” to it (98). The healslut community, in essence, performs an overall action of what J.L Barnes (2015) deems “imaginative resistance” that exists within fandoms, particularly when there appears to be a schism between what characters are claimed to be and what they actually do in the text (79).
Healslutting invites players to deploy elements of BDSM kink and sexuality not merely within the vocabulary and design of the game, but also in a communal paratext surrounding the game involving forums, voice chat, and viral fan-designed images. Kishonna L. Gray (2015) notes the power of these larger paratextual networks via social media and other online platforms as a way for resisting “masculine-normative hegemonic fandom” in video games, allowing communities like women of color to push back against dominant narratives and create spaces inclusive of their identities (86). Here, avenues like Reddit, Twitter, and—until very recently—Tumblr allow for healsluts to connect, commiserate, and adopt practices that allow for in-game communication. These players actively repurpose and “pervert” Overwatch’s mechanics, creating a system of erotic roles and a shared community discourse which allows for pushing back against both the sterilized forms of sexuality that games offer and the means through which designers attempt to discipline sexuality. In so doing, we hope to continue the work set forth by Bo Ruberg and Amanda Phillips (2018) in their call for scholars to more closely explore acts of resistance in games in connection with gender and sexuality which “challenge norms” and “undermine dominant structures of power”—here, in part, by embracing one’s dominant (or submissive) playful side. The healslut community offers an example to us in game studies as to how to productively and provocatively find pleasure in unexpected places, and how we might continue to align acts of gameplay as not just reflecting, but producing resistant identities.
An Overview of Overwatch
Through a critical examination of player practices within the healslut community, specifically based on the subreddit r/HealSluts (2019), our study contributes to the growing conversation in queer- and gender-based game studies about the role of sexuality in digital games, and specifically on Overwatch itself. The limited amount of scholarly material on Overwatch tends to focus on its roles within the world of e-sports or spectator gaming, such as Mark Johnson and Jamie Woodcock’s (2018) analysis of Twitch noting that “particular streamers have risen to rapid success on the back of such games as Warframe (2013), Super Mario Maker (2015), and Overwatch (2016), often having been broadcasting these games since the day they were released” (7). More intriguing is the early line of inquiry offered at the end of Toby Hopp and Jolene Fisher’s (2017) attempt to link gender and genre together in the pleasure playing a first-person shooter; contrasting the game to titles like Halo (2001) and Call of Duty (2003), the authors claim “the title Overwatch (released by Blizzard in 2016) is substantially more popular among female gamers than titles in popular FPS franchises… Such engagement inconsistencies may be due to differences in the games’ competitive environment, storyline dynamics, and/or avatar characteristics” (356). Finally, Maria Ruotsalainen and Usva Friman’s (2018) research recognizes the multiple player imaginaries attached to Overwatch’s characters—particularly the prevalent stereotype that “all women play Mercy,” a popular healer character within the game, as one such imaginary invented by the community. Routsalainen and Friman explain that this imaginary within the community prominently reads Mercy’s players “as feminine and boosted, accessing the gamespace through others (males) boosting them,” revealing an implicit gendering that comes with the choice of character. (These binarized gender dynamics, ironically, become a central destabilizing aspect of the healslut community’s use of Mercy as its primary character; as this essay will explore, both male- and female-identified players turn to this “feminine,” supportive characterization as a subversively erotic element of play.) In these studies, Hopp and Fisher as well as Routsalainen and Friman tap into the lingering question of something being distinctive about Overwatch, a mix of its character design, possibilities of play, player imaginaries, and larger narrative opportunities which opens up something beyond the standard experience of a first-person shooter—that, perhaps, being the prospect of roleplaying.
First impressions of Overwatch often paint the game as a strictly team-based first-person shooter affair in which players can join a team of up to six other players and compete against another team in one of the game’s several modes, such as assault, escort, control, etc. Much of this is conveyed through the game modes, each of which features a distinct set of rules, play-styles, and objectives that players might encounter in a match. Escort, for example, is a gameplay mode built around a moving point called a “payload.” Players must collaborate with their teammates to defend and “push,” a term for moving the payload forward by standing on or nearby it, the payload until it reaches its goal in the opposing team’s base. Control, on the other hand, tasks a team with defending two to three specific areas on a map, which can be captured by the opposing team if they manage to stand on the area without being killed or moved off of the point.
Upon starting the game, however, the importance of playing a role quickly becomes apparent across at least three levels: communication, class, and character choice. Excluding the one versus one mode in Elimination, Overwatch is played almost entirely on teams of three or six. Victory in Overwatch’s modes depends on teamwork, and the game demands intensive collaboration among a majority of players. These pressures encourage players to collaborate with each other during game sessions via in-game text chat or third-party voice chat applications like Discord, making Overwatch a game that mixes in-game and out-of-game identities. Gameplay goes beyond the character that players choose and extends to aspects like players’ tone of voice, word choice, media sharing (for example, providing maps and other resources), and a cluster of other performances not strictly limited to the gamespace. Players are not just identified by who they play as, but how they embody those characters both through their gameplay within the game and in its backchannels while interacting with other players.
Take, for example, the Competitive Play setting, which adds a number of extra layers to the gameplay experience. Competitive Play is a high-risk, ranked gameplay setting designed to offer players a serious experience and encourage team- and skill-intensive playstyles. The setting is designed for players looking to break into Overwatch’s esports league on a professional level, and as a result, largely breeds a team-based version of what T.L. Taylor (2006) and Mia Consalvo (2007) respectively define as the “power gamer” whose gameplay experience is defined largely by mastery and victory. In Competitive Play, tempers run hot, voice comms are (ideally) supportive but uncompromisingly direct, and a single misplay can make the difference between platinum and gold rank for an entire team–the setting is explicitly designed for a specific type of player.
Quick Play, on the other hand, is a casual-friendly, unranked mode that offers a low-risk play experience. Without the victory-driven pressures of Competitive Play, Quick Play allows a variety of play styles to flourish–some of which are playful and lighthearted, while others are experimental and exploratory. Arcade, the final style, is designed entirely to support the latter play styles. In Arcade, players can find and create game modes not “officially” in the game such as one-shot-to-kill, zero gravity with Hanzo, the game’s longbow user. Whereas Competitive Play demands a high level of obedience to the formal rules of play, and Quick Play is a bit looser in its demands, Arcade allows players to invent their own rules entirely.
Thus, to say that Overwatch is a “team-based first-person shooter” radically reduces the layered complexity of its gameplay and player performances, as it potentially involves an ongoing process of communication and identity building through preferred play mode, style of play, text, voice, and even video feeds with other players. Tony Manninen’s “Interaction Forms and Communicative Actions in Multiplayer Games” (2003) identifies at least 12 different forms of play that facilitate the communicative and social aspects of digital games, many of which are necessary for players to be fluent in if they are to succeed in Overwatch. The player community has documented these aspects of gameplay in many of the player-produced strategy videos recorded to improve players’ skills. Whereas many of these videos recorded for other games focus on mechanical dexterity, the Overwatch videos focus on effective and collaborative communication skills–especially during intensely competitive matches. As YouTuber Dragonmar notes in their video “5 Minute Tips: Communication and Callouts, Talking like the Pros” (2016), “In my opinion, communication is by far one of the biggest separating factors between high level players and high level play and sort of that bottom tier play.” In addition to the key phrases that Dragonmar recommends players use during gameplay, much of the video is invested in identity building, talking players through the steps necessary to perform as a sociable player within the gamespace. Dragonmar states:
I know not everyone’s a people person, and it’s hard for some people to talk, but I personally have forced myself to say hello to everyone in every single match I go into, and I feel like there’s this psychological reasoning to it…it sort of builds like this trust and it makes them like me and it puts some weight on my opinions because I do sort of take that in-game leader role.
Unit Lost’s video “How Pros SHOTCALL! – Communication and Shotcalling Guide” (2017) provides similar tips designed to help players are able to enact the persona of professional players through both their gameplay and their personalities. Such lessons, while fulfilling a pragmatic need, also add an additional layer of roleplaying for the players themselves that goes beyond the character they choose to play as within the game itself.
Once players have crafted their communication persona, the next choice facing most players is their in-game embodiment that they will occupy for the match: that is to say, they need to pick a character to play as. Playable characters in the game, known as “heroes,” can be selected at any time before or during a match, and Overwatch currently features an expanding roster of 29 heroes. Characters are broken down into three main classes: Tank, Damage, and Support. Tank heroes typically serve as the team’s metaphorical shield. Equipped with a large amount of health and attack-negating skills, these heroes keep the pain away from the more vulnerable Damage and Support heroes. Many of their skills are designed to protect friendly players while controlling the opposing team. One such tank, the German armored fighter Reinhardt, has an ability called “Barrier Field” which is a giant, curved shield that covers Reinhardt and surrounding teammates, allowing him to escort other players through the opposing team’s fire. Similarly, the Russian bodybuilder Zarya’s “Projected Barrier” attaches a bubble shield to a distant teammate, allowing them to endure attacks without damage while powering up her own weapons with the absorbed energy from enemy shots.
Although many Tank heroes are slow and bulky protectors who are often easy targets, their presence is formidable and fatal if underestimated. Tanks can deal wide-ranging attacks debilitating many characters on the opposing team. The South Korean pro-gamer D.Va’s “Self-Destruct” launches her mech suit forward into a glowing ball of death for any enemy players in wide radius, while D.Va herself is ejected safely to the back. Alternatively, Australian insurrectionist Roadhog’s “Whole Hog” fires a barrage of shrapnel in a wide cone, allowing him to deal significant damage to a large group and push them back (often off of edges and cliffs to their demise). From patient protectors to hasty aggressors, tank gameplay thus allows players to adopt and express many different personalities through their gameplay. These personalities are added on to the communicative personas adopted in voice communication software, and this range of performed personalities can be found in each of the classes and nuanced even further through the specific styles of gameplay offered in the unique set of abilities offered by each character.
The traces of these gameplay-based expressions can be seen in the fan fiction produced by the Overwatch player community. Within the community, characters like D.Va and Soldier 76 are given names unique to the personalities embedded within their play styles. Soldier 76, for example, is often called “Dad” not because of his age, but rather because of the personality conveyed through his gameplay abilities. In many fan produced comics, Soldier 76 is often depicted providing other characters with their lunch, and he can be seen reminding them that he has “his eye on them,” both of which reference his in-game ability to place a healing beacon on the map and his ultimate which automatically locks his aim on enemy players. Similarly, Pharah is presented as “gremlin” D.Va’s mother who looks out for her by providing an aerial barrage of Mountain Dew. The interaction is a reference to the dynamic shared between D.Va, a tank who is often in the direct line of fire, and Pharah, an airborne attacker whose ultimate ability sends a rain of missiles over her teammates and onto the opposing team. The comic replaces missiles with Mountain Dew as a reference to jokes about gamers’ diets with D.Va positioned as Overwatch’s gamer.
While many of these comics serve as a visual and textual index of the range of expression and identity possible through each of Overwatch’s characters and classes, they also have served as a means for players to explore the largely absent depictions of kinship and relationships within the game. On the reddit thread, “Overwatch Question: Can someone post a Family Tree?,” VintageKD writes, “Mercy is the mother because her play style basically feels like babysitting. The children run off and get into trouble and you have to save them.” Much like Soldier 76’s position as “Dad” within the fan universe, Mercy’s play style influences her kinship with other characters within the universe. In addition to being depicted as “Mom,” however, Mercy is also depicted as Pharah’s lover with whom she raises their disobedient child D.Va. This representation, called the “Pharmercy,” has no connection to the game lore; instead, Pharmercy emerged from Pharah’s gameplay. As the Overwatch wiki (2019) explains, “While Pharah can stay fairly safe up in the air, she should not be without support. A common pair for Pharah is Mercy, who can boost her damage and heal her while staying with her in the air.” The sexual pairing of Pharah and Mercy is a response to and expression of this game performance, practicing what Darshana Jayemanne (2018) describes as “the way videogame performances generates bodies and renders them prone to volatility, transformation and seriality” (21). Overwatch’s fan community demonstrates that as players play, they actualize potential embodiments through the performative lexicon provided by the game. While fans have manifested these performative expressions in paratextual materials, the healslut community has explored their potential performance within Overwatch itself.
“To suck their cocks, and to fill bars, all of it is one thing”: The /HealSluts community
With these topics in mind, the healslut community’s function within the world of Overwatch comes into view. In exploring how Overwatch’s central mechanics, rather than being thoroughly quarantined from sexuality, in fact take on and represent new eroticized meanings among players, it is crucial to take into account the digital spaces in which these meanings are defined, discussed, and ultimately deployed within the game’s field of play. Foremost among these spaces is r/HealSluts, a dedicated place of discussion (or “subreddit”) within the online message board/aggregator website Reddit. As a discourse community, the r/HealSluts subreddit currently (as of February 2019) has a base of roughly 29,000 subscribers. As taken from the subreddit’s “community details” section, it is a self-described “community filled with eager healers willing to do what they can for their team, *especially their dominant counterparts.* **Join us as we pervert the act of healing for fun!*” (“Healsluts: Perverting the act of healing for fun”). Far from a peripheral focus, the idea of “perverting” healing—of taking a seemingly benign gameplay act and giving it a sexual undertone—is sealed into the community’s header and sidebar description accompanying every view of the website.
Healslutting is decidedly not unique to Overwatch, as the community’s wiki and various threads list a variety of games and situations where this action already takes place or could take place in; consider the thread “Some less known games with slut potential,” where opening poster u/ToasterTroll (2018) lists series such as Fallout, Fire Emblem, and the Payday games as featuring mechanics with “slut potential for both healers and slutting in general.” A short collection of posts follow, with u/deathride58 (2018) in particular going into detail about everything from turning the force-feedback from music game Audiosurf into the commands for a vibrator to refusing to use certain healing commands in the first-person shooter Killing Floor 2 to provide a sub/dom relationship between teammates. u/deathride58’s final line serves as a sort of ethos for the entire community: “Any game can become a slut game if you or your dom(s) try hard enough.” Luke Winkie’s Kotaku article on the community (2016) similarly emphasizes this point, as “the beauty of healsluts is you can make anything—literally anything—part of the kink.” All gameplay mechanics serve as a potential outlet for perverse play, offering users the opportunity to engage in “slut” behavior regardless of intent or design from the game’s creators.
Linking to other player-driven activities which can twist or even openly disregard the apparent intent of a mechanic or structure, the community’s own wiki page titled “Why is this a thing?” describes healslutting as a sort of mod to reinject interest and pleasure into play. According to wiki writer u/LeviathansLust (2019), “[m]ost enjoy a game at it’s [sic] default, but others tend to try to enjoy their experience more and keep it from dulling out via mods. It’ll give it a new taste and you’ll be satisfied with the game for that much longer.” If BDSM practice itself is a type of “mod” to sexual practice between physical bodies, healslutting transfers that process of rethinking existing mechanics to reinvigorate the experience into the digital realm. Kent Aardse (2014) suggests that video games welcome this process due to their nature as digital objects, with players “always reminded that the site is fiction because of the uncanny valley. Bounded by the contract and rules set in place, masochists feel entirely safe engaging in S&M acts in a sanctioned game space, just as videogame players find a safe environment contained in the screen.” Such a recognition seems, to u/LeviathansLust, largely inevitable, as “when you take someone who enjoys video games and sexual stuff, you’ll fancy the idea of combining them in some way.” Yet while, as Aardse claims, there is a potential physical distance between the game and the player’s body, healslutting begins to collapse that distance, particularly with players encouraged to act upon their bodies during play in accordance with what happens in-game. There is no neat distinction between what one does inside and outside the game. What I do with my body in both locations feeds into an overall attitude and identity which is performed according to a variety of norms and expectations.
It is precisely this fuzzy boundary between game and not-game, between “real” and “unreal,” that seems to attract a number of users to healslutting. A striking number of threads on the board are created by individuals claiming that discovering healslutting provided insight into their sexual identity outside the game as well, or that what they typically believed was “outside” of video games could be integrated in surprising ways. One such example comes from user u/its_onyx (2019), detailing in a thread titled “I Met My LDR Daddy” how their first physical BDSM relationship emerged from participating in the r/HealSluts community Discord (a voice and text chat app popular among players). The relationship began initially as exploring dom/sub play within games, then shifted to voice chat, then finally into meeting in person at a hotel; as described by u/its_onyx, this process was “my first ever time being in an in person relationship and in the sub role. There was [sic] many firsts and even then it felt so natural to be in my role.” Healslutting provides an initial contact point to what eventually becomes “natural,” or solidifies a preference into an overall identity, as with user u/NotaRelnam (2019) in his thread “I didn’t even know there was a name for this until a few days ago.” In recounting the process of being dominated by a woman in his World of Warcraft guild, u/NotaRelNam processes the experience via a series of anecdotes before coming to a statement of self-definition: “And sorry if its hard to follow, I was just trying to get it all down while I still felt telling this to somebody, I’ve never told anybody about it. I don’t really know how common a big sized guy being a Heal Slut is, but I am one.” What was previously a sort of generalized desire is given “a name,” a means through which a larger sexual identity can be confessed—and through that, a set of behavior to follow. Healslutting, in this sense, suggests something akin to what Susanna Paasonen (2018) argues are sexual “spaces of openness and opportunity that unfold in relation to and through an array of norms, scripts and rules,” which end up as “pivotal to the titillating, even engulfing force that sex and sexuality hold in individual fantasies, cultural representations and social arrangements” (547).
How this unfolds, in many ways, becomes a central point of discussion in the HealSluts community, as while the overall name of “healslutting” provides a wide sexual space and point of contact, defining what exactly it is—or the specific game mechanics it should prioritize—is an ongoing topic of debate. A whole page of the r/HealSlut wiki (“What are the roles?”) is devoted to role definition, breaking down the distinction, say, between a HealSlut (“a healer who is usually masochistic and enjoys being verbally abused”) and a TankSlut (“they want to hurt and bleed for their partner”). HealDoms can “control whether their partner lives or dies” through the active denial of using their in-game healing abilities, while a DPSDom (short for “damage per second”) habitually flaunts how good they are at killing opponents while reminding their submissive HealSlut “just how useless they are” in winning the game. Posters on r/HealSluts often tag their preferred gameplay role after their screenname, immediately letting users know what category to associate them with. This also structures posting style as well; HealSlut-tagged users often post in deferential, “cute” language until a Dom arrives in-thread to berate them, while “Switch” users aptly enough flow between discourse roles as they see fit. While users are repeatedly reminded to flow and adapt between identities to see what they enjoy most, a strong connection between in-game practice and forum identity forms over time; how I play is how I post is how I identify.
Thus, new users wanting to join in often ask about in-game practice: how does one healslut properly, so to speak? A thread titled “Hey, new here; need to learn before I play” immediately jumps into the minutiae of HealSlut mechanics, with user u/BecauseOtters28 (2019) asking the forum, “I’m seeing some things that make healsluts look like a catch-all for playing any dynamic in-game. But I’ll also see other things that seem to assert that it is a very specific master/slave dynamic with degradation and humiliation. So, which is it? Or is it just contextualizing gameplay in any way as kinky play?” From there, an extensive discussion emerges between u/BecauseOtters28 and u/RPDit, with u/RPDit (2019) attempting to define a specific version of healslutting in contrast to “the not-yet-named ‘battle slutting’ type of activity,” which they view as any form of gameplay that is given a sexual undertone. For u/RPDit, healslutting “can be pretty much anywhere on the [dominant/submissive] matrix… as long as it’s sexualized and (in my strongly-held opinion) you’re playing a healer,” yet admits “we do seem to still be in the phase of trying to agree on where exactly the borders you’re asking about are.” As their discussion suggests, a role meant to pervert and distort the lines of ordinary gameplay still requires, to some extent, community consensus on what it means and what actions are required within it. Yet the only way to know is to play, a conclusion that u/BecauseOtters28 reaches with a game-related pun: “There’s obviously a disconnect happening somewhere, and the only way to fix that is to grind. :p”
Here attention switches (so to speak) to Overwatch itself, given its role as the game most posted on and discussed within the r/HealSluts community. In an advice thread for a new player mostly used to League of Legends, community moderator u/LeviathansLust (2019) notes that “Overwatch is the best to ease into when it comes to this fetish” (“Any example audio that anyone could share?”), and the vast majority of upvoted posts within the community feature visual depictions of Overwatch characters involved in sexual acts. The game both serves as easily explainable entryway into the HealSlut structure of play and also offers a set of characters and mechanics considered desirable to inhabit. In particular, the primary healer character Mercy—a blonde female with mechanical angel wings typically clad in white and carrying a staff—serves as community icon and central fetishized object. While other characters, such as the mechanized tank robot D.Va or the older sharpshooter Ana, have various discussions and debates surrounding their use in dom/sub Overwatch dynamics, we will predominantly focus on Mercy and the discourse surrounding her use as a way of exploring how the player community has developed rules and expectations for perverse play, as well as the expectations for community discourse.
The first set of mechanics to be perverted directly relate to discourse—specifically, how to let others know you may desire to play in a HealSlut relationship to them without prior establishment of that bond. The question of whether or not other players know or recognize a given individual is healslutting (or any form of eroticized play) is a central one across the r/HealSluts community, given that the act can be undertaken solo or linked to someone else. The wiki directly teases this idea, using hypothetical outraged players as a sort of mocking point of debate: “If you’re witnessing any BDSM or HealSlutting happening in public with more than a few… ‘Vivid’ examples, report them. If it bothers you too much, leave the game” (“Why is this a thing?”) Within Overwatch, there is the direct—and most dangerous option—of announcing one’s intentions via public voice chat, one that runs the active risk of violating Blizzard’s terms of service and being banned from play. In lieu of this, the community has created a sort of coded set to announce via gameplay mechanics that you wish to engage in sex play. Through a mix of pre-designed animations known as “emotes,” icons known as “sprays” that can be placed on the gameplay environment, and voice lines, players can “announce” their intentions to other players aware of the code. As Mercy, for example, the community has defined HealSlut “behavior” as spraying the “Arrow” icon on a wall, using the “Relax” emote (basically resting on the ground, legs tucked under) directly underneath it, and repeatedly calling out the voice line “I’ve got my eye on you.” In response, a dominant D. Va would activate their “Heartbreaker” emote and call out “I play to win.” This would potentially invite both players to take their chat off the public setting and engage in play of their own privately.
In essence, to be a HealSlut in a public Overwatch match leans on coded discourse that builds on the basic principles of roleplaying within Overwatch and feels decidedly similar to epistemological constructs in other sexual subcommunities. Wearing a particular outfit while going to the right bar on the right night shifts into the activation of gestures and gameplay features never “meant” to carry a sexual undertone. If you do not go into the match already partnered—that is, with someone who already knows your perversion—you are forced to rely upon a collection of underground knowledge that may or may not lead to a connection at all. This may lead to more frustration than success; one thread from the community titled “Does anyone else find it difficult to meet other doms/subs in OW?” finds user u/SissyPiggy (2019) bemoaning how rare it is to find that point of connection. Having followed the community protocol, they admit things haven’t been very successful, as “I’ve been trying the rest + spray combo every game for a few days now with a mild account name, although it’s obvious if you’re into the kink. I know it’s a very very small portion of the community into it, but it seems like no one knows what tf I’m doing.” Poster u/majoragor (2019) commiserates, echoing a further danger of coded discourse: “only problem is once someone replies with an emote you can’t really know if that person understand what happened s/he may think s/he’s just emoting which makes things difficult.” Intent may not equal reception and trying to stay below the surface to avoid not being able to play at all means a strong likelihood of missing out. It is not coincidental most of the community’s connections are made outside of game via subreddit threads, within Discord, or as extensions of existing relationships brought into the game itself.
This question of intent, pleasure, and awareness of not explicitly violating Blizzard’s terms of service in the pursuit of sexualized play takes on an even more fascinating dynamic in the growing community discourse surrounding the use of teledildonics. In one thread titled “Theoretically automating the healslut experience” discussing how to directly turn gameplay experience into data to control the vibration function of a dildo, user u/Spice002 (2019) asks if it is possible to link directly to the game’s affect on run-time memory, as “I was thinking of a vibrator that slowly increases strength as you heal someone up, but from what I heard Bliz is very anal about poking around the game (even if you’re just reading it for non-nefarious reasons).” Here, u/Spice002 clearly means “nefarious” in the sense of cheating: gaining an unfair advantage in the match itself. Using the data for a vibrator might be naughty, illicit, perverse, but not nefarious; however, running the risk of incurring Blizzard’s wrath makes the prospect a fraught one. User u/graveknight1 (2019) confirms the suspicion, claiming “They are extremely anal about it. I don’t ever want to make someone at risk of being banned, so I have not tired [sp] to interact with the OW program at all.” As with knowing when and how to emote, knowing exactly how far to push interacting with Overwatch itself as a program reflects the HealSlut community’s attempts to sustain its desired forms of play while remaining, for all intents and purposes, “legal” participants within the game’s rules.
While knowing how far to push Blizzard’s own rules on community engagement and software manipulation is one side of the discussion, there remains the question of proper play and adherence to role expectations among HealSluts themselves. Take, for example, a thread by poster u/LittleZera titled “Good Girl or Bad Girl? Offensive as Mercy” (2019). The poster begins with describing their first-ever “Play of the Game” as Mercy, suggesting the most crucial moment of gameplay in the match. However, rather than being a moment of crucially healing a teammate, u/LittleZera earned their honors by acting out of character: namely, by gunning down two enemies on the other team. On a gameplay level, this could only be seen as a net good; within the game’s algorithms, the act is clearly valued as a positive one, one worth rewarding and given prominence after the match. Yet on a community level, the disruption of Mercy’s role as a submissive HealSlut—one whose sole role is to support the heroic efforts of her attached tank or DPS partner—renders the action far more problematic. The tension between gameplay use and erotic roleplay is so much that u/LittleZera asks the subreddit to weigh on the “right” course of action here: “Does this mean I am a Good Girl for achieving it and protecting my team in another way. Or does it mean I’ve been a Bad Girl because I should’ve healed my team instead? Feeling a little bit conflicted about it.” Note that u/LittleZera does not mention a specific person enforcing these rules on the other team; these expectations are decidedly internalized, governing their perception of play to the point they share the moment of play with others to ensure their feelings are correct.
According to the top up-voted response to their query, the answer is Bad Girl, due to “taking the spotlight from your team. You should’ve been damage boosting your teammates into the potg.” Being “successful” is, within the values of the community, an undesirable outcome, one meant for others to achieve at the submissive “expense” of the HealSlut player. A few posts later, user u/bubbly-blondie (self-tagged as a HealSlut) goes so far as to suggest that a way to avoid this behavior is to literally deactivate access to the mechanic itself, claiming “i felt much better after i got rid of the controls for shooting and hitting! it makes me feel much subbier and makes me have to heal all the time, and i know my dom will protect me <3” (2019). The assigning of key actions, decidedly one without any specific erotic purpose originally by Blizzard, suddenly offers a way to provide disempowered roleplay; by forcing the player to only repeatedly execute one given command, this control scheme now enables a style of playing as Mercy that matches the community expectations of a “good girl.” If the player cannot be trusted to (role)play properly, the game itself can be reconfigured to match the desired sexual resonance.
Returning to the fuzzy boundary of inside and outside the game, the denial of certain actions within Overwatch is meant to inspire certain actions done physically to (or with) the body of the healslut player. In response to a thread asking “What’s the best way to play Mercy in Overwatch?,” user u/codemonkeyjay (2019) offers a glib response that garnered 72 upvotes, an extremely high number for the community: “Equip staff, hold R2. Occasionally push Your Ult button. Find a dick, put it in your mouth, suck. Repeat until the match is completed.” The process is mechanical, endless, always directed outward; since Mercy is only acting upon others to serve them on a gameplay level, the player controlling her should emulate that behavior in person. The obvious gendered powered dynamic here of “finding a dick” as opposed to any other genitals to service is one echoed in a large quantity of r/HealSluts discourse; while a number of community posts fetishize the idea of lesbian character pairings, the idea of what the player desires outside of the game structure habitually returns to a penis being the object of interest. Whether one attached to a person or a surrogate version like a dildo, players of any gender configuration are encouraged to suck, stroke, or insert in tandem with their in-game performance.
The process of tethering in-game play to self-pleasure has formed a variety of what the community dubs “HealSlut games”; as u/LeviathansLust describes in the “official” thread for archiving and linking the games, these are “sexual mini-games that are played while you play video games. Much like challenges, these games include rules, consequences, and in some cases restrictions” (“HealSlut Games MEGATHREAD,” 2019). In this sense, Overwatch becomes a template upon which sexual play can be overlaid and enacted, with the in-game mechanics serving as a general impetus for the larger meta-game bringing about different erotic rules and rewards. It also provides a “single-player” option for what is both a multiplayer game and (in a dom-sub relationship) often a multi-person configuration, with HealSlut games allowing “HealSluts to enjoy themselves even when they’re alone or too shy to include actual doms.” They additionally provide a sort of interior barrier for exploration, opening a space of play to “closet healsluts who don’t want to include anyone in their fetish but still want to enjoy themselves.” Again, even when perverting the rules of the existing game, the r/HealSluts community provides a structure for that perversion, accounting for different motives, needs, and wants while ensuring that the experience follows particular standards of play. By further exploring HealSlut games, we continue to find what Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux (2018) see in metagames more broadly: “the alternate histories of play that always exist outside the dates, dollars, and demographic data that so often define videogames in industry magazines and encyclopedia entries” (9).
In constructing a HealSlut game, the designer typically creates a visual template which establishes a set of required objects, a timeframe, and a character. Mercy, as the primary interest of the community, has the most unique iterations devoted to her. One such example is the “Healslut Game – Oral Edition” (Image 1), designed to specifically tie in-game actions to emulating oral sex. Requiring a dildo (“preferably one as realistic as possible so you can become properly immersed in your position”) and a place to set it, the meta-game begins with selecting Mercy and immediately preparing one’s body for play: “build up some saliva in your mouth, you’ll need it!” Once the round begins, the majority of in-game results link directly to an act done to or with the dildo, ranging from “slap[ping] yourself with the cock” if killed by an enemy Mercy to being unable to activate Mercy’s ultimate move unless “currently slurping on that cock.” This even extends to in-game correspondence, as being thanked by a fellow player results in kissing the dildo. The quality of one’s overall performance determines whether or not the player is allowed to orgasm after the game, with only a 10-vote result earning the chance to climax—“but be sure to clean the cock with your mouth after it gets dirty in your juices.”
The design of the meta-game, both visually and mechanically, is meant to shift the non-sexualized process and results of Overwatch play into a decidedly erotic, well, outcome. Even the tone of language shifts when moving from gamespace to player body, as a rather dry description of game state—“if you lose the round”—provides the grounds for a much more elaborate result: “take that cock as deep as you can in your throat.” The very nature of the meta-game seems to taunt the expectation that Overwatch is not “meant” to be played this way or is potentially a violation of the terms of service. Consider the “difficulty” settings of the meta-game, with each iterative process a more explicit breaking of the wall between game, player, and body. “Medium” requires the player to voice their performance to their teammates, broadcasting “all [their] pathetic gagging noises,” while “Hard”—in a rather deliberate pun—suggests the player exchange the dildo for something else, as “the game is greatly improved by having a real throbbing cock to slurp on!” Each iteration flaunts the idea of Overwatch as non-sexualized, pushing the player’s out-of-game actions ever closer to the space of virtual play, and there is a striking ambiguity in antecedent in declaring “the game is greatly improved” with a “real throbbing cock.” Does this mean the meta-game, or perhaps Overwatch itself?
For user u/meoowmew, there is no division between the meta-game and the game itself. In a striking thread titled “My guide to healslutting” (2018), u/meoowmew directly addresses the hypothetical player in one of the more explicit rebukes of the magic circle doctrine available:
This is why you are here, slut. Fill their bars. See all those teammates who have their healthbars half-empty? Take your staff, direct the stream of healing into your teammate, and pump their health up to full. Hear that sound? Fwwwwooooosssh. Clink. Fwoooooosh. Clink. Fwoooosh. Even by itself, isn’t it just so satisfying? It’s so easy to do, literally effortless.
I know, right? Fantastic. And you know you’ve always felt this way. You just may have never realized it. That’s why you’ve always loved played Mercy, you little whore. You love having your mouth stuffed with their cocks. Pleasuring them. Non-stop. Over and over. The more you do it the better it feels. To suck their cocks, and to fill bars, all of it is one thing.
There is no outside, no imaginary space between game act and physical want; “all of it is one thing,” an erotic process built into Overwatch from the visual feedback of the UI changing to the sound effects indicating a completed heal. The bars themselves become phallic, “pumped” back to full by the efforts of the player only to fade in size over time and require attention again. This response does not require a backstory provided by Blizzard establishing the sexual preferences of a given character or a visual design that emphasizes particular physical attributes; it is the mechanic itself, the requirement to “fill bars,” that opens up the possibility and expectation of perverse play. In this sense, there is no way to “de-sexualize” Overwatch outside of utterly eliminating the very structures that make the game what it is. Healslutting is not so much a response to a character model or a narrative hook—though those can certainly amplify the response—so much as it is a way of exposing and expressing the latent erotic potential in the power dynamics between players of all games. To return to /u/deathride58, “Any game can become a slut game if you or your dom(s) try hard enough.”
Conclusions: Uniting mechanics and erotics
In “Play and Be Real About It: What Video Games Could Learn from Kink” (2017), game designer and critic Mattie Brice claims that “[i]f we understand play as the exercising of empathy through engaging contexts, and kink as a type of play design that deeply confronts life contexts, then kink practices stand as a stronger model for engaging people with meaningful play than the overly instrumentalized and decontextualized approach to games propagated by contemporary gaming design” (79). The intersection of the erotic and the ludic is not something that corrupts or renders games threatening or dangerous; for Brice, learning from sex play means new kinds of gameplay that are more human, more honest, more open to the context of everyday life. In a striking comparison to regular sexual practice and the act of playing a video game, Brice notes that “we hop into a dark space with each other and keep our fingers crossed that the other person knows what they’re doing” (80). While this might not mean the literal depiction of sex in-game, the question of when “the game” ends and when “real life” begins—and how these are meant to be kept at an active distance—is precisely what helps to create this contextless “dark space” that actually serves to diminish communication and understanding.
The active re-integration of kink practice by healslutting into Overwatch suggests that, for a not-insubstantial number of gamers, this attempt to divide the erotic and the ludic does not lead to inclusiveness as Kaplan suggests. Instead, it pushes the process into the periphery, into the re-reading and reconstruction of play among a metagaming community. The argument that sex in Overwatch only “exists” at the edges of its universe in the game’s short stories, in fan fiction, or in actions like healslutting creates a surreal divide that echoes the lived existence of many people in everyday life: like Ana-qua-Bastet and Soldier 76, your identity doesn’t matter here. The apparent safety for all of the magic circle becomes what Boluk and Lemieux call “the desire for an ahistorical, escapist gamespace” that voids out questions of ideology, embodiment and inquiry (21). The impulse to make play safe for “everyone” ends up, in many ways, reaffirming the primacy of only those identities and practices considered normative and acceptable. Similarly, it should not be “up” to those in underrepresented communities to create spaces for themselves to be seen and acknowledged. This simply shifts the requirement for labor back on those already unseen, while the existing model of storytelling and mechanical construction stays largely unchanged by the most popular and widespread producers.
This reinscription of normative identities and attitudes can be seen in the wealth of research on toxic gaming culture examining the links between how gender and sexuality are performed and engaged within and outside of the game space. Despite developers’ claims to creating an egalitarian gamespace through greater representation in a character roster or paratextual fiction, research on player imaginaries and stereotypes from Ruotsalainen and Friman (2018), Consalvo (2012), Taylor (2012), and Paul (2018) demonstrate that player performances within these gamespaces are both informed by and re-enact many of the problematic narratives surrounding gender and sexuality beyond the game space. In this way, then, we might read healslutting as an act of rebelling, not just against developers, but also against the normative performances and narratives that the player community weaves into the dominant “lexicon of play” in a game like Overwatch. The healslut community brings to light the ways in which games have always been queer and non-normative despite how broader communities (and even developers) attempt to cast both their spaces and play.
This is not to say that Blizzard should integrate healslutting into gameplay proper, or turn things like erotic play into monetized emotes and thus simply transform a subversive act of play into a new line of profit. But there is a space somewhere between, an acknowledgement of the existence of sex and sexuality in the digital realm, that provides opportunity while refusing tokenism. In Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture, Adrienne Shaw argues that “diversity is not the result of demand by audiences but the social responsibility of media producers” (225). It is not because players “want” diversity, but because it should and can be done to begin with; only through this active process can the “assumed normative categories of male, white, and heterosexual” be removed from their status as “default” (225). Making only a token gesture to Soldier 76’s gay past in a text deliberately left at the game’s periphery does not provide the “diverse” space that Kaplan claims.
All links verified 30.10.2019.
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Blizzard Entertainment. World of Warcraft. Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.
— Overwatch. Blizzard Entertainment, 2016.
Bungie. Halo: Combat Evolved. Xbox Game Studios, 2001.
Cyberlore Studios. Playboy: The Mansion. Arush Entertainment, 2005.
Barnes, Jennifer L. 2015. “Fanfiction as Imaginary Play: What fan-written stories can tell us about the cognitive science of fiction.” Poetics 48, 69–82.
Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick Lemieux. 2017. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Brice, Mattie. “Play and Be Real About It: What Games Could Learn from Kink.” In Queer Game Studies, edited by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw, 77–82, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Consalvo, Mia. 2018. Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Gray, Kishonna L. 2015. “Cultural Production and Digital Resistance: Examining Female Gamers’ Use of Social Media to Participate in Video Game Culture.” In Fan Girls and the Media: Creating Characters, Consuming Culture, edited by Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, 85–100. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Greer, Stephen. 2013. “Playing Queer: Affordances for Sexuality in Fable and Dragon Age.” Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, 5, no. 1. doi: 10.1386/jgvw.5.1.3_1
Handley, Christine. 2012. “‘Distressing Damsels’: Narrative Critique and Reinterpretation in Star Wars Fanfiction.” In Fan Culture: Theory/Practice, edited by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis, 97–118. Newcastle: Cambridge Publishing.
Hopp, Toby, and Jolene Fisher. 2017. “Examination of the Relationship Between Gender, Performance, and Enjoyment of a First-Person Shooter Game.” Simulation & Gaming, 48, no. 3, pp. 338–362. doi:10.1177/1046878117693397.
Jayemanne, Darshana. 2017. Performativity in Art, Literature, and Videogames. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Paasonen, Susanna. 2018. “Many Splendored Things: Sexuality, Playfulness and Play.” Sexualities 21, no. 4, pp. 537–551.
Ruotsalainen, Maria and Usva Friman. 2018. “‘There are No Women and They all Play Mercy’: Understanding and Explaining (the Lack of) Women’s Prescence in Esports and Competitive Gaming.” DiGRA Nordic ’18: Proceedings of the 2018 International DiGRA Nordic Conference.
This article investigates various kinds of analog and digital role-playing games (RPG) from the perspective of queer romance. We are interested in finding out how ‘queer’ appears in the composition of role-playing games through analysing players’ explorations and performances, as well as the options for romance in these games. We will look into a variety of role-playing games as research material in this study, from non-digital play – such as traditional tabletop role-playing games to live action role-play, or larp – to single-player digital RPGs. We ask how queerness affects the options for romance, whether localised in an event or in the composition of a single character, and what kind of exploration it serves. Is queerness to be found in the romance mechanic, or crunch, of RPGs, or is it part of the fluff: the setting and character descriptions? This article’s orientation is theoretical, and the main reference material here comes from RPG studies as well as queer game studies.
I didn’t design my character to be gay, but then it’s never really a choice, and when I realized this I actually felt as if he’d come out to me, his creator. I was excited. (Rougeau 2015)
In 2014, a non-player character called Dorian Pavus was introduced in Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare, 2014). Although this companion mage was not the first homosexual in a digital role-playing game (RPG), his introduction sparked considerable controversy on social media (Giant Bomb 2015; Grill 2014; Makuch 2014). For many, his presence marked a turning point for openly and ‘legitimately’ gay digital game characters. For instance, Kate Gray (2015) explains what the heartbreak felt like when her female avatar’s ‘boyfriend’ in the game, Dorian, came out to her. Similarly, Mike Rougeau’s (2015) player character Herald of Andraste turned out to be gay when he met Dorian, ‘Mr. Right’ for him, in the gameworld. The introduction of Dorian Pavus was a landmark moment in the history of digital role-playing games in the sense that his unapologetic gayness is disclosed to the player only when certain interactions have – or indeed, have not – taken place in the game. In other words, Dorian Pavus has not been marked as queer through representation, but through his (and the game player’s) actions.
The case of Dorian Pavus demonstrates that digital non-player characters (NPCs) can have lives of their own, lives that does not necessarily comply with the goals and ambitions of the player character and/or the player. Pavus has also been considered worthy of attention in games research (e.g. Østby 2017; Pelurson 2018). What lies at the heart of his case is a clash between players’ expectations and the game’s character design – a clash that opens up interesting viewpoints to the inner life of avatars, and the possibilities for role-playing them. Another crucial context for approaching this clash is an analysis through social interaction. It seems that confronting these kinds of deep, unexpected experiences in digital games requires a level of maturity from players that is not always a given in a mainstream gamer culture characterised by misogyny and homophobia (see Condis 2015). It is rarer for non-digital RPG player characters to act in ways that are surprising or discordant with player expectation, but such game mechanics do exist; in Monsterhearts (2012), for example, players are not in control of the infatuations of their characters (see Sihvonen & Stenros 2019).
This article takes the perspective of queer social interaction as a starting point to analyse how players of various kinds of role-playing games utilise the ‘magic circle’ of the game to explore romantic and amorous interactions, as well as questions of gender identity and sexuality. We also discuss instances where the game confounds its unsuspecting players, such as in the example above, by confronting them with unforeseen content. In this text, we ask how queerness appears in role-playing games: How does it affect the options for romance, is it localised in an event or the composition of a single character, what kind of exploration does it serve? Is queer to be found in the romance mechanic, or crunch, of RPGs, or is it part of the fluff: the setting and character descriptions (see Care Boss 2012)?
This article’s orientation is theoretical, and the main reference material here comes from RPG studies as well as queer game studies. We will look into a variety of role-playing games as research material in this study, from non-digital play – such as traditional tabletop role-playing games to live action role-play, or larp – to the multiplicity of digital RPGs. As part of our analytic framework and theory-building we have derived inspiration particularly from Stephen Greer’s (2013) work on the possibilities of ‘playing queer’, as well as Todd Harper’s (2017) reflection on the retroactively gay protagonist in the Mass Effect universe. This analysis is not based on a systematic review of all possible RPGs containing queer elements; rather, we aim to build theory through certain interesting game examples, such as Monsterhearts, Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), Mellan himmel och hav (2003), and the Dragon Age and the Mass Effect series. Our hope is that these observations will have relevance beyond specific genre conventions and lead to interesting insights regarding games, social interaction, and romance in general. This article is part of a larger ongoing research project that documents and makes sense of queer role-playing games, role-playing, and the culture around them.
‘Queer’ in this article is used in a double meaning. It refers to subjects, mechanics, and representation inclusive of LGBTQ identities within games and game culture, and to ways of thinking that simultaneously destabilise and reimagine games and play. The former can be thought through queer as a noun or an adjective, and the latter through queer as a verb. In queer theory, ‘queer’ is mostly seen as a verb (Barker & Scheele 2016). It can serve as a building block for a framework through which it is possible to critically examine the infrastructure that channels the emergence of certain kinds of games, play styles, and players. A vital part of this framework is interrogating and challenging dichotomies that have for a long time structured how games are understood and interpreted (see Shaw & Ruberg 2017, ix–x). Games, play, and game studies can be imagined otherwise, and that process begins with investigations on how to ‘queer’ the structure of games.
Queering can be an act of, for instance, twisting, flipping, and undermining the conventions and normative boundaries that drive patterns of play (Clark 2017, 4). In our quest to study romances in role-playing games, we regard games as systems of pleasure, and play as activities that target between the lines, destabilising the conventions of social interaction. In this context, we define romance as amorous, erotic, or flirtatious interaction between game characters.
Queer theory is very much about interpretation and imagination. That is not enough for us. We cannot ignore ‘queer’ as a noun (“a bunch of queers”) or an adjective (“queer community”) either. We draw not only from queer theory, but also from game studies, a multidisciplinary field combining approaches from humanities, social sciences, and design research. We are interested in games, characters, mechanics, and narratives that have been identified as LGBTQ related. While queer theory is largely opposed to the permanence that ‘identity’ implies and prioritises acts of becoming, we cannot ignore play by and about characters and themes (self)identified as somehow queer. We think that this gap can be bridged if our work is thought of as merely a snapshot at a certain time. It is not only possible but also probable that what we have here identified as queer will be identified differently at a later time.
Therefore ‘queer romances’ can be understood as acts that question the heteronormative binary logic of game characters and the boundaries of their social interaction as well as the principles of role-play in many kinds of RPGs enabling queer play. We treat ‘queer’ as a method that is part of a scientific paradigm – queer game studies – that is necessarily intersectional and concerned with issues of access, visibility, subjecthood, agency, and voice (see Shaw & Ruberg 2017, xvii–xviii). Our ‘queer look’ at games is first cast at tabletop role-playing games, since this is the first context in which modern RPGs took form.
The slow rise of fluff in tabletop role-playing games
The origins of the contemporary genre of role-playing games can be traced to the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in the US (TSR, 1974). The early tabletop role-playing games had little room for romance of any kind. Indeed, the early role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons certainly included, had very little of what would later be known as a setting: information about a fictional world, its inhabitants’ customs, practices, norms, and cultures in the first place (see Appelcline 2014, 19, 73). The published rulebooks, emerging from a tradition of miniature wargames, concentrated on rules, character classes, items such as weapons and magical artefacts, spells, and adversaries. These RPG rulebooks provided scarce resources for building relationships, interpersonal drama, or cultural exploration. However, while the rulebooks obviously give us some idea of the components and building blocks of tabletop games, they do not tell us how the actual play took place.
The kind of role-playing that was understood as exploration of a setting or a character, or a kind of dramatic slice-of-life play, was in the North American vernacular later referred to with the demeaning term fluff. It is the binary pair of crunch. Crunch refers to the rules and mechanics; fluff is the story-related atmospheric detail, background, setting, history, and culture. Designer Emily Care Boss (2012) has described how these terms are used: ‘One common approach to role-playing is to look at rules and mechanics as the skeleton of play, and “fluff” as the details occasionally handed out to keep the bones from sticking out. There is a dismissive quality to fluff.’ In her thesis on geek media and identity, Rachel Yung (2010, 77) defines fluff as ‘creative backstory of RPG characters’, although this definition is much too narrow for our purposes.
We consider the concept of fluff as a fruitful one, as it shifts focus from the structure of the game to the tapestry and atmosphere of play. Fluff is all those things that are unimportant to the system. This is where we find in-character chats, the fashion worn, and any cultural colour that designers (and, in their praxis, the players) have chosen to include in their game. This is also where we often find gender, ethnicity, and appearance of the character – seemingly unimportant variations of the norm that is the basic character. It is tempting to describe this basic character as not infrequently a ‘white able-bodied cisgender straight dude in his late 20s or early 30s’, but in many games all this remains unspoken as even the categories and characteristics of characters are seen as fluff. However, our concept of fluff is not simply a restatement of the question of representation either. Fluff is not just about ‘who is possible’ in the game world, but, we argue, it is the difference between a procedural simulation on one hand, and a role-playing game where the fictional world comes alive on the other. Fluff is all those things that the system does not recognise as meaningful, but the players do. However, the fluff-crunch dichotomy is not a restatement of the friction between authorship and play either, since the designers create not only the crunch but the fluff as well.
In early tabletop role-playing games, cues for queer romance cannot be found in the rules or rulebooks – that is, the crunch of the game. Sexuality and romance of any kind were solidly situated in the realm of fluff. And since there was very little fluff, there was hardly any published LGBTQ content. Queer playing was certainly possible, but accounts of such play have not been found. Still, from Gary Alan Fine’s (1983) account of play practices in the late 1970s we learn that, for example, sexual assault by player characters on non-player characters did happen, showing that players did move beyond the written rules and setting. Generally speaking, published tabletop role-play source books have a very heteronormative history, but subtle hints of queer play can be found. In the more recent editions of RPG source books, LGBTQ characters and themes are more visible and afforded, and the possibility of queer romance is present, although still often subdued.
Even so, we still argue that queer romances have been not only possible, but present in role-playing games from the beginning (see also Ruberg 2019). While direct evidence from play practices is missing, we can find the first mention of a lesbian romance in an early pioneer of creating a vivid and livable world through focusing on fluff. Linguist and author M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) was a trailblazer in setting design and the first fully realised RPG world, Tékumel. The rulebook argues for developing coherent complexes for players to explore, and one of the examples is “The Tomb of Mnekshétra, the Lesbian Mistress of Queen Nayári of the Silken Thighs” (Barker 1975, 102).
In our earlier study of the history of queer representation in the rulebooks of tabletop role-playing games, we argued that prior to the late 1980s ‘early role-playing games silenced queer sexualities completely’ (Stenros & Sihvonen 2015), but in light of the discovery of this passage in Tékumel, we now see this conclusion is no longer accurate. A more nuanced reading we are proposing in this article is that queerness has existed in RPG texts from the beginning, but it took a decade for setting information (and fluff) to gain importance – and another decade for queerness to gain prominence in the settings:
Queers are possible in the fiction [of tabletop role-playing game settings] if the reader pays close attention to the choice of words. There have also been blatant, agenda driven uses of queers, both arguing that queers are an abomination, and ones proclaiming inclusivity and alternativity. More recently, the inclusions of queer sexualities have been more matter-of-fact, described without underlining – unless queerness has somehow been a key theme in the game setting. (Stenros & Sihvonen 2015.)
While romance, and queer romance specifically, is usually part of the fluff, that does not mean that it cannot be part of the crunch. Role-play game systems have had game mechanics for operations such as seduction. Rendering acts of flirtation, romance, and hooking up into a simple check of character attributes and some dice throws may not be very, well, romantic, but it does model some aspects of amorous interactions for the system. Seduction skill can be used, for example, to charm a guard and thus escape a brig.
Tabletop role-playing games where attraction, romance, and relationships are at the core of mechanics also exist, although they are quite rare. Emily Care Boss has created a trilogy of romance games – Breaking the Ice (2005), Shooting the Moon (2007), and Under My Skin (2009) – that are explicitly inclusive of queer romance. They are also part of the indie RPG movement that emphasised the importance of bespoke rules for each game with the credo ‘system does matter’ (Edwards 2004). The already mentioned example of Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts is a game where the player is not in control of who their character is attracted to. In Monsterhearts, the game mechanics, and thus the crunch, can be characterised as queering (Sihvonen & Stenros 2019, 115–116).
To sum up, queer role-play has been possible since the beginning regardless of whether there were cues for it or not. LGBTQ fluff content has also existed in tabletop role-playing game source books since at least 1975. Fluff has been derided in the North American RPG culture, but over the years it has gained prominence in published source books – although the ‘core books’ usually concentrate more on crunch than fluff. Queer fluff, especially romantic queer fluff, is still relatively rare, but today some kinds of nods towards queer practices in RPGs are found in popular settings. Queer crunch exists but is rare. During the 1990s, queers and queer romances also started to become more commonplace in analog role-playing game settings. A culmination of this tendency was Blue Rose (2005), a romantic fantasy role-playing game where romances – gay, lesbian, and straight – took center stage (see Fig. 2).
Queer social interactions in live action role-play
Interpersonal relationships and social connections are a central element in larps. While physical surroundings and the actions they afford are undeniably important for larping, the presence of other players provides a particularly significant platform for meaningful actions. In certain larp traditions, such as the Nordic larp tradition on which we are focusing here, these social connections are seen as the most important part. They are valorised (e.g. Fatland & Wingård 1999), theorised (e.g. inter-immersion, see Pohjola 2004), and their creation is supported (e.g. Piancastelli 2019). Indeed, the characters and their personal connections receive much more attention than the creation of the setting, or elaborate rule systems in the design discourse around larp (e.g. Koljonen et al. 2019). While it is possible to view romance as a function of the setting, or as a result of mechanics, in larp it is most commonly seen as interpersonal affordance.
It is enlightening to reflect on this in relation to an early pioneer of queer larp. Mellan himmel och hav (2003, transl. Between Heaven and Sea) was a queer feminist scifi utopia larp created by the Ars Amandi collective and inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Through its fiction, the larp sought to make visible and question heteronormativity, expectations of monogamy, and the binary gender system. It was set in the far future on an alien planet and featured a human culture where there were two primary genders: morning people and evening people. Neither of these corresponded with contemporary ideas of masculinity or femininity, but were a new mixture created for the larp. New pronouns were also created for them. The core institution of the society was marriage, but a marriage was always between four people – two morning people and two evening people. From the point of view of players, they involved two male players and two female players, so that each player in a marriage would get to play a heterosexual relationship, a homosexual relationship, and a friendship. In addition, the society had a third gender. They would not marry, but acted as spiritual leaders for the community. (Gerge 2004; Tidbeck 2004; Stenros 2010.)
The narrative of this larp revolved around a marriage that would join together young adults from two neighbouring settlements. Sexuality, romance, and amorous interactions were at the core of the larp’s theme, and its designers developed new gender-neutral sex mechanics to help players carry out amorous scenes in a meaningful and comfortable manner (see Wieslander 2004). This was revolutionary at the time. Previously, sex mechanics had not been a site of serious design, nor had there been attempts at infusing such interactions with meaning. The technique used in Mellan himmel och hav was called Ars Amandi, and it worked for straight and gay sex; it was agnostic towards the number of participants, it did not assume that one participant was active and the other one passive, and most importantly, it was not played for laughs (see Fig. 3) (see also Stenros 2013).
In Mellan himmel och hav, both the mechanics and the setting – crunch and fluff – supported the portrayal of queer romances, foregrounding such themes as bisexuality and polygamy. However, the larp also went one step further and encouraged players to get comfortable with one another during two workshop weekends that preceded the actual larp play (multiple separate workshops were and are very uncommon). During the workshops, players participated in creating the world, developed their characters and the interpersonal relationships, and discussed the queer feminist ideology of the larp. Fostering interpersonal affordances was taken seriously; the participants thought of themselves as an ensemble, and other people in the larp scene half-jokingly called them a ‘cult’ (see Stenros 2010).
Mellan himmel och hav is a unique example of bespoke larp design, where queerness is embedded in the design and mechanics of play. It was exceptional at the time, and although there have been other larps that have followed in its footsteps and the sex mechanics developed for it have spread to other larps and larp traditions, such an inclusive approach to queer romances is still far from commonplace in live-action role-play.
In general, queer romances in larp have received very little scholarly attention. Our understanding of larp practices is largely based on player accounts and secondhand information sources, such as post-play documentation, which presents challenges to research. For instance, cues for queer interaction can be detected in the source material of larps but there may be no evidence of such instances during play. On the other hand, as players are able to develop their characters relatively freely (at least in some traditions of larp), there may be queer aspects or attributes to the embodied characters that the persons organising or documenting the larp are not aware of. However, in the para-academic tradition surrounding Nordic larp, there are a few illuminating pieces we can draw from. Of particular interest in this regard is Eleanor Saitta and Sebastian F. K. Svegaard’s (2019) chapter ‘Designing for Queer and Trans Players’:
While abuse and violence that recreate real-world oppression are often thought of first in this context [of challenges in designing for queer and trans players], romantic or erotic play is also of specific concern. It only occurs in relation to another player, and requires vulnerability from both players. When players can’t find others to play with, or when there’s an imbalance in the amount of vulnerability in the situation, play becomes less accessible. This happens for players who aren’t conventionally pretty, for older women, and for minorities. Queer and trans players in particular often find themselves in a separate, disconnected larp, where they struggle to understand who is interested in play. (Saitta & Svegaard 2019, 175.)
In this text, Saitta & Svegaard discuss how queer experiences in fictional (or fictionalised historical) contexts are easily erased or rendered unintelligible, even by initiatives that are thought of as inclusive and queer-friendly by the designers. An example of such a tactic would be the removal of oppression, homophobia, and transphobia from the gameworld. While it is meant well, much of queer and trans history becomes nonsensical if such structures are removed during the design process. Similarly, gender-neutral casting, sometimes seen as a way to ensure that, for example, leadership positions do not default to male characters, or to introduce queer relationships organically (an existing relationship between two characters can be straight or queer based on the genders of the players cast in the roles) may seem inclusive at first glance, but it erases queer lived experience in the long run. Gender-neutral casting erases any specificity there can be in a queer (or straight) relationship on the level of the design. In such larps, every romance runs the risk of becoming interchangeable and non-specific, although obviously players can in practice queer any relationship.
Similarly, Saitta & Svegaard (2019) point out that difference is removed when straight players who portray queer relationships are not given support through the design. There are also asymmetric power relations involved in players’ choices of playing a queer relationship: A straight male player may be socially rewarded for his ‘courage’ to play a queer character, even if the portrayal is tone-deaf, whereas a queer player can be expected to tone down passion and desire in their performances so as not to elicit discomfort in non-queer players. Furthermore, since larp is embodied interaction between players, the body of the player cannot be ignored. Saitta & Svegaard write about trans bodies (see also Koski 2016), and how overt or subtle reactions of cisgender players’ perceptions of such bodies influence romantic larp play:
The question of player reaction is complicated because the body of a trans player may not look like the body of their character. Creating a new history for a player’s trans body within the fiction, often one that would carry its own violence, is both hard work and often painful. Because designers can rarely help here, many trans players choose to play cis characters. (Saitta & Svegaard 2019, 180.)
To conclude this section, larps with queer romance exist, but are often difficult to document. Sometimes such romances are initiated by players in accordance with the fictional world, or in a vacuum of no fictional support, or even in conflict with the fiction. Sometimes queer romances are a part of the intended design, supported by setting design, theme, character design, larp mechanics, workshops, and communication around larp. Examples of the latter, in the Nordic tradition following Mellan himmel och hav, include exploration of the coming of the HIV-AIDS epidemic to New York in Just a Little Lovin’ (2011-, see Paisley 2016), and Forbidden History (2018, no written documentation exists yet), a stylised indulgence in the public, the private, and the occult in a privileged educational institution. Furthermore, in addition to these event-style larps, there is an emerging tradition of easy-to-set-up chamber larps. Larps touching on queer themes and romance can be found from collections such as #Feminism (Bushyager, Stark & Westerling, 2016), Queer Gaymes (Bryk & Granger, 2016), and Prism: Larp Scenario Anthology Vol. 1: Queer (Milewski & Wicher, 2018).
It is against this growing number of larps consciously created for queer and trans players that the importance of Saitta & Svegaard’s piece (2019) becomes apparent. In a social form of expression, queer romance will emerge even if it is not encouraged, but if the further goal is to be inclusive of queer and trans players, conscious design work is required.
Daydreaming in single-player digital RPGs
In principle, role-play is a social activity where every player performing a role is seen to only make sense in the context of other players (a more general term for this is socio-dramatic play, see Burghardt 2005) and possibly a game master also engaged in the same activity. This is obvious in tabletop and larp, but also in digital role-playing such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, play-by-post role-playing games, and other mediated social role-play events.
Research on multiplayer online games and play has dominated the field of game studies, and thus it is not surprising that also studies of queerness and games have largely focused on analyses of virtual worlds and mediated interactions between players (see Shaw & Ruberg 2017, xiv). On the other hand, play-by-post roleplaying, i.e. turn-based structured role-playing via an online platform, where the focus is on storytelling through prose (and possibly images), has only very recently garnered any scholarly attention (e.g. Dorey 2017; Stang 2017; Zalka 2019). Online multiplayer role-playing games have the most varied possibilities for queer romances, since they are able to bring together dispersed players with similar interests and have structures that enable the incorporation of player-created content. Among them, there is also a growing number of games that do provide cues for queer play.
However, in this article we concentrate on the kind of digital role-play that is distinct and restricted in order to get a grasp of how these games can be used for the players’ explorative and performative purposes. Although there are some other forms of organised solo role-play, single-player digital role-playing games are the most widespread and successful form. Since they are private, small-scale, and customisable (up to a point), they are likely to act as safer environments for the kind of personal and intimate role-play that queer romance necessitates. Socio-dramatic play, and social play in general, is inherently limiting because every player needs to take other players into account, and adjust their character’s behaviour and their own play style accordingly – some of the problems associated with these limitations were discussed in the previous chapter. Obviously, the player does not leave behind their cultural assumptions (see Ludic Hermeneutic Circle in Sicart 2009, 117–119) as they begin playing, but the experience can be solitary and as private as any digitally technology enabled activity can be today.
It is therefore important to note that single-player role-playing is a substantially different sub-category of role-play where the player performs the role only to themself and possibly a computer system. In single-player digital role-playing games, or SPDRPGs, the player usually has a player character that can be modified to the player’s liking and that the player finds themself bonding with. Encountering or gradually developing a romantic relationship between the player character and an AI-controlled non-player character in the gameworld can be an eye-opening performative experience, and an essential narrative path in the experiment of playing certain single-player RPGs.
BioWare is a Canadian game studio that has gained a reputation for creating single-player RPGs that allow for romantic and sexual same-sex situations to emerge within these complex artificial worlds. With its focus on exploring the possibilities of complex character design, non-normative sexual orientations, meaningful relationships, and other emotionally charged topics, it is not surprising that BioWare’s games have been researched extensively over the past years (e.g. Dutton, Consalvo & Harper 2011; Hassan 2017; Jørgensen 2010; Voorhees et al. 2012). We regard especially its serial Mass Effect (ME) and Dragon Age (DA) franchises among the most interesting high-profile games that feature LGBTQ interaction options. In this section, we are going to use them as examples in our analysis of the conditions in which queer romances are possible in SPDRPGs.
Even though both romance (Kelly 2015; Waern 2011) and queerness (Condis 2015; Krobová et al. 2015) have been studied in relation to BioWare titles, the role-playing aspects of queer romances for a single player have not yet been fully investigated, in spite of their importance in these games. Both ME and DA have powerful romantic options that have garnered exceptional enthusiasm among game scholars (Greer 2013; Reiss 2014; Østby 2016; Schröder 2008). Romantic narratives in these games are fundamentally based on player agency, as every player can choose whether they want to engage in romance, which NPC to approach, and also, to some extent, how the romance will develop and end. In these games romance is an essential part of the gameplay mechanic (Waern 2011, 240) and thus the crunch for the player. In all of BioWare’s games, queer content is primarily offered and activated through optional romantic relationships that the player character can pursue with non-player characters (Østby 2016; Krobová et al. 2015). According to David Gaider (2013), former lead writer at the studio, around a quarter of BioWare game players invoke same-sex romance options.
Dragon Age is situated in the magical world of Thedas, where the player gets involved in solving cultural and political issues in addition to fighting off evil and saving the world. Thedas is largely populated by human-resembling races, and their attitudes towards sexuality and gender are generally more liberal and experimental than in many other games, including Mass Effect (Østby 2016, 257–258). In Dragon Age, the romance options are presented to the player via their party members, and they depend on the race, social status, and gender of the player character as well as the gender and orientation of the romanceable non-player character.
In Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 2009), there are four possible romantic interests for the player character, of which two allow for heterosexual relationships to emerge, and two result in bisexual relationships (Waern 2011). In Dragon Age II (BioWare, 2011), out of the four possible ones, the primary romantic option for a gay male player character is the mage Anders, with whom the romance is integral to the main narrative of the game (Krobová et al. 2015). In Dragon Age: Inquisition, romance options have doubled, and the associated narrative paths have been considerably redefined – as the element of surprise connected to its earlier described character Dorian Pavus demonstrates (Østby 2016, 255–256). Romance in each of these instalments can develop in complex and unpredictable ways.
Mass Effect consists of (so far) four single-player, sci-fi themed role-playing games that are also third-person shooters. Its central narrative, set in year 2183, revolves around the discovery of ancient alien technology that has enabled interstellar travel and the encountering of alien races. The customisable but pre-fixed player character of the game is Commander Shepard, who discovers a machine race called Reapers who could doom the entire galaxy into mass extinction. In the world of ME, the way the personal narrative path turns out for Shepard alters the player’s game experience in considerable ways. This configuration begins with the player choosing some basic elements of Shepard’s socio-cultural background and service history as well as his or her gender (Voorhees 2012, 265).
The main component of role-play in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect is a dialogue wheel, a menu-based system that the player uses to interact with her environment and NPCs and steer the progression of the game’s narrative. Player choices also indirectly shape the gameworld, the player character, and the relationships between her/him and the NPCs. Out of these relationships, the options for romance are the most significant in terms of the gameplay and consecutive narrative content, and they are also essential in managing the chosen role and character of Shepard, thus allowing romance to become an essential part of crunch as well as fluff in these games. The weight of the decision on relationships is accentuated as the player can only be romantically involved with one NPC in each of the series’ instalments (in a single play-through). Furthermore, the romantic options are structurally different as they feature varying lifecycles, and some are more tightly woven into the narrative than others. In this way, the options for (queer) romance are also part of the crunch, or the game structure and rules, in both DA and ME.
Romantic partnerships may also extend beyond one instalment of the game to the next, if the player so wishes. For example, in Mass Effect 2 (BioWare, 2010), none of the romantic partner options from the first game are in the spaceship’s crew, so the player can choose to romance another character in the game, or to remain faithful to the first partner. In Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, 2012), the player can revive either of these romances through a string of decisions, or (as a male Shepard) approach the male soldier Kaidan Alenko and have a homosexual relationship with him (see Krobová et al. 2015). In this way, the ‘standard’ straight white cisgender male John Shepard is also employed in queer play.
Todd Harper (2017) reports playing ClosetShep, a player interpretation where the male Shepard is a closeted gay man, who is finally able to open up romantically in the third game; for him, this was a plausible explanation as to why Shepard could only have a gay romance in the third installment of the series. His love interest, Kaidan Alenko, can also be read as a closeted gay character, since he had appeared in all previous ME games without being positioned as homosexual. Harper (2017, 127) explains: “I was retroactively explaining, in narrative form, a primarily mechanical innovation that only manifested in the final game of the series”. The first two Mass Effects game were not built to examine what it feels like to be a closeted gay man and how losing oneself in one’s work is a way to cope with the feelings of isolation and loneliness that it entails. Yet this is what Harper found in his pretend play with the Mass Effect artefacts. The absence of romance in the first two parts became meaningful with the possibility of a romance later.
It is likely that the narrative decision-making as an RPG strategy engages the player emotionally in the game and in its characters’ destinies, since it creates a sense of the player being responsible for their own gameworld. This increased emotional engagement can be achieved by featuring in-game decisions that have obvious and lasting consequences in a game or throughout the whole series (Waern 2011). In addition to focusing on the crunch that allows for queer play, there are many ways for the player to alter the fluff in these games in order to achieve queer romantic options. While ClosetShep is an example of post-play narrative modding (see Layne & Blackmon 2013), many single-player games also encourage the production and distribution of user-created modifications through which queer romance can be attainable in surprising and interesting ways.
For instance, Shepard’s gender can be changed without touching any of the other attributes in the save game mode using the simplest save game editing, thus making it possible for the player character to initiate a romance with another crew member outside of their available options. Save game editing has apparently been quite popular with players wanting to experience romantic relationships normally excluded from their player character’s gender (see Okogawa 2011, sections [10–11]). Fan forums and modding sites on the internet abound with aesthetic fluff mods that alter the appearances and textures of game characters as well as change the settings and levels of play. Another interesting way of modding single-player digital RPGs is the creation and maintenance of NPCs and their narrative paths that differ from the original game. Changing the characters and their surroundings in SPDRPGs is part of modifying the fluff of these games, whereas reconfiguring game code to allow for queer romances that actually have an effect on the gameplay itself is part of the crunch and thus, in many ways, more difficult (see Sihvonen 2019).
As we have seen in this brief overview, both of these modification styles can be an important part of the experience of playing single-player digital RPGs. Single-playing role-playing, when played without a digital game artefact, is akin to daydreaming or solitary play with toys. The digital single-player game provides a narrative context, a responsive system, and the kind of curated focus that can be absent in the more baroque and digressive social role-playing games. This brings about meaningful structure to the daydreaming, but also limits play, thus creating a demand for modding. In social role-playing, we negotiate with other people. In digital single-player role-playing games we cannot negotiate, but need to stick within the possibilities afforded by the game artefact – or tamper with the artefact directly. Single-player digital games are thus private, focused, and restrictive while also providing the player with possibilities for experimentation, innovation, and self-discovery.
We can find queer romance in all kinds of role-playing games, be they digital or non-digital, social or solitary. The earliest cues for queer romance in a commercial role-playing game can be found in the mid-1970s. Player-initiated queer romances are harder to find than cues created by designers, since play is ephemeral, and role-playing game documentation is scarce. While evidence of queer romance in role-playing games is plentiful, the systemic game artefact, be it digital or non-digital, can be limiting by its very nature. The worlds of Mass Effect and Dragon Age are places where the players can, within strict but expanding boundaries, ‘do’ gender in the sense Judith Butler (1990) has talked about performance. Yet, while the BioWare games offer possibilities for playing gay, lesbian, and bisexual romances, it is obvious that there is not much proprietary queer content available to play with – and even modding the system is unable to transcend it.
Tabletop role-playing games and larps are more co-creative, and thus incorporating queer romance is easier – provided that fellow players are open to such ideas. However, since these games are social, playing a romance requires more than one person who is willing to commit to the performance. As Saitta and Svegaard (2019) argue relating to larp, existing social structures and norms may prevent queer romances from emerging in practice, even if the design does provide a space for it, if such choices are not actively encouraged and supported by the design.
In this article we have woven together ideas and insights from different kinds of role-playing games. While these games are different, and indeed the methods in which we have interrogated them are also necessarily different, it is our hope that with the duals connecting threads of role-play and queer romance enable us to say something about perfoming amorous interactions as fictional selves and acting ‘as if’ someone else in shared storyworlds.
Players seeking to queer role-playing games are operating within the local social norms that are constructed knowingly and unknowingly with co-players. They operate within the socially upheld game rules that usually draw from an explicit rule set, and in digital games they also operate within the laws of the code in their software (which can be modded). Tabletop, larp, and single-player digital RPGs all have different configurations of these aspects. Traditionally, tabletop role-playing games are most bound by the published source books that lay the foundation for the shared world. Larps are often not based on published rule systems, but can have bespoke systems. Yet larps usually feature a larger player base, which means that the social norms are harder to negotiate. In single-player digital RPGs there are no co-players, but the digital artefact comes with hard limits.
Queer practices, or even identities, do not boil down to just romance. The queer is in the gap between the cues provided by the artefact and the player’s response (see Sihvonen & Stenros 2018). It is in the invitations to play, to extrapolate, and to engage in transgressive readings. In the fluff of various kinds of RPGs, we find both explicit cues for queering and vague hints that can encourage queer readings and practices. While a queer reading certainly can be constructed with very little support in the text, having such support can be extremely meaningful as the opening quote of this article shows. Furthermore, if we consider the fact that 24 percent of the players of BioWare’s games have chosen to engage same-sex romance options (Gaider 2013), we can conclude that it is not only the queer-identified players looking for LGBTQ representation that are significant – it is also the implicit and explicit affordances of these single-player RPGs that allow for all kinds of queer deeds and performances to emerge in real life, on private screens, and in various online contexts.
Even if there are no cues for queer romance, queer play is obviously still possible. However, cues for queer play make it not just possible, but likely and practical. And here we need to return to our dual meaning of ‘queer’. In a sense, queering role-playing games is best when there are few or no cues present. That is when we can truly twist, flip, and undermine the conventions and norms. Can any mechanic already included in a game ever be ‘queer’ in this sense? Even if it is in the doing of these mechanics that queering happens, is the player only reconstructing something that is already in the text (i.e. the rule system)? However, whereas queer readings go against the grain of the text, in queer social play the queering can happen either in relation to larger norms and conventions, or against the local conventions of the (sometimes very) small group of co-players. Queer (adjective) content is still transgressive in many game cultures at the time of writing, even if it is only re-presenting something someone else imagined.
In Mass Effect and Dragon Age, queer romances are avoidable, as the player needs to opt in to participate in them. Queer, or LGBTQ, play is not thrust upon all players. Yet, when queer romance is in the crunch, in the system of the game, it becomes unavoidable, like in Monsterhearts or Mellan himmel och hav. The history of tabletop role-playing game source books and the slowness in starting to discuss setting and culture show that romance of any kind has been considered peripheral. Thus, it is hardly surprising that moving not only romance, but queer romance into the centre of a game is a rare act, and an act we argue is queer, at least at the time of writing. Games with queer crunch are queer in the sense that they disrupt norms, make alternatives visible, and confront players’ expectations. Games with opt-in queer fluff tend to have heteronormative and sexist baselines, but they are queer in the sense that they are fluid, offering the player the possibility to decide how they want to do or perform their gender and sexuality on that day. We need queering to see and imagine the romantic possibilities that lie beyond the horizon or in the shadows. Even so, in systems of shared storytelling it is not enough to do those acts alone; they need to be visible and legible enough for others to recognise them. And for this we need both crunch and fluff to include cues for queer play.
Special thanks to James Lórien MacDonald, Juhana Pettersson, and Evan Torner.
All links verified 24.10.2019.
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‘Role-playing game’ (or RPG) as a term has multiple meanings. The term is used to refer to commercial game types (such as tabletop role-playing games) and to genres of digital games (single player digital role-playing games). While these types have similarities, such as certain game mechanics, an importance of game characters, as well as historical similarities, they are nonetheless often treated as separate. Our use of ’role-playing game’ aligns with its use in game studies (e.g. Zagal & Deterding 2018), where the term is seen as an umbrella for games and playing styles that have been called role-playing games at some time, tracing the genealogy of the term in various historical and cultural contexts, and trying to take its variations and specifications into account regardless whether they are digital or non-digital, or commercial or non-commercial.
 With clearly productised role-playing games, be they tabletop RPG handbooks or published single player digital RPGs, it is possible to track down starting-points and ‘firsts’. With larps that are ephemeral by nature and rarely published in any form, such claims would be much more contested.
Internet on muuttanut voimakkaasti viestinnän, kielenkäytön ja seuranhaun mekanismeja. Artikkelissa pureudutaan näihin muutoksiin tarkastelemalla käyttäjien nimimerkkejä suomalaisen Herkku.net-aikuisviihdesivuston seksichatissa. Analyysin kohteena ovat erityisesti tiedon jakaminen, identiteetin ilmaiseminen ja kielellinen leikittely nimimerkeissä. Aineisto sisältää 1 488 nimimerkkiä, joita on analysoitu sekä nimistöntutkimuksen sekä informaatiotutkimuksen menetelmin. Analyysissä selvisi, että käyttäjät jakavat nimimerkeissään tietoa useista seksiseuran hakemisen kannalta olennaisista ominaisuuksistaan, kuten sukupuolesta, iästä, sijainnista, seksuaalisesta suuntautumisesta ja mieltymyksistä, ulkonäöstä, parisuhdetilanteesta, sekä toiveista haetun kumppanin suhteen. Nimimerkit sisältävät myös leikittelyä kielen rakenteella ja mielikuvilla, joskin selvästi vähemmän kuin muualla verkon nimistössä. Seksiseuran hakeminen on siis vakava ja tavoitehakuinen leikki, jossa funktionaalisuus ajaa usein leikillisyyden edelle.
Internet on mullistanut monia asioita yhteiskunnassamme. Eräitä voimakkaimmin muuttuneista elämän osa-alueista ovat ihmisten välinen viestintä sekä sen välineenä toimiva kieli. Lähes koko ihmiskunnan historian ajan kommunikointi muualla kuin välittömässä läheisyydessämme olevien ihmisten kanssa on ollut vaikeaa ja vaivalloista, mutta nykyisin voimme verkon ja mobiililaitteiden avulla helposti viestiä käytännössä miten, milloin, missä ja kenen kanssa haluamme. Toisaalta merkittäviä muutoksia ovat kokeneet myös muut inhimillisen vuorovaikutuksen osa-alueet, kuten seuranhaun, pariutumisen ja seksuaalisen kanssakäymisen tavat ja mekanismit. Kun vielä joitakin vuosikymmeniä sitten kumppania etsittiin ravintoloista, tanssilavoilta tai lehtien kontaktipalstoilta, nykyisin näitä korvaavat tai täydentävät verkossa toimivat selain- tai mobiilipalvelut, kuten Tinder, Kik Messenger tai Suomi24 Treffit.
Tässä artikkelissa lähestymme viestinnän ja seuranhaun kokemia muutoksia tarkastelemalla käyttäjien nimimerkkejä suomalaisen Herkku.net-sivuston verkkochatissa. Herkku.net (tästedes Herkku) on suomalainen aikuisviihdesivusto, jonka chatpalvelussa sivuston käyttäjät voivat etsiä seksi- tai keskusteluseuraa muista käyttäjistä. Herkun chatissa, kuten monissa muissakin verkkopalveluissa, käyttäjien henkilökohtaisina tunnisteina toimivat heidän valitsemansa nimimerkit. Nimimerkin avulla verkkopalvelun käyttäjä voi ilmaista identiteettiään ja jakaa tietoa henkilökohtaisista ominaisuuksistaan tai kiinnostuksen kohteistaan (esim. Aleksiejuk 2016; Hämäläinen 2016; 2019a). Elämänkumppanin haku eri treffipalveluiden avulla on yleistynyt ja siitä on tullut sosiaalisesti hyväksyttävämpää, mutta pelkän seksiseuran hakeminen saattaa edelleen olla tabu, jota salaillaan. Sen vuoksi nimimerkin taakse kätkeytyminen ja nimimerkkien merkityssisällöt muodostavat kiintoisan tutkimuskohteen, onhan nimimerkki keskeisin tapa kertoa omista kiinnostuksen kohteista ja itsestä seksipalveluissa, jotka toimivat pseudonyymien mukaan.
Seksiseuraa haettaessa on erityisen tärkeää kyetä ilmaisemaan sellaisia ominaisuuksia tai kiinnostuksen kohteita, jotka vaikuttavat omaan kiinnostavuuteen sekä yhteensopivuuteen potentiaalisen kumppanin kanssa. Niinpä keskitymme analyysissä tarkastelemaan, millaisia tietoja käyttäjät itsestään nimimerkeissään kertovat ja millaisilla kielellisillä keinoilla tämä tapahtuu. Tämän WiderScreenin teemanumeron innoittamina kiinnitämme analyysissä huomiota myös nimimerkkien leikillisyyteen, joka on aiemmissa tutkimuksissa nostettu yhdeksi verkon kielenkäytön ja laajemminkin digitaalisen kulttuurin erityispiirteeksi (mm. Leppänen 2009; Suominen 2013; Leppänen ym. 2017, 10–11).
Keskeisimmät tutkimuskysymykset voidaan siis kiteyttää seuraavasti:
Mitä informaatiota keskustelijat jakavat käyttämissään nimimerkeissä?
Miten keskustelijat tuovat omaa identiteettiään esiin nimimerkeissä?
Millaista leikillisyyttä nimimerkeissä voidaan havaita?
Hypoteesinamme on, että löytääkseen haluamansa kaltaista seksi- tai keskusteluseuraa, henkilön on yhtäältä markkinoitava itseään kiinnostusta herättävällä nimimerkillä ja toisaalta sisällytettävä siihen informaatiota itsestään lisätäkseen soveltuvien kontaktien solmimisen mahdollisuutta.
Artikkelimme perustuu netnografiseen eli verkkoetnografiseen lähestymistapaan, jolla tarkoitetaan Kozinetsin (2010; 2015) mukaan verkon ja sosiaalisen median tutkimukseen sovellettua etnografista tutkimusotetta. Tarkastelemme nimimerkkejä erityisesti nimistöntutkimuksen ja informaatiotutkimuksen lähtökohdista. Lisäksi aihe kytkeytyy vahvasti useisiin muihin tieteenaloihin ja tutkimusperinteisiin, kuten tietokonevälitteisen viestinnän (computer-mediated communication), digitaalisen kulttuurin, seksuaalisuuden sekä pelien ja leikkien tutkimukseen. Näitä aloja ja niiden yhtymäkohtia käsillä olevaan tutkimukseen esittelemme tarkemmin seuraavassa.
Verkon nimimerkkejä on käsitelty aiemmissa tutkimuksissa jo 1990-luvulta lähtien, 2010-luvulla yhä kasvavassa määrin. Pääasiallisesti nimimerkkeihin keskittyviä tutkimusartikkeleita on julkaistu noin 50 kappaletta, minkä lisäksi niitä on käsitelty useiden muiden tutkimusaiheiden yhteydessä (yhteenvetoina aiemmista nimimerkkitutkimuksista ks. Aleksiejuk 2016; 2017 sekä Hämäläinen 2016; 2019a). Tutkimukset ovat kohdistuneet monenlaisiin verkkoyhteisöihin ja -palveluihin, mutta chathuoneet ja -sovellukset ovat olleet yleisimpien tutkimuskohteiden joukossa (mm. Bechar-Israeli 1995; Ecker 2011; Hassa 2012). Lisäksi nimimerkkejä on tutkittu perinteisempien seuranhakupalveluiden kontekstissa (Whitty & Buchanan 2010; Visakko 2015, 134–143; Tuura 2016).
Verkon henkilönnimistä käytetty terminologia on varsin monenkirjavaa. Aiemmissa tutkimuksissa ovat esiintyneet useimmin termit user name ja nickname mutta ajoittain myös screen name, pseudonym, Internet name sekä pelkästään name. Arkisissa verkkokeskusteluissa käytetään näiden lisäksi mm. termejä account (name), login (name), handle ja alias. (Aleksiejuk 2014.) Suomenkielisissä tutkimuksissa useimmin ovat olleet käytössä käyttäjänimi ja nimimerkki (Hämäläinen 2019a, 16–17). Tässä artikkelissa käytämme termiä nimimerkki, sillä aineistomme nimet ovat valtaosin rekisteröimättömiä ja tilapäisluontoisia. Nimimerkki on jo vanhastaan viitannut tilapäisesti esimerkiksi sanomalehtien yleisönosastokirjoitusten lopussa käytettyihin, allekirjoituksen kaltaisiin ilmauksiin (ks. myös Kielitoimiston sanakirja s.v. nimimerkki). Käyttäjänimeä taas on yleensä käytetty verkkopalveluun rekisteröidyistä, tietyn henkilön pysyvässä käytössä olevista nimistä (Hämäläinen 2019a, 16–17).
Useat nimimerkkitutkimukset ovat keskittyneet tarkastelemaan, mitä käyttäjien identiteetistä voidaan päätellä heidän nimimerkkinsä perusteella. Verkkoidentiteetti eli henkilöllisyys, jolla verkon sosiaalisissa piireissä esiinnytään, syntyy siitä, millainen henkilö osoittaa olevansa ja miten hän toimii (vrt. Aalto & Uusisaari 2009). Keskustelijan verkkoidentiteetti chat-huoneessa muodostuu osin hänen nimimerkkinsä perusteella. Tämä korostuu ennen muuta silloin, kun kyseessä on rekisteröity nimimerkki. Tällöin muut keskustelijat tietävät, että nimimerkin takana on aina sama henkilö. Vaikka nimimerkkiä ei olisi rekisteröity, se yhdistetään pääsääntöisesti samaan keskustelijaan silloin, kun henkilö on usein kirjautuneena palveluun.
Sen sijaan tiedonjakamisen näkökulma on jäänyt nimimerkkitutkimuksissa vähemmälle huomiolle. Tieto on sosiaalisesti rakentuvaa, puhekäytänteisiin ja kieleen perustuvaa tulkintaa (Burr 2004, 3–7). Tätä taustaa vasten tieto, ja tämän tutkimuksen näkökulmasta nimimerkkien sisältämä informaatio ja siitä muodostuva tieto, voidaan käsittää epistemologisesti sosiaalisen, kieleen ja sen avulla tapahtuvaan vuorovaikutukseen perustuvaksi konstruktioksi. Kyse on saadun informaation tulkinnasta ja sen muodostumisesta tiedoksi (vrt. Haasio & Savolainen 2004) siitä, millainen keskustelukumppani muiden chat-huoneessa olevien keskustelijoiden näkökulmasta, vaikka hän ei osallistuisi keskusteluun vaan ainoastaan seuraisi sitä. Nimimerkki on eräänlainen ”käyntikortti”, jonka avulla herätetään mielenkiinto ja samaistutaan haluttuun viiteryhmään. Jaettu informaatio on riippuvaista tilasta, jossa henkilö toimii ja mihin tavoitteisiin hän pyrkii (vrt. Savolainen 2009).
Nimimerkit ovat tärkein tapa luoda muille chatin osallistujille mielikuva siitä, millainen henkilö on. Toisaalta niiden avulla on myös mahdollisuus saada käsitys siitä, millaisia muut keskustelijat ovat (vrt. Baym 2000). Keskustelukumppanin saamiseksi mielenkiinnon herättäminen tapahtuu paitsi viestin sisällön, myös nimimerkin luoman mielikuvan avulla. Onkin syytä korostaa, että erityisesti nyt tarkasteltavissa Herkku-chatin nimimerkeissä on kyse ennen muuta mielikuvien luomisesta, eräänlaisesta leikillisyydestä osana virtuaaliseksiä ja sen etsintää. Ecker (2011) onkin Internet Relay Chatin (IRC) nimimerkkejä tutkiessaan havainnut niiden olevan usein leikillisiä ja hänen mukaansa chatit tarjoavat käyttäjille luovan lingvistisen leikkikentän.
Leikillisyys voidaan ymmärtää osaksi seksuaalisuutta (Koskimaa ym. 2015). Leikillisen asenteen (vrt. mt.) ja erilaisten seksiin liittyvien roolileikkien kautta leikillisyys toteutuu seksissä esimerkiksi sadomasokistisissa roolipeleissä (Harviainen 2011) ja ryhmäseksissä (Harviainen & Frank 2018). Waskulin (2003) mukaan kyberseksi tarjoaa uudenlaisia mahdollisuuksia oman kehon tuntemiseen ja seksuaalisiin kokemuksiin. Kyberseksi voi olla monelle myös turvallinen tapa toteuttaa seksuaalisia fantasioita (Young 2008). Toisaalta Suominen (2003) on todennut, että ”netti on jo itsessään jonkinlainen rajaseutu jossa vakiintuneen yhteiskunnan lait eivät täysin päde: rajaseutu houkuttaa ihmisiä sellaisiin sosiaalisiin ja psyykkisiin kokeiluihin, jotka voivat olla hänelle vaarallisia”. Yhtenä esimerkkinä tästä Suominen (mt.) mainitsee epänormaalin seksuaalivietin toteuttamisen. Toisaalta taas voidaan myös ajatella, että nämä sosiaaliset ja psyykkiset kokeilut mahdollistavat omien seksuaalisten fantasioiden toteuttamisen ja rajojen rikkomisen tällä tavoin. Tämä voi osaltaan selittää todellisen minän ja Herkussa esiintyvän identiteetin ristiriitaisuutta, mikä näkyy nimimerkkien valinnassa.
Kyberseksiä voi harjoittaa useissa erityyppisissä palveluissa ja usealla eri tavalla. Videotallenteet, kuvasivustot ja interaktiiviset aikuisviihdesivut ovat tyypillisimpiä seksifoorumeita (vrt. Wéry & Billeux 2017). Tässä tutkimuksessa olemme keskittyneet seksichatteihin liittyviin erityispiirteisiin. Chateilla tarkoitetaan interaktiivisia synkronisia palveluja (Arpo 2005, 34), joissa osallistujat voivat keskustella reaaliaikaisesti kirjoittamalla toisilleen viestejä. Young (2008) kutsuu seksichatteja fantasian mahdollistaviksi roolipelihuoneiksi (fantasy role-play rooms), joissa ihmiset voivat toteuttaa erilaisia seksuaalifantasioitaan.
Aiemmassa kyberseksiä käsittelevässä tutkimuksessa ei ole analysoitu käyttäjien nimimerkkien merkityssisältöjä ja niiden kautta jaettua informaatiota ja sen merkitystä osana kyberseksiä. Kyberseksiä käsittelevä tutkimus on painottunut kyberseksin mukanaan tuomiin negatiivisiin vaikutuksiin, kuten uskottomuuteen ja riippuvuuteen (esim. Young 2008; Schneider, Weiss & Samenow 2012; Laier & Brand 2014; Wéry & Billieux 2017). Myös groomingiin eli lasten seksuaaliseen houkutteluun liittyvää tutkimusta on tehty pedofiilien löytämiseksi (Elzinga, Wolff & Poelmans 2013).
Tutkimusaineisto, -menetelmä ja -etiikka
Tutkimusaineisto on kerätty kesäkuussa 2017 aikuisviihdesivusto Herkku.netin verkkochatista. Herkku-chat oli tuolloin toinen Suomen suurimmista seksiaiheisista chatpalveluista Livechatin ohella. Palvelut yhdistyivät syksyllä 2018 ja toimivat nykyään Livechat-nimellä. Herkku.net-sivusto muutoin on yhä toiminnassa, ja sen etusivulta löytyy linkki Livechatiin.
Herkussa oli mahdollista esiintyä joko rekisteröidyllä tai tilapäisellä, chattiin liittymisen yhteydessä valittavalla nimimerkillä. Valtaosa käyttäjistä suosi rekisteröimättömiä nimimerkkejä – tutkimusaineistomme nimimerkeistä vain 4,4 % oli rekisteröityjä. Herkussa oli myös mahdollista käydä joko julkista keskustelua kaikkien chatin käyttäjien kanssa tai kahdenkeskisiä keskusteluja, joita muut osallistujat eivät nähneet. Suuri osa käyttäjistä pyrki pääasiassa kahdenkeskisiin keskusteluihin, jotka mahdollistavat intiimimmän, yksilöllisemmän ja rohkeamman kontaktin. Tätä johtopäätöstä tukee se, että yleiseen keskusteluun tuli varsin vähän viestejä suhteessa kirjautuneiden määrään, ja että merkittävässä osassa näistä viesteistä haettiin seuraa kahdenkeskisiin keskusteluihin (esim. ”naisia 03 alueelta?”). Lisäksi toinen tämän artikkelin kirjoittajista sai kontaktipyyntöjä kerätessään aineistoa ja seuratessaan chatissa käytävää keskustelua. Aineiston perusteella tosin ei voida sanoa yleisemmin, kuinka yleisiä tällaiset yhteydenotot palvelussa olivat.
Aineistonkeruu tehtiin eri vuorokaudenaikoina ja viikonpäivinä, niin että otos sisälsi yhtä lailla viikonloppuna kuin arkipäivinä chatissa keskustelleiden nimimerkkejä. Myös vuorokaudenaika huomioitiin niin, että otokseen sisältyvät nimimerkit kerättiin tasapuolisesti päivällä (klo 14), illalla (klo 19) ja yöllä (klo 23) palveluun kirjautuneiden henkilöiden nimimerkeistä. Aineistoon kertyi kaikkiaan 1 613 nimimerkkiä. Osa nimimerkeistä esiintyi materiaalissa useamman kerran, koska sama nimimerkki oli kirjautuneena palveluun eri keruuajankohtina. Analyysiä tehtäessä nämä useamman kerran esiintyvät nimimerkit laskettiin mukaan vain kertaalleen, joten lopullisen analysoitavan aineiston laajuudeksi tuli 1 488 nimimerkkiä.
Toinen artikkelin kirjoittajista havainnoi chat-huoneen keskusteluja nimimerkkien keruun yhteydessä. Tämän havainnoinnin tavoitteena on ollut ymmärtää Herkun keskustelukulttuuria ja sen mahdollisia erityispiirteitä. Näin esimerkiksi nimimerkeissä esiintyvien lyhenteiden merkitys on avautunut paremmin, ja yleiskeskustelussa esiintyneiden viestien avulla on saatu lisätietoa keskustelijoiden identiteettiin liittyvistä epäilyistä ja oletuksista. Tutkijat eivät ole osallistuneet chatin keskusteluihin vaan ainoastaan havainnoineet niitä.
Käyttäjänimien ja nimimerkkien valintaan vaikuttavat sivustokohtaiset rajoitukset nimien pituudessa ja käytössä olevissa merkeissä sekä palveluun jo aiemmin luodut nimet (Hämäläinen 2016). Herkussa nimimerkkien tuli olla 2–19 merkkiä pitkiä, ja niissä sai käyttää kirjaimia, numeroita, välilyöntejä sekä useita yleisimpiä erikoismerkkejä (mm. piste, kysymysmerkki, yhdysmerkki, alaviiva, sulkeet). Palveluun rekisteröityjä ja siellä sillä hetkellä jo käytössä olleita tilapäisiä nimimerkkejä ei voinut valita käyttöön. Palveluun rekisteröityneiden käyttäjien määrä ei ole tiedossamme, sillä se ei ollut julkisesti näkyvillä.
Nimimerkkien analyysissä on käytetty funktionaalis-semanttista menetelmää, jonka on luonut alun perin Sjöblom (2006) yritysnimien tutkimiseen, ja jota Hämäläinen (2016; 2019a; 2019b) on soveltanut käyttäjänimitutkimuksiin. Siinä nimestä erotellaan funktionaalisia eli eri tehtäviä toteuttavia osia, sekä analysoidaan, millaisten merkityselementtien avulla näitä tehtäviä pyritään toteuttamaan. Nimiä on analysoitu ns. kieliyhteisön näkökulmasta. Tämä tarkoittaa sitä, että tutkimuksessa ei ole pyritty selvittämään alkuperäisiä nimenvalintaperusteita esimerkiksi nimenantajia haastattelemalla. Sen sijaan on pyritty analysoimaan, miten muut kieliyhteisön jäsenet – Herkku-chatin keskustelijat – oletettavasti tulkitsevat nimet.
Yksi verkkotutkimuksen keskeisistä kysymyksistä on tutkimuksen eettinen perusta. Herkku perustui pseudonyymiin keskusteluun ja on esimerkki aihepiiriltään varsin arkaluontoisesta aineistosta. Se on verrattavissa keskusteluryhmiin, joita Turtiainen ja Östman (2009) pitävät tutkimusherkkinä materiaaleina. Tutkimuksen kohteiden kannalta on ensiarvoisen tärkeää, että heidän identiteettinsä ei paljastu tai heille aiheudu muutakaan haittaa, etenkään, kun he eivät ole itse antaneet hyväksyntää nimimerkkinsä käytölle tutkimuksessa. Nimimerkkien yhdistäminen niiden takana oleviin henkilöihin on nähdäksemme käytännössä mahdotonta tai vähintäänkin erittäin vaikeaa ja työlästä. Vaikka jotkut käyttäjät kertovat nimimerkeissään useita tietoja itsestään, nämä eivät Suomen kokoisessa valtiossa riitä yksilöimään kyseistä käyttäjää. Myöskään muun haitan aiheutuminen ei ole nähdäksemme mahdollista, sillä palvelu on lopettanut toimintansa, eikä käyttäjiä voida näin enää tavoittaa chatin kautta. Emme paljasta käyttäjistä mitään muita tietoja kuin ne, mitä olemme heidän nimimerkeistään päätelleet. Emme myöskään arvota nimimerkkejä tai niissä esiintyviä seksuaalisuuden ja kulttuurin ilmentymiä.
Chattiin oli mahdollista lähettää kuvia, mutta vain harva osallistuja laittoi kuvamateriaalia ja sekään ei välttämättä kuvannut henkilöä itseään. Kuvamateriaalia ei suojauksen takia voinut kopioida ja se poistui näkyvistä istunnon päätyttyä. Sitä ei myöskään huomioitu aineistoa kerättäessä. Yleiskeskusteluissa, joita materiaalia kerättäessä havainnoitiin, ei myöskään mainittu henkilön yksilöimiseen riittäviä tietoja vaan ainoastaan esimerkiksi ikä, paikkakunta tai fyysisiä ominaisuuksia.
Keskusteluryhmiin liittyviä tutkimuseettisiä kysymyksiä tarkastelleet Marja-Liisa Helasvuo, Marjut Johansson ja Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen (2014) toteavat, että keskusteluryhmäviestit ovat kaikille avoimissa ryhmissä julkisia ja siksi niihin ei tarvita erillistä tutkimuslupaa. Myös Whitemanin (2012) ja Järvinen-Tassopouloksen (2011) näkemykset tukevat tätä näkökantaa, vaikka jälkimmäinen korostaakin materiaalin käytössä tarvittavaa huolellisuutta ja varovaisuutta. Tätä periaatetta olemme noudattaneet myös omassa tutkimuksessamme.
Kun aineiston nimimerkkejä analysoitiin tiedonjakamisen näkökulmasta, erottui niistä yhdeksän pääasiallista sisällöllistä kategoriaa: käyttäjän sukupuoli, ikä, sijainti, seksuaalinen suuntautuminen, seksuaaliset mieltymykset, perhe- ja parisuhdetilanne, ulkonäkö ja fyysiset ominaisuudet, kiihottuneisuus sekä millaista seuraa käyttäjä hakee palvelusta. Näiden kategorioiden frekvenssit aineistossa on koottu taulukkoon 1. On syytä huomata, että monet nimimerkit kuuluvat samanaikaisesti useampaan eri kategoriaan, minkä vuoksi kategorioiden yhteenlaskettu määrä ylittää aineiston kokonaismäärän (1 488 nimimerkkiä) selvästi.
Perhe- tai parisuhdetilanne
Millaista seuraa hakee
Ulkonäkö, fyysinen ominaisuus
Seuraavassa esittelemme ja analysoimme tarkemmin nimimerkkeihin sisältyvän informaation kategorioita.
Sukupuoli. Yleisin nimimerkeissä jaettu informaatio on käyttäjän sukupuoli, joka lieneekin monille tärkein yksittäinen seksuaaliseen kiinnostukseen vaikuttava ominaisuus. Tulkintamme mukaan aineiston nimistä 1 239 (83 %) ilmaisee käyttäjän sukupuolen selvästi, 92 (6 %) tulkinnanvaraisesti ja 157 (11 %) ei lainkaan. Sukupuolensa selvästi ilmaisevista 953 (77 %) on miehiä ja 284 (23 %) naisia. Tämän perusteella miehet ovat siis palvelussa selvänä enemmistönä. Sukupuoli ilmaistaan useimmin sanoilla mies ja nainen tai niiden kirjainlyhenteillä m ja n. Toinen yleinen tapa on sisällyttää oma etunimi nimimerkkiin (esim. 09Timo; JaninaBi), sillä Suomessa, kuten useimmissa muissakin maissa, etunimi useimmiten kertoo henkilön sukupuolen. Lisäksi paikoitellen sukupuoli käy ilmi tiettyyn sukupuoleen viittaavista sanavalinnoista, kuten tyttö, poika, äiti, isä, herra, rouva, neiti, setä, täti ja ukki (esim. netseks-tyttö; RantaPoika; perheenäiti; iskä38; Herra Johtaja; NettiRouva39; NeitiJuristi; pervosetä; mirja-täti; Ukille omaa tyttöä) tai viittauksista sukupuolielimiin (isokyrpä25/5cm38v; LuomuE 22v; teinipimpero).
Ikä. Toiseksi yleisin nimimerkeissä ilmaistava ominaisuus on käyttäjän ikä. Ikään viittaavia nimimerkkejä on kaikkiaan 708 eli 48 % aineistosta. 107 nimimerkissä ikä ilmaistaan käyttämällä epätarkasti nuoruuteen tai vanhuuteen viittaavia sanoja, kuten edellä mainitut tyttö, poika, setä, täti ja ukki tai sukupuolineutraalit nuori ja vanha (nuorisub_m; vanhaMtuhmana). Suurin osa käyttäjistä kuitenkin ilmaisee ikänsä eksaktimmin: 519 nimimerkkiä kertoo käyttäjänsä senhetkisen iän (esim. Leena26bi; yh_isä_50v) ja 82 nimimerkkiä syntymävuoden (Tiia92; JnsUkm_vm53). On merkillepantavaa, että senhetkisen iän ilmaiseminen on ylivoimaisesti yleisempää kuin syntymävuoden, sillä yleensä verkon käyttäjänimissä syntymävuoden käyttö on selvästi yleisempää (esim. Hämäläinen 2016). Tämä poikkeavuus johtunee ennen kaikkea siitä, että rekisteröidyissä käyttäjänimissä tieto senhetkisestä iästä vanhenee vuosien saatossa, kun taas tilapäisesti käytettävissä nimimerkeissä sitä voi vaihtaa ikääntymisen myötä. On toki myös mahdollista, että kaikki edellä mainitun kaltaiset kahden numeron sarjat eivät viittaa käyttäjän senhetkiseen ikään tai syntymävuoteen. Tieto käyttäjän iästä on kuitenkin seuranhaun kontekstissa niin olennainen, että oletettavasti enemmistö numeroyhdistelmistä viittaa siihen.
Sijanti. Käyttäjän fyysiseen sijaintiin viittaavia nimimerkkejä on aineistossa kaikkiaan 459 (31 %). 363 nimimerkkiä ilmaisee käyttäjän sijainnin kaupungin tai kunnan tarkkuudella. Suurimpien kaupunkien osalta käytetään pääosin niiden vakiintuneita lyhenteitä (jkl56M; TuroHki; xln39tre; BiM55pks), pienempien kuntien ja kaupunkien kohdalla koko nimeä (JämsäM35; orivedenmies57; vimpelim). 96 nimimerkkiä kertoo käyttäjän sijaintialueen puhelinliikenteen suuntanumeroita käyttäen (M30v03a; make019; Satanistiukko09), sen sijaan vain yksi postinumeron avulla (90650miesoulu). Sijainnin ilmaiseminen luo oletuksen siitä, että ilmoittavalla henkilöillä on toive kohtaamisesta reaalimaailmassa – nettiseksissä ja muussa verkon välityksellä tapahtuvassa vuorovaikutuksessa käyttäjien sijainnilla ei sinänsä ole merkitystä. Livetapaamista sovittaessa toisen osapuolen sijainti on keskeinen tieto, sillä liian suuri välimatka käyttäjien välillä saattaa estää tapaamisen.
Seksuaaliset mieltymykset ja fetissit. 245 nimimerkkiä (16 %) viittaa käyttäjän seksuaalisiin mieltymyksiin ja fetisseihin. Yleisimpiä tällaisia ovat alistuminen ja alistaminen (Armoton Alistaja; DominantMale; Jenni 25v sub; OrjapojuSalo), aisankannatus (Aisurifantasia; cuckold_wannabe) sekä vastakkaisen sukupuolen vaatteisiin pukeutuminen (cdminna22v; -tiinatv-; tyttöilevä_Ukm33v). Myös sanoja pervo, irstas tai kinky sisältävät nimet (Pervotarr; irstasHerra; Kinky_BiN44v) voitaneen tulkita seksuaalisia mieltymyksiä kuvaaviksi, vaikka niiden viesti jääkin vähemmän tarkaksi. Lisäksi aineistossa esiintyy laaja kirjo muunlaisia, spesifimpiä mieltymyksiä: 06M32siveysvyössä; face sit; fistattavaMlahti; Hamefetissimies; Jacket fetish (N); perhefantasia? m; Rajua_M26; SadisticMind; sukkispaljastelijM; Työasufani(m); vaippatypy.
Perhe- ja parisuhdetilanne. 167 nimeä (11 %) viittaa käyttäjän perhe- tai parisuhdetilanteeseen. Selvästi yleisimpiä tällaisista viittauksista ovat naimisissa olevaan mieheen eli ukkomieheen viittaavat lyhenteet um ja ukm sekä yksinhuoltajuuteen viittaava lyhenne yh. Naimisissa, varattuna tai sinkkuna olemiseen ja lasten huoltajana toimimiseen viitataan myös useilla muilla tavoilla: rva oulu; VarattuTyttö94; n sinkku 34 hki; net-iskä; TkuÄiti. Joissain tapauksissa isä- ja äiti-ilmaukset tosin saattavat viitata ennemminkin seksikumppanien ikäeroon kuin siihen, että henkilöllä todella olisi lapsia (vrt. verkossa vakiintunut ilmaus milf ’mother I´d like to fuck’). Setä-ilmaukset viitannevat useammin nuorempaa kumppania etsivään vanhaan mieheen kuin todelliseen sukulaisuussuhteeseen.
Haettu kumppani tai seksin tyyppi. 162 nimimerkkiä (11 %) viittaa siihen, millaista seksiä tai kumppania käyttäjä hakee. Selvästi yleisintä on ilmoittaa hakevansa nettiseksiä (NetSexMies; Nettijuttua_m), mutta myös puhelinseksin hakijoita on (sanni24vVAINpuhsex; ÄiskäjututPuh). Lisäksi itsetyydytykseen viittaavien nimien (mrunkkaa; rivo pikkarirunkku; tkumuijista runkut) voitaneen tulkita ilmaisevan, että käyttäjä hakee seuraa vain ei-fyysiseen kontaktiin. Jotkut puolestaan ilmaisevat hakevansa nimenomaisesti seksiä live- eli reaalimaailmassa (liveseuraM_hki; OuluM42Live), joskin tätä voitaneen pitää ensisijaisena pyrkimyksenä myös monien muiden, etenkin sijaintinsa ilmoittavien käyttäjien kohdalla. Mahdollisesta kumppanista esitetyt toiveet ovat suhteellisen monipuolisia, mutta useimmin ne kohdistuvat kumppanin ulkonäköön tai ikään (-lihavaa N/M?; NuortapojuaM41; setä tahto teiniä; Äiti&Tytär?M34v09a). Joskus on epäselvää, viittaako nimen tieto käyttäjään itseensä vai toivottuun kumppaniin. Partitiivin ja kysymysmerkkien käyttö ovat tehokkaita tapoja välttää epäselvyydet.
Ulkonäkö ja fyysiset ominaisuudet. 133 nimeä (9 %) viittaa käyttäjän ulkonäköön tai fyysisiin ominaisuuksiin. Miehille selvästi yleisintä on viitata peniksen kokoon (esim. 23/6cm poslari; 31v 20cm pks; PaksuKulli39), kun taas naiset viittaavat rintojensa kokoon selvästi harvemmin (LuomuE 22v; SilicoNe bi yh). Varsin monet nimet viittaavat käyttäjän urheilullisuuteen, lihaksikkuuteen ja yleiseen hyvään kuntoon (Bodari-46; fitnesspimu_cd_hki; urheilijam28pks). Itseään suurikokoisemmiksi kuvaavat ovat pääsääntöisesti naisia (Bixxl-nainen; xl-jutta). Ulkonäköä muutoin kuvailevia nimiä (Beauty Susan co; KoMea42; MrBlueEyes; pitkätukka_m37hki) sen sijaan on kenties yllättävänkin vähän. Yleisesti epäseksikkäinä pidettyihin ominaisuuksiin sen sijaan ei – odotuksenmukaisesti – juurikaan viitata.
Seksuaalinen suuntautuminen. 117 nimimerkkiä (8 %) viittaa käyttäjänsä seksuaaliseen suuntautumiseen. Valtaosa heistä ilmaisee olevansa biseksuaaleja, lähes aina lyhennettä bi käyttäen (Oulu bibtm-ukm; SportBi3). Myös homoseksuaaleiksi itsensä ilmoittavia on muutama (BdsmRva(LESB; pd homo). Sen sijaan aineistossa ei ole ainuttakaan nimeä, joka eksplisiittisesti ilmaisisi käyttäjän olevan hetero, joskin joistakin nimistä tämä on pääteltävissä (NuorempaaN? MHki; VSA_M_etsii_N). Tämä johtunee yksinomaan siitä, että mikäli seksuaalista suuntautumista ei ole erikseen ilmoitettu, henkilön oletetaan olevan kiinnostunut ensisijaisesti heteroseksistä. Lisäksi jotkin nimimerkit viittaavat pedofiliaan, lyhennettä pd käyttäen (Pd setä ou; pd violence N). Tämä on varsin uskaliasta, koska nimimerkkien taakse kätkeytyvien osallistujien henkilöllisyys on jäljitettävissä IP-osoitteen avulla. Herkun ylläpito ei kuitenkaan puuttunut näiden nimimerkkien toimintaan millään lailla, vaikka keskustelijat jopa avoimesti kertoivat etsivänsä alaikäistä seuraa (vrt. Haasio 2017).
Seksuaalinen halu. 60 nimeä (4 %) sisältää ilmauksia, jotka kertovat käyttäjän kiihottuneisuudesta ja seksuaalisesta halusta ilman tarkempaa tiedonvälitysfunktiota: 03 hyväileKulliani; 16v kiimainen lutka; kyrpäkivikovana; levotonM29; Tuhma pomo. Seksiaiheisen chatin kontekstissa käyttäjän seksuaalista kiihottuneisuutta voitaneen pitää ainakin jossain määrin odotuksenmukaisena olotilana, joten sen ilmaisemisen tarkoituksena lienee ennemmin omien seksuaalisten mielihalujen toteuttaminen tai jonkinlainen leikittely kuin varsinainen informaation välittäminen chatin muille osapuolille.
Muu tieto. Edellä esiteltyjen kategorioiden lisäksi nimissä esiintyy harvakseltaan erinäisiä muita tietoja käyttäjistä ja heidän toiveistaan. Tällaisia ovat muun muassa luonteen kuvaus (helläsetä; HerrasMiesLahti; KivaMies43), ammatti (juristim41; Maajussi Bi; Poliisi vapaalla), uskonto (Ankara lestaäiti; uskossaN99), lomalla (Lomamies09) tai armeijassa oleminen (inttityttöbi), hotellissa tapaaminen (TRE-bim26-hotel), auton omistaminen (Tre_M_63v_autoilee) sekä ns. sokerideittailu (SugarDad49).
Yhteenvetoa ja johtopäätöksiä nimimerkkeihin sisältyvästä informaatiosta
Kokonaisuudessaan Herkun nimimerkit ovat erittäin informatiivisia verrattuna muunlaisissa verkkoyhteisöissä esiintyviin käyttäjänimiin ja nimimerkkeihin (esim. Hämäläinen 2016). Aineiston nimimerkeistä vain 33 (2,2 %) ei sisällä yhtäkään edellä esitellyistä yhdeksästä tietokategorioista. Nämä nimimerkit ovat pääosin lyhyehköjä, merkityssisällöltään läpinäkymättömiä kirjain- ja numeroyhdistelmiä: Jerme; oihnnuoabbt; oomm; vovol; vton; öä. Lisäksi joukossa on muutama todellinen kielen sana, jolle emme ole nähneet yhteyttä seksiseuran hakuun: bujaka; oho; Roi Vaakuna; tööt.
Nimimerkkien informatiivisuuden kannalta olennaista on se, että ne ovat valtaosin suomenkielisiä. Aineiston nimimerkeistä suomenkielisiä on tulkintamme mukaan 1 270 eli 85 %. Englanninkielisiä nimimerkkejä on 100 (6,7 %), ja suomea ja englantia yhdisteleviä 59 (4,0 %). 32 nimeä (2,2 %) on tekosanoja eli ilmauksia, joita ei tiettävästi esiinny missään tunnetussa kielessä, ja 27 (1,8 %) on internationalismeja eli ilmauksia, jotka esiintyvät useissa eri kielissä jokseenkin samanasuisina ja joiden kielen määritteleminen on siksi jokseenkin mahdotonta (termeistä tekosana ja internationalismi ks. Sjöblom 2006). Suomenkielisten nimimerkkien osuus on huomattavasti suurempi kuin muissa suomalaisissa verkkoyhteisöissä, joissa englannin vaikutus on selvästi merkittävämpi (Hämäläinen 2016, 408–409). On myös huomionarvoista ja yllättävää, että emme löytäneet aineistosta lainkaan nimiä, jotka voitaisiin tunnistaa joksikin muuksi kieleksi kuin suomeksi tai englanniksi. Esimerkiksi Kytölän (2014) tutkimuksessa suomalaisten FutisForum- ja FutisForum2-keskustelufoorumien nimimerkeistä muiden kielten kuin suomen ja englannin osuus oli noin 25 %.
Nimimerkkeihin on usein onnistuttu pakkaamaan hyvin tiiviisti monia seksiseuran haun kannalta keskeistä tietoja. Eniten tietoja on mahdutettu nimimerkkiin BinylonUm49Hki, kuusi kappaletta: sukupuoli (mies), ikä (49), sijainti (Helsinki), seksuaalinen suuntautuminen (bi), parisuhdestatus (naimisissa) sekä seksuaalinen mieltymys (nylon-asusteet). Viisi tietoa ilmaisevia nimiä on jo runsaammin, mm. 44yh isi bi 03; alistuva_Bim41vTre; BiUkm31v02. Keskimäärin nimimerkit sisältävät noin kaksi tietoa käyttäjästä.
Nimimerkit ovat keskimäärin 10,4 merkkiä pitkiä. Tämä on selvästi enemmän kuin useimmissa muissa verkkopalveluissa, joissa nimien pituutta on aiemmin tutkittu (Hämäläinen 2019b, 49). Syynä Herkun nimimerkkien pituuteen lienee se, että tiedonjakamisen tarve palvelun aihepiirin ja nimimerkkien tilapäisyyden vuoksi poikkeuksellisen suuri. Rekisteröitymättömien käyttäjien, joita valtaosa (95,6 %) Herkun aineistosta on, ei ole mahdollista antaa tietoja itsestään henkilökohtaisella profiilisivulla. Niinpä tärkeimpiä tietoja on pyrittävä mahduttamaan nimimerkkiin mahdollisimman monta.
Nimimerkkien informatiivisuus on osittain sen ansiota, että osalle nimimerkeissä usein esiintyvistä tiedoista on muodostunut vakiintunut lyhenne, esim. m (mies), n (nainen), ukm (ukkomies), yh (yksinhuoltaja), bi (biseksuaali), btm (bottom), tv (transvestisuus), cd (crossdressing), ja pd (pedofilia). Nämä lyhenteet eivät ole tyypillisiä vain Herkulle vaan ovat käytössä myös muilla foorumeilla. Toisaalta jotkin näistä lyhenteistä ovat käytössä lähinnä seksiseuran hakemisen kontekstissa eivätkä välttämättä aukene asiaan perehtymättömälle. Herkun keskustelujen netnografinen seuranta on ollut tärkeää myös tämän vuoksi.
Valtaosin Herkun nimimerkit sisältävät tietoa käyttäjiensä omista ominaisuuksista, kun taas harvemmin heidän haluistaan ja toiveistaan kumppanin tai seksuaalisen kanssakäymisen muodon suhteen. Voidaan kuitenkin ajatella, että seksichatissa tiedontarve ilmaistaan osin latentisti kertomalla itsestä ja oletetusta identiteetistä sekä mieltymyksistä tiettyihin asioihin. Näin implikoidaan kysymys ”oletko samanhenkinen” tai ”oletko kiinnostunut minusta”. Tällainen käytäntö on tiedonjakamisen näkökulmasta erittäin kiinnostavaa, sillä yleensä ihminen ilmaisee tiedontarpeensa kysymyslauseella (ks. esim. Haasio & Savolainen 2004). Käytäntö saattaa selittyä osittain sillä, että nimimerkkien hyvin rajalliseen – Herkussa maksimissaan 19 merkin – tilaan ei ole mahdollista muotoilla kovin monimutkaisia kysymyksiä. Jotkut käyttäjät ovat kyllä tehneet näin onnistuneesti, yleensä partitiivia, kysymysmerkkiä tai molempia käyttäen (esim. mallineitoa; Venepiknik?-m-hki; KisuaHki?M45hotel). Toisaalta vajavaiset lauseet jättävät paikoitellen epäselväksi, viittaako käyttäjä nimimerkissään omiin vai toiselta osapuolelta toivomiinsa ominaisuuksiin (n35-siipeilijälle; TyttäreniKaveria?; vaimo(ni)vieraissa).
Herkun keskusteluja seurattaessa kävi ilmi, että monien nimimerkeissä esiintyvien tietojen todenperäisyyttä epäiltiin. Osallistujat saattoivat pitää osaa nimimerkeistä ”feikkeinä” viitaten käyttäjän olevan esimerkiksi iältään tai sukupuoleltaan todellisuudessa erilainen kuin millaisena keskustelija esiintyi chathuoneessa. Etenkin naisten nimillä esiintyneiden nimimerkkien aitous kyseenalaistettiin: keskusteluissa arveltiin useaan otteeseen, että miehet esiintyvät palvelussa naisen identiteetillä. Erityisesti naisten biseksuaalisuutta osoittavien nimimerkkien epäiltiin monessa tapauksessa olevan miesten nimimerkkejä. Näitä epäilyjä jossain määrin tukevat aiemmat tutkimukset, joiden mukaan seksichateissa osallistujat eivät välttämättä esiinny oman reaalimaailman minänsä kaltaista identiteettiä käyttäen. Tyypillistä on, että henkilö saattaa esiintyä esimerkiksi eri-ikäisenä kuin mitä hän todellisuudessa on. (Vrt. Baym 1998; Lamb 1998; Donath 1999.) Nimimerkillä leikittely voi liittyä myös omaan seksuaaliseen mieltymykseen ja tapaan kiihottaa itseään. Esimerkkinä tästä käyvät ne keskustelijat, jotka esiintyvät chatissa käyttäen vastakkaisen sukupuolen nimimerkkiä.
Huomionarvoista on myös, että naiseksi ja mieheksi nimimerkkiensä perusteella tunnistettavien käyttäjien nimimerkeissä on joitakin varsin selviä eroja. Esimerkiksi etunimen käyttö nimimerkissä on naisille huomattavasti yleisempää: Niistä 284 naisesta, joiden sukupuoli tulkintamme mukaan käy ilmi nimimerkistä selvästi, 143 (50 %) on sisällyttänyt etunimen nimimerkkiinsä. Sen sijaan niistä 953 käyttäjästä, jotka nimimerkkinsä perusteella voidaan tunnistaa mieheksi, näin on tehnyt vain 211 (22 %). Sijaintinsa puolestaan on ilmoittanut miehistä 361 (38 %), naisista vain 44 (15 %). Muutoinkin miehet vaikuttavat sisällyttäneen nimiinsä keskimäärin hieman enemmän tietoja itsestään. Tätä eroa saattaa selittää nais- ja mieskäyttäjien erisuuri määrä ja siitä johtuva kysynnän ja tarjonnan epätasapaino. Naisiksi tunnistettavien käyttäjien ei liene välttämätöntä kertoa itsestään yhtä paljon herättääkseen mielenkiintoa ja saadakseen yhteydenottoja muilta käyttäjiltä.
Aiemmissa tutkimuksissa yhdeksi tietokonevälitteisen viestinnän ja yleisemminkin digitaalisen kulttuurin erityispiirteeksi on nostettu leikillisyys (esim. Leppänen 2009; Suominen 2013; Leppänen ym. 2017, 10–11). On toki jossain määrin tulkinnanvaraista ja kontekstisidonnaista, millaisia kielen piirteitä voidaan pitää leikillisinä. Yleisesti ottaen sellaisiksi voitaneen katsoa ne piirteet, jotka eivät ole välttämättömiä kielen ensisijaisen funktion eli tiedonvälityksen kannalta. Kielellinen leikittely voidaan jakaa pääpiirteissään kahteen ryhmään, kielen rakenteen tasolla tapahtuvaan sekä merkityksillä ja niihin liittyvillä konnotaatioilla eli mielikuvilla tapahtuvaan leikittelyyn.
Leikillisyys on ollut nähtävissä jo aiemmissa verkon nimistöstä tehdyistä tutkimuksissa. Käyttäjänimissä yleisimpiä esimerkkejä kielen rakenteella leikittelystä ovat uudissanojen muodostaminen (esim. konkurssimuovi; vuohetar), sananmuunnokset (pekkaramaruna), lasten kielenkäytössä yleisten p-alkuisten riimiparien käyttö (lallipalli-92), suomen kielelle tyypillisten kirjaimien vaihtaminen vieraampiin vastineisiinsa (SawuBiibbu) sekä nimen kirjoittaminen lopusta alkuun (atteer-; elliv) (Hämäläinen 2016). Edellä mainittuja ilmiöitä esiintyy myös virtuaalisen minigolfpelin radannimissä, esim. K-cart < track; RalfGota < golfrata; Tozi Baharata < tosi paha rata (Hämäläinen 2019a). Mielikuvilla puolestaan leikitellään etenkin Tor-verkon huumemyyjien käyttäjänimissä, jotka sisältävät viittauksia niin tunnettuihin todellisiin ja fiktiivisiin huumausainerikollisiin (escobarstore; PinkmanAndWhite; Scarface-Tony-Montana) kuin tunnettuihin reaalimaailman yrityksiin ja brändeihin (Dream_Works; MonsterEnergyDrugs; starbucks101). Myös ekstaasitablettien nimet ja painatuskuviot perustuvat useimmiten johonkin kansainvälisesti tunnettuun brändiin. (Hämäläinen 2019b.)
Leikillisyys on näkyvissä myös Herkun nimimerkeissä, ja se ilmenee monin eri tavoin. Kielen rakenteella leikittelyn keinoista tyypillisin lienee luova sananjohtaminen. Naiskäyttäjät voivat ilmaista sukupuolensa käyttämällä feminiinistä –tAr-johdinta: luistelijatar, Optikotar, Pervotarr. Muita esimerkkejä suomen johdinainesten luovasta käytöstä ovat nimimerkit erästelijä sekä kalukas JKL. Nimet KemiKumiMies, IsäTuleeSisäänM48 ja NuolenNeidonPyllyn puolestaan hyödyntävät tehokkaasti alku- ja loppusointuja. Myös oikeinkirjoituksella voidaan leikitellä: monet käyttäjät nostavat tiedon sukupuolestaan esille odotuksenvastaisella ison kirjaimen käytöllä: humaNcow; Johtaja38 KiiMa; kaulapaNta; koMea42; nuoret hiMottaa; uMpipervo-37-Espoo. Isolla kirjaimella voidaan nostaa myös muita seikkoja: nimimerkissä ReissUm52 iso U-kirjain ilmaisee käyttäjän olevan ukkomies eli naimisissa.
Myös kielen merkityksillä ja niihin liittyvillä mielikuvilla leikittelyä tapahtuu useilla eri tavoilla. Nimimerkit AlkuunPanija, kielimies ja Seivästäjä sisältävät yleiskielisen merkityksensä ohella toisen, seksuaalisuuteen liittyvän merkityksen. Nimimerkki Beauty Susan co muistuttaa (kauneudenhoitoalan) yritysnimeä, mikä saattaa herättää kysymyksen, onko käyttäjä yrittäjä, toisin sanoen asiakkaita etsivä prostituoitu. Kuvailevat adjektiivit (Ankara Lestaäiti; Armoton Alistaja; kuritonpojanvintiö) sekä sanavalinnat kuten orja ja lutka (hippilutka_hki, OrjapojuSalo) luovat mielikuvia seksin osapuolten välisistä suhteista, esimerkiksi rooleista bdsm-seksissä. Myös fiktiivisiin hahmoihin pohjautuvat nimimerkit voivat toimia vihjeinä käyttäjiensä seksuaalisista mieltymyksistä: esimerkiksi nimimerkki hemuli40 saattaa ilmaista käyttäjän olevan mekkoon pukeutuva mies, nimimerkin oidipus käyttäjä taas saattaa olla kiinnostunut itseään vanhemmista naisista. Fiktiivisiin hahmoihin viittaavia nimimerkkejä on kuitenkin huomattavasti vähemmän kuin käyttäjänimissä muutoin (Hämäläinen 2016, 406; 2019b).
Kokonaisuudessaan vaikuttaa kuitenkin siltä, että leikillisyyttä esiintyy Herkun nimimerkeissä selvästi vähemmän kuin nimissä muualla verkossa. Tätä voi pitää kenties hieman yllättävänä, sillä seksi on sinänsä leikillisyydelle otollinen aihepiiri. Selvin syy leikillisyyden vähyyteen lienee tiedonvälityksen poikkeuksellisen voimakas tarve. Kielellä leikittely saattaa viedä tilaa informaatiolta ja vähentää nimimerkkien ymmärrettävyyttä. Silloinkin, kun leikittelyä tapahtuu, on sillä usein samanaikaisena funktiona informaation, kuten käyttäjän sukupuolen tai seksuaalisten mieltymysten ilmaiseminen. Jos informatiivisuus ja leikittely sen sijaan eivät mahdu nimeen samanaikaisesti, yleensä leikillisyys saa väistyä.
Tässä artikkelissa olemme tarkastelleet suomalaisen Herkku.net-aikuisviihdesivuston seksichatin nimimerkkejä tiedonjakamisen, identiteetin ja kielellisen leikittelyn näkökulmasta. Analyysi osoittaa, että käyttäjät jakavat nimimerkeissään tietoa useista seuranhaun kannalta keskeisistä ominaisuuksistaan. Yleisimpiä tällaisia ominaisuuksia ovat käyttäjän sukupuoli, ikä ja sijainti, varsin yleisiä myös seksuaalinen suuntautuminen, perhe- ja parisuhdetilanne, ulkonäkö ja fyysiset ominaisuudet, seksuaaliset mieltymykset ja fetissit, seksuaalinen halu sekä haettu kumppani ja seksin tyyppi.
Tiedonjakamisen kielelliset keinot vaihtelevat, mutta joidenkin tietojen jakamiseen on syntynyt hyvin vakiintuneita lyhenteitä, kuten m (mies), n (nainen), bi (biseksuaali), ukm (ukkomies), yh (yksinhuoltaja), cd (crossdressing) ja pd (pedofilia). Näiden lyhenteiden avulla nimimerkeissä on mahdollista ilmoittaa samanaikaisesti useita olennaisia tietoja itsestään, vaikka nimimerkit eivät voikaan olla kovin pitkiä. Kokonaisuudessaan Herkun nimimerkit ovat erittäin informatiivisia ja chatin aiheeseen vahvasti kytkeytyviä.
Nimimerkeissä esiintyy myös kielellisen leikittelyn piirteitä, niin kielen rakenteen kuin merkitysten luomien mielikuvien tasolla. Leikittelyä on kuitenkin selvästi vähemmän kuin muunlaisilta verkkosivustoilta kootuissa nimiaineistoissa. Merkittävin syy tähän lienee käyttäjien poikkeuksellisen voimakas tiedonjakamisen tarve, jota selittävät toisaalta chatin aihepiiri ja kommunikaation tavoitehakuisuus, toisaalta nimimerkkien rekisteröimättömyys ja rajallinen pituus. Rekisteröitymättömillä käyttäjillä ei ole henkilökohtaista profiilisivua, jolla he voisivat kertoa olennaisia tietoja itsestään, joten tärkeimmät tiedot on mahdutettava nimimerkkiin. Nimimerkin hyvin rajalliseen merkkimäärään ei puolestaan ole aina mahdollista sisällyttää sekä informaatiota että leikittelyä. Jos jommankumman on väistyttävä, on se useimmiten leikittely.
Seuranhaussa on kyse siitä, että kahden (tai joissakin tapauksissa useamman) ihmisen ominaisuudet, kiinnostuksen kohteet, toiveet ja tarpeet pyritään sovittamaan yhteen. On mielenkiintoista, että Herkun käyttäjät kertovat nimimerkeissään lähes yksinomaan omista ominaisuuksistaan, mutta vain harvoin siitä, mitä he toivovat toiselta osapuolelta. Tämä saattaa johtua osittain yksinkertaisesti siitä, että omat ominaisuudet on helpompaa muotoilla nimimerkkien hyvin rajalliseen tilaan kuin toiveet, jotka eivät useinkaan ole yhtä selviä ja eksakteja, ja joiden kielentämiseen siksi tarvittaisiin runsaammin tilaa.
Toisaalta itseen keskittymisen taustalla voi olla syvällisempiäkin motiiveja. Joku saattaa nähdä tässä yhteyden aikamme individualistiseen, minäkeskeiseen kulttuuriin. Voidaan myös tulkita, että käyttäjien omista ominaisuuksista kertovat nimimerkit sisältävät muille käyttäjille osoitetun implikoidun kysymyksen, esimerkiksi ”oletko kiinnostunut minusta?” Tällaisia latentteja tiedontarpeita ja niiden ilmaisukeinoja ei ole tähänastisissa tutkimuksissa juuri käsitelty, joten ne voivat olla mielenkiintoinen ja tärkeä haaste tutkijoille tulevaisuudessa.
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https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suuntanumero Viitattu 10.6.2019. Suuntanumerot ovat jo pitkälti jääneet pois arkisesta puhelinliikenteestä, joten nähtäväksi jää, korvautuvatko ne lähitulevaisuudessa postinumeroilla tai joillakin muilla Suomen alueisiin viittaavilla lyhyillä ilmauksilla.
Cd on lyhenne sanasta crossdressing ja tv sanasta transvestismi.
 Tarkemmin ks. esim. Motyl (2012); Pehkonen & Mattinen (2019).
 Olemme tietoisia, että erisnimen kielen määritteleminen on monesti ongelmallista, sillä nimet toimivat yleensä samanasuisina eri kielissä. Olemme käyttäneet nimimerkkien kielellisen alkuperän määrittelyssä Sjöblomin (2006, 111–148) periaatteita.
Susanna Paasonen: Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play (2018). Goldsmiths Press: London.
Susanna Paasonen’s Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play is one of the most important books on play. Not just recent books on play, of which there have been many recently, all dully cited by Paasonen, but in general considering all books on play. Many Splendored Things is a fundamental book to understand the multifaceted connections between play, pleasure, and sexuality; a unique, insightful, provoking and rewarding book. Paasonen’s book fundamental contribution is the development of a mode of analysis of pleasure and sexuality from the perspective of play. As the author manifests: “The key rationale for this book is to make use of play in unravelling the dynamics of sexual fantasy, normativity and pleasure by pushing them beyond any given or clear divisions of straight and queer, yet to do it in such a way that does not erode complexities in how these categories have come about, or in how they continue to be lived and operationalised” (p. 4).
The concept of play allows the author to provide insights on the very convent of pleasure that break down heteronormative assumptions, and situate both play and pleasure as key concepts to explore the elements human expression and subjectivity present in sexual relations. To achieve this goal, Paasonen provides readers with both a strong theoretical foundation that draws on play theory, media studies, game studies, and philosophy, but also with a variety of case studies that illustrates the book’s main points.
It is difficult to choose a main contribution in a book such as this, packed with arguments that should be discussed in and across many different fields. In my opinion, however, there are two ideas that are the richest and most productive: first, the call for a play theory that moves away from the western heteronormative paradigm so many of us take for granted. In the first chapter of this book, Paasonen draws a critical take on many old and new theories of play, arguing that the way they have overlooked and/or misplaced the importance of sex as play reveals the dominance of a discourse that needs to be overcome. While this critique of Huizinga and Caillois is not new (see for example Lugones’ take on “playfulness”), Paasonen uses the perspective of sex, and thus of embodiment, to add another critical layer to her evaluation of the dominant theories of play. She does so not only in her reading of the venerable classics, but also of contemporary works. As an academic author, it is always rewarding to see one’s work discussed, critiqued, and corrected like Paasonen does with my own work. Paasonen is right in her critique, and my own theory of play suffers of a heteronormative take on pleasure and the body. Paasonen’s perspective and arguments are a better, more inclusive, and more productive take on pleasure and play.
It is precisely this take on play that I would consider the second main contribution of this book. Many Splendored Things is not a book about sex and play: it is a book that uses sex as a way to complicate and enrich our understandings of bodies and pleasure in the fundamentally ambiguous activity of play. This book is crucial for play scholars because it makes it evident that we cannot write about play -and that means also games- without considering the concept of (embodied) pleasure. This is not to say that there hasn’t been research on play and embodiment – what Paasonen does is place that history of reflecting on the role of bodies in play under the light of pleasure, using sex as an example that opens up normative discourses and assumptions, and forces play scholars interesting in thinking about bodies to also consider the nature of pleasure in the network of bodies, institutions, power and technologies.
While the book is rich in theoretical contributions, I would personally single out the second chapter, “Magic Circles and Magical Circuits of Play”. The topic of the magic circle in game studies might seem to be trite, but Paasonen manages to provide a new critical angle to it thanks to the focus on embodiment and the materiality of play, as in the discussion about props on page 22. The chapter critiques “vanilla play theories”, like mine, and provides a phenomenal analysis of the normativities lurking in many play theories, and how this book proposes an alternative: “ […] playfulness cuts across all kinds of sexual arragements. To separate play and playfulness from other moods and intensities that animate bodies ultimately means operating with a partial and normative understanding of sexuality that frames out a broad range of practices, routines, and experiences – or, alternatives, supports hierarchies of value and normality between them” (p. 33).
Many splendored things is an outstanding book, but not one without minor flaws. While I appreciated the width of scope and the rigor of the academic work, I found that the chapter dedicated to the analysis of Jan Soldat’s films was a dissonant note in the overall book. It is a high quality chapter, but in my opinion it breaks the flow of the argument because it is too much a media studies reading of cinematic texts. While the other chapters are more kaleidoscopic and varied in their approach to their subjects of study, Chapter 5 (“Slaves, Prisoners and the Edge of Play”) is perhaps too dependent on its own methodological tributes to media studies.
The only other flaw I’d like to mention in this review concerns the references regarding the study of sex and play, particularly from the perspective of power and politics. Paasonen’s review and reading of these theories is excellent, and yet I was thinking that there is a small body of work that focuses on sex as play, and its related to power. Some contemporary anarchist theory has looked at sex as play, and at play in general, as a way of framing alternatives to the power structures of developed societies (see for example Organise!’s “Anarchism and Sex” or Simon’s “Seven Thesis on Play” . In their search for arguments for the anarchist alternative, some theorists have looked at play as an instrument to analyze the importance of freedom, choice, and emergent social arrangements.
Not mentioning and engaging with these works is not a fault, for Paasonen’s project is not one defined by being completist in its literature review, but critical of dominant paradigms. However, I cannot but wonder what reflections on power, sex, and play would have been added to this book if Paasonen had discussed, with her claritity and vision, this body of work. It is then not a flaw in the book, but more an unfulfilled wish.
Many Splendored Things is a much needed book. While the celebration of play as liberator, as a field for pure expression and joy seems to be taken hold of many segments of academia and society, we seldom discuss what do we mean by joy and pleasure, and we tend to forget that sex, a fundamental form of human expression and being in the world, is also play. This book gives us the vocabulary, the ideas, and the will to consider sex as play, in all its enriching and multiple variances. This books puts pleasure at the center of the experience of play, and opens up the very concept of pleasure beyond normative discourses. This is, then, a political book about pleasure – non-conforming pleasure as play, and thus as a way of affirming ourselves in the world. Many Splendored Things gives us alternatives, challenges our assumptions, and reminds us of the complicated and yet central importance of pleasure in human experience.
Brenda Brathwaite: Sex in Videogames (2006). Charles River Media: Boston, United States.
Sex in Videogames by the acclaimed game designer Brenda Brathwaite (now Romero) was first published in 2006 and is one of the first books to explicitly address the intersection of games and sexuality. However, the process of reviewing it for this special issue on Sexuality & Play has not been easy. As a relic from the past, it comes with problematic suggestions around sex and sexualisation which shed doubt on its contribution to academic discourse.
On the other hand, these lapses in themselves might show us something about mainstream ideas about sex and the games industry in 2006 and might inspire conversations about where to ideally take research in this area today. Instead of reading Sex in Videogames as if it were written today, it should be considered an historical document, an archive of sorts provoking two kinds of insights.
First, the book documents the existence of a number of sex games from the 1970s until 2005, covering little known titles and niche products developed in the intersection of pornography and videogames. Secondly, Sex in Videogames is a meta-document in that it archives a particular seemingly apolitical way of treating sex and videogames which is no longer feasible. Since recent developments like #GamerGate and #MeToo have exposed the game industry’s pervasive problem with (sexualised) power abuse (Massari 2017, Penny 2019), the book is part of a prelapsarian past, a game culture before the fall when the now hyper-visible “toxic gamer culture” (Consalvo 2012) could still be ignored.
This historical place can explain some of the authorial choices made in Sex in Videogames, notably its awkward avoidance of power and violence as the two elephants in a room.
Spanning over 300 pages and 14 chapters, the book attempts to cover the meaning, history, and legal culture around sex in the (US-American) games industry. One of the central problems with the book is that it does not reflect its main goal in investigating sex and videogames. Is it a design manual, a text book, or a games culture study? Who are the prospective readers, and how might they benefit from reading the book? This lack of a central premise necessarily affects the structure of the book, making it a loose collection of examples rather than a coherent argument.
For example, the book starts with a brief dictionary definition of sex and moves towards an inclusive interpretation of sex in games as sexually themed games contents, advertisement, “sexy” visuals and avatars, and “emergent sex”, the authors’ term for cybersex. This list of game-related contexts in which sex has appeared in one way or another ends with a remark that the book excludes sexualised violence, arguing that “such mechanics do not represent sex, instead they represent violence or the threat of violence and are therefore beyond the scope of this book” (SiV, p. 37).
However, as it turns out, the book does not follow through with this promise, giving significant space to the notorious rape simulator Custer’s Revenge and descriptions of abusive griefing behaviour by players engaging in “unwanted advances” (SiV, p. 109).
The chapter on the history of sex games provides perhaps the most unique contribution of the book. Documenting a number of obscure games developed between the 1970s and 2005, the chapter includes titles which have rarely been touched by mainstream games studies. Due to the sheer number of special interest titles like Dr. Ruths Good Sex Game, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Mac Playmate, Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, and Cool Condoms alone, this chapter is worthwhile reading. However, the critical task of understanding these games in context is left to the reader. Most problematically, Brathwaite does not mention her involvement in some of the games, including Playboy: The Mansion, which is mentioned favourably throughout the book.
When it comes to understanding sex between players, Brathwaite suggests the term “emergent sex”. A large part of the chapter on emergent sex speculates about reasons people engage in sexual activities in games which were not specifically designed to cater to such experiences, treating sex more like a design feature which has slipped the designer’s control, rather than a pervasive aspect of human life.
A strong focus of the book is on the question of regulation and legislation in the US context as it existed in 2005, with a total of seven chapters dedicated to related topics (4, 6–12). Readers receive overly detailed introductions to industry rating boards, content guidelines, and policies. A refreshing exception is Deborah Solomon’s chapter on “obscenity”, which insightfully characterises the uneasy status of obscenity laws in US regulation and its implications for the treatment of videogames.
The book’s exhaustive treatment of legal perspectives stands in stark contrast to the 9-page long discussion on “positive inclusion”. As an example for positive inclusion, the author mentions products in the sexual health sector, such as advergames by condom manufacturers promoting their products through safe sex games. Two other, rather obscure examples for “positive inclusion” are sex-themed games without visuals and the enjoyment of sex games for sex’s sake. These examples contain unexamined assumptions about “good” sex, such as the idea that non-visual representations of sex are morally superior to graphic portrayals, or that sex for sex’s sake is even possible. Whose enjoyment is addressed, specifically, when sex for sex’s sake is enjoyed? When considering the examples given throughout the book, there is a tendency that this is a heterosexual cis-male player.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect in Brathwaite’s discussion of inclusion is the lack of attention to what has been excluded and should therefore be considered for inclusion. Apart from the failure to address diverse types of pleasure beyond the heteronormative player spectrum, the dimension of diverse creators is missing. Creators at the margins of game culture have productively engaged with sex through videogames in non-normative ways, as games like Caper in the Castro (1989) show. Such titles are not included in Sex in Videogames.
Overall, apart from serving as a chronicle for obscure sex-themed games from the past, how can Sex in Videogames be of value to readers in 2019? I suggest that the many flaws of the book might teach us something about how not to talk about sex anymore. First, Sex in Videogames shows that striving for an “objective” take on sex in videogames removes accountability. Brathwaite’s neutral authorial voice keeps her from critiquing whose enjoyment is prioritised, and by implication, who benefits from reading her book. Secondly, Sex in Videogames fails at drawing a basic link between sex and politics, resulting in a conflation of sex and sexualisation.
Given the hostility players and creators who are not white and cis-male face on a broader cultural level (DeWinter/Kocurek 2017) this conflation comes at the cost of those who are already oppressed. Were Sex in Videogames written today, it would have to reflect on its complicity in promoting harmful kinds of “sexiness” which further exclude pleasures that already exist at the margin of games.
Kolmas Sexual Cultures -konferenssi järjestettiin Turun Yliopiston Sirkkala-kampuksella 28.–29. toukokuuta. Tämän vuoden teemana oli ”play”. Monitulkintainen teema tarjosi värikkään kolmentoista workshopin ja kolmen keynote-puheen valikoiman erilaista ihmeteltävää. Leikki osoitti monimuotoisuutensa laajana ja kiisteltynä terminä, kun kampuksen luokkahuoneet täyttyivät kulttuurintutkimuksen ammattilaisista. Workshopit menivät ristiin, joten kaikkien puheenvuorojen näkeminen osoittautui mahdottomuudeksi ja valitseminen niiden väliltä olikin oma haasteensa.
Turun yliopiston mediatutkimuksen osaston “Sexuality and play in media culture” -tutkimushanke on tapahtuman taustalla. Moni tutkimusryhmäläinen olikin saapunut konferenssiin vahvistaen hankkeen ja tapahtuman välisiä sidoksia. Sukupuolentutkimusta ja leikkitutkimusta on yhdistelty muissakin tutkimusprojektiin liittyvissä, ympäri maailman järjestetyissä tapahtumissa vuosien 2017 ja 2018 aikana.
Konferenssin aloitti mediatutkimuksen professori ja konferenssin järjestäjiin kuuluva Susanna Paasonen. Hänen jälkeensä vuorossa oli Sydneyn yliopiston professori Kane Race, jonka keynote käsitteli digitaalisuuden vaikutusta parinvalintaan ja seuranhakuun. Erilaiset seuranhakuun keskittyvät sosiaaliset mediat ja palvelut tarjoavat monia perspektiivejä leikin tai pelin käsitteisiin. Race peilasi lukuisia eri tapoja nähdä digitaalinen seuranhaku leikkinä tai pelinä. Hänen haastatteluainestossaan 50-vuotias australialainen homomies kertoi turhautuneensa nuorten asenteisiin seksiä ja seuranhakua kohtaan. Haastattelussa paljastui myös, miten hän koki digitaalisuuden vaikuttaneen näiden nuorten asenteisiin. Ihmisten tapaamista määrittää monta muuttujaa. Esimerkiksi oman profiilin tekemiseen liittyy leikkisyyttä. Digitaaliseen seuranhakuun liittyvien valintojen taustalla ovat omat tarkoitusperät profiilin tekemiselle, ja nämä tarkoitusperät voivat olla enemmän tai vähemmän leikkisiä. Tekevätkö sosiaalisen median aspektit, “matchien” kerääminen ja uusien ihmisten tapaamisen helppous seuranhausta ja parinvalinnasta pelin?
Pelillistämistä käytetään jo monenlaisissa palveluissa. Erityisesti muiden käyttäjien hyväksyntään pohjautuvat mediat luovat ympäristön, jossa voi olla jopa haastavaa välttyä tilanteen pelillistämiseltä. Vaikkei varsinaisia treffipalveluita pelillistettäisi tarkoituksella, ovat onnistuminen ja epäonnistuminen niin selkeästi tulkittavissa deittisovelluksissa, että se ajaa käyttäjiä luonnollisesti pelillistämään niitä. Kuten Race puheessaan mainitsi, myös kasuaalien kohtaamisten helpottuminen poistaa deittailun vakavuutta. Tämä luo tapaamisille uusia, leikkisämpiä tavoitteita.
Musiikkitutkija Anna-Elena Pääkkölä Turun yliopistosta esitteli Tom of Finland -musikaalin leikkisyyttä. Musikaalin taustalla olleiden henkilöiden haastatteluihin perustuva tutkimus esitteli pääasiassa musikaalin asenteita homouteen. Konferenssin teemaan se vedettiin keskustelemalla musikaalin keveästä ja leikkisästä tunnelmasta, joskin itse luento keskittyi pääasiassa musikaalin heteronormatiivisuuteen. Heteromiesten kansainväliselle yleisölle työstämä musikaali tuntui priorisoivan enemmän tietynlaisen Suomi-kuvan esilletuontia kuin seksuaalisuuteen liittyvien aiheiden kommentoitia.
Kuva 1. Tom of Finland -musikaali on kieltämättä leikkisimpiä Tom of Finland -aiheisia tuotteita, mutta minkälaiselle yleisölle se on lopulta suunnattu? Kuva: Otto-Ville Väätäinen, Aamulehti
Dosentti Katariina Kyrölä Turun yliopistosta tarjosi katsauksia saamelaisten ja Kanadan alkuperäiskansojen internet-videoihin. Aiheena oli kanadalaisen videotaiteilijan Thirza Cuthandin humoristiset lyhytelokuvat, sekä saamelaisten Suvi Westin ja Anne Kirste Aikion musiikkivideoparodiat. Taiteilijoiden keveät asenteet tarjoavat leikkisän katsauksen heidän näkemyksiinsä kulttuurista. Erityisesti Cuthandin videot parodioivat valkoisten uudisasukkaiden perspektiivejä ja tässä kulttuurissa syntyneitä stereotypioita. Täten niiden kohdeyleisönä ovat pääasiassa alkuperäiskansalaiset. Videot toimivat leikkisänä aktivismina ja Kyrölä painottikin kysymystä siitä, miten valkoinen uudisasukas voi tutkia tällaista kulttuuria. Voiko hän tarjota varteenotettavan ja hyödyllisen perspektiivin?
Konferenssin teema veti myös paljon pelitutkijoita puoleensa. Tutkijatohtori Caroline Bem Turun yliopistosta käsitteli seksuaalisuuden esityksiä pelissä Genital Jousting (2016). Vertailu pelin tarinaosuuden ja moninpelin välillä osoitti pelissä esiintyvää monipuolista satiiria. Tarinaosuus on ironisesti pyyhitty hahmojen välisestä seksuaalisesta kanssakäymisestä ja huumori tavoitetaan pelin konsumerismin kritiikin ja sen peniksiin perustuvan estetiikan vastakkainasettelusta. Pelin moninpeli pohjautuu hauskojen tilanteiden luomiselle ja pelaajien väliselle interaktiolle. Bemin mukaan pelin oman seksuaalisen huumorin metakäsittely kutsuu pelaajia keskustelemaan seksuaalisuudesta vakavammin. Pelin kotisivuilta löytyvät tekstit tukevat tätä näkemystä ja Bem esittääkin kysymyksen siitä, toimivatko pelin nettisivut huumorin puolesta vai sitä vastaan.
Kuva 2. Genital Jousting -pelin satiiri leikittelee odotuksilla. Juuri näistä odotuksista sillä tuntuu olevan eniten sanottavaa. Kuva: Devolver Digital
Dosentti Veli-Matti Karhulahti Turun yliopistosta käsitteli seksuaalisuutta pelisuunnittelun perspektiivistä laajemmin esitellen ensin pelien suunnittelumalleja. Pelisuunnittelun kieli pohjautuu suunnittelumalleille, jotka määrittävät sitä, miten tiettyjä aspekteja lähestytään pelisuunnittelussa. Seksuaalisuutta voidaan lähestyä esimerkiksi välttelemällä sitä kokonaan tai korvaamalla se metaforien avulla. Seksi on arka aihe videopeleissä ja sen esittäminen on herättänyt monenlaista metakkaa pelaajien keskuudessa. Haasteena onkin varmistaa, että seksuaalinen sisältö sopii peliin ja hahmoihin sellaisella tavalla, että se herättää ihmisten mielenkiinnon positiivisesti. Seksi myy, mutta vain oikein käytettynä.
Turun yliopiston kulttuurituotannon ja maisemantutkimuksen professori Jaakko Suominen esitteli haastatteludataa tietokone-erotiikkaan liittyvistä muistoista. 281 vastaajaa, joista 16 oli naisia, kertoivat lapsuudenmuistoistaan. Vastaajien keski-ikä oli 32.2, jolloin heidän lapsuutensa sijoittui 80- ja 90-lukujen molemmille puolille. Leisure Suit Larryn asema muistetuimpana eroottisena tekeleenä tältä ajalta ei yllättänyt. Suominen erotteli kiinnostavasti sen, miten vastaajat kuvailivat yhteisöllistä eroottisen materiaalin kokemista. 60 vastaajaa sanoi kuluttaneensa eroottista materiaalia “with somebody”, kun taas vain kuusi vastaajaa käyttivät sanaa “together”.
Päivä päättyi suomalaisen videopelihistorian puitteissa, kun allekirjoittanutkin otti osaa Koulu 3 (1993) -aiheiseen paneeliin. 90-luvun pornografista tekstiseikkailuklassikkoa käsiteltiin useiden eri näkökulmien kautta. Itse peilailin peliä anonyymiin verkkokulttuuriin, kun taas Petri Saarikoski Turun yliopistosta käsitteli 90-luvun pohjoismaalaista tietokonekulttuuria laajemmin. Englanniksi pelin kääntänyt Ellinoora Havaste avasi kääntämiseen liittyviä kokemuksiaan ja Tom Apperley Tampereen yliopistosta tarjosi ulkomaalaisen näkökulman pelin sisältöön.
Vaikkei Koulu 3 tunnu kovin ajankohtaiselta tai merkitykselliseltä aiheelta, edustaa se suomalaiselle pelihistorialle oleellista, vuosituhanteen vaihteen ”suomipelien” aaltoa. Itsenäiset pikkupelit olivat yleensä ilmaiseksi ladattavissa internetissä, houkutellen helpolla saatavuudellaan ja suomenkielisyydellään erityisesti nuoria pelaajia puoleensa. Näin koululaisten seksiseikkailuista kertova tekstipelikin osoittautui pelaajille ja suomalaiselle pelikulttuurille tavallaan oleelliseksi teokseksi. Suosiostaan huolimatta tämän aikakauden suomipelit ovat saaneet hyvin vähän huomiota akateemisessa pelitutkimuksessa, joten oli ilo tuottaa tutkimusta aiheeseen liittyen.
Seuraava aamu alkoi BDSM- ja kinky-kulttuurin ympärillä pyörivässä workshopissa. Kansantieteilijä Johanna Pohtinen Turun yliopistosta aloitti esitellen väitöskirjaansa, joka käsittelee kinky-kulttuuria etnografisen metodin avulla. Pohtinen luki yleisölle kirjoittamaansa fiktiivistä tarinaa, jonka oli tarkoitus esitellä erilaisia kinky-elämäntapaan liittyviä elementtejä. Fiktion oli tarkoitus toimia kuvailun ja analyysin metodina. Fiktio metodina olikin puheenvuoron ydin ja esiin nousi muun muassa kysymyksiä siitä miten fiktio tarjoaa mahdollisuuden anonymiteettiin sekä tiedon jakamiseen laajemmin.
Itsenäinen tutkija Susanne Schotanus tulkitsi sanaa “play” BDSM-kulttuurissa. Sana on alakulttuurissa hyvin yleisesti käytetty ja sillä on vahva merkitys harrastajien keskuudessa. Negatiivisista asioista voidaan poistaa vahingolliset elementit lisäämällä niihin leikkisyys ja poistamalla tämän avulla niistä vakavuus. Konsepteilla leikkiminen, rekonstruktio ja voimasuhteiden tutkiskelu poistavat vakavilta aiheilta, kuten raiskaukselta, rasismilta ja insestiltä, niiden haitallisuuden. Extreme-urheilun tapaan vakavilta tilanteilta poistetaan vaara leikkisän asenteen avulla. Leikki erottaa tilanteen todellisuudesta ja asettaa sen Schotanuksen mukaan fantasian maailmaan.
Kinkyn ympärillä jatkettiin vielä yhden puheenvuoron verran, kun Toronton yliopiston Jordana Greenblatt vertasi ilma-akrobatiaharrastustaan BDSM:ään. Nämä kaksi asiaa yhdistyivät melko vaivattomasti. Vapaaehtoisen kivun kautta itsensä ilmaiseminen sitoo ne keskenään, varsinaisesta sitomisesta ja köysistä puhumattakaan. Puheessa selkeytyi, miksi kinky-kulttuuriin liittyvissä tapahtumissa esiintyy usein sirkus- ja köysi-teemainen akrobatia.
Kuva 3. Köysien ja kivun ympärillä pyörivän ilma-akrobatian voi helposti yhdistää erotiikkaan ja seksiin, kuvassa Rachel Ki:n eroottisesti värittynyt esitys. Kuva: Crash Restraint, LLC
Päivän puolitti keynote, jossa Tallinnan yliopiston visuaalisen kulttuurin ja sosiaalisen median apulaisprofessori Katrin Tiidenberg keskusteli vuosien 2011–2018 Tumblr-kulttuurista. Kun blogipalvelu Tumblr:ssa kiellettiin seksuaalinen sisältö, sulkeutui Tiidenbergin mukaan myös kokonainen yhteisö. Sivulle asettunut positiivinen ja feministinen alastomuutta ja seksuaalisuutta juhlistava yhteisö menetti fooruminsa. Puheenvuorossa esiteltiin tapoja, joilla Tumblr edusti turvallista ja maskuliinisen katseen vastaista sisällöntuotantoa. Se, että alastonkuvia otettiin itsensä takia, erotti sen pornografiasta. Paino itseilmaisuun loi seksistä yhteisöllisen kokemuksen, asettaen leikkisyyden puhtaan hauskanpidon sijasta nautinnon kehyksiin.
Tohtorikoulutettava Ihsan Asman Turun yliopistosta aloitti seuraavan workshopin esittelemällä keräämäänsä haastatteludataa turkkilaisten pornokokemuksiin liittyen. Asman painotti haastateltavien liberaalia ja etuoikeutettua asemaa, mutta tästä huolimatta haastattelut tarjosivat kiinnostavan perspektiivin turkkilaisten näkemyksiin pornografiasta. 18:sta vastaajasta 8 oli naisia, 9 miehiä ja yksi oli muunsukupuolinen. Islamilaiseen moraalikäsitykseen liittyy naimattomien naisten deseksualisaatio, joka ilmenee esimerkiksi viittaamalla naimattomiin naisiin neitsyeinä. Naiset myös yhdistivät vielä aikuisenakin häpeää ja negatiivisia tunteita tai muistoja masturbaatioon ja seksuaalisiin kokemuksiin. Haastattelut avasivat myös turkkilaisten suhdetta arabimaihin, sillä arabit yhdistetään pornografiassa yleensä dominanssiin ja maskuliinisuuteen.
Pohjoismaiden ulkopuolelta saapuvia osallistujia oli konferenssissa kiitettävästi. Sukupuoleen liittyvät aiheet värittyvät usein kokijan kulttuurisen perspektiivin mukaan. Täten mahdollisimman monikansalliset lähtökohdat voidaan helposti nähdä tuovan suurenmoista arvoa tämänkaltaisille konferensseille. Tämänkin raportin ulkopuolelle jäi vielä esimerkiksi kehuttuja australialaisten, slovenialaisten, sekä tsekkiläisten esityksiä, joiden avulla pystyi altistumaan monipuolisille näkökulmille konferenssin teemaan liittyen.
Professori Tanja Sihvonen Vaasan yliopistosta yhdisteli BDSM- ja pelitutkimusta keskenään pohjaten esityksensä työn alla olevaan tutkimukseensa. Tarkemmin ottaen Sihvonen keskittyi nimenomaan roolipeleihin, ja kertoi turhautuneensa siihen, miten sukupuoleen tai seksiin liittyvässä pelitutkimuksessa keskitytään lähes poikkeuksetta naishahmojen representaatioihin. Puheenvuoro keskittyi vetämään yhtäläisyyksiä kinky-kulttuurin ja roolipelaamisen välillä. Roolileikit ja roolien ottaminen ovat seksuaalisessakin kanssakäymisessä yleisiä elementtejä. Kuten Schotanuksenkin puheenvuoro antoi ymmärtää, ovat leikin ja erilaisen pelailun käsitteet läsnä myös seksissä. LARP eli Live-Action Role Playing lainaa myös paljon BDSM-kulttuurista sitoen esiintymisen oikeaan elämään ja interaktioihin. Myös myöntymyksen ja hyväksynnän viestiminen sekä turvasanojen käyttö yhdistää näitä kahta maailmaa.
Viimeinen workshop oli Jyväskylän yliopiston Maria Ruotsalaisen ja Tanja Välisalon puheenvuoro heidän kyselytutkimuksestaan Overwatch-pelin fanikulttuuriin liittyen. Kyselyn tulokset kertoivat yleisöjen asenteista liittyen kysymyksiin sukupuolesta ja seksuaalisesta orientaatiosta Overwatchin hahmoista ja e-sports-pelaajista. Kysely toi esille representaation tärkeyden, joskin oleellista oli pelaajien mielestä myös autenttisuus ja yhteensopivuus hahmojen ja tarinan välillä. Selväksi tulikin että pelattavien hahmojen ympärillä pyörivien pelien kohdalla pelaajille on tärkeää pystyä samaistumaan hahmoihin. Suosittua on valita hahmo, joka tuntuu jollain tavalla edustavan pelaajaa ihmisenä.
Konferenssin päätti Tom Apperleyn keynote pelien ympärillä pyörivään pornoon liittyen. Pelaavien naisten ympärillä pyörivät pornografiset videot painottavat usein naisten osaamattomuutta. Vaikka pelaaminen osoitetaan videoissa viehättävänä, on se myös harrastuksena videoiden mukaan maskuliininen. Pelaaminen harrastuksena painottaa maskuliinisuutta ja tarjoaa prinsessojen pelastamisen ja muun vastaavan kautta poikalapselle maskuliinisen fantasian, joka voi vahvistaa tietynlaisia asenteita. Tämä Apperleyn mukaan ruokkii toksista maskuliinisuutta pelikulttuurissa.
Leikki osoitti konferenssin aikana monimuotoisuutensa. Sanana “play” sisältää tietysti suomeksi myös pelaamisen, laajentaen sitä entisestään. Teema herätti selvästi puhujien keskuudessa erilaisia perspektiivejä ja kutsui monenlaisia näkökulmia mukaan konferenssiin. Variaatio puhujissa herätti myös kuuntelijoissa monipuolisia reaktioita. Tyydyttävää olikin kuulla kuinka seksitutkijat, pelitutkijat, sosiaalisen median tutkijat ja muut kulttuurintutkimuksen ammattilaiset pääsivät tarjoamaan omia näkemyksiään seksiin, leikkiin ja pelaamiseen liittyen.
Seksiä ja leikkiä yhdisteltiin useisiin erilaisiin medioihin, harrastuksiin, aktiviteetteihin ja kulttuureihin. Konferenssi onnistui täten tarjoamaan moninaisen kuvan teemastaan ja herättämään keskustelua aiheeseen liittyen. Teemaa käsiteltiin positiivisena ja negatiivisena vaikuttajana, ja se antoi täyteläisen kuvan siitä, miten leikkisyyttä voidaan jäsentää seksitutkimuksen puitteissa. Puhujien monipuolisuus ja monikansallisuus tarjosi myös värikkäitä perspektiivejä teemaan liittyen. Vaikkei seksuaalisuus ole pelkkä leikin asia, voi leikki toimia silti suurena vapauttajana.