Playing in the Dark: Digital Drag and the Virtual Imaginary

HARRIS QGCON 2015 headshotSPEAKER: James Harris

This project considers the racial dynamics at play in the constellation of new media objects that have helped form the nascent field of “game studies”. Rather than simply attempting to offer a reading of representations of race and racialized bodies (or, perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof) in a particular game, this project builds on the work of scholars like Lisa Nakamura, Eugene Thacker and Alexander Galloway to think about the “network” and the “interface” as vital metaphorical paradigms for rethinking social organization and control in late techno-capitalist societies, albeit ones that are not removed from the cultural logics that produce difference and inequality despite the utopic promises of technology’s greatest supporters. This in mind, I want to consider what it might mean to produce a counternarrative about gaming culture, one that challenges the preconception of gaming as predominantly (and properly) the pastime of middle-class to upper-middle-class white males. I want to suggest that what I’m calling “digital drag” is an essential and as-yet-under-theorized component of the appeal of gaming. This form of play, while not entirely divorced from the long history of cultural drag in the contemporary context, does, I argue, extend and build on the concept in key ways, from privileging conventional notions of perfection to insisting on the realism of its stereotypical constructions.

To highlight this, I examine three sites where race becomes a vital analytic for thinking through both the production and reception of particular games. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 3 (2012), Introversion Software’s Prison Architect (2014) and developer Naughty Dog’s “genre-defining” survival adventure game The Last of Us (2014) each offer examples where the complex interaction between histories of (often state-sanctioned) racialized violence and consumer techno-culture are both structured into and thematized by projects that present ostensibly as “games”. Ultimately, I want to ask what it means to “play” with race. In so doing, I want to suggest that game studies as a field has much to gain from taking more seriously the fundamental and yet profoundly ambivalent role race plays in gaming.

James Harris is a PhD Candidate in the English Department at The Ohio State University. His dissertation, Un-Becoming Adults, examines contemporary coming-of-age narratives in contemporary US Ethnic Literature. He has written and presented on a range of topics from popular culture to videogame studies with a focus on the production and consumption of youth culture. He is also one of the founding members of the Rhetoric, Politics, and Games Series, a monthly event series that examines different aspects of games and game culture.