Queer Avatar Construction Leads to Homonormative Play

COHN QGCon 2015 headshotSPEAKER: Jonathan Cohn

In games that attempt to be sexually inclusive, homosexuality is often framed as a choice that players can easily make and unmake at will.  This is the opposite tact of most other areas of contemporary culture and science that frames sexuality as a quality determined by genetics, biology and anything but choice.  This decision has been praised in The Sims, Mass Effect and Dragon Age game franchises for allowing gamers a chance to adopt an avatarial role that better corresponds to themselves.  Yet, these choice-centric design decisions encourage the creation of characters who may have fluid, transforming, and/or homosexual relationships, but are in every other way indistinguishable from their heterosexual counterparts.  Players of all sexualities adopt a touristic play-style as their characters enact their sexual desires in safe, non-judgemental, fantasy spaces divorced from the lived reality of many gamers.  Queer gaming may be about constructing non-normative identities, but it is not necessarily about experiencing them.
In this paper, I will analyze the discourses of choice and sexuality that surround the Sims and various Bioware games and how they paradoxically facilitate the biological definition of sexuality within other areas of life.  I will also discuss the production decisions that led to these game mechanics and contrast them to games where the avatar’s sexuality is set from the beginning.  While sexual preference is governed by biology, these games illustrate and complicate notions of how the adoption and performance of one’s sexuality is a question of choice.  By comparing the various ways these games present sexuality as a playable preference, I also argue that they largely promote and allow only for a homonormative interactivity that excludes more subjectivities than it allows for.  Yet, all games are open to alternative readings and playstyles and I will showcase how players of various sexualities have used this homonormative interactivity to their own queerly subversive ends.

Jonathan Cohn is an Assistant Professor of Digital Cultures at the University of Alberta.  His work has appeared in Camera Obscura, Spectator, and several anthologies.