Consent and Control In and Around Gaming

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“Control and agency as formal properties and problematics have been persistent topics of investigation in the study of games. This panel explores how games and gaming galvanize and intervene in larger social debates on the politics of control. From ragdoll physics to consensual play, this panel will undertake close readings of game mechanics and re-examine some well-worn theories in game studies to investigate how play complicates our understanding of the operations of gender, race, sexuality, and physical ability.

To what extent does the notion of play as a space imagined to be set apart and free from consequences shape treatments of gender and sexuality? How do games construct and contest the desires, pleasures, and fantasies tethered to agency in daily life? When some bodies are treated like equipment in the games of others, how do we think about the relationship between the mechanical operations of digital games and the cultures through which they circulate? This panel will explore the role ethics play when games do not just imitate life, but have become a way of life.


Josef Nguyen:

Reframing Consent through Debates on Control in Games

Drawing from debates on control, agency, and pleasure in game studies, this paper investigates contemporary attitudes toward consent in political and popular discourses about sexual violence and rape culture to advocate for a rethinking of conceptions of consent. Constructions of consent in recent news coverage, courtroom transcripts, and university policies, for example, often position consent, even if implicitly, as an obstacle to sexual gratification–a functional requirement that must be overcome after first identifying desire in order to participate in the encounter itself. Consent as a site of conflict over individual agency, power, and responsibility is often framed through logics of shame, guilt, and blame when contested or questioned, whether directed at the victims or the perpetrators of sexual violence. This paper argues that these dominant logics and affects surrounding consent interfere with the promotion and celebration of consent as a necessary element of healthy and respectful sexual relations. As a counter to these dominant conceptions of consent, this paper examines queer games such as merritt kopas’ HUGPUNX and Robert Yang’s Hurt Me Plenty to propose a reframing of consent as first and foremost an on-going cooperative and shared negotiation of possibilities for future intimate and embodied relations.


Stephanie Boluk:

Feminist Killjoys and Magic Circle Jerks

If hackers, modders, speedrunners, pro gamers, traders, and farmers are sometimes considered cheaters or triflers because they play beyond the standard ways of engaging videogames, their exploits and expertise, gambling and grinding are nevertheless granted some leniency within both online and offline forums. These metagames do not disrupt the dominant social order of videogaming even as they test the rules, experiment with mechanics, and manipulate virtual economies. Yet forms of play that stray further from the standard (e.g., feminist criticism) are not as easily tolerated. Johan Huizinga’s term for the seditious player is the “spoilsport,” or the one who profanes the “magic circle” and “shatters the play-world itself.” This talk will discuss how feminist critics within the games industry not only play the part of Sara Ahmed’s “feminist killjoy” but, more accurately, that of the “feminist spoilsport.” And although Eric Zimmerman has argued that the naive belief in the magic circle is one of the most pervasive strawmen in game studies (going so far as to suggest that the myth of the magic circle has been replaced by the myth of a “magic circle jerk”), the strident and ongoing vilification of feminist work on videogames suggests that even if the magic circle does not exist, the desire for such an ahistorical, escapist gamespace persists.


Amanda Phillips:

Unruly Bodies: The Queer Physics of Fumblecore

Ragdoll physics procedurally animate limp bodies as they tumble through space. While this allows more “realistic” death and falling scenes, the notoriously glitchy algorithms have a troubling and vexed history with the gaming public. Ragdolls move unpredictably, often to hilarious effect, and frequently work against developers’ desire for realism. Early uses of the ragdoll engaged the floppy body as an object for sexual assault: from the early Falling Girl games that dropped a bikini-clad woman’s body through large bubbles to the multiplayer innovation of teabagging, gamers seemed to delight in the unexpected liveliness and unrealistic flexibility of these digital human puppets.

While such assaultive activities persist to this day, a new genre of fumblecore games take the unpredictable spirit of the ragdoll and transforms it into a core mechanic. Games like Goat Simulator and Octodad embrace the logic of unruly bodies, offering an alternative to the finely-tuned control schemes of most games. Working against the capitalist and heteronormative imperatives to discipline the body in productive ways, fumblecore offers a queer relation between desire and the body. Grounded in the unpredictable physics of the ragdoll, fumblecore bodies resist normative behaviors and control schemes, offering messy, undisciplined, and floppy alternatives to our virtual corporeal expectations.



Josef Nguyen is an assistant professor of game studies at The University oJosef Nguyenf Texas at Dallas in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication. His research engages science and technology studies as well as media studies, with particular interest in the politics of play, toys, and games in contemporary digital culture. His current book-length project investigates contemporary debates regarding creativity, children, and digital media, focusing on the gendered and domestic politics of social reproduction. His work in play and game studies, both as an instructor and a researcher, foregrounds issues of critically and politically minded design and play practices, such as modding and let’s plays.

Stephanie Boluk

Stephanie Boluk is an assistant professor in Cinema and Digital Media and English at UC Davis.



Amanda Phillips is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University.

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