I spent the first ten minutes of Different Games making out with Todd Harper, who previewed the conference for Paste. Todd and I are both renowned Internet homosexuals so no one was expecting us to lock lips on opening night but when we saw Realistic Kissing Simulator in the Different Games Arcade we couldn’t resist. As I passionately tongued Todd’s eyeball in a completely consensual way, I knew that I had found a games conference where I could feel comfortable.
Like Queerness and Games, Different Games is a hybrid space where developers, activists, academics and critics speak a lingua franca of games and social justice. The event was meticulously organized by students and volunteers from New York University and Georgia Tech, but the figural space of the conference itself was messy in the best possible way, full of the sort of cross-disciplinary dialogue that makes gaming culture so bracing when it is at its best.
The conference opened with artist talks by the 2014 Different Games Fellows, a cohort of five game designers who have received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create original work in the games medium. I am happy to report that this amazing group of artists is spending the U.S. Government’s money on queer games that range from the delightfully bizarre to the downright pornographic.
Kaho Abe is creating an arcade racing game in which you see yourself as a large bunny in the rearview mirror, Mattie Brice has gone full Twitter-ception with a trio of games about social media activism, Robert Yang is designing an Oculus Rift-based gay nightclub simulator in which you move by looking at butts, Anna Anthropy is “using government money to make a game about being slapped in the face,” and the impossibly well-dressed Colleen Macklin has created a queer-themed, card-based impromptu debate game. We should all pour one out for Robert Mapplethorpe who paved the way in the 80s for these intrepid young artists to spend NEA money on some super gay stuff.
Not only was I easily seduced by the levity of this suite of government-funded games, I would also argue that the buoyant humor underlying all of the Fellows’ projects is a strong sign that efforts to diversify the gaming space are finally bearing fruit. Increased diversity programming at mainstream cons like PAX and GDC have worked in tandem with dedicated events like Queerness and Games, Gaymer X and Geek Girl Con to put minority gamers on the map. And, over the last few years, queer and marginalized critics, scholars, activists and designers have tirelessly educated a community that was once perceived to be a homogenous mass of straight white men. I left the artist talks with the hope that one day marginalized folks working in the games space can quit telling people that they exist and start making more games with butt-based movement mechanics.
The day after these artist talks, Different Games hosted a keynote talk by Leigh Alexander followed by a series of panels in concurrent tracks. Leigh Alexander brought her characteristic 90s style and razor sharp cultural insight to her talk “Grunge, Grrls and Games: Turning the Dial for a More Meaningful Game Culture.” For Leigh Alexander, the 90s were a time when we could still think games were “cool,” as opposed to the ironic detachment of twenty-first century gaming culture.
“I wanted to share my memories of a time when we loved something,” she said. “Why else do we put up with all this bullshit and this culture war if we didn’t love games once?”
Alexander tapped into grunge and riot grrl movements in order to argue for an enthusiastically diverse radical games culture. One thing was clear at the conclusion of her keynote: Leigh Alexander is a walking history book for 90s pop culture.
The highlight of the remainder of Day Two was the “Sex Games” panel featuring Anna Anthropy, Merritt Kopas, Naomi Clark, Lizzie Stark and Nina Freeman. With a title like “Sex Games” how could it disappoint? Much like the presenters at this year’s Feminist Porn Conference, these designers focused their conversations around issues of consent. Lizzie Stark spoke to the complex ways in which members of live-action role-playing (LARP) communities tell stories about love and sex while respecting each other’s needs and boundaries. And Naomi Clark wowed the audience with the portmanteau “Consentacle,” her title for a game that rethinks consent in the context of an alien encounter.
After lunch, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel about queer advocacy with Mattie Brice (co-organizer of Lost Levels and Queerness and Game), Toni Rocca (president of Gaymer X) and Todd Harper (organizer of MIT Game Lab’s QUILTBAG Game Jam). This group of queer event organizers shared wisdom from their past experiences as well as tips for future organizers of diversity-focused gaming events. Brice shared her concerns about the accessibility, safety and affordability of gaming events, suggesting that globally-coordinated sets of local conferences might help to ease the financial burden placed on folks who do not live in the Bay Area. Rocca pointed out that conference organizers can take many easy, low-cost steps (such as establishing gender-inclusive restrooms) in order to ensure that everyone feels welcome. And Harper counseled future game jam organizers that they should focus more on creating fun, inclusive spaces than on pushing attendees to finish their games. The joy of the jam, it seems, is in the journey.
I was able to see one more panel before catching my train home: “The Diversity and Locality of Fighting Game Worlds” moderated by Georgia Tech’s Simon Ferrari and featuring a group of three members of the fighting game community (FGC): Samantha Hancock, Rodney Reid and Wynton B. Smith. The panelists shared a cross-generational perspective on the historical development of the FGC: Hancock is a young gamer who streams on Twitch but Reid still remembers the golden age of the New York scene when there was an arcade on seemingly every corner. Hancock, Reid and Smith all shared advice about welcoming younger, untrained gamers into the FGC and they expressed a mutual frustration at the way in which some mainstream gaming blogs selectively focus on negative incidents within the community.
A conference like Different Games is ultimately a pop-up world that gets dismantled as quickly as it has been created. It is now de rigeur for queer gamers leaving these events to express remorse at the necessity of their departure and dread for their return to less hospitable communities. But as long as queer and marginalized gamers can keep coming together and making space, however ephemeral, I think we’re on the right track. I’ll be back at Different Games next year to help keep the ball rolling and to once more satisfy my craving for Todd Harper’s gay tongue.
Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality and videogames. She writes regularly for the feminist gaming blog Border House. Her work has also appeared on Jacobin, Salon, Paste, Kotaku, Kinsey Confidential and in Adult Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @CousinDangereux.