On 27th July, as part of a series of online events run by Arizona State University’s Centre for Science and the Imagination, I will be talking about Kentucky Route Zero with Rachel Carr, a scholar of Southern U.S. and Modernist literature, as well as Women’s and Gender Studies, at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky. We’ll be talking about gothic motifs of places that carry trauma, figurations of rural and post-industrial landscapes, and the role of play and art in how the game imagines post-capitalist ways of living. Details here!
I am one of three judges on Andro & Eve’s Reclaiming the Rainbow Photo Challenge – details below. Please send in your weirdest visual experiments with rainbows!
I’ve realised recently that a surprisingly large number of things are both gay and homophobic at the same time. There are things that only make sense to me in the context of queer life, but that are also compelled to disavow their participation in queerness. The result is that they feel haunted by the lives that they refuse to animate. A lot of these uncomfortable politics can be encapsulated by an item of clothing worn by Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, usually at the behest of one of his girlfriends.
Content warning: discussion of homophobia, queerphobia, and ableism; portrayal of transmisogynistic images and tropes.
Doublets came to prominence in Europe in the 15th to 17th centuries, and incorporated a number of different technologies at different times to shape the male body and signal one’s belonging to a collective identity. Some doublets used whale bone to flatten the torso and straighten the posture, and they were often worn with heeled boots to further modify the gait. Other trends represented in the doublets available in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt include the ornamental use of metal buttons and leather to subtly signal elite status without standing out by wearing anything too garish (Hayeur-Smith et al. 2018), and the “skimpy doublet”, which was intentionally worn short to reveal the undershirt layer, a subject of some scandal from moralists at the time.
The specifics of how doublets signalled both group belonging and elevated status in different contexts at different times are not important to The Witcher 3, but the cultural politics of dress, masculinity, and austerity are noticeable. There are certain events in the game where clothing is associated with social feelings, such as shame and pride, and this association stands out in particular in those moments where Geralt is asked to wear a doublet.
We recognise shame as the opposite of pride. But the goal or outcome of Pride as a public event is not the same as the personal feeling of pride; the collective outcome is more like visibility, truth, and having space in society. Similarly, the public, collective result of a society that treats our identities with shame is not reducible only to the subjective feeling of shame; it is invisibility, speculation, and having to haunt the spaces that we would have otherwise had.
In Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher writes “What should haunt us is not the no-longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not-yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised.” In Time Binds, Elizabeth Freeman writes about “queer hauntology” in relation to artworks that project the present into the past, or Derrida’s hauntology as the sense that the present is haunted by the past’s unfulfilled promise. I understand this hauntology as a grief for the worlds we didn’t get to create, and the selves that we didn’t get to be. On top of that meaning of the term, works like The Witcher 3 make me feel personally alien or ghost-like, as though it were me and my actually-existing community that was haunting the worlds that dare not imagine us into being.
When I think about how The Witcher 3 makes me feel, as though I were a ghost lurking in the background of other people’s stories, I think about Sarah the Godling, one of the many beings in the Witcher universe who is misunderstood as a monster until Geralt pays closer attention to them. Sarah has been intentionally giving people the impression that a house is haunted, in part because she enjoys the mischief, and in part because it is one of the few strategies available that allow her to ensure a place to live. Haunting is how she is able to have space in a world that disavows her kind.
Lurking in the background of The Witcher 3 is the fact that Geralt, as a witcher, does not fit in or belong to mainstream society. People yell insults at him, including “freak” and even “gray boy”??? The not-very-hidden subtext is that Geralt too is misread as a monster, and his kind are now almost gone from this hostile world. Witchers were produced out of the attempt to rid the world of things that people considered “other”, and then they themselves became part of the “other” that people fear and do not understand. Sometimes what I want to say about this game is that it refuses to understand what it’s really like to live on the margins, but sometimes I think that it actually shows a disturbing level of insight into that marginalisation by turning diversities of gender and sexuality into little more than half-remembered daydreams.
To move between the highest levels of society and its haunted corners, Geralt needs to mask, and doublets are a key tool in doing this. Mages also mask, but the affective imaginaries attached to masking differ along gendered lines. Changing your appearance to fit in with beauty norms is seen as a desirable perk of being a mage, one for which they are willing to suffer terribly. Geralt, however, could hardly be less enthusiastic about wearing a single slightly-uncomfortable garment in order to look appropriate in a formal setting. He is usually cajoled into it by his mage girlfriends. Both boundary-crossing identities use personal presentation in order to create a way of conditionally fitting in, just for a little while, despite the widespread threats against them from normative society. Geralt complains that doublets make him uncomfortable, which seems in slightly poor taste when talking to someone literally wearing a corset and heels, but as mentioned above, doublets were a similar technology for straightening the body. On the surface, this begrudging attitude looks like an expression of a certain kind of rugged masculinity, even though by making him more attractive to the women in his life the doublet might be expected to enhance his performance of desirable manliness.
The reading of these moments through disability studies takes this into a different direction. Disability consultant for tabletop games Sara Thompson has argued that Geralt is disabled, because the novels repeatedly state that he is living with a chronic pain condition. This should make us read his expressions of physical discomfort differently. In addition to this, Geralt is repeatedly called out for being affectively different to humans, who perceive him as not experiencing emotion at all. It is clear that this is not true – he clearly responds emotionally to events around him, and extends empathy to creatures that do not receive it from human society. In our own world, this “double empathy problem” (others cannot empathise with him, and thus he is read as lacking empathy) is closely connected to neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is also connected to diversity in sensory processing, which is easy to read onto witchers given that they are literally able to sense things that others cannot.
As one counts the various taxes that the body-mind pays for admission into these spaces, the act of masking seems to bind queerness and disability together. In Authoring Autism, Neuroqueer scholar Remi Yergeau makes a strong case for such a connection.
What [the clinical construction of] autism provides is a backdoor pathologization of queerness, one in which clinicians and lay publics alike seek out deviant behaviors and affectations and attempt to straighten them […] in its past and present clinical formations, autism is contextually situated within societal responses to and of gay panic.Remi Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 2017
Queerness haunts The Witcher 3 because it is not able to rise above the conditions of its production. It is a conservative product made to generate capital for bosses in a country with escalating restrictions on expressions of LGBTQ+ identity. At the same time, every sufficiently large AAA studio has queer developers, often finding ways to allow queerness to hide out in the shadows of its narrative. AAA games overwhelmingly keep it subtextual, while piling on enough normativity to allow them to pass as nonthreatening – there is a lot of masking happening on all levels. The fact that, according to a teleological view of “progress”, LGBTQ+ representation in one of the largest media franchises of recent years probably should not be such a difficult act of threading the needle, makes it all the more haunting. Queerness is not fully absent, but present to those who can sense it, as the ghost of the future that did not happen.
Like every ghost story, divergence is explained away with a more palatable narrative. Geralt’s discomfort in doublets is easily explained away as a masculine displeasure at being pushed into unmasculine activities such as dressing up and being diplomatic. Dandelion’s queerness is disavowed in a way that reads as particularly homophobic, as his queer-coded dress sense seems primarily used to signal ineptitude and weakness. When shopping for a doublet, Geralt ends up in an unnecessarily uncomfortable situation, in which even the most polite dialogue options involve clarifying that Dandelion had not had sex with a gender-non-conforming person who Geralt seems to consider as a man, and tersely rejecting the opportunity to share in the joy this person gets from wearing a dress. It is difficult to read the tone here as anything other than a homophobic concern that Dandelion might have deviated from heterosexuality, and a transmisogynistic discomfort around someone who presents themself in a genderfluid way.
The awkward effort put into this disavowal is a serious weakness of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling. This is a game that constantly shows you alternative families made up of ragtag groups of outsiders, and yet it always has to reaffirm that these alternative families are not queer. Geralt is a father-by-destiny with his nonreproductive non-exclusive partner, and his child has two other parents, plus a number of close family-like relationships with Geralt’s extended chosen family. And yet, we must be reminded before the game wraps up that Geralt’s family is still heterosexual and monogamous. Non-monogamy is not considered possible except by deception. So, despite the gameplay actively encouraging you to have Geralt get emotionally and physically entangled with multiple partners, with no indication that there might be friction or misgivings from Geralt’s side about having a polyfocal romantic life, he will still be punished if you have him pursue multiple relationships. Megan Blythe-Adams and Nathan Rambukkhana have argued that “in The Witcher series, the player cannot make this fruitful transgression into queer discovery […] the game’s array of sexual partners acts as a kind of buffer against queer possibility,” going on to point out that such narratives “force players to be either monogamous, cheaters, or creeps because they deny them alternative choices.”
As I write this, I imagine that my very blurry framing of queerness as neurodivergent and non-monogamous might meet objections from people whose queerness is not non-monogamous, or whose neurodivergence is not queer. But what I hope is that by following events connected to Geralt’s discomfort with doublets, it’s possible to see that despite the myriad specifities of our own individual experiences, The Witcher 3‘s discomfort with queerness cannot be separated from its discomfort with disability or non-monogamy. And of course, I haven’t even touched on the bizarre whiteness of this game’s imagined society. Given that these axes of oppression are bound together in the cultural production of difference, we have every reason to treat the issues themselves as intrinsically connected to one another.
The Witcher 3 feels to me like a conservative game haunted by disavowed queer possibility, because it cannot imagine difference and vulnerability as something that connects people. Instead, it is invested in always mitigating one axis of difference with several other axes of aggressive normativity. Homonormativity does this too of course. Corporate Pride often fails to recognise the axes of difference that all bind together in common the acts of haunting and masking. The easy-mode version of Pride is making visible that which can mask up effectively – not the nonmonogamous families, or the neuroqueer resistance to capitalist production, or the kinky or the otherwise strange and estranged. It is too easy for Pride to only recognise the pragmatic version of queerness that shows up to a polite occasion in order to do necessary work with people in power. The rest of queerness and its intersections haunts Pride as the ghost of futures deferred.
I think it is a mistake to reduce affect to a single rhetorical meaning, as though our discomforts only had one cause. It is a mistake to think that emotions such as pride or shame are the big thing at stake in the politics of representation and visiblity. Metaphors of masking and haunting reveal the strategies that we use to navigate a hostile world, and provide an alternative to either rejecting something like The Witcher 3 entirely for its obvious homophobia and misogyny, or inadvertently showering it with false praise in the course of reclaiming it as “feminist and queer, actually”. The masking and haunting that surround Geralt are at work in the production of this kind of high-budget media commodity, and in the day-to-day strategies of queer visibility.
Other writing about The Witcher:
Megan Blythe-Adams, Nathan Rambukkana (2018) “’Why do I have to make a choice? Maybe the three of us could, uh…’: Non-Monogamy in Videogame Narratives” http://gamestudies.org/1802/articles/adams_rambukkana
Elizabeth Ballou (2018) “Where The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt Goes Wrong in Depicting Women (and Why it Matters)” http://www.nymgamer.com/?p=17486
Khee Hoon Chan (2018) “Geralt of Rivia, Anthropologist” https://unwinnable.com/2018/05/08/geralt-of-rivia-anthropologist/
Tauriq Moosa (2015) “Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and gaming’s race problem” https://www.polygon.com/2015/6/3/8719389/colorblind-on-witcher-3-rust-and-gamings-race-problem
Megan Patterson (2016) “How Inconsistent, Sexist Fashion Hurts Worldbuilding in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” https://www.themarysue.com/pixelthreads-worldbuilding-witcher-3-wild-hunt/
Sara Thompson (2020), “Geralt of Rivia: A Disabled Protagonist” https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2020-11-24-geralt-of-rivia-a-disabled-protagonist
Ben Berman Ghan (2020) “Queer Time Machines: Hauntologies of Literature” Terse Journal https://tersejournal.com/2020/01/01/queer-time-machines-hauntologies-of-literature-by-ben-berman-ghan/
Mark Fisher (2013) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures Zero Books
Elizabeth Freeman (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories Duke University Press
Hayeur-Smith, M., Lucas, G., & Mould, Q. (2019). Men in Black: Performing masculinity in 17th- and 18th-century Iceland. Journal of Social Archaeology, 19(2), 229–254. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469605318793798
Sam MacBean (2016) “The Gal Pal Epidemic” Celebrity Studies 7(2) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19392397.2016.1165005?journalCode=rcel20&
Mitchell et al. (2021) Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health Developmental Psychology 39:1 https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjdp.12350
Eve Ng (2017), “Between text, paratext, and context: Queerbaiting and the contemporary media landscape” Transformative Works 24 https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/917
Remi Yergeau (2017) Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness Duke University Press
I recently had the joy of becoming one of 8 new trustees of digital arts festival North East of North (NEoN). At a time when arts and culture organisations are under extraordinary pressure, I’m excited to play even a small role in this fantastic organisation’s work supporting and showcasing digital art, elevating marginalised voices, and exploring new ways to serve audiences that are often excluded from art spaces. Learn more about NEoN and the other trustees at the link below!
Cis Penance is currently on display online at Studio Voltaire, as part of artist Raju Rage’s research project with trans writing project The Right Lube. They are doing work around trans self-medding and bodily autonomy, under the following statement:
“We stand for self-agency in determining our own heath requirements and gender definitions and not having to rely on a medical system that is often a barrier for trans people for multiple reasons, such as not meeting requirements and fitting definitions that are cis gender determined, not having access to services, gatekeeping and waiting on a national health service that has been cut, wanting autonomy from medical recognition, plus more.”https://www.studiovoltaire.org/whats-on/raju-rage-with-the-right-lube-online-research-desperate-living/
The Studio Voltaire page for the Desperate Living programme shows Raju Rage’s 2017 video collage Pyramid Revealed By A Sandstorm, an immersive, layered, textured piece of video art meditating on hormones as a kind of meeting point between the body and big sociotechnical structures.
If you are a trans or non-binary person considering self-medding, harm reduction workshops are available as part of the Desperate Living programme, which you can learn more about by following @raju_rage on Instagram.
Update 26 April: you can now watch this panel here!
I’m very excited to be on a panel at Ludonarracon next week about narrative structure and placemaking in games. Ludonarracon is a digital festival of indie videogame storytelling that I often referred to last year when looking for interesting and inspiring things to play and new ways of thinking about the medium, and you should definitely check it out if you are interested in stories or interactive media.
Friday April 23, 3pm PT
Stories are Structures, Videogames are Places
Claris Cyarron, Zoyander Street, Nathalie Lawhead, Jord Farrell
Videogames give us places to experience and explore. Stories offer us escape and example. The advantages and appeal of spending time in the many worlds or stories on offer through videogames has never been more clear, but the spaces where we spend our time shape us, even as they are shaped by us. Videogames are more than portals to other situations; they are places. At least, that is (part of) how these artists see them. Join videogame developers Nathalie Lawhead, Jord Farrell, Zoyander Street, and Claris Cyarron as they discuss the structural, material, and experiential aspects of their artforms.
I’m delighted to announce that I’m starting a project in collaboration with Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer, as part of “New Conversations”, a programme funded and delivered by the British Council, Canada Council for the Arts, Farnham Maltings, and the High Commission of Canada in the UK. I’m excited to be part of a cohort of participants thinking about critical issues such as disability, land, gender, and racial justice.
Squinky is one of my favourite artists, and also someone I feel incredibly lucky to be able to call a friend. If you’re not familiar with their work, it’s difficult to know where to start, but we first connected when I was crowdfunding for Dreamcast Worlds, and they were crowdfunding for Dominique Pomplemoose, a stop-motion animated musical adventure game with a non-binary person of colour protagonist – all of this was a significant breath of fresh air in 2012. They were kind enough to agree to a bit of mutual cross-promotion, so some Dom Pam backers supported Dreamcast Worlds and vice versa. We’ve been friends since then, attending games events together and occasionally collaborating on organising or curating things for indie and queer games.
Among the many projects they’ve made over the past nine years, two in particular have had a major impact on me. One is you used to be someone – if you’ve seen me give a presentation about queer games, you already know that I’m deeply fascinated by this game’s portrayal of affect, temporality, urban space, and identity. The other is Coffee: A Misunderstanding, an interactive play that was performed in real-life settings, including on stage, in tents at festivals, and in actual real-life coffee shops. It was facilitated by network-connected mobile phones that allow two people to perform as “puppets” by performing a script shown on their phones, and two others to control their actions and dialogue by selecting options, video-game style, from two other phones. Seven years later, I still think and talk about this play pretty frequently, particularly when considering what the structuring of dialogue choices is doing to a story: one of Squinky’s remarkable insights that comes through in Coffee is how the awkwardness of digital interfaces can be integrated into the tone and pacing of their writing. The project we’re creating together on the New Conversations programme will draw heavily on Coffee: A Misunderstanding, but we’re writing new content that reflects our personal and collective experiences understanding gender and neurodiversity, and designing a digital staging environment that messes with the awkwardness of video calls.
One of my tentative hopes for this project is to learn something about how artists can mess with video calling to create environments that actually suit the creative outputs that they want to achieve. When artists run workshops in physical space, they often think carefully about how the space is going to be set up and used, perhaps bringing with them a lot of tools and materials required to inspire people and get them in the right frame of mind. When running activities on something like Zoom, you have very little ability to exert similar control over the space. I’ve used a few other platforms over the past year that have been very effective at getting people creative in some ways: itch.io is great for inspiring people to make things and giving them a place to share them together, PubPub is a lovely way for strangers to make written publications together in a relatively ad-hoc manner, and Discord has been a great way to host a video call within an environment where longer-term asynchronous conversations are also going on. But even when bringing one of these into play, you still have almost no ability to directly author the environment you’re working within, modify it, and use its aesthetic qualities in an intentional manner.
As always, I feel like what’s needed is an open-source, community-owned option that allows us to be autonomous and experimental, even if that means tolerating glitches and unexpected outcomes. The goal of this project isn’t to create a video calling platform for general use, but I’m looking forward to learning about what interventions into video calling are possible on a low budget and at a small scale.
To go with the launch of Space Studios London’s Art + Tech showcase, today I pushed a big update to Cis Penance! Check out the rest of the artworks on display here: https://spacestudios.org.uk/art-technology/deep-play-showcase/
With today’s update, there are now 30 characters you can interact with in the work-in-progress build. Each one represents a different person I have interviewed – some going by names they use elsewhere, some going by pseudonyms I’ve assigned arbitrarily to preserve their anonymity. Each story is different, but there are many common themes, and I feel like at this scale you start to get a sense of the concerns and aspirations that we share as a community. I’m so proud of the way this project gets beyond the idea of transitioning as this solitary thing that one person goes through on their own, and gestures instead at a process that we all share as a community.
Check out the latest version of the Cis Penance work in progress build here: https://zoy.itch.io/cispenance
I’m updating the Cis Penance work in progress build for next week, when it will be featured as part of the showcase of work created during the Art + Tech residency organised by Space Studios, London. I’ll also be on a panel hosted in Mozilla Hubs, which is currently one of my favourite ways to be in online spaces!
Showcase: DEEP PLAY
4 – 19 Mar 2021
Launching: Thu 4 Mar, 12pm GMT here
Fri 5 Mar, 6.30 – 8.30pm GMT
Panel Discussion: (online, livestream).
Free but booking needed. Book your place here
Fri 19 Mar, 6.30 – 8.30pm GMT
Closing night party: Algorave (online, livestream)
Free but you need to your place here
The other work being shown is really exciting. There’s a lot of work that looks at the natural environment, and does great work challenging our figurations of the natural while creating a new sense of wonder and curiosity. I’ve never been as excited about rocks and clouds as I have been when hearing the other artists on this residency talk about their work. I can’t recommend this little online exhibition and series of events enough, and I hope you at least find a moment to take a look.
(Featured/header image is from Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s Black Trans Archive)
Next week I’ll be showing a preview of a video essay about monuments and memorials in some recent indie games (Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Black Trans Archive; Origame studio, Umurangi Generation; Cardboard Computer, Kentucky Route Zero; Finji, Night in the Woods).
Wed, 24 February 2021
18:30 – 20:30 GMT
This is part of an online event showing early work created as part of the Social Art Network’s “Monuments and Memorials” project, which “responds to current debate and action in the context of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, Decolonisation, and efforts to memorialise under-represented and persecuted communities and civil rights activists.” Also showing work will be Yuen Fong Ling (“Towards Memorial” project on Sheffield’s 19th-century pioneering gay socialist sandal-wearer Edward Carpenter), Sile Sibanda (Zimbabwean spoken-word artist based in Rotherham), and Maria Chrisá (“Between Times” project on checkpoints, controlled passage, and time in Palestine).