4 thoughts on “Queering the Controller”

  1. [My response should have come earlier, but for personal reasons it had to wait until today]
    Unsurprisingly, this piece has generated a lot of valid critical replies. Let me start by stating: all reasoned critiques are fair, and make very valid points. I have been working on this piece for a long, long time, and it still makes me very uneasy. I am specially thankful to Naomi Clark and Amanda Phillips for their critiques
    But I also understand that this kind of work, coming from me, can seem like the worst kind of identity tourism. I am not only white cishet, but also extremely privileged (tenured, living in a liberal country like Denmark, with an EU passport, …). And yet, I am writing about queerness. If this comes across as identity tourism, I am really sorry. I have reasons why I wanted to engage with queer game studies, but I understand how problematic that is. The identity politics problem is only one of the many issues that this article has, and while I will try to address as many as I can in this response, it will likely not satisfy all critiques.
    I hope that the disclosure of my identity alleviates the identity tourism problem as well as frame the critiques. I am an ethicist by training, and when I write about ethics I do the same so my conclusions about morality are situated, and open for critique. I am very open to have my identity be the focus of the critique to my writing.
    The question is: why did I write about queering the controller, and why did I engage with queer game studies? Let me sketch the history of this article: the HCI article about sex toys I quote started my interest in sex toys and their design. At that time I started a slow drift away from game studies, and there was an obvious connection between sex toys and play, which was my topic of interest at that time. About a year after I read this paper, and for reasons connected with my research on play, I started reading up on the literature about kink, S&M, and other forms of play. Becoming familiar with that work forced both to read and re-read feminist and queer theory. I am still working on this, and there are more gaps that knowledge in my head right now.
    With all those pieces put together, I realized that there was an interesting intersection between sex toys, game controllers, and feminist and queer theory. I think this is not exactly the same kind of work that Jean Hardy (http://depts.washington.edu/tatlab/intersectionalfutures/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Hardy_IntersectionalFuturesWorkshop.pdf) or Ann Light (https://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/events/experiencingcriticaltheory/Light-Heterodoxy.pdf) have done in the field of HCI, and so I started research on queer game studies. And when I say research, I mean mostly reading and listening to scholars. This limited modality of engagement is a problem, but at that time I did not know what I was going to do with this work.
    After this research period, I realized that what I wanted to write was the piece that now has been published by this venue. And the proper dilemma started. I am aware of my own seniority and privilege, which can act as a black hole: what I quote gets read and cited and what I don’t disappears. What I say is listened to, and what I omit is, consciously or unconsciously, dismissed both by students, younger scholars, and broader audiences. I try to live up to this privilege responsibly, but I know that it is a black hole that will end up causing trouble.
    In the case of this paper, I had to decide how to frame my argument, and the following is my rationale: if I framed my critique of game controllers as instruments of control of embodiment and vehicles for a particular heteronormative ideology from the perspective I am more comfortable with, the intersection of critical design, play studies, and game studies, then I would be declaring, from my authority, that this topic and this approach is the domain of these disciplines. However, the actual discourses that are doing not only the critical work but also coming up with the alternatives do not belong to the center of any of these disciplines, but to their periphery. Not acknowledging this would be silencing the work that is done and from which my observations are derived.
    If I had written this text from those perspectives, I think I would have perpetuated the very same problem I wanted to highlight and challenge: critical design and game studies and play studies come with a set of privileges and influences that would limit the kind of analysis and reflection I wanted to create. In short: it would be yet another “critical” piece by a senior scholar in the field of game studies, validating this discourse, the critique of heteronormative controllers, as part of privileged game studies. Also, critical design in the tradition I have been working on is very (but not totally!) white, very (but not totally!) male, and very (but not totally!) academic.
    I wanted this piece to highlight how queer game studies is the domain in which this discussion belongs. Queer game studies has the methodology, the discourse, and the alternatives that we need to move our understanding of controllers further. I did have what I consider to be a minor contribution, which was to connect these ideas to sex toys, and that is why I think authoring this piece made sense.
    I hope the piece cites and refers to the work that is actually being done in this area. I am not claiming the discovery of new land, but aligning a line of thought with the work that is already being done by queer game scholars. There is work done in this field, by people who are trailblazers in game studies, and whom I hope to have cited. My intention was to follow the ideas these authors have proposed and show that there are interesting research topics ahead that need attention. But my work builds on, depends on, and is indebted too queer game studies. Not acknowledging this would be a form of suppression of this discourse in game studies. If suppression is still the outcome of this piece, I regret it.
    The next problems are closely related to these: the manifesto format and the publication venue. In hindsight, the manifesto format was a mistake due to my lack of rhetoric skills. I wanted a piece that was galvanizing, respectful but also a call to arms. I wanted to help shift perspectives in fields that are/were my scholarly domain. But manifestos are monologic and tone-deaf, and they are not the right format for this piece. They shout, and I just needed to talk.
    Regarding the venue: Aaron Trammell suggested that I should submit something on my work on sex toys, encouraging me to take chances. All of the flaws of this piece are mine: Aaron is an excellent scholar and a thoughtful and engaged person, and I hope I have not caused him that much trouble. I thought this venue was perfect for this work because it is a “game criticism” venue rather than a “game studies” one. That is, it does not have the peer-review problems and privileges, and it is more open to experiments that fail and for starting conversations.
    I would not publish any single-authored piece on queerness on a peer-reviewed journal, much less a game studies one. That would be an enormous mistake on my side: I would bring the black hole of my senior scholar reputation and augment it with the social, cultural, academic and economic capital of peer review. That would be a blow to the work I am indebted to.
    If this piece is a similar blow to that work, if this piece provides such an structural problem to the work of queer game scholarship, I will be happy to withdraw it. I think queer game studies is the best thing that has happened to this field in ages, and I don’t want my thoughtlessness to harm it.
    In other words, I did apply queer game studies to the understanding of videogame objects. If the fact that I am white and cishet invalidates my arguments, the format of the piece, or the venue, I am happy to admit these mistakes publicly and work towards solving them in whatever manner. But the alternative in this work would be to academically and institutionally ignore, or downplay, the importance of queer game studies, not just as a field that exists, but as a body of knowledge that is extremely productive and crucial for the present and future of this field.
    No matter what, this text would always be trouble. Whatever wrongs I made, I will be happy to address them and correct them. And if the whole thing is wrong, if it does not contribute with anything but an insulting appropriation of other people’s work, then I will be happy to retract it.

  2. I really enjoyed the premise of this piece. A few of quick points in response, as I have been trying to unpack the relationship between interface design, sex toys, and games a bit in my own work:

    1) The visual aesthetics of both the RealTouch and RealTouch Interactive controller were greatly influenced by the WiiMote. The device’s inventor had worked on developing game controllers for Immersion Corporation while he was prototyping what would eventually become the RealTouch. So there are material points of contact between these fields that could be attended to quite productively, I think.

    2) While you gesture toward this area of research, and reference the work by Bardzell in this area, it is crucial to recognize that sex toys have fraught & contested histories as expressions of patriarchal control that this piece seems to overlook. Even for Maines, the story of the vibrator is not one of the outright liberation of female sexuality, but instead, a complex interplay between patriarchal medicine, advertising & commerce, and design. It seems that you’re idealizing a relatively recent movement in sex toy design, and then projecting that onto a whole field that has historically had much worse problems with gender than even the game industry. Lynn Comella’s (brand) new book Vibrator Nation should complicate this narrative a bit too, though I haven’t read it yet: https://www.dukeupress.edu/vibrator-nation.

    3) While I understand that this piece is offered as a manifesto of sorts, it seems to overlook the complex histories that both controllers and touch feedback systems are embedded with–which are already entangled with notions of sexual pleasure, and attempts to operationalize the differences between affective and informatic modes of engagement through the interface. At this point in Game Studies, I don’t think work both the historical and theoretical aspects of controllers is quite as “scant” as you’re asserting. On the intersections between sex toys and controllers (may be a bit too journalistic for your tastes) I’d recommend this piece (features refs to Diana Pozo’s work and my own): http://www.playboy.com/articles/history-of-vibrating-controllers-gaming.

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