When I started my MFA program in the fall of 2018, my Introduction to Graduate Studies course assigned a conference paper on a topic of our choice. I used this opportunity to dive into my latest video game obsession at the time, Undertale, and the way it portrays gender roles and nonbinary identities. Despite the dearth of peer-reviewed papers, I managed to find an article at the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures (the people who run Archive of Our Own) that floored me, a piece by a Professor Bonnie “Bo” Ruberg examining how Undertale fans have “straight-washed” the game rather than confront its overtly queer themes. That paper was everything I needed it to be and more, opening up the field of queer games study to me.
Imagine my glee when I was asked to actually talk to the person who wrote that paper.
In March, I was fortunate enough to interview Bo Ruberg for Bitch Media, where I was reviewing their latest book, The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game-Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games. Dr. Ruberg agreed to answer questions I had outside of their book about them, their work, and queer games studies more broadly. If you’d like to read the interview in full, minus the questions for the review, you can subscribe to our Patreon for an exclusive look!
Bo Ruberg is a professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California-Irvine, where they’re a pioneer in queer game studies. They’re the author of Video Games Have Always Been Queer, the co-editor of Queer Game Studies, and their latest book, The Queer Games Avant-Garde, was released in March from Duke University Press.
Dr. Ruberg’s path into game studies, a field they’re helping to define and shape, started when they were young. “I started playing when I was 10 or 12, and when I was younger, they were really a thing that connected me to people in my life,” they said. But this love of games was not what they focused on, at first. Rather, their undergrad was focused on creative writing, and during that time, they began working as a games journalist as a side gig. They noticed quickly that at that time, around 2005, the internet was not the hot-bed of games journalism it is now, and most of those people who were talking about games were cis men. Throughout and after undergraduate, Ruberg worked full-time in tech and games journalism, although they did not more seriously consider games studies as their career opportunity until they were already in the midst of a PhD in comparative literature—which eventually turned into a dissertation called Pixel Whipped: Pain, Pleasure, and Media, focusing on embodiment in digital media.
In the midst of their PhD program, Ruberg began to search for a community—a queer games community. They told me the story of the first Queerness and Games Conference, which they organized with three friends out of a need for a space to talk about queer games. “It was totally a pivotal moment for me in grad school,” they explained, “but also as a person, to feel like there were so many people out there that I could connect with in that way. That’s really what has gotten me here and changed my focus, that changed what I read about, what I kind of organizing I do, and I’ve been sticking with that for a while now.”
I wondered, for all that there was a strong connection within the queer games community, how the field is situated and received within academia. When beginning at UCI, Dr. Ruberg was in the Department of Informatics, despite having an English PhD; now, they are in Film and Media Studies. “Working on games is really interdisciplinary by nature,” they explained. “You could study it from a New Criticism reading tradition, or you can study it from a really techy tradition, or you can study it from a really social science-y tradition.” This, they said, is what makes game studies both a wonderful and complicated field, because of the variety of disciplines it houses.
But unlike traditional game studies, queer game studies has the opportunity and possibility to cut through the disciplinary divisions—because queer game scholars tend to be the only ones in their departments or universities, which is immensely isolating. “I don’t know that we know how to situate ourselves yet,” Dr. Ruberg said, “but to me, at least, the important thing is when someone feels like shit, like I don’t know if I can do this because I don’t have any mentors or I don’t have anybody here supporting me to be like, no, you will make it work. Do not give up.”
This is vitally different than many individuals in academia, where there is a scarcity mindset—that there is only enough money, publications, and job possibilities allotted to any one scholar, therefore encouraging an environment of competition. But Ruberg believes queer game scholars like themself have a personal stake that pushes against this mindset.
“These are our lives,” they affirmed. “We’re queer people, we have queer politics, we believe in the ethics of radical existence through oppression, and if we can’t bring that into the things that we do all day—we’re part of these systems of power where a lot of us now are tenure-track professors. That’s a huge privilege, and if we can’t think critically about what that means and do better, then what are we doing? So we’re working on it. Still lots of problems, but we’re working on it.”
And, even though change is slow, academia is beginning to take the field of queer game studies seriously. Despite their change to a humanities department, Dr. Ruberg is still affiliated with the Department of Informatics at UCI, which means students from either field can seek their mentorship and expertise or join the eight PhD students currently in the CATS, the Critical Approaches to Technology and the Social research lab, which they co-run with their colleague, Aaron Trammell. True to Dr. Ruberg’s interests and work, the lab focuses on digital media and culture, with many students examining social justice in video games. Furthermore, as Dr. Ruberg approaches consideration for tenure, their work can become a cornerstone for up-and-coming scholars in queer game studies and video game students more broadly.
Part 2 of this feature will examine Dr. Ruberg’s thoughts on queer games more specifically, but in the meantime, you can check out their work on their website or follow them on Twitter, @MyOwnVelouria. The Queer Games Avant-Garde, which is a series of interviews with queer game makers, is out now from Duke University Press. If you’re interested in queer indie games, the game creative process, and queer studies in general, it’s a fantastic and thought-provoking read.
By day, Sidequest’s Managing Editor Naseem Jamnia used to do sciencey things, but they now slam their keyboard and call it art. By night, they play a lot of video games. And regardless of the time, they spend way too much of it on Twitter, @jamsternazzy.