Written by Brennan Black, BA’18
A college dropout named Mae returns to her hometown, which is dealing with economic stagnation from the decline of its mining industry, and she discovers that one of her oldest friends has gone missing.
Sounds like an interesting premise to a novel, right? In fact, this is the story setup for the 2017 video game, Night in the Woods, developed by Infinite Fall and Secret Lab.
The game is one of many on the syllabus of “Queer Theory and Video Games,” taught by Dr. Derritt Mason, PhD., and offered through the Department of English at the University of Calgary.
“I want students to take away the incredibly rich stories that video games can tell,” says Mason.
Like novels, video games can tell stories at the level of plot and character, but they also tell a story through the gameplay and the rules set up for the player.
“It’s really challenging to interpret and think critically about video games, so I want students to think about video games as really sophisticated texts,” explains Mason.
It’s an approach to study Mason was introduced to when news broke in late 2017 that the first queer video game, 1989’s Caper in the Castro, thought to be long lost, was rediscovered and put back online by the LGBTQ Game Archive.
“Queer theory has been around for decades. The medium of video games is an exciting and fresh way to engage with it,” says Mason.
During the course, students spend half of their class time in lecture and the other half in game labs, where a student will host a game stream while others observe and participate by engaging in the stream chat.
“I’m trying to foster communities of play in the class,” says Mason. “Students can get together, watch each other play, comment on each other’s play, and reflect on how someone else’s gameplay is different or similar to their own.”
Two people playing a game could have completely different play experiences. They could find different plot points or meet different characters. By observing that play, students may see parts of the game that they personally hadn’t seen before.
Play the Games
Adventure, exploration and even a fox trying to figure out the source of an eternal blizzard. Here are a few of the video games university students are learning with.
Night in the Woods
Developed by Infinite Fall and Secret Lab
Queers in Love at the End of the World
Developed by Anna Anthropy
Developed by Upper One Games
Developed by The Fullbright Company
At the same time, students explore the links that exist between video games and queer theory. Queer theory encourages people to challenge the systems of power related to sexuality and gender that underwrite our day-to-day lives. In particular, the theory pushes back on heteronormativity — the idea that your sex assigned at birth determines your gender — which determines the object of your sexual desire.
“Queer theory wants to upend all of that and say there is no natural relationship between sex assigned at birth, gender and desire,” says Mason.
When applied to video games, queer theory can challenge common conceptions of what a game is and what play looks like, which is why this course is so effective. In queer game studies, stereotypical play objectives, like accruing power and levelling up, are rejected for a different style of gameplay.
“What about a game that doesn’t use power in the same way?” says Mason. “What about a game that might take away your power or your agency? How can those systems that are set up in games to determine a certain type of gameplay be challenged or problematized?”
In Night in the Woods, there is no levelling up and the player is given very limited choices in some circumstances.
“The gameplay is designed to limit the player’s choice, just as Mae’s choices as a queer person in a working-class town would be limited in the ways she can engage with the world around her,” explains Mason.
Beyond engaging critically with the complicated texts that are video games, Mason hopes students, through queer theory, begin to question what counts as a game, what counts as gameplay, and how to play games where you can’t win because the game won’t let you.
“Just as we use queer theory to question the way we interact and present ourselves on a daily basis, I want the queer dimension of the class to give students the tools to think about video games in the same way,” Mason says.
Queer representation in young adult media is growing fast. Dr. Derritt Mason’s book, Queer Anxieties of Young Adult Literature and Culture (University Press of Mississippi, 2021), looks at the good, bad and blurry affects of that explosion of representation across books, video games and television shows.