Circles, Charmed and Magic

November 25, 2011
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I recently contributed a guest post to a friend’s blog on the joys of gaming alone. In it, I discuss how solo-gaming is often disparaged by various dominant discourses. Game studies, for example, often tries to disprove the stereotype of the lonely gamer in an effort to get games to be taken seriously. This only serves to further legitimize the stigma of solitariness, rather than question it (a process which would lead to a better critique of anti-game rhetoric than simply proving the stereotype is “not true”). In the post, I made connections out to similar discourses surrounding sexuality, and connections I hope to further elaborate here. Specifically, I want to argue that game studies needs queer theory.

Before you hit the comment button in anger and chastise me for ignoring the scholars who have already incorporated queer theory into studies of digital gaming (I know them, I’ve read them, I like them, heck…I’m one of them), let me be clear about what I mean. There are studies of queer game content, production, and audiences. Many of these are more rightly described as studies of gay content, production, and audiences (though some do incorporate the L, B, and T’s of the LGBT acronym). These studies tend to address the lack of, potential of, or seek out what might be defined as queer content, production, and audiences. Folks have also suggested that there is an argument to be made for the inherent queerness of play and a queer critique to be made of how play in constructed (Ben Aslinger, for one, was kind enough to share his conference papers calling for queer game studies as I prepared this post).

What I am discussing here, however, is not just a study of queerness in games, queer readings made available by games, players who identify as queer, or even the inherent queerness at play (pun intended) in digital games.  Rather, what I think needs to be more clearly articulated is an incorporation of queer theory into the study of games. As Gayle Salamon describes in “Justification and Queer Method, or Leaving Philosophy”:

“Queer theory underscores the ways in which our identity choices are always to some extent circumscribed by powers beyond our control, while simultaneously arguing in favor of our capacities to enact gender or sexuality in other than normative ways, and one of its premises is that identities tend to codify that which they seek to describe, thereby instantiating new norms that can be just as oppressive as the norms they sought to counter.” (2009, p. 229)

I have argued elsewhere that game studies often draws on the language but not the conflicts of cultural studies. A similar problem exists in the use of queer theory. Noting, for example, that a player is somehow “queered” by playing as an avatar whose presented gender is different from that of the player is actually an inherently un-queer claim to make (one which re-inscribes the construction of binary gender it claims to dispel). Studies that focus on queerness only in relation to representations of non-heterosexuality, miss much of the potential of a queer games critique (just as studies which only discuss gender when they are doing projects “about gender” are missing the point made by feminist game studies).

What play is “good” and what play is “bad” is something I continually come back to in my own research, as well as my daily life. Rather than justify the study of games by disproving the lonely gamer stereotype, for example, the very basis of that being a delegitimizing factor could be questioned. As Salamon writes: “If justification is concerned with the ordering of beliefs, the reconciliation of one thing with another… then queerness as a method would proceed in the opposite way, by supposing a diversion or estrangement from the norm and using that divergence as a source of proliferation and multiplication with the aim of increasing the livability of those lives outside of the norm.” (p. 229)

There are similarities to how certain kinds of play (and indeed media consumption among other activities) are marked as “good” or “bad” and Gayle Rubin’s Charmed Circle of Sex. Playing with a group of people in the same room is, I would argue, often read as positive (at least if the game is of the family or party game variety and not a too serious game session). Playing alone or online with strangers is read as somehow sad and not a valid use of time. Drawing on Rubin’s circle we might read this as the difference between sex that is engaged of as part of a committed, heterosexual couple existing within the “charmed circle” versus sex is enjoyed alone or with a group being part of the “outer limits.” Granted, the value of certain forms of play from a particular gaming community will differ from those made by non-gamers. For example, casual gaming has negative connotations in “gaming culture,” just as obsessive gaming has negative connotations in “mainstream culture.” In either case, however, boundaries and limits are being drawn, justifying certain practices while de-legitimizing others.

In the interest of space, I will not elaborate the connections between manners of gaming and Rubin’s circle here (I am still developing the comparison), but I believe it points to the utility of a queer method: “[Q]ueerness is a methodology, one that gives us a way to articulate a queer ethics and a queer politics, where each of these insists on the generative capacities of claiming desire, and a fundamental openness to difference, located in the world and also in ourselves” (Salamon, 2009, p. 229-230). When game studies engages in a largely descriptive project, when researchers seek to define and bracket out certain kinds of gaming from others, and when games seek to create content for marginalized audiences—all of these are moments in which queer theory and method can (and should) be employed. The Charmed Circle can be used to demonstrate the very disciplinary power of the Magic Circle of play (an example I hope to elaborate in my next post).


Rubin, Galye. (1993).“Thinking Sex: Note for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader eds. H. Abelove, M.A. Barale and D.M. Halperin. New York: Routledge. P. 3-44.

Salamon, Gayle. (2009). “Justification and Queer Method, or Leaving Philosophy,” Hypatia 24(1). P. 225-230.


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3 Responses to “ Circles, Charmed and Magic ”

  1. Samantha Close on November 26, 2011 at 3:04 AM

    This is a really interesting point, particularly from my perspective as someone who often is a solitary player but also often finds myself making the social argument in explaining games to skeptical audiences.

    What occurred to me in reading your post is that many of these magic circle lines get drawn via considering questions of productivity–i.e. gaming in a group is more okay than gaming alone to a general audience because you’re “producing” relationships with those other people. Similarly, extensive solo play or online guild play is revered in serious MMO gaming circles because they see it as producing skill. Queer theory has a lot to say about the relationship between productivity/consumption and normativity, which might be an interesting direction for the future!

  2. Adrienne Shaw on November 29, 2011 at 6:43 AM

    An excellent point Samantha! I think that a lot of ways in which “good play” is distinguished from “bad play” is through productivity. For example, the research emphasizing play as important to human (and animal) development, tends to emphasize the “natural” and “inherent” importance of play, dismissing out-of-hand that play as frivolous is wrong. Queer theory offers a critique of all of those underlying assumptions, as you point out.

  3. Minal Hajratwala on November 29, 2011 at 7:42 PM

    I think this is so interesting, Adrienne. It also makes me think of what J Halberstam is putting out these days about failure — how success might be defined amongst gamers vs outside. Queerness as a defiance of normative values of “success,” etc. Is it necessary to be or be seen as a or be willing to be a failure … when it comes to, say, assimilating into mainstream culture … in order to succeed at being queer / achieving a level of mastery at a game / becoming a superhero on one’s own terms?