I had my first introduction to feminist gaming in Havana, Cuba.
It seems like an odd place for it, but I happened to meet a bunch of interesting characters the day before they were holding their first ‘game jam’ in Cuba on February 24th 2017. These folks are game designers/artists/geeks who meet outside the commercial circuit of games and are striving to foster creative and collaborative communities around alternative gaming. Thorsten Wiedemann runs the international festival A MAZE with several locations around the world and was there to organize the event with local geeks Rodolfo Peraza and Jommy Barban from Fanguito Estudio. As a curious feminist, I attended without any expectations. And to my surprise, feminist revelations ensued from playing a game called UTE created by German game designer Lea Schőnfelder.
Now, let us be clear: I am not what you would call ‘a gamer’. I had a Colecovision in the eighties where I mastered Donkey Kong Jr. and Saxxon, and I played Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter with my little brothers here and there in the nineties. That’s it. Then in most of my adult life, I have not been particularly interested in games. My general attitude was shaped by the impression that the world of digital games was a hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive scene within mostly militarized violent worlds. Hyper-boring, to be short.
But THIS game.
UTE has a sort of naive, almost child-like drawings aesthetic, with very simple graphics. The protagonist of the game is a young straight woman who is approached by her grandmother in the introduction. Grandma proceeds to explain that the goal of the game is to have the most pre-marital heterosexual sex with a series of characters that include an insurance salesman, Che Guevara, a Philology student, her teenage pupil, the pizza delivery man and so on. Players score (pun intended) by sneaking out with the characters to have (outrageously kinky) sex without getting caught by the other men.
I was surprised by the exhilarating experience of playing this game. Every time anybody would get behind the controllers, men and women, the folks would immediately gather around the gamer participating as audience, encouraging the player to do their sex moves faster, or helping them beware of another man coming. Despite my previous assumption that games were isolating, this was a complete social/collective experience.
An incredible amount of laughter ensued every time somebody played.
The revolutionary pleasure associated to this game can be attributed number of transgressions to gender norms around the sexual virtue of women which are pretty explicit, but it also had an incredible significance that we were in Cuba, and that the Che Guevara was represented here as a hilarious character of a sex-themed video game. Playfully subverting the overwhelming masculinist and serious narrative of the heroes of the Revolution was truly exhilarating. If yet the game doesn’t feature same sex desires, heterosexual practices such as pegging here are too kinky to be deemed heteronormative:
Inspired by a graduate seminar with the late Jose E Muñoz, I have been thinking for a while about the utopian function of art and about the potential of different art forms in expanding our political imaginations (the ways we envision the world, our lives, our relationships, ourselves), in particular feminist performance. In “Ephemera as Evidence”, Jose E. Muñoz outlines how queer performances and performances of queerness are a kind of ephemeral and invisible evidence that point at the “lives, powers, and possibilities” of minority groups whose existence has traditionally been erased from historical visibility. This idea was already developed in Cruising Utopia, where Muñoz suggests that queer acts and performance already enact the potentiality and possibility of other worlds as well as other temporalities that are not linear. Relying on Bloch’s use of hope as a hermeneutic to combat the force of political pessimism, Muñoz conceived utopia as “a critique of the present, of what is, by casting a picture of what can and perhaps will be.” (Muñoz 35, emphasis original).
Building on Jacques Ranciere’s ideas on spectatorship I have argued that our (feminist) political practices are prefigured by our imaginations and our ‘cartographies of the feasible’ and that some forms of performance and art have the potential to expand our imaginaries and our ideas of what is possible. But I have never thought of the role of digital art and games for the reasons mentioned above. After my gaming experience in Cuba as a joyful, non-competitive activity that does not produce wealth, but just laughter and good times, I am definitely more curious to know more about this culture! Can these art forms be subversive of narratives that exploit and dehumanize women? Can games be feminist, sex/queer/kinky positive, and fun? In what other ways can they challenge our worldviews?
Keith Stuart from The Guardian recently made the argument for adults playing more games, on the grounds that they are relevant spaces where culture and art are happening. And I would furthermore argue that they are relevant spaces where politics are being articulated as well, as particular worldviews are assumed, or have to be temporarily accepted by the gamer. UTE is a sex-positive game that just makes you accept this world in which a woman’s (hetero)sexual pleasure is the goal. It is both undeniable that games are relevant today, and that the mainstream portion of it remains problematic for its connections with consumerism, racism, militarized masculinities and misogyny as frequently exposed by Anita Sarkessian at Feminist Frequency Tropes versus Women. However, it is important to identify and celebrate a subculture of alternative feminist gamers, made up mostly women, though not only.
In the special issue WOMEN of A MAZE. magazine I learned about the high involvement of women in the alternative games scene, and about the political potential of gaming through games such as Consentacles, a collaborative cards game for two designed by Naomi Clark, which could lead to players to re-imagine and in a way, to re-socialize themselves about sexuality and consent. Clark herself refuses to see the game merely as an educational tool, but the possibilities of the convergence of feminist politics and digital platforms for art and gaming seem endless.
Feminist Games are Feminist Art
But the question of what kind of art can be considered feminist art is not an obvious one. Not all art made by women can be considered feminist, while some art made by men that deal with cultural norms around gender (including masculinity), sexuality, heteronormativity and patriarchy should be regarded as feminist art.
In my curious quest to find games which envision and present feminist worlds, I found Nina Freeman’s “How do you do it?” which plays with the eroticism of the very taboo issue of the masturbatory fantasy and sexuality of girls. It is a simple, uncomplicated game in which you play with your dolls, make them have ‘sex’ and avoid getting caught by your mother. I enjoyed its narrative of a girl fantasizing about something that feels intriguing, exciting, and shameful at the same time.
Ironically enough, I got busted by my 9 year old playing this game (the reverse situation to the game) and hilarity ensued. She had a 15 minutes giggle fit at the expression of sexual satisfaction of the girl in the game as she doesn’t get caught by the mom.
Similarly, Mighty Jill Off by Anna Anthropy plays around lesbian BSDM themes, and though I haven’t got to play it myself yet, has been praised for its representation of non-traditional forms of desire by mediums like Rock Paper Shotgun.
It is not lost on me that I started thinking of the connections between digital games and utopia in Cuba, where my utopian desires had long lived (but were promptly crushed at the reality of authoritarian and poorly managed socialism). Becoming interested in gaming culture has immediately created space for new conversations with my two daughters, who are digital natives and spend many hours of their life playing games, both on and offline. We have started playing more board games and my oldest daughter is currently obsessed with the program Scratch, which teaches kids how to code to create games. I am excited to continue exploring this amazing scene further!