Video Games Have Always Been Queer

by Isis Canti

Poster from the Queer Video Games event; text reads "video games have always been queer"

In March of this year, the Digital Humanities and Social Engagement (DHSE) lab were delighted to have welcomed Professor Bonnie ‘Bo’ Ruberg (Pronouns: they/them), who teaches at UC Irvine’s Department of informatics. Drawing from intersectional feminist frameworks, Ruberg’s work promotes social justice in and through digital media. They seek out to promote diversity in technology as related to pressing issue surrounding computing today. Their background in the humanities, technology reporting, and community activism allows for a multidisciplinary exploration of cultural implications of technology. During the talk “Video Games Have Always Been Queer”, Prof. Bo displayed the world of the emerging paradigm of “Queer Game Studies”, which claims that video games should be reconsidered through the lens of the LGBTQIA experience.  Though their work, Ruberg is attempting to foster community conversation across fields and makes space for queer people that work with and around games to thrive. 

In Prof Bo’s analysis, we examined the way in which people engage with the standard structure of a video game. Even in the CIS-Heteronormative community, there is the emerging practice of doing games differently such as using glitches and tactics to finish a game as fast as possible. 

This counterintuitive practice reminds us that there is no one way to do anything, even things that have a built-in structure. When we apply the lens of the queer experience, video games become an item to be reclaimed and owned by those that are often marginalized. As the talk progressed we examined different aspects of games such as the reinforcement of heteronormativity and American ideals of the family unit. The performance of gender in choice games in which your character has assigned sex (consequently an assigned gender). The objectification of women’s bodies, particularly their breast, in fighting games.  

However, not all games are created with today’s norms in mind.  Some independent video game makers are using the tool to change the culture around the topic and the way we approach it. I’ve had the chance to play “The Realistic Kiss Simulator”, which was discussed during the talk. It was created by two independent developers and involves two pseudo non-binary human-like individuals. Using the keys, players must coordinate for the two characters to kiss.  The game is dynamic and works on multiple levels—mainly that it gamifies the idea of kissing/sexual acts. However, it does not progress, nor is there a way of “winning”. Instead, the game focuses on the “goallessness” which consequently de-gamifies the act of kissing.   

Prof. Bo and all those in the that have united on this front are working diligently to reclaim spaces that have been denied to certain communities. I’m excited to see what lies ahead in that field of work and what the DHSE lab will bring to campus next. 

The Algorithm as Tamagotchi

A person works with paper labels.

This past February, Digital Humanities for Social Engagement and the Digital Justice Lab hosted a workshop called “Algorithms as Pets and Politicians.” Part of a series of events organized by Alex Juhasz (Chair of Film, Brooklyn College) on media literacy in this age of the digital proliferation of fake news, this particular workshop focused on how art practice can shed light on the political implications of the ways that Machine Learning systems view and comprehend the world. The workshop’s leaders were Alex, Orr Menirom (independent artist, NYC), and myself (postdoctoral fellow, Neukom Institute).

Orr screened an excerpt from her video work, “Clinton and Sanders Looking at the World and Naming Things for the First Time.” This piece interlaces footage from the 2016 debate between the two presidential candidates with decontextualized, fragmentary glimpses of multifarious objects and scenes, both quotidian (a pair of socks) and striking (a protest). Orr has edited audio from the two candidates to offer off-kilter descriptions of these things, giving the impression of an ill-trained Machine Learning system attempting but failing to label a material world whose objects are not nearly as straightforward as those in its “training set.” For instance, Bernie—or at least Bernie’s voice, made strangely robotic through Orr’s editing—seems to mistake a brick pinned beneath a door for a “human.” (To be fair, the holes in the brick do suggest a face.) Participants drew connections to the intertwined fallibility and creativity of computer vision systems; Google’s DeepDream, perhaps the most famous of these, can be trained to “see” faces in pictures where none exist. Orr’s work is not itself algorithmic, but the process of its creation can be seen as an attempt to see (or hallucinate) the world as if through the murky and error-prone layers of the neural networks that exert increasing power over our lives.

Next, Orr and I demoed a prototype of an interactive algorithmic text generation system called “The Speaking Egg.” Eschewing contemporary Machine Learning’s capacity to learn patterns from large, ready-made data sets, this system takes a decidedly more bespoke and laborious approach, one inspired by pet-like computational systems and interfaces that require care and attention to survive and thrive (e.g. the Tamagotchi, the Furby, or the virtual pets that scampered across desktops throughout most of the 1990s). To get this pet egg-bot to grow and to speak, one must manually provide example sentences. When the bot generates (simple and often nonsensical) sentences based on these inputs, the user must either praise or scold it, training the bot’s classification algorithm to help it produce more pleasing utterances. Workshop participants trained their algorithms to inhabit specific identities and ideological positions, exploring what it might mean to design algorithms that aspire to be intentionally political rather than “neutral” or “unbiased.” The feedback we received will be invaluable as Orr and I continue to develop this project.

The day concluded with an impromptu artist talks by several participants. Aaron Karp (Digital Musics) presented an agent-based digital music system based on the flocking of birds, Christiana Rose (Digital Musics) showed videos of her interfaces for sonifying the movements of acrobatic artists, and Josh Urban Davis (Computer Science) reflected on using deep learning to generate obituaries of people who never lived. These presentations, along with the lively participation of faculty, staff, and students, are evidence of the robust, interdisciplinary interest on campus in both the art and politics of computation.

Kyle Booten
Postdoctoral Fellow
Neukom Institute for Computational Science

Kyle Booten
Postdoctoral Fellow
Neukom Institute for Computational Science

Corporeal Imaginations

In September, the Digital Justice Lab produced a exhibition of original work asking viewers to think critically about the relationships between their bodies and the data they produce.

Wernimont demonstrates the skin-like qualities of a piece. Photo by Brinker Ferguson.

Read the Dartmouth News recap and watch the video featuring lab director, Dr. Jacqueline Wernimont.

DJ Spooky

On Monday, October 14, the Digital Justice Lab brought Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, to Dartmouth College to speak about his latest composition Quantopia and to lead a student masterclass.

In addition to sharing parts of Quantopia, Miller took the audience on a journey through the founding algorithms of the internet, the histories of sound production and sound’s relationship to place, and explored some of the key themes throughout his work. Miller is currently focused on quantum physics, the politics of data and energy production and the ways that music can be a political force.

During the masterclass, students asked Miller questions about the democratization of music-making technology, the challenge translating science into music and art, and how he integrates his individual political practice into the projects he selects.

Check his website for more information about DJ Spooky’s upcoming events.

(In)tangible Violence: Poetry, Touch and Critical Making

Poems with nails through them.

by Whitney Sperrazza

My research explores the relationship between tangibility and intangibility. As a scholar of early modern poetry, this relationship informs my experiments with how digital practices help us engage differently with historical literary texts. During my visit to the Digital Humanities and Social Engagement lab this spring, I had a chance to talk about a work-in-progress on the haptic quality of poetic language. Feminist literary scholars have long argued that early modern sonnet conventions enact violence against the female body. In my ongoing experimental humanities work, I pose as my central question: how do we feel that violent language?

For some early prototypes, I constructed wooden board and nail versions of early modern sonnets, turning the poems into three-dimensional objects that made the reading experience a bit more perilous. I used the blazon convention as my starting point and marked (drove a nail through) any language that abstracted and catalogued women’s body parts. Ultimately, I produced poetic objects that were physically sharp to the touch. The poems were punctuated with moments of “sharp-ness” that not only forced the reader to confront violent descriptions of the female body, but also made those violent, and often penetrative, descriptions tangible. In addition to raising questions about the relationship between violent language and physical violence, these objects function as an artifact of my own reading—a creative edition of the sonnets that makes palpable my critical aims.

I shared these prototypes with the DHSE community and had a chance to discuss ideas about the project’s next steps as I shift from a handful of representative poems to the entire archive of early modern sonnet sequences. Increasingly, I am using this work to think about the long history of violence against women’s bodies and how new interactions with literary texts can help us better understand aesthetic manifestations of that violence. In other words, violence in early modern sonnets is a structural, not simply conceptual, feature. For the project’s next phase, I plan to combine my experiments in critical making with computational text analysis methods, tagging and cataloguing violent language across the early modern sonnet archive (roughly 1,500 poems) and then producing new objects based on that much larger accumulation of data points. By combining critical making and computational text analysis, I want to offer a creative repurposing of quantitative tools and use my curated data set as a starting point for new forms of engagement between texts and readers.

DHSE offered the perfect space within which to have a conversation about this work and its future directions, particularly given the social justice ethos so central to the lab’s mission and the highly interdisciplinary community the lab convenes for its programming. The DHSE audience (which included individuals from the Department of English and Creative Writing, Dartmouth Libraries, and the Neukom Institute for Computational Science) offered perspectives on different aspects of the work: the digital humanities methods, my close readings of the sonnets, and the project’s feminist critical framework. Additionally, in conversations with faculty, staff, and students throughout my visit, I learned about exciting new digital work at Dartmouth and gained valuable insight on project design and development.

Thank you to the DHSE team—Jacqueline Wernimont and Brinker Ferguson—for the chance to play and experiment in your vibrant lab space and for hosting an energizing and intellectually rigorous conversation about my work.