The Detour Room

before the finished thought

Are Role-Playing Games Fundamentally Queer?

[This was written as my contribution to a discussion on Facebook, but ultimately never posted. The last two paragraphs were added after the fact.]

A useful term here is critical play - as pioneered and defined by Mary Flanagan in her book of the same name.

We can understand role-playing games as systems of relation (a good, accessible read on this here). It could absolutely be argued that constructing an alternative system of relation in which queerness is societally acceptable - and then walking around play-acting in that system - is a liberatory act.

That’s the sense in which Mary Flanagan uses ‘critical play’ - games, as representational systems, being used to interrogate or work through social issues. I understand the logic behind considering larp/ttrpgs as fundamentally queer, and I would 100% agree that they are something with queer resonances (in that they facilitate the exploration & dramatisation of societal roles in a similar way to drag, for instance).

That said, roleplaying games are only able to be liberatory like this because they exist in dialogue with societal systems of relation (such as, as Jay Dragon implies in the article I linked above, the gender binary itself). And this is the same connection that allows them to sometimes replicate or perpetuate those systems - the thing about Huizinga’s magic circle is that it doesn’t constitute a separation from the real world but a negotiation with it.

Isn’t queerness the same, fundamentally? In a better world - one where we were accepted without question - queerness would have no meaning. It would just be the way things are. Queerness as a (highly contested!) umbrella term basically means ‘not cishet’, or ‘not normative’, in the very least. We are defined by what we are not. And as much as the right may scream about echo chambers, we are constantly in negotiation with the normative world.

This has benefits and drawbacks, which I’m not going to get into here. There’s a billion works out there with far smarter things to say on queerness and otherness than I will ever muster. (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory seems relevant, for instance.) Suffice to say that there is both power and danger in negation. But there is also value in remembering - particularly for us white queers - that we are not as far removed from the dominant structure as we might like to think.