“People who play Dark Souls are in an S&M relationship.”
An interview with forallgamerssake curator Jaime Woo
Jaime Woo is best known to Toronto gamers as one of the co-founders of Gamercamp, but he’s recently expanded his organizational portfolio with forallgamerssake, an art exhibit that seeks to explore the roles of gender and queerness in video games. We spoke with Jaime prior to the exhibit’s debut at the CSI Annex (720 Bathurst Street) in Toronto, and what follows is a frequently hilarious and consistently uncompromising conversation about equality and representation in games, with detours for everything from Mass Effect 3 to condom warfare. Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between Dark Souls and S&M, and be sure to check out forallgamerssake during its three-day run in Toronto.
Dork Shelf: What inspired you to bring forallgamerssake to Toronto?
Jaime Woo: As someone who makes games once in a while but who engages with the community as an organizer, I really wanted to see how we could further the conversation about things that make games better. I love games and I love how welcoming Toronto is, but game culture has to evolve. For most of my life I haven’t seen games that reflect my particular point of view. I have to project on a non-queer character or an ethnic minority character. In one game I remember seeing a Hispanic character and I could still relate to that. “Oh my God! YES! YES! Someone of color.” It’s weird that that happens, but it does.
It’s not just about the games industry evolving. It’s about it doing it in a concerted, knowledgeable way. Not everyone has a social justice background. Not everyone has had to work in a community where there’s segregation. I worry that as more people come in demanding that games be more inclusive, game developers who never had to give a thought to this, might not be sure how to do it and might be doing it in the wrong way.
DS: Is there a general theme holding all of these artists together?
JW: I wanted to present artists doing great work in terms of gender and queerness in games, and I also wanted to contextualize some of the things that have happened. This show isn’t just for video game people. It’s for the queer community. It’s for people who love art, who get a chance to see games in a different light. We’re still facing the idea that games are juvenile, or that they’re lesser than other art forms and I’d love to debunk that ‘fact’ by showing people astounding works that stand up to other art forms.
DS: A lot of games coverage is preoccupied with the task of legitimizing games as art, but you often hear dismissive comments like, “Oh, it’s just a game,” whenever those same people are asked to actually interpret games as art. How does forallgamerssake encourage people to get beyond that apprehension and engage with video games in a more genuinely critical manner?
JW: Gallery openings are familiar for people in the art world, but less so in the video game space. There have been a couple of video game art shows, but mostly you’re not talking about things that have been framed, positioned, or curated with user experience in mind. You’re talking about a bunch of computers where you can play things, very much rooted in the commoditization of games, the marketing of games. I wanted to turn that on it’s head. There is an area where people can play games, but most of it is a visual art show curated so that when people walk through, there’s a broader story to experience.
DS: Are you expecting a larger reception from the art community or the game community?
JW: I think it’s going to resonate most with gamers because it is our industry and it deals with things we already like. I have no wild expectations that this is going to pick up and run in the art circles, or even in the queer circle, but anytime there’s a first, you have to start small. To my knowledge, this hasn’t been done in Canada. It hasn’t been done in the States. It hasn’t been done anywhere. So I actually have no expectations because no one has done it before.
DS: I’d imagine that must be a little liberating.
JW: It’s pretty amazing to be able to put something out there and let it be it’s own thing, especially for an industry that doesn’t want to hear this kind of stuff. I feel like games sometimes worry about whether something is proper or right. I do not worry about that. I’m not asking permission to put this show on. I’m putting it on whether people like it or not, and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to come.
DS: Why did you decide to present forallgamerssake as a more traditional art installation?
JW: Trying to compress a game into the time someone’s at a gallery makes zero sense. People spend maybe thirty to forty-five minutes there, and if I have eight to twelve games, how are they ever going to be able to give those games the attention they need? My job is to contextualize the games for them. I’m splicing together parts that are relevant so that people can understand the games, and then they’re directed to either try a sample at the exhibition or go home and download the game and play it at their own leisure. I think that’s a wonderful thing. They can take something that they saw at the show and continue that experience when they get home.
DS: So you’re introducing concepts and then encouraging people to do their own research?
JW: It would be amazing to create a full-day experience if we had enough machines and enough time and enough space for people to sit down and play games. For a first run, the format fits what I’ve been given to work with.
DS: Do you think we’ll ever see traditional museums presenting similar exhibits?
JW: No. Museums are concerned about getting as many people in as they can, and that makes it difficult to have a personal experience. I don’t know how the Smithsonian is doing their exhibit on video games, but I bet when people go to see it they’re not going to get even an inkling of an idea of why these games are great because it’s going to be so far removed from the actual experience.
DS: You mentioned that earlier, that you’re worried about people entering the game space without an appropriate knowledge of the craft. Is there a danger that larger video game exhibits will give non-gamers an inaccurate impression of the medium?
JW: I think that’s why I’m doing a video installation-based art show. I wanted something that did not have any pressure for the person to play. That’s very daunting for someone who’s never played games before. What if I don’t play it well? What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if I look stupid? I’m giving them the option to sit down and play, but I’m using a very, very large space to help people who think they hate games so that people feel like they’re actually connecting. I hate playing games at GDC because there’s someone behind me waiting to play next. I tried to stop that feeling as much as possible with the show.
DS: Let’s talk about the artists. Is there anyone you’re particularly excited to showcase?
JW: I love Anna Anthropy’s work. She’s a phenomenal theorist in terms of how games work, and then she takes those ideas and puts them in games, which is fantastic. I love Mighty Jill Off. It’s such a clever game. It’s a 2D platformer where the main character is a submissive in an S&M bondage relationship, and she’s trying reach her Queen, who’s at the top of a tower and forces her to overcome spikes and flames and all these other things that we’re used to in 2D platformers. Anna is working with that dichotomy between pain and pleasure that happens in S&M, and that’s something that happens in games, as well. Spikes are a trope in 2D platformers, but it’s also a form of pain that the game maker creates for you.
DS: Everybody has different tolerances as well, which plays right into the S&M analogy.
JW: That’s exactly it. Some people need more safety, something a little more vanilla, and there are some people who love the idea of these roles. People who play Dark Souls are in an S&M relationship.
DS: That’s the example I was thinking of.
JW: You’re being toyed with for the promise of all that pleasure at the end, and that’s why it’s so frustrating when a game lets you down. It’s like a bad dungeon master in D&D or a bad dominant in an S&M relationship.
DS: Any other artists we should know about?
JW: I’m very excited for Increpare’s work. His stuff is very theoretical and moving. He likes to play with the medium, and he also has a lot of openly queer material, and a lot of sexual material. It’s difficult to decouple the two.
There’s Robert Yang, a grad student with a game called CondomCorps. It’s a queer take on the first person shooter. You’re in a bathhouse and you’re using your condom sniper to shoot condoms into the hands of men. You have to look at the size of men’s bulges and correspond the correct size of condom. If it’s too small, it gets tight and sex can’t happen. If it’s too large, it slips off. I love the humor. It’s playfully sexual, and it tweaks a traditionally gendered genre – the first person shooter – and puts a distinctively queer and humorous slant on it. There’s a nice safe sex message as well. I think it’s hilarious.
DS: It is funny how people who might avoid that kind of message in a political sphere will engage with the subject matter as long as they can get a high score.
JW: It’ll probably be most people’s first time thinking of a bathhouse.
We also have three fantastic local artists. We’ve got Christine Love, who does a lot of text games that are openly queer and story-based. Michael Todd will be showing his work. It doesn’t have an explicit queerness to it, but it’s important to have all types of sensibilities. That’s why I wanted to present Mare [Sheppard]’s work, as well, because she’s often discussed the role of gender in games. Including someone who’s work is so substantive, interesting, and thoughtful, was important to the show.
DS: How do these works influence the conversation surrounding sexuality and gender in the broader gaming community?
JW: A good parallel is the battle for same sex marriage across the world. If you asked the majority of people back when the idea was first being thrown around whether they wanted gay marriage, they would say, “No,” but a lot of it was just fear of change. You have to put forth a spirited argument for fairness and equality. There are lots of guys who do not care whether or not the female characters have double-D breasts. That Maxim mindset that existed before, it hasn’t gone away, but to assume that Spike TV speaks for all men is ridiculous.
Is this art show going to change minds? I think so. It’s going to at least embolden people to be more honest about what they want. People recognize equality and fairness, and if they see it in other parts of their lives, they’re going to want to see it in games. There’s always going to be a backlash to things that change what people are comfortable with, but that’s not a reason to stop doing it.
DS: Will exhibits like forallgamerssake reduce the severity of that backlash in the future?
JW: The level of discourse on the mainstream side isn’t far along, but when you talk to the designers themselves – when you hear what the next generation of developers is thinking – they grew up in an environment where women didn’t work from home and had the option to do what they wanted. They grew up with gay friends. I hear stories from conferences where people ask, “Why is it that every fighting game needs a panty shot?” Even if the players aren’t ready to have that discussion, the game developers and the game designers absolutely are. I’m obviously doing the show for gay gamers so they feel like there’s a precedent for being validated, but I’m also bringing it to game developers to say that this stuff is not non-core and that we have to think about it.
DS: Are developers – particularly AAA developers – designing games to match some abstract or misguided notion of what they think audiences want? Should studios be bolder with the subject matter in their games?
JW: Have Dragon Age sales faltered because of same sex options? The most anticipated game this year is Mass Effect 3, and there’s going to be same sex options in that. Pandering to your audience may be good in the short term because it’s what people know, but in the long term I don’t think that’s very beneficial.
DS: Given the success of those games, it does seem like the audience might be more open than either side is letting on.
JW: I think people are ready to get more options. Would I want a company to put in characters for the sake of differentness alone? Maybe. Do I want a more diverse, reflective cast for a story because it makes more sense when people play the game? Absolutely. It’s silly that gaming continues to show a world totally focused on straight white male teenagers when women are a fast-growing segment in the industry, when people around the world are playing these games and would like the characters to be more representative. It doesn’t make much sense to keep it in one perspective when it’s an interactive medium.
forallgamerssake runs from February 21-23 at the CSI Annex (720 Bathurst Street) in Toronto, with presentations scheduled for 6:30-9:30 pm on Tuesday and Thursday and 8-10 pm on Wednesday. You can find out more at forallgamerssake.com.