Date: 28.03.2023 — 14.05.2023
vernissage: March 27, 6 pm
opening hours: Thursday 4–9 pm, Saturday 11 am – 9 pm
The first exhibition of video game art by trans* authors in the Czech Republic is being opened during a rapid rise of violence and sociopolitical pressure on trans* people worldwide.
That’s why No Fun III is not only a gallery space but also a cozy environment for rest, meetings, knowledge sharing, and mutual support.
Besides a thematic library, etc. gallery will be hosting works by leading local and international trans* authors. Presented games don’t shy away from the painful and challenging, yet maintain a broad scope of rich expressions present in trans* game making.
Enter a space for reading, finding refuge, or playing one of five artist games dealing with toxic masculinity and its fixations on soy, sex work, and identity formation, queer dreams landscape, melancholic memories of the early 2000s internet, or giving voice to those, who are the immediate victims of state and societal injustice.
No Fun Collective
The project was financially supported by the City of Prague, the State Cultural Fund, and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic.
Too Queer Call of Duty: Trans* Games and Playing as a Journey Beyond the Principle of Normative Pleasure
While queerness and its position within the video game discourse has been established at least since the publication of Queer Game Studies in 2017, transness is still often perceived as a subcategory of queerness, brushed over rather than given its own space. As Bo Ruberg writes, up until recently, gender studies were primarily concerned with representation in games, and that mostly of cis people:
[C]ross-dressing or gender swapping (…) was often framed as sexual fetish or expression of male players’ misogynistic control over women. (…) More recently, conversations around gender in games have diversified, particularly through scholarship on games and queerness. Despite these changes, however, certain strands of feminist and queer game studies continue to marginalize transgender people.
Too often, transness in video games is framed merely as an issue of representation. Is the representation of the transgender experience in The Sims 4 realistic? How is the transgender character in GTA V reproducing harmful stereotypes? What should be the rules for diversity inclusion within gaming studios? As important as these questions are, their predominance robs trans* people of agency in doing something more than merely inhabiting an avatar. The formation of trans game studies that Ruberg calls for should concern itself rather with how trans* readings and trans* game makers can expand our understanding of games.
When I open my Steam account today, it says I have played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) for 1 286 hours, even though I’m sure it is more than this. The day my father brought home the CD and we played it together for hours is distinctly burned into my memory. Together with (other) young boys frustrated by their lives in the post-financial-crash era, I spent every hour after school playing multiplayer matches, striving for maximum accuracy, best possible kill-to-death ratio, ranking up, and memorising statistics for individual weapons and spawn points on every map. This period of my life, which could be literally recounted as 54 days but actually constituted many years, has been the hardest to include in the narration of my trans* becoming. In our teenage bodies, we might not have known what exactly the economic crisis entailed, but its repercussions were felt heavily. Seemingly, everyone’s parents were getting divorced, so many lost their jobs, dreams of “planting a tree and building a house” popped together with the bubble, and the predominant hypermasculinity of previous generations was giving away to the new geek masculinity. Perhaps because all of these hegemonic forms of cis heterosexual life were breaking and readjusting to the new realities around me, it was hard to understand how I fit in.
Later in life, I just wrote off this period simply as a sign of depression, an inability to incorporate myself into the gender binary/classroom dynamics and the expectations it carried. However, this still did not feel sufficient to explain how I was able to indulge in a space where homophobia, transphobia, racism, and white cis-heterosexual supremacy were not merely an occurrence but the governing rulebook, especially considering that this trans* child would later become a trans* femme adult, making slow, boring (in the best sense of that word) games, oestrogenising her body while writing this text on precisely those kinds of play, which negate and despise all the above-mentioned factors. The constitutional question of my personal hauntology has thus become:
What was trans* about playing a military shooter?
YouTube video titles such as “This is what 2000 hours of sniping look like” suggest that proficiency in Call of Duty is measured in hours spent playing. If we follow the system of temporal cycles governing competitive play proposed by Matt Knutson, it would make sense that regular practice attunes the body to the game clock, spawning algorithm, cooldowns, internet ping, all the way to split-second reactions. But despite coming very close to this 2 000-hour benchmark, I never got particularly good, as if I was incompatible with these cycles. It resulted in a bizarre jouissance, often ending my sessions in the negation of intended formulas of success, instead going for the most bizarre ways to fail. To understand why, to answer the above-mentioned question, and see how can we possibly read the trans*gressions of existing genres/mechanics, two texts are crucial.
In their essay “No Fun: The Queer Potential of Video Games that Annoy, Anger, Disappoint, Sadden and Hurt” Bo Ruberg tackles the reasons for this continuous engagement without enjoyment. They argue that the omnipresent truth of procedural rhetorics would understand my failing as a reminder of agency empowering me to reach the predesigned success/win state. An obstacle on the journey to a perpetually distant goal of happiness, keeping the player a docile subject within the cis-hetero norm. Opposed to these dynamics of fun/failure that propagate neoliberal values of happiness, health, wealth, etc., are its queer subversions, specifically subversions that understand player agency as not constrained by pre-coded possibilities of interactivity. When I run around the map searching for the most confusing and abstract photos/screenshots, or attempt to ignore the duty call and leave the site of the battle entirely, I am embracing Ruberg’s no-fun forms of play, choosing destruction, frustration, and failure, and escaping the field of generic experiences enabled by default:
Any game can be made no-fun if a player chooses to reject win conditions and play the wrong way. Playing the wrong way can itself take many forms. Most visibly “wrong” are those play experiences that lead to death rather than success. Juul insists that loss is painful. However, such pain is also a masochistic pleasure, a choice, a creative act of rebellion that operates within yet pushes back against the system of a game.
I argue that this new type of agency also means the negation of all (or most) of the game’s temporal cycles, as the match clock, kill scores, and quick reactions to incoming fire suddenly matter very little. It is a transgression of chrononormativity inherently present within the limiting rules governing normative player choice. Since this corresponds to the “failure” of queer lives in the eyes of the prevailing notion of temporality, it can be seen that even a purposeful game “failure” that becomes a legitimate goal in itself can be located in queerness. However, this still does not answer how playing a military shooter was/is/can be TRANS*. Once again, I believe the answer lies in temporality.
Perhaps also attempting to include her playing of a military shooter – Halo (2001) – into within the narration of trans* becoming, Nat Steele analyses her embodiment of faceless supersoldier Shepard (Master Chief). She speaks of empathising with, and maybe even envying, this person covered in bulletproof armour, half man, half machine, for his singular purpose:
No one asked Master Chief what his passions were; it was as meaningless a question for him as it was for me. He had locked up his feelings as a child, as had I. He was made perfectly for his purpose, (…) All problems could be solved by shooting at them, by playing the role you were given.
Steele’s spending time in a seemingly pointless, unproductive activity – refusing to date, study, work, presumably later get a mortgage, and reproduce – is an obvious refusal of chrononormativity. Crucially, she draws a parallel between her time suspension and Master Chief’s absence of self, which has been replaced by an AI voice navigating him to the next place where he can be “useful”. What’s more, Steele treats the video game as a fragile safe space, with repeated playthroughs where nothing surprises – familiar, with a clear purpose. This could easily be treated as depressive escapism no different from male cis-hetero frustration, which, at least for me, Call of Duty to a certain point felt like. But I argue that what is central is the repetition.
While we often understand chrononormativity as a linear sequence of events, Elizabeth Freeman adds a crucial understanding of cyclic time as one of the key components in the normative order. Cycle and repetition are understood as stabilising and fictionalising a timeless state upon which one can rely:
The repetitions and routines of domestic life supposedly restored working men to their status as human beings responding to a “natural” environment, renewing their bodies for the reentry into the time of mechanized production and collective national destiny. (…) The emerging discourse of domesticity, especially, inculcated and validated a set of feelings – love, security, harmony, peace, romance, sexual satisfaction, motherly instincts – in part by figuring them as timeless, as primal, as a human condition located in and emanating from the psyche’s interior.
The set of feelings that Freeman mentions are inherently denied to the trans* body within the space of domesticity (just like anywhere else). This exclusion both from monumental linear time, by state politics that ignore us at best and try to eradicate us at worst, and from the cyclic rituals of the family structure, where we disrupt harmony, in my opinion births an alternative. A trans* cylic time. The trans* body is denied presence within the public, where unlike a cis queer body it often cannot “blend in” and is thus violently shunned into the domestic, until it can sufficiently pass as attuned to the chrononormative. This is both a blessing and a curse. Too often we see “conservative trans women” who have fallen for the neoliberal myth of reaching for the perpetually distant goal. Yet this refusal/inability to become part of the domestic and the normative play time Knutson speaks of can be also immensely generative. I argue that this is the refuge both Steele and I found in military shooters. They constituted an alternative domesticity, where we understood and could creatively form our own cyclic time outside of the rationalised, coordinated, and synchronised labour process.
Earlier in this text, I cited Ruberg’s saying that any game can be made no-fun, played queerly, and presumably also trans*. They, however, also mention that as far as these actions push against the system of a game, they are inevitably happening within it. While both the game developers and the community formed around Call of Duty are generally hostile to any LGBTQIA+ issues, playing on the field of chrononormativity has formed my opposition to it and provided me with the tools to break it in my own games. What I would like to offer to you both in this text and what No Fun asks in this exhibition is this: what can we learn about trans* (not only) temporalities by looking at how trans* players become game designers subverting these existing expectations and genres? What are the trans* video game mechanics disrupting hegemonic temporalities?
“The inner heaven of our own mind, all is right with the world now. The best of all possible futures, all possible climaxes, all possible endings,” reads the text above a tiny pink flower in Sick Trans-Sex Gloria by Tabitha Nikolai. This is the power of trans* game-making – the multiplicity of expressions, stories, and approaches that cut across the blanket of the familiar and expected across gender, identities, and game forms.