Surprisingly, Carolyn Petit didn’t get a lot of hate this week. Petit was out in front as the host of Queer Tropes in Video Games, a new video criticism series from Feminist Frequency.
The three-part miniseries examines the depiction of queer people in games, much like Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games looked at the representation of women in games. Anita Sarkeesian, an award-winning critic who leads Feminist Frequency, directed the series. After doing the series on women, Sarkeesian was subjected to considerable harassment starting in 2013.
Petit serves as the managing editor at Feminist Frequency, and she helped do a lot of the research for the miniseries, with the support of the LGBTQ Video Game Archive. Sarkeesian said the series looks closely at the “history of homophobia and transphobia in games, the evolution of portrayals of gay relationships, and the troubling ways in which game villains have often been queer coded.”
You can see the whole series on a playlist here, and I have embedded the episodes in this post. I talked with Petit about the making of the series. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. The project has a Patreon link where you can donate to Feminist Frequency
Carolyn Petit: The response to Queer Tropes has been good so far. There hasn’t been quite the flood of harassment and hateful responses that we often get when we put out videos about video games. It’s been pretty good.
GamesBeat: That’s good to hear. I was worried about that.
Petit: Me, too. Me, too.
GamesBeat: It’s a brave thing, to be the host of this series.
Petit: Well, I don’t know. Certainly I’ve been long been aware that putting myself out in the public eye as a trans woman in video games often has made me the target of no small amount of abuse and hate. But at the same time, I feel like I have to use my position and my platform as best I can to challenge the attitudes in gaming culture that allow for that happen, in an effort to make it better for those who may come in the future.
GamesBeat: What’s your own background?
Petit: Formerly I was an editor at Gamespot. I worked there for about four years. In that role I built up a bit of what you might call notoriety among some segments of the gaming public, because I criticized some of the misogyny in Grand Theft Auto V, for instance. After those four years the site went through a big period of restructuring. Myself and a number of other folks were let go.
I was freelancing for a while, and one thing I did during that period was consulting on a lot of scripts and projects that Feminist Frequency was working on. Eventually Anita Sarkeesian brought me on full time as a staff member. My title there is managing editor. Ever since then I’ve collaborated directly and been very involved in all the scripts and other writing that the organization has produced. But this is my first time getting the chance to host a series. I was very involved in the writing of the series. The topic is near and dear to my heart, so I was glad to get the chance to personally host these videos.
GamesBeat: Did you do a lot of the research that went into this?
Petit: I did a fair amount of the research, yes. A lot of it came from my personal recollections of games. For instance, one of my favorite, or I guess least favorite, examples in the series is an example from Police Quest: Open Season, where what the game would call a transvestite or a cross-dresser ends up being killed by a police officer in an extremely brutal way. That was just something I remembered as a young person playing that game. That and other instances like it left quite an impression on my as a young person who already sensed that I was queer.
I collaborated on the scripts. I co-wrote them with a grad student named Christopher Persaud. Christopher works on the LGBT Video Game Archives, an online resource that’s full of examples of queer representation throughout game history. His knowledge was extremely valuable in putting these scripts together.
GamesBeat: Who had to gather all this footage?
Petit: I mostly had to capture that myself, or a lot of it. A few things we were able to find elsewhere. People had archived cutscenes and things like that. But a lot of the footage I had to capture manually.
GamesBeat: Why did Feminist Frequency decide to go in this direction after finishing the first series of Tropes vs. Women videos?
Petit: Anita could speak to that better than I can, but this is a project that’s been kicking around in her mind for a long time. It seems to me that this is the right time for this project because we’re at a moment right now where, on one hand, queer representations are becoming somewhat more common in video games. Apex Legends launched with one of its characters being a gay man and one of them being a non-binary person. But you still have this tremendous backlash to those representations, as if depicting queer or trans people is inherently motivated by some kind of political agenda to appease so-called “social justice warriors,” and not just because queer and trans and gender non-conforming people exist and games should reflect that.
The conversation around these representations is very much alive and very heated at the moment. I’m glad that we’re able to have our say in that ongoing conversation around these issues.
GamesBeat: How did you approach the division between the three episodes, the messages that each one was meant to carry?
Petit: One of the first things we did when conceiving the project — we knew we had a limited budget and a limited amount of time. This wasn’t going be a Tropes vs. Women 14-episode epic that was going to span years. We wanted to hone in on areas that would give us a lot of material to work with and points to be made, ideas that we could apply not just to video games but to our culture at large.
We settled on these very early. Queer-coded villains, for example, there’s so much to work with there. The way that games use humor, or “humor,” and other elements to create an atmosphere of homophobia and transphobia. And then of course queer relationships. Each of these both gave us plenty to talk about in terms of examples on offer, but also allowed us a larger point to make.
In the episode on homophobia and transphobia, for instance, we get to talk about humor and punching up rather than punching down. So many people will say, “Well, if you don’t like it just don’t play it.” We were able to address why that’s not a meaningful response to these criticisms. We wanted to be sure that we had something of substance to say around each of these topics. That’s why we went with those specific topics.
GamesBeat: With queer coding, how quickly did you come upon that as one of the patterns you wanted to point out?
Petit: I’m a big movie fan. I knew something about the history of queer coding in cinema already. From the very beginning I knew that games absolutely do this too, and I thought it would be interesting to make that connection — here’s something that has a whole long history in cinema, and then as soon as games got sophisticated enough in terms of the characters they were able to create and the stories they were able to tell, video games lifted that right out of cinema history and starting doing it too.
That was largely my influence. I find the whole topic of queer coding of villains, or the hinting of queerness as something that’s inherently evil or chaotic, something that should be eradicated from the world — I just find the whole history of that in media fascinating.
GamesBeat: There are positive depictions of the queer community as well. I think of some modern games like The Last of Us, the Left Behind DLC, for example. Have you found many of those, where queer characters are treated as normal?
Petit: We’re definitely at a point where that’s becoming far more common, which is tremendous. It’s so important, and so validating for myself and so many other queer people who have loved games our whole lives, to finally start seeing our own identities at least occasionally reflected back at us in this medium that we love so much. Dream Daddy is cited at length in one of the videos. Games large and small are much more frequently, in the past few years, years, presenting us with queer characters that are human, that are three-dimensional, that are complex, that have their own desires and their own relationships and their own complex personalities, that aren’t there just to be the butt of a joke or to demonize queerness or transness in some way.
GamesBeat: I sense that there were a number of game developers who were welcoming this kind of consulting or advice about how to depict queer characters. I recall Michael Condrey on Call of Duty talking about how he had an interesting conversation with Anita about the depiction of women in Call of Duty. Neil Druckmann from Naughty Dog had something similar to say.
Petit: I think part of what’s happening right now is that companies like Blizzard, for instance, which has over time revealed that a few of the heroes in Overwatch are queer — they realize that giving us as queer people heroes that we can look at and identify with is worth enduring the volleys of hate from that subset of games who say things like, “You’ve made Overwatch gay propaganda, so I’m not going to play it anymore.”
However much noise those people make, in the long term it’s much better to say, “Our community welcomes and represents and reflects everyone,” rather than keep catering to the straight male demographic views representation of queer people as an act of hostility toward them for some ridiculous reason.
GamesBeat: It feels like we’re at a sort of crossroads. There’s more welcoming of this kind of message, but there’s also a backlash. From the President of the United States on down, a lot of people are being encouraged to openly come out with their hate. It feels like you’re doing this at an interesting moment.
Petit: I do view Trump being in the White House as part of a backlash by white people who felt disenfranchised or who felt the hold of white supremacy on the United States maybe just starting to slip a little bit. It’s a reaction that came from a place of fear and ignorance that Trump absolutely capitalized on and stoked. That propelled him into the White House. But I’m optimistic. I believe that in terms of large issues of racial justice and gender justice, we’re making progress. The forces that propelled Trump into the White House may be a kind of last hurrah, but they’re not going to win in the end.
Similarly, with video games, the way that some segments of gamer culture react the work that we do with so much vitriol and so much fear, it really does communicate to me that those people feel threatened. They feel scared by the thought that gaming may not be entirely 100 percent for them anymore, that not every game is going to be about straight white men saving a sexy woman or whatever. Gaming is expanding and evolving to tell more different kinds of stories about more different kinds of people.
You never make progress in any culture or subculture without there being a backlash. As difficult as the backlash often is to endure, and it is very difficult to endure at times, part of me also has to view it as a sign that we’re fighting the right battles, and we’re fighting those battles effectively. If we weren’t, those people wouldn’t feel threatened. They wouldn’t feel the need to lash out at us.
GamesBeat: If people are inspired by this in some way and they want to support your cause, is there anything they can do right now?
Petit: We just launched a new Patreon at Feminist Frequency. Folks who may want to support our work can go to patreon.com/femfreq. It’s specifically indicated as supporting our podcast, but really, the support that we get there can help with all of our projects.