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November 21, 2016

Faculty Profile: Bonnie Ruberg

By Gabrielle Cohen

Bonnie Ruberg is a teaching fellow and postdoctoral scholar in the School of Cinematic Arts. Ruberg is a researcher and an educator who specializes in gender and sexuality in video games. However, her work goes beyond simply representation, to truly ask diverse, cultural and political questions concerning queerness in games. In her dissertation, she explores previous notions of disembodiment and presents a complex understanding of pain and pleasure in the digital space. She is the lead organizer of the annual Queerness and Games Conference, the co-editor of the volume Queer Game Studies, and formerly a journalist covering tech culture for publications like The Village Voice and The Economist.

You’re currently a postdoctoral scholar at USC in the SCA Interactive Media & Games Division. Before we get to the exciting work you’re doing now, how did your interest in video games spark?

It’s funny because I actually completed my PhD last year in Comparative Literature, with a program directly related to new media and gender studies. The way that I came to be doing work on specifically digital media and video games, even with this background, was through being a games and tech journalist before coming back to graduate school.

As for games, I started playing games when I was about twelve years old and loved it. As a kid and as a teenager, I spent so much of my time playing games and working to save up my money to buy games. When I went to school, I thought I was going to study literature and be a writer But over the course of my education, I just kept coming back to games. Four years ago while I was still at Berkeley, I was involved with a conference—the Queerness and Games Conference—which was a collaboration with some friends who were professional game developers and professional academics. This has been the springboard for doing queer issues in video games. There’s actually a whole network across the country of us who are doing Queer Game Studies.

Wow. It seems like studying comparative literature ended up being a great jumping point for your work.

Yes! What I discovered over the years is that the things you learn studying literary texts makes you aware of details, themes, and metaphors, and these are all actually very useful for thinking about gender and sexuality in video games. While you can’t get a PhD in video games, you use some other media and then you take those tools and apply them to games.

Your research explores the intersection of gender, sexuality, and digital cultures. What have been some of the most striking things you’ve found in this research?

I do a lot of community organizing and activism and I tend to be exposed to a lot of people in this area. The things I get really energized about is looking for queerness and LGBT issues beyond representation in games. It’s not just talking about whether or not there’s a gay character in a particular game, but what would desire look like in this game if it weren’t just straight desire? In working with game designers and collaborating with them, the question becomes, what would a queer game designer look like? Once you start looking at it that way, you can look at any game. The way we’ve told the history of queerness in games is that there was never really a place. The truth is, queer players have always belonged in video games because we can actually understand all video games as queer.

Can you talk more about the Queerness and Games Conference and your role in it?

It’s an unusual type of conference. What I was seeing before was that there was not a lot of dialogue happening, despite the fact people were very invested in these subjects. There were game developers and professionals and then there were academics, but this conference looks to be a hybrid of both academic and industry. It’s a weekend-long conference, has the normal stuff you’d expect at a conference like talks and keynotes, but then there are also performances, community round tables, and an arcade. It’s a real mix of talking about games analytically, but also playing and making games.

Can you tell us about your dissertation “Pixel Whipped: Pain, Pleasure, and Media” and the concepts behind it?

This looks at an area of queerness that we don’t explore as much—it’s still a very taboo topic. This project looks across media forms and that there’s this intertwined history of online culture and being disembodied. The idea that everyone spends so much time on internet and we’re no longer connected to bodies.

This work looks at, how can you feel pain and pleasure on the internet. It looks at this in literature, film, video games, and simply online communities. The way we understand pain and pleasure has always been wrapped up in how it’s been represented in media, and these two things are not separate. Our ideas about the real physical body and the digital body are not as starkly different as we think they are.

What has your experience been with the USC Games program?

The interactive media and games program at USC is so unique. It’s in some measures the best games program in the country, both for undergraduates and graduate students. What makes it really great is that it is very well-designed. When you have game designers build your program really well, students get a much better education. Even though it’s an academic department, the people who run it are from industry, not from academia originally. So they bring this energy and passion that you don’t always see in traditional academic departments and I find it really refreshing that the program is not super hierarchical. People come from lots of different experiences, but come together to create a great educational experience.

With all of the work and research you’ve done, what do you think the future of media education looks like?

It looks different in different places. I’m personally really committed to making game education more diverse and more political. Even when we teach students about games or digital media, it should always be wrapped up in thinking about who we’re representing. Are we being culturally conscious? Who’s going to get to play our games? Who won’t be able to play? I believe that questions about the world should always be present in media education.