Mark Maletska: Interaction with video games as a way to explore queer gender identities – a study in progress

Photo by Mark Maletska.

In this blogpost, I would like to share some details about the topic of my PhD and the research project, both of which deal with a close question: how interaction with video games can be a way to explore queer gender identities of people playing them.

My PhD study is aimed at discovering this connection broadly. It deals with the question that is currently addressed from the viewpoint of in-game narratives (how LGBTQIA+ characters or plots with related details impact on self-perception of players) or avatar creation (how transgender, nonbinary, agender or other gender-nonconforming players can explore themselves through the avatar creation). However, character creation is not present in every video game, and some games without direct queer narratives can make people think about their gender. Thus, the process of playing and its impact on players is understudied, although, among positive results of such research, it could help use video games as a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people’s self-exploration. Currently, some analog games and LARPs are created as tools for it, but the effect of digital space may differ from embodied interaction as well.

The idea of research on the connection between the playing process and gender identity perception arose long before I applied for a PhD programme. Being a trans man myself and playing with LGBTQIA+ people, I noticed that some of them experienced something that I felt myself: certain video games resonated with their identities, however, those could have no queer characters or details of a plot. The most prominent example in the community I spent time with was the Dark Souls 2 with the ‘easter egg’ changing avatar’s gender; later, I found out that Celeste gameplay was perceived as a gender transition metaphor by a big part of its community. Then I played Deltarune myself and the way it began felt similar to what I felt through most of my life.

I was curious about this phenomenon within other gaming communities. Sadly, I was not able to conduct such research while staying in Ukraine. Due to low level of awareness on LGBTQIA+ related questions and noticeable transphobia, I had to live closeted; due to my work experience in academia, I also knew that it would be difficult to conduct such a study without additional barriers. Then, open warfare started on 24th of February, 2022, and half a year after that I had to search for ways to flee from the country and continue research work, which became almost impossible in Ukraine. While moving to Finland and communicating with researchers from the academia, I noticed that the difference in social perception of LGBTQIA+ people in Finnish and Ukrainian societies was even bigger than I expected. That is how the idea for a project studying European and Ukrainian players arose – the main question there was how such national background could impact the interaction with video games and their perception by players.

In February 2023, we received the positive grant decision from the MSCA4Ukraine consortium, allowing us to start this project, dedicated directly to connection between video game mechanics (i.e. ways of interaction within a game world, “verbs” of games) and gender identity self-discovery of people from Europe and Ukraine, and comparison of their perception of how games influence their identification.

The project has several goals. The main one is similar to the PhD goal, however, it focuses on both European and Ukrainian LGBTQIA+ players and their interaction with video games. Another goal that goes beyond my PhD studies, but still feels important, is to create an online environment for Ukrainian LGBTQIA+ people playing video games. Such spaces exist in Europe (for example, Gaymers EU, the safe space gaming community established in 2009), but not in Ukraine. What I also hope is that the project will raise awareness on gender diversity and tolerance among Ukrainian society – the creation of a website with translated project results and useful sources is planned.

One of the main study stages connected with both PhD research and the project is focus group interviews, where participants will be asked about their experience of playing video games and game mechanics they can mark as important in their perception of gender identity. We invite gender-diverse people with different experiences of playing: focus groups are planned with those who play single-player and multiplayer games, or games with multiplayer elements, those who are interested in MMO’s, and players with no particular preferences. If you would like to share your thoughts regarding video games with LGBTQIA+ content and its connection with the playing process, you are welcome as well, since the impact of queer narratives is also one of the broader study questions.

Participate in the study:

On the current stage, you can take part in a survey collecting basic information about video game mechanics and gender identities:

There is also a survey for Ukrainian LGBTQIA+ who are interested in sharing their experience of playing video games:

Bio and contact:

Mark Maletska (MPhil) is a Doctoral Researcher at Tampere University interested in queer game studies and studying connections between gender identity formation and video game mechanics.

Mark Maletska. Credits: Jonne Renvall.