Welcome to another edition of The Casual Gaymer, an occasional column from AIPT Gaming where I share my questions, comments, concerns, and other unsolicited thoughts about gaming and the games industry as a queer player.
So here’s the tea: I have not been playing many video games. In the beginning of November, I had a long weekend off where I played virtually no video games and aside from an Animal Crossing check-in here and there, I (and my thumbs) have been enjoying a little time away from controllers. But the brain worms must feed. So, I’ve been watching a gaming reality competition show.
The Sims Spark’d is a reality competition show which ran from July into August earlier this year, in which twelve Simmers from various backgrounds and online platforms came together to compete for $100,000. It ran on Buzzfeed Multiplayer’s YouTube channel and you can watch as the Simmers get split into four teams consisting of a stylist who created the Sims, a builder who constructed sets and buildings for the challenges, and a storyteller who narratively tied it all together.
2020 seems to be the year of the online, bite-sized reality competitions, as Spark’d aired a few months after James Charles’s Instant Influencer (which was exactly what it sounds like) and wrapped up a few months prior to the currently airing Slag Wars which stars the iconic and quotable C*** Destroyers, both of which have four episode long seasons. (I will refrain from any hyperlinking for that second example, because if you know Rebecca and Sophie, you know their content is uproariously NSFW).
Spark’d was a cute endeavor and while the story production was a little paint-by-numbers, I think the show has potential to really entertain with a bigger cast and grander scale of production. However, as a long-time, though deeply critical fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I can’t help but consume reality TV with my mind ever wandering to what goes on behind the scenes. As all consumers of reality TV should, I accept close to nothing I see from moment-to-moment at face value, and am constantly looking for agendas being fulfilled or storylines being produced when I notice things like a cast member being portrayed in a certain light or coincidences lining up in a way that heightens the drama of an episode.
That being said, while Spark’d was very milquetoast in the drama department, the show leaned heavily into themes of diversity and how The Sims as a franchise offers players the chance to explore and indulge in their identities within its colorful world of plumbobs and cowplants. The Sims absolutely has the right to take a little credit for being an earlier mainstream franchise to be very forward facing with their inclusion of same-sex relationships, so I’m not mad at Spark’d for keeping that tradition going, especially since they cast a diverse set of contestants and judges.
I appreciate that the contestants were allowed the room to not only signal to the viewer that they were queer, but also incorporate their queerness into the challenges of the contest itself. However, if you’ve been following this column you know I am deeply cynical towards and suspicious of major corporations handling representations of queerness, and I simply couldn’t turn off the part of my brain that dissects Drag Race while watching Spark’d.
The show’s approach to presenting (key word) queerness was very similar to the approach in The Sims: allow for queerness to be shown–especially with accompanying rainbow flags and accessories–but never explore any specific identities or represent specific queer experiences in depth. For The Sims games, I understand where this vague approach to presenting queerness comes from. You want players to have as much freedom as possible and perhaps representing queerness more realistically is out of the development team’s wheelhouse (or maybe even begins to cross the line of the PR and image standards for the corporation which owns the intellectual property). So you take the age-old approach of allowing characters to fall in love, kiss, maybe even WooHoo with characters of any gender, but leave all the labels off so the hateful players don’t get too heated that their Commander Shepard has the potential to kiss a fellow man or woman (you can only pick one). Players can do what they want, developers can’t be taken to task for misrepresenting experiences specific to particular identities; win-win.
Spark’d took a similar approach when presenting queerness in the show. Though contestants mentioned being queer, they never had room to go into any detail about how their experiences as queer players inform what The Sims means to them as players beyond vague notions of “exploring identity.” Let me be explicitly clear here: I do not need every queer person to show me their business card with their exact identity label which corresponds to the LGBTQIA+ acronym. For many people, labels don’t matter, can change with the season, or are deeply comforting and affirming to a sense of self-identification or community. What was missing from Spark’d weren’t labels, but opportunities to get to know the contestants better while representing experiences viewers might relate to, rather than simply presenting a disappointingly vague idea about queerness tied only to the term “identity” being thrown around. Though, I guess it was neat to see a few gender-nonconforming Sims being created for episode challenges?
To assume the absolute best, maybe these conversations simply didn’t happen in the interview chairs either because the producers never asked or the contestants never shared. However, there were enough packages featuring interviews, photos, or footage from contestants’ personal lives that I have a hard time believing things weren’t left on the cutting room floor to make sure EA, Maxis, and Buzzfeed’s images fit their respective investors’ expectations. What’s even more likely is Buzzfeed Multiplayer had to tread carefully to not have the episodes be demonitized on YouTube, a platform notorious for flagging and demonetizing videos by queer creators. However, this is all conjecture on my part. The same conjecture which makes me wonder why Xmiramira, a content creator and advisor to EA via the EA Game Changer program, was allowed to mention that she created the Melanin Pack, but not detail why such a pack was necessary as The Sims continues to struggle with darker skin tones that meet the same standards of quality as its lighter ones.
A lot of my cynicism (and emphasis on investors and brand image) emerges from the ever-present fact that reality TV, no matter its number of episodes, hosting platform, or content is a commodity. It is a product selling ad space during commercials (or unskippable YouTube ads) and affiliated merchandise to satisfy profit goals of the companies which produce these programs and the investors woven within and without. With any commodity, be it a reality competition show, video game, film, or comic book, the inclusion of queer characters or experiences not only performs “representation,” but entangles that queerness into the product; commodifiying it for dollars and cents. Yes, Spark’d presented queer Sims and players, but it also made sure that by the season finale, nearly every game pack and expansion was mentioned at least once if not featured in a challenge. Because marketing doesn’t begin and end in the commercial breaks, but is often integrated into the reality program itself.
Spark’d is a YouTube series depicting a game show and it is also a tool with which EA can sell downloadable packs of content for The Sims 4. When you entangle queerness into this marketing, as was done in the episodes in which queer stories were being told while fulfilling the challenge requirements of including particular Sims 4 content packs, you work to commodify queerness into part of the product. This commodification only becomes easier if you generalize that queerness by avoiding specifics wherever possible in order to market to the broadest possible audience.
This has been a longtime goal of RuPaul’s Drag Race, for better and worse. It’s (arguably) great that the art form of drag is mainstream enough to be shown on VH1, the BBC, and around the world online to a larger audience than ever. But beyond the flagship US edition of the show’s continued close mindedness with regards to casting, integrated advertising and marketability have always been two of the program’s concerns about which RuPaul and the producers used to wink to camera, but now earnestly pursue in developing contestants’ careers beyond the show. Sasha Velour, winner of Season 9 of the US edition of Drag Race, has been particularly noted as pushing the capital A, “Art” aspect of drag while also outwardly and intentionally leveraging queens’ potential to integrate Art into advertising for potential social media sponsors. Drag Race has become my go-to example of commodified queerness in reality TV, even if I continue to enjoy the show as campy entertainment and a vehicle through which I can follow more drag talent outside of Drag Race’s capitalistic obstacle course of “artistry.”
Now let’s talk about the darkest timeline. Let’s talk about wealth that completely overshadows any potential for activism, representation, or even junk food entertainment one must compromise their morals to enjoy. Let’s talk about Jeffree Star.
Here’s my confession: Spark’d and Drag Race aren’t the only reality shows I’ve been watching lately. I also spent the last week or so falling into the truly heinous rabbit hole that is Shane Dawson’s docu-series, The Secret World of Jeffree Star and The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star. Through nonsensical editing, gratuitous shots of Shane Dawson crying in a bathroom with a hole in the crotch of his jeans, and an opportunity for Jeffree Star to once again explain why he’s not racist, the series works to rehabilitate the notorious pair’s respective images. The second season in particular also functioned as an ultimately successful marketing campaign for a cosmetics collection which crashed Shopify and generated millions in profit. The line between documentary and reality TV is very thin. Both genres use film to depict “real” people and events and both are constructed with particular goals and arguments in mind. With all the drama and messiness that follows anywhere Star and Dawson tred, I’ll colloquially go ahead and call the docu-series reality TV for it’s similar tone, themes, and tendency to heighten events to get the viewer to tune in to every episode that airs (as I did, adding to over a cumulative 300 million views as of this writing).
Besides being reality TV adjacent, I also invoke the arch-demons of YouTube here because these are two incredibly successful and wealthy queer people with Jeffree Star possesing an estimated net worth more than double RuPaul’s. As far as American, capitalistic success goes, these are two queer figures who have made it, even if through means both nefarious and pervasive. I cannot stomach calling them role models, but they absolutely have large enough fan bases to be considered influencers with enough financial and social capital to affect the behaviors of their millions of followers.
To be clear, Spark’d was not playing with the hundreds of millions of dollars and years of infamy Star and Dawson are. However, my eyebrows shot up when, during the season finale, the contestants were instructed to use the final challenge to show how they “play with life.” Linking the idea of “play” to the promotion of a product like The Sims is the bread and butter of the cosmetics influencer game. Whether it’s the neon pink nightmare himself dropping the idea of play into a video “addressing rumors” following his latest attempt at PR damage control, or one Tati Westbrook dropping the phrase while working to defame James Charles via a homophobic reliance on archaic gay panic; the term “play” is frequently thrown around by YouTuber MUAs (make-up artists) to soften and infantilize their content. “Play” sounds a lot more digestible than “maintaining profitable relationships with brands via either direct sponsorship or a symbiotic exchange of free marketing through PR packages said influencers can use for content to generate AdSense.” This probably sounds familiar to anyone who’s wondered why influencers and streamers get early copies of games at the same time or even before critics at established gaming outlets.
Now, I don’t think Spark’d or The Sims 4 or even make-up influencers intentionally choose to mask wealth acquisition with the idea of play. However, the effect of this rhetorical move, unconscious or otherwise, is still the blending of identity, products, representation, and profit into an idea of “play” which allows the speaker and viewer to both handwave away the literal influence of consumerism over gamers, make-up enthusiasts, and young, impressionable people who are being worked on by this ideology. It’s easy to say it’s just “play,” but Jeffree Star is crashing Shopify and crowding multiple floors of Mall of America. Countless people on Twitter are harassing marginalized folk every day because they identify with a brand and a video game so strongly they feel the need to inflict violence in the name of a product before it has even been released. All so that they can continue to “play” in a culture that aligns with their values and theirs alone.
I’m deeply interested in how gaming can intersect with reality TV, both as a viewer seeking to be entertained and as a critic interested in how the gaming industry will continue to secure itself into various sectors of “the mainstream” alongside similar aspirants like RuPaul and Jeffree Star. However, queerness and its representation already maintain a fraught enough foothold in the gaming industry. Especially when some companies riddled with labor abuse and alleged sexual misconduct are having their dad-obsessed revenge porn upheld as Good Representation (she chose vengeance over her girlfriend, y’all…c’mon) while other companies equally notorious for abusing their employees continue to remind us how obsessed they are with people’s genitals. Weirdos. Because of this unstable space queer players have barely been allowed to carve out for ourselves, I get enough gray hairs thinking and writing about representation in games, much less thinking about reality TV getting thrown in the mix. If we’re going to intersect queer representation, gaming, and reality TV, I’m going to be maintaining my exhausted watch on how my identity and experiences are being marketed to people through that intersection. Even if it completely wrecks my YouTube algorithm.
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