This case study provides an overview of the relevant discursive tensions that emerge as game developers negotiate the publication cycle, the hardware cycle, and the cultural demands of audiences. In particular, this session is designed to help game scholars and developers understand how to critically examine game engine technologies, and to encourage broader intellectual (and creative consideration) of the role of game engines in an industry commonly read as a series of playable intellectual properties. This session also opens up a space for independent game engine developers to discuss their relationship to more dominant engine developers such as Unity and Unreal, and it proposes how a queer analysis of the work in progress and the technologies that undergird the work in progress might strengthen more generalized discussions of the representational politics of video games, their audiences, and their production communities.
For developers, game engines create a series of fixed relations, but also present a necessary mechanical order (a software framework that lays out core functionalities—for example, rendering, physics, collision, acoustics). Game engines make the process of development more economical, but the need for rapid development and cross-platform deployment that engines answer also presents a trade-off between order and control, and freedom and possibility.
This analysis examines the manner in which the space for possibility, for radical queer sensibility, shrinks through the process of development. While this is true as well in the more obvious signs of game trailers that fix meaning in parallel ways (making even the most open game a knowable, marketable property), the compromises that are made in the selection and use of the game engine are much subtler.
The developer’s selection of a game engine serves as the most significant transactional limit. Many indie developers, in the pursuit of efficiency, have no choice but to accept this limit, have to tie their intellectual properties to the systematized writing associated with engines, have to see their works operate less queerly, less out of bounds. This analysis considers the range of engines—more dominant, costly, high-powered tools such as Unity and Unreal, and alternative, entry level tools such as Twine and GameMaker. The latter have been celebrated for their accessibility, but more significantly for queer game artists, they seem to facilitate qualities such as empathy, community and communicative openness. This analysis considers the value of seeing engine choice in such binary terms, and the degree to which freedom, expressivity, multivocality and queerness can be delimited by software mechanics.
Dr. Eric Freedman is Professor and Dean of the School of Media Arts at Columbia College Chicago, and author of Transient Images: Personal Media in Public Frameworks (Temple University Press). His most recent essays include “Resident Racist: Embodiment and Game Controller Mechanics” (Pearson) and “Technobiography: Industry, Agency and the Networked Body” (Peter Lang). His current research examines the industrial applications of game engines.