The possibility, and reality, of failure is an essential component of what makes any videogame engaging. Yet in the real world, the concept of “failure” is universally deplored by social and political institutions. What explains this profound discrepancy? I spoke to philosopher and queer theorist Jack Halberstam about his work in The Queer Art of Failure to get a broader understanding of failure, capitalism, and how penguins really have sex.
What first interested me about your work was the central premise of The Queer Art of Failure—something that relates to videogames, at least on a rhetorical level, since failure is so important to games. But “failure” in the context of a game is often a specific and finite point. What is your definition of failure?
I understood failure to be a shifty, changeable term that over the last 10 years of this boom-bust economy had become fixed to the idea of financial failure. There are so many different ways to fail, and to fail in interesting ways, as many have pointed out—everyone from Beckett to Malcolm Gladwell. But because we’ve become so focused on the economy we’ve come up with really, really crude standards for success and failure. Success tends to mean profit accumulation, and a certain adherence to heteronormative structures in your personal life—that you be married, that you have kids, etc. And failure more and more is the failure to accumulate wealth, and to be properly situated in a social arrangement that involves marriage and kids.
So the queer art of failure, then, is a kind of anti-capitalist, as well as anti-normative, way of being that has much more to offer in terms of thinking about how to navigate this world that we live in now than just striving to accomplish the various benchmarks of success that have been laid out in this recent phase of globalization.
Gay marriage has become a big issue again in recent weeks with the contest over DOMA and the president’s statements. But in the framework you’re describing, the entire debate is less of an effort to reorient the problem than it is to change the rules of the game so more people can win.
It’s precisely that; it’s not asking to be admitted to structures as they already exist. To say, “We’re gay, we’re respectable, have two good incomes, we’re raising children,” to take advantage of the tax credit that’s also granted with marriage—that’s not going to change anything. Instead, gay people have crafted some interesting ways of being intimate and having sociality and kinship outside of the marriage network. To abandon those just because the club that always said “no” to you now says “yes” is pathetic and misguided.
What do you see as the alternative? Or are you supposed to even have a clear picture of what these new models would look like right now?
Well, there are alternatives; they’re everywhere! People who live together, serial monogamists, people who are involved in polyamorous relations, people who are single. Single people are increasingly the statistical majority in certain age brackets. But they remain as pariahs, people who, socially, we can’t accommodate. So dinner parties have to be coupled up for the fear of this one single person who will come and disrupt all the couples. There’s a new book coming out by the man Michael Cobb called Single, and he argues that the real marginalized category in everyday life is not the gay or the lesbian, but the single.
The same way that divorce itself is understood as an act of failure.
Yes, but more and more people are recognizing that divorce is a good thing when it comes to raising children. Why? Because the couples separate and they actually split custody. Parents have weekends off, kids get to be around multiple sets of adults instead of one set of adults. Suddenly there are more adults caring for children. Of course divorce can be financially disastrous, especially for women, but a lot of time it’s actually creating alternative arrangements that relieve this incredibly humdrum way we tend to parent in this country. The grind of it is relieved.
I know people who are so-called happily married who quite envy their divorced friends because they have this different arrangement that looks pretty good! The only way that you can discipline people into staying married no matter what the circumstances is to suggest that divorce is the failure of marriage. That feeling of failure actually keeps people in these arrangements that stopped working about 10 years ago. And that’s why one needs much more flexible and supple models of success and failure.
In games there’s often an absolute “win” state you can achieve, and an absolute “failure” state—when your character dies or someone has more points at the end of the timer. But you’re describing something much more chaotic—economic crises are noted for their volatility, where someone can go from succeeding to failing almost instantaneously.
There’s that zero-sum model of success and failure, where people were being offered massive mortgages that they know they can’t afford. But they’ve already made their investment in this crappy American dream. Any rational person would know that that wasn’t possible. But because of this marketing of the idea of success, people are ideologically committed to models of success that, either way, they can’t afford. That makes you susceptible to the kind of hucksterism that has characterized the financial market for the last 10 years.
So there are very serious consequences to keeping such rigid models of success and failure, and to believing that success is something that you deserve—something that because you’re a good person is just going to come to you.
Given that, I’m wondering why you didn’t focus more on military issues. Doesn’t the polarization of success and failure trouble the entire definition of something as permeable and ubiquitous as the “war on terror?”
Economics is merely an example. The real focus is the fact that queer people, because they’ve been told all along that they’re failing—failing to be proper men and women, failing to have the right kind of sexuality—they already have different ideologies. And they have insight into the capacity and potentiality of failure. Given that we’re living in a world of the 1% and the 99%, the 99% apparently need instruction in how to fail gracefully.
Videogames offer you one way to win—you either win or you lose. There’s also a lot of repetition in videogames. You need to lose a hundred times or a thousand times in order to learn how to win. So you may have to replay the level over and over again to truly explore all the different things that are out there waiting for you, or all the different simulations that map the landscape that you’re in. So even in the virtual, failure is a much more ubiquitous experience. But that’s where you learn valuable lessons. Only after having learned those can you actually finish the level. There’s something very zen-like about that that also allows us to access these different models of success and failure I would call queer.
That’s interesting, because I would think today the corporate trend toward gamification does the opposite—it subsumes the interesting and potentially subversive possibilities of gameplay back into a reiterative form of capitalism.
I resist that argument because it sort of predetermines that nothing can be an escape route. And, I mean, then what’s the point of anything really? If everything just feeds back into capitalism—everything is either good for capitalism or bad for capitalism—there’s a futility to everything. I find that logic kind of cynical.
There are a lot of alternative worlds around us that had different models of success and failure embedded in them. Curiously, one of those worlds was animated film. So I became very interested in computer-generated images that allowed for a three-dimensionality that was different than earlier forms of animation, and also participated in very different narratives than the linear cartoons before them had done. There’s both queer and anti-capitalist material in those stories and worlds that we might find surprising and instructive.
In the book you argue, “While animal documentaries use voice-overs and invisible cameras to try to provide a God’s-eye-view of ‘nature’ and to explain every type of animal behavior in ways that reduce animals to human-like creatures, we might think of animation as a way of maintaining the animality of animal social worlds.” This seems counterintuitive to me, at least in terms of the technical and artistic approach to modeling animals in a movie like Finding Nemo. The developers have to think of how to make the faces of these “animals” as expressively human as possible as opposed to the way they’d be depicted in, say, Planet Earth.
There’s a long history of these animal documentaries with the deep man’s voiceover where you watch animals doing things that are, frankly, inexplicable. But the voiceover, because it is often telling you a very familiar story, makes it seem as if the animals are doing exactly what the people are describing. The best example is obviously The March of the Penguins, where you get this baritone voiceover by Morgan Freeman telling you that this is an elemental journey to reproduce life, and that there’s a certain grace and elegance to it. What you’re actually watching are incredibly awkward birds being forced further and further out because of the melting of the icecaps due to environmental conditions, and the incredibly difficult act of reproduction that relies on a few of the penguins managing to reproduce and all of the others huddling around them to make a giant thermos. So you could narrate that sequence very differently.
But the other point is that the narration is basically using the animals to tell a story about humanity. It is true in animated films that the creations are “brought to life” by giving them faces that sometimes even match up with the voice actor—like Dory and Ellen Degeneres. But when they develop the sequences and the characters for the animals they’ve chosen to represent, there’s a lot of study of these animal societies because they want to get some things right in order for other things to be believable.
I’m not saying that they are “scientifically” right, but they do obey a different logic than a human one. In A Bug’s Life, Pixar became very interested in animating bugs, partly because the bugs were very easy to make with their new technology. But then they realized that creatures like ants are social insects; you have to have a lot of them. With linear animation, drawing a bunch of ants and making them all different is really hard to do. But in CGI, you can actually create a crowd of ants that is distinctive for being multiple and diverse.
How you render that is really tricky, so they came up with a new algorithm. But once they created it, they really wanted to use the technology! So now they need narratives that fit the narration of multiplicity and collectives. That’s how you end up with these basically Neo-Marxist narratives of collective revolt that actually do have something to do with social insects. Of course in the movie they get married … there are any number of aspects of human anthropomorphism projected onto them. But the point is that there are narrative lines in these films that are recognizably human, and then there are narrative lines that are recognizably ant or chicken. It’s their combination that makes something interesting happen. Whereas the kind of documentaries that we thrill at like March of the Penguins almost ignore the penguins. You really have to wonder why we love so much these narratives that turn them into little mini-people.
I wonder if you can point to the same method in relating to the programmed objects that have been created in a videogame. If you’ve created something with its own internal logic, are you just attaching a human perspective to make sense of it? Reading something like Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology I wonder about that—what do all the different components of a complex system like a videogame think of themselves in their own terms?
Ian sort of wants to hold on to this idea—I’m not going to represent his view very well—that all objects exist equally, and therefore it doesn’t really make sense to start bringing in these categories of race, sex, gender, and class into our discussion of objects. But as the Tomb Raider story suggests, even in the realm of objects and avatars, there are still prevailing hierarchies that oddly seem to be structured by race, class, and gender, and that then determine the meaning of certain characters or their vulnerability. So I think he’s too optimistic about the disappearance of human structures in relationship to objects.
I think in some bare way, videogames contain the process or the promise of becoming something else entirely when you play them—you’re able to lose your individuality, however temporarily, when you enter into a fully realized virtual world. Something about that seems fundamentally queer, which is why I find it so silly when people debate so specifically about something like a gay character being in Mass Effect.
That’s fascinating, though, that in a realm where there can be inter-species, inter-alien kinds of intimacy, you still have the most foundational kind of taboo against intimacy. That points to the fact that videogames promise access to other worlds, but they just don’t always deliver. It’s such a straight, white-guy world. While that has been changing, and there are opportunities for all different genders in the gaming world, there aren’t so many people who are invested in creating these alternate worlds. That’s just how it seems to me as a non-player.
When you say a white guy’s world, do you mean the society traditionally built around videogames?
I think so. Unfortunately it remains a boy’s thing with the odd girl thrown in. All the issues you’ve been raising with something like Tomb Raider are related to the assumptions about the availability of the female body to the male body. While we may be in a new realm, we still have male bodies who want to do things without consent to female bodies. There are certain things that remain constant, no matter how much the terms or logic of the game changes.