Home » Queering The System: Lessons for Schools from Youths’ Queer Aesthetics in Role-playing Games

Queering The System: Lessons for Schools from Youths’ Queer Aesthetics in Role-playing Games

by Scott Storm

Abstract

Role-playing games led by queer youth of color have the potential to illustrate ways that youth might queer or hack the game system to imagine speculative futures and worlds. Drawing on Muñoz’s (2009) concepts of queer futurity, this study is grounded in a data set from a year-long youth participatory action research (YPAR) project. In the YPAR project, youth engaged with the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in ways that foregrounded queer gaming as a speculative resource. Findings suggest that youth augmented and transformed gaming mechanics and discourses in speculative ways that worked toward queer futures. Additionally, youth discussed how educators might use lessons from youth’s speculative role-playing as a way to queer the system of schooling through school mechanics and school discourses. Thus, this study argues that youths’ speculative gaming practices may help educators understand how to work toward social justice education. This study contributes to understandings of critical literacies, gaming literacies, queer inclusive pedagogies, and social justice-oriented approaches to schooling.

Introduction

School systems have been implicated in a long history of deficit discourses, exclusionary practices, and inequitable learning opportunities (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Love, 2019). Sometimes youth cultures are seen as a panacea for infusing relevancy and equity into curricula by trying to redesign these learning environments to center youth interests and passions. However, recent work in culturally sustaining pedagogy has reminded educators that youth cultures are also not exempted from issues of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia (Jones & Storm, 2022; Paris, 2012). As such, educators striving toward social justice teaching and learning need to think about how to design school systems to center youth passions while also working toward anti-oppressive learning ecologies. This work requires a careful examination of school systems and youth cultures to imagine possibilities for socially futures.

I draw on empirical data from a year-long Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project led by queer-youth who played the role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons & Dragons. I used methods from critical discourse analysis and queer theory to analyze the ways that they changed, shifted, or queered the mechanics of the gaming system and also of their own discourses or language-in-use as a way to work toward social justice. The dataset from this project includes approximately 85 hours of audio recordings of youth. Using the lessons learned from these data, I then imagine what it might look like to apply these youth-constructed tools of queer world-building to public school systems.

Speculative approaches to queer theory — including work around queer futurity, queer aesthetics, and queer world-building — are promising for shifting learning spaces toward justice (Muñoz, 2009). For Muñoz, the concept of queer futurity involves futures as a way to begin to transform social systems toward socially just futures. Muñoz reminds readers that queer futurity “is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present” (p. 1). Too often in educational spaces, scholars, teachers, and other would-be change agents get too bogged down in this “quagmire of the present,” fixating on the now and losing sight of the queer potentiality of education. Muñoz’s work helps educators and scholars to move beyond the often-normative limits of the present and envision queer utopian futures as a way to center “concrete possibility for another world” (p. 1). Specifically for Muñoz, this imagining of just futures often happens through forms of art, storytelling, theater, and human expression—what Muñoz terms the aesthetic. Creative work in the realm of the aesthetic opens opportunities for imagining what more utopian social worlds could look like. For Muñoz, “queer aesthetics map future social relations” (p. 1) and, as such, help people to dream up future worlds that are more socially just.

One promising space that brings together youth cultures and the possibility of a queer aesthetic is areas of youth-based role-playing games that embrace social justice. Role-playing games often draw on elements of improvisational theater to construct collective stories. Not all role-playing games are driven by social justice. However, recent research on queer world-building and futurity suggests that spaces of queer speculative and imaginative play may be powerful places for repair (Coleman, 2021), expression of identities through aesthetics (Storm & Jones, 2021) and queer enactments that deconstruct normativity (Keenan & Hot Mess, 2020).

A context for understanding queer speculative aesthetics is in queer-led role-playing games (RPGs). Participants in RPGs take on the identities of fiction characters and collaboratively tell a story about their characters by verbally narrating actions, embodying these characters through improvisational acting, and rolling dice to see if they are successful in achieving their actions. Different from board games, video games, or card games, these kinds of role-playing games are often played around a table; only a few pieces of paper, multi-sided dice, and game rulebooks are required. Perhaps the most well-known role-playing game is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), which more than 50 million people have played since it was first conceived in the 1970’s (Diamond, 2022). Role-playing games, generally, and D&D in particular, are well-suited for helping researchers understand how youth draw on speculative and aesthetic resources. D&D has a lengthy set of rulebooks that often reify normative assumptions about race, class, gender, and sexuality (Garcia, 2017). However, the RPG is also an open enough system that players can reject the rules that inscribe normativity and instead collectively imagine queer futures. Understanding how youth engage through queer-led aesthetic gaming experiences may bring insight into the mechanisms youth use to counter normativity and move beyond the “quagmire of the present” (Munoz, 2009, p. 1). Importantly, these lessons learned from paying close attention to how youth transform gameplay may be able to be transposed into more formal learning contexts, such as schooling. This paper explores youth queer role-playing games as a way to understand potential levers for change in formal systems of school.

In this paper, I ask two questions.

  • What are the empirically grounded ways, in the context of a queer-youth-led afterschool group, that participants queered or changed the gaming mechanics and their language-in-use that may support social justice narratives and aesthetics?
  • Based on the ways that youth queered the role-playing game, what might be similar underlying mechanisms for change in the context of formal schooling that could lead schools toward social justice?

The Potentiality of Queer Play

In this section, I first outline research on play and gaming in youth s interpretive practices as a way to bring together understandings of play and queerness. In both of these lines of inquiry, I draw on a sociocultural approach to literacies to help make sense of youth activities. As social practice, literacies highlight the socially-situated and ideological ways that people read, write, and speak (; Kinloch et al., 2017; Street, 2003). Seeing literacies as ideological social practice affords researchers a way to understand queer play because it foregrounds youth’s observable semiotic activity while also connecting these sensemaking activities to larger sociocultural practices. A focus on literacies affords researchers opportunities to see how youth might reify, counter, or transform normative social practices.

Playful and Gaming literacies

This study builds on scholarship in gaming literacies (Chen, 2001; Garcia, 2019; Gee, 2007; Gerber & Adams, 2014), which describe youth social practices in playful spaces. Much of this research has particularly focused on digital video games. For example, Steinkuehler (2007) traced the gaming practices of youth in virtual online gaming spaces. Gee (2007) investigated how youth undertook reading and writing activities both in video games and in fandoms or spaces where participants deeply involved in or fans of particular games come together to discuss their meta-commentary on the game and the gaming community. In this way, research on gaming literacies demonstrated that games are not separate from sociocultural contexts but rather are situated in and constitutive of social worlds.

Further, this research demonstrates that gaming systems are not neutral but rather are inseparable from the political realities of their social contexts. Beyond digital spaces, Garcia (2017, 2021) demonstrated that youth playing role-playing games such as D&D can and often do play into problematic social stereotypes. For example, one of Garcia’s (2021) participants talks about how people get upset when he plays characters in ways that reify social stereotypes. Although game players can reject oppressive ideologies bolstered by the gaming system, this kind of rejection requires active agentic movement on the part of the players to go against the normative status quo of the game. In effect, working against normativity requires a move to imagining new, more socially just futures.

Queer Literacies

Queer literacies “are the discursive practices, lived realities, and diverse communicative processes that queer people and queer communities advance in their resistances to normative regimes of gender and sexuality” (Wargo, 2022, p. 530). Beyond merely literacy practices that are imbued with content about sexuality and gender (Miller, 2018), queer literacies are literacy practices that push against normativity, break apart persistent binaries, and support people in seeing in new ways that can potentially move social worlds toward justice. In this way, queer literacies build on theoretical constructs offered by queer scholars of color, such as Andaldúa (2007) and Muñoz (2009), to demonstrate how a queer approach can transcend normative categories through semiotic and aesthetic forms. The central project of queer literacies is that it is about not only challenging normativity and binaristic thinking, but in moving beyond these stumbling blocks toward, as Muñoz (2009) might say, a horizon imbued with potentiality.

Importantly, queer literacies have been concerned not only with issues of sexuality and gender in these spaces but in understanding how intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) is enacted through literacy practices (Brockenbrough, 2016; Johnson, 2017; Cruz, 2013; Love, 2017; Pritchard, 2017). Intersectionality, the understanding of social systems as they play out across multiple marginalized identities, is of paramount importance to queer literacies and queer scholarship more broadly, and helps to demonstrate how queerness and race are inextricably linked such that they cannot be understood in isolation but must be analytically understood in concert (Ferguson, 2004; Reid, 2022).

Queer literacies have explored how queerness, normativity, and binaries are constructed in children’s literature (Blackburn, 2002; Ryan & Hermann-Wilmarth, 2018); writing/composing (Johnson, 2017; Schey, 2020; Wargo, 2017); and learning ecologies (Brockenbrough, 2016; Cruz, 2013; Love, 2017; Pritchard, 2017). Across these studies, researchers Youth challenge normativity by critiquing and transforming literacy practices as a way of moving toward queer futures and social change. This framework is particularly helpful for understanding queer enactments in role-playing games.

Queer Playful Literacies as Queer futurity

Bringing together research on gaming reveals how a queer approach to play and social change might be used in myriad contexts. For many youth, queer-led theatrical and playful activities can be affirming spaces where youth can take up identities and roles that they may not be able to safely perform in heteronormative contexts. Taking up this kind of approach to queer playful literacies, this study worked alongside youth who were already running their own queer-led role-playing game of D&D. Tired of reifying sexist tropes that the D&D game subtly supports, the queer-led group wanted to engage more explicitly in thinking about how they could change the game structures and their own language practices to be more socially just in their games. Thus, through a YPAR project, we took up an approach together to queer playful literacies that allowed us to acknowledge normativity while also envisioning utopian queer futures.

Methods & Methodology

A queer approach to research methodology requires methods that simultaneously center criticality, consider human actors in embedded social systems, and create spaces for the deconstruction of dominant research method (Browne & Nash, 2010; Ghaziani & Brim, 2019). For these reasons, the youth researchers who worked on this project and I committed to a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) epistemological stance, which was well-aligned to these goals (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Mirra, Garcia, & Morrell, 2016). YPAR allows researchers and youth to bring their individual expertise to a particular project while centering the questions of youth researchers as opposed to only the needs and questions of adult researchers. This practice disrupts normative research epistemologies that have historically treated participants in dehumanizing ways. Thus, we undertook a year-long YPAR project to think together about how to create gaming systems that would counter normative and hegemonic ideologies and open spaces for queer futures.

Context for the Study

This research took place in an afterschool program at a public school in a large metropolitan city in the northeast USA. The school served a population that was diverse in terms of race, socioeconomic class, gender identities, and sexualities. This school had a robust roster of critical social justice afterschool clubs, including clubs focused on Feminism, racial justice, queer advocacy, and climate justice. The school also had a student-led afterschool gaming club for LGBTQIA+ students and allies, which mirrored the demographics of the school as a whole and served as the site for the YPAR project.

Research Team

Eight youth researchers (all in either 11th or 12th grade) and two doctoral students (including myself) made up the research team for this project. The eight youth researchers had helped to form the afterschool queer gaming club and were initially playing D&D. In noticing that the game sometimes played into cultural stereotypes and narrative tropes that made them uncomfortable, they wondered how they could push against these problematic elements of the game in a more systematic way. The group was connected to me because, at the time, I was a teacher at the school with many years of experience teaching social justice-oriented literature classes that drew on critical theories, including queer theory and critical race theory. As a queer cisgender man from a working-class background, I have a lifetime long interest in transforming oppressive schooling structures, and the youth D&D players wondered if I might have ideas for how to go about this kind of inquiry. Several of the youth had some experience with YPAR projects and wondered if this could also be a good context for a collaborative YPAR project. Thus, we began to plan the research project throughout the spring semester and officially started the YPAR project in the fall of the following year as I was also beginning my doctoral studies.

Most of the youth researchers identified as queer or questioning though two identified as straight allies. All youth names in this report are pseudonyms. Although the youth researchers were invited to collaborate on this paper, time constraints and commitments to their college courses (as they had now graduated from high school) created a structure that, unfortunately, did not allow them time to participate in the writing of this article. However, youth researchers were involved at all other steps of the research process, including collecting and analyzing data.

The youth researchers also invited a second doctoral student who identified as a straight white cisgender woman to participate because of her interest in and expertise with role-playing games. She also participated in data collection and co-authored other papers that came out of this project, but did not work on this particular report due to time constraints.

Data Collection & Analysis

The YPAR project unfolded in three phases. In the first phase, we played D&D while taking a critical stance toward gameplay that considered issues of representation, stereotyping, and justice in role-playing. We audio-recorded all game sessions and participated by playing fantasy characters (e.g. elf wizards, orc fighters).

In the second phase, youth and adult researchers held data analysis sessions together where we conducted critical discourse analyses of the transcripts of our own D&D games. We first read about methods of critical discourse analysis together. Then, we collaboratively talked through what we noticed in the recordings and transcripts. Youth pursued their collective questions that typically focused around how, through storytelling, we reified or challenged dominant narratives around race, gender, and sexuality. One particular set of questions that the group continued to come back to was the research questions that this paper addresses. These questions were developed collaboratively by youth and adult researchers and did not have one clear person who “owned” them. Rather, they arose organically through our iterative talk and a desire to change both gaming and schooling systems toward justice.

In the third phase, the group centered activism by working to change the problematic structures that our research uncovered. They designed guides for others playing queer-led, justice-driven D&D games, and led their own D&D justice-driven campaigns with new groups of youth from the school community and beyond.

In total, we collected approximately 85 hours of audio data. Throughout all phases, the university-based researchers wrote extensive field notes.

To pursue the particular questions in this paper, the entire YPAR team (youth and university-based researchers) looked at our data from our game play sessions with particular attention to the ways that we pushed against normativity by manipulating game mechanics and our own game discourse. We define mechanics as the rules and features of the game system, and we define discourse as language-in-use within socioculturally-situated activity. Then, we engaged in a series of speculative conversations where we tried to envision how to bring these learnings from our own D&D gameplay to school systems. Thus, collaboratively, we discussed how we might work against normativity in school mechanics and school discourses.

As an additional analytic step, while preparing this manuscript, I listened to and re-read the transcripts from our gaming sessions and from our data analysis sessions. As I read and listened, I noted patterns in the game mechanics, game discourses, school mechanics, and school discourses that we discussed and identified. Thus, by taking several passes through the data, I pulled out generative themes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) that seemed most durable across our discussions and might be most useful for this report.

Findings

In this section, I first report the key ways that we found of queering the game mechanics and game discourses in queering the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Then, I apply these learnings to understanding how people might work to queer the normative structures in schools by queering school mechanics and school discourses.

Speculative Approaches to Queering Role-playing Game Systems

Across gameplaying and analysis sessions, data suggest that youth researchers were actively finding ways of augmenting and transforming game mechanics and discourses to work against oppressive normative ideologies and embrace queer futurity within the gaming system.

Queering game mechanics

Augmenting mechanics: one way that youth approached the role-playing game to make it more critically conscious and to work against normativity was by augmenting or adding to the gaming mechanics. For example, the D&D rule books encourage players to build characters by thinking about the species and occupation of their characters during the game. However, there is less information about how to choose characters’ gender identities and sexualities. The youth researchers saw this choice of the gaming system of largely ignoring questions of gender and sexuality as a kind of erasure of identities that felt important to their own and their characters’ ontologies.

Therefore, the group instituted a practice of selecting gender identities, thinking about gender expression, and considering sexual identities and experiences as part of the character creation process. For instance, when creating characters, the youth decided that players could choose a sexual identity that they wanted for their character, or that they could use the dice to randomly roll on a table of possible sexualities that they had constructed. The table that the youth created listed ten different sexualities: queer, gay/lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, straight, heteroflexible, fluid and others. Further, sometimes youth encouraged people to roll on the table multiple times to create interesting combinations. Youth could decide for themselves if they wanted to select their characters’ sexual identities or leave it up to the chance of the roll. As Jaxton said in a reflection of how they created this gaming mechanic, “We thought that if you, if you were unsure about your character’s sexuality, we could just roll the dye of sexuality.” In this way, youth found a way to augment the game mechanics by adding these rules around sexual identities.

Importantly, youth were clear with one another that rolling on the table constituted the characters’ starting sexual identity in the game, but that these identities were fluid and might change as the game progressed. Further, they made a distinction between sexual identity and sexual experience noting that there was no need for identity and experience to seem to match as the gameplay progressed. In addition to the table of sexual identities, youth also created a table for gender identities that included multiple possibilities to take up trans*, nonbinary, agender, and cisgender identities.

In addition to this practice, youth also began every D&D session by introducing themselves and their character and saying both their gender pronouns and their characters’ gender pronouns. This is not a typical practice in D&D gameplay, but youth researchers felt that it was important to bring into existence both their own pronouns and their characters’ pronouns at the gaming table.

These shifts in adding to or augmenting gaming mechanics allowed youth to work against a gaming system that might subtly add to the erasure of marginalized gender and sexual identities in gameplay. Thus, this kind of augmentation, which were fairly simple mechanical tweaks to the gaming system, allowed youth to bring new identities and ontologies into the game in ways that were not previously possible.

Transforming mechanics: Sometimes youth found that more radical action was needed to orient the D&D game mechanics toward justice. For example, one major concern that youth had was that the world of D&D was largely based on Western conceptions of fantasy literature—a kind of a speculative literature heavily influenced by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and other epic high fantasy worlds that treat dark-complected or non-white characters (such as Orcs and goblins) largely as evil and fair-complected, blue eyed, blond characters (such as elves) as largely good. These kinds of associations are racist narrative tropes that are engineered into the story of D&D. They are difficult associations to remove from the gaming system by just augmenting mechanics, but rather require a transforming of the system. One of the ways that the youth researchers thought of to create a more radical shift was to transform the mechanic of the adventure guides, which are the books that are often used with the game. When playing D&D, many people use an adventure guide that includes a pre-written story that the group follows. It often includes non-playing characters for the group to interact with maps of fantastical settings to explore, magical items to obtain, and quest objectives to complete. However, following this kind of adventure guide can leave one open to reifying the problematic narrative tropes that are prevalent in these guides. In addition to the problematic associations with race discussed above, for example, these guides rarely have LGBTQIA+ characters and largely assume heteronormative interactions and normative gender roles.

To queer this game mechanic, the YPAR D&D group used a mechanism known as homebrewing their own adventuring campaign. A homebrew campaign is when the people playing the game do not use one of the commercially available adventure guides but rather create all their own elements of the fantasy world. Because the YPAR group ran a homebrew campaign, they could reject and re-write the narrative tropes that inscribed racist and heterosexist assumptions. For example, all of their player characters and most of the non-playing characters that they encountered in their travels identified as queer. In this way, the YPAR group normalized queerness in the game world by making queer identities—in all of their diversity—the default for all the characters. The YPAR group critiqued many of the commercially-produced campaigns for marginalizing queer identities. For this reason, the group decided not to try to infuse one of these commercially-produced campaigns with queer characters. Instead, the group created their own campaign. This campaign began with the assumption that queer identities were normative identities. Similarly, to disrupt the game’s typical racial tropes, the group introduced many character types that are not part of the traditional adventure guides—throughout their adventures they encountered anthropomorphized octopi, drag queen mer-people, asexual toadstool peoples that were actually all part of one organism, and larger than life talking-birds that were all the colors of an inclusive trans* and queer pride flag.

Queering game discourse

Shifting the mechanics of the game helped to create new structures in which youth could play out their stories in ways that allowed for queer-centric storytelling. However, mechanics alone were not enough for constructing queer worlds. Queering the discourse, or the language of the, game was also necessary to work toward queer futurity.

Augmenting game discourse: The YPAR group’s characters and plot arcs strove to infuse ways to imagine queer utopia as they played the role-playing game. For example, normative ways of playing D&D often include the characters talking about or even interacting with a large pantheon of deities with great power over the world. Often, in commercially-published D&D, these gods come from traditional Greek or Norse pantheons. Adventurers might find themselves face to face with Athena or reading Zeus, Thor, or Loki’s influences on local culture in the fantasy world. The YPAR group decided to keep a focus on gods in their homebrewed campaign, but they augmented these gods to center gods that had strong connections to queer identities and queer love. As Velma describes, “The cleric gets their divine power from Sappho, and like worships Sappho, and like it’s, a healing goddess because lesbianism, you know, gives you life.” The YPAR group decided that one of the clerics (a character who gets their magic power from a god) would draw their power from Sappho—an ancient Greek poet known for her lyric poetry who has become a contemporary symbol of queer love. In this, way, the group augmented the larger pantheons of gods that they encountered by centering queer icons.

In this additive discourse, the YPAR group also drew on or made intertextual reference to queer characters from other stories or from history to strengthen the centrality of queer culture in their own storytelling discourse. They included characters from queer young adult fiction. For example, Luna named her character “Aristotle Quintana” as a mash up of  the dual protagonists Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana from Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe. They drew on historical queer icons. such as the musical group Abba. For example, Velma’s orc character introduced himself by saying that he was a “missing member of the band Abba.” Later, all the characters sang and performed Abba’s hit song Dancing Queen in their campaigThey also made reference to queer activists such as Harvey Milk and Audre Lorde and created characters with the likeness of their favorite queer television characters. In this way, they augmented the existing game discourse, which already drew heavily on intertextual connections, with queer references to center queer culture. They not only wrote themselves into existence, but they also wrote the whole history of a shared queer culture into the fabric of the fantasy story—imagining the aesthetics of a more just world that centered instead of marginalized queerness.

Transforming game discourse: If following a homebrewed, instead of a commercially-available campaign, was one way that youth transformed the game mechanics, then, the ways that they transformed the game discourse was the narrative tropes that they used to fill this queer world. Instead of trying to shift homophobic and transphobic narratives, youth began by assuming that they wanted to make a world that was a utopia with regard to queer identities. This orientation allowed youth to sidestep plots about queer trauma and queer violence and to transform the discourse so that these were not the kinds of narrative conflicts that the group ever had to work through. Many of the youth discussed that they experienced this approach as a much-needed relief from the stress of their daily life. For instance, Luna, who identified as nonbinary and whose pronouns are she and they, discussed that at home and in school they feel that the way they experience the world is always imbued with the threat of violence and bullying and discrimination, and so it was important to create a D&D world for them that began with different assumptions.

Similarly, Velma noted that when they are playing D&D, they do not have to worry about homophobic reactions from others. In fact, they can imagine and construct a society that is free from homophobia said this right before a gaming session, while Evie, the DM, was preparing in a corner of the room. Immediately following this conversational turn, Velma said that a homophobia-free society is exactly the kind of aesthetic world-making that their DM was engaged in constructing at that very moment. Velma’s analysis of why she plays D&D exemplifies Muñoz’s (2009) notion of queer futurity. Instead of being stuck in the restrictiveness of thegroup collaboratively constructed a utopian vision of a queer future—one in which they were able to role-play within through their embodied storytellin

Speculative Approaches to Queering School Systems

The second question that this study takes up asks how we might conceptually apply lessons from the YPAR group’s queering of D&D’s gaming system to understand how we might move formal schooling toward justice-oriented visions of queer futurity.

Queering school mechanics

In role-playing games, the mechanics consist of mostly patterned and rule-bound actions that players take. In role-playing games, mechanics refer to how dice are rolled, how the story is told, and what abilities players have. Although people may not typically think of school systems as also having mechanics, the mechanics of formal schooling include the typically patterned and rule-governed ways that people interact in schooling spaces. Class schedules, course texts, and assessment systems might all be seen as part of school mechanics. These are not unchangeable structures; human actors both created and can change school mechanics. The YPAR group’s work helps us to see how school mechanics might be transformed toward queer utopian worlds.

Augmenting school mechanics: The YPAR group had a series of discussions about how to apply the lessons we learned from our aesthetic re-imagining of new worlds through D&D to school systems. Evie characterized this approach of augmenting school by saying that, “If I were to design a school, I would look at the rules that were given, like what we legally have to do, but would add more rules outside of that to create settings that will allow people to thrive.”  The group discussed Evie’s idea in our D&D games; we augmented the gaming mechanics by focusing on making spaces for multiple queer and gender identities to exist and be ontologically recognized in the game system. When thinking about augmenting school mechanics, this inst the erasure of queer and trans* identities is at the forefront of how the YPAR group suggests changing schools. One way to acknowledge all identities is to begin classes with youth being able to have the space to talk about their pronouns and identities. For example, Luna talked about how “pronouns are important because they let you name who you are.” Velma also stressed that talking about pronouns should not be done in a perfunctory fashion on the first day of class. Rather, the class should come back to this mechanic throughout a course because pronouns and identities are fluid and may change throughout the course of a class. Teachers holding space for everyone to share their pronouns at regular intervals throughout a school year is a mechanic that demonstrates a value for queer identities.

Similarly, the youth talked about augmenting the normative ideas associated with the physical space of schools and classrooms. Jaxton noted that “seating arrangements matter,” and Robyn agreed saying, “we all sit in a circle in D&D so we feel valued.” The group talked about how teachers could augment the comfortableness and safety of the classroom by setting desks up so that youth were in a circle. Then the class could collaborate to create pedagogies that support a more democratic and community-driven approach instead of giving the teacher all the power. Similarly, Evie agreed about augmenting the physical space to make it more aesthetically comfortable. She explained, “schools have fluorescent lighting, which is really harsh on the eyes; and switching to more natural lighting and providing teachers with the supplies to make their classrooms more comfortable would be very important.” The D&D group imagined how to augment the language and space of the classroom to shift the aesthetics towards making spaces where youth can thrive.

Transforming school mechanics: The YPAR group came up with many ways to transform the mechanics of schooling to embrace queer futurity. For example, youth wanted to change assessment and grading mechanics. In discussing these aspects of schooling, the YPAR group argued that letter grades can feel dehumanizing. For example, Evie explained that “Every student’s success can be measured in different ways,” so schools should consider a range of assessment practices. The YPAR group recommended moving toward a more competency-based system that centered self-assessment and dialogue. They nThe YPAR group stressed that always remaining open to revising and adding to the rubric should be a key part of this kind of transformation to the grading mechanic.

Building from these ideas, the YPAR group considered ways to transform pedagogy. A pervasive pedagogical mechanic of schooling is the classroom interactional mechanic of initiate, respond, evaluate, (IRE) where the teacher asks a question—typically one that students are supposed to know the answer to—then initiates an interaction by calling on one student who responds and then whose response is typically evaluated aloud by the teacher. This kind of practice severely limits the kind of interactions available between students and teachers. Moreover, IRE focuses youth on a small set of convergent questions—questions with “right” answers as opposed to engaging youth in a process of sustained inquiry about their passions and questions. The YPAR group recommended that schools queer this mechanic by: embracing whole class discussion, encouraging divergent questions, and centering play. For example, Velma explained: “Incorporating more like aspects of play into school” would be helpful. Specifically, she recommended that, “for sial studies there could be mock trials, and longer form role playing games that had structured parts that you know, like strictly reference historical stuff.” Velma argued that this kind of play-centric learning allows “people to understand character through historical context and embodiment,” which she suggested would be a more aesthetically powerful learning experience.

A final school mechanic that the YPAR group discussed was the way that people structure high school course curricula to value breadth of coverage over depth of inquiry. The YPAR group recommended replacing survey courses with thematic courses exploring topics that interest youth. Just as the YPAR group homebrewed their campaign, they recommend that schools take more of a homebrewed approach to coursework. The YPAR group recommended that more high schools do what their high school has done, which is to eschew the normative way of organizing classes. Instead of having courses called “9th grade English” followed by “10th grade English” and so on, the YPAR group recommended that schools have, as Velma said, “a menu of multi-age classes to choose from.” They recommended setting up courses more like a college and having English courses that focused on “Queer Literature,” “Intersectional Approaches to Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Literature,” “Writing Fantasy Novels,” and other courses that will be of interest to students. These types of courses will support students in  sustaining their literary inquiries into issues of guage. The YPAR group pointed out that the normative mechanics of course curricula constrained youths’ abilities to pursue their passions.

Queering school discourse

Augmenting school discourse: In line with social movements, such as, #DisruptTexts and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the YPAR group recommended that the discourse of school be augmented by diversifying curricula. The YPAR group noted that an explicit discussion of the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia were important in all subjects. They pointed out that discussing these ideas by analyzing their D&D play helped them all to see when and how D&D could be harmf. For example, Evie reflects that, “I made it really apparent throughout the game that Tieflings [an often Black-coded race of creatures] in this society were seen as outsiders.” Thus, Evie demonstrates how she initially played into the racism of the D&D world as way to call out that racism so that others questioned it. Evie continues, “And I was like well this is the way the rules are constructed, and I created opportunities for players to see that and push back on it and change the rules.” Thus, Evie created opportunities for players to change the rules to move them toward justice—the YPAR group recommended that schools also create opportunities for youth to change the system.

Transforming school discourse: Transforming school discourse toward queer utopias starts by having the community re-think the way that they approach the narratives they tell at schools. The YPAR group discussed that for schools to see the humanity of all students, schools need to stop playing into discourses of compliance. Every time a teacher or another student notes that they have to do something “for a grade,” or “because that is just the way it is,” they support the kind of compliance discourses that help to deaden queer youth’s participation in schools. Instead, the youth argued, schools need to transform this discourse from one of normative . They need to center not the imperative mode as in “sit down,” “do your work,” and “go to class” but the subjunctive mode full of possibility and ask “if you had a wish for your education, what would you wish?” and “If you were to create something to change the world, what would it be?”

Similarly, YPAR participants suggested that even discourses meant to be inclusive sometimes stem from normative assumptions. For example, Velma said that some school forms or surveys inquire about students’ gender identities. She described that sometimes these kinds of forms offer only the options: “male, female, or other.” Velma noted that the choice of “other” may be meant to be inclusive of students who identify as nonbinary, transgender, and/or genderqueer. However, Velma also said that this construction felt, “literally othering.” Velma and the rest of the YPAR group discussed that merely adding an option of “other” instead of rethinking all the options at least partially maintains the dominance of an assumption of a gender binary. Additionally, they worried that words like “male” and “female” might more describe biological sex as opposed to gender identity. The group recommended that schools completely re-think discourse to offer many options for gender identities and sexualities—just like their character creation tables in D&D had many options for these identities.

Conclusions

This paper reported on the ways that the YPAR D&D group augmented and transformed the gaming system, in its mechanics and its discourse as a way of moving toward queer futurity. Further, it supported an argument for how these learnings might inform school systems as they strive toward social justice by speculatively imagining queer aesthetic futures through learning ecologies.

Perhaps most importantly, this study demonstrates the power of speculative aesthetic play to move toward more socially just worlds. Both youth and adults can help take steps toward these worlds. Like queerness, more socially just worlds may lurk on the horizon. They hover just beyond the quagmire of the present. An iteration of these utopian futures may be possible across school settings if people commit to, first, imagining them, and then, moving toward them through augmenting and transforming the mechanics and discourses of our world.

Notes on Contributor

Scott Storm (he/him/his) is a doctoral candidate in English Education at New York University.  He has also been an English teacher in urban public schools for 15 years. Scott studies youth literary interpretation, critical literacies, and social justice with a focus on youths’ critical analysis of and production of aesthetic forms. His work has appeared in, Journal of Literacy Research, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, English Teaching: Practice & Critique, English Journal, and Literacy Research and Instruction among others.

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