gay for play: how video games became a space to virtually explore queerness
As a newly-opened exhibition at Berlin’s Schwules Museum examines the queer history of video games, writer Jake Hall investigates the ways in which virtual worlds have provided an escape for young people the world over.
Image via The Sims Forums
One of my fondest teenage memories is becoming so obsessed with Desperate Housewives that I bought the -- frankly terrible -- PC game. It was like The Sims with a more salacious storyline, but I wasn’t interested in recreating Susan’s burnt macaroni cheese or plotting to murder my neighbours. Instead, I found myself repeatedly seducing and then sleeping with the hot local handyman, Mike Delfino. When I did finally buy The Sims I didn’t drown entire families in swimming pools (don’t deny it!); I spent my nights designing the most extravagant, over-the-top characters my imagination could fathom. I didn’t know it then, but these early years were spent virtually exploring my queerness.
We live in a world which treats heterosexuality as the norm, so naturally, video game universes tend to replicate this dynamic. That’s arguably why so many of us seem to gravitate towards releases like The Sims, which allow us to build our own worlds and storylines. “I have so much to say about Gay Sims™,” jokes Izzy Jagan, a huge video game fan currently working in PR. “How often do you see queer people in narratives where they’re just allowed to perform mundane, domestic life activities? Doing laundry? Cooking? Getting married?! [In The Sims] we can do that!”
Other games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age -- both created by famously progressive developer BioWare -- have similarly allowed characters to be in same-sex relationships, whereas protagonists like Poison and Birdo (from the Street Fighter and Mario franchises respectively) were seemingly designed as trans (although Poison’s representation in particular has sparked controversy and even allegations of transphobia). Arguably, The Sims reigns supreme for queer gamers; for Izzy, its extensive customisation options allowed her to feel represented. “It made my soul incredibly happy to be able to see part of myself in a narrative that I adored. Well, I say ‘part’ -- I’m a queer, brown, second-generation immigrant woman. We’re not quite there yet!”
Of course, the problem is that getting ‘there’ requires developers to take a political stance (in other words, risk pissing people off in order to make progress). Journalist Jordan Emery explored this fact in an article written for independent queer publication FRUITCAKE , in which he described his bittersweet love of gaming. “The motivation for the article came from my love of gaming, yet I didn’t feel represented by my favourite medium,” he explains via email. “I wanted to explore how we can start to see queerer possibilities in terms of narrative and mechanics, especially after seeing near-constant backlash from gamers in response to games that have a political standpoint.”
The idea of ‘queer possibilities’ is one that’s also familiar to Izzy, who lost herself in the escapism and fantasy worlds of Spyro -- “a queer icon, in my opinion”. Animals and fantasy characters have long been embraced by queer gamers, most notably Pokémon. It’s not hard to see why: Ditto is an amorphous blob that literally shape-shifts its identity at will, Jynx is arguably the fiercest animated drag queen of all time and Gyarados and Machoke are the muscle daddies that baby gays worldwide never knew they needed.
"When I was being bullied at school I could come home, lock myself in my room and soar from one magical island to another without giving a second thought to my reality."
There’s also a long-held theory that gay men gravitate towards female players, which is admittedly something I did throughout my childhood. I come from a family of miners and grew up in a village which placed a premium on hyper-masculinity, so much so that the expectation that I met those standards often felt suffocating. By choosing players like Tekken’s Nina or Mario’s Princess Peach, I could explore femininity vicariously and reconcile the idea that people could be tough without fitting the blueprint of hyper-masculinity.
Izzy similarly describes feeling a kinship with Spyro -- “I wasn’t ever drawn to the games with humans in,” she recalls. “But a dragon?! Absolutely yes, I’ll take 10. A sign of gayer things to come? I don’t know -- I could literally write you a dissertation about the ‘monstrous Other’, but it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I knew any of this at eight years old. All I know for sure is that the tiny gay brown girl with a weird brain saw more of herself in that purple dragon than Solid Snake!”
Escapism is what makes gaming so amazing; when I was being bullied at school I could come home, lock myself in my room and soar from one magical island to another without giving a second thought to my reality. But as important as fantasy is, it’s also crucial that game developers start to think about accurately representing our lives as well.
Independent queer creators are leading the pack on this front. Robert Yang’s games are exemplary, especially The Tearoom, in which gamers are made to navigate the danger of cruising for sex in public restrooms. After a series of electric exchanges with potentially willing strangers, you’re finally granted the pleasure of seeing your conquest slowly unzip his pants -- but instead of exposing a dick, there’s a gun you’re expected to suck. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor, but it does the trick. Then there’s Brianna Lei, whose impressive game Butterfly Soup is, in her own words, “about gay Asian girls playing baseball and falling in love”, and Deirdra Kiai, whose genderqueer detective Dominique Pamplemousse raised visibility of the tone-deaf questions that gender non-conforming people get asked on a daily basis.
But arguably the biggest surprise hit of the last few years is Dream Daddy, a dating simulation game which allows gamers to pick from a range of hunky, dysfunctional daddies. There’s the sexy, drunken bad boy; there’s the intimating, worldly intellectual; there’s even an out-and-proud goth who exclusively wears a floor-length leather coat and bitches about Edwardian dress shirts being co-opted by the mainstream. Sound niche? It is, but its queer language of ‘daddies’ -- aka the kind of hot older men that could give you a sex ed lesson and a good spanking -- and tongue-in-cheek concept sent it rocketing up the charts of digital distribution platform Steam and firmly into the cultural consciousness of mainstream media.
The game was met with raised eyebrows and a plethora of daddy jokes from mainstream commentators, but for queer gamers it provided new representation and a glimmer of hope that a more inclusive future could be on the horizon. Developers can create wildly expansive fantasy worlds; they can animate monsters; they can build hallucinatory fictional narratives that transcend even the most imaginative of minds. With that in mind, it’s surprising that queer gamers have had to take the initiative to ‘woohoo’ that married Sim into a same-sex relationship, or project their own subversive narratives onto animated Pokémon and adorable purple dragons. Luckily, thanks to a small handful of innovative queer creators, future generations might not have to.
Rainbow Arcade is at Schwules Museum Berlin until 13 May.