I don’t mean to generalise, but I think it’s probably fair to say that when most people hear the term ‘video games,’ the first thing that pops into their heads is not ‘queer.’ A lot of video games - particularly the mainstream ones - have a reputation for being hyper violent, hyper masculine, and hyper straight. There is also a small, but very vocal, group of players who would really like to keep it that way.
On the other hand, there are some people who might think or say ‘gay’ when they hear talk about video games. But they don’t mean ‘gay’ as in broadly queer. They’re using the word ‘gay’ in an archaic sense (and by archaic, I do mean the year 2001), as an insult to imply that video games aren’t normal or good, and that there is something wrong with playing them.
This leaves queer video games in a very strange, double-erased position: there are people who love video games but don’t want them to be gay, and there are people who hate video games because they see them as gay already. In attempt to un-erase them, it behooves us to take a quick trip through the history of gaming and game design, because the unfortunately reality for both these groups is that, when you think about it, video games have always been queer.
Now, the entire Queer Me brand hinges on the idea that queerness in games means different things at different levels, so in order to approach a history of queer games we have to break down what it means for a video game to be queer. In line with our Q3 system, we’ll start with a history of LGBTQ+ characterisation in games.
Obviously, we won’t have the time to get into every single queer character in every single game. For that, Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor at Temple University, has created the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, which meticulously documents every appearance of gay characters and themes in video games by decade. The archive distinguishes, however, between explicitly LGBTQ+ characters and characters who can be queerly read by players. A good example of this distinction is the inclusion by the archive of the original The Legend of Zelda (1986), which features Princess Zelda dressing up as a gender ambiguous character named Sheik. While this could be queer, it isn’t actually called queer by the game, and so it is a queer reading rather than explicit queerness.
The first video game character who is usually cited as being explicitly queer is Birdo, from the 1988 release of Super Mario Bros 2. The game description for Birdo at the time was “a male who thinks he is a girl;” arguably, that made Birdo the first trans video game character, even if mention of their gender identity has since been erased in other Nintendo releases.
In 1995, Domark games released The Orion Conspiracy, a graphic adventure game that followed the story of a man avenging his son’s murder in space. The murdered son, Danny, turns out to have been a gay man - at one point the protagonis speaks to his former boyfriend. The Orion Conspiracy is also the the first video game to actually use the word ‘homosexual.’
Ten years later, Fable (2004) was the first mainstream game to allow its players to be gay. Taking on the role of the game’s protagonist, gamers could engage in homosexual relationships and even get married to another male character. Similarly, in 2005 Jade Empire allowed players to be gay in the game.
Since 2010 there have been a great deal more LGBTQ+ characters included in mainstream video games. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), like the comic it was based on, features the gay character Wallace Wells, the ‘bi-curious’ character Ramona Flowers, and the lesbian character Roxanne Richter. 2014 introduced The Sims 4, which, as discussed last week, was the first to offer fully customisable gender and sexuality options for played Sims, and 2015 brought about Mortal Kombat’s first playable gay character Kung Jin in Mortal Kombat X. In 2019, The Outer Worlds introduced one of the first openly asexual characters in Pavarti Holcomb.
But over the past ten years there has also been an explosion in the production of independently developed games, or ‘indie’ games Many of these have featured or focused on queer characters, but a great number of them have also expanded the idea of what a video game should and could look like by taking a more broadly queer perspective.
One person who has worked consistently to bring a more abstract queer history of video games into the spotlight is Bo Ruberg, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Irvine, whose book The Queer Games Avant Garde (2020) is not only an excellent read, but one which helps to show just how thoroughly queerness and video games have become intertwined in the indie games world. Ruberg writes the following: “as the mainstream games industry takes its slow steps forward, the queer games avant-garde - this rising tide of indie games being developed by, about, and often for LGBTQ people - is laying its own claim to the medium for people who have traditionally been made to feel unwelcome, invisible, or even unsafe in games.” (Ruberg, 2020, page 3)
Rather than making a timeline of queer games, Ruberg instead interviews LGBTQ game developers and makers in order to paint a broader picture of how video games themselves have been and can be queer, calling it the 'avant-garde of gaming.' The term avant-garde is generally used to refer to art which pushes the boundaries of what is expected or known. In this case, Ruberg rightfully notes that queer game designers, and therefore queer games, are having a significant influence on the games industry (as well as on broader cultures of art and design) by expanding the boundaries of gaming to include diverse representations of queerness.
Whether that looks like the game Dys4ia (2012), which uses limited abstract visuals and a disquieting soundtrack to lead players through a series of mini-games intended to introduce them to the frustrations of transitioning and taking estrogen, or whether it plays like the action arcade game StarCrossed (2020) where platonic friendships are valued and cooperation is the key to success, it means that queerness is the shared elements of those games which are most potently influencing art, and popular culture, and the games industry as we know it.
Article title screenshot from reaxxion.com
Birdo image and gif from fanpop.com
Book cover © 2020. Duke University Press. All rights reserved.
Fable logo courtesy of Microsoft.