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More Than Side Quests: Queer Indie Games

This talk was originally given at MADA Tangent Talks.

Hello everyone. I have an open social media policy which means you can feel free to take photos, tag me, and post them online during and after the talk. There will be time for Q&A at the end, and I look forward to having a conversation with you at the end. 

I would like to first acknowledge the original, or in gamer-speak, the 'OG' custodians of the land, as it is tradition in Australia to pay our respect to the people of the Kulin nation, their elders and emerging leaders who continue to guide us wherever we go. 

During the pandemic, I managed to get cinema tickets in between lockdowns. I'm the kind of person who likes to turn up half an hour before the movie so I can kick back and enjoy the show. The theatre started playing ads, and I remembered why my partner doesn't like to turn up early, because you get ads. Terrible consumerism. 

But one of the ads struck me as I saw a young Asian dad with his family going on a typical Aussie trip, and generally having a good time. I remember turning to my right and saying to my friend, "Are you seeing this? This is an ad with an all Asian cast!" My friend who was sitting to my right, who was also very white, replied, "Huh, I don't think so." 

Thinking back, I honestly can't remember which company did the ad. All I could remember was the giant grin on my face. My first thought was, "Wow, an Australian ad featuring an Asian family without having to explain why they're Asian." I was elated. Then my second thought was, "Huh, my friend didn't even register that they were Asian."

My inner critic started to wonder if this typical Asian family was stereotypical (technically, the theatre made it surround-sound-typical). I started to think, if this portrayal was subconscious in the sense that my friend just accepted it, was it an authentic portrait of how people see Asians, or in other words, how people see me? 

In this talk I will foreground the invisible effect of media representation. We don't normally think about it, but who we see on the screens influences our perceptions, and in a sense our knowledge and opinions. 

The games industry has surpassed film and music and most other entertainment industries in revenue in the last decade. Here I'm using revenue as a poor man's approximation to market reach, as in just how much influence video games have on popular culture. It's one of the most influential media that are being made and consumed today. I decided to focus on games research in this project both because of its influence, and the medium's own potential to tell stories through interactivity. 

First, I will establish the trouble with identities and labels, and define queer games for this talk, so you and I are on the same page. Second, I’ll give a brief overview of my research project on queer indie games using an analysis of 61 queer games so far. Third, I will discuss how game design can do so much better to provide authentic representations of queer experiences and narratives, and touch on the limitations and future work in this research. 


So, let’s start with the trouble with identities and labels. If you pause for a moment to think, when was the first time you saw two people kiss? What about two people of different genders? Or two people of the same gender? 

We have come far in representing same-sex relationships in the four decades of console gaming history. This is Ellie and her girlfriend Dina in The Last of Us Part II, a PS5 game released in 2020. This game sold over 4 million copies in just the first week of release. Gay kissing is, safe to say, mainstream. 

Kissing someone in public, or at least in this case, in a public launch game trailer, draws a lot of attention. Naughty Dog, the game company, went through many design iterations and consulting with queer communities to make Ellie feel as authentic and true to life as possible as a complex human being living in a fungal zombie infested world. These moments of serenity: flirting, holding hands, and kissing allow the game to express their sexuality in between a very violent overarching narrative.

Attention and visibility are ingredients for a paradigm shift in society, but not everyone wants that attention. For instance, Kian Alvane from Dreamfall Chapters, an orphan turned soldier, then assassin, a young leader admired by his peers, in the game Kian appears as a devoted follower of his religion set in a fantasy world. Although we never see his romantic interest, perhaps the way of assassins is very lonely, Kian is not interested in women for potential dating partners. He shares his sexual orientation only to players who he deems worthy of knowing. He considers his dating life a private matter, and would rather have that side of him to be invisible. 

Yet, gender and sexuality is not always visible in spite of the characters' own wishes. For example, we might think of a guy and a girl going out as a heterosexual couple, but off chance one or both of them might be bisexual. You'd never know unless they confided in you. This knowledge may be reserved for close friends only. 

The trouble with identity starts with people's perception at a distance. Perceptions of identities are asymmetric. What you see on the skin outside is only a small part of who the person is inside. Some identities have very loud expressions, like being masculine with a deep voice. Some identities have only internal expressions, such as being asexual or aromantic. At a distance, there is not a lot to go on since we can see very little of surface-level expressions of another person. So we communicate via language, and language gives us labels.

Labels give genders and sexual orientations, even the more invisible ones, some sort of a conscious visibility. Labels are practical for three things: self-identification, sharing knowledge, and signalling safe spaces in a community. Labels serve as bridges where we can build connections on common grounds. Yet, just like the trouble with perceptions of identities, labels are like coloured filters on glass windows. The window is what you can see from the outside, and the colour gives you a hint of what you might see, and also colours your entire perception about that person through that window.

 As such, there are people in the LGBTQ communities who dislike being labelled. Labels are useful, but they are not for everyone's first introduction. If people only know you through labels, without really taking the time to get to know you, labels become shallow, like a muddy creek that they can get in but can't do much in. The trouble with labels is that we overgeneralise. You might say be gay, do crimes, but every gay person is different, and may have different partner or partners in crime. 

To quote the comedian Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix show Nanette, Gadsby unpacks her feelings about identities and labels. "I don’t identify as transgender. But I’m clearly gender not-normal. I don’t think even lesbian is the right identity for me. I really don’t. I might as well come out now. I identify as tired. I’m just tired." She is talking about being exhausted by labels. There are just not enough labels for everyone, so we might as well invent our own, or give up on conforming at all. Why do we even bother trying to express ourselves in a society that is hostile? 

There are words with historical baggage, like the words 'queer', and 'fag', which are being reclaimed by LGBTQ communities in a more positive light. Think of these labels not as a colour filter, but as garments that can be designed and worn over our bodies. We could customise patterns on the top and bottom garments, and even wear shoes to match. With the willpower to change perceptions over generations, we apply these colourful garments to communicate complex gender and sexual orientations, and to express our gender and identity. The trouble with identities and labels lies with our tendency to conflate them with what's perceptible on the surface, and how we choose to express them. When we conflate what's visible and only what's visible on the outside with what's on the inside, we are missing a large portion of the picture. 

When I started looking at queer representation in games, especially in independent games, I saw many wonderful unique and personal narratives weaved into gameplay and story. Up until about a decade ago, queer games haven't received much attention from mainstream discourse, mostly because there weren't too many of them. To be precise, it's not even 1% of the total games out there. 

In 2020, I collaborated on a data visualisation project with the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, a well-researched and vetted online resource that aims to document all kinds of LGBTQ references and representations both explicit and ambient. This chart gives you an idea of just how few LGBTQ representations in games that we knew of. As I will show in this talk, numbers on queer games are just a blip in the universe. 

The LGBTQ Video Game Archive contains over 1,200 games with examples of queer representation to date. We visualised the various spectrums of lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and queer references and characters over time, and you can see on this chart there is a large black portion. This is the known unknown. Starting from around 2010, the archive collected independent games which came out in exponential volumes, and it hasn't been able to keep up the labour required to examine and document individual examples. 

The LGBTQ Video Game Archive seeks to capture all games with queer references and any forms of representation. This includes negative, homophobic references like in the 1985 video game Mad Party Fucker, which was a terrible game, "bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS)", which by the way, did you know in recent years the total HIV cases are about even for heterosexual and homosexual men? In Western Australia in 2019, the HIV cases were greater among heterosexual men. This doesn't mean that you're more likely to catch HIV having straight sex, since the heterosexual population is much higher, the risk is relatively lower. But the trend shows that the stigma around getting tested for STIs surrounding the homosexual community has started to fade. 

The archive also contains positive examples of queer references. A well-known game is from 1989, Caper in the Castro, created by CM Ralph on the Hypercard. The scenario reads, "You are the world famous lesbian private detective, Tracker McDyke. You are searching for a kidnapped drag queen, Tessy LaFemme. What you didn't count on was stumbling onto an even larger and more treacherous crime." Dun dun dun. Another significant thing about Caper in the Castro was that it was one of the first, if not the most well-known earliest game made by queer folks for queer players. Castro spread all over the United States and into Europe, estimated to have been downloaded at least 250,000 times at the time. It is a lovely queer detective game that takes about two hours from start to finish, which you can still play at the Internet Archive on the browser. 

In my research, I am specifically interested in studying queer games. I define queer games as games made by queer folks for queer players. Having this definition is crucial, because it ensures that the games we examine have authentic voices, made by people who live through and still live queer experiences. Video games allow the player to take on another role, and experience a different life. Queer games are like safe spaces for players to explore different gender and sexuality expressions. Since Castro, we now have thousands of queer games available online, and my research goal in the long term is about understanding their impact on the players. 

To summarise what we talked about so far: We don't normally think about the invisible effect of media representation. The trouble with gender and sexuality identities and labels is that most of it is also invisible. Queer games are games made by queer folks for queer players, and they give us a view into how queer folks tell their stories through games and interactivity.


In the summer of 2021, I worked with two student scholars, Remedios, and Natalie, to start looking at queer indie games and documenting their game narratives. We chose to look at itch.io, a platform for independent creators with a focus on independent games, because itch has an overwhelming amount of queer games and events, including bundles like TTRPGs for Trans Rights in Texas which raised over $400,000 US Dollars towards supporting transgender folks. itch is also the home of the Melbourne Queer Games Festival, whose aim is "to inform, entertain and challenge LGBTIQ players by reflecting their lives in games." On the itch platform there are over 2,500 games tagged "LGBT" by their creators. By contrast, Steam, the most popular mainstream games platform only lists 89 games as "LGBTQ+". 

 Over three months we documented 61 queer indie games published between 2013 and 2022, and submitted some of them back to the LGBTQ Video Game Archive. We documented the types of queer content such as character names, gender, and sexuality, as well as their personal stories, inner struggles, and if they featured alone, or in pairs. Our selection criteria required each game to have sufficient player commentary, for example, playthroughs and “let’s play” videos, sufficiently detailed comments on the store page or elsewhere on the Internet. A common question I get is "did you play all of those games?" To which I reply, I wish we had that kind of time. The three of us each played a handful of games we liked, but other than that, we relied on online discussions and videos for this research. 

Let me share two examples of queer games with you. The first one is A Normal Lost Phone, published in 2017. In A Normal Lost Phone, you are asked to solve a series of puzzles to find out more about the owner of the phone, Sam. By interacting with Sam’s phone, you would find out that Sam, who sometimes refers to herself as female, has not been able to tell her family that she's undergoing gender transition. Sam writes about her frustration of not being able to share it with someone. At the end of the game, you are asked to wipe the phone to protect Sam's privacy. This was Sam's way for her story to be heard. 

The second game is 96, published in 2020. 96 is a story about unrequited love set on a small, post-apocalyptic island. The game features Niles, a living human being, and Sixten, a zombie whom Niles has chained up in his cabin on the island. Over the course of the game, Niles regrets not having left the island sooner, and his regret became an obsession to the past, to the man he once knew called Sixten. Unfortunately, Sixten is long gone, yet Niles continues to take care of his dead body anyway. As the player, you would discover that Niles' obsession for Sixten is more than just friends, which raised a lot of concerns among his living friends, but you would never find out if Sixten, a zombie, reciprocated his feelings. 

During the encoding process, we encoded each game for their characters' gender and sexuality. But as you know from the first part of this talk, giving labels to character identities will get you into trouble. We carefully followed the game descriptions, in-game narratives, or video playthroughs to be sure. We avoided encoding based on speculations or character expressions in this project. Fortunately, many LGBT games list the gender and sexualities of their main characters on the store page, so we had confidence going into the rest of the encoding. 

We sampled gender representations from the 61 queer games, and we found characters representing about 40% man, 34% woman, 10% non-binary and transgender each, and a small percentage of customisable character gender by the player. Although our sample size is very small, the proportions of gender representation seem to mimic the global game developer survey demographic: 34% women in games versus 30% women game developers. 10% transgender representation in games versus 7% transgender game developers, and 10% non-binary representation in games versus 8% gender-diverse game developers. While this statistic may reflect the population of game developers who reflect themselves in these games, we can only speculate for effect and could not conclude with a small sample size. 

Next, we sampled for sexual orientations and wondered if they reflected the same way. Spoilers: they do not. We counted 50% gay characters, 34% lesbians, 7% bisexual or pansexual representations, and less than 4% that represents asexuality. In the global game developers survey, we normalised their data based on non-heterosexual reports to be comparable, and they only had about 19% of developers reporting to be gay or lesbian out of the LGBTQ sample, and not 50% or 34%. As I mentioned before, bisexuality and asexuality are often invisible, and more difficult to represent without them being explicit. We also found most game characters to be young adults and single, which may explain why the overall representation is skewed towards a particular demographic. 

The next one I want to share with you is the number of queer characters featured in relationships together. To my knowledge this has never been reported in any games research, and I would love to see more of it. We define queer pairings as two or more characters featured as de facto couples, romantic pairs, or have clear coupling endings in the game. This sample excludes "romance options" available only to players, as these characters are featured as single and open to relationships. We found three instances of cis male couples, six instances of cis female couples, one instance of a couple both non-binary, and four instances where there is at least one transgender character. We also found one instance where three characters got together as one of the possible four endings in the game My Sweet Zombie, published in 2022, making the only polyamourous example in our sample of 61 games. 

In addition, we scraped the entire itch.io platform for the list of about 2,500 games, their metadata, and over 16,000 comments left by the players. We turned a small portion of the comments into a rainbow exhibition during Melbourne Design Week in March this year. Visitors are invited to the Victorian Pride Centre in St Kilda and interact with the piece by reading what people have said about these games. Most comments were very enjoyable and wholesome to read, people posting to tell the game creators how much they appreciated the game. We also designed packs of double-sided cards that visitors can take home to browse some of the queer games personally recommended by the three of us, and we invited the visitors to leave a message on our table.

The exhibition had a turn out of over 40 people on the first day, which we were delighted to see. I had a lady who thanked me for doing the work with the most intense look in her eyes, and an elderly teacher who was very excited about using some of these games as resources to talk about LGBTQ topics in her primary school. We ran the exhibition here again in Building G at our Monash Caulfield campus in early April. If you'd like to see the exhibition in person, we will have it up again during Pride Week on 16-20 May here at Caulfield. 


In the next and final part of the talk, I want to talk about how game design can do so much better. I have talked about why only using labels to represent gender identities and sexual orientations with labels will get us into trouble, and showed two case studies to examine their game narratives beyond labels as a way to get us out of trouble. What does it mean to be queer in a game, and how does that affect the gameplay? Is it just a checkbox, a romantic option, or can it be much more than that? How can we design queer experiences that invites a new queer possibility of playing the game? 

To borrow the words of Bo Ruberg, a queer games scholar, queer games are the avant-garde of video games. Queer games are at the frontier exploring how to represent queer characters while interacting with their identities much deeper within the game narrative and mechanics. In her earlier work, Ruberg interviewed over a dozen prominent queer game creators in order to show how game design can learn from queer games on tackling the issue of LGBTQ inclusion, and represent LGBTQ folks authentically. 

So how might we, as game designers and designers more broadly, represent LGBTQ folks with authenticity? First, we as designers need to approach representation, and I really like this phrase from Roger Smith and Adrienne Decker, "wholly, honestly, and responsibly". Authentic queer representation must go beyond surface-level labels and have their stories heard, otherwise we risk creating a tokenised experience for the audience. 

Second, we as designers need to bring in queer folks to co-create the experience, especially if we're missing a particular intersectional piece that no one on the team has first-hand experience with, otherwise we risk misrepresenting characters for the audience who might not be familiar. 

Third, we as designers need to consider queergaming and queer possibilities in gameplay as a generative device. One of the many qualifiers in the literature on queergaming, turning to Edmond Chang and Todd Harper, is for the use of gender and sexual orientations to be procedurally relevant, to appeal to a broad audience, and to be purposeful. As designers we should all recognise that experiences are subjective and individual, and the things we design, including games, have potential to be queerly played. We should strive for opening up possibilities and not closing them, which leads to my last point. 

Fourth and finally, we as designers should centre queer characters and narratives, not to shy away from them, and especially not in experiences that are meant to have queer elements at play. If you played any major role-playing games in the last decade, you would be familiar with the many series of optional side quests that you as the player need to unlock in order to experience them. If you never experienced these queer side stories, are these games really queer? I argue that games which feature queer narratives only in side stories are also reinforcing the hegemonic heteronormative narrative, like the world we live in. 

Queer lives are more than side quests. Being queer and taking on a queer identity in today's society, to borrow a quote from the feminist killjoy Sara Ahmed, is to be "deviations from the straight line". To truly represent queer narratives and experiences with authenticity, I argue, requires a daring step onto those deviations and following through to see what happens.

In closing, I would like to first acknowledge a few important people that directly contributed to the work. Thank you Remedios Perez Escobar and Natalie Tran for being my research assistant over summer and co-designed the exhibition together. I'd like to thank Adrienne Shaw, who founded the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, has been largely supportive of this project and shared her data with us which made this work possible. I thank my collaborator on a few related projects now, Cody Mejeur ('meer' as in meerkat), whose previous work on queer intersections with me appeared in the earlier part of this talk. I'd like to thank Monash Design for supporting this research, and including it as part of the Melbourne Design Week and the forthcoming Pride Week in 2022. 

I would also like to acknowledge some of the limitations in this work. Studying games on itch.io granted us the benefit of looking at independent games rather than mainstream games for authentic queer experiences, however itch.io is still primarily attracting a mostly English-speaking audience, and as such we examined mostly games made in English. We hope queer games will become more diverse in languages in the future on the platform. Our sample of 61 games in the analysis is but a very small sample out of 2,500 games, which was largely limited by resource and time. However, the sampling work in this research is a very time-consuming process that requires careful documentation to be undertaken. 

Future stages of this research project would involve a continuation of queer game studies with a more multidisciplinary approach. One aspect we were not able to address is the trends over time because itch.io does not consistently publish release dates for the games. Future work might be able to reconstruct an approximation of the timeline by looking at when the game had its first post, player comment, or through an online archival resource such as the Wayback Machine. 

If you are interested in following my work, or collaborate with me, please feel free to follow me on Twitter @Xavier_Ho, or send me an email. The first half of this talk is an spoken adaptation of a forthcoming book chapter in the Handbook on Sex and Sexuality in Game Studies, published by Bloomsbury to come out later this year or early next year. The second half of this talk covers about a third of what we submitted to the Foundations of Digital Games 2022 Conference, which is currently under peer review. I will also be sharing the slides after the talk on my Twitter and on my Monash researcher profile page. 

To conclude, I would like to share a quote from a queer game creator, Mo Cohen, from an interview with Bo Ruberg in her book, Indie Games in the Digital Age. Mo says, "This is a game about queer community. If it’s going to make anyone happy, it should be queer people." Thank you.

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