Queerness, video games, and escaping reality

Co-writing Fast Familiar's latest show got me digging into the stories of LGBTQIA+ gaming – as well as my own.

Queerness, video games, and escaping reality

Hello! My name is Delme, and I’ve co-written National Elf Service and Bad Altitude with Fast Familiar. They're the first games I’ve written, and going through the process with the FF gang made me think a lot about my own relationship with video games.

So…without further ado…I have a confession to make…

I’m a gamer.

I’ve been this way since the early 90s. Ever since that fateful Christmas Day when I unwrapped the Nintendo console that was sitting under the Christmas tree. That squat grey box, with its oblong controllers and shining red buttons calling out to be plugged in and played.

My earliest gaming memory is playing Mario Kart with my Dad. Me sitting calmly on a kitchen chair, him standing up, holding his breath with concentration and lurching the controller erratically side-to-side trying to make the cars move (was my dad the pioneer of motion controls?) while I laughed and told him he just needed to use the directional-pad.

Through the years as consoles changed and advanced, and games became more epic and filmic, I found myself spending hours upon hours on adventures with a whole host of characters. Sometimes I played as pre-designed characters, sometimes I found myself able to create my own character, a version of myself that lives within that game.

But it wasn’t until 2020 that I really researched into the connection between queer people and gaming. There is a part of the queer community that call themselves Gaymers and they are, not surprisingly, queer people who play video games.

Queer people have a history of escapism – be that music, film, books or video games. For me the most obvious example is The Wizard Of Oz. Matthew Todd summarises it brilliantly in his book, Straight Jacket: “Like us, Dorothy is a girl who has been through deep emotional trauma (she’s lost her parents). Through no fault of her own, she indulges her feelings of not being loved: even though she is being raised by her aunt and uncle, she doesn’t feel their love is enough. So she runs away from home and ends up in a colourful fantasy world where she meets other misfits, all of whom have self-esteem issues too… The film is about their journey to self-acceptance and self-esteem.”

And just like Dorothy’s story, there are a plethora of video games that follow that same narrative. We play a character who is broken, who is seen as unworthy, who is underestimated or undervalued, and in the end they become admired by everyone, liked by everyone, they even learn to like themselves - ultimately they save the day.

Let’s look at some examples:

In Zelda, there's the character Link - an underestimated boy from a forest village who goes on a mighty adventure to save his world and become the hero.

In Skyrim, you create your own avatar for the wrongfully imprisoned protagonist - you escape, become the Dragonborn, and ultimately save the world from a world-devouring dragon.

In Final Fantasy 7, the main character Cloud Strife starts the game incredibly arrogant and closed-off. Over time he opens up to the friends around him, goes through the traumatic experience of finding the truth about who he is, and then goes on to save the planet from the villain Sephiroth (and an incoming meteor).

It's no coincidence that queer people identify so much with these characters. We all go through that journey in our real lives. As an LGBTQIA+ person you can be from the most supportive family in the world, but there will always be a feeling of “other”, of feeling different in a way that people who aren’t different can't really understand.

But this isn’t to say that queerness doesn’t exist in video games - it does, albeit in very small margins. When it comes to games made by the AAA studios (the huge mainstream creators), in Overwatch both Tracer and Solider 76 have been identified by their creator, Blizzard, as gay. In the Dragon Age games there are openly queer characters that your character can have romantic storylines with. And The Last Of Us Part 2, released in 2020, is the first ever blockbuster game to have a queer main character (though there's been a lot of backlash)..

Indie game designers have been using queer storylines and characters for much longer. One of these I discovered on Netflix’s High Score, a documentary about the history of video games. Ryan Best created GayBlade in 1992 and it's since become a cult classic - a combination of role player game mechanics and 90s gay culture. Set in America, the player has to fight off hordes of enemies including rednecks and homophobic skinheads, before reaching the final battle against homophobic politician Pat Buchanan. It's incredibly political for the genre.

You also cannot talk about queer video games without discussing Robert Yang, who has released a whole host of video games around gay culture. That includes Cobra Club (in which you "unleash your inner dick pic artisan"), The Tearoom ("a historical public bathroom simulator about anxiety, police surveillance, and sucking off other dudes' guns"), and Rinse and Repeat (which "plays on the locker room / shower genre of gay male porn"). Yang talks about some of his games' players in the book VideoGames: Design/Play/Disrupt that accompanied the exhibition of the same name at the V&A: “[The homophobia] is pretty terrible. A lot of young male YouTubers use my games to promote their homophobia. I thought I was making something fun, queer and positive...but when we make games, players provide the other 50 per cent of the performance and meaning.” When reading comments like this, it makes you realise how important representation in all forms of entertainment is, and there is still work to be done.

– from Hard Lads by Robert Yang, which was inspired by the viral video of two British guys hitting each other with chairs.

I want to tell you a story about myself. At the age of 14, I completely disappeared into an online world called Ultima Online, where I would spend days and nights with other real-life players going on quests, joining guild meetings and just hanging out. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I didn’t have a community in the real world – I was figuring out who I was, and I was desperately searching for my place. I found somewhere I never expected with other like-minded players. This genre of games are called MMORPG’s (Mega Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) where you are given the opportunity to create your own avatar. How do you want to look? Are you human? Elven? A big walking cat (Khajiit)? Do you have a gender? How do you sound? Will you join the Alliance or the Horde? You have the options to portray yourself how you want to be portrayed, not how others see you.

This has been a big draw for many LGBTQIA+ players. As Bonnie Ruberg rightly says in Video Games Have Always Been Queer, "video games are now, and have been since their origins, important sites of queer expression and self-discovery... Indeed, for some queer players, video games have long offered invaluable opportunities to explore gender, sexuality, and identity in ways that may not have been possible outside of games." And these games are huge - World of Warcraft currently has around 12 million players. Elder Scrolls Online has around 16.5 million. That’s a lot of people escaping into a creative world.  

And let’s be honest, now more than ever, we need some escapism. The real world has become an incredibly traumatic and fractured place to be. One of our goals with Bad Altitude was to bring 60-90 minutes of joy and entertainment into a world where that can currently be difficult to find. It’s funny, it’s challenging, it’s camp. Play with family, play with friends. But most importantly, more than anything, have fun and laugh. That’s what we all need right now!

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