As a scientist, deciding to pursue game design was not unlike coming out. All of sudden I had this new identity different from the one I assumed I’d follow since forever. Thrillingly, all my preferences aligned — I could pursue graphic design, teaching, and science — by making educational games. But I also felt self-doubt and fear of rejection. Still do.
I am a game designer, but am I a gamer? Don’t you need to be the latter to even consider being the former? I’ve played plenty of games but not a lot of AAA titles and I don’t have the cash-monies to keep up with the latest console or own a TV, like my male friends minted in the gamer mold. I got to games through an unusual path (science communication); I make so-called serious games which are generally less respected and, by being queer and female, I don’t get a lot of representation in games already out there.
Fortunately, the ludicrous misogyny and homophobia of video games and geek culture has come under fire lately. A greater diversity of gamers have spoken up and we’re seeing some incremental changes from the industry. Obviously not enough change, but exploring the intersection of games and queerness gives me a lot of hope.
So join me in this romp through the works of awesome queer game designers, inclusive gaming spaces, and the technologies making new perspectives in games more visible.
Games Tell Our Stories Like No Other Medium
By design, games immerse you in a new role — often someone completely different from you. While most AAA games and even indie titles provide “escape fantasies” for white cisgender well-to-do males, these queer game designers are flipping the tables by placing you into their pixelated shoes.
Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai creates “video game-like artifacts about gender identity, social awkwardness, and miscellaneous silliness.” Killer combo — right? KO! Their latest game, Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” is a point and click mystery adventure where you play as a claymation genderqueer detective with a penchant for breaking into song. You can play a demo or get the entire game here and yes, it’s as awesomely weird as you’re hoping it is.
The 2014 International Game Festival nominated Dominque Pamplemousse for four — count ‘em, FOUR — awards. Then, at the Game Developer Conference, Kiai gave a brave and impassioned talk about embracing their identity and overcoming invisibility in the game industry. Kiai also discussed how games allowed them to explore their gender-neutral identity, something they are now paying forward through their own games!
Interested in more genderqueer-friendly games? See Autostraddle’s review of Fallen London and Sunless Sea.
Mattie Brice writes game criticism in addition to designing games. Her advocacy for inclusiveness in games has been featured in mainstream gamer blogs like Kotaku. Her latest game, Mainichi (Japanese for “everyday”) is an autobiographical RPG game in which you play as a trans POC character just trying to meet a friend for coffee. My first play-through, I did what I usually do in the morning IRL (sleep in, eat breakfast, sneak in a game) — and I didn’t even make it out the front door.
Devastatingly effective, Mainichi communicates how reality impinges on even the smallest everyday decisions trans people make. In her own words, Brice “…wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.”
Play the game here and make sure you play through at least a couple times for full impact. If you’d like to check out more trans representation in games, read Autostraddle’s coverage of Anna Anthropy. She’s another badass game designer with a talent for translating her experience into interactive form.
Technology Gives Our — And Your — Voice An Amplifier
Technology is making it even easier for more people to make and share their independent projects. This means more queer games and more games by queer designers.
Crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have revolutionized the indie scene for games. There are more creators making more unique games, delivered to the people craving them.
My game design career would not be possible without crowd-funding. I am currently launching my first game, Go Extinct! Go Fish… Evolved, through Kickstarter. In Go Extinct! you become a zoologist collecting groups of related animals before your competitive colleagues do it first! Along the way you learn about evolution, a topic close to my heart and scientific expertise. Raising the money to pay an illustrator and front the first professional print run would be insurmountable without support from people far and wide united by a vested interest in science literacy and/or nerdy card games.
Other queer game designers have also found success making unusual games through Kickstarter. Megan Fox and Samantha Kalman made a 3D noir sidescroller involving cats with fedoras and a game that transforms every player into a musician, respectively.
Patreon, another crowdfunding site that sustains creative people long-term, has been particularly key for queer game critics and thought leaders, such as Mattie Brice and Liz Ryerson. Both have expressed difficulty finding a platform to post their (really important) views on marginalized gamers in mainstream gaming media (where it’s really really needed). Patreon’s per-article pledging system provides a predictable source of income as they continue to make their voices heard.
Technology also allows you to make your own game! The internet in combination with the Maker movement has been awesome for DIY game design. There are so many options out there! Brice, who laments her lack of coding skills, recommends RPG Maker XP. Folks comfortable with visual programming often enjoy Scratch, a free platform with good community support — including entire game projects you can download and tweak to your specifications. If you’re looking for something more advanced and powerful, try Unity.
I’d also like to make the case for board games — they’re often easier to make and since the rules are more explicit, it’s a great entry point for dinking around with game design.
Inclusive Gaming Spaces
Online and in-person communities of queer voices in games are popping up like dandelions. Dandelions gayly spreading a million tenacious seeds of inspiration far and wide.
Different Games already happened this year (in Brooklyn, NY at the NYU MAGNET Center) but the events were videotaped and you can watch them for free.
GaymerX is a massive gathering in San Francisco, CA at the Intercontinental happening July 11th – 13th 2014. Also another Kickstarter success story.
Queerness and Games Conference is a completely free, slightly more academic-leaning conference happening October 25th – 26th, 2014 in Berkeley, CA at UC Berkeley.
The Border House is a feminist blog for all marginalized gamers. Great coverage and open threads just like Autostraddle!
Gaygamer is a blog specifically for LGBT gamers. This one is decidedly gay cis-male-biased (and that makes the ads objectifying women downright odd), but they still run good content and curate a wealth of relevant multimedia.
Extra Creditz is my all-time favorite video series on game design – they taught me so so much! From the very beginning, the creators have advocated for inclusiveness of all kinds. Way to come to the party early, Extra Creditz! And thanks for handing out invitations.
Do you, lovely gaymers, know of other awesome queer game designers or places to get LGBT-friendly games, gamer news and perspectives? Please comment about them!
Ariel Marcy is a biologist and educational game designer based in San Francisco. Her latest game, Go Extinct! Go Fish… Evolved teaches humans 8 and up about evolutionary trees and how scientists put animals into related groups. You can support it on Kickstarter until May 31st! Ariel grew up in Vermont so please forgive her for being snotty about maple syrup and billboards. Her all-time favorite game is FTL followed closely by Double Solitaire.