Closing the gap between queer and mainstream games

Opinion

I sobbed when I finished Gone Home.

I sobbed because the closing beat of the narrative moved me to tears but also because I finally felt my own queer womanhood reflected back at me within the context of a fully realized game world. Queer women are so often rendered invisible or consigned to the margins of representation. But Gone Home put a queer woman front and center and allowed me to breathe in the lush details of her story for an entire evening.

My tears kept coming because I never expected to find this breath of fresh air in a video game. It’s not that Gone Home is the first video game to contain queer themes.

The developers of Gone Home owe a debt of gratitude to pathmakers like Anna Anthropy, Mattie Brice, Todd Harper, Merritt Kopas, and others who helped to usher in a veritable queer games renaissance that has been building momentum since 2012. There are more queer games and queer gamemakers now than ever before. But Gone Home performs a different sort of cultural labor from that movement.

Bringing two audiences together

Even in the wake of the queer games renaissance, the gaming landscape can still feel dichotomous for queer gamers: We have a choice between short form, single-author queer games or long form works that are developed by a team but weighed down by the trappings of dominant culture.

I cried when I finished Gone Home because it didn't force me to make that choice. The game doesn’t sacrifice its queer storyline in a bid for mainstream appeal. Gone Home closes the gap between the queer and the mainstream.

At the Critical Proximity conference that took place just before GDC this year, Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb gave a talk called "Bridging the Critical Gap" in which he questioned the idea that we have to choose between the "good but small or bad but big."

Although Klepek was referring specifically to games criticism websites, I think it’s time for game developers to realize that the choice between the good but small game or the bad but big game is a false one. It’s not a mutually exclusive choice; it’s a gap that we can close.

Independent designers will continue to do the most radical work for queer inclusion but games like Gone Home with more widespread appeal have an important part to play in creating cultural change. As queer games scholar Todd Harper said at a GDC panel this year, "Like it or not, games are culture. If we’re making games, we’re making culture." Whether you’re a queer coder or a programmer at Electronic Arts, you have a part to play.

Gone Home closes the gap between the queer and the mainstream

I've been pressed before on my attachment to mass market games as vectors for change. At the second annual Feminists in Games Workshop, for example, I gave a presentation on my use of Halo to teach my Women’s Studies students about the feminist theory of intersectionality, the idea that systems of oppression like racism and sexism have overlapping effects. I mentioned that I would like to see more mainstream game developers intentionally leverage the systemic richness of their games in order to communicate powerful insights about our social world.

During the Q&A, I was asked: Why Halo? And why do I care about the products of a development culture beset by misogyny and homophobia? After all, aren't mainstream games and the culture that surrounds them irredeemably toxic? Shouldn't we quit talking about them, as queer games critic Aevee Bee suggests? Or destroy them, as queer game designer Porpentine advocates? These are important questions to ponder. They are borne out of concrete political divides that must be taken seriously.

For my part, however, I have always rejected the idea that we need to choose between dismantling systems from within and putting pressure on them from without. If I can communicate feminist theory to frat boy students with Halo, I’m going to do it. That doesn’t mean I can’t also criticize Halo as a militaristic, masculinist manshooter with no inherent social value. It doesn’t mean I can’t also require my students to play dys4ia, Lim, and Mainichi once I've sucked them in with a popular first-person shooter. There’s no one true path to full inclusion. Change is messy. We have to employ a plurality of tactics to bring down the monolith.

I also care about mass market games because there are still young, closeted queer people playing them. Coming out as queer is like looking at a map after you've been lost in the woods. After years of lacking language to describe your experience, you finally find vocabulary and community in young adulthood that help you understand who you are. If I had played Gone Home or Dragon Age when I was twelve, my life might have unfolded differently. I pay attention to mass market titles because I know that some queer people are subsisting on them, even if they don’t know they’re queer.

As Todd Harper reminds us, they've "been making do with what matters to other people all [their] lives." Some closeted queer people might not see themselves in a game until Call of Duty includes a gay soldier. I don’t want to burn down a forest in which people are still trying to find their way. I think we can simultaneously extend a lifeline to these lost gamers while also building radical queer worlds for them to inhabit when they finally come home.

This is just the start

Gone Home is one such lifeline but we need more. We need more games that close the gap. At GDC this year, I had the honor of hosting a GDC panel on queer inclusion featuring a wide range of queer scholars, critics, and designers: Mattie Brice (Mainichi), Todd Harper (MIT Game Lab), Christine Love (Analogue), and Zoë Quinn (Depression Quest).

At this panel, we tried to close the gap by giving pragmatic advice to any game developers in attendance who were seeking to include queer content in their games. I participated in the panel because I’m not content with a world where queer people play queer games and straight people get to play everything else.

My personal and political allegiances will always lie with independent queer game developers but I don’t want to abandon a pivotal moment in which we can influence the course of the mainstream.

Manveer Heir of Bioware, too, used his podium at GDC to ask game developers of all backgrounds close the gap between the queer and the mainstream. While Heir’s presentation was a powerful and necessary gesture, he spent the latter portion of his presentation asking game developers to create games like Papers, Please that allow privileged players to experience simulations of marginalization firsthand. He suggested, for example, a game in which you play a gay soldier who must struggle against homophobia within his unit.

I care about mass market games because there are still young, closeted queer people playing them

While games with explicit social messages have an important part to play in closing the gap, I don’t want us to forget the quiet beauty of Gone Home as we work toward full inclusion. Queer gamers like myself know that we’re oppressed, we know that we feel alone in a hostile world. Those feelings don’t necessarily have to be reinforced by the video games we play. We've been waiting so long in a desert of representation. When we can finally play games that reflect our experiences, I want a tall glass of cool water, not an oppression simulator.

If you want to help close the gap, play Gone Home one more time and take notes. Gone Home addresses the difficulty of growing up queer in a heteronormative family but it’s not a manifesto. The game simply centers queer experience instead of making it invisible.

For queer gamers, that’s novel enough. Straight gamers have been seeing their own experiences and fantasies reflected in games for forty years. We just want the same privilege for ourselves. Gone Home is beautiful because it’s just a story, a story about a queer girl named Samantha. I can relate to that.

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and video games. She writes regularly for the feminist gaming blog Border House and her work has also appeared on Jacobin, Salon, Paste, Kotaku, and more. You can find her on Twitter or on her website.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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