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GDC panel provides tips on how to subversively queer games

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

At the 2014 Game Developer’s Conference last week a group of five queer game developers, writers and academics took the stage at San Francisco’s Moscone center to provide their colleagues with tips on bringing queer characters and issues into their projects.

The session, titled "How To Subversively Queer Your Work," was lead by writer Samantha Allen, a doctoral Fellow at Emory University and a contributor to The Border House.

First to give advice was Mattie Brice, a game critic and developer. By focusing on fantasy, Brice said, those who make games can provide inclusive spaces that transcend both gender and sexuality.

"You don’t necessarily need to make [your game a] 1-to-1 reality," Brice said. "I don’t think queerness needs to be [shown in games] how queerness looks today, because queerness in 2014 is really different from queerness in 2004 and 1994.

"What I think is really interesting about our potential [as game makers] is that games can imagine places. … I like that we can make those worlds, and even imagine something where we can feasibly see ourselves going in a certain way and not necessarily make it some sort of manifesto, but rather a meditation on someone’s life."

"Like it or not," said panelist Todd Harper, researcher at the MIT Game Lab, "games are culture. If we’re making games, we’re making culture.

"If you can understand that you’re making a cultural product, you understand that you’re worrying about how things matter [to other people]. … Those of us who aren’t represented have been making do with what matters to other people all our lives."

Harper agreed that many consumers of games may ask themselves why queer issues matter to them. That they feel free to ask themselves that question is, he said, a "marker of privilege," referring to the special rights and advantages straight, cisgendered people are granted in a heteronormative, Western society.

"If you’re a cisgendered, white male heterosexual you probably don’t need [queerness in your games]. But the rest of us kind of do.

"The point," Harper continued, "is that empathy is the ability to see what matters to other people. It’s the ability to see what matters to someone who isn’t you. Empathy is a muscle, and like any muscle you have to flex and use it over and over until it becomes strong. And the important thing about that is that empathy is the muscle we use to lift everybody up."

Harper went on to say that those who are not interested in making games that are inclusive, that foster empathy for the queer community don’t have to.

"More importantly," Harper said, "if you don’t want [to make inclusive games], if you feel like you shouldn’t have to care, then leave. We don’t need you. Increasingly. We don’t need you." His matter of fact statement was met with applause.

"If you don’t want to make inclusive games then leave. We don’t need you."

Other members of the panel, including independent game developer Zoe Quinn, focused on issues of sexual preference in their games. Her most widely known work, Depression Quest, featured a genderless main character by design. Initially other characters in the game were genderless as well, a strategy Quinn abandoned late in the development cycle. The result was that those who played her game imposed their own gender roles onto it.

"It’s this weird thing where if you don’t explicitly state in some way what a character," Quinn said, "people are oftentimes going to assume straight white male because that’s what we’re so trained to do.

"If you just leave it blank, people still fill it in with a default."

Panelists stressed how every player has their own default, and making games that allow every player to explore multiple outcomes is a subtle way to allow for the inclusion of the queer community.

For Harper, the solution was as simple as taking a game mechanic, or a character, and turning it 180 degrees.

"Did you make a bald, white, cismale space marine?" he asked. "Okay. Now make it a half-shaved head, purple haired, trans-woman Latina space marine.

"Did you tragically kill of a man’s wife to motivate his quest to save his daughter? … Go back and give him a husband and a kid. Keep them alive. Let him fight to protect them and keep them safe."

Allen dispelled the myth that by simply including a queer character in a game that game makers are giving into the shallower aspects of tokenism.

"Even if you [include that one character]," Allen said, "and someone else at developer X does that, then someone else at developer Y does that. Eventually you have an entire community of queer characters that people can identify with in our medium. And I think that would be really important."

All the panelists stressed how meaningful it would be for young, closeted queer players to have a safe space waiting for them in games, however small it might be.

"You don’t need to worry about only having one queer character," said developer Christine Love. "What really matters is: Is this important to my story? Is this important to my character? Does this make sense in this setting? Does this fit in with the themes of what story I’m trying to tell in this game?"

You can read more about the queer games scene in Brendan Keogh’s feature.

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