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Just making things and being alive about it: The queer games scene

How a growing group of independent developers is using video games to share the reality of their lives.

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Lim is a simple game. It only takes a few minutes to play. You navigate a square through a minimal world. You have not been told what to do, so you just move through the maze. When you are alone in the corridors, you flash with all the colors of the rainbow. But before long, you start to encounter squares of different colors. They don't like you. They ram you. They make progress near impossible. The screen shakes; the white noise is violently nauseating. Your only hope is to hold down Z to "blend in." You turn brown near the brown squares; you turn blue near the blue squares.

But it is an imperfect solution. As you try to blend in, your movement is dramatically slowed, and the camera begins to zoom in. Keep blending and the entire game starts to shake and bang. It's just like when you were being attacked by the other squares, except now the violence is coming from within you. Trying to blend in is just as exhausting, just as draining, as being excluded. Sometimes there are blue and brown squares in the same room, so no matter what you do, someone is going to attack you. But you try to blend in anyway. You continue to attack yourself even as you are attacked by others.

You should, eventually, be able to reach the maze's end. But life doesn't always go as planned. Sometimes the other squares block you in a narrow corridor, making progress impossible. Sometimes their aggression is so violent that they push you right through the walls of the maze, trapping you on the outside. The bittersweet irony is that here, on the outside, you are free to be yourself. No longer a brown or a blue square, you flash with all the colors of the rainbow. Excluded, you can be yourself.

Lim is the work of Merritt Kopas, a queer woman who, among other talents, is a game designer, writer and photographer. Kopas spent two months creating Lim in the program Construct 2. "It was my second game," she explains. "But my first game was much smaller. Lim was the first big thing I really put a lot into."

Kopas doesn't have a professional background in game design. A graduate with a Master of Arts in sociology from the University in Washington, she has long dabbled with whatever tools were available to her growing up, but she only started making games seriously last summer. Yet, despite a lack of experience or programming knowhow, Kopas was able to craft a deeply powerful and evocative video game in Lim, one that has been recognized by critics at Rock Paper Shotgun, 1UP and even The Guardian.

"I was sort of hoping a few people would see it and it would speak to them in some way," she explains. "But I didn't expect the circulation it got. That blew me away."

While Lim might lack advanced visuals or perfect programming, it is carried far by Kopas' motivation to convey something that is personal and meaningful to her. "The summer that I made Lim was also the first summer that I was moving through the world as a queer woman," she explains. "There was really just a lot on my mind about perception and how public space is experienced, and I wanted to translate that into an experience that other people could get."

Lim and Kopas are exemplary of what is gradually emerging as a vibrant scene of queer game developers — a varied community of DIY creators who are making their own space to craft innovative and unique video games on the periphery of both indie communities and the mainstream industry. It is a movement of creators that prioritize the personal over the perfect. It is a movement that is beginning to turn heads and challenge the mainstream industry to reconsider just what a video game can be.

Yet, just like the rainbow square pushed through Lim's wall, these creators and their games are still often trapped on the outside. Despite being beautiful works, their games are often dismissed as being too short, too simple, too straightforward or simply not even games at all. But something is starting to change. Although they lack the access to funding channels and technological knowhow that have long been presumed to be prerequisites for game design, these queer developers — as different from each other as they are similar — are becoming impossible to ignore as they create video games that are unlike anything players have ever seen before, video games that are capturing the attention of an ever broadening audience.

Human Angle: Queer Games

The rise of a queer games scene

"Queer people have always been creating culture from the margins," insists Anna Anthropy, game developer and author. "Like, queer people popularized jeans. It was queer soldiers who started wearing jeans outside of the military, and then that became popular. You have to have an outsider perspective to create something that is meaningful, fashionable, intelligent. Then that is gradually adopted by the mainstream."

Indeed, video games themselves emerged from such an outsider perspective. When MIT students in the early '60s repurposed the PDP-1 supercomputer to run Spacewar!, they were exploring uses for computers that their seasoned professors never even considered. However, in the decades since their birth, video games have struggled to represent experiences and identities beyond that historical core of computer-savvy, student-aged males. As Anthropy succinctly writes in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: "Games are designed by a small, male-dominated culture and marketed to a small, male-dominated culture, which, in turn, produces the next small, male-dominated generation of game designers."

But even as the mainstream industry might still be dominated by a single demographic, there is a huge diversity of people on the outside, on the margins, that have been creating their own video games for years, beyond the focus of mainstream gaming culture.

Anthropy is perhaps the most well-known of these alternative voices. Her numerous critically acclaimed games — such as Mighty Jill Off, Calamity Annie, Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars and, more recently, the autobiographical Dys4ia — often repurpose traditional game mechanics in unique and provocative ways. "I'm really good at luring gamer nerds in, then surprising them with a discussion about gender," she says with a sly smile. "I think making things that look like video games and play like video games and are very 'video gamey' video games is a really good way to trick people into becoming more enlightened, educated human beings."

“I’m really good at luring gamer nerds in, then surprising them with a discussion about gender,” Anthropy says.
Diana Santiago

But for Anthropy, having games tackle a broader spectrum of themes is just an inevitable outcome of having a more diverse community of game creators: "I'm not sure if all my games are about being queer, but my queer identity is always visible in them. I think representation is important ... making people aware that queerness exists and representing queerness in games. And also reaching out to other queer people who otherwise feel very alienated in games."

The exception to the rule, Anthropy has received regular media attention since at least 2008, when she released Mighty Jill Off. But that attention often feels tokenistic, like people are more interested in her as a novelty than a person. "There have always been queer developers," she stresses. "But, I dunno, I felt for a long time like a voice shouting in the wilderness. To a large extent, none of the other outsiders who were making games have gotten the level of press, the level of media saturation that I have."

Over the last 18 months, something has started to change. Numerous queer developers have started to coalesce into what people — both from within and from outside the community — are starting to notice as something of a scene, as a movement. Even as each creator's work remains emphatically individualistic, a still-forming network of support and allegiance can be traced, amplifying each creator's own, unique voice. Known voices like Anthropy's are being seen in a new light, while countless others are being heard for the first time.

A growing chorus of voices

"Video games are different from what they were a year ago," Anthropy says. "It feels a lot less like the focus is exclusively on me now. It feels like the amazing stuff my friends are doing is starting to be recognized by people. There's this discussion that is happening about queer games, of this kind of personal game. There's a discussion now, whereas before it was just me being a novelty."

Game critic, academic and developer Mattie Brice agrees: "I would say that queer games have always been happening, but not [necessarily] in a community. It has definitely coalesced. It has definitely come to one place. While these people were always doing things on their own, there is now this good intersection of people getting together and actually maybe having something like a path. ... As an identity, as a movement, that is definitely a new thing within the last year-and-a-half or so."

Liz Ryerson is a musician, game developer and writer who composed the music for Anthropy's Dys4ia and, more recently, Triad. She highlights the needs for queer — and in particular transgender — people to create their own space in video games: "A lot of trans women grow up with games being socially acceptable, because they're raised as male. Then when they transition, they have to confront the fact that they are not part of this 'gamer' culture anymore. There's no space for them there, so now we have to create that space."

But why now? Despite Anthropy's reluctance to be seen as any kind of leader of the queer games scene, it is hard to overstate her significance as a banner for new creators to rally under, both as a public figure in the gaming press and as the author of her book. Released in 2012, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is a manifesto, a call to arms for people (not just queer people) to create small, imperfect games in order to express themselves. It counters the normative idea that you must learn to program code before you make games, that you need access to expensive tools, that a good game must be technologically advanced. It urges people to take advantage of cheap and accessible tools like GameMaker and RPG Maker, or interactive fiction editor Twine, to "sketch" video games, to create and distribute video games like someone might write and distribute a zine.

In doing so, it encourages a far more diverse group of people to create games than ever before, and it prepares an audience to start taking those games seriously. People who are cut off from traditional game design, people who can't afford restrictively expensive software or educations, can still make something. It creates a level playing field with the inevitable repercussion that we will begin to see games being made by people who have never before made games — and the games they make will be unlike any game we've before seen.

It's a significant step in the maturing of video games as a medium, a step that has historical precedents in other mediums. "As photography became more accessible it became usable for a broader range of purposes, and I think that is starting to happen in games," says Kopas. "My hope is that the lasting legacy of the queer game scene will be breaking down that barrier of, 'This needs to be a crucial part of your identity. You need to be a game developer to make games.' I mean, people don't need to be photographers to take photos."

Mattie Brice made the game Mainichi, about her day-to-day life being queer.

Kopas notes, however, that the catalyst has not been Anthropy's book alone, but also the growing ubiquity of social media — especially Twitter. More people are gaining the confidence to make something, and they can more easily connect with others to share these games than ever before. "It is sort of this snowballing process," says Kopas. "Whenever someone who is on the fence of, 'Can I make a game?' sees something like that [it] builds this confidence that, yeah, that is something I can do."

For Brice, Videogame Zinesters hasn't formed the community of queer game developers so much as it has helped to expose the work of that community to others. "I would say that Anna's book has really showed what is [already] being done. That you can [make games] too. It opens up the doors to a larger audience, to people who didn't know they could make games. ... It has definitely helped [queer games] to go from being insular to something that can be proliferated out of just this little island."

Another queer developer making tracks over the past year is Porpentine, who has emerged as a leading voice of the Twine gaming scene. From general obscurity in the interactive fiction scene, Porpentine has now spoken on stage at the Game Developer's Conference, and curates the website Free Indie Games alongside indie developer Terry Cavanagh. Porpentine, too, holds Anthropy largely responsible for her interest in using games to express herself: "I was always interested in games, but I think meeting Anna really helped define that. [She helped me realize that] games can be sexy, and games [can] be by women, and queer women especially. Sometimes all you need is to see that somebody else is doing it to do it."

Unsurprisingly, Anthropy is modest about the significance of her role in the scene's emergence and recent momentum. "I prefer to just think of myself as another voice. So what has been really gratifying for me has been feeling sort of irrelevant!" she says with a laugh. "Like, I'm not so special anymore. I like that a lot. I compare it a lot to waking up one morning and realizing that your kid has gotten smarter than you. It's a really amazing feeling, to have that burden off my shoulders alone."

Systems of oppression

Mainichi is the Japanese word for "everyday." It is also the title of Brice's autobiographical game about her day-to-day life living as a queer, multiracial woman. Made in RPG Maker VX over the course of a week, it puts the player in the role of a small, 16-bit Mattie Brice as she wakes up and prepares to meet a friend at a nearby cafe. Between your house and the cafe, you must walk Brice down the street. A seemingly effortless task becomes peppered with interruptions as you have to deal with people staring at you, people catcalling you, people misgendering you. The clunky, stop-start pacing of the Japanese role-playing game genre is used to show just how much effort it takes Brice to move through her daily life.

The game loops endlessly like a Groundhog Day JRPG. You can make a variety of choices throughout the game, such as whether or not to spend time putting on makeup or playing video games before you leave the house. At the cafe, you can choose whether you want to pay with cash or by credit card. Eventually, you learn how to avoid different scenarios. Maybe you cross and walk on the far side of the road just to avoid the woman that stares at you every day. At the cafe, maybe you pay with cash instead of credit so the cashier isn't confused by the male name on your card. Ultimately, you have to change the way you live your life just to avoid harassment.

At the end of each day, once you finally sit down with your friend at the cafe, she complains that you always look so sad. "Don't worry about what other people think of you!" she suggests unhelpfully. "You have your friends and that's all that matters!"

Brice made Mainichi for a real-life friend, to explain to her what she has to deal with in her day-to-day life and why it wasn't helpful to tell her to just ignore people. "I wanted her to understand something about my life that I couldn't communicate with words," Brice explains. "It was about communicating certain things through a system to my friend."

Much like Lim, Mainichi is able to convey an experience to the player that words could never do justice. Through its systems, it is able to communicate to a player how socially marginalized people are often forced to alter their identity just to do something as seemingly simple as walk down a street. "I think games and play are inherently about systems," says Brice. "I don't think that games are exceptional in that they are the only interactive art, but I think they stress our interaction with systems."

While most video games traditionally have the player attempt to beat or "game" its systems, systems are also particularly powerful in communicating how real-world systems function. It's something that has been mobilized by a range of personalized games over the last year to evoke empathetic reactions in players, to give players the chance to walk in someone else's shoes. For instance, Richard Hofmeier's multi-award winning Cart Life explores the socioeconomic struggles of street vendors, while Zoë Quinn's Depression Quest demonstrates the poisonous apathy and downward spiral that is living with depression. Both of these games allow the player to experience what such scenarios are like by having them engage with systems. "Games are very aptly suited to being sensory filter plugins for the brain," explains Porpentine. "You plug this in and you will have an imperfect but useful understanding of what it is like to have certain constraints."

In Lim, your are only yourself when you are alone.

This highlights a common trend in personal games generally and queer games in particular: they are frequently less concerned with being beaten or mastered, and more concerned with being participated with in order to communicate an idea. It's a way to use games that many mainstream developers rarely consider — a way that they rarely have to consider: "Most people who are making games are completely entrenched in game culture," argues Anthropy. "They only consume games and only experience games and have this way more tenuous connection to all the other art that exists in the sphere of human culture."

For Ryerson, it is her experiences as a queer woman that have ensured her view of games is less insular: "Let's say I never had to 'accept' that I'm a trans person and therefore never became exposed to this incredible dissonance between what is actually happening in gamer culture and what my identity is. If I didn't have to confront that and try to extract something meaningful from that experience ... I would probably just be really into BioShock or whatever."

Brice feels more indebted to her academic background for her critical approach to systems, but the experiences she communicates through Mainichi are still heavily influenced by her real-world experiences as a queer woman. "I always feel like a part of me is other people's constructions of me," Brice explains. "Someone else will make up my identity for me unless I take control of that through my appearance. I think that a lot of other people don't realize that we are all constructing each other's identities in various ways, but it is so much more explicit for me."

The marginalized and dissonant position that many queer developers hold makes them particularly well-adapted to critique and understanding the social systems of the real world, and able to depict those systems through game design. "We see the system," says Porpentine. "While, for a lot of other people, that system is just invisible."

"We are forced to encounter oppressive systems in our daily lives," agrees Kopas. "So it seems to me that, now that Twine and accessible tools are becoming available, people are making things that are really powerful and telling really compelling stories about their experiences, and the only reason that that hasn't happened before is that those same groups that have those experiences are the ones that are kept out of accessing programming and such skills."

The Twine revolution

Of all the accessible and free game design tools that are helping to enable queer and other marginalized developers, none have been picked up quite so readily as Twine. "It is exactly the kind of thing I envisioned in [Rise of the Videogame Zinesters], that I was hoping and waiting for," says Anthropy. "The way that people have adopted Twine and have made it a platform for queer games really amazes me." Twine was never meant to be used for video games. Interactive fiction writer Chris Klimas created it in 2009 as a tool for writers of hypertext fiction. While much interactive fiction uses a text parser to have the reader type in commands that the program recognizes and responds to, Twine allows the creation of hyperlinks for the reader to click through to different screens of text. Over the last year, however, Twine has been reappropriated by DIY game creators to create a new genre of video games that have come to be known as Twine games. Free and open-source, to create a Twine game, you just need to be able to write basic HTML and CSS. To play a Twine game, all you need is a web browser.

"Twine is really easy for spreading," says Porpentine. "You don't need a console. You don't need a high-end PC. You don't need to spend money. The browser is the lower common denominator thing, and that is what Twine is on."

Porpentine is at the forefront of an influx of Twine game creators in what is increasingly becoming known as the Twine Revolution. Although she has previously worked with both GameMaker and parser-based interactive fiction editors, it is with Twine that she feels like she came into her own. "I was able to make games even if I was really depressed or having other troubles in my life. ... It kind of drives home that having tools like this in place will let people like me who are super poor or suffering from other problems actually make games."

Her games combine a cyberpunk/trash aesthetic of language with surreal fictions and a subversion of the very form of Twine itself. In her best known work, Howling Dogs, the player is trapped in some kind of asylum, living out memories or fantasies through a holodeck-like "activity room" in a complex layering of virtual realities. ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL, meanwhile, leads the player down a rabbit hole of warping colors and morphing paragraphs to a tweet on fellow game developer J Chastain's Twitter feed. Perhaps most surreal of all is Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha, which puts the player in charge of pop idol Ke$ha, trying to escape a sci-fi concert that has exploded in crystals and glitter, all while Ke$ha's song "Warrior" plays on a loop in the background.

Porpentine's work demonstrates that there is far more to Twine games than simply clicking through paragraphs. "Twine lets you paint with words," she insists. "It lets you use them expressively; it lets you use them like music. A lot of my recent stuff is extremely minimal. A few sentences or words per page or whatever and you can just dance across the screen, or make real-time text games with real-time elements. It's ... sexier and colorful. It's more emotional. It's not just staring through a tiny peephole into a black-and-white text dump."

More than an artist in her own right, Porpentine, along with Anthropy, has been fundamental in supporting other people who want to create games in Twine. She posts tutorials on her website to explain how to achieve different visual aesthetics in Twine, and has been fundamental in helping to spread the word about the countless number of games that people have produced in recent months.

Besides its incredibly low barrier to entry, what has attracted so many people to Twine, Porpentine argues, is that it is perfectly suited to deal with interiority and introspection, as opposed to the external forces of violence and physical action of most games. Twine developers can create games that explore emotions, thoughts, opinions. "It is good for processing and articulating feelings that have never been expressed," says Erin Stephens-North, Porpentine's partner and Twine artist in her own right. "It allows you to find people who have common experiences and to carve out spaces for identities that haven't even been talked about at all."

"I have played Twine games that are talking about things that nobody else is talking about," says Porpentine. "There is so much stuff about life and bodies and humans, and I'm really excited that video games are a place where you can find that acknowledged, that video games are talking about that."

Living games for living people

Dys4ia takes the player through Anthropy's own experience as a transgendered woman undergoing hormone replacement therapy. Through a series of WarioWare-esque minigames, the player moves through Anthropy's own insecurities, frustrations, anger and, finally, hope. It's an emotional and vulnerable narrative, greatly helped by Ryerson's harrowing soundtrack.

For Ryerson, Dys4ia is an important work because of what it is able to say to other queer people going through the same hurdles. "It lets people know that there is some precedent for them as a person. They are not a total freak. Someone else who is more visible is also dealing with this. I think that has encouraged a lot of people."

In a blog post written in July 2012, renowned game developer Raph Koster said of Dys4ia: "I like Anna Anthropy's work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn't a game."

"Not a game" is an accusation that has befallen many a queer game, whether it is because they lack graphics like Twine games, because they are too short or linear like Lim or Dys4ia, because they are more concerned in communicating a message through a system than allowing it to be mastered like Mainichi or because they are simply of a much lower fidelity than what gamers, growing up playing blockbuster triple-A games, have become accustomed to. Many commentators, be they well-meaning or intentionally malicious, have worked to further exclude many of the creations of the queer games scene from mainstream video game culture by labeling them "notgames," "ungames" or "interactive art."

The creators spoken to for this article have mixed feelings on how much energy is worth sacrificing just to have mainstream games culture accept them. "I mean, the people who are refusing to call them games are clinging to the side of a sinking ship," says Anthropy, somewhat nonchalantly. "They are going to continue to call them not games and we'll continue making them, and we'll continue changing what video games are, and they'll continue drowning." But then: "It's worth acknowledging that they're wrong! People, even well-meaning, might think of Dys4ia more as a piece of interactive art and I'm like, 'No! It's a game!' I think it is more important that instead of inventing other categories for things to be marginalized into, we focus on expanding the definition of 'game' to fit all this new stuff."

"The whole conversation can be really exhausting," says Kopas. "When we call something a nongame, we are basically saying, 'We don't really need to talk about it.' And game critics then don't need to engage with them seriously, or other people in the scene don't need to engage with them seriously."

By being isolated from the mainstream game culture and industry, queer game developers are unable to access many of the support structures in place for creators of more traditional games. Explains Brice: "If that institution [the games industry] doesn't understand that games like ours are games, they won't throw funding at them. They won't accept them to industry events or awards. While I don't think those are necessarily good things, I do feel they open important conduits."

However, as part of the creative process of making games, Brice stresses that trying to make "a game" is not only unimportant, but potentially damaging: "I have spoken to game developers and educators who say it is good to have this foundation of telling a student what a game 'is,' but I think that is very harmful. The more specifically you define a game, the worse it is. I think in that sense, being a game is very unimportant to the creative process."

As a creator, Kopas is equally ambivalent about making sure that what she is making fits into a pre-determined notion of "game": "To be honest, I am much more interested in taking things that are characteristic of games, such as the ability to convey an experience, and sort of introduce that to other audiences, like people who think of games in very narrow ways because of how games are presented to culture."

The growing queer games scene is focused more on communicating ideas than making traditional games.

And that is where the paradox facing queer games and their creators lies. On the one hand, by not forcing their creations into any pre-determined notion of what a game should be, creators are free to explore what a game could be. They are able to create experiences unlike any video games we have ever seen, because mainstream developers have never thought to do what this recent influx of alternative creators think to do. But, consequentially, their works are sidelined by a core audience of critics and players unsure how to approach such new creations.

"It is weird that these games are so far in the periphery [of mainstream game culture], right?" says Anthropy. "These are the games that are about the broader human experience. The bulk of video games, the ones that are the most visible, are the ones that are all about the same thing: violence and hero fantasies and shooting dudes in the face, which is such a small part of the human experience ... so it is really bizarre that there are all these games that are outliers that have so much to give, that allow people to connect to real human beings."

The creators spoken to for this article share a concern that an obsession with making "gamey games" has created an incestuous industry devoid of innovation. It's a concern shared by much of the mainstream games media, too, if the reaction to EA's recently announced Battlefield 4 is anything to go by. The most telling example is one that Brice shares, of how Mainichi was received by different university classes. The students of gender studies courses — consisting of people who don't regularly engage with games — were able to engage with the themes that Mainichi's systems were communicating. However, when it was shown to game design students, they couldn't get past its lack of traditional elements and, mostly, its poor graphics.

"I think it just shows this terrible, inbred nature we have," says Brice. "We are so over-familiar. We have this narrow, incestuous view. We are the British monarchy in the way we do games, and we definitely have some Henry VIIIs in our industry!"

Yet, while the mainstream industry hopes that a new generation of console hardware will reinvigorate innovation, Porpentine insists it is the culture that has to change. "The technology for people to simply make games is there. It's just that no one values it. They're all, 'Oh, photorealism, let's piss more money into that big ass fucking trash bloodbucket.'" The solution? "It's just not having any definitions. Just not even neutralizing our time, energy on debating semantics. I would rather just put my head down and make games. Weighing in strategically, but definitely just spend more time gushing, just making things."

"Just making things" is possibly the key to the ever-increasing proliferation and critical success that queer creators are experiencing. Just as the MIT professors of the early '60s could never conceive of using a supercomputer to program a game in the first place, the developers entrenched in the mainstream games industry struggle to think outside of the box they've always been inside. The creators of the queer games scene, however, are pushing and maturing the art of games in new directions by just making things and not caring how "gamey" those things are — and that is something anyone can do.

"There are plenty of non-queer game designers I hugely respect," stresses Porpentine. "I do refer to it as a queer gaming scene but, overall, I am interested in anyone who is making indie games who is alive about it."

And maybe that will be the legacy of the queer games scene: a realization that you don’t have to think outside the box of “games” to create something new, but that “games” was never a box of dead wood in the first place. What the ever increasing number of creators of the queer games scene are showing the rest of us is that “games” is a living tree, and as more and more people start making games that are important to them, the branches of that tree will start to grow in all kinds of new and exciting directions.

Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone, Charlie Hall
Design: Warren Schultheis
Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors, Pat McGowan
Music: Robot Science
Anthropy photo: Diana Santiago

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