Representation in media is a tricky thing. In a previous article I wrote about queer representation in high-profile games, like Bioware’s Dragon Age, the Mass Effect series, and the indie hit Dream Daddy: The Daddy Dating Sim. Through my research I discovered that, though the myriad of representations and experiences are a step in the right direction, they are, in fact, imperfect. They exhibit narrow and sometimes shallow depictions — utopic views that avoid real-world issues and normalize and domesticate the queer identity. There are, however, independent games created by queer folk for queer folk — short experiences that are personal and vibrant — that instead dive headlong into those aforementioned issues.
Between 2010-2015, there was an explosion in indie queer game development. Rather than deliver typical gaming experiences with a presence of queer identity, these short titles explored personal queer experiences through their very game mechanics.
Certainly not an exhaustive review, the below examples were all released in 2012:
In game designer merritt k’s Lim players guide a low-res square (flashing with the colors of the rainbow) through 2D maze-like environments. As you near squares of other colors, they move and jockey to block your path, the screen shakes, and distracting and painful white noise blares. If you hold a button to change your color to match the aggressor squares, they ignore you. When there are squares of several different colors, it becomes nearly impossible to get by, and their pushing can even move you through walls, excluding you entirely from the gamespace. There, away from the other squares, your square blinks as a rainbow once more. The oppressive metaphor of stepping into and out of identities to fit in is, therefore, effective.
Mattie Brice created an autobiographical 16-bit Mainichi series where its players inhabit a digital version of Brice, a multiracial trans woman. You journey from her apartment down the street to a coffee shop to meet a friend, experiencing various forms of harassment along the way. The game loops endlessly, allowing players to make different choices and learn how to avoid certain situations by doing things like crossing the street to avoid being heckled. It shows what lengths Brice had to go to in order to avoid harassment in her day-to-day life.
Finally, in Anna Anthropy’s autobiographical Dys4ia, players journey through her transgender experience as she undergoes hormone therapy. Through a number of mini-games, the emotional narrative explores the process’ frustration, anger, and hope.
These intimate titles document and exhibit the difficulties of moving through the real world as queer — depicting what harsh realities they experience. Designers often use games as a form of self-expression, resulting in adventures that queer audiences might identify with, or cis players might better empathize with.
Like reading someone’s journal, or watching a documentary, we come closer to queer identities because we’re asked to inhabit them in uncomfortable, oppressive contexts. The act of play and the interaction distances us from the voyeuristic lens and replaces it with an experiential one.
Through these games, it becomes easier to empathize with identities we’re less familiar with, hence their nickname: “empathy games.”
Fast forward to 2017, however, and the above artists are not so pleased that their games are being neatly wrapped into one genre — viewed solely to engender empathy in cis players, or the idea that their players could truly understand their experiences by simply inhabiting an avatar representing them.
The concept is similar to armchair anthropology when earlier western anthropologists studied and claimed masterful knowledge of a culture and people without ever sharing in those people’s experiences — learning and claiming expertise on something from a distance. That’s what these games do for cis folks; it allows us to step into the queer role at a safe, disembodied distance. We don’t need to access the creator’s space or their bodies, and subsequently, games were often disseminated without approval or financial support. The very nature of the video game denied users of physical connection. The experiential lens is incomplete because it is, after all, a lens.
Performance art installations were the designers’ response. According to Professor Teddy Pozo in his article, “Queer Games After Empathy” these performances challenged notions that empathy in games could bring players closer to the subjects of game narratives. The challenge was posed through haptic — or physical — touch-based design.
In 2015, Anthropy presented her performance piece Empathy Game. In the piece, players wear a pair of her shoes and walk on a treadmill, and then write their score — the number of miles they walked in her shoes — on a chalkboard. It’s a tongue-in-cheek interaction, deconstructing the sense of understanding one’s experience by inhabiting their fictive body in play, while simultaneously placing the player in the physical space of the subject. However, you can’t know someone by simply wearing their shoes.
Our takeaway from all of this is convoluted. On one hand, inclusivity and diversity is a goal to aspire to so that our media and art do not express a narrow range of experiences. And on the other, as our stories and games become more diverse, we want to be aware of what we are saying through specific types of representation.
When the media we experience are the works of marginalized people or identities, we have to remember that they are more than just tools for delivering a message. In the above games, we have to see the designer, not just the traumas expressed in their game. We have to see their games’ design, not just their narratives.
And we have to do more than just see them.
Jeremiah French spends most of his time dissecting and consuming human-built worlds in multimedia, from written fiction to simulated spaces. When he isn’t doing that, he’s making his own in podcast and print. Occasionally he remembers that he’s a musician, so he’ll do that too. Check out his musings on interactive entertainment at drunkenmarmoset.com, and his primary action-fantasy podcast Gafgarn: The Eternally Unfurnished, anywhere podcasts are available.