ometimes, it’s not enough to see characters that look like you. To remedy this, queer and trans game designers are changing the interactive media landscape, innovating experiences that uplift the queer community.
So how do you design a game “queerly”? One way is to think of queering as subverting norms of capitalistic, linear gameplay, by exploring a values-based, futurist perspective instead.
Many game designers begin designing by focusing on the feelings they want players to have. In my games, I strive to create feelings of abundance, catharsis, and solidarity, which align with personal values like intersectionality and self-care.
In a favorite class, I learned a method for deciding which values to focus on: speculative imagining. Begin by asking, what kind of world do you want to see in the future? What would a game in this future look like? My answer was to imagine a better future for queer people and people of color. Now, I prioritize creating positive representation so people feel not just seen, but celebrated.
Queering Spacetime, my first queer game project, is a whimsical WLW dating sim set in liminal spaces. Though featured at Indiecade last year, it was rejected the first time I applied. After winning a scholarship to further develop it, my mentor told me the gameplay was “kinda straight.” I laughed and had to agree — I didn’t enjoy playing my own game!
Researching into games studies, I was inspired by the idea of cozy games, which create environments lacking danger, allowing the player to fulfill higher-order needs like belonging, nurturing, or self-actualization. They strike me as anti-capitalist, by encouraging soft skills and an at-your-own-pace mindset which capitalism discourages.
Originally in my game, only one player received a character card to play and would judge and award points to another player wooing their character, creating a stressful, one-sided dynamic. When rewriting rules, I focused on different feelings I wanted for players — wholesomeness and spontaneity. Now, all players get characters and the goal is to create an enjoyable experience together. I also encourage checking-in before playing: How much sleep have you gotten? Are you hungry, and if so, do you want to do this later? Because consent and care are important.
And you know what? Sometimes queer game design is living your life queerly, embodying the values you wish to convey in design. Take time for things. Heteronormativity, capitalistic society, and even Sonic the Hedgehog will try to tell you that you gotta go fast. But you don’t have to. Stop and smell the roses because you need to. Taking a step in this direction for a project I started at the beginning of quarantine, I intentionally chose a smaller scope and narrative format because I knew that’s what I had energy for.
Often in queering game design, my identity is reflected in my design choices. Recently, I was in a liminal space between identifying as WLW and transmasc. I worried about how my identity would be perceived when the game was released. I feared people would say that I can’t create for WLW if I’m masculine-identified. I started associating these fears with my work, feeling less proud of it as a result.
But by talking to friends, I realized some things. I could add more diversity in character identities to reflect my personal identity and discoveries about the fluidity of gender — I like the idea of a game growing with me. But also, I don’t need to be WLW to create WLW content. People often create for people of other identities, and I thought I was WLW at the time, so it makes sense. Adding a character expansion to the game, or not, would both be solid choices. But thus far, I’ve decided to say, heck, I’m still proud of it and work on new projects I’m more excited about.
My current pride and joy is an interactive fiction piece about a tiny gay frog in a leather jacket vest, hanging out with friends in a treehouse commune after defeating the rich with motorcycle tricks. It’s the most self-indulgent game I’ve made so far — all text is decapitalized for a softer (and I would propose, queer and anti-colonial) tone. And like, what if the rich were all defeated and we stole all their stuff and redistributed it? What if we were both boys, and we kissed? Heck yeah.
I admit sometimes I worry my games aren’t queer enough. But I’m queer and I made them. And what you create is queer if you are. If you’ve got imposter syndrome as well, let’s fight it together! We’ve got to encourage each other. If you like something or have a story you feel is niche, there are always people it will resonate with. Please make more queer games! We need more content made for us by us.
For inspiration, here are some gayme recs and game-making tool recs!
Thank you for reading! Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter to chat about queer games and design @jellolin and you can see/play more of my work here: jellolin.itch.io
Butterfly Soup by Brianna Lei (amazing queer Asian American representation and super funny visual novel and one of my favorite games and biggest inspirations)
Queers in Love at the End of The World. (an in-browser text-based game where you only have ten seconds to spend with your lover at the end of the world)
Flirting by Visager (two enbies flirting, made in Bitsy)
EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER (just yes, a visual novel/brawler about beating up fascists in giant meat robots)
LIONKILLER by Sisi Jiang (a choose-your-own-adventure game about gay Mulan set during the Opium War)
josie robo’s work: Affection Game (card game that emphasizes vulnerability and expressing yourself to friends and loved ones) and Robotea visual novels (cute nonbinary robots finding love!)
HOT GAY BRO DRAGONS (a tabletop rpg about telling your boyfriend you love him, and yes, you are both dragons)
dinosaurily (one of my games where you can hug dinosaurs as a dinosaur about found family and celebrating existence)
Itch.io - The best place to find indie games! There are a lot of free ones.
Most official compilation made by Bo Ruberg of queer games studies
Bitsy (a bite-sized engine, has a wholesome and queer community, a nice tutorial here)
Twine (for narrative games)
Unity (most widely used for 2D and 3D games)
Renpy (visual novels)
Phaser (HTML game framework for mobile and web games)
Queer Games Conference (at the time of this article, there will be online talks and activities through December 2020), Rainbow Game Jam, Nonbinary Game Jam, Game Devs of Color Expo, Wholesome Games