Making video games for queer people is about more than queer characters

by Noah Haggerty
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The seemingly limitless world of The Sims — a game in which players can raise a family, build a house and even burn it down — was making its debut at a conference in 1999. The developers were presenting a tame demo of a man and woman tying the knot, when suddenly, two Sim women in the wedding crowd started passionately making out. The developers and producers watched in disbelief.

Turns out, a miscommunication led a developer to allow same-sex relationships in the game. In doing so, The Sims gave players unprecedented freedom to explore their virtual queer lives. Players screenshot their Sims gay-kissing, make their married Sim run across the street for a same-sex “woohoo” and vicariously explore new gender identities through their digital characters.

“Sims was a big thing for me when I was a kid. Just because that was like one of the first games I played where being gay … it didn’t matter,” says Jailyn Zabala, an Interdisciplinary Design and Media Ph.D. student at Northeastern who identifies as nonbinary and bisexual. “[It allowed] me to explore parts of myself that I wasn’t necessarily allowed to.”

Zabala and three Northeastern professors — Alexandra To, Giovanni Troiano and Casper Harteveld — explore queer representation in games beyond the surface-level inclusion of queer characters. They believe games that also incorporate queer ideas on living — not defaulting to the straight, nuclear family or other societal expectations — have the power to support queer gamers on a deeper level. To demonstrate this, they look at “queer mechanics,” the actual elements of video and tabletop game design that make that possible, and they study the effects of queer games on the gamer. Through their findings, they offer lessons to indie, queer-focused game developers who hope to nurture their communities, as well as other marginalized gaming communities, including people of color, neurodivergent people and people with disabilities.

“What we’re highlighting with this queerness work is, if you don’t have an outlet for certain emotions … games are a good way to explore different parts of your identity … maybe that you don’t get to explore in real life or aren’t safe to explore,” says Zabala, who works in To’s lab.

In a recent study from the three professors — which was spearheaded by a Northeastern master’s student who has since graduated, Matthew Hantsbarger — five queer gamers and game designers were interviewed about their perspectives on queer mechanics after playing a video game the team had designed. The game explores an alternative viewpoint to society’s default expectations for how to go through life’s major milestones, called “queer temporality.”

Stemming from queer theory and philosophy, it’s the idea that “society is often delivering an idea of time as heteronormative,” says Troiano, who’s a research professor of game design at Northeastern, “in the sense that you have a linear timeline that says, well, you’re born and then you live with your parents, and then you go to school and then find a job, and then you find your partner and then you continue on and on.”

Queer theory challenges normativity, and by extension, so does queer temporality, says Troiano. It challenges this linear idea of time: Who says everyone should want to get married someday? “It’s interesting because it introduces chaos, and so we applied that to game design.”

If you’re playing their game, “You’re Going To Be Late,” you’re a child getting ready for school: dressing, brushing your teeth, eating breakfast. But things quickly turn into a convoluted mess. You find crawl spaces between the walls. Time wobbles and warps. Slowly, the crawl spaces become a labyrinth, and the regular rooms fade out of reach. You are no longer worried about school. Instead, you are entirely consumed with just finding an escape from the walls — at least, you’re supposed to be.

For the study participants, getting trapped in the walls led to a mix of alienation, fear and frustration as they tried to reorient themselves. But then, surprising the researchers, they just stopped trying to escape. Instead, some started seeing the labyrinth as a playground. They simply explored, finding freedom and serenity in the weirdness.

“We defined it as alienated serendipity,” says Troiano. “This process of serendipitous discovery that is also alienated because you can’t do what the society is asking you to do.”

According to the researchers, it demonstrated the ability of queer mechanics to not only generate the intended queer experience but also create opportunities for players to explore the queer idea in directions beyond the designer’s intentions. The focus groups following the gameplay led to meaningful reflection on the experience and its connection to queer identities.

“Initially, there was this focus on putting queerness into the design of the game and then seeing how people responded to that,” says Hantsbarger. Instead, the richness and scope of the focus group conversations delighted the researchers and became a cornerstone of their research. “Some of the most interesting conclusions we were able to draw from our paper were about the participants’ perspectives and thoughts not just on the game, but on queerness in games,” in general.

The subjects discussed how, with few games out there with explicitly queer mechanics, queer people introduce their own rules and gameplay into popular games — alternative approaches that don’t necessarily include romance or sexuality.

An anonymous indie game developer who participated in the study discussed the popular shooting game, PUBG: “I’m thinking about pacifist runs in PUBG where people don’t pick up any weapons, they drop all of their gear and they see how long they can last,” they told the researchers. “To us, what might seem to be a queer mechanic is like, you’re playing the same game as other people, but you’re playing it in a different way.”

Zabala says, “queer people are making those games work for them in terms of queer readings of the games or just making up their own backstories for characters.”

Now, a new project led by To, who’s an assistant professor in the Art + Design department and the Khoury College of Computer Science, is expanding on the video games work by looking at queer mechanics in table-top role-playing games: the medium of the games is different, but the game mechanics are practically identical to those of video games.

To’s team identified seven games where queerness was explicitly centered in the design. Similar to the video games findings, their preliminary results, presented at the Digital Games Research Association 2023 conference, show themes of non-violence, community and resistance. The games also emphasized the relationships and identities of characters over their physical traits.

Ultimately, the researchers aren’t trying to turn the entire gaming industry on its head. They don’t expect every gaming company to invest in risky experimental games defined by queer mechanics. But indie developers at the center of marginalized communities can use the understandings built by the researchers to make deeper, more meaningful games for their communities.

“I think it’s important that there is that possibility for resonating with people — either through a developer expressing their idea of queerness or players being able to have that avenue for interpreting queerness in the games they play,” says Hantsbarger. After all, the Sims developer who added same-sex relationships is gay himself.

Story from the Science Media Lab.

Last Updated on October 12, 2023